“Quickly across the sand. Quickly across the sand. Quickly across the sand. Food. Food. Danger. A dark shadow. Something large looms over me. I immediately turn around and assume to defensive position. The object draws closer. I stand still. Soon it thinks better of it and moves away. Quickly across the sand. Quickly across the sand. Quickly across the sand.”
“Have you got a full tank of fuel, water, enough food?”
“Yes,” we nod as we sign the forms to mark our entry into the Richtersveld. We’ve bounced on rutted roads for over two hours and are now touching the remotest northwest portion of South Africa. Before us the inhospitable, but alluring wonder of the Richtersveld beckons. A harsh, arid, rocky area with little water, no cell signal, no electricity, and no fuel. You carry everything you need or else you could be in trouble.
Back in the car it’s as though we are holding our collective breath as we leave Senlingsdrift, the last semblance of civilisation, and plunge into the waiting adventure of the Richtersveld. After bouncing along on some more rutted tracks we notice a car stopped up ahead. “Its die halfmens,” says Nicky pointing to a strange looking cactus type tree on the side of the mountain. The legend has it that the bushmen who were chased from them homes in the north and fled here would look longingly back towards their homes. Those that did became trees - halfmens (half-people), and these trees always have an arm that faces north.
We continue on the road until points out a sign indicating the “Hand of God” to the left of us. We follow the track and arrive at an amazing site. It’s as though a giant being has placed their huge hand on a rock leaving behind a massive imprint several meters in height. Wow, there’s no doubt giant’s played in this area once, as we look at the huge boulders strewn around as though they were dice.
Our road soon becomes a lot more serious as it crossed over mountain passes, where we have to carefully negotiate rocks, gullies and other obstacles in our path. The vista is the epitome of aridness. Not a plant, a bush or a single living thing seems to inhabit this world. Crumbling rock mountains and boulder strewn valleys are all that exist and draw us deeper into the heart of the Richtersveld.
“I hope its not too much further I say,” as I look at the time approaching 4pm. We’ve been driving since 9am when we left Springbok, our last taste of civilisation - or what people call civilisation - for a long time. Gone are the modern luxurious of wifi, water in a tap, electricity….this is about touching life, and I’m looking forward to it….as long as we don’t arrive in the dark. This is the first time since we started our adventure 9 months ago that we will be camping. We’re seasoned travellers, adventurers….but not campers. In fact we are not even sure how to put these tents up. And now we are going to be tested to the extreme, in an environment where there are no backup options.
“There it is,” someone shouts, and we see what must be De Hoep campsite. Before us the wide, languidly flowing Orange river flows bringing with it life to the valley. Trees and reeds cling joyously to its side bordered by the arid, flaking, rocky mountains of Namibia across the river and equally inhospitable mountains behind us. The choice is quite simple. Camp on the river sand or camp on the river sand. So we choose to camp on the river sand. It’s soft which is a bonus but not tent peg friendly. However with some alacrity that I did not know we possessed we soon have two tents up, a log fire crackling, and a glass of wine in hand. However it’s not long after we’ve eaten our braaied work that we quickly retreat into our tents to escape the rapidly descending blanket of cold that feels like its coming from the polar icecaps…although there’s not an icecap in sight. Its just the way of the desert.
It’s the chirping of the birds that wakes me from my peaceful somnolence, as they twitter in eager anticipation outside of our tent hoping for some morning crumbs from us. Soon we’re awake and sipping a freshly brewed cup of coffee and watching the sun leak its liquid golden warmth into the valley. Nothing - this is a place of nothing. There are only a few other campers here, and so it feels like we are alone. There is a certain transcendental experience in the sublime of nothing. No signal. No sounds. No people. No electricity.
A funny looking beetle thing scuttles archers the ground in front of out tents. I go to get a closer look as he seems to do a six-legged dance across the soft sand. As I approach him, he turns and gives me his butt-view. “Hmm,” I wonder, “Is he going to dump on me?” I don’t take a chance and step away, and he’s off scuttling on his merry way. I just wonder what he finds to live on in this arid landscapte.
“Let’s climb that mountain,” Nicky says pointing at the rock strewn, uninviting peak that rises behind us. “Sure,” I reply, ever eager to see what’s on the other side. Soon we are huffing and sliding our way up the crumbling rock peak. Its a tricky climb as care is taken where you place each foot. However we’re soon rewarded by a magnificent view of our campsite and the wide Orange River carving its path of life through the barren landscape of this unforgiving region.
