Southern Grace: South Africa Expedition
There are two great things about South Africa. One is that it is in the southern hemisphere, and so it is one half of the perfect life summer in England (Ok, well maybe not this year), and winter 7,000 miles further south. The second is that, unlike almost any other non-European travel hotspot, it is only one or two hours forward of GMT, so no jet lag. Get on the plane at night, go to sleep, and get off at the other end with no bizarre body clock malfunctions.
Several years back, in a different life, I lived and worked in South Africa for the best part of a year, and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. Apart from a fleeting press trip there a couple of years ago (see Lusso 6), I have not been back, so when the opportunity arose earlier this year I jumped at the chance. Because of manic work commitments over the summer months, a lot of the organisation was relatively last-minute. Considering the trip was to be in October, the start of summer high season for the tourist trade there, leaving things so late was less than ideal. Three (full-time) days, thousands of phone calls, hundreds of emails, and at least a dozen different itineraries later it was all finished. I sat back and looked at the calendar what a great trip I had planned! Now the hardest part was to come; waiting for the day we left.
South Africa has been a country in a state of rapid evolution from before the days I first visited, and so I was keen to see what had changed in the six years that had passed since I lived there. I think it is fair to say that it has never been a country high on the list of food lovers, but rumours have been seeping out of the last few years that things were changing fast in this department. All the hotels we stayed in for this feature are in the Relais & Chateaux group, which places a large emphasis on cuisine. In my experience, it also is a very good indicator of a very good hotel. I first stayed in one in Tahiti (see Lusso 5), and since then I have seeked them out whenever possible.
Before I get started on recounting how the trip went, here is a quick rundown on the itinerary. Starting at Paddington station in central London, we take the Heathrow Express to (no prizes for guessing), Heathrow airport. A lot of people I know say driving to the airport is the best way, but for me the train beats it every time fifteen minutes door to door, with no worries about traffic. Once there, hop onto a BA 747, and twelve hours later arrive in Cape Town. The first stop is a quickie visit to Bushmans Kloof, a few hundred kilometres up the west coast, before heading down the now world-famous Cape winelands to stay at Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek. This place is gathering quite a reputation, as the fanciest, if not the best, restaurant on the continent. Luckily for us it is also a hotel, so the staggering distance would be small after a boozy meal. After this we head west, along the south coast, to a Polo farm, called Kurland. There is a bit of a buzz at the moment in SA about this place, so I wanted to check it out first hand. By this point we will be nearing the end of the trip, and our last stay is at one of the most famous safari lodges around; Londolozi, in the Sabi Sand game reserve. That concludes the tour, and after another long flight, we will find ourselves back in cold, rainy, wintry England. So that was the plan, but did it work out alright?
As predicted, the train was painless, and the flight uneventful, although we did receive notably good treatment from British Airways, who were struggling with a chock-a-block full plane. I was told once by a pilot friend that the London to Cape Town/Johannesburg route was BAs most profitable anywhere in the world, and with crowds like these it is not all that hard to believe. Once in Cape Town, collecting our car was easy, and we struck out into rush hour, the aircon already on full power. My Garmin satnav, complete with South African road maps, came in handy almost immediately; I had hoped to be able to navigate through Cape Town by memory, but it became apparent soon enough that something had gone wrong. A couple of button presses later and we were back on course, and heading north up the N7 motorway.
Cape Town is a city in a stunningly beautiful location, but as far as architecture goes, it ranks somewhere alongside a strip mall in the Midwest of America, but with a few oil refineries thrown in for good measure. It sprawls out over a huge area, and so heading north, with all the good views disappearing in the mirror, there is not a lot of interest to be had looking at the surroundings. After thirty of so miles things get a bit better, and off to the right hand side, mountains are just visible through the morning haze. As we travel further and further north the roads become smaller and less busy, and after only 4 or so hours we find ourselves arriving at Bushmans Kloof.
A glass of iced Rooibos tea awaits; they must have a special recipe for this, as it is delicious, and tastes quite strongly of Cinnamon. One of the best things about Relais & Chateaux hotels is that you never seem to have to check in, so as our bags are taken to the room, we get a quick tour around the site which includes four swimming pools, a spa, two outdoor areas for eating, one indoor restaurant, and a couple of bars. Everything has been finished to a very high level and almost looks brand new. Our room is equally as beautiful, with a high and exposed thatched roof, and enormous bathroom with a gargantuan walk in shower and a stylish bathtub. I wonder if it is a condition for Relais & Chateaux places that they must have both a bath and a shower, as they all seem to I won’t be complaining though, I love having the choice.
