An Island Affair- Seychelles

Through the crook of my arm on each stroke was an anchored three masted schooner, or gleaming white yachts, unspoilt greenery, white sands, the blues of the water and sky. I didn’t need my goggles in the clear water to see the resident nest of shy stingrays in the sand below, the colourful fish or the leatherback turtle that accompanied me part of the way. That swim across the beautiful bay of Anse Lazio on Praslin Island, and the most amazing sunset I’ve yet seen, are just two vividly imprinted memories from my Seychelles trip. Like some unrequited love, I yearn for more. So what is it that beckons?

For starters it is very, very beautiful, but I have to put the Seychelles in context- compare apples with apples. The islands of Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion have similar attractions – resorts, beaches and natural beauty. However, besides Reunion (my other favourite Indian Ocean destination), they do not have the level of commitment and care for their natural heritage- the very thing that put them on the tourism map- that the Seychellois exhibit.

Reunion is also- in the main- more about the hinterland- mountains and volcano- than a beachgoer’s must-do, although it has very good surfing and kite boarding spots.

Mauritius is very commercialised and possibly appeals most to those who don’t like something too different. For a South African (Durbanite) like me, it’s not really that different from ‘ome- with South African retail franchises in abundance.

Madagascar has major environmental and socio-political issues and, as in Zanzibar, the chasm between have and have-nots, foreigner and local, is vast. Of course you are a foreigner in the Seychelles but, hey, you are their bread and butter too. And they probably know about you. The Seychellois I met were educated, worldly, relaxed, chilled. And why wouldn’t they be chilled? If Mauritius and Madagascar are pretty, this is prettier- the quintessential island paradise pics, attracting royalty of all types- George Clooney of the Hollywood variety, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge- and a list of who’s who that flock here for lavish do’s no doubt, though it seems most come simply to relax: less speedboats, skiers and jet skis, more slumbering under palms.

No other country has such a percentage of protected land and water. There is almost no litter, rivers and streams run clear, conservation has been part of the school curriculum for decades. A trade-off for preserving the natural beauty is that nearly everything humans use is imported, so leave your exchange rate calculator at home as things aren’t cheap.

The majority of the 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago, scattered across the Indian Ocean, are uninhabited: old granitic islands, atolls and coral blips on the map. Mahe, Praslin and La Digue islands form the inner group, with all but 500 or so of the multi-cultural population of less than 100 000 (stats vary) on these three- 80 000 on Mahé where I began my trip.

aerial view of Constance Ephelia’s North beach and bay

The huge Constance Ephélia resort sprawls between two stunning sandy bays, around forested hills and below granite outcrops- and sits between the marine reserve of Port Launay and a mangrove wetland. It’s not often that Photoshopped brochures or websites pale in comparison to the real thing, but this is a great example. You can kayak across the bay and through the mangrove forest or windsurf, head out on a pedal boat, snorkel, hike through the reserve, zipline, climb, relax. The staff are great, accommodation is spread out and varied- even the junior suites are pretty grown up. You could spend days in the U Spa village- one of the best spa facilities I’ve had the pleasure of- if you haven’t gone the whole hog and booked a spa villa with private pool, dry sauna, hammam and Jacuzzi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We wound up, down and around Mahé with delightful, impish Eugene Esparon of Mason’s Travel at the wheel. Catholic churches, icons and roadside shrines dotted the landscape- plus a splendidly refurbished Hindu temple near the colourful market in the capital, Victoria. Colonial French and English architecture, with creole influences, stand cheek by jowl in this postage stamp town, which was left behind as we headed for a Creole lunch at Jardin du Roi – a picturesque spice garden-cum-museum  which has wonderful views from up high. Yummy, simple food: Cajun-style Job fish with outstanding chutney accompaniments – papaya, mango, cassava, pumpkin and golden apple for example. The cuisine is reason enough for a trip- a celebration of every nation that passed through and marked by a fragrant combination of herbs and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, chilli, lemongrass, coriander, mint basil – and the local beers and rum are really good too. I confess I gave the shark dishes a miss though a friend is a fan- and I am not keen to acquire a taste for fruit bat (lots of little bones and I prefer them on the wing).

