Silence. Nothing stirs under the oppressive blanket of the harsh African sun. A ripple in the tall grass as a gentle breeze rolls across the valley floor. I pull at the collar of my uniform as I try and loosen its throttling grip. A trickle of sweat runs down my back, causing me to shiver, despite the heat, as though prescience of something coming. At first I think it’s my eyes playing tricks on me, as the green grass seems to shimmer and suddenly turn black. I rub the sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand, shifting my rifle to my other shoulder. It’s not a cruel trick of the heat. The hill beyond out camp has instantly transformed. Thousands of Zulu warriors have materialised out of nowhere. I stare in horror - the depths of which I would never have imagined - as suddenly the chilling sound of the beating of thousands of shields mixed with an eerie ululation sweeps across our camp in warning of what is coming - a battle unparalleled in our nation’s proud history.
We have been invited to visit Isandlwana Lodge, located on the edge of the famous Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battlefields - battles of loss and victory never before witnessed. “Wow,” I say as we drive along the gravel road winding between a sprinkling of local huts and the ominous hill of Isandlwana jutting out to our left, “Is that the lodge?” To our right, set majestically on the side of Nyoni rock, is the magnificent Isandlwana lodge.
After a royal welcome from Shane, the manager and his team, we are shown to our room. I’m distracted from the comfortable, elegantly decorated room by the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that provide unfettered views of the story before us. It’s like a time travel portal as I stand for a moment on our balcony clearly seeing the hundreds of dotted white stone cairns marking the graves of the thousands of British soldiers who lost their lives here.
“The Zulus attacked the British at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879,” Shane says as we stand atop the hill behind the lodge, looking out at the battlefield below. “A Zulu force of 20,000 warriors attacked the British camp of 1,800 soldiers.” A cool breeze sweeps across the remote outcrop we’re standing on, sending a shiver down my spine - or is it the tangible feeling of loss and victory forever etched on this landscape that I’m feeling? History, loss, death and senseless suffering mingle with stories of incredible bravery, hope and human compassion.
In the evening we are seated around a warm log fire, the mercury has plummeted to 8c. Sipping gluhwein and chatting about lives and history is the perfect segue into dinner - a delicious affair, and a fitting conclusion to the opening act for what lies tomorrow - our visits to the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift.
“Day waned and the night hung over the hill as we reached the last ridge beyond which had been our camp…in silence we marched down into the gloom below, where lay shrouded by a mericful pall the horrors of the past day…when we saw what had happened every man could not help crying to see so many of our poor comrades lying dead on the ground, which only a few hours before that we left them all well and hearty” (Col Crealock’s account)
It’s stunning waking up at Isandlwana lodge. A belt of mist has been draped across the valley floor as though it were a shroud in memory of the fallen. Only the stark landmark of Isandlwana peak appears above the shroud.
“I am Dalton,” Lindizwe says giving us his English name. “I am a descendant of Chief Sihayo.” As the descendant of one of the chiefs of the epic battle that played out on this stage of history, Lindizwe is the master conjurer. We are transported from the verandah where we stand overlooking the battlefields straight into the heart of the battle. Around us the smell of sweat permeates the air as thousands of Zulu warriors squatting on their haunches pause to take some snuff before the battle begins. Down below the red uniforms of the British soldiers look like tiny red ants as they scuttle between the white tents below the hill.
After painting a vivid picture of the background, we all eagerly pile into a vehicle and head to the Isandlwana battlefield, where we come face to face with the bravery and horror of this most epic battle. Climbing up the Isandlawana peak past countless white cairns is a somber reminder of the sad cost of war. Political decisions made thousands of miles away in gilded rooms that forever stamp red blood blotches all across the African planes.
“In memory of James Adrian Blakie…Killed here in battle, 22nd January 1879. Aged 19 years,” says one of the countless graves. It’s the British army’s worst defeat ever against an indigenous foe.
From Isandlwana we head, after a delicious lunch at the lodge, to Rorkes Drift, where once more we are drawn into the most epic battle. A battle where more Victoria crosses are handed out than at any other time. A story of incredible bravery, but one written in the sad waste of lives of both British and Zulu alike.
