This was a commission from BBC Storyworks.
This was a commission from BBC Storyworks.
This was a commission from BBC Storyworks.
Crossing the wide expanse of Chobe waters from Botswana to Namibia, all one sees is the row of A-frame peaks, like the zigzagged scales on a crocodile’s tail. Grinning Gilbert sees us safely onto the sturdy boardwalk-jetty and then…
A tranquil, sophisticated ambience is endorsed by the warm, welcome smiles of graceful Subiya tribe staff who drift through our neutral-coloured, fascinatingly designed “home” for the next few days. The simplicity, the open spaces, the cubist arches and columns- all reminiscent of an Afro-Roman palace. Organic textures, desert sand and seed-pods capturing the essence of Namibia’s simple beauty.
Stylish, chic, elegant, arty and many other adjectives apply. The attention to detail is noteworthy, furnishings, fixtures reflect a fine eye for design with an enviable artistic flair. So too the architecture.
The complex and intriguing layout leads the eye and invites exploration of interleading indoor and outdoor spaces. Gentle steps to a patch of manicured grass, sunken seating with hot rock firepits, a long infinity pool, overhead metalwork extending the indoor-outdoor flow, ringed by trees and shrubs with cushioned alcove seating dotted about- one could spend hours just taking it in.
exclaims Hilary. I had popped in once for a quick lunch and had been dying to return, so am chuffed to be so vindicated- especially by someone with a home on the riverbank and a good idea of what is on offer elsewhere.
What a welcome. A cool, spotlessly clean space where an impressive variety of materials have been cleverly used to create ultimate luxury and comfort. Meshed inner curtains soften the view onto the daba grass and the river. The room itself has the best of everything including a cabinet containing a kettle with multi-boiling points, exquisite wines, full mini bar and snacks, great coffee and a superb selection of teas and black china- all lit by automatic lighting. The bathroom is superb, as are the lemon-verbena pampering lotions.
The outside deck has been cleverly railed like the bow of a cruise liner to maximise the effect of being “at sea on the Chobe”. I keep expecting distant trees to move past the uprights, or past the windows when lounging on the emperor size bed. Delectably comfortable loungers are a temptation to stay on deck all day but once the clouds of whistling ducks have settled into the evening, resist the temptation of staying aboard as disembarking back to the palace heralds the start of another experience – a feast for any aesthete.
Clever lighting maximises the spaces and the art. Epauletted fruit bats silently dance amongst the giant leaves of fruit trees. The rim flow swimming pool has transformed into ink, reflecting the last hint of the African day. In the dining area, resplendent with gleaming glass, crockery, cutlery and crisp linen, one gets very excited at the thought of a menu which will surely complement. And it does, magnificently.
A degustation menu- seven little courses of delectable tastes- awaits. Chef Linus Siyambangu changes his menu daily, so the following night it’s his Sense Experience. Tastes to remember include seeded and rosemary lavash, fresh basil pesto, apple and cucumber gazpacho, superbly plated kudu fillet with perfectly complementary selection of veggies, red pepper puree and red wine sauce- probably trumped by the pan seared Norwegian salmon dish and the excellent strawberry cheesecake.
A quickish breakfast (we never get beyond the Continental option) and we are on a boat and across the river to Botswana immigration to get passports stamped and be welcomed by N’Jay Sankwasa, our Flame of Africa game guide. Then we’re into the unfenced 11700km2 Chobe National Park for a morning game drive- never a disappointment.
Back from learning about the wildlife, including a lion we spot within a few minutes- as well as the birds, history and plants and our game vehicle becomes a boat- surely the best way to view game? Undoubtedly a wonderful way to enjoy a lunch and an afternoon cruise, with a quick nap before din-dins.
The bed itself provides inspiration for me, seeking an air conditioning solution to a double volume house. The overhead canopy does not merely provide a rail for the mosquito curtain, but a curtain of air-conditioned air.
We’re not the only ones to be inspired. SABC3’s Top Billing had just been and their take of Chobe Water Villas plays on screens (elsewhere), while we just play.
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Airlink provides direct scheduled flights from Johannesburg to Kasane (Chobe), Botswana. With an all Jet service, Airlink provides a Business Class service, styled in the manner of a European intra-continental service.
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Nalitumila (thank you in Subiya).
“I call this my gateway spirit” said Andrew, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. Well, through the gateway, down the hatch and the rabbit hole and colour me impressed, well impressed! Andrew Rall, owner of Durban’s Distillery 031 is a singular man whose burgeoning craft distillery is a portal to some unique, top-notch craft spirits. He was referring to his D’Urban Barrel Aged Gin- something rather special. Serve it on ice to guests without telling them what they are drinking, just to gauge reactions. Plenty of surprised expressions no doubt. Gateway? Well, I agree with him that it may change the perceptions of many non gin drinkers.