 

 

 

 

A 15 minute flight (it’s a 45 minute ferry ride) took us to Praslin Island and Constance Lémuria- a paradise for golfers, tortoises and turtles. Constance Lémuria has a very successful turtle conservation programme headed by South African Adrian Allison whose enthusiasm has rubbed off on colleagues, who even sleep on the beach to safeguard about-to-hatch eggs, and returning regulars. The 18 hole championship golf course on the steep hills behind must have some of the best views of any course.

 

 

 

 

Patricia Battin was our excellent guide and companion for a tour which incorporated the must- see Vallée de Mai Forest, home to the endemic Coco de Mer, the largest seed in the world. The biggest recorded fruit from these slow-growing palms weighed 42 kg; the seeds weigh up to 17.6 kg and the male and female plants have bits that resemble human bits, hence the “love nut” nickname.

 

 

 

 

We paid a visit to little La Digue – population around 3000 and accessible only by ferry . Cars were only recently introduced. Mostly people walk, bicycle or travel by ox cart. Very chilled. We didn’t have time to visit the Veuve Nature Reserve to spot the endangered Black paradise flycatcher, or take in the famous Source d’Argent beach.

Next time…which has to be for longer, as I just scratched the surface. I can only imagine what the far flung atolls must be like.

THERE AND BACK
Mason’s Travel (Pty) Ltd for itineraries, transfers, excursions and tours. Visit www.masonstravel.com  or e-mail info@masonstravel.com
The Holiday Factory-  visit www.theholidayfactory.co.za
Seychelles Tourism Board: visit www.seychelles.travel, e-mail info@seychelles.travel
Constance Resorts: www.epheliaresort.com, www.lemuriaresort.com
Air Seychelles flies between Johannesburg and Mahe, and Mahe and Praslin

La Vanilleraie, Reunion Island

Smooth as good Bourbon

I like, nay love, vanilla- the taste, the smell, the textures, the colours. And I’ve tried it wherever I’ve found it- synthetic and genuine essence off shop shelves and in candle factories, pods from who knows where, from Zanzibar, Mauritius, pungent large specimens from Madagascar- all of them different in quality and price and none of them a patch on the vanilla from Reunion Island. There’s a richness, smoothness and subtlety to the Bourbon style vanilla produced on the island, which just happens to be one of my favourite places in the world.

We swept up the palm lined avenue of Domaine du Grand Hazier outside the coastal town of Sainte Suzanne on Reunion Island to meet Bertrand Côme. With 28 years of experience in the trade, he is regarded as one of the best vanilla producers in the world and the La Vanilleraie plantation here, in an ancient former stable, has restored Reunion vanilla’s worldwide reputation through many awards, most notably at the Agricultural Show in Paris: gold medal in 2011 and silver medals in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. That is consistency! Côme is a guarantor of the ancient tradition, but also looks to the future through his work on varietal selection and research on land, in collaboration with the local University and CIRAD, a French research institute.

Before 1850 all vanilla came from Mexico. The Aztecs- and before them the Mayans- believed that the scent of vanilla could connect them to their gods and had long mastered the ripening process. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Cortes brought the first pod back to Europe, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It arrived in France in 1664 and Louis XIV was most taken with the lush flavour. He decided that vanilla would be cultivated on the colony of La Réunion – then called Île Bourbon. The vines grew well and bloomed, but no pod developed. Eventually the French abandoned their endeavour, persuaded that the Indians had kept a secret.

It was only in 1850 that a young slave, Edmond Albius, discovered how to pollinate the vanilla vine´s hermaphrodite flower thanks to the thorn of a wild citrus (legend goes that this discovery bought Albius his freedom). The heavy pollen was naturally dispersed by a hummingbird native to the forests of Southern Mexico. Nowadays vanilla flowers are pollinated by lifting a separating membrane called the rostellum to bring together the stigma and the pollen.

 

 

 

 

Vanilla is expensive because of the slow, labour intensive production process. The island’s best vanilla farmers cultivate the delicate orchid with care on three distinct terroirs. About nine months after pollination the pods are harvested and entrusted to the care of Côme.

The pods are first wilted by hot water scalding and then drained and kept in a sweating box for 24 hours.

 

 

 

 

The next stage is three weeks of sun-drying, partly under direct exposure to the sun and partly under the cover of blankets which retain the heat and prime the curing.

 

 

 

 

The pods are finally spread on racks in well-ventilated wooden buildings for six months and achieve their desired suppleness before being graded and packaged.