After a little tour of the site there was time for a quick dip in one of the pools before high tea was served. Lunch had only been a few hours before hand, but, not for the last time this trip, I felt that for the sake of journalistic integrity I should at least try what was on offer. Smoked chicken with apricot chutney, bacon & egg pastries and avocado & tomato open sandwiches tempted me back for seconds, and finally I managed to waddle to the Land Rover where Londi, our guide, was waiting to take us out on the afternoon game drive.
There are no large predators in this part of Africa, but they do have my favourite antelope, the Gemsbok, aka Oryx, as well as Springbok, Bontebok, Red Hartebeest and Ostriches. We never got terribly close to the animals, although they did seem totally at ease with our presence. For me the best part of the drive was just being out on such a beautiful evening in such unusual scenery. The flowers were still out up here, and there were huge areas carpeted in tiny bright yellow blossoms, and these contributed to a strong but fresh scent on the breeze, quite unlike anything we get in Europe. As the sun started sinking behind the mountains, Londi pulled over and within a few minutes there was a little bar setup on the back of the car. Although I hardly ever drink them at home, when in Africa G&Ts are my favourite tipple, and sipping on one in this sort of setting makes it taste all the better.
One great thing about hotels set in such a large amount of space is that they seem to have almost endless numbers of little private areas where you can sit and relax on your own with a drink from the bar, without being forced to share a sofa with other guests unless you want to of course. Our small party took over one of these areas for some pre-supper drinks, and from there it was a short few steps though to the dining room. Supper was pretty impressive; we started with ostrich carpaccio and trout with asparagus, both of which were delicious. For the main course we all felt like something a bit spicy, so we ordered two Cape specialities, lamb bobotie, and Malay chicken curry. I had never tried a bobotie before; this one was made from shredded slow cooked lamb shanks, with a nice touch of spice, encased in a tower of pastry, and sealed at the top with a little bit of egg like a mini omelette. The curry was quite conventional, but both dishes seemed to it the spot. Pudding was a touch more inconsistent, with a slightly disastrous berry marquis being offset by a predictably unctuous chocolate fondant.
I was glad to be told that the next morning we would not be needed until 8am I had been expecting a much earlier start. The large bed was very comfortable, and the next morning we met up again in front of the main buildings to go and see what Bushmans Kloof is famous for; the Bushman paintings. There are almost two hundred painting sites on the property, but many of them take several hours walking to find. We were taken to one called Elephant Hunt and en route Londi explains that there are two types of painting, fine line and non fine line. Contrary to what I had expected, it is the fine line paintings that are the oldest, at around 10,000 years, whereas the non fine line art is 1-2000 years old. It seems that Bushman art regressed in that time, as the fine line is, as the name suggests, much more intricate than the non fine line. The site which we visited had both types, so it was easy and interesting to compare the two.
Londi proved to be a good guide on the subject, and very knowledgeable. However, I do wonder sometimes how much the interpretation of the people who study the art is taken too much as gospel. For instance, there are a few patches of paint on the rocks that are just a big blob; originally it had been thought that these were like a painters palettes but now they are apparently Power Points which the tribesmen touched to receive power from the rocks. When I hear stories like this, I cant help but think how on earth can you sensibly come up with that idea? Anyway, that is a topic for a different time, and we all enjoyed seeing the paintings, which ranged from an elephant with arrows sticking out of it, to people dancing, to a Bontebok with its foal, and many more too.
I would have loved to stay for at least another day here, in particular we could have gone canoeing in the river with a picnic, and taken the mountain bikes off anywhere around the farm. It was a real shame that the schedule didn’t allow us more time, but we had to get to Le Quartier Francais, 300 miles further south.
Le Quartier Francais is fast gathering a large, and very good, reputation around the world for its restaurant. It is often voted the best restaurant on the continent, and amongst the top 50 worldwide. Slightly less well-known is the hotel which is on the same site, right in the middle of Franschhoek, which itself is right in the middle of the Cape winelands, some 50km from Cape Town. The hotel is small, with 16 rooms, arranged around a pool and garden in the middle. Two of the rooms are suites, and have access to their own plunge pools as well. The communal areas of the hotel do not feel quite as well manicured as I had expected they would, although by no means are they at all shabby. Perhaps it was the grey clouds and drizzle which made the pool area look a bit drab, but once we were shown into our room (again with no need to check in), a day-glo shock of pink made me forget about the weather outside. After my retinas had calmed down, I saw it was only a couple of pillows and a blanket that were this colour, and even though I would never have chosen it myself, they did add an interesting touch to the room. In any case, they were removed later when the room was turned down for the night, so I never got the chance to see if they did actually glow in the dark as well.
