H aving reached my half century without travelling south of the equator, it was with a mixture of excitement and nervousness that I boarded a plane to South Africa for a one-week initiation into the wonders of this vast continent.
Those who know South Africa thought I was mad to go for just one week — especially as it is an 11-hour flight to Cape Town, our destination. How could one appreciate the myriad attractions of the country in just seven days they asked? Well, whistlestop visit or not, there was no way I was passing up this wonderful opportunity.
Africa . . . it conjured up vivid images. Wild animals, sweeping plains, scorching sun — very raw, very alive, and a big adventure. In fact, it was all those things, but so much more. Never has a country had such an impact on me.
But to start at the beginning, an undoubted plus point for South African travel is that the country is on the same time meridian as the UK.
Although we had slept on and off during the South African Airways night flight from Heathrow, we were extremely happy to disembark and stretch our cramped limbs at Cape Town International. It was 10am, and we knew that we had to try to stay awake until the evening to avoid the dreaded jet-lag, but it was so exciting being on African soil that it wasn’t any trouble for either of us!
The schedule for our precious seven days centred on the Western Cape and encompassed four days ‘on safari’ — though it no way sums up all that Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Retreat offers — and three days in Cape Town itself, staying at the fabulous Twelve Apostles Hotel in the shadow of Table Mountain.
To reach Bushmans Kloof (it means cliff) it is a four-hour drive north of Cape Town to the Cederberg mountains. Our two-centre holiday is offered by the Red Carnation Hotel Group, who own 13 luxury boutique hotels around the world, including Bushmans Kloof and Twelve Apostles.
Our genial chauffeur Louis soon had us, and our luggage, loaded into the car, and we settled back for the drive. I thought I might nap after the long flight, but I was far too busy taking in my first sights of Africa.
Cape Town seemed much like any Westernised city, apart from the level of security adopted, it seemed, by all who live and work there. Electric fences, barred windows and doors, and security patrols, seemed to be the norm.
In answer to our questions, Louis confirmed that crime was a major problem, and that people took stringent measures to protect themselves. Having said that, at no time did we feel anything less than safe and secure during our holiday, and the South Africans are the most friendly and hospitable of people who definitely go the extra mile for their valued tourists. They will be able to show what fabulous hosts they are when football fans flock to South Africa later this year for the World Cup.
Once out of the heavy traffic of the city, we hit the road north, passing huge shanty towns. These ragged collections of shacks and tents run for miles and come as quite a shock on the edge of such an affluent city. Obviously, the politics and history behind them is complex, and at the root of what South Africa is today. You will need to make your own judgements.
The vista transformed to wide open expanses of land — impressing the overwhelming vastness of South Africa. The road ran straight until we reached the Pakhuis (packhorse) Pass through the Cederberg mountains, and the landscape became much greener and prettier. We passed through the major citrus fruit-growing area of the Cape, before we reached Clanwilliam — the nearest town to the remote Bushmans Kloof reserve. It wasn’t until this year that the 35km track between the two has been given a tarmac surface. It is now complete, but we bumped roughly along the still unmade last few kilometres, and I could only imagine how uncomfortable this part of the journey must have been previously!
However, when you do reach Bushmans Kloof, you are not going to give a second thought to any discomfort in getting there — this special, magical place is truly stunning. Even if I never go back — and I can’t bear to think I won’t — this place will stay in my memory forever. And it is not just my opinion. This year Bushmans was rated Best Hotel in the World in the US Travel & Leisure awards and it has won numerous other prestigious accolades too.
Within the electric gates of the reserve there is a palpable sense of peace as you enter the wild African bush. The publicity literature describes the reserve as ‘a place of ancient and untamed beauty unlike any other’ — and that is spot on. The imposing rock formations, bathed in golden light, the immense open plains, deep ravines, spectacular lakes, the endless fynbos (native South African plants, pictured right) are the setting for the freely roaming wildlife — antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and many others. It took my breath away. I apologise for gushing, but it was spectacular!
And the lodge itself was like something from the movie Out of Africa. I was half expecting Meryl Streep and Robert Redford to emerge from the homestead to greet me!
The wilderness experience began here. After warm greetings from the resident managers Graham and Ronel Kennedy and their impeccable staff, we were soon ensconsed in our own private lodge, Cedar Falls — one of just 16 at Bushmans, which caters for a maximum of 32 guests so you never lose that five-star, exclusive feel. What I particularly liked was, while feeling pampered beyond belief while within the confines of the lodge, when we went out on drives with our ranger, the lovely knowledgable Jacques, you went right back to nature. It was really wild!
