There is no recipe in Van Reenen.
Elsa Human, the delightful dynamo behind Van Reenen Tourism, wanders through the shop at the Info Centre filled with biltong, old chairs, pickled asparagus and copper kettles. Outside, an indigenous medicinal plant garden grows and huge trucks roar by while a bright blue peacock shrieks from the gatepost. Van Reenen is full of surprises and Elsa is just one of them.
Born when the snow was thick on the ground in 1987, she grew up surrounded by horses and hills. While attending Pretoria University, Elsa was asked to put together a proposal to revive tourism development in the area. “I didn’t have a cooking clue” she quips, despite the fact that she was completing her Honours degree in Heritage and Cultural Tourism, putting theory to practice is quite a different matter. She returned home and has since been working on her Master’s degree, using the Van Reenen Responsible Tourism Project as her subject. “I can’t believe that N3TC had so much faith in a 21 year old” she says, genuinely surprised. “Some of my ideas must have seemed a bit ambitious.”
However, the Yenza Cultural Festival has become an institution which involves the entire community and the Over the Edge cycle race has drawn visitors from far and wide. The Cosha litter campaign is another success. “Tourism will not grow where there is lots of litter. By encouraging children to collect the recyclable waste for small rewards, we improve our environment and help the children as well.” says Elsa earnestly, adding, “Culture is dynamic and we embrace that with our community-based tourism programme.” “We are a great team – Mbuso Ndaba and Prince Moloi, trainee assistant managers, are the same age as me. We all have different things to contribute – I’m the boere meisie, Prince is from the township and Mbuso also grew up on the farm. Mbuso’s brother, Bonginkosi Ndaba participated in the tour guide training which we facilitated last year and has become an integral part of the team. We all understand and mentor one another, thinking up new ideas all the time.”
They certainly are a vibrant New South African mix of Sotho, Zulu and Afrikaans speakers, all with a passion for the place they grew up in and a real commitment to their community. Elsa believes that because they are all employed, they have the space and time to think of new ways to contribute to their community. Mbuso and Prince offer computer lessons to local school children, Bonginkosi takes them on birding hikes on the weekends and Elsa provides art materials and encourages the kids to draw in the afternoons. “Elsa is friendly, kind and patient. I think she is unique,” adds Mbuso.
Across the road in the village, tucked beneath tall gum trees, are more fascinating ingredients in the Van Reenen mix. Most travellers, don’t venture this far (100 metres!) off the highway and what a pity that is, because treasures await the intrepid explorer. Little has changed at the much loved Green Lantern Inn over the years, it is still the centre of the village. Thoko Mdaki breaks into a broad grin when she spots Elsa and crosses the road from Maharaj’s General Dealer to greet her enthusiastically. Progress is slow as young and old, pedestrians and drivers stop for a chat. A yellow vintage Austin 7 coupé zooms by and beckons Elsa to pop into ‘Nudawan Cottage’. Here Annie hands over a bag filled with just picked, wild asparagus and shares tips on the best way to make soup with it. Over the road, another neighbour waves “Sawubona” as she hangs her washing on the fences and next door, a slim Dutch woman plumps red and purple cushions on her outdoor loungers.
Wandering past the beautiful, derelict buildings in the main road, Elsa dreams of rescuing them and turning them into a community spaces for creative expression.
Elsa lives on the opposite side of the N3 in an eclectically furnished cottage with fabulous views. Her precious dogs Lilo and Bheki and ‘Die Kat’ (ginger cat) share the space. On the other side of the hill, beside a stone wall which was the original border between the Free State and Natal, live her supportive and creative parents. They appear to be tourist attractions themselves. Interested in sustainable living, they have reclaimed old stables and turned them into a stylish and welcoming home. It is here Elsa goes for supper each evening and often to sit in her thinking spot on the hill overlooking The Lost Valley. Ntabamnyama towers behind her as she watches the mottled flock of dreadlocked sheep and dreams.
Charismatic Chair of the Tourism Association, David Grant-Smith, grabbed the opportunity to work with Elsa, believing she was just the breath of fresh air the village needed. “I really admire the fact that Elsa was able to come into our ‘old’ tourism association and cope with us retirees.” In Van Reenen one can spend the morning in a Zulu kraal, the afternoon at a polo match and have coffee on the stoep with an Afrikaans farmer in the evening – all of which Elsa does with grace and charm. “Her enthusiasm is incredible, and she has been just the spark we needed to get our vision of a vibrant, integrated community going.”
While Elsa is starting to think about broadening her horizons again, her heart will always be in Van Reenen. Checking up on the row of tiny trees she recently helped plant in Entokozweni township, she reflects on the astonishing opportunity which N3TC provided for her to make a real difference in her community. “I am quite certain that the projects will continue without me. N3TC have enabled us to lay good foundations for a sustainable tourism project that includes the entire community”.
If that is not a recipe for success, who knows what is?