"As the Zulu army retreats from Rorkes Drift,” Lindizwe says as we stand next to the small stone strucutres where the battle took place, “they pass the returning reinforcements of Lord Chelmsford. Silently both armies walk right past each other. Not a word is said. Not a weapon is raised. The death - the loss - the horror, has been too much for both sides. Wars futility is etched on every face. Wars painful cost exacted in sons never to return, in wives left widowed, in wounded never to be whole again."
Back at the lodge as the sun sets over our time here, we enjoy an amazing braai outside on the deck, while warming ourselves around a roaring log fire. What a contrast as we sip our wine and look down on the lights of the huts dotting the plane below. The battle may be a distant memory, but the scars are all too visible under the silvery light of the rising full moon, in the endless white cairns dotting the valley like discarded bones.
We have travelled across a century and returned convinced both of the futility of war and of the need to celebrate and share our beautiful country and its epic history. Why just visit a place for your next getaway, when you can visit a place and a time - and have not just a holiday, but an unforgettable experience.
Isandlwana Lodge has 12 stylishly furnished en-suite bedrooms, each with a private balcony overlooking the panorama of the battlefield and plain. It's an ideal retreat for writers, photographers, hikers, adventurers, and anyone else wanting more than just a holiday. Besides the attraction of the history of this area, there is the beautiful scenery, quiet solitude, great food, and even exciting activities like hot air ballooning. To find out more visit the lodge's website.
“It’s a postcard town,” the captain of the catamaran says as we glide silently over the turqouise sea looking at the whitewashed buildings clustered along the seaside. This is the second time I’ve heard this description today about Langebaan, and it could not be more apt.
There must be something special about Club Mykonos in Langebaan, because this is our third time back here in the past year, and every time we have just loved it. “It’s a relatively undiscovered gem,” the manager of the Bouzouko restaurant, adjoining Club Mykonos, furtively whispers to us as we enjoy the most amazing setting for a dinner.
The sun sets over the yacht mooring creating a postcard scene as the yacht sails are silhouetted against an indescribale riot of colors competing for attention across the sky, and I sip my beer, and tuck into succulent chicken souvlaki. “This is one of my favourite dinners,” my kids chime. I can see why. It’s the combination of good food and incredible setting.
Most of the people from Cape Town don’t seem to know about Langebaan. It has been discovered by Gautengers, and a few foreigners, like George from the kite surfing shop, who comes from Greece each year to teach people to kite surf. “It feels just like my home,” he says. “The whitewashed buildings, the sea, and the friendly village atmosphere.” Of course I have to lean forward to understand him as he enthusiastically explains this in his rich Greek accent.
What strikes us as amazing about Langebaan, and especially Club Mykonos, is that it is not only a destination but a launchpad to explore this area. “If anyone is bored here,” the Bouzouko manager says, “then there must be something wrong with them.” And he’s right. The Club Mykonos resort is built like a Greek village. A maze of winding, cobbled pathways snake between whitewashed homes, arrayed with brightly coloured shutters, set around a Mediterranean-like sea. Just lying under the palms and soaking up the atmosphere would be enough…but there’s the siren’s call of the refreshing sea, cruises on yachts, spas for those needing pampering - and our personal favourite, a glass of wine watching the sun dip into the sea and transform the world into a wonderland.
However, the opportunities don't end here. The town of Langebaan has everything from the best-value breakfast at Breeze to the best place to learn to Kite Surf in South Africa, to a plethora of quaint shops and eateries. Then within about thirty minutes drive there is the West Coast National Park with it’s stunning white beaches and flower displays in Spring, Paternoster for the quant fishing village experience - make sure you have your hake and chips in paper wrapping at the takeawawy by the beach, and Veldrift for a boat cruise and pink flamingo extravaganza!
Maybe it’s best that not too many people find Langebaan so it keeps it’s small town feel, but I think the word is getting out, and we’re sure glad we found this place! Why look at postcards when you can step into one?
Sometimes the planets align and blessings truly do abound. Nicky and I have been invited to visit the Oyster Box, which recently was awarded second place in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards of the top Hotels in Africa. To say that we’re excited is an understatement. We’re like kids headed to a chocolate factory.
The weather has turned cold and a wind is gusting like a crazed banshee as we make our way towards Umhlanga. "Check in, there's a check in," the guard who has warmly welcomed us calls ahead on his radio. After entering through the boom we are directed to stop in front of the hotel lobby where a porter takes our bags, a driver takes our car, and a doorman welcomes us with a beaming smile.