Gin is trending- has been for a while now- and Rall has been at the forefront of the gin revolution in South Africa. His passion trumps trends however, and Distillery 031 products include a superb tonic cordial, rum (including cachaça), vodka, absinthe and some unique spirit aperitifs- all with a view to putting the country on the map in terms of carefully and beautifully crafted, award winning, spirits.
Rall distilled privately at first, acquired his commercial licenses in 2015 and, in a relatively short time, has made inroads into the international market. The fact that he exports his premium 031 Vodka to a country like Sweden where vodka is not so much trending as entrenched in social culture says a lot.
He is a gentle giant- charming, charismatic, passionate, perceptive, driven and open to ideas and experiences. That’s a great checklist for someone who continually researches and experiments in his quest for excellence. His introduction and taste for spirits was more about quantity than quality (student daze), but a trip to Scotland ignited an interest in- and passion for- distilling. Fast forward and this once brand manager for Unilever found himself with his own brand, an urban distillery (Durban’s first craft distillery) and in cahoots with like-minded entrepreneurs in establishing Durban’s first urban renewal district- Station Drive, off Umgeni Rd.
Rall is passionate about more than quality hooch. The name, Distillery 031 (031 is the local dialling code), hints at his love of his roots. Hence the distillery being in the city and the many indigenous elements that infuse the business- from bottle labels to botanicals and the raw materials from which the spirits are crafted. These include sugar cane, baobab fruit, indigenous wormwood and rosehip, coffee cherries (cascara) and imphepho, a medicinal herb used by sangomas to summon the ancestors.
“Durbanism” is a thing- an inclusive thing. An evening at Station Drive’s 1st Thursday monthly happenings would give you a better picture. I’m not sure if Durbanism stems from Rall, but he’s a glowing example. If he didn’t have export/import/sales/admin/investors and all the not-so-fun bits about owning a business to attend to, he would be at the still and behind the bar every day, sharing his extraordinary knowledge of all things Durban and walking the talk. And the talk is great.
I’ve attended many, many wine tastings/ pairings etc- I even conducted tastings and tours in my youth. I’ve also toured impressive distilleries, but I’ve never had such an entertainingly educational occasion as in Distillery 031’s industrial-chic tasting room.
A group of German tourists and I exited the tasting room in a haze- a haze of newly acquired tastes, knowledge about spirits in general and Distillery 031’s products in particular. Like my companions, deciding which were new favourites was top of mind. The histories and development of gin, tonic and absinthe were especially interesting to me, the whole experience a treat- the complimentary welcome cocktail, the tasting and the gourmet burger meal in the bar-cum-eatery while eyeing out the gleaming bits and bobs (which I could now identify) in the distillery.
“Local is very lekker” I thought (Afrikaans for “nice”). So too the Germans, who were researching how best to acquire 031’s products in Europe.
Diagnosed with advanced Lymphoma cancer, Claude Venter was given six months to live by medical specialists. Seven years later, he looked relaxed and happy as he recounted his journey and explained how his decision to seek an alternative remedy saved his life- and changed his and that of his partners, Grant Horak and Paulo da Rosa.
Claude probably thought me ADD as I kept bobbing my head left and right. Whales, dolphins- lots of them, cavorting in the ocean beyond the deck at Nakai Beach Homestay. Nakai means “on the beach” in Polynesian and the gorgeous boutique retreat that the three are rightfully proud of is perched high above Trafalgar Beach on Kwazulu-Natal’s lower south coast.
What a view! What a stunningly situated property. What a turnaround for all three. This team of very successful interior designers and landscapers are really walking the talk. Their search for a purified environment to aid Claude’s recovery led them to this special part of KZN, where the clean air is oxygen and ozone rich. The water, both drinking and general usage, is purified. The food is nearly all organic- and delicious. There are two kitchens- one for vegans and the other for whatever is flavour of the day, so vegetarians, pescatarians and carnivores will be equally delighted.
As it happened an ex-chef friend commandeered the kitchen for dinner so hard working Grant, the driving force behind Nakai- and chief cook and bottle washer, was excused boots. Nor did I taste his cooked breakfast in the sun filled Gauguin Café and Juice Bar since I opted for a flipping delicious cacao and superfood smoothie, yoghurt and berries.
