The Trappist Trail

The mission church at Mariazell.

Among the rollercoaster hills of southern KZN, along roads that don’t appear on many maps, you’ll find 22 mission stations built a century ago by Trappist monks. This is the story of a madcap pilgrimage. 

WORDS & PICTURES JON MINSTER

Bishop Stanislaw Dziuba drives a mud-splattered Hilux that was once white. His spectacles are foggy in the drizzle and his sleeves are rolled up. “Thank you for coming to visit us, here at the end of the world,” he says. Then he climbs back into the cab and chugs off down the road. As the bishop of the Umzimkulu Diocese, he’s a busy man with no time to waste.

We’re at Lourdes Mission under a heavy sky and the bishop is right: It feels very much like the end of the world. How long have we been driving for? Two hours? Three? The century-old church at Lourdes is enormous. It looks like it’s been lifted from somewhere in Bavaria. Earlier we stood at the entrance and listened to the bishop, who hails from Poland, chatting away in Bhaca, the local dialect, to a few members of his congregation after the Sunday service. Before today, if you’d pointed at the blank spot between Kokstad and Port Shepstone on a map and told me about the sheer size of Lourdes, and about Polish priests speaking Bhaca and driving bakkies, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But lets rewind. To understand how a building this grand ended up here, more than an hour’s drive from any tar road, you need to start at the beginning, in 1882, at Mariannhill near Durban. A Trappist monk called Francis Pfanner had taken a vow of silence, but he never really planned to keep it.

A curious history

The southern Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal are not as well known as their northern namesake. The landscape is similar – rolling green hills dotted with dairy cattle and the odd pocket of mist-belt forest – but you won’t find shiny 4x4s, Biggy Best decor and mock-English pubs. A tractor, maybe, or a Denham’s bustard stalking past a farm fence. In 2008, while driving along a dirt road near the town of Creighton, I saw something special: a red-brick compound of churches and cloisters lit up by the morning sun. The sign said Centocow Monastery. How did something so stately end up in rural KZN?

For two years that image of Centocow lingered at the back of my mind until I finally got the chance to do some research. My questions led me to historian Steve Kotze, a former battlefield guide who worked with David Rattray at Rorke’s Drift. Steve is passionate about the monasteries and has spent years unravelling their mysteries. Bearded, with shaggy hair and hip sunglasses,he looks more like a surfer than a historian. I meet him in the parking lot of Mariannhill Mission on a muggy Durban morning. We’ve planned a mini-pilgrimage. Over the course of the next three days Steve and I will visit as many monasteries as we can and he’ll tell me the story of the Trappists along the way.

Marianhill, north of Durban.

Mariannhill looks just like you’d expect a monastery to look: a neat courtyard surrounded by old cloister buildings and a church out of The Da Vinci Code. It’s quiet, peaceful. Steve sits me down in the front pew and the story begins. At the centre of it all is a monk named Francis Pfanner. Born in a farming village in Austria in 1825, he was a sickly child and joined the priesthood because of fears that he wouldn’t be able to cope with life on a farm. Suffering from TB, he eventually joined the austere Trappist order at age 38 because he thought he was going to die and he wanted to devote the last few years of his life to prayer and contemplation.

In a remarkable turn of events, Trappist discipline saved him. The vegetarian diet and a daily routine of hard work and fresh air rejuvenated Pfanner and cured him of his illness. Back then, life as a Trappist was not for the faint-hearted. There were 1802 rules that governed behaviour and daily routine, and the monks were expected to be silent except for extended bouts of hymn singing, starting at 2am each morning. Speech was only allowed if it was absolutely necessary. In order for the monks to communicate, a kind of sign language was developed, with as many as 100 hand signals.

Steve and I have been jabbering non-stop. “We’d make terrible Trappists,” he says.

Pfanner had always been a headstrong man, and now, with his improved health, he became a workaholic, forthright and argumentative. After a 10-year stint at a monastery in Bosnia, where he irritated just about everyone, Pfanner answered a request by the bishop of Grahamstown for monks to help him with his work in South Africa. In 1880 he travelled with 31 brothers and, after a false start in the Sundays River Valley, ended up at the site of present-day Mariannhill.

“But how could he be a silent monk and a missionary?” I ask.
“That’s exactly it,” Steve says. “He couldn’t.”

One day’s ride away

We leave Mariannhill and take the old road towards Richmond. The light-industrial lots of Pinetown give way to ramshackle suburbs and finally to huts and grazing goats. “Pfanner was a popular guy,” Steve says. “He found converts easily. The local Zulu people had never seen white people doing manual labour, and now there were these bearded guys in cassocks tilling the fields.”

It was a Zulu chief named Sakayedwa, of Polela (near present-day Bulwer), who started Pfanner on the course that would see a necklace of mission stations decorate the province and cause an irreparable rift between him and his superiors in Europe. Sakayedwa wrote to Pfanner and praised him for the work he was doing at Mariannhill. Would he be willing to come to Polela and educate Sakayedwa’s people? Of course Pfanner consented. Mariannhill was booming and he wanted to expand his enterprise. To do so, Pfanner devised a clever scheme. One of the less bendable Trappist rules is that a monk must spend each night in a monastery. To get around this, Pfanner planned a network of monasteries from Mariannhill to Polela, all within one day’s horse ride of one another. This way the monks could travel and work without breaking the rule.
The more monasteries that were built, the more that could be added, and so Pfanner’s empire spread.

