Chobe Water Villas- Inspiring Tranquility

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…

Secluded Sophistication

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.

“God, this place inspires me! I love beautiful things, beautiful places”

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.

 

Boardwalks interwoven amidst natural flora of silver clusterleaf and sausage trees lead to the villas.

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.

Night Time is the Right Time

 

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.

The lodge is transformed at night by the truly exemplary lighting (did I mention the lighting?), seducing one to tarry here, tarry there.

Tarrying is lovely but the sun rising in front of the villa reminds one there are things worth doing.

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.

Getting There:
Airlink is a privately owned airline business, operating as a regional feeder Airline, connecting travellers to more than 55 routes within southern Africa and St Helena Island.
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.
Through airlink’s alliance with SAA, travellers can connect conveniently, effortlessly and seamlessly, with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
Airlink is a member of South African Airways Loyalty programme -Voyager.
Discover more:  www.flyairlink.com
Book Direct:  https://www.flyairlink.com/destinations/flights-to-kasane

Nalitumila (thank you in Subiya) to Chobe Water Villas and Flame of Africa.

 

 

Wilderness Safaris- Unparalleled Okavango

The Delta Delivers

I have long been intrigued by the Okavango Delta. 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 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa aboard an Airlink flight, changing without having to recheck baggage at OR Tambo in Johannesburg, 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.

Gobsmacked, Thoughts Flowing Like The Water

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.

Unexpected Luxury, Elegance, Design

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature Like Never Before

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Savute, Savuti- Continuing Education

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  residents@wilderness.co.za. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com.

Getting There

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.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve- something very special

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.

Botany, Bespoke, Community

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.

Foraging For Freshness

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.

Founding a Future

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.

Touching Stories

he 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

Val Du Charron

Val Du Charron Wine and Leisure Estate- Burgeoning, Bucolic, Historic

I’ve had a couple of really fine times at Val Du Charron Wine and Olive Estate, some four years apart I was reminded by owners Stuart and Catherine Entwistle. Too far apart in their estimation.

What’s good about the gap is the reminders – and the differences. I’ve visited in summer and winter, which in the Western Cape are vastly different experiences. Things happened at pace in-between the years and seasons on this estate, though the constant is the stunning view across the gently sloping Bovlei Valley, the Hawequa Mountains directly ahead, with Bainskloof Pass winding up from the small town of Wellington, 72km from Cape Town in South Africa’s Western Cape.

My fine times had a lot to do with owners Catherine and Stuart. We discovered a connection going back almost 40 years (said connection, on the other side of the world, promptly got a 4am wakeup call from Stuart). But, more especially, we hit it off. You may not see either of the busy couple. Fear not. Staff, from beaming front of house Miles, to Zinzi, Evans and impossibly effervescent Chrisma, provide much of the good vibes at this bustling destination. Service is excellent. Check out TripAdvisor and you’ll see that others agree.

It wasn’t bustling when I first visited, but it sure is now. Not unpleasantly so, or overcrowded in any way. Just, as we say here, lekker. Wellington is a relative unknown, compared with the not far-off towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. But, more and more, visitors are drawn to this area- perhaps because it isn’t on the well-trodden path.

Well, that’s not quite correct. Wellington is increasingly well known for its wine walks, with Val Du Charron the endpoint. Local guides, well versed in the history and culture of the area, take groups through indigenous fynbos, vineyards, fruit orchards and olive groves over three or four days. If you love the outdoors, wine-tasting and walking and scenic walking/hiking trails; this is an ideal walking holiday for you- and you won’t be roughing it. You stay at really nice spots while your purchases are ferried in a support vehicle, meet the wine-makers (and their wines), the local characters of the valley and hear their interesting stories.

A unique, fun approach

Speaking of characters and interesting stories…. possibly the best part of a visit is how one experiences Val Du Charron wines. Winemaking is a serious, competitive business and tasting often a formal affair. Not here. I was soon the blushing butt of a theatrical joke- though the cleavage wasn’t half bad and belonged to the Black Countess herself.

The Countess regales visitors with stories from the Valley of the Wagonmakers (Val Du Charron), from whence early explorers set off into the hinterland- the source of many of the Val Du Charron wines’ names. I loved it-such a fun way to learn about the wines and the area.

