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Hogsback: Stepping into Middle-earth

A lush primary forest is the last thing you'd expect to find in the hot, dry and acacia-thicketed Eastern Cape province. In this largely thicket- or shrubland-dominated region the small mountain village of Hogsback is a rare gem, an oasis of cool green and misty mornings.

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The Amathole mountains form the southern end of the Great Escarpment, an impressive geological feature that includes the Drakensberg mountains and which extends north into neighboring Namibia and Angola. The Amathole mountains are covered in dense forests of yellowwoods, white stinkwoods and other indigenous trees.

Hogsback is a small town in the Amathole mountains tucked into the base of three peaks that resemble a hog's back, hence the name. This town is home to some breathtaking views, a number of beautiful waterfalls and is surrounded by the indigenous Tyumie forest on all sides. Visiting Hogsback, you can't help but feel like you have left the outside world behind. Hogsback really is a proper forest escape.

Bevan in the forest at Hogsback
Bevan exploring the indigenous forest around Hogsback.

The Hogsback-Tolkien connection

Visiting Hogsback you can't help but notice a common theme - many of the accommodation and restaurants in town have names like Hobbiton, Rivendell and The Shire. These are all a tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien with whom this town is popularly thought to be connected.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known by his pen name J.R.R. Tolkien, was born in Bloemfontein in 1892. Following his father's death when he was only three, the family returned to England. Sadly J.R.R. Tolkien and his brother were orphaned by the age of 12.

The argument abounds that Hogsback served as an inspiration for the setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous trilogy "The Lord of the Rings". Although it seems unlikely that the Hogsback forest would have had a lasting impact on such a young Tolkien, the story also goes that his South African nanny was from this area and entertained the Tolkien brothers with stories of mythical creatures that lived in the forested mountains.

Waterfalls abound in the mountains around Hogsback.

Whatever the truth may be, there is no denying the fact that some of Tolkien's passages sound like they come straight from Hogsback itself. The following passage, for example, could have been written from the perspective of someone standing on the low-lying grounds looking up towards Hogsback:

Frodo looked and saw, still at some distance, a hill of many mighty trees, or a city of green towers: which it was he could not tell. Out of it, it seemed to him that the power and light came that held all the land in sway. He longed suddenly to fly like a bird to rest in the green city.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Part 1: The Fellowship of the Ring

View over Hogsback
Hogsback - an island of green in an otherwise-brown and dry landscape

It is not a hard task for a visitor to Hogsback to experience some of the magic that is inherent in the mossy, dripping forested slopes of the three Hog mountains. One has only to walk far enough into the forest so as to leave all visible evidence of the outside world behind you, to be caught up in a fantasy world of living trees, shadows and spirits behind every fallen log or mossy stone.

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Part 1: The Fellowship of the Ring

Hiking in the Hogsback forests

Bevan and I made full use of our few days in Hogsback to explore the forest. There are a number of hiking trails that lead to each of the beautiful waterfalls near the town. Although we were given a map of the trail network, it became clear to us that the ultimate goal was just to spend time in the forest itself. Every local person we stopped to ask for directions gave us the strong impression that they were being deliberately vague and that they wanted us to get lost in the forest.

Bevan climbing out of the forest in Hogsback
The stairway out of the forest and back into the outside world.

These forests really are something to take in. They are completely undisturbed and home to trees that are hundreds of years old. Bird life abounds, and it is not hard to find places in the forest where the only sounds you can hear are birds singing and the rush of a nearby waterfall. In this setting the trees themselves emerge from the background to become lead characters in the scene, taking on a presence that anywhere else usually goes unnoticed.

The forest canopy
"As Frodo prepared to follow him, he laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree's skin and of the life within it? He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself." - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Part 1: The Fellowship of the Ring.

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Hogsback's waterfalls

The mountains around Hogsback are wet with dripping, running and falling water. There are a number of beautiful waterfalls nearby that include the Kettlespout, Swallow Tail, Bridal Veil and 39 Steps Falls, with trails that lead either to the top or bottom of the falls.

Bridal Veil Falls in Hogsback
Bridal Veil Falls in Hogsback.

The most well-known of these is the Madonna and Child Falls, which gets its name from the rocky outcrop that protrudes from the face of the falls. There are two routes to access these falls. The first is a relatively steep 150m climb down a wooden staircase from the road above. The more scenic although longer route is a walk through the Tyunie Forest from the Main Road, which takes you past the Big Tree, an 800 year old yellowwood.

Bevan at the big tree in Hogsback
Bevan at the Big Tree.
Madonna and Child Waterfall in Hogsback
The well-known Madonna and Child Waterfall in Hogsback.

The Hogsback waterfalls are definitely worth exploring. We’d recommend packing a picnic, because you will definitely want to spend some time playing at these falls.

Visiting Hogsback

Hogsback is a return to Nature, and an idyllic place to explore or just take a break from the rush of life. We really enjoyed our few days here and relished the escape from the summer heat in the coolness of the mountains.
For us though it is onwards towards Cape Town!

We would like to thank Away With The Fairies for hosting us and giving us a really authentic Hogsback welcome. We didn't get a chance to enjoy their private bath on the clifftop overlooking the forested hills below, so will have to be back for that at least!

The bath with a view over Hogsback
The bath with a view over Hogsback.

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