Being somewhat anti-social I always prefer to holiday in quieter areas. The less people, the better. While I fully appreciate that you want to treat your family to a vacation that they will always cherish, I’d cherish my own holiday a great deal more if your kids weren’t wailing on the hiking trail or running under my feet as I attempt to pile my plate with bacon from the breakfast buffet. I see traffic every day in Johannesburg; I’m really not keen to queue to put in petrol when driving down to my holiday destination.
A friend’s recent wedding gave me the perfect excuse to turn an overnight stay into a four-day break in the Drakensberg region. Though the wedding took place in Cathedral Peak, we thought we’d drive down a few days early and stay in the Champagne Valley. Even though this part of the Drakensberg is, for lack of a better word, a bit “touristy,” the majestic views and opportunity to hike and attempt a bit of fly-fishing was one I could not turn down.
It’s been about a two years since I was last in this part of the Drakensberg but couldn’t help notice how many local businesses had shut down or changed ownership. In a fairly short stretch of road a coffee shop, pizzeria and general store are no longer in existence. Sure, businesses open and close all the time, but in an area where there are comparatively few coffee shops, pizzerias and general stores, you’d think the handful that exist would be able to make a good go of it.
A gastronomic, mid-week tour of the Midlands turned out to be a bit disappointing as many eateries in the area are not open for trading during the week. With so few patrons, it costs restaurants more money to stay open during the week than they would make. Some of the ones who do stay open offer limited menus so as not to raise overhead costs. Many businesses survive not through gaining more customers, but by minimising losses.
This is all part and parcel of small town South Africa. Port Alfred has fallen on hard times and has seen restaurants, bottle stores, hobbyist shops and grocers shut down, leaving workers without jobs and business owners in debt. Real estate agents have closed doors, a sign of the local property market performing less-than-admirably.
When those in urban areas feel the pinch of rising costs it has an amplified effect on your average small town. When urban travellers cut holiday expenses, the small town businesses lose out on tourism dollars. The residents and businesses suffer the greatest losses but from a traveller’s point of view, the dwindling economies lead to another sad loss.
You see, the small town brings with it experiences you may not always have in popular tourist hotspots. It’s a cup of coffee in a quaint shop on an oak tree-lined street in autumn; it’s the dairy farm with the giant Scottie that barks loudly any time someone mentions “cheese”; it’s not hearing any cars or people for hours on end; it’s a roaring fire in a small cottage that overlooks a private dam; it’s being the only person on the beach for miles; it’s the pub owner who brews his own beer; it’s fishermen trading exceedingly unlikely stories in the local bar; it’s watching the sun dip behind a row of trees as opposed to line of buildings.
So take my advice. Next time you are planning a trip, consider a small town B&B or even skip the massive petrol station/shopping centre en route to your regular destination. You might just find a hidden gem.