The rooms here have a funny ambience to them, it feels more like you are staying in someone’s house rather than at a hotel, which is no bad thing. In particular I loved the open fireplace, all set up and ready to go at the touch of a match, which I had never experienced in a hotel before. As the weather had started to get a bit colder by this point, a fire in the evening was a nice way to end the day. Another first for me was the UK and Europe plug sockets built into the wall. I did have a South African adapter, but many people do not, as it is very unusual, and almost unique to the country. I can see that these built-in adapters would come in very useful for a lot of the guests. More hotels should follow their lead.
The town of Franschhoek is a bit twee for my liking, but the surrounding countryside is filled with hundreds of wine farms, and the wine centre of the country, Stellenbosch, is just next door, a twenty-minute drive away. No prizes for guessing what we did with our couple of days in the area, and luckily we managed to just about restrain ourselves enough that BA did not charge us for excess luggage on the way home. Once all the wine was packed into our bags I was very glad that there were teams of porters to carry them round everywhere for me
Our last night in the hotel was the biggie we had a booking in the Tasting Room, which was only 15m from the door to our room.
The next day the sat nav is set, and it shows we will be at Kurland in about 5 hours without any stops. In South Africa they consider this almost next door; one man I spoke to told me about when he came to England and visited a visited a little place just outside London called Somerset. Unlike driving from London to the south-west, the scenery on our drive is epic, with huge mountains and river carved valleys off to the north, and the Atlantic then the Indian oceans to the south. Apart from the mountains it almost looks like a picturesque part of England with rolling wheat fields and herds of grazing cows. I suppose that the people who live here take the views for granted, which is a shame, but at least I can still enjoy them.
On the other hand, the towns are almost always decidedly less pretty than the scenery. I think that planning permission is not in the South African vocabulary, and as such everything seems to sprawl out very unattractively. A large portion of the drive is along what is known as the Garden Route, possibly one of the most famous, and most visited, parts of the country. I find it too touristy and fake, so tend to avoid it; we make a clean break and charge on straight through. As the end of the drive nears, all of a sudden it feels like being in New England. Very tall pines line the roads, revealing glimpses of the sea every now and then. Even the roads look similar, except we would be driving on the wrong side for America.
Kurland is located jut off the main coast road, which makes it easy to find, however it is also its biggest flaw. I thought I would mention this now, as I am hard pressed to think of a single other negative after the two days we stayed. Even the traffic noise isn’t that bad, and is only audible outside in a couple of places you would never hear it inside. I had read before we arrived that Kurland is child friendly, an adjective which never really fills me with joy. In this case though, they seem to have it totally licked. Each room is located in an old farm cottage, and has a vast adult area downstairs with a bed, sofa, chairs, desk, and another open fireplace. The bathroom is as big as most hotel rooms, and beautifully fitted out. The decor of the rooms feels Victorian, and it all feels exactly how you would hope and expect it should. Upstairs is a children’s area with a few beds, and a separate bathroom. It is much more functional up there so much the better as there is less for them to break.
Although it had rained for most of the journey that day, the sun came out just as we arrived, in time to see it setting behind the hills. We had grabbed a couple of mountain bikes and with the instructions of go anywhere you want we did just that. After a week of non stop eating some exercise was much-needed. Like Bushmans Kloof, Kurland has a good dozen different seating areas, most of which have their own open fireplace, which are kept running all evening. Like everywhere else we stayed it is a small place, but I imagine that it could be at capacity and there would still be a good degree of privacy for everyone there. Food at Kurland is good, as expected, but it was refreshingly simple after the calorie intense gorging of the last week. I must give special mention to the Club Sandwich we were served for lunch one day I am still dreaming about it now.
After the frantic bike riding of our first afternoon, I was more than happy to let something else take the strain of moving me around. Cue quad bikes (always fun, especially when you have 1500 acres to explore) and horse riding. As a working polo farm there are no shortage of horses around, and they are also able to give lessons, all with only half an hours notice. If we’d had more time I would have loved to go for a longer ride off into the surrounding countryside but with so much to do and so little time I had to make do with a couple of hours.
When you stay at Kurland it would not be hard to believe that you really are staying n a friends farm, not in a hotel, everything is just so relaxed. I loved the time we spent here, even if the weather did break into torrential downpours at times, but the whole place is so wonderfully kept that it is a pleasure just to look around. Next time I may fly down from Cape Town though, as the drive back took nearer to seven hours, so we got an early start with the hope of being able to see some more of the city when we arrived.