 

 

 

 

How do you know it’s the good stuff? Well, don’t take my word for it, but rather trust renowned (formerly three Michelin-starred) French chef Olivier Roellinger, who runs a hotel, restaurant, cooking school, bakery and spice boutique, who asserts about Côme “He is, without any doubt, one of the best vanilla curers in the world”. On http://www.epices-roellinger.com Roellinger says “Vanilla from the French department of Reunion Island is particularly notable for its soft, refined taste.

Both its cultivation and its preparation have been perfectly mastered there. Visually, it is often the prettiest and the best taken-care of. I especially reserve it for warmed milk with vanilla, the soothing childhood drink that everyone loves so dearly.

When I make warmed milk, I put two centimetres of vanilla (split lengthwise and scraped with the back of a knife) in 25 cl of organic whole milk. Then I gently bring the milk to a boil before leaving it to steep for fifteen minutes. Occasionally I reheat it before serving.”

Vanilla has antidepressant properties and warmed milk with vanilla is an ideal cure for insomnia.

When you use high-quality vanilla, you can put a lot less than indicated in typical recipes. In the case of savoury dishes serving four to six, it is best to use not more than 1 or 2 cm of vanilla pod as the flavour and aroma of vanilla should not dominate in these dishes, but should play the same role (as vanilla does) as a base note in the perfume industry: to act as a supporting part to other flavours, both linking and revealing all other notes of the sauce, broth or court-bouillon (an aromatic liquid for poaching or quick-cooking).

Côme’s vanilla comes in several types: beans, extract, powder- also in salt, sugar, syrup, jelly, caramel, oil and vinegar, all of it vanilla-flavoured.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each year, more than 20,000 visitors discover La Vanilleraie in person and, like me, go home with his products. Five tons of green vanilla are processed every year in one ton of ready-to-consume vanilla- that is to say about 500,000 vanilla beans are processed by hand in accordance to traditional techniques.

Visit http://en.lavanilleraie.com and check out these videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=13&v=DVNAwBJ8f2k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXMpVAlwsvE

Q’s Review- Simonsig’s restaurant Cuvée

Lunching one flawless Cape afternoon on the terrace at Simonsig’s Cuvée restaurant a tall, blonde and smiling young man approached my table. “Good afternoon.” He boomed a little too loudly for Q who prefers his midweek lunches to be on the plus side of discreet. “I know you.” he announced to the sun dappled terrace in a way manner that left Q feeling decidedly awkward if not downright uncomfortable.

The shady terrace, crowded with guests was all ears. “Yes,” he said. “We are Dutch! We were in Hermanus at the Marine Terrace and you were eating mussels (actually it wasn’t The Marine Terrace, it was a place called The Burgundy) and you sent them back!” he cried, to friendly waves from his companions and nervous looks from the Cuvée staff.

“Yes,” I murmured, slightly disturbed that I might have made a scene. I’m certain I didn’t. I never under normal circumstances send my food back to the kitchen, but it was the 7th January and I was irritable and more than slightly hungover.

And. One of my favourite dishes, moules marinières, had been roundly and soundly fukked up. The taste of vegetable stock cube was pervasive, the wine was cheap and nasty. Cream was added for some reason and the portion of chips, well, they were, um, unnice…

Rest(aurant)) assured, always a winner

So! Enough of the Burgundy and back to Cuvée. It never disappoints. Always keeps it simple. Has a variety of dishes and menu options to suit a range of budgets from more expensive to modest and great choice of Simonsig wines, all paired with a dish on the menu and available per glass.

“Chefanie”- head chef Stephanie de Wet

To make things easy on myself I tend to eat the same thing and to be honest, have only ever lunched there and not delved too far into the menu.

There’s always ‘boerewors’. Served differently every time. Always grilled on a skewer, but served sometimes with a gorgeously golden slice of polenta or with a peach chutney or, on this occasion with subtle and creamy risotto. This, paired with a glass of their fine Kaapse Vonkel brut, is often all that’s needed for lunch, but why have less when you can have more? If there’s time to linger, have another starter. All priced at around ZAR70 and paired with a glass of wine.

 

 

 

 

Beetroot salad or howzabout an onion tarte tatin served with a gorgonzola panna cotta, accompanied by balsamic pickled figs. Main courses are from ZAR160  (not that I’ve indulged, preferring to snack at lunch). This is really great value and with a superb glass of vino, a starter and an espresso and a tip, you can be out of there for under a ZAR150 if you stick to something light. The Saturday breakfast is hugely popular (so book) and the dinner menu looks marvellous, especially if you don’t have far to drive.

