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Inside J.R.R. Tolkien's place of inspiration in the heart of South Africa

Konstantin Sheiko
April 6, 2018

There are many tales of artistic inspiration out there - Goethe, for example, could not write without inhaling the smell of rotten apples, or so they say. JRR Tolkien, who was born in the Free State town of Bloemfontein in 1892, derived his later day inspiration drive from his early African childhood experiences when he worked on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, this famous fictional author went to England with his mother and brother when he was only three years old, never to return to South African soil again. 

Tolkien's son apparently visited Hogsback several times, sending home stories and drawings of the captivating knolls, streams and boughs he encountered here. This somewhat inconclusive evidence has not, however, stopped the local residents from firmly sticking to this tenuous connection between JRR Tolkien and Hogsback, with names like Camelot, Hobbiton, Rivendell, River Running, The Shire, Lothlorien, Hobbit Lane and Middle Earth popping up all over, in the street and property names of this magical town. 

And who can blame the locals for letting their imaginations run a little wild, when the misty forests, hills and lanes of Hogsback seem to be imbued with the same atmosphere of Tolkien's fantasy lands. If you want a healthy dose of the great outdoors, the hidden gem of Hogsback has an abundance to offer. Hogsback is a fantastic place to get inspired by nature and soak up some really magnificent scenery in peace and quiet. 

The scenic hills are the ideal place to fan a fireside romance, with many a couple coming here to tie the knot in the characterful little chapel on the hill. For some refreshing and invigorating adventure, take a dip in one of the clear mountain streams and go hiking or mountain biking in the indigenous Afro-montane forests, pine plantations and lofty Amatola Mountains (also spelt Amathole). Given the variety of things to do, Hogsback has a wide appeal, attracting families, lovebirds, nature lovers, backpackers and adventure-seeking travellers. 

The village has marked seasons unlike most of the lower lying cities and towns in the province, contributing to the slightly European feel its flowery gardens, old stone buildings and tree-lined lanes create. Hogsback is a one-street town, where the main tarred road turns into a dusty (or muddy) one halfway through town, becoming a dirt road like all the side-roads running off it. This is a mall-free zone without traffic lights, large-scale development and congestion, bar the odd cattle traffic jam. 

Often shrouded in thick mists, part of its charm is the fantastical feel that settles over the village when it disappears into the dense fog or under a blanket of snow. Gazing at the snowy peaks and tangled forests one can see the other-worldly charm that has given rise to local myths claiming that Hogsback inspired JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Hobbit. 

Hogsback is named after the most famous local landmark - the Three Hogs Mountains of the Amathole range. These three mountains that create the picturesque backdrop of the town, resemble three running hogs, hence their names. The slopes and rocky ridges of these flat-topped mountains (Hog One, Two and Three) are the focus of much attention and activity - hiking, mountain biking, quad biking, rock climbing and landscape photography. They also serve as an imaginary abode for a fire-breathing dragon Smaug that guarded ancient dwarves treasures.  

Other than being an enchanting place fit for hobbits and fairies, Hogsback is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, making it a favourite with mountain bikers, climbers and hikers. Visitors usually follow the numerous walking trails to cascading waterfalls tucked away in the indigenous forests or hike to the towering Big Tree, a giant Yellow wood over 800 years old. Looking up at this impressive big tree in the middle of the lush forests makes the mission worthwhile - and it does make you think about that very tree that almost swallowed Frodo and his friends! 

The most popular waterfalls include Kettle Spout, Madonna & Child, Swallow’s Tail and 39 Steps in the Arboretum. It is hard to choose a favourite, as each one has its own beauty and appeal. You can walk to the bottom of the big Madonna & Child waterfall to stand in the spray below, you can swim in the natural pools above Swallow's Tail and Kettle Spout offers panoramic views from the sheer cliff tops. The easiest walk is the short one to 39 Steps Falls in the Arboretum, located within walking distance of the village centre. 

The Arboretum is a highlight in itself – the perfect place for a gentle stroll and quiet picnic amid the mix of indigenous and naturalised trees and shrubs. Well-maintained paths lead through the leafy gardens and over small bridges to the waterfall and shaded alcoves with benches. A visit is also quite informative as many of the trees and bushes are clearly labelled with their common and Latin names. 

The Edge Mountain Retreat has a great restaurant right next to the bluff, making it ideal for a pre- or post-walk coffee or a meal. You can walk the the Labyrinth at The Edge for free to experience one of the largest Labyrinths in the world. Take a guided bird watching walk in the old indigenous forests, listening to bird calls, and spot a wide array of bird species, including the striking Knysna Lourie with bright red plumes under its wings, the long-crested eagle, crowned eagle and even the endangered Cape Parrot, among many. 

You can also climb Hog One, Two and Three via various routes, with Hog One being the most popular. Always go with a group of hikers or a trusted guide - the weather can change suddenly in Hogsback and being up in the mountains when conditions turn unexpectedly can be dangerous, so unless you are a very experienced hiker, do not go mountain climbing without guides and expert advice. The easiest of the mountain climbing options is Tor Doone, which can be climbed from the Arboretum in a few hours and offers rewarding 360° views over the surrounding hills and mountains. If all of this climbing and hiking sounds like too much work then rather spoil yourself to deep reflexology treatments or rejuvenating massages.