Nakai Beach is a homestay. The partners and Grant’s mum Lorraine live there along with dogs Maui, Kona and Milo so it’s their home, a showpiece for their impeccable design skills and a five star retreat in one package. It is a restorative and rejuvenating space in which to heal, relax and bliss out.
The bedrooms- with balconies- are sublime and individually themed, though the general feel is consistent throughout. Bold colours, clean lines, beautiful fabrics, finishes and the OCD touches that being a good designer requires. Paulo is proudly afflicted and even the kitchen drawers are a testament to this and to care filled design. Everywhere, inside and out, the eye delights in visual feasts that feed the soul.
I was in the vibrant Amazon themed room and found myself lulled to sleep by the surf below unexpectedly soon after I arrived- and for many total relaxation is the reason to visit.
You can opt to do as little as possible, lazing by the infinity pool, soaking up the sun, the views, the tranquility, though most opt for Paulo’s yoga sessions on the deck or in the brand new yoga studio, complete with underfloor heating. Paulo has dedicated his life to the path and enjoys all disciplines. He offers classes, different retreats, hosts guest teachers of other disciplines and is always on hand.
Steps off the deck take you down through the stretch of coastal forest reserve and to the pristine beach. Trafalgar is a marine reserve and, unusual for the south coast, the beaches are long, straight and flat, with black rocks and shallow pools galore. If you traipse to the main, blue flag beach there are life guards and shark nets. The partners took it upon themselves to jolly up the lifeguard huts and benches with colourful paintwork. The surf is often great and snorkelling too, with 90 million year old fossil beds not far from shore.
There are fossils on land too and the beach below Nakai has been in the news a fair bit as it is (then isn’t, then is) a naturist beach. It’s safe to say that if you take your kit off nobody will bother- and in any case you will probably have the beach to yourself.
Claude’s cancer and recovery completely changed his outlook. “I was all about the six pack, the look” he chuckles. That’s not to say he won’t notice a six pack but he’s at ease, at peace- and that peace and pleasure in life is what guests take away when they reluctantly depart this gem.
I have long been intrigued by the Okavango. As a sprog in the 70’s a school chum regaled me with fabulous tales. In the 90’s my late friend Steven Morris was a chef at a camp- and spent a month alone on an island on a personal quest. Would I find some of what Steven did I wondered as we flew due North from Johannesburg to Maun in Northern Botswana?
The flying was a breeze, leaving ‘Maritzburg aboard an Airlink flight, changing without having to recheck baggage at OR Tambo, and in Maun by lunchtime. Seemingly endless, uninhabited desert and semi- desert had been the view for much of the trip to Maun, then some glistening water, scrub and tress as we approached the airport. Once through the hot tedium of customs/immigration at the small but busy airport, changes came rapidly.
Superlatives may just be word on a page until you’ve experienced them, but our experience with Wilderness Safaris/Air was filled with them. This is one very slick, professional outfit packaging exceptional adventures. We were greeted with smiles, scented cool facecloths, whisked ahead of queues and were soon winging our way, hopping from airstrip to airstrip en route to our first camp- the premier Vumbura Plains.
Water glistened, shimmered and shone under the hazy blue sky as we flew. The Okavango Delta- where the Okavango River dissipates into the Kalahari sands- is a phenomenon words can’t adequately describe. Each year approximately 11 cubic kilometres of water spreads over the 6000-15000 km² area. What I kept asking myself was “how does it flow?” since there is a less than 2 metre variation across the Delta. Nevertheless flow it does. But, at first, words did not. Initial impressions of the Delta are thoughtful for most it seems- a time to simply take in its immensity. Words do eventually flow- unspoilt, pristine, primal for example. The water is 97% potable, filtered by the white sands. It appeared in a myriad aspects: glinting from between reed rafts and papyrus, festooned with lilies, fingering through grasses and over contrasting coloured bottoms of innumerable channels, marshes and lakes. The waters were punctuated with small islands, palm trees and many other (as yet) unknown plants, blobby grey elephant, swaying giraffe and other game.
Sadly almost, we made our last landing and were soon warmly welcomed at the gracious, designer delight that is Vumbura Plains. This is bush elegance of a high order. Attention to every detail- once your preferences are assiduously assessed you will find your preferred tipple as a nightcap in your suite, for example. And what suites! They are enormous canvas and shadecloth sided, thatched extravagances raised (for safety) above the ground – split level with a sunken lounge, plunge pool alongside lounger under a huge tree on the large, private deck with its covered, outdoor lounge. The luxury and views made it tempting to do not much more than lounge- or arrange for a massage with elephants browsing metres away.