Our rented Toyota Avanza is much quicker than a horse. We pop into tiny Einsiedlen near Richmond and Mariathal near Ixopo, then we sidestep thunderstorms along the R612 to Kevelaer with the Drakensberg brooding on the horizon. Next we visit Reichenau, the mission station that was built for Chief Sakayedwa. The complex of slate stone buildings, with the church at the centre, is beautifully situated in a valley next to the Polela River. The water mill has recently been restored and for R30 per person you can watch the ancient machinery creak to life.
If this place were in Europe it would be teeming with tourists pointing their Nikons in all directions. But it’s in an obscure valley between Bulwer and Underberg, and we are the only visitors.

From Reichenau we double back down the Umzimkulu River valley, through shafts of afternoon sunlight, past grazing horses and cattle and children pushing wire cars next to the road. We spend the night at Centocow, in an old clothing factory that has been converted into self-catering accommodation. A thick mist rolls in and blankets the monastery buildings. In the morning we wake to the muffled sound of bells tolling. The landscape is grey and hushed.

The mission church at Reichenau.

The mission church at Reichenau.

The original key to the church door.

The original key to the church door.

The mission church at Centocow.

The mission church at Centocow.

Missions in the mist

The thing that strikes you about all the mission churches is how well built they are. There’s an old-world European grandeur about them, thanks largely to the efforts of Brother Nivard Streicher, Pfanner’s architect and right-hand man. The huge stained-glass window above the altar in the Centocow church is no exception. It tells the story of Pfanner and his followers, and it’s a true work of art. But like at Reichenau, the tourists are nowhere to be seen.

We leave Centocow before the Sunday service begins, driving along a dirt road with no discernable name, which doesn’t appear on my map. This is the way to Lourdes. We’re in Bhaca territory. The Bhaca (which means “the hidden ones”) fled south during the Mfecane wars; they are one of the few tribes never to have been conquered by Shaka. Legend has it that when the Zulu warlord sent his army to teach the Bhaca a lesson in the winter of 1826, their medicine-man chief, Madzikane, climbed a mountain above where the Zulu army was camped and built a fire. He chanted incantations and threw potions into the flames. The night dragged on, the temperature dropped, and the flames leapt higher and higher. Madzikane kept chanting, calling to his ancestors, feeding the fire more and more ritual medicine. The smoke rose and billowed into the sky, blacking out the stars.

According to those who witnessed it, the smoke clouds transformed into real clouds and suddenly the sky erupted as a blizzard came down from the Drakensberg, engulfing the Zulu army. Very few of the Zulu warriors lived to see the dawn, and those who survived the crippling snowfall didn’t hang around. They marched back north as quickly as they could, to report to Shaka that they had been defeated by an enemy they had never even seen.

At Lourdes, and later at Emmaus, even further into the neverland of the southern Midlands, Steve turns his attentions away from the Bhaca and returns to the Trappists, whose stories interweave again and again, sometimes controversially. After all, the Bhaca were Pfanner’s main converts. But that’s a story for another day.

Emmaus, a tiny mission station built against the side of a low mountain, is where Pfanner spent the last years of his life. He was exiled from Mariannhill when the Trappist order decided that he had broken the rules one too many times. While the Vatican debated about what to do with his hybrid brand of missionary monks, the 80-year-old Pfanner stewed at Emmaus and spent his days hacking steps out of the mountainside, building the stations of the cross. Eventually, the Vatican decided that the only way around the dilemma was to create a new order in faraway Natal – the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries, which still manages many of the mission churches today.

Pfanner died mere weeks after the decision that he could successfully split from the Trappists, and one of the great tragedies of his life is that he never lived to see the real fruits of his labour. Rumour has it that his heart was cut from his body and buried at Emmaus before his body was transported back to the cemetery at Mariannhill. There’s a holy atmosphere at Emmaus. We climb Pfanner’s steps to the top of the mountain and look out over the hills. I can feel the history in the landscape and the presence of something else; something more permanent than rocks and aloes and red brick buildings.

My heart is full to bursting.

The stained-glass window at Centocow.

The stained-glass window at Centocow.

Late afternoon and the rain is pouring down. After the high of Emmaus, my spirits are flagging. The mission stations are beginning to blur. I can’t remember which one had the intricate murals and which one had the really impressive bell tower. The road towards the coast is a rutted mess of clay and stones, but Steve and I have developed a Trappist stubbornness and we refuse to give up. There’s another church on the itinerary and come hail or flat tyres, we’re going to visit it.

