For all my lifelong reluctance to believe in the existence of fate, destiny, kismet and the like, it is sometimes difficult to resist the notion that there are greater forces at work than we imagine. As I arrived at Bloemfontein bus station after the horrors of Lesotho, to be greeted by the twin chimneys of a city centre power station, I briefly wondered whether the bus journey had merely flipped me from the frying pan into the fire. With no accommodation booked and scant knowledge of my surroundings, I did what any self-respecting backpacker would do and headed for the district with the highest concentration of trendy bars on the Lonely Planet city map. Hipsters are conscious of their safety as well as their image, after all.

Further demoralised after four fully booked hotel visits and needing to escape a mercilessly beating midday sun, I headed for shelter, WiFi and a morale-boosting gin and tonic at an inviting eatery. ‘Ja friend, you must go to the Hobbit Hotel, it’s just two blocks from here.’, the barmaid tells me, saving my life for the second time in as many minutes.

As I enter the semi-militarized security gate so normal in South Africa, it is as if I have borrowed C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe to enter Tolkien’s Middle Earth, if the Gods of mixed fantasy literature metaphors will forgive me. This, I thought, is what a Bedouin nomad must feel like when arriving at a desert oasis after two weeks of wandering the hot Sahara sands. There is no stagnant water here, and no mosquitoes. Only a welcoming smile as I am shown to a delightful suite, complete with Victorian study room and cast iron four poster bed.

Typical backpacker accommodation and equipment

Few books marked my childhood as much as The Lord Of The Rings. As I stroll around the charming hotel patio gardens, vivid and fond memories flood back of devouring the 1,000+ pages in a little under four days at my grandparents’ house in Switzerland before going on a family holiday to Italy. I can clearly recall being upset as I started reading the final chapter, Grey Havens. I only read the book on that one occasion, but formed such a personal mental impression and image of all the characters that I have been unable to watch any of the multiple award-winning big screen adaptations.

It isn’t until I read into the history of my wonderful lodgings, however, and that of the author who inspired them that I realise how much closer to home I really am. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in 1892, where he lived until the age of three. His father’s death in South Africa when he was on a family visit to England with his mother led to his resettling in Sarehole, a Worcestershire village 16 miles from my home town of Bromsgrove. Unknown to me for all these years, the wonderful scenery depicted in my favourite childhood read was actually inspired by the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills that surround our family home. Tolkien’s mother is buried in the graveyard of St Peter’s Catholic Church, less than one mile from my parents’ house.

These are happy memories, and this is a happy travel interval. Just as the book was a temporary escape into a world of fantasy, so the Hobbit Hotel is a fleeting reprieve from the hot and dusty demands of African exploration. The wonderful welcome from Celeste, the owner, and her adorable black labrador Bonnie make the place even more special than it already is. I had not intended to come to Bloemfontein, and certainly not for two nights. But maybe, just maybe, something other than a last minute change of travel plan has brought me to this place.

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