Tour of a veteran township

Love has a habit of coming at the most unlikely times. Christmas 1994, two hours from Johannesburg, the last thing I had in mind was falling in love again.

It was too soon after breaking up with a man I was convinced was the love of my life. When I was with my handsome writer boyfriend, I felt I could fly and it didn’t matter if the people on the ground could see my G-string.
But, after my first crash-landing — he blamed it on my lack of domestic skills — I was wounded.

To lament over my new, unwanted freedom in such a romantic season, I decided to join friends on a trip to Warmbaths. So I dived into the OK Bazaar in Hillbrow for two packets of Simba chips, a two-litre Fanta, two chocolates and a packet of marshmallows. That was the start of my first out-of-town holiday paid for out of my own pocket.

Since Mr Nice Guy was no more, the trip to Warmbaths was not going to be a comfortable romp in our car. I was cramped inside a minibus taxi with girls I didn’t like that much. The only common thread between us was that we were all man-less and had an urgent need to soak our lonely bodies in Aventura’s famous hot mineral baths.

Ten years later, on yet another trip to Warmbaths, and I have to admit that my feelings for the small dorpie were not infatuation but genuine love — feelings that have propelled me back toward the town and into another bout of real passion.

Author Iyanla Vanzant says in her book that falling in love is like being in therapy. You keep talking, searching, questioning, while being totally ignorant of the fact that you are blessed. Perhaps, she says, it’s because love rarely shows up where we expect it.

My first visit to Bela Bela (as Warmbaths is now called) was a hurried affair. I arrived in the afternoon and only glanced at the people strolling in the streets. My brief contact with the hot baths was when I posed for a photograph, to show off my long plaited hair and newly acquired swimming costume that revealed rather too much flesh.

Because we were poor then, all I could do was enjoy the comfort of the self-catering chalets — and savour the hotel rooms with my eyes.

But I was hooked. I knew I would come back, if only to go on a game drive and horse safari. And the trip had to be minus the girlfriends.

This year, I arrived in Bela Bela the way every visitor should — by car — early in the morning. And this time, I arrived with the love of my life, another handsome journalist.

A few kilometres from the hot mineral baths, swimming pools, super tubes, speed slides and wave pool of Aventura Warmbaths, lies Bela Bela township, which has been in existence for 167 years. That means it is older than Soweto.

To enjoy a guided tour by elderly township residents in fluent Afrikaans, English or seTswana, you don’t need to know anyone. Knock on any door and you will be welcomed like a long lost-relative, especially in Masemola Street, home to the first and oldest residents of Bela Bela.

If Gogo Karabo Moloto is taking a nap inside her huge home that, like most houses on that street, has served as a comfortable guesthouse to visitors from all corners of the world without being a formal B&B, proceed to Ntate Masemola’s home.

“Our town is not growing. I’ve given up hope of seeing it become something better than Soweto,” Masemola comments. He was born in 1922 in the very house where we sat and chatted about politics.

The warmth of this beautiful Sunday is confirmed by the loads of cars that jam Aventura’s main entrance, the busy market stall selling everything from proudly South African earrings to Zimbabwean cloth, and the young lads with their girlfriends parked under the trees for picnics.

Masemola speaks proudly of his dorpie in perfect English. The spa, he says, was discovered by a local herder, donkey’s years back, and it did not then belong to the maboer (white farmers).

The herder saw smoke coming out of the ground and moved closer to see what it was. When he realised that it was steam from water boiling under the ground, he rushed to tell his employer and other villagers.

We listen as the three old people tell their stories; they are friendlier than most big-city folk. Masemola and his wife Elizabeth are also still very much in love. In fact Gogo Elizabeth says she must still keep track of her husband’s whereabouts at all times. They even go to work together because “Why must he be left to his own mischief?”

The hospitality of the Masemolas and Molotos, combined with with the many delights of Aventura, gives me no hesitation in recommending Bela Bela, or Warmbaths.

The locals are a lot like me, born and bred in Pretoria. It is a place I can visit again and again and leave feeling lighter, happier and more in love with people, myself and life.

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