Our lodge was beautiful, a vaulted and beamed reed-thatched building with evocative African decor (Bushmans Kloof and the interior of our lodge are pictured right).
There was an open log fire ready laid to light (or you could call for someone to do it for you), which I queried the necessity for when we arrived in the afternoon heat. I soon found out why. When we visited in October it was spring in the Cape — which spells ‘changeable’ in weather terms. The first two days we were there it was wall-to-wall 25C sunshine, but the next day was cold and wet, though it warmed up in the afternoon. So go prepared for all eventualities. I hadn’t wanted to take a waterproof jacket, but was really glad I did. I certainly needed it on the 8am bush drives, and again when the sun went down — very swiftly — at around 6.30pm when we were out on our ‘sundowner’ nature drives.
The lodge had a patio which lead to a lawn and an infinity pool, looking out over the babbling, rock-strewn River Boma and the sun-baked mountains. Sitting out there listening to the birdsong and chatter from the noisy weaver birds building their hanging nests in ‘our’ tree and catching sight of a mongoose making a dash across ‘our’ grass, was wonderful.
Bushmans is quite overwhelmingly romantic, because the beauty of the place and surroundings evokes emotions that aren’t often experienced, especially in middle age! You tend to think you have ‘seen and done it all’, but in Africa I found so much I had never encountered or dreamt of before.
The morning drives were worth the early start, because the light is quite different at that time of the day. Bushmans is dedicated to preserving the cultural history of this ancient land, and guests are driven to see the sites of Stone Age rock paintings by the San bushmen, South Africa’s earliest inhabitants, pictured right.
While Bushmans Kloof is predator- (and malaria) free, there is one hazard — venomous snakes. Jacques reminded us to always be vigilant about where we were putting our feet as we walked around the bush. The bite of a puff adder or spitting cobra is deadly. They are more of a hazard during the summer, when they bask on rocks in the sunshine, but Jacques was trained in snake-handling, and snakebite antidote is kept at the lodge. There has never been an incident, but awareness is everything. Check your shoes before you put them on each morning, I was told!
The animals that roam this vast reserve are, of course, a highlight. The bounding bontebok, springbok, eland and red hartebeest were among the antelope we saw. The Cape mountain zebra is endangered and the herd of 43 is one of the largest there is. There were strutting ostriches, ungainly wildebeest, and a cute little tortoise drinking from a puddle in the middle of the road one morning. More reclusive breeds are the bat-eared and Cape foxes, African lynx, Cape clawless otter, aardwolf and ant-eating aardvark. Bushmans also supports the Cape mountain leopard conservation project.
We saw many of the 150 bird species recorded on the reserve. My favourite was the Clapper lark, which rose suddenly from the bush like a harrier jump-jet, clapped its wings, then descended vertically with a loud ‘whooo’ noise. Enchanting.
Apart from the bush drives and walks, your ranger can organise mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing or archery.
If you prefer to be pampered, then the spa offers a wide range of indulgent treatments.
I enjoyed a massage in the spa pavilion, built on stilts looking out over the river and mountains. With the doors wide open, so you can see, smell and hear the sounds of the bush — it is very special.
Food and drink, of course, are done magnificently well. Delicious Cape cuisine figures throughout the day, eaten at a variety of locations including, in the summer months, Embers — an open-air platform perched on the side of a mountain, where they fire up the braai (barbecue) under those dreamy star-filled African skies.
I particularly enjoyed the Malay dishes — the aromatic spices and sweet accents were introduced by the Malay slaves in the 17th century and have had a lasting influence on Cape cooking.
As it was still chilly in the evenings, we ate dinner in the candlelit homestead. Brunch was served when guests returned from early morning drives (don’t worry, you are provided with fortifying coffee and muffins during these — Jacques is pictured serving it up on the tailgate of the jeep on the opposite page) in the wonderful canopied Makana (it means ‘to feast’) overlooking the dam and river. Service at Bushmans was impeccable — whatever we asked for, we got, with a smile.
For a laidback, luxury child-friendly holiday, Bushmans have recently opened Koro Lodge, a private villa with its own pool, cook and ranger, and a recent addition to ‘extraordinary’ dining options is Kadoro, a former shepherd’s cottage where, with no electricity, you eat by candlelight and enjoy meals prepared on open fires.
I could go on forever, but I think I have given you a general picture of the wonders of Bushmans Kloof. It is unique. I loved it.