“Meow.” Even the famed Oyster Box cat Skabenga is there giving us his regal, if not somewhat dismissive, welcome.
I look around to see if Zuma's cavalcade has arrived. But it turns out this welcome is for us. Now I know how those politicians and famous people feel. Maybe I should get into politics or dig up a long lost royal lineage. I’m enjoying this.
Entering through the doors is like stepping into another world. Outside the wind is gusting and dark, foreboding clouds are rolling across the sky. Inside there is quietness, warmth...and the royal welcome continues.
“Good afternoon,” Zanele says at the reception, “and welcome to The Oyster Box,” she says while beaming a huge smile at us. We have traveled extensively, we’ve stayed in everything from a sleeping bag on the dusty desert sand to a king-sized bed laid out beneath a canopy of stars. And in all these experiences there is one thing that is more important than anything else, and that is the people who make these special places happen. Sure the setting, facilities, and views are important, but all of these are nothing if the hospitality is not there. We’re getting bucket-loads of hospitality…not just service, hospitality…that authentic, meaningful service...and we’re still only at the checkin counter sipping a glass of sparkling wine. “The best is yet to come,” as they say in the classics!
“Could I show you around the hotel,” Zanele asks.
“Sure,” we reply. Why not have the royal tour too. And so we find ourselves soaking up the amazing, regal spaces of The Oyster Box. It feels like Back to the Future.
We’ve stepped back in time…Pith-helmeted footman open doors and usher us into glass elevators. Slowly turning fans from a long-past colonial era lazily stir the air, while live piano music mingles with the clink of glasses and the smell of fresh coffee and baked treats. We’ve stepped forward in time...Plastic cards grant us access to our room. Inside are luxurious, high-backed chairs, flat-screen TVs and vast ceiling to floor sliding glass doors. The sea is in our room.
“Let’s go and get some pre-dinner drinks,” Nicky suggests after we’ve settled into our room. We head up to the famous Lighthouse Bar where Basil brings us two draft beers and a delicious selection of snacks. We're seated on luxury leather chairs and the bright red shiny leather seats interspersed with old style brown leather chairs mingle to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere. Outside the wind howls while the lighthouse's light stabs out into the ocean to warn the ships of the rocks…or is it possibly to invite them to this pearl on the rocks. The Lighthouse Bar must be one of the best places in KZN to enjoy sundowner drinks. And judging from how full it is on a Monday night, it seems like the word is out.
After mentally preparing ourselves for what we have heard is a gastronomical feast, we head down to the Ocean Terrace room to taste the famous Oyster Box curry buffet. The world-class hospitality continues as we are welcomed by the hostess, and then treated royally by the waitrons. We are seated beneath slowly turning fans on white cane furniture made luxurious by the addition of comfy aqua blue cushions. The white lattice roof and pillars, and tiled floor, create a fresh and inviting ambiance…but who has time for ambiance when a buffet of KZNs finest curries await.
I need to make a confession now…Being born and bred in KZN, curry is my thing. It’s my food of choice. My dying-wish meal. I can’t last more than a week without curry. In fact when we travel to other countries we often bring our own Durbs spices with us. And so I am in keen anticipation of this feast. The spread of curries is distressing! Simply because there are so many and I’m cursing I ate those snacks in the Lighthouse Bar. I should of fasted for at least a day in preparation.
Chicken and Prawn Curry, Butternut, Chickpea and Feta Curry, Butter Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry, Dhal & Brinjal Curry, Beef Vindaloo…and on and on the list goes. I can hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing. Heaven! A spicy heaven! As I tuck into my groaning plate I am not disappointed. The flavours are spectacular. My favourite is the Beef Vindaloo, with its rich spicy flavour, and soft succulent beef chunks. It’s an explosion of vibrant tastes that warms the body and soul.
“The secret is in where you get your spices,” Robert the chef tells me as I try and learn some tips. “We only buy ours from places that produce quality spices.” I’m distracted as he goes into detail…you can’t have a conversation between two people when there is a pot of delicious curry between you. I’m stuffed…but there’s always room in the reserve stomach for one more portion.
Satiated, and with a curry-induced glow of contentment around me, we head upstairs to check out the Oyster Box’s private cinema. An approximately 20-seater movie theatre set beneath a star-lit ceiling welcomes us. We are the only guests, and snuggled beneath warm, soft blankets and sipping a decadent hot chocolate we enjoy our private cinema experience.
