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.
One of the biggest surprises during our year of exploring South Africa was discovering the stark beauty of the Cederberg. And now we have been invited back to this incredible landscape - a place that ranks amongst the best places we have traveled.
It’s an easy, scenic drive from Cape Town up the west coast to Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve in the Cederberg mountains. The tar road gives up and we find ourselves winding slowly along a gravel road past jagged rocky outcrops and wide open vistas, before finally arriving to a royal welcome.
“Hello, I'm James the lodge manager, and this is Cecile the front office manager and Christiaan, your guide.”
Scented facecloths, welcome drinks and an orientation tour of the magnificent lodge complete our introduction to the resort.
There is something I’ve noticed at all the Red Carnation hotels we’ve visited so far - incredible service. You get beautiful hotels all over the world, but few deliver incredible service - a level beyond what you expect. Where the staff exude passion for what they’re doing and pleasure from making your stay exceptional. It’s not just incredible service…its incredible hospitality.
“There are four pools!” I exclaim.
“Yes,” Cecile replies, “and one is heated.”
And that's just the start. Luxurious lounge areas, secret gardens, a cozy pub, an inviting outdoor dining area, walking trails, archery, hiking, cycling…We are already excited by the time we reach our room where we are welcomed by a melding of home comfort with tasteful style. We take a few minutes to relax and enjoy a glass of wine and let the tranquility and beauty of Bushman's Kloof wash over us.
After a swim we get ready for the afternoon activities. These commence with high tea at 4pm, with the emphasis on high. From quiches to tarts to cakes and coffee, all enjoyed under the large outdoor thatched area overlooking soft green grass, alive with birds, stretching out towards an infinity pool that drops off into the stark, rugged terrain of the rocky outcrops beyond.
With tummies content we jump into our Landcruiser.
“Are there many animals around here?” I ask as Christiaan deftly navigates his way along the winding roads. Before long the answer is abundantly clear, as we see eland, springbok, bontebok, ostrich, zebra, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, and oryx. This harsh, rugged terrain is teeming with wildlife.
“Eland are the biggest antelope,” Christiaan says as we stop and watch a herd grazing alongside some springbok. “And springbok are the fastest.”
“Look at that one,” he says pointing at a lone bontebok. “ It's a unicorn!”
With only one horn it looks amazingly like a unicorn from some fantasy place. I’m beginning the believe we may be in a fantasy place.
After toasting the sunset in regal style overlooking the beautiful Biedouw valley below, and watching the sun paint the sky and rocks with splashes of red and orange, we head back to the lodge. If we thought the nature drive was amazing, what’s planned for tonight is going to be incredible.
As a dark veil is silently drawn across the sky revealing a sparkling treasure trove of stars, we head out into the inky darkness to a secret dinner location. Rounding a corner we are suddenly welcomed by twinkling lights and a roaring log fire causing shadows to dance on the lone stone cottage atop the hill, as if in celebration of our arrival.
Sitting around a crackling log fire on a cold autumn evening, sipping smooth red wine, and chatting while sparks dance towards the diamond studded sky is what fantasies are made of. Maybe the unicorn was real. As we move inside the fantasy continues, as we are seated at a table illuminated by the flickering light of 88 candles set atop candlesticks with long wax rivers frozen below them, as though reminders of a place where laughter, food and celebration have existed for aeons. “You can't capture this,” someone says. And they’re right. How do you describe magical.
And so begins the next adventure. A culinary journey. The chef describes each course before we our tongues are allowed to follow the tastes our minds have already conjured.
“Wow,” we gush, “after having just enjoyed the unique flavour of a deboned Karoo lamb shank pie. "That was delicious!”
“The lamb was slow roasted for 6 hours,” the chef says revealing some of his culinary secrets.
“Would you like to see the stars before dessert?” Christiaan asks as we recline in our chairs letting the wonder of the moment carry us away. We follow him outside into the inky darkness. The wind has magically stopped completely, and a sparkling necklace of diamonds has been tossed haphazardly across the sky. It's truly incredible. Stars like I have seldom seen before. Christiaan points out Mars, Venus, Orion, and Scorpio.
“And look there," he says, as we stare through binoculars at the regal display, “It's the moons of Jupiter.”
As I finally lie back in the soft warm comfort of my bed back at the lodge, slowly succumbing to sleeps embrace, I am left wondering whether it was a dream, a fantasy...