Simonsig Wine Estate, Kromme Rhee Road, Koelenhof
http://www.simonsig.co.za/

Q’s Review- Olive Bistro

I know it’s still early days at Olive Bistro, but the discreetly air-conditioned room with its crisply white décor contrasts- most favourably- with the hot umber dusted streets and boho chic of Riebeek-Kasteel, the small Swartland town in the Western Cape hinterland where it finds itself.

Chic dining in Riebeek Kasteel

I also know that Paul & Istelle Carlin are an ambitious pair. They’ve already moved on from Café Olive, the tiny coffee shop they took over five months ago. A 25 seater restaurant was never going to be big enough for a chef on a mission in a town known mostly for jolly eateries and rugged, but fine craft beer.

So clearly, the days of a prix fixe table d’hôte at Sunday lunch are limited. A more detailed and comprehensive à la carte menu is evolving as they settle into their new premises on the corner of Fontein and Plein Streets. The restaurant (it’s a bit to glamourous to be a proper Bistro) features as an anchor in a beautifully refurbished house which is located in a complex that contains an art gallery and offices. The broad and shady stoep with a views of the Kasteelberg Mountain serves gourmet breakfasts and lighter lunches during the week.

 

 

 

 

For two weeks in a row now Q’s lunched late and languidly on Sundays. The first after an opening at the RK Contemporary gallery next door had it

I find the table d’hôte vibe to be stress relieving.

Sit down, get chatting to your friends and eat wots put in front of you. Easy.

Particularly when the cooking is as careful and deliberate and detailed as Istelles and just so for the careful and measured service from Paul and his front of house team.

Amuse bouche: an agreeable little skewer of seasonal fruit and Chourico on one occasion and a complex hit of Gazpacho on the other.

Appetiser of Gorgonzola in phyllo with fresh seasonal figs and a compote of things fruity. More-ish, on my second visit. The first featured a smokey beetroot soup with potato croquette, don’t dare call it borscht, served just a small degree off room temperature. Proper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A choice of entrée. Chicken or lamb on one outing and chicken or beef, the other.

I’m a red meat eater so no surprise at my choice. Fall off the bone lamb shank with an authentic jus packed with flavour and complexity, served with delicately flavoured mash and carefully prepared vegetables. Cooked and crisp. The following week a rolled topside of beef that distracted from the conversation of my companions enough to assure me quality, but not nearly enough to bring me to detailed analysis.

 

We were all impressed by presentation and taste with the vegans more than adequately attended to, with a saffron rice pilaf dressed with a casserole-ish deliciousness featuring nuts and mushroom and tofu miso.

As dessert the vegans found berry dressed papino and the rest of us a chocolate and crème fraiche marvel also dressed with a berry compote and a crisp wafer thin biscuit and ice cream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some at the table found the experience fussy and formal and over priced.

Yarwell Nofine!

I didn’t. I like detail and I like being waited on and besides what can you get for 250 bucks and bring your own wine and not get charged corkage?

It suits me!

http://www.oliveonmain.co.za/

 

 

The Silo Hotel, Cape Town

I’d motored into Cape Town on the Wednesday. Basically to get a haircut and a carwash and to attend to some business. Luckily, I finished the business early and since   I’d dressed up in a beautiful double cuffed Paul Smith shirt I ventured into the streets of hipster central in search of Robert and Alberto.

In search of hope.

Hope that these two charmers could be persuaded to join me for lunch and CheninBlanc in one of Bree Street’s sun dappled bistros.

Alas. It was not to be. Robert had an appointment and Alberto had to keep an eye on the Gallery, with its fresh consignment of treasures.

Alberto told of Cape Town’s latest artsy hotel venture as he guided me through the display of Villa sculptures and mid-century glass ware. A conversion of grain silos on the old dockside.

All dolled up, with the perfect place to go

I headed off into the high noon.

At the lift I met Magdalena. Beautiful. Beautifully groomed. Impeccably put together. We exchanged witticisms whilst standing in the parking garage waiting for the concierge to unlock the lift lobby door.

New hotels are bound to have teething problems, don’t you know.