“That feeling of being someone famous, a movie star, a king…I’m starting to believe it!” I think to myself as I slip into the silky soft embrace of our king size bed. Tonight I will no doubt have royal dreams.
Waking to the sound of the ocean is a treat. Waking to the sound of the ocean in the Oyster Box is treatment. I've purposefully left the shutters open causing the soft early morning light to paint the room golden. “They have a coffee machine,” I say while dancing a morning jig. What more could we ask for as we sip a fresh espresso appreciating the full, rich, spectacular experience - not of the coffee, well that too - but of the view from our room.
"Welcome I'm Jonathan," the waiter introduces himself as we arrive at the Ocean Terrace for breakfast. "I have a special table for you in my section." Aah, the special treatment continues! "Can I explain the breakfast to you?" he asks. And with our acquiesce he enthusiastically describes our gastronomical options.
"This is the cold section," he says pointing to a colorful array of fruits, cereals, pastries, cheeses, oysters…yes oysters!...and more. It looks like it should be in an art exhibition as the carvings, colors and creative displays tantalizingly draw one in. "And this is where you can choose a main meal," Jonathan continues. Once more we are regaled with a list of choices. I didn't realize eggs could be done in so many ways.
Seated at our table sipping a cappuccino, we do our best to be worthy of the tantalising options before us. The quiet chatter of a few other diners who are here mingles with the music and the sounds of the sea outside. The Oyster Box… “Well,” I think to myself, “Now I know how a pearl feels…it feels great!”
Some of the Oyster Box's well-deserved 2015 Awards...
Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - Voted No. 2 in the Top 25 Hotels in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor: Hall of Fame - Certificate of Excellence (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 3 Best Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 6 Best Hotel in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 13 Luxury Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 14 Best Service in South Africa (2015)
World Luxury Spa Awards: Voted Best Luxury Hotel Spa in South Africa (2015)
To find out more about The Oyster Box, and experience the ultimate in hospitality
“Welcome Mr and Mrs Blewett,” say both Nicole and another person in stereo as we sit in the plush chairs at the check-in of the Twelve Apostles hotel. They apologize for the stereo welcome, but I chuckle at their enthusiasm, it's a good sign for our timeout night of escape from the kids. Soon we are sitting sipping a welcome sparkling wine while Nicole checks us in.
Entering the Twelve Apostles hotel, named after the magnificent peaks that rise behind it, that border the majestic Table mountain range, is like being transported to another world. “It's a long story,” says Nicole in reply to our question as to how they got this spot. “The hotel began as a hunting lodge, was once an advertising agency, and various other twists and turns on its journey to what it is today.” This hotel really is one of a kind, and sitting on the side of one of the world's natural seven wonders on one side and the beautiful sea on the other is a story that is unlikely to ever be repeated.
After our check-in, Nicole chatting with us like long lost friends, shows us around this amazing boutique hotel on the way to our room. I'm already wishing we were staying here for longer. “I wonder if the kids would miss us if we stayed two nights?” I muse.
“Wow!” is the first word out my mouth as we are ushered into our room. A luxurious room filled with tranquil music, fresh orchids, chilled wine and a stunning view of the sea opens before us. Our bedroom draws in the sea through a large opening that looks across the inviting lounge...where the fresh fruit, snacks and chilled wine beckon...to the sea beyond.
After soaking up the ambiance for a while, we decide to go and check out the Leopard bar before dinner. We saw it on our guided tour en route to our room. A warm chatty vibe draws us in on this cold evening. Soon we are seated beside a roaring log fire and beneath slowly turning fans, reminiscent of a bygone colonial era, waving lazily above us.
“I'm part of the family,” Nsikelelo our waiter says as we engage him in conversation after he delivers our draft beers and a tasty snack selection of nuts and olives. We have asked him how long he has been here and we can see from his beaming face that he genuinely enjoys his job. There is something about a hotel where the staff are happy that transcends good service. It's seen in their natural and relaxed conversation and the obvious pride in where they work.
What particularly strikes me about this hotel is not just the friendliness and professionalism, but something else. I can't quite put my finger on it yet.
“We'd better go to dinner if we want to make our movie,” Nicky says. Wow, I can't believe it's already time for dinner. Time seems to compress here. We walk into the Azure restaurant and are seated at our corner table. Soft music, low light and happily chatting diners fill the ambiance.