We’ve decided, unlike others who visit here, to not drive much. We want to luxuriate in this paradise of paradoxces. Wet and dry. Bounty and spareness. Soft and hard. Symmetry and chaos. Light and dark. Heat and Cold. These sensual paradoxes heighten our senses and have to be consumed slowly…slowly, quietly in this place of untouched beauty.
And that’s how our day ends. The soft life-giving sound of the river in front us, the harsh quietness of the jagged desert mountains behind us. The flickering warmth of our long fire before us, the majesty of a million lights painted by a divine hand in the heavens above us. The tranquility of our spirit deep within us, the memory of cities and people far behind us. We’re touching the edge, and its a wonderful.
“Nope, I’m not opening. The sun may be up, but it’s not high enough for me to open. I glance around me at everyone else and I see they are in agreement. Too early. Oh well, no rush. I will wait an hour or so and see how things look then. Yawn...”
We’ve left the luxury of Franschhoek with its mixture European charm and African hosiptality and we’re heading north. Our adventure will now take us through the idyllic Greek village like Langebaan and northward in search of flowers. Its that time of year when a miracle happens on the west coast of South Africa, the valleys and mountainsides miraculously transform into seas of flowers…or that is what we’ve been told. “Ja,” says Braam my father-in-law and resident expert on this area, “it all depends on the rains. If they come too late, or to early,” he adds, “then there won’t be flowers.” Hmmm…it sounds like a bit of hit and miss, and even as we head north in search of the mythical flower-strewn valleys we are unsure.
Our first glimmer of hope is ignited as we descend the winding pass into the small village of Clan William. On the side of the road a bright array of several hundred wildflowers clustered together cause us to pull off the road and set the cameras whirring. “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” emanate as take photos. Passing through Clan William, after loading up on some supplies at the shop we continue onto a dirt track, opening multiple farm gates on the road before we finally hit a sign that reads...
“Enjo Nature Farm - Have time to dream, to think, to enjoy peace and quietness and the wonders of life - the sky, the mountains, the fresh air.”
“Wow, that sounds amazing,” says Nicky, while Hannah replies, “Not really. There’s no signal!” She’s right on the signal front. We’re off the grid. In fact this next part of our journey is going to be marked by one significant feature - limited or no data connection. Something that is sure to test the girls, and me too!
Minutes later we arrive at a scene from a storybook. A beautiful whitewashed farmhouse stands next to a trickling river while around it a symphony of yellow and white flowers complete the fantasy. It’s amazing. Outside the farmhouse a horseshoe bench looks over a fire pit to the river below.
As darkness draws its velvet veil across the valley and a chill settles upon quickly upon the land we retreat indoors and soon are all huddled around a crackling log fire in the kitchen while the smells of dinner being prepared compete with the mesmerising effect of the flickering flames and the laughter and conversation. However there is another laughter awaiting us, who’s voice is now still but tomorrow we shall witness it’s intoxicating voice.
It must be the smell of porridge coming from the farm kitchen that wakes me, and soon I’m holding a steaming bowl of porridge luxuriating in the golden paint of the sun as it wakens the valley with its welcome touch. I look at the flowers that cluster in patches all around our farmhouse. “Hey, these fellas are all closed,” I say staring disconcertedly down at their bowed heads. “They’re still snoozing.” A few appear to be peaking out at the sun from behind half open petals as if checking whether its time to wake up or not. However most are still firmly asleep.
I come to appreciate that about flowers. Flowers, unlike game viewing - which I also love with a passion - have some distinct advantages. Firstly they don’t wake up in the bitter hours of the early morning. These sensible little beasts, unlike their furry counterparts, only open up when the sun is well up. And so those insomniac fuelled early risers who wake with the chickens are left staring at nothing, besides the bowed heads of the flowers. Go back to bed! Secondly flowers gather in huge batches and remain still, making viewing them easy. Thirdly flowers let you touch them, sniff them and even lie on them, unlike their beast brothers. And so we will have to wait for the sun to rise higher before these little fellas reveal their hidden secrets.
“Let’s go for a walk to the dam,” Nicky suggests. And so with tummies content, we set out to stroll along the farm road towards the dam. It’s then that we see it…or hear it…or experience it. It’s the earth’s laughter. There is not really any other way to describe it. The valley is a carpet of iridescent orange, checkered with white and purple…or is that what we’re seeing. It’s almost as though a divine hand has taken a rainbow, crushed it and sprinkled it on the valley. Colours without labels. A scene without description. I can truly say, as the sign at the farmhouse proclaimed, “I’ve seen the earth’s laughter.”