 

 

 

 

Charm, wit and an impossibly handsome man in immaculate tails. All of us crisp and smiling. The lobby a perfectly understated transition from the harsh parking garage   to the lushness of The Silo Hotel. Polished concrete floor. Limed brick work. Hand finished plaster walls. Three shades of grey. Dazzling yellow velvet sofa. Satin stainless steel, mysteriously abstract artwork, all in all the right places.

The lift arrived, we entered, looked at each and laughed as we chanted the mantra that is so often silent or sadly unnecessary, “perfect lighting.” More than that, the perfect lift. Narrow oak panelling, with mirror in the wainscoting. A shallow chandelier on the ceiling, much like the old Maharani, far across South Africa in Durban all those years ago, except for the artfully incorporated stainless steel of course.

We looked fabulous. Fabulous.

I handed Magdalena my card before we parted on the sixth floor.

Two laughing girls got into the lift.

Keep in mind if you please, that I am of  a vintage when all I meet seem younger      than me and almost without exception are either ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, or ‘children’. It leaves me feeling fatherly, or patriarchal in the nicest possible way, of course.

 

The girls, gorgeous and groomed, embraced me, kissed my cheeks and insisted that I join them for lunch.

I did. I’ve never said no to lunch.

The roof deck reminds me too, strangely, of the Maharani. The ghosts of grand hotels passed. The luminous green lawn (here it’s AstroTurf, used to marvellous effect as a kind of witty outdoor carpeting) and bright yellow parasols channelling Sol Kerzner and the gold and sunny yellow years of Southern Sun.

 

 

 

 

The maître d’ greeted the girls like he knew them and had been expecting them. He recognised me in the manner only an expert restauranteur can.

The menu beautifully conceived by Veronica Canha-Hibbert, previously of the Ellerman House, consists of deconstructed old favourites- perfect for light snacking and ideal to enjoy with drinks. A Cosmo for Jo and a Belling for Candice. I went straight for one of the Chenin Blancs that my new world in the Swartland has led me to lately. Botanical the Citrusdal Winery a fine choice, I thought. Peachy and lush with a long finish, deeply dry on the palate. The girls normally seduced by Sauvignon Blanc were surprised and delighted by it (280ZAR).

I enjoyed my chilled Chenin with finely made Vietnamese vegetable rolls (ZAR95), served with a startlingly pleasant and piquant sauce. Water. Candice ordered the prawn tempura (ZAR225), divine! Jo-Anne highly exited by the deconstructed lamb curry roti (ZAR160). Fab, (and made all the more interesting by the crisped up roti.)

 

 

 

 

We lounged back on beautifully cushioned sofas, and chatted and giggled and bonded, eating and drinking off tables of just the perfect height and size. Linen napkins and beautiful cutlery. Paper thin glassware.

The staff are all absurdly attractive and the view is unsurpassed- certainly in Cape Town and possibly even the world. The calmest of calm Cape days and the finest of Chenin Blanc (did I mention the Chenin), sails dotted over Table Bay and the friendly fussing of the service team as they cheerfully chatted and wobbled finding their feet in a restaurant only just open, but delivering fine unobtrusive service anyway.

 

A restaurant tinged with nostalgia that they know not, the pleasure of the company of strangers.

1650ZAR including a tip. We didn’t use the pool.

THE SILO HOTEL
Silo Square, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town
https://www.theroyalportfolio.com/the-silo/overview/

 

Umkhumbi Lodge

“Time for a lemonade” said Anton Roberts as we sat atop the riverbank in Ukuwela conservancy, some way outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

One or two “lemonades” later and the sun was setting over the trees of neighbouring five star Phinda Game Reserve, a very different affair from where we were sat. Here the stars shine brighter, since there is only bush and distant Albizia Camp- a nice rustic camp for large or small groups with permanent ablutions and a central hangout. Perfect for Roberts’ frequent volunteers and interns- the latest batch being veterinary students from the UK whose moon tans vie with the luminous fever trees in the fading light. It’s also available as a glamping  option for people who want to just break away from the hustle at a reasonable rate.

Conservation In The Bush

I need to backtrack to 2011, when I first met Anton and Emma Roberts at Umkhumbi Lodge their three star lodge a short distance from Albizia, where the focus is on families and small groups. I was struck with the care they had taken in building guest units in the indigenous sand forest, using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact.