That sense of fun trickles down from the owners- mixing business with pleasure is important, but back to their wines. Red or white, Val Du Charron wines are characteristically smooth. The Pinot Gris is a fine, anytime sipper and I’m keeping a Chardonnay for a special occasion. In the Reserve range there is no doubt that the Shiraz is the classiest, but the Malbec is my pick (Stuart’s too). It isn’t usually, but that smoothness I mentioned gives it a balance that elevates it from most I’ve tried. Their estate wines (everything done on and by the estate) have been in-demand exports and they are only now filling South African shelves.

I came across this list of top South African wineries to watch, including Val du Charron, with most being within driving distance.

Carnivore connoisseurs, Carbo loaders delight

The food is commensurate. Carnivores will delight in the chic Grillroom, with a couple of fireplaces to keep you warm in winter while still enjoying the view through acres of glass- or terrace seating in fine weather. Choosing from grain or grass fed organic cuts of varying sorts and ages is as complicated and pleasurable as choosing your fine wines. Happily head waitron Chisomo was there to guide me.

Piza e Vino makes some of the finest pizzas I’ve had. My Pavement Special pizza at Piza e Vino was mighty good, as was the blue cheese focaccia. On the sprawling terrace, or inside near the fireplace, or at the beautiful stained glass window, the atmosphere was delightful. Guests free ranged on the lawns or dared the icy spray of the splash pad, where cyclists and other energetic folk cool off, or admired the angels lining the walkways. Some horsed around with the metal steed on the lawn, or with the life-size elephant built from scrap- its geocache a hit with cyber treasure hunters.

Explore  (your baggage limit)

There’s plenty to do off the property. Dramatic, twisty Bainskloof Pass, constructed circa 1849  and now a national monument, is a must in my book. It’ll take you over the mountains into the Robertson valley- well worth exploring, especially if you are after (even more) wine, or just for the views along the way.

The James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington recently opened their doors for tasting (booking only). Under master distiller Andy Watts, a good friend of the Entwistles, Three Ships whisky has gone from awful to world beating award winner, along with Bains Mountain Whisky. The tour and tasting is a wonderful experience in the unexpectedly attractive, Gothic- inspired buildings. You are welcomed with a delicious whisky cocktail and the whisky tastings comprise Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish (my favourite to date) and Three Ships 5-Year-Old Premium Select. The food samples include apple chips, smoked apple chips, smoked beef, blue and goats cheese with fennel and celery, smoked snoek, 70% dark chocolate mousse and pumpkin pie.

Mountain biking is one of the most popular ways of working up a sweat and getting the adrenalin pumping, plus hiking and horse riding. There’s a local museum and it’s worth popping into the local tourism office as they are really on the ball.

Once you’re done with exploring, Val Du Charron has nice pool and a lovely little spa above their cellar, where diminutive but strong Rose will have you drooling from a massage table.

If you’re ensconced in the five star Coach House, separate from the main building, you have your own private patio with plunge pool, or fireplace in winter, where you can get cosy with the Black Countess- in a Rhone blend, bottle form.

The three suites are spacious, very tasteful and, in the case of the Presidential suite, pure opulence. I could have whiled away my time with the fine Terbodore coffee, open doors framing my pool, the vineyards and Hawequa Mountains.

The balconied four and five-star rooms in the main building are not too shabby either (no spa baths though) and the pace at which the estate is discreetly expanding means that yet-to-be-completed upstairs rooms are already booked.

Val Du Charron has plenty of well thought out, elegant touches, such as auto-on lights in the loos and in the passage I shared with a Cape Town couple who had no idea Wellington had such an offering. They were wowed by the setting, the ambience and everything else on offer. Others know- and it was fully booked on a winter weekend and couples, groups and families came for the day to sample the wine, the food and to explore the area.

It is not the stars in the ratings but the people that I rate at Val Du Charron. It’s a pretty slick, commercial operation but, conversely, cocks a bit of a snoot at convention. I like that and I see how the Entwistles sense of irreverence dictates that. It’s a fine place for a grand occasion, but also a fine place to kick back and relax.

If you’ve the time, you may hear how the cigarette vending machine found its way into Piza e Vino (and turned a profit without selling any smokes), and many more tales besides.

Then there are the angels. Hitch your wagon. Go with them.

www.vdcwines .com