We find the farm dam and our swim in it's icy water looks like a reverse cam video as we enter and remerge in such haste it appears as though we’ve been plucked out by a bunjee cord. Soon we are sunning ourselves like content lizards on the peer enjoying the tranquility of this fantastical valley.
“Who’s up for some food?” some intelligent individual asks, as though the question ever needs to be asked. With chorus of hearty “ayes” we decide to find the ultimate picnic spot. Faithful Pajey has driven in many amazing places during our adventures - from open freewatys, to busy cities, to snowy roads, to rugged tracks, however Pajey’s wheels have never before driven down a living , rainbow of colour. It looks like someone paved a road of flowers into the hills drawing us towards the treasure that lies at this rainbow’s end.
Words should now end. These limited symbols of human design. They cannot describe this scene, nor begin to capture the experience. Might I describe it as fantacular or mesmermazing? Yet even these words fall short. We’re seated in a sea, in a carpet, in a rainbow, in a living tapestry of color. I’m sipping my beer…of course, a good brew completes this scene…and eating our lunch. This must be the ultimate picnic site. A blue canopy above, a rainbow beneath, the gentle buzzing of bees, and the gentle stir of the breeze. It’s real…the laughter, I can feel it bubbling through my soul. It’s real the laughter, I can smell it in the aroma-rich air. It’s real the laughter…I can see it on the faces around me. I’ve heard the earth laugh, and I will never be the same.
Brrr, it's 9c as our car tires crunch along the gravel driveway as we head towards our booking at Grande Provence. It's a Shiraz wine and dine collaboration dinner and it sounds spectacular. We're welcomed by a huge silvery full moon rising over the mountain casting its magical light on everything as we make our way to the restaurant.
Inside soft candles flicker on the tables while a crackling log fire warms the restaurant. The soft hum of chatting diners draws us in.
“Hello, I'm Michael,” we are warmly welcomed. The waiter gives us a board of warm homemade seed bread with sundried tomato butter.
“We probably shouldn't be filling up on the bread,” I say as I reach for another piece. I can't resist. I've just read the menu and it looks spectacular. Maybe just one more piece.
The first shiraz arrives it's a 2010 Lammershoek Syrah. It's smooth with a lovely linger. Maybe it's because it's our first wine and the tastebuds are excited, but this is a great start.
We kick off with a spiced butternut and saffron mouth warmer. So smooth. So tiny. So leaving me wanting more.
Clink, clink goes a glass. All heads turn towards a tall, commanding figure standing near the log fire. “Hi I'm Karl the general manager of Grande Provance,” he says as we all go quiet. He welcomes us to the fourth wine evening for the year. Darren the chef then takes us through the menu in an exciting verbal journey. This is followed by the winemaker from Lammershoek telling us about both his vineyard and the wine. Now I have a problem. I want to go and visit this vineyard. It sounds stunning. Nicky is soon on Google looking to see if we can find it. Maybe...
“Sir, here is your Indonesian salt cured duck...” the waiter says continuing with even more detail. All I know is it looks delicious. And as my teeth sink into the succulent duck with citrus caviar I'm enraptured.
“What makes a wine great?” asks Tamsin from Hartenberg Estate who has now stood up to introduce our second wine for the evening. “It's the company you keep.” And she is right. I'm enjoying this evening with stunning company - my wife - and a group of fellow wine lovers. “It's a very masculine wine,” Tamsin says describing the 2008 Hartenberg Gavel Hill Shiraz. “Hmm...if this is masculine I'm glad I'm a dude.”
Horse and carriage, love and marriage. That's what this is. The perfect pair. The barbecue sea bass with charred baba ganoush arrives on a warm stone plate. It is deliciously smoky and goes like a Siamese twin with the wine drawing out the natural smokey taste of the Shiraz. It's probably the best pairing I've tasted.
While the bliss of the taste match is still doing a tango on my tongue the winemaker from Eagles Nest stands up and regales us with fascinating stories about their farm and the 2012 Shiraz we are now having. It's paired with slow braised beef brisket and once more the combo is a choreographed symphony.
Finally, Karl stands up again and introduces us to our last Shiraz. “It's always a worry when you have to pair your wine to dessert,” he says smiling, “because the cream and buttery flavours mask the taste.” He tells us a great story about the guy who attempted to produce great wine by introducing weeds, then goats to control the weeds, then dogs to control the goats, then children to control the dogs...and finally birth control to control child production. Which shows simple birth control can produce the greatest vines. Just shows what you can learn about wine making at an evening like this.