Only a handful of people have seen this many of the mission stations and I want to add my name to that list. So we keep ticking them off: a bonejarring detour to Otting, where Father Johannes is celebrating his birthday, then another detour to Maria Trost, almost invisible in the mist.
Along the way we see a group of boys coming from a traditional wedding. Steve calls to them and they perform a stick fight in the road, showing off. He says that the groom must fight at his own wedding and blood must be drawn for it to be legitimate.

It’s a poor part of the country and tribal custom runs deep. As we drive I wonder what it must be like to live in a rondavel on the side of a hill, tending your maize field, walking barefoot to school, drawing water from the bottom of the valley and stickfighting your mates for sport. It’s crazy to think that the South Coast is so close, with it’s holiday flats, gaudy tans and Wimpy burgers.

It’s late afternoon and bucketing down by the time we reach Maristella, inland from Port Shepstone. In the dusky gloom, lit up by the car headlights between the swishing wiper blades, the church looks like a relic from better times. Steve raps on the door of the parsonage. No answer. Bluegums shudder in the wind. “Does it count if we don’t see the inside?” he asks. “Of course it does!” I pull my jacket over my head and dash back to the car.

Inland from Port Shepstone.

Inland from Port Shepstone.

The mission church at Maristella.

The mission church at Maristella.

In the shadow of the mountains

I don’t remember much of the drive from Port Shepstone to Kokstad. It was dark and raining and full of trucks, but this morning the sun is out and everything is all right again. It’s our last day on the Trappist Trail, as Steve has coined it. We’re going to drive to the most distant mission station of Pfanner’s empire: Mariazell, nearly 400km from our starting point at Mariannhill.

A drive along the R56 through East Griqualand after summer rain is something everyone should do at least once in their lives. The cattle are plump, the dams are full and the landscape is huge under a sky so clear you can almost see satellites orbiting the earth.
On the way to Mariazell, we stop off at Hardenberg, where the old cloisters have been turned into a retreat for underprivileged children, then we carry on through Matatiele to the Ongeluksnek road and turn right in the direction of Lesotho.

The road is worse than yesterday, but we struggle on. The end is in sight. Along the way we take a detour to yet another mission station, Maria Linden, which is the picture of rural paradise. I’m sure it’s a hard life out here, but it’s such a scenic part of the world that if you offered me a job tending the vegetable patch I’d honestly consider moving.

Sister Winifred and Sister Ambrose are the lucky ones who look after the church. Another renegade thing that Pfanner did was bring nuns out from Germany to help teach at the monasteries. When Pfanner’s order was created, the nuns and their converts became known as the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Of all the church people we’ve encountered so far – from bishops to parish priests – the Sisters are most passionate about Pfanner’s legacy and about preserving the churches. “They call us the black Germans,” 70-yearold Sister Ambrose says with a youthful twinkle in her eye. She invites us inside for tea and Lemon Creams. We talk about rain and the state of the roads and, always, about Francis Pfanner. A portrait of the man hangs above the kettle.

The Ongeluksnek Road.

The Ongeluksnek Road.

Sister Winifred and Sister Ambrose at Maria Linden.

Sister Winifred and Sister Ambrose at Maria Linden. 

It’s early afternoon when we pull off the Ongeluksnek road. There, in the distance, is Mariazell. I was sold on a life at Maria Linden, but I think I’ll upgrade to Mariazell instead. We could be in the Alps.

I get out of the car to take a photo. I breathe the mountain air and feel the breeze on my skin. The grass ripples and cloud shadows race across the landscape. Steve walks over and I think about saying something, pointing out how far we have come or how pretty the mission station looks, but I hold my tongue. Steve is wrapped up in his own thoughts too.

Maybe the Trappists got it right. Sometimes it’s okay not to say anything.

The mission church at Mariazell.

The mission church at Mariazell.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Get a guide. You don’t need to see all the mission stations. If you’re pressed for time, put Mariannhill, Reichenau and Centocow on your list. It’s fine to visit them on your own, but you’ll gain so much more if you go with a guide. Steve Kotzewill tailor a route and an itinerary to suit your level of interest and he can arrange accommodation and meals too. He has producedawonderful double-CD audio tour titled Hidden Treasures (R150) that tells Pfanner’s story. Call 082 318 2243 or visit www.missiontours.co.za

More? Read Michael Cawood Green’s novel For the Sake of Silence, about the Trappists in KZN. It’s a doorstop of a book, but it’s riveting if you have the patience.

Where we stayed

  • The old clothing factory at Centocow Mission has been converted into a 12-sleeper self-catering loft. R164 per person, plus R100 per group and R100 to the ladies who service the accommodation. Call Dudley Smith on 039 833 1038 or e-mail dlsmith@futurenet.co.za
  • Willowdale Lodge near Kokstad is a B&B in a beautiful location. Make sure to stay for dinner. Rates fromR410 per person sharing, including breakfast. Call 039 727 3870 or visit www.willowdalelodge.co.za.
  • King’s Grant is a retreat near Ixopo on the former supply farm for Mariathal Mission. Rates from R395 per person. Call 039 834 2730 or visit www.kingsgrant.co.za

Prices correct July 2011.