“We are going to explore some rock art,” Christiaan says as we clamber into the Landcruiser the next morning. The Cederberg is famous for its rock art - two kinds of rock art. One are the thousands of works of art left by the nomadic bushmen who once inhabited this area, and the other are the incredible sculpted spires and jagged peaks forged by the ravages of wind and rain upon the arid canvas of this desert land.
“It's a short walk,” Christiaan says as we follow him around large boulders up to an overhanging cave-like shelter. We’ve stepped through a portal and back in time. The walls are alive with art - eland, elephant and the bushmen. A world from a another time comes alive as Christiaan explains the stories depicted in these ancient and beautiful works of art. Once more it seems magical. Almost a fantasy, as we are transported to other worlds, other times, hidden behind towering rock behemoths standing like silent, frozen sentinels.
“That's what’s unique about this place,” I muse as we enjoy a late breakfast back at the lodge “It's a fantasy world, where old and new, rugged and sublime, earth and heaven meet in a surreal dance. It's a world that not only calms the soul but energizes the spirit. A world not explained - a world that must be experienced. Quite simply it’s magic...unicorn and all!
Bushman's Kloof was recently voted by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, the No. 1 resort in South Africa and the No 3 in the category Best Hotels and Resorts in the world!
To find out more about Bushman's Kloof Wilderness Reserve visit their website.
For millennia man has wanted to fly, but has been held back by his innate fear of death by forceful impact. So I’m not sure why we didn’t think of kite surfing years ago. Standing on the beach at Langebaan, one of the best places to kite surf in South Africa, I’m in awe of the serious air time the kite surfers - or are they flyers - get. It’s a blend of sport and art, hip-hop and ballet.
“Hi, I’m Shaun,” the friendly guy behind the counter at The Kite Lab greets us with a smile. “Josh is going to really enjoy this,” he says. Josh has long wanted to learn to kitesurf, and has spent endless hours mastering his power kite, enjoying being dragged through the sand and water in the quest for the thrill. The Kite Lab, in Langebaan says it is “South Africa’s number one kitesurfing lessons and gear centre” so they seem the obvious choice for the next step in Joshua’s flying adventure.
Soon Josh has his kit, and is headed down to the beach along with his instructor. “I’m George (pronounced in some indecipherable Greek way - which really makes this Greek-styled village feel authentic), I will be teaching Joshua,” he says. “When the conditions are right,” George continues, “we train at Shark Bay.”
“Hmm,” I think to myself, “I’m glad the conditions are not right - the name sounds ominous.” Later I find out it’s a name given for harmless sand sharks that come their during certain times to mate. “But today, because the wind is a little bit light,” he says gesticulating towards the wind which seems to be blowing pretty hard as far as a Durbanite is concerned, “today…we will learn here at the main beach.”
While Nicky and I relax on the beach, Josh and George begin the first of his two 3-hour lessons, flying a kite. He’s taught how to control it, what the power-zone is, reading the wind, and loads more. He seems to be mastering this, so we wander off to grab a beer at Pearlys overlooking the beach. This is the life! When we return Josh has upgraded. He is now attached to a real kitesurfing kite and is learning to control it on the beach.
“Josh will now let the kite pull him in the water, without the board,” George explains. “But he is very safe. I will talk to him with the radio,” he says pointing to a radio that is attached to the head gear Josh is wearing. I’m really impressed by Kite Lab’s training system. Not only does this radio provide a safety system whereby the instructor is always in contact with the student, and there is a rescue boat also on patrol that can be radioed at any time to pick up a wayward student, but it also puts the instructor in the student’s head. What better way to learn, than have your instructor giving you instructions all the time while you’re mastering your manoeuvres .
Soon Josh is having serious fun as he’s dragged like some hyperactive seal through the sea. Every now and then he manages to manipulate the kite and he leaps right out of the water, while all the time George runs along the beach issuing instructions.
“Tomorrow,” George says, “Josh will use the board.”
I can see he’s really excited about that…Josh, that is - and George too!
The weather does not play nicely and so “tomorrow” turns out to be the “day after tomorrow”, but soon Josh is back in the water, and this time he has a board strapped to his feet too.
“It’s important for him to understand the kite first,” George explains, “and then he can focus on the board.”
We watch as Josh begins to master standing. It reminds me a bit of when I learned to ski - it takes time, but as Alan who is the founder of the Kite Lab said earlier when we spoke to him, “once you’ve learned you never forget!”
By the end of his second lesson Josh is getting up and beginning to experience the thrill of the ride.