The star attraction- the Delta- awaited however and so, after dragging ourselves from the exceptional afternoon “tea” spread, we were whisked off by the charming Lazarus Maolosi for our first excursion. Ebony and Kalahari Appleleaf, Jackalberry and Rain trees, ubiquitous hornbills and plovers, starlings, bee- eaters and the gorgeous Lilac Breasted Roller. I am not a twitcher (birder) or budding botanist but was fascinated by the make-up of our surrounds. We saw game in greater numbers, and at closer proximity, than I have ever seen. Wild dogs and hyena are generally elusive and retiring. Here they could have been mistaken for domestic pets. Lechwe and Tsessebe are not to be seen back home. Elephant are- and buffalo too- but I’d not seen such numbers. As much as the game sightings were wonderful, the lessons on the ecology were especially rewarding. The symbiosis between species for example- with the hugely important role micro-termites and their massive mounds play particularly illuminating.
The water levels were rising and we spent time zipping through channels in a motorboat, as well as poling placidly in the fiberglass version (to save trees) of the traditional Mokoro dugout among bobbing lilies and spectacularly bright Angolan Reed Frogs. Two very different, but equally delightful, ways of enjoying the Delta waters.
Back at camp we shared our delights with fellow guests and staff over leisurely feasts and fine wines. Later, after an outdoor shower under the stars (or the fabulous open- plan indoor shower), we were lulled to sleep by those same frogs, tinkling like distant chimes against a backdrop of profound silence.
All too soon our Vumbura visit was over and we headed out of the Delta to Savuti Camp on the Savute (sic) Channel- a river system 35 minutes away by air. It’s different here in many respects- hotter, drier. Savuti makes the most of its perch above the extravagant sweeping bend of the Channel. It had a different feel – more “traditional Safari”- and is one of Wilderness Safaris’ Classic camps, with great food and a relaxed atmosphere. It’s perhaps “greener”, with a thermos flask instead of kettle in the room, no fridge, no private plunge pool. “It’s bound to be even quieter” I thought, sipping Amarula and watching the firefly show, with frog accompaniment, before turning in after a hugely fun evening in the boma. Flopping catfish and munching hippo proved me wrong, but they had a good, metronomic rhythm going which worked just fine.
We were in the care of Goodman Ndlovu, the antithesis of Lazarus. Lazarus was quite the cowboy, Goodman the careful, precise “schoolmarm”. Whatever the character (both were charming), what made our Wilderness experience exceptional was the standard of guiding. I was deeply impressed by the guides’ knowledge and commitment. I was beyond thrilled while at Savuti to have close, separate sightings within 26 hours of three leopards, to witness the display of the huge Kori Bustard, and chortled watching a massive troupe of baboons sharing a riverbank stage with charging young Impala. Quieter delights included Snowflake Grass- Christmas in Africa in the right light- and trees “decorated” with giant communal spider nests.
We learned a lot- in particular to reawaken and utilise our city numbed senses so as to understand and appreciate what the bush was teaching. This meant being still, attentive and so, in those and other ways I guess I did indeed discover some of what my friend cane here for. It wasn’t all Zen of course- like the time when, safely out of earshot (I hope) I whooped and punched the air, singing “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”
You can understand why our fellow guests were abuzz about Wilderness Safaris’ African Residents Programme- a loyalty programme which offers whopping discounts. To find out more about member benefits visit www.wilderness-residents.co.za or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com.
Airlink connects you to Maun with direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.
Spring is sprung, but winter is coming- or have you not been following blockbuster series Game of Thrones? And when it does, I’d recommend heading to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. Yip, the Cape of Storms, in winter.
Luxurious Grootbos is a favourite for me and travellers return time and again to this botanical reserve above the town of Gansbaai. Their five-star rating is based on meticulous service, genuine hospitality, fine dining, accommodation in bespoke settings and a truly care filled conservation approach that benefits guests, the local communities and the planet.
My first day in winter was remarkably summery. After a delicious creamy Caesar salad with pork belly, free range poached egg and crispy anchovies on the Forest Lodge terrace, taking in the grandeur of the sweeping views across the slopes and over the wide Walker Bay to the mountain headlands above distant Hermanus, field guide Nashlin Groenewald, a local lad, took me hither and yonder on the balmy afternoon to experience one of Grootbos’ winter wonders- the endemic Erica irregularis. This pink blossom that turns the surrounding mountains pink, is so localised that 85 percent is only found on the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.
You won’t find the Big Five here. What you will experience- and be moved by- are nature’s more subtle nuances in this eco reserve protecting 1768 hectares of the unique Cape Floral Kingdom, with over 750 species of indigenous plants. Since the establishment of the reserve, six fynbos species, new to science, have been discovered on Grootbos. The limestone sugarbush was also in showy bloom, as were other fynbos species.
