Jane's Delicious Garden Blog


Up in the clouds at Kings Walden

Posted in Garden Diary by Jane Griffiths on the December 18th, 2020

To spoil Keith for his birthday, I arranged a few nights at King’s Walden, just outside Tzaneen in Limpopo province. I have wanted to visit here for years. Friends have phoned me while enjoying a picnic under the trees, telling me I HAVE to come to this garden. I’d salivate over Bridget Hilton-Barber’s magnificent photos on her Facebook page, with endlessly different views and moods of this beloved garden. So; finally, we were going to visit. Bridget was expecting us around midday on Sunday but to winkle ourselves out of our hunkering lockdown shells took a while. Just after midday I was eating my padkos sarmies sitting in the Combi – in the driveway.

If you are a hardware store nut, the R71 between Polokwane and Tzaneen is the road to take. It is hardware store heaven; I stopped counting after 30. In the town of Nobody, where there is almost one on every block, we spotted Mr Price Hardware Store (no relation to MR P nationally) and Xpress Build Nobody. (There was also a workshop and petrol station called Total Nobody.) After Nobody comes Moria, where SA’s largest Christian gathering takes place twice a year. After that the road begins to climb into forested hills, mostly plantations, but pockets of rich indigenous forest remain.


King’s Walden floats above Tzaneen in the Agatha Forest. We arrived as the sun was setting, just in time to walk across the lawn and lose myself to the view dropping away from my feet: the blue and purple Wolksberg mountains dissolving into the distance, lights beginning to twinkle in the fertile valley below and the famous stark ‘lightning tree’ etched against pink and orange clouds.

This massive blue gum was planted by Bridget’s grandfather’s first wife, an Australian who brought saplings as a reminder of home when she came to marry a man she had never met. He was Billo Tooley, who bought this farm just over a century ago and named it after the English village where he was born. His parents ran a parklike estate and Billo, following in their green footsteps, set about growing food. But the climate of this verdant farm was very different to his home village and soon avocados, tomatoes, litchis, oranges, pecans, granadillas and more flourished. Unfortunately, his Australian wife did not and she passed away, leaving her gum saplings to grow into stately trees. It was under one of these that Elsie Dickson, a 1930s journalist from Johannesburg, marveling at the same view I was now soaking up, famously said “Oh, it’s so beautiful here, I never want to leave.” Standing next to her, Billo replied to the woman he had just met, “Marry me and you’ll never have to.” And she did.

Romance and tragedy run deep in these gardens. In her best-selling book, Garden of my Ancestors, Bridget writes of the sorrows and joys of Elsie and Billo and their descendants. Of wild champagne parties and fiery creativity. Of tragic deaths and how, through it all, this garden, this healing spiritual haven was at the centre, holding the frayed threads and weaving them back together again.

The farmhouse sits atop a vast lawn which drops down into the gardens. Elsie created the structural bones of this garden, with her vision of creating a ship sailing south into the mountains. She sculpted the terraces and wide steps and began the tradition of using sculptures (particularly lions) and fountains.

Her daughter Tana, free-spirited, wilful and wild, poured her soul into these gardens. And Tana’s daughter, Bridget, who has inherited her ancestors’ independent and creative genes (and some of the wild ones!), is continuing the custom.

On the ‘prow’ of Elsie’s boat, on the southernmost tip, is the Bibighar Garden, named after a place in Mayapore in India, made famous in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. At its centre is a round reflecting lake, watched over by a pair of white sphinxes. Reflected in the water is an evocative ‘ruin’ with crumbling walls and an atrium.

Leading from the lake are winding paths to explore and discover the explosions of colour, secret courtyards, Italianate statuary, cool white gardens, endless flowing water and arches framing breath-taking views.

Although a one-day visit would suffice, it takes a few days to really do these gardens justice and connect with the spiritual energy that dances and shines here. To honour the many departed souls whose stories and lives are entwined in this garden and who are commemorated here, on benches and fountains, courtyards, steps and statues.

Cinnamon from homemade morning breakfast roll wafts through the lounge as we browse through the extensive library (this is a literary family).

The farmhouse is now a boutique hotel, with superb meals created by Michelin trained chefs. My favourite was a deceptively simple tomato tart, roasted until caramelised and a bit blistered, wrapped in a butter puff pastry base.

Almost all the produce is local, sourced from nearby fertile farms and dairies. The beer is from Zwakala Brewery in nearby Magoebaskloof. Its name means Come Closer. Which is what King’s Walden invites us to do.

One night, sitting on the outside deck with a cool evening breeze playing at our shoulders, we sip local pink gin and listen to a Spotted eagle owl, whoo whoo as it swoops into the forest. We take photos of the lightning tree, using a torch to illuminate it and a long shutter speed. The results show the bare bones of the tall stately gum standing out against the starry sky. On the night that Elsie died, this gum tree that had stood sentinel over the gardens she created, was struck by a freak bolt of lightning, killing it instantly. Nature saying a dramatic farewell to an ancestor of this garden.

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