About The Lodge

Umkhumbi is a quiet, comfy place and the subdivided units dotted around the forest are roomy and airy, with lofty ceilings and private decks. No tvs, except at the bar, but all-important aircon and bar fridges, en-suite bath and separate shower. The main hub for guests is the dining area and upstairs bar with fantastic sunset views. Chef Meva Zisongo is a keeper and his meals are definitely four star, as is the very friendly, laidback atmosphere.

The upstairs bar

It’s an ideal base for exploring the region and you are likely to meet people from all walks of life, including the aforementioned veterinary students and film crews.

A visit to Umkhumbi is not complete without a close encounter with some creeping, slithering or crawling creature from the Roberts’ collection. Anton has helped facilitate wild life documentary film crews in 96000 hectare Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the oldest proclaimed reserve in Africa, as well as other game reserves in Southern Africa and the Roberts’ have hosted The Survivor Man – Les Stroud, Nitro Circus, Nat Geo, BBC, Animal Planet and many others. Anton will find the creatures required for wildlife programmes and conservation, assist with inserting telemetry tracking devices and afterward monitor the animals and the transmitted data.

“I’ve led tour groups, film crews, scientists, film stars, presidents and other so-called important people from all over the world in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique” he says.

Here you can see what he gets up to in his spare time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAHAdOuD4E&t=34s

The large female also had a large clutch of babies, which Anton saved from certain death at the hands of the terrified local community.

The environment, its preservation and sustainable resource usage are driving passions for the Roberts family.  Umkhumbi is not a huge money spinner. But they are not in it for the money. “If we were we could simply start a pineapple farm” Emma says, rolling her eyes. Pineapples are big business in the area but that would mean destroying their forest, home to endangered Suni antelope and many other species.

Instead they’ve partnered with like-minded people and associations, most notably the Wild Tomorrow Fund. Anton says “John Steward and Wendy Hapgood are amazing people with total dedication to conservation and wildlife. I have been in contact with many NGO’s and non-profits but they are mostly top heavy with egos and consultants with nothing but theory and paperwork, which stalls the actual efforts where the money is badly needed. With Wild Tomorrow Fund the funds go straight into the field where it’s used and managed by the people doing the actual work. Their ecologists are 100% committed and have a great relationship with everyone they work with, both in private reserves and government parks”.

Their relationship with The Wild Tomorrow Fund resulted in the Ukuwela conservancy, the base for their environmental awareness courses.  Emma is often an “office widow” as Anton spends weeks at international trade shows and presenting to schools, colleges and universities to get youth groups- from veterinary students to expedition groups, sporting and educational school tours- to South Africa on very hands-on, customised programmes that cover all facets of ecology and the importance of conservation.

Umkhumbi offers internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks (www.wildvolunteers.com) volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principles, night skies, game walks, game drives, iSimangaliso Wetland park visits and more- work and play combined.

Umkhumbi Lodge has a clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW (crowkzn.co.za ) and are now ready for release into the wild.

“Rewilding” the animals often involves weaning them off any form of human contact. The puff adder being treated for pneumonia and the hissing spotted eagle owl in the aviary seemed well keen to be rid of humans and the interns joshed each other about their reaction times.

“Releasing the rehabilitated wildlife in a very low game density area such as Ukuwela gives them the best possible chance of survival” says Anton. Various studies on the conservancy include game density studies with camera traps that have revealed the likes of aardvark, porcupine, honey badger and four leopards that were previously not known of. Bucket traps are also in place and data of insect and reptiles is recorded on a daily basis and the conservancy is also home to a variety of plains game- antelope like wildebeest, nyala, zebra and impala.

“Bring it on!” is Anton’s often heard life motto and it’s always “on” it seems, if one tracks his and the interns’ progress at Umkhumbi, at Albizia, or through South Africa into the Namib desert and other remote places. Back at the lodge, staffies Copper and Shadow keep Emma company and guests amused (Copper loves chasing bats in the evening). You should join them.

www.umkhumbilodge.co.za

 

Rockwood Forest Lodge

Who knew that one of my favourite spots would also be one of the closest to home? I enjoy my privacy but at almost every far-flung place I’ve been there’s someone staying alongside or nearby. Not at Rockwood Forest Lodge.

Here you have a double storey wooden house in a forest glade, with a rushing stream below an expansive deck, and nobody, except Jabu Dlamini who services the place in the morning- and the security service clocking in at an electronic marker once a day- to disturb you.