Houston, we have a problem. The bug has bitten. It’s like giving cake to a sweet'oholic. Josh has tasted the thrill, the power, the adrenaline of kitesurfing…he hasn’t flown…yet, but he knows he surely can. For now he’ll have to wait, because our time here is up, but he’s already plotting his return.
“Josh,” a friend asks him a few days later, “what has been the best thing you’ve done on your year-long holiday adventure?”
Without hesitation he answers - “Kitesurfing!”
“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?
What do King Goodwill Zwelithini, President Thabo Mbeki and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They've all stayed at Ingeli Forest Lodge, and we've been invited to check it out.
We make our way along the N2 heading south as we attempt to escape the busy Christmas traffic of Durban. Turning off we follow the road past Oribi Gorge as the bustling towns are replaced with rolling hills dressed in Sappi forests and interspersed with colorful huts dotting the hills. Finally the pine trees also give way to thick indigenous forests, as a sign on the roadside informs us we have reached our destination - Ingeli Forest Lodge.
Set back from the main road, the hotel welcomes the visitor with a commanding thatched entrance and a large deck area that looks out over the green grassed area below replete with tennis court, a serious looking adventure putt-putt course and a kids play area. Tasteful Christmas decorations set a festive scene in the entrance and are made complete by the smile we receive from Rejoice at check-in.
Built way back in 1973, in the era of roadside motels, travelers would stop here regularly and receive a Kingdom of Ingeli passport that was stamped with each visit. Once a year a "prime minister" was elected as friends regularly met up in this fun, family hotel. The hotel has now been refurbished and extended to a 44-room hotel. I can see the obvious signs of attention to detail in the décor as we enter our hotel room which is tastefully decorated and flows out through a large sliding door onto a patio and the central grass area with a pool. “Check out the Victorian bath,” I say as I inspect the bathroom, “this is going to be great way to end a day.”
The rate includes dinner and breakfast, and so we will most likely end up more circle-shaped than when we arrived. But then apparently there is lots of active things we can do too…but the only activity filling my mind, as we enter the dining room, is what food should I eat?
The dining room is intimate with tables arranged around a central serving area, giving it a cozy feel – something that is often lacking in hotel dining rooms, and especially appreciated on a cool night like tonight. Soon we are warmed in and out, after enjoying a tasty roast with all requisite vegetables. Tomorrow we will explore Ingeli’s forest area…and address some of the weight gain from our delicious feast. Eish…I’ve overeaten…but it was just so delicious!
Dawn brings a misty cool day today, which means it's a perfect opportunity to explore the forests that cluster around the hotel. We are very impressed with all the cycling and walking trails Ingeli offers. Our first exploration is to the forest across the road. This 10km path winds through thick indigenous forest but also comes festooned with spiders. That’s the price you pay for indigenous…maybe we just have to up our adventurous spirit… however, after about an hour we decide to turn back as this is a 10km route and we are receiving numerous “status updates” from some of the kids on the trauma of walking so far in such spidery conditions - although it's not them who have to battle the arachnids.
Back at the hotel we grab a couple of beers and sit in the overstuffed couches enjoying some time reading in the lounge - which of course naturally brings on hunger. This is quickly dealt with when we order some pizzas to share. I'm impressed by the thick, juicy pizzas, and we are soon all licking our lips in gastronomic appreciation. While pizzas next to a log fire are blissful, nothing beats exploring and hiking for us, and so it’s time to head out again.
A magical silvery mist is now hanging thickly over the treetops which creates a perfect condition for walking. There's a shorter 3km walk to a dam that we try this time. This is obviously a more popular path, as there are no spider webs and the walking/cycle track is well maintained as it winds through thick, indigenous forest alive with the sounds of hundreds of birds.
The path winds down into a valley finally emerging at a tranquil lake. We sit down at one of the tables set beside the lake and are transported to a surreal place as we sip our red wine beneath a silky veil of mist, before a mirror still lake reflecting the green forested wonderland around us. "Shh...," says Nicky as we sit there.
"Be quiet for a moment and just listen."
The only sounds filling the air are the sounds of insects and birds dreamily drifting in the air.
We don't do enough of this.
Just being still.
What a perfect spot to do just that...especially with a glass of good red wine.
As I lounge in the warmth of my luxurious Victorian bath, back in our room, my thoughts drift like the mist to Oprah and friends. “It doesn’t really matter how rich or famous you are,” I muse, “peace and joy are found only by those who create the space, the moments, the opportunity to experience it.” And in this moment, I’ve found that space.
