NESTLED in the serene Gamtoos Valley are the idyllic farming communities of Hankey and Patensie, an ideal breakaway from the city.
Here, just about an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth, you can escape from the bustle of city life to the pristine countryside with the forested foothills of the Cockscomb Mountain in the background.
Patensie and Hankey may be small but exploring these farming communities will keep you occupied for more than a day. Visitors can also explore the region on mountain bike, on a quad bike or by hiking.
Gamtoos Tourism chairman Kobus Kok says he can arrange packages to suit any budget and include any comfort needed.
Kobus met us early on a Monday morning at the information centre for the Gamtoos Valley, which also doubles up as well-known farm stall and coffee shop, Tolbos.
He had arranged a number of activities and sights to explore for the day.
Well versed in the region's history, Kobus took us to the oldest town in the valley – Hankey. Established in 1826 as a missionary station, Hankey is home to the largest sundial in Africa, with a diameter of 36.4 metres.
Up the little incline beside the dial one finds the grave of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman, the Khoi woman displayed as a freak in Europe in the early half of the nineteenth century.
The heritage site, unveiled in March 2009, serves as a symbol of respect for human dignity.
From the grave site one has a magnificent view of the patchwork of farmlands.
Then we travelled along a dirt farm road to view the "Mountain Window", which inspired William Philip to establish an irrigation system that would lead water from the Gamtoos River to the farms.
The tunnel through the mountain took 15 months to complete using pick, shovel and wheelbarrows from both ends.
"The tunnel workers were so happy to see each other once they met up while digging the tunnel, they ran to the top of the mountain to celebrate," Kobus recounted.
The irrigation system – the first tunnel scheme in South Africa – was in operation until 1970. The remains of the tunnel can still be seen but you cannot ventured too far inside because of the dangers of a collapsing ceiling.
While Hankey is rich in history, Patensie is home to a vibrant citrus industry. In addition to the oranges, lemons and naartjies for which the area is famous, vegetables, chicory and tobacco are also planted.
Tours to the region can incorporate visits to farms. For us, Kobus had planned a visit to a cucumber and potato farm.
It was interesting to see the rapid growth of cucumbers in a tunnel. Malan Growers' Hanna-Mari Opperman was our tour guide, answering all our questions.
As summer approaches, the farm harvests 30000 cucumbers a day, compared to the 12000 in winter.
Hanna-Mari took us from the tunnels to the packing factory where we saw the cucumbers as we purchase them from the supermarket.
Visiting WP Ferreira Farming – a potato farm – we could experience first hand the difficulties farmers face when too much of a good thing can be bad. In this case it was the recent heavy rains.
Farmer Pierre Ferreira said tuberous crops like potatoes and carrots could not be harvest- ed in the rain and the wet soil proved problematic as the crops were spoiling in the ground.
"Potatoes are difficult and expensive to farm. On a good day we can harvest 7000 10kg pockets but with the heavy rains it has proved more difficult," Pierre said. "People can expect potatoes to climb in price."
We also explored the scenic Baviaanskloof or "Valley of the Baboon" and came across a troop of baboons while heading into the 192000ha conservation area.
There are various camp and picnic sites along the valley but the dirt road is not suitable for sedan vehicles.
The Eastern Cape Nature Reserves office advised us not to go past the low-water bridge at Cambria and so we could only head a short distance into the Baviaanskloof. If we wanted to explore further, a guide could be booked.
We were fortunate enough to spot a fish eagle with its catch, the troop of baboons and a pair of reed buck that quickly scurried off when the photographer tried to snap them.
While heading to or from the Baviaanskloof, be sure to look out for "Queen Victoria's profile". Erosion has etched the royal head into the cliff.
We were sad to say farewell to tour guide Kobus at the end of the day. The region has so much to offer, a day or two is not sufficient to truly marvel at it beauty.
We thought our trip was drawing to its end but, while we were having breakfast at Tolbos that morning, the friendly folk had organised for us to be taken to look at the overflowing Kouga Dam, built in 1967.
Andrew Murray of the Gamtoos Irrigation Board picked us up and drove us to the dam. The public road to the dam had become inaccessible due to the rains.
"I will take anyone to see the dam as long as they are driving a 4x4 or high-rise bakkie and have nerves of steel," Andrew said.
The dirt road to the dam is mainly used by the farmers and is at times washed away by the overflowing streams.
Some of the streams we had to ford were really deep but Andrew was most apt at negotiating the murky waters.
To see the overflowing dam is unbelievable and the magnitude and force of the water was a humbling experience. Murray explained that, with the 60ml of rain that fell the night before, 10000 litres of water per second were flowing over the dam wall.
The highlight of my trip to the Gamtoos Valley was meeting the friendly and inviting people. Everywhere we went everyone greeted us and made us feel welcome. Even while driving through the streets of Patensie, locals greeted with a wave.
Marvelling at the wonders of nature and its surrounds, we found the serene valley a perfect escape from the daily tension of city life.
WE enjoyed lunch at one of Weg!'s top 15 farm stalls, Padlangs, just 7km outside Patensie. With their filling lunches, it was the perfect way to break from exploring the countryside.
The venue carries a bicycle theme throughout and offers a relaxing venue with a child- friendly environment. The restaurant and shop are open daily.
As many of the restaurants are not open at night, visitors to the region do not have a variety to choose from.
The only venue open for dinner in Patensie is the Ripple Hill Hotel Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant incorporates the serene lifestyle of the Gamtoos Valley and food is served with farm-style veggies.
The service is that of any top restaurant and would be perfect for a dinner away from the city.
Breakfast was enjoyed at Tolbos Country and Coffee Shop – also only open daily.
As the weather threatened rain, the restaurant had lit a fire, providing the perfect escape from the imminent showers and cold wind.
Breakfast was served with home-made bread and marmalade cooked in the kitchens of owners Toska and Hetsie for that personal touch.