We also explored the beaches of Walker Bay Reserve and the Klipgat Cave. I have spent half my life on beaches but now view them with appreciably more insight. I also learned how to make a fresh kelp potjie pot- and marvelled at the caves, the site of an important archaeological dig containing artifacts indicating man’s presence over 70 000 years ago.
We were joined by executive chef Benjamin Conradie and foraged for mussels, seaweed and other indigenous edibles such as succulents-samphire and dune spinach.
That was to be my dinner starter. I’ve always been a bit iffy about mussels but it was sublime- as was the rest of my meal. I could fill this space as much as I filled my tummy with the delightful menu options but I’ll skip to the must-have dessert, Grootbos’ fynbos honey ice cream.
That delicious creaminess warranted heading up the road to the Growing the Future Organic Farm, where I gained some insight into the workings of the meaningful Grootbos Foundation from hands on operations manager Lindsay Hannekom and farm manager Johann Strydom. It’s hands on for guests too and I donned beekeeping gear for a real education.
Honey is made here from fynbos and the Erica irregularis. You can collect your own eggs, pick fresh organic fruit and veggies and then head into the kitchen and explore the best ways to prepare your hoard- actually make it yourself- under the tutelage of Benjamin Conradie.
While I was making gnocchi the worst storm in 30 years was spectacularly raging, tossing the hardy fynbos, with giant swells alternately under squalls, then lit by bright shafts of sun. We took to admiring this from the comfort of the glass walled champagne bar. The gorgeous suites are equally great places for storm watching too and the only thing I missed out on was whales, which cavort in the bay in great numbers from June through November.
The name Grootbos, Afrikaans for Big Forest, comes from the Milkwood forests with their gnarled branches and mossy beards. Amongst these ancient forests Grootbos has artfully laid out their accommodation, with sweeping views across fynbos plains towards the sparkling ocean and distant headlands. These vistas dominate everything- whether viewed through the sliding doors in the lounge or bedroom with its huge canopied bed, from the vast bathroom or the lodge itself.
I can only imagine what the distant uber-exclusive villa, where Brad Pitt spent time recharging, must be like.
The exquisite freestanding suites have all the amenities and luxuries you might want- and then some, like the scarves that came in very handy in the storm.
Such touches are indicative of what makes Grootbos special. That, and the staff. In an industry where staff turnover is high, it speaks volumes about a place, when the executive chef and other key staff grow with the establishment over a decade and more- or have left to explore further shores and have been welcomed back.
Hence Grootbos has frequently returning guests like Germans Susan and Christoph Vornholdt, who jested about their “shareholder” status, referring not to their nine previous visits but to their support of the non-profit Grootbos Foundation which runs environmental and social development programmes.
There’s much more to tell, but best you find out for yourself. Visit, or at the very least, visit www.grootbos.com
Half way through my second afternoon, I had had enough- enough to return home with my head and heart happily filled. Strolling the pristine beach of Magaruque Island off southern Mozambique, I thanked my lucky stars and lovely Susana Vidal, GM of Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel, who had arranged our Sailaway Dhow Safaris trip-worth every cent.
The Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel in Vilanculos has truly panoramic vistas from its breezy bluff overlooking the wide, flat bay toward several islands within the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park – Magaruque, Benguerra and Bazaruto.
The view welcomes you as you step through the open plan reception, bar and restaurant and is enjoyed from anywhere on the terrace, lawn, or the infinity pool and its bar. Down steps is the accommodation in four buildings on the slope, each with two sea-view bedrooms on the uppelevel and one ginormous, luxurious beach suite below.
I had me one of those, with private plunge pool, a short path and a door to the beach, and beautifully appointed and equipped for self-catering, although the closest I got to that was plunger coffee in the mornings. A shame almost, what with a built in braai complete with extractor chimney and plenty other mod cons.
Time spent indoors was minimal in any case, since BahiaMar is the perfect destination from which to explore- on board the luxury launch Mayara if you can afford it. Activities include fishing; kite-surfing; stand up paddling; horse riding; diving and snorkelling, which takes me back to Magaruque (visit off-peak to enjoy kilometres of island to yourself).
Booties on, we crossed to the ocean side of our little inlet, plopped into the warm water with goggles on and immediately the current took us. No fins needed unless you want to swim against it, exploring the rock wall which drops some five metres. Loads of nutrients ‘cos of the spring tides, tons of fish- I have never been in such a traffic jam of colours.