It’s the iconic sound of Africa, the cry of the fish eagle that draws me from my blissful somnolence. Opening my eyes I’m rewarded with a visual feast. The mirror-still estuary reflects the blue sky and the tropical forests that cluster on the surrounding hills. Faintly I can hear the deep baritone thump of the distant waves as they attempt to enter the estuary. This is the Estuary Hotel & Villas, near Port Edward on the KZN South Coast. It's a place we come to about five times a year…and we’ve been coming here for over 10 years, and this is exactly why!
“Let’s go for a canoe,” Nicky suggests as I come fully awake after the all important morning coffee. We grab our canoe and paddle up towards the river that enters the estuary. It looks like a knife slicing a mirror as we cut through the water. A flash of colour. It’s the stunning Malachite kingfisher skimming above the water in search of breakfast. Every time we canoe up the river I feel like I’m entering a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, as the thick, indigenous coastal forest, complete with vines, and huge legavaans lounging on rocks, closes in around us. And it seems we are not the only ones who think this. Earlier in the year we were surprised when we came upon an entire village that had sprung up in the forest over night. A village with canoes, reed huts, dried fish hanging….we couldn’t believe it. It turned out to be a set built by Disney for their new movie Jungle Book. However it had no sooner miraculously appeared in all it’s intricate detail than it vanished again leaving only the jungle setting.
“What’s that?” says Nicky pointing ahead as we round the corner of the river. “Oh, my hat! I can’t believe it.” Sure enough there appears to be more buildings in the forest. This time it’s an old trading store and pump house. Once more it turns out to be a set for another movie.
After our morning canoe adventure we head down to the beach. It’s a short stroll and we are soon seated on velvet soft sand pondering whether we should heed the siren’s call of the smooth swells that are rolling up the shore. I love this beach - it’s beautiful white sand, framed by the estuary and lush tropical forests on the surrounding hills. It’s little wonder that there’s a wedding taking place on the beach. What a spot to seal the deal as guests seated on white trimmed chairs, sans their shoes, enjoy the ultimate cathedral under the endless blue sky.
“How about a beer at Bobbys?” I suggest after we’ve enjoyed our swim and are now drying like content lizards. This is one invitation that never requires repeating. Beach Bobbys is just a short stroll across the beach and soon we are seated on their lovely deck area where we satiate out thirst with an icecold draft beer and the requisite plate of wedges, while looking out for dolphins and whales in the sea.
Time here seems to fold in on itself as morning somehow becomes afternoon, and afternoon melts away into evening. It’s as though the tranquility of the estuary is reflected in the tranquility of time. As the sun begins to set and turns the estuary into a canvas of red, orange, and pink we stroll up to the Estuary hotel. This beautiful hotel, originally designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is set atop a hill and commands stunning views of the living canvas below it. What better spot to enjoy our sundowners.
“Hi, I'm Quinton,” the assistant manager introduces himself. “Would you like a snack basket with your drinks?” Now that sounds like a great idea. As we sit outside sipping our wine and enjoying a tasty snack basket of samoosas, calamari, chicken and other goodies we soak in the vista.
The soft orange light of the restaurant draws us in as outside the deep purples of early evening create a stunning living painting behind us. It's not just by chance the restaurant is called the Fish Eagle Restaurant. Here you feel like a fish eagle perched up high, and the cry of these magnificent birds often floats in the air.
Tonight we have options of the buffet or the a la carte. Normally I'd go for a la carte, but the buffet looks good, so I opt for that. The delicious looking beef curry is probably what sways me, and I'm not disappointed.
With great resolve I have small portions of the crumbed chicken, pasta and other items reserving myself for the curry. Aah…and how good it is. Succulent and spicy. My love with curry is reaffirmed. The chef TK comes out to see how we are enjoying our meal and I congratulate him on his curry. Here's hoping he keeps it up because I'd go back just for that, not to mention the best views on the South Coast.
As I lean back in my chair, satiated visually and gastronomically, I am left in no doubt why we keep on coming back to this amazing place. A blend of wild and modern, beauty and adventure, forest and sea, action and tranquility…and at the moment it’s tranquility that’s winning, as we head off to bed accompanied by the distant sound of the sea and the goodnight chorus of nighttime birds and insects.
For more info on the Estuary Hotel, check out their website here!
“Wow, that’s a nice entrance,” I say as we arrive at Bushman’s Nek hotel. It’s our first time here although we are regulars in the beautiful Southern Berg. The bubbling sound of the waterfall welcomes us in, but that is nothing compared to the pools inside. Soon we are oo’ing and ah’ing at the hotel’s huge rim flow rock pool, complete with waterfalls, a slide and even hidden heated pools and coves. The pool ushers in the view across the green valley below, dotted with horses grazing, to the majestic Drakensberg mountains. It looks like we’ve found another reason why we love the Southern Drakensberg. We are going to enjoy wiling away our days in these pools.
