Classic Hotels: All's well that ends in Val
In our series on historic hotels, Roger Webster uncovers a collection of stories from this forgotten hamlet, between Greylingstad and Standerton
Our story starts in 1836 with the Voortrekkers moving into Mzilikazi's territory. Since they hadn't asked permission, the king took umbrage. He ordered an attack, culminating in the Battle of Vegkop. Herds of Voortrekker sheep and cattle were captured. Just prior to this, a little-known faction, the Prinsloo party, broke away from the main trek and moved northeast. Upon reaching the area we now call Villiers, they out-spanned, held nagmaal and married two youngsters of their flock.
They met an old lady in the area, who was said to have psychic powers. She begged them to stay, insisting that all she could foresee was disaster. But the Prinsloos, who knew nothing of Vegkop, trekked on. They outspanned at the place we now call Val.
The old lady from Villiers was so distraught that she mounted a horse and followed the Prinsloos' tracks to their camp at Val.
"Do not continue" she urged them. "I foresee terrible bloodshed." But they would not listen.
The trek moved on to the area now known as Roodebank. Here, the newlyweds wanted some private time, so they offered to walk to the top of the koppie and keep a lookout. The older folk nodded sagely and said: "Good idea." About two hours later, the young couple returned to a bloody scene. The entire party had been butchered. You see, the local Foteng people had got wind of the 30000 - 40000 sheep that had been taken from the Boers at Vegkop. Plus, these white people were trekking into their area without permission. The newlyweds, the only survivors, headed back to Villiers and the old lady.
The old stagecoach-road linking Natal to Pretoria also runs through that area - a place called Waterval. For the changing of the stagecoach horses and refreshment of the people, Joseph Smith opened the Stagecoach Inn. Over the road was a little post office and there is still a postage stamp in existence marked "Waterval 1888". Smith had bought the farm Oudehoutspruit on the banks of the Waterval River, and when the SA-Mozambique line opened in 1894 and then in 1895, the rail linked to Durban, he saw his opportunity. In 1896, he built the now Val Hotel and the hamlet grew to eventually boast a general dealer, blacksmith and a roller mill, all servicing the railway line.
Now, the Val Post Office and the Waterval Post Office ran concurrently for some time, but the confusion was enormous. There was Waterval Onder, Waterval Boven, Waterval in the Free State and Waterval in the Transvaal. So in 1902 the Waterval (Transvaal) Post Office closed and only the Val Post Office remained. Settlers started arriving, buying land, and eventually a silo was built at Val.
In 1899, the second Anglo-Boer War broke out. Smith had no intention of going to war against his Afrikaans neighbours and friends, so he declared his neutrality and was deported from Val for the duration of the war. His wife Elizabeth looked after the business and farm. It is said that, while serving tea to her Afrikaans friends on the front porch, she served refreshments to English soldiers at the kitchen door. In The Boer War Diary by Private Tucker, the Waterval camp is mentioned as one of the nicest of all the camps. Yes, there were skirmishes, and a piano in the hotel has the bullet holes to prove it.
West of Val, 6km down the track, was the famous "Whisky Train" incident. For Christmas, a train came up from Durban crammed with whisky, champagne and all manner of alcohol, destined for the officers on the Rand. The Boers derailed the train and everybody in the area had an inebriated Christmas at the expense of the English taxpayer.
In 1902, in the Val Hotel lounge, Generals Smuts, Botha and Koen Brits met to discuss the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging. You can still see the photograph hanging there.
Then, in 1913, Gandhi found himself on a train from Durban, being told to move to third-class. He refused. A row ensued and the train stopped at Val, where Gandhi was arrested and thrown in jail.
For travellers today, next to the hotel is the Moeggeploeg Kroeg ("Plough-weary Pub"). There's also a museum with an old Dutch porcelain pitcher and bowl, which were buried so as not to fall into the hands of the British - no, they're not for sale. Then there is the old station; and a clubhouse with sports fields, just waiting for their next game of cricket or rugby.
- Visit www.valhotel.co.za, call 0825505540 or e-mail email@example.com