We found eddies close to the rocks and bobbed along until, in a calm spot, we were joined by the dhow. While Alfredo Baoane and skipper Manuel Camba cooked over a fire on board, we clambered back over the rocks and swam to the beach. Companion Shelley sat in the shallows as teensy fish exfoliated her legs. I rescued a bag of crisps from crows, cormorants ignored all while diving for seagrass for their nests.
Manuel soon trudged from the dhow with our delicious (mostly seafood of course) lunch .Then it was snooze, swim, meander, back on the dhow and around the sandbars and flamingos and into a drenching passing storm.
Faquir- one groovy guy
Back in Vilanculos the streets were awash, the greenery refreshed. “Faquir! Faquir!” squealed littl’uns, spying us with much-loved guide Faquir Nhamue, whose town tour was a treat and who arranged something a little different.
That cool evening, on a smoky fire in a small reed hut, Sarah Katerina put the finishing touches (crayfish) to Matapa- a fragrant mix of pound Cassava leaves, peanut powder, coconut milk, garlic and onions. Lovely. By the time we finished it seemed such a familiar taste and texture, one which lingered until the tuk-tuk dropped us at Bahia Mar, where I tucked into their Affogato Bebedo dessert. I’m sure the other desserts are lovely but I had this delicious combo of coffee, nightcap and dessert (rum, espresso, chocolate ice cream, cashews and bitter dark chocolate) three nights running.
Not to be outdone by the locals, chef Dalida Hugo wowed us the following evening with a seafood platter we couldn’t finish, but most apparently do. Broadly smiling, athletic Emília Massinguile also wowed me with her massage technique in an open sided treatment hut alongside the superbly equipped gym and wellness centre, with its outdoor jacuzzi and Zen meditation space.
We didn’t meditate, but still left in a pretty Zen state. Marvellous.
Airlink offers five flights per week to Vilanculos and daily flights from Vilanculos to Johannesburg. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries. Visit www.flyairlink.com for more. Spread your wings – fly Airlink.
A smear of tears as I looked sideways at 160kph, suspended high above the valley, adrenalin surging after a heart-stopping drop. 32 seconds (or so) seems a lot longer somehow at such speed. Then my legs went over my head, my sunnies went askew, as the braking system kicked in. That’s the Zip Xtreme at Lake Eland Game Reserve– a peach of a spot at Oribi Gorge, 40 minutes from Port Shepstone on KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast.
I’d been to Lake Eland years ago, just for a squiz- and, with a dreadful paint job on log walls, I was in no rush to return. All that has changed, including the management team-and so has my opinion. I love it- with a caveat. Frogs, or guttural toads, or something like.
If you go in breeding season take earplugs. Our chalet over the lower dam was lovely but loud- surround sound loud- with two opposing choirs and a couple of stray descants in between.
Frogs aside, Lake Eland is a place I’d like to return to in a different season. Winter seems a good time to get cosy, though my brother insisted on a fire anyway. We were both struck by the thought that it is a great alternative to the Drakensberg mountains.
It’s close enough for many to make a day trip and enjoy the views along the way, the game reserve and the ziplines- with lunch perhaps in the restaurant. Lake Eland has the longest zipline in South Africa- all of 4.5km- and it is a blast, with a stretch right across the gorge and another so close to the lake that you can trail your feet in the water. It also has an 80 metre long suspension bridge which takes you to a sort of prow jutting out over a cliff- perfect for some Titanic poses.
The setting is spectacular, the property worth exploring. The top section is rolling hills, becoming steeper and tougher to drive through lower down, all the way to the lake, which has bunkhouses and rustic campsites – the favourite of co-owner Trevor Dunstone. Maybe he was just in a good mood as his nephew was getting married, with the wedding venue the only spot where music (non- frog variety) is permitted, but the down to earth farmer, in overall pants and frayed shirt as he got stuck in to some refurbishments, is hugely likeable.
He explained that all the wood for the redone cabins comes from the farm, including the really nice split bamboo ceilings. The self-catering chalets look fresh as a result, be they old or one of the new ones in which I stayed. Accommodation is really affordable and varied. If you’ve forgotten something the shop has plenty, including frozen meals prepared by the chef (with some vegetarian treats) if you’re too mellowed out to make your own. There’s also a country trading store about 150 metres from the entrance.
Apart from camping/caravaning and the comfy chalets, you could opt for a “pipe dream”- a double bed built into an old concrete water pipe with a small patio and braai area. Or the eight sleeper park home or house, both near the swimming pool.