What we don’t take into account is that there is just so much to do here, and so pool soaking time will have to fit in with cycling, running, hiking, putt-putt, paintball, tennis, bowls, archery, squash, coffee-shops, sundowners, horse riding, bingo, games, exploring. It reminds me of Basil Faulty’s quip in response to the brash American tourist boasting about all they could do in a day, “Sounds exhausting!” But this is the exhausting we just love!
“The roof is still the original roof, and the buildings are all over 100 years old,” says the elderly lady taking her dogs for an early morning walk. Nicky and I have headed out for an early cycle along the beautiful gravel road that runs from the hotel towards the mountains and the Lesotho border. We’ve stopped at an old stone building that houses a store and quaint coffee shop. “You must come back later when we’re open,” she says, “our carrot cake is delicious.” Friendly locals, stunning vistas, historic buildings, and fresh air – with the promise of tasty treats – this is a stunning place.
Sunday lunch. It’s one meal that holds a special place for millions of people around the world, and today we’re going to enjoy it in this beautiful mountain paradise. The smell draws us in, as only the smell of roast beef can. Unlike many hotel restaurants Busman's Nek restaurant is intimate and cozy but with beautiful views through huge glass windows of the majestic mountains outside.
“This is how Yorkshire Pudding should be made,” I say as I sink my teeth into the puffy, crisp on the outside but airy-soft in the inside, Sunday roast delicacy. Paired with perfectly done roast beef and the full ensemble of Sunday vegetables I'm reminded why Sunday roasts have an aura of joy about them.
Josh has chosen paintball as his outing of choice for his birthday, much to the horror of some of his siblings. Just below the hotel is a stunning horse farm, which also boasts a lovely coffee shop offering everything from Oreo milkshakes to BarOne waffles. It’s here amidst the tall trees of a forest that the action unfolds.
Thud, thud, thwat.
The sound of paintballs striking the trees harmlessly, leaving a trail of blue paint running slowly down them, like the promise of pain. As I run from tree to tree letting off a volley of bullets for cover I get closer to the flag poking enticingly out from an old car discarded amongst the tall forest trees.
OK, now I know why there was some reticence about this. It’s not paintball, its painball…but fun nonetheless, as we proudly compare bruises and share stories once the paint has dried.
The hotel is putting on an evening braai on the lawn, and so we grab our meat and go and join in. The sun is setting in dramatic beauty behind broken clouds, transforming the valley below into golden green. A spectacle we enjoy sitting on a cushioned swing bench hanging between two huge oak trees. Sipping a glass of wine and watching the stunning display unfold on this grand scale again affirms why this part of the world is one of my favorites.
Hannah and Josh braai our meat and soon we are enjoying it together with pap, sauce, salad and other extras the hotel has provided. What an epic spot to end an epic day…well, it’s not quite ended.
“Come on dad,” Hannah urges. “It's warm and you'll like it.” The children have decided that night swimming is a fitting end to our day. After leaping in the cold pool they are now luxuriating in the blue ethereal glow of the heated pool. Seeing the family all floating happily in the pool I steel my resolve and decide to join them. I’m immediately enveloped in lovely warmth as I float beneath an endless dark sky stretched above. It feels like a dream…but I suppose that is what this stunning place is - a dream destination.
Finally it's a sunny day - I would never have thought I would start with those words. There was a time when we would say, "wow, look a cloud." We are currently at one of our favourite spots in the Berg - Southern Berg, Drakensberg Gardens. The last few days have been fresh, but today the majestic golden orb shines majestically into this special valley.
We are headed to Underberg to replenish supplies and check out the area a little. "I want us to pop into this coffee shop," Nicky says as we arrive at a sign on the road from Drakensberg Gardens that says "The Olde Duck".
On our travels we love exploring and discovering new places. We've been staying at Drakensberg Gardens resort for many years but we have never been to this coffee shop. I suppose it's due to a combo of two things. Firstly, our "coffee snob" issue - we can't handle bad coffee. Secondly, our suspicion about coffee shops tucked into the back rooms of farms. Hey, but we enjoy adventure.
So it is that to our tyres crunch along the gravel road as we drive towards the coffee shop. I'm surprised to see a couple of other cars parked here. It's a Monday. It's a little coffee shop on a farm road. They have customers...why? