The picnic site is great for day visits. Picture: Sibusiso Ndlovu.

We are driving along the N3 towards Hillcrest in peak hour traffic. Our destination is the small village of Gugwane, near KwaMkhizwana, home to Mfula store - a traditional South African trading store.

Set on the banks of the uMngeni River and one of the first trading stores in the 1950s, Mfula is now famous in the history of the Dusi Canoe Marathon founded by Dr Ian Player, where people, including Player, slept on the verandah of the store when they needed rest. Today, the property has become a weekend getaway for adventurists and those wanting to escape city life.

John Graaf, the owner, greets us with a wide smile. He escorts us to a set of sofas outside. Bag of Bones, aka "BoB", a carefree stray dog that John took under his wing a few years ago, welcomes us by jumping up and down, with her tail wagging and tongue out. John says she is the boss of the house, and I see why.

John, who bought the property 10 years ago, says he fell in love with it when he paddled in the area as a young boy. He once expressed his love for the property to the previous owner, Christopher Gwala, when they met more than a decade ago.

"I always had a special place in my heart for Mfula. I remember having long chats with Mr Gwala, who was looking to sell the property. A few months later, when I returned for a visit, the community told me about Mr Gwala’s death and that the property had been sold. Little did I know that the late shop owner put it in my name,” he says.

Now with the property under a 40-year-lease, as per the instructions of the Ingonyama Trust, John and his wife Gill are doing everything in their power to assist the community.

People can picnic with the cows at Mqeku picnic site. Picture: Sibusiso Ndlovu.

They have converted the old store into a function venue and a learning centre on Saturdays to help children in the area with skills. The shop is still operational, but in a smaller spot, closer to the entrance.

The pair also equip local women with business and farming skills. John took us on a tour of the main house, that has been renovated but still has its original windows. The spectacular backdrop, coupled with warm community members, makes Mfula a great overnight place to stay.

While not luxury in any form, the accommodation has the right amount of rustic charm to make it worthwhile. 

Travellers have to book to ensure their place. In the afternoon John packs us a picnic basket and drives us to Mqeku picnic site. This is great for day visits and provides a breathtaking view of the Mqeku River. Equipped with braai facilities, it is one of those places that you simply cannot afford miss.

Here you can picnic with cows, which chew grass nearby, or enjoy adventure activities like canoeing, fishing, tubing and birding. I am impressed at the strides locals are taking to ensure that Durban travellers have unique travel experiences.

Not only is this showing off a city filled with splendid sights and sunshine, it is also empowering locals to turn their dreams into reality.

As the sun sets, Sbusiso and I wave goodbye to John and Bob and some of the community members, and reluctantly make our way back to the hustle and bustle of the city.

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