Luckily for me, I managed to avoid being forced to walk up Table Mountain when we arrived back in Cape Town, as it was already late afternoon, but the sun was shining, and the cable car was open and running. The cable car is good fun as it rotates on the way up so that everyone gets a view of everything, but the journey only lasts five minutes or so. The view from the top is majestic as you look down onto the City Bowl, and realise just how small this bit of Cape Town actually is. Make sure you bring a coat though even if it is warm at sea level, the winds on top of the mountain can be freezing.
A painfully early start the next morning saw us at Cape Town airport before 6am, and in Johannesburg by 9.30am. Several months earlier I had made the decision to fly direct to our next destination, instead of going to a bigger airport and getting a land transfer from there. A small company called Federal Air flies directly from Johannesburg to a lot of the small game reserves in the nearby Kruger and Sabi Sands reserves, and the flight time is only an hour. The last time I was in this area I drove the same route, and it took eight hours so it is the difference between spending your afternoon by the pool or on a game drive, or sitting in a car. Tough choice.
Londolozi was founded in 1926, and it sits in the Sabi Sand game reserve. You will probably have heard of Kruger park, it is the biggest and most famous of the South African nature reserves. Sabi Sand is a privately owned reserve on the border of Kruger, but with no fence between the two of them, so you get all the benefits of a huge state-owned park, but none of the draw backs. In the national parks generally you will drive yourself around, and hope to see something good. In Sabi Sands a ranger and a tracker drive you around, and when you see something interesting, you head off-road until you get close enough. Close enough for me is about five metres, especially when the subject is a pride of lions. If you did that in Kruger you would probably end up in deported, or in jail. Our ranger was called Brent, and having grown up in the bush in Botswana, I have to admit that there wasn’t a lot he didn’t know about the plants or the animals. He did insist that I should refer to him in this article as rugged, but with shorts that short it wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
Because of the flight we took to get there, we had time to see our room, and be given a late lunch. Londolozi is split into 5 different camps, each with roughly six rooms. We stayed in the Pioneer camp, which was slightly more isolated than the others, but they are all within easy walking distance, provided you are not eaten by a lion en route at night-time guards are provided to walk you to you rooms as the camps are not fenced in. Each camp also has its own chef; ours was very talented and we were kept suitable stuffed for the whole stay breakfast, lunch, tea and supper.
The days are structured to get in as much game viewing time as possible, and so on our first afternoon we set out on a drive at around 4.30, following a hot tip for a cheetah, which are very rare in this area. Londolozi covers an area of over 40,000 acres, and so it is useful to have radio contact between the cars for when there is an interesting animal about. The cheetah proved to be elusive at first, so we had to make do with Elephant, three Lions, many Kudu, I’mpala, Bushbuck hardly a disappointment. Just as we left the area where the cheetah was supposed to have been a call comes through on the radio it has been found again. After a bit of steering wheel pounding from Brent (he really wanted to find the cheetah), we hot foot it over there to take a look. As the sun sets behind him, we sit a short distance away from the lone male as he lies on a termite mound, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Almost all the animals here are this relaxed around the vehicles, apparently they do not associate the look and smell of cars with humans.
The next morning our target is leopards traditionally the most difficult of the Big 5 animals to spot. Londolozi has a bit of a reputation when it comes to Leopards, supposedly you see more here than anywhere else, but I had always been a bit dubious of this claim. I have been lucky enough to go on quite a few safaris, including at other lodges in Sabi Sand, and I had seen only two Leopards previously. The fact that in two days and four game drives at Londolozi I saw five really lends credibility to their reputation. I was thrilled, especially when we found one sitting up a tree finishing off the last morsels from a Bushbuck with a host of hyenas waiting underneath for pieces to drop off. After the game drives and a two-hour bush walk (with a guide of course!) there was not a lot that we had not seen; if this was your first safari experience you would be really very spoilt, but also a very happy camper.
On our last night we returned to the room after a drive to find that as a surprise they had run a large candle lit bubble bath for us, complete with champagne on ice, and on the balcony was a table for two laid out for supper. After another delicious meal we collapsed exhausted into bed that’s what 5am starts do to you!
I didn’t want the morning to end as it was our last day in the bush, and also in South Africa. As we waited for the car to take us to the airport, I stood on the deck at Pioneer camp and watched a herd of Elephant walking through the river. I hadn’t wanted to leave anywhere else we had been, but I would have traded any of them for a couple more days here.
I loved everywhere we visited, but there are two special recommendations. Firstly Kurland, it is such a feast for the eyes, and a great place to relax. Secondly, as you may have guessed, Londolozi; if you go here for your first safari, please try to appreciate how lucky you really are and say hi to the leopards from me.