Kids of all ages can enjoy the mountain bike tracks, horse riding, paintball, guided game drives and fishing. Big kids can test their 4×4 prowess on the 4×4 track over the road, while little kids have a huge, fenced playground full of repurposed farm machinery, boats and other interesting “toys”.
The fence is to keep kids in I guess, rather than game out, as all the game- with no large predators to fear- is remarkably chilled. I’ve never had an eland roadblock before, with the big male just standing, looking haughtily. You will also encounter the usual suspects such as impala, zebra, kudu, nyala and giraffe- but also the rarer oribi, after which the area is named.
The 2500 hectares incorporates diverse ecosystems including bushveld, grassland, coastal forest and wetland. The large lake, shaped like the eland common in bushman paintings, gives the reserve its name.
For day trippers, there are designated braai/picnic sites, while the chalets have their own braais (barbecues). Unless you are fairly local, however, it seems a waste not to stay, since camping is from ZAR100 a person and two-sleeper chalets from ZAR700 a night.
If the ziplines and scooter rides don’t deliver enough excitement, white water rafting is popular in Oribi Gorge, and the nearby Gorge Swing is, with a 165m drop, the highest in the world.
Go on, you know you want to!
Sitting in reception at –Brookdale Health Hydro just outside Nottingham Road village in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands- looking through the French doors as I signed my life away, I had a “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” moment. People on a chilly winter’s day in bathrobes and slippers eating their lunch. That was as an outsider. Once you’re “inside” it’s all good- so good they may as well throw away the key.
But they wouldn’t. And inmates sneak off now and again for a round of golf at Gowrie around the bend or, like truant kids and much to the amusement of the staff, a pint and a pie at over-the-road Rawdons or further afield.
You may have heard “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach”. What utter codswallop I thought as Cara Larter administered the best Swedish massage I’ve had (I’ve had many). My body learned a fair bit about itself under her strong, intuitive hands. I most often fall asleep during a long massage but I was trying to pay attention as knots and niggles were expertly released.
The same could be said for Mbali, Zinzi, Sarah or any of the therapists.
It’s not just the therapies that taught. The lecture room is a busy place. Brookdale’s concepts and systems are holistic, balanced, integrated, well researched and most effective- or so my detox headache informed me. Happily it was mild and intermittent and soon cleared as plenty of water, treatments, a couple of aquacise classes and brisk walks took effect. So too chef Juliet Stephenson’s wholesome, delicious food.
I imagine many are apprehensive before visiting. Will they survive on the odd lettuce leaf and watery clear consommé? Trust me, it’s not like that. Yes, there’s no caffeine, no alcohol and if you need to smoke or make a cellphone call you will have to traipse off to the rose garden round back. Not a bad spot by any means, with views over the brook of cherry trees and hillside. You won’t go hungry though- and the food is delicious. Juliette has produced two successful cookbooks, but I was chuffed to attend her cooking demo in the unusually simple kitchen, especially when I found that the food prepared was not in either book. Actually, no cooking took place (apart from toasting of nuts), but the “carrot cake” was as good as any from an oven- a baked version a little later served as a comparison.
Repurposed bathtubs out back, now full of herbs and veggies, are evidence of Juliet’s recycling knack. The popular day spa has also been considerably enhanced since my first visit, with the addition of a conservatory- a great place to keep warm on drafty days, considering guests are almost always in robes.
My mum weaned me on the dietary advice of Adelle Davis who preached the benefits of whole grains and breads, fresh vegetables, vitamin supplements, limits on sugar, and avoidance of packaged and processed foods in the 50’s and 60’s. Those tenets have developed considerably since, I learned while attending talks by owner Wendy Somers-Cox and dieticians Caryn Davies (nutrition) and Tanya March- a real eye opener on gut health.
By the time I left though I was in a completely different state from when I arrived, happy on my drive and mindful of the inspirational Ralph Waldo Emerson quote left on my pillow the previous night. I don’t much like inspirational quotes. Not in the “insert inspirational quote” or décor way so often used by many places. Here it’s different, heartfelt and a reflection of Brookdale and one of many reasons so many have been coming back since Tony and Wendy Somers-Cox opened the hydro in 1992. Some, like hydro GM Marilyn Cox, have never left. What an advert she is- engaging, vivacious, clear, considerate and radiating good vibes and health
All the best places I’ve visited are run by involved owners who lead by example. Dynamo Wendy is one such owner, imbuing consistency, quality, energy, confidence and other qualities on staff and guests alike.
I’ve lounged in a robe elsewhere and had fantastic treatments and it was grand, lovely, but just, well, indulgent. At Brookdale there’s purpose- your wellness. “There is a point to what we do” said therapist April McNally during a brisk early morning walk before brekkie. It’s a highly skilled, drilled and motivated team with everyone rowing in the same direction.