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”- widely (and erroneously) attributed to A.A. Milne- is the most appropriate, given that you are in your own 100 Acre Wood although, at 936ha, this wood is way bigger.

Rockwood Forest Lodge – A (very) Hidden Gem

Self- catering Rockwood Forest Lodge, in the Karkloof Private Nature Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal’s midlands, is only accessible with a 4×4. If you don’t have one, no problem. Jabu will ferry you from the office on the farm Spiztkop, through several gates and over several watercourses into the reserve.

It’s rustic but four star. The little kitchen is well equipped and thoughtful extras one doesn’t normally find in self-catering spots are provided- seasoning, milk, oil, ground coffee, yummy biscuits and a bottle of red wine for example. Then there’s the Big Green Egg. This is not a braai (barbecue), it’s a very efficient cook’s delight and it’s worth working out how to use it to bake and much more.

Evening on the deck- Big Green Egg fired up

Forest Lodge won’t suit everyone. Activities and facilities are not “on tap”, nobody’s going to take your kids off your hands and you may not have cellphone/internet reception. Therein lies the charm. A complete break. Privacy, enveloped by nature.

In the heart of the second largest indigenous forest in South Africa, the lodge sleeps six (eight at a pinch) in three bedrooms with three bathrooms (well, two baths, one shower). Very large windows without bars afford lovely forest views, the babbling brook is a constant soundtrack for relaxation in the greenish light and, if the weather turns or you tire of the water music, there is DSTV, a blu-ray player and some discs and an iPod docking station/music system in the very comfy lounge, with its fireplace and never ending wood supply (Spitzkop produces firewood).

A few days here is simply the perfect way, in the perfect place, to unwind. I’ve been twice and loved every part of each experience, from just sitting on the deck listening to the rushing water below, to the plectranthus-lined walk to the waterfalls, with crowned eagles overhead.

The peace of the forest wraps itself around the place, providing friendly seclusion. Food for the soul.

If noonoos bug you the forest is not for you (nor is Africa really, especially KwaZulu-Natal). On a forest walk the lead hiker does a Gandalf impersonation, waving a staff to clear spiders’ webs, while the supplied Peaceful Sleep came in handy too. Oddly enough, almost no mozzies around the lodge, so we only used it on our walks. My brother played Gandalf and added a jig- hilarious to watch- since a couple of horseflies found his legs very tasty. They left the rest of us alone.

Goudini Falls

Aside from a shortish hike to Goudini Falls 1 and 2, we checked out the dams on the farm, well stocked with rainbow and brown trout. Bring your own rods and grab a life jacket from the office if using one of the canoes.

The whole area is a mountain biker’s delight, with trails ranging from easy enough for me to mistakenly head down in my 4×4 the first time I visited, to “Eish!”.

We also negotiated the long, winding, scenic 4×4 road to the eco-friendly Mountain Lodge, taking time out to enjoy a swim in the clear waters of the dams on the way. If you alert the staff they will open a gate for 4×4 access to the nearby and highly recommended Karkloof Canopy Tour.

The Canopy Tour is a real treat, with wonderful views over the Karkloof Valley from the uppermost platform and zipline, and thrilling, staggered descents through the canopies of the indigenous forest. Here you can hope to spot the same elusive bird species to be found near the lodge, as well as Simango monkeys. Afterward, you can enjoy a supplied light meal and check out the photos from your experience, which you can buy on a disc. I’ve done numerous canopy tours and this one remains top of my list.

Apart from the Forest Lodge and the equally isolated Mountain Lodge, down on the flatland of the farm is the fabulous farmhouse and separate cottage, 25m apart. The farmhouse does not deserve its four star rating, or maybe a star fell off. It looks great from outside, but a whole lot better inside and is wonderful for families or groups, with a loft play area complete with foosball, pool table and much more- and there is playground with trampoline and swings close by and a private dam right outside. Five stars from me!

Check them all out here: http://www.rockwood.co.za/

Antbear Lodge

Andrew Attwood plopped down into the Adirondack chair beside mine. “Life’s not bad, hey?” he beamed. I beamed back. Indeed. Sitting on the wooden deck of Antbear Lodge, perched on a slope with great views toward White Mountain in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg, life was pretty grand.