The dessert arrives which is scarily “sago with white chocolate creme”. Sago? For dessert? Isn't that boarding school food as Karl joked? The plating is beautiful. I take my first tentative bite. “Bounce” go my jowls. Bounce. It's sago after all. Despite the delicious topping I still think sago is best kept as punishment for boarding school kids.
The diners next to us joke that the sago is big balls - sago on steroids. Well, the Shiraz was great! And serving this for dessert was indeed very ballsy.
Finally Darren the chef appears together with the whole kitchen team. It's been a spectacular evening. Lovely tastes. Great wine. And as we learnt...the key ingredient...great company. Here's looking forward to the Pinotage evening.
To find out about their next special wine pairing evening check out their site.
One, two, three...heaven. Or at least as close to it as possible.
Backing up... “Hi Craig, welcome,” Manu says shaking my hand warmly. “The winds a bit northerly at the moment,” he says nodding towards the vaguely flapping windsock. We're at Signal Hill and below us the beautiful city of Cape Town stretches out towards the sea and the infamous Robben Island in the distance. “We need it to be more head on,” Manu the owner Cape Town Tandem Paragliding says. He then goes on to explain how we must take off into the wind. “It's not like a helicopter that creates its own wind, we need the wind to be provided.” I look at the windsock still flapping forlornly and wonder if we will fly. I'm hoping we will, but I'm all for there being enough wind to keep us up.
“It looks like the wind is fine now,” we're told about 20 minutes later. Soon I'm being strapped into my gear. It sort of feels like I'm wearing a giant diaper. “Maybe it's for those who get a little afraid on the flight,” I muse sagely as I stare down at our destination far below. “Just make sure you keep running,” Manu says, “just don’t stop or sit otherwise I’ll end up on top of you.” And so it is that after just three steps I’m suddenly like one of those cartoon characters and running in the air. The ground drops away and it’s almost miraculous as we are suddenly flying.
“We need to turn into the wind,” Manu says as we bank to the right along the side of Signal Hill. It's stunning, because rather than immediately heading off over the city, we fly along the side of the hill with the hillside brush flying past just a few meters below our feet. “It really does feel like I’m flying,” I say as the fresh Cape Town wind whips at my jacket. It’s an amazing feeling literally skimming above the plants below you, yet somehow you’re flying.
After a minute or so…time in this heavenly place takes on a different meaning, so it could have been an hour, we bank left and the hill drops away. Moments later we’re flying above the busy Sea Point suburb below us. The packed streets, crane-active buildings, and daily life seem like a distant planet as we float softly on the gentle breeze. It’s quiet. It’s tranquil. It’s amazing.
“Do you want to experience some tricks?” Manu asks as we near the Sea Point promenade. “Yeah sure!” I exclaim enthusiastically, “bring it on.” I’m loving this and the more the tranquility mingles with the thrill the better. “You don’t get motion sickness do you?” Manu enquires. Well, even if I do, I want to taste the action. “No,” I reply, “let’s do it. Even if I get sick I want to experience the fun.” And so as we glide out like a seagull with wide-spread wings over the sea, the action begins.
All of a sudden Manu banks to the left and we are thrown into a spiral. Then moments later we are tossed around and spinning in the reverse direction. Or at least I think that’s what happened. All I really know is that I’m yelping with excitement as the adrenalin pumps and the stomach gets that awesome tingling feeling. Wow!
Finally as the sparkling ocean screams past us just meters below, we bank once more to the left and are suddenly calmly floating down towards the grass field on the promenade. And then like a butterfly landing on your skin, we gently float and touch down on the grass. One, two, three…earth. Wow. What an incredible experience.
“That was incredible,” I say as Manu packs up the gear. “Absolutely incredible. How many flights do you do?” I ask.
“About one thousand a year. But then there are between three and six in the team depending on the time of year,” he continues. I can see why they’re so busy. From start to finish the experience is not only incredible, but it's professional and you feel totally safe. Minutes after we land their shuttle is there to pick us up and take us back to the top.
“Ninety!” I exclaim. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Manu replies, “The oldest person I’ve taken on a flight is 90 and the youngest is 3.”
That is incredible. It truly is a sport that anyone can do. An opportunity for anyone to experience flight in a way that a few years ago we would never have dreamed possible. An opportunity to step, at least for a moment, into heaven…or at least heavenwards, where the wonder is better experienced than ever explained...because most won’t believe until they’ve been.