We have booked in for their special three-course dinner and movie special. Jabu our waitress explains how the menu has two styles of food from two chefs. Bea Tollman’s dishes - the owner of this hotel, has designed some delicious traditional meals like chicken noodle soup and prawn stroganoff, which sound particularly tasty on a cold winter's evening, while executive chef Christo Pretorius does a range of European taste sensations. We choose one from both.
“Here is your goat cheese mousse with passion fruit,” says another beaming waiter who looks as proud as though he were the chef. Wow! If that's what they call the palette awakener then my taste buds are now certainly waiting in eager anticipation for the meal.
However, it's not just yet. A selection of corn bread, seed bread...even a Banting option with Salmon pate arrives. “It's all too tasty for words,” says Nicky as she reaches for more. I don't bother wasting time on commentary I'm trying convince my mouth to calm down and not gobble this taste sensation too quickly.
“For me food is about the experience,” we overhear a nearby diner saying to her friend who seem to be here for a birthday celebration. I couldn't agree more. And this meal is certainly becoming a sensual experience on so many levels. My taste buds are going crazy and our starters haven't even arrived!
“This is a crazy delicious,” taste I say as I try and make sense of the explosion of flavors in my Baby Calamari Risotto. The crispy tentacles balance the succulent roast calamari, while cauliflower, barley and sultana purée compete in a dance of precision for my attention. We should quit now while our taste buds are in heaven. But we can't. What's next?
“I'm bringing you 'Table mountain in the morning',” says Jabu as she delivers our palette cleanser. I stare confusedly at her. All of a sudden our berry sorbet palette cleansers are covered in a silky plume of soft smoke as a smoking table mountainesque scene, a magic combo of dry ice and water, creates a surreal effect on our table. Ok now I really should quit. This is not only a taste sensation but a visual splendor too.
Our main meal arrives. I'm almost nervous. Prawn Stroganoff. My poor tastebuds are already needing Ritalin to calm them down. They're behaving like ADHD kids in excited anticipation. The stroganoff is...I can't use words here. You are going to have to taste it because words will not capture this taste. All I can say is now my tastebuds are now really hyper!
“Wow Jabu you're busy tonight,” I say as I've watched her go from table to table with the same passion and enthusiasm. We chat briefly and she shares her story. Her rise from being unemployed to today working in this world-class restaurant and her vision to rise to the top. “Some of the regulars ask for me she says,” beaming with obvious pride, “and so sometimes I have to handle extra tables.” I can see why they ask for her. She loves what she does, and it shows.
It looks like one of those long thin perfect pools that you see at luxury resorts for the fitness fanatics to swim lengths in. But this is not designed for a swimmer but for the tongue. It's the most amazing creme brûlée severed in a long thin bowl and my tastebuds are now swimming hyperactive lengths.
Besides the beauty of this setting, what originally drew us to the hotel was the experience. There are many great restaurants. Great hotels. Yet for us we love an experience. That’s what our journey has always been about. And so when looking for a special place to spend the evening we were attracted by the “Overnight Dinner and a Movie” combo. I have a vision of sitting in an intimate movie theater after a lovely meal. And so with the meal done its now movie time. “Milkshake or hot chocolate for the movie?”Jabu asks. Before my overindulged tastebuds can respond by requesting both I order the hot chocolate.
We're seated in the conservatory sipping hot chocolate and snacking on a tub of popcorn which arrived, just in case we are still hungry, while enjoying an old Tom Hanks movie. I'm not sure how my body is taking all this in. But there's no stopping now. I'm sinking into the soft couch. My eyes are slowly closing. Thankfully my bed is close by. For now it's just Tom, hot chocolate and the prospect of pure bliss.
Finally as the soft sheets and feather pillows draw me back to our room I realize what the “something else” is about this hotel. “It's their stories!” Jabu's story, Nicole's story, Nsikelelo's story. Our fellow diner’s story. Even the hotel's own fascinating story. It's an intersecting of lives and stories, tastes and experiences that has made this such an authentic and special place. Maybe it is fitly named after the twelve apostles about whom such great stories were once written. One thing is certain, we’ve just written a single entry in our story here. I’ve heard about a dinner and star gazing…now that sounds like another experience waiting to become a story.