Grin Antbear it- you’ll be glad you did

Antbear, named after the antbears living in the dilapidated ruins Andrew and Conny Attwood bought 17 years ago, reminds me of Goldilocks. Like the porridge she plumped for, it’s just right. And it’s always subtly evolving, getting “righter”.

I like Andrew, even if he is a self-confessed “dictator” (he does bear a resemblance to Mussolini). He is a more than benign despot, however, and I like what he and Conny have done and why they do what they do. If you want a hotel, book a hotel. If you want something unique, laidback, welcoming and extremely relaxing, come here.

The Attwood’s left the corporate rat race in Germany in favour of a place they could develop themselves and their “open-source” ideals. Andrew and Conny have waved their idiosyncratic wand over the place, with sustainability and responsible tourism a huge part of their ethos. Alternative materials like straw bales were used to build the place and they use solar for heating water and a reed bed filter for cleaning waste water.

Antbear offers volunteer programmes- mostly for overseas folk- to learn about alternative methods in an African context. Every single piece of the artistic and inspiring furniture is made at the lodge.  Canadian Hennessy Bacchus, back for a second volunteer stint, wowed me with his wooden aloe chandelier, with an accompanying tree aloe standing lamp in the making. Andrew, his dad Bruce and various volunteers and staff have created huge mosaics, whimsical stain glass windows and the very distinctive wooden hinges. The woodwork alone makes this lodge a destination in its own right and guests are welcome to see what’s on the go in the wood shop.

Hennessey Bacchus in the wood shop

All this gives Antbear a singular, charming character. It’s not grandiose, but it sure is comfortable and welcoming- with varied accommodation in 15 units spread about the property. There is even a man-made, private cave very suitable for honeymooners or romantic trysts, complete with a private candlelit dining experience under the stars on the deck.

There are no tv’s in the rooms, no wi-fi (there is limited wi-fi in the lodge).  There is a welcome decanter of sherry however, a bar fridge, filtered water, Jacuzzi baths in many units and comfy beds with the Heath Robinson/ steampunk woodwork everywhere.

Your tastebuds will quickly adjust and thank you for really fresh, homegrown food, lit at night by candle chandeliers in a relaxed atmosphere. Mealtimes, after drinks at the honesty bar, can be lengthy and convivial, with congenial Andrew entertaining and advising guests. Veggies are from the organic garden, breads are freshly baked, yoghurt, butter and cheese all homemade and milk is fresh from the cow- with fresh eggs too. The meat is from a nearby game reserve’s excellent abattoir, so venison is often on the menu.

You could, I’m sure, milk a cow for your milk- or take one of many hikes from the lodge, or a safe and slow horse trail on gentle horses that have been “whispered to”. There are two dams stocked with bass if you want to try your hand at fly fishing and Bushman paintings in the hills close by, though the finest examples are at the Game Pass Shelter in the nearby Kamberg valley. Day trips to Giants Castle, armed with a picnic lunch, are popular and recommended.

Drift away, literally or metaphorically

Antbear is also a popular launch spot for the good people from Hot Air Ballooning SA- weather permitting of course and via prior arrangement. I didn’t get off the ground but was hardly distraught as I had a good book but found myself “reading” the lodge instead as one’s eyes are always led to some design, some interesting detail in the place. Lazing about upstairs in the lodge on a cold winter’s day with sun through the stained glass would be something worth returning for.

Antbear hosts weddings in a chapel that accommodates up to 100 people and has a spacious function/conference room. It also makes for an interesting team building venue.

Most of all though, it’s really peaceful. The best recommendation was the reaction of two Dutch guests who arrived while Andrew and I were shooting the breeze. They were dismayed- dismayed that they had booked just one night. As dismayed, fortunately, as they were delighted, as signified by their beaming faces and expansive gestures as they took in their surroundings. And that was just the carpark.

Have a look- https://youtu.be/AE–qdxkRqo
Call 036 3523143 or visit www.antbear.co.za to book your stay.

Constance Tsarabanjina

I hate questions like “What’s your favourite song?” At what time of the day, in what mood, for what reason, in what circumstances/ season etc. etc.? I listen to a lot of varied music, I visit a lot of varied places.

I hate being put on the spot too I guess but if you asked me “What’s the best place you’ve ever been?” Constance Tsarabanjina is right up there, any time of the day. Continue reading “Constance Tsarabanjina”