You choose how much you engage or disengage, how much you row or are rowed, but I suggest falling in with the regime (for want of a better word) to get the most out of your stay. Answer the wake-up knock, with a pot of Rooibos tea, on your door and take advantage of the fact that all Brookdale’s packages, apart from their specific therapies or activities, include morning walks and aquacise, guided relaxation, yoga and Pilates classes and Clarins demos. The gym is open to all, the indoor heated pool (there’s an outdoor pool too) is open until 9pm, with Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room alongside.
There’s time and space for quietude on a lounger, wincing along the reflexology path or navigating the labyrinth, or meandering alongside the brook and in the forest in-between. There is a wi-fi hotspot and dstv, whether you’re in a standard room or luxury suite, though my tv stayed off.
Almost all Brookdale’s staff live on the property and it’s a highly skilled, drilled and motivated team. The high percentage of long-termers, or returning staff members, is a recommendation in itself, as is the high percentage of returning guests from within and without South Africa.
A group of young English Animal Husbandry students was learning- a lot. A lot about being away from home for the first time, about early morning and nighttime chores, about the bush, animals, heat, Africa- and themselves.
Moon tans with red overlays, flushed and sometimes strained and tearful faces were the order of the day as some found themselves pushed and pulled way beyond any comfort zones by tough Tommy Dierkse, facilitator during their two week volunteer stint at Albizia Camp on Ukuwela conservancy, outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
Here Anton and Emma Roberts, owners of neighbouring Umkhumbi Lodge, have founded a burgeoning conservation initiative that grows and grows- not just in size, but in diversity and reach.
Partnering and working with like-minded people and organisations- anybody who has their conservation shoulder to the wheel- and, most importantly, the Wild Tomorrow Fund, has resulted in Ukuwela Conservancy.
Ukuwela means ‘to cross over’ in isiZulu. Ukuwela was at risk of becoming a pineapple farm. That would have meant all the animals that lived on the land, including leopard, zebra, wildebeest, hippo and crocodile would have beenremoved or destroyed. As would every tree, plant and flower.
Securing Ukuwela as a wild space is the first piece of a puzzle in the creation of a successful and highly regarded habitat conservation program in Africa. It is a natural jewel. The precious river, fever tree forests, open grasslands, riverine thickets and mixed woodlands make it one of the most beautiful and diverse wilderness areas in the region.
The conservancy is a five minute drive from Umkhumbi Lodge and is the base for the Roberts’ environmental awareness courses for (mostly) school and student groups. In addition to those courses the Roberts offer internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principals, night skies, game walks, game drives and more. There are visits to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, uShaka Marine World, to unique, pristine Kosi Bay and Tembe Elephant Park on the Mozambique border, while Anton frequently takes groups on overland safaris into the wildest parts of Namibia and Botswana.
I’ve spent many a night at the comfy lodge, where the accommodation- dotted around a sand forest- was carefully constructed using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact. Umkhumbi Lodge has a small animal clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW– Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife- and are now ready for release into the wild. After years of negotiations, the Roberts’ have convinced their neighbours to drop fences, expanding the combined area to 800 hectares.
24 hours on Ukuwela, at present also around 800 hectares, was a little different, as I observed what actually goes down.
The English volunteers had much to do, including clearing many tons of dumped black plastic left by a tenant pineapple farmer, while red ants nipped at any exposed legs. They had camera traps to set up, pit traps to dig and inspect, alien plants to clear and, around the campfire at the evening Indaba, where anyone had the opportunity to speak their mind, it was evident that these youngsters were finding their feet, their voices, in a way they could not have envisioned.
I doubt the Roberts anticipated the direction the internships and volunteer courses would take. They knew of course of the conservation awareness, the hands-on skills, but the courses have proved to be life changing for many.
Friendships and characters have been developed and strengthened. Self-awareness and understanding has grown and it’s great to see how just a short time in a life has helped many find direction.
Take Harriot Brill, Anton’s acting sergeant major, for example. After two Southern Africa trips, working two jobs to get there from the UK, she landed up overseeing the students and interns, of which she was once one. That was 18 months ago- and she’s not budging.
Eliz Thomas, who oversees student groups from Mid Kent College in England, is a regular. She was also one such student See the video below to hear her enthuse about the benefits.
It’s had the Roberts’ thinking out of their box too- just the way they like it. They are relocating their own home from Umkhumbi to Ukuwela, converting and adding to old shipping containers so that they are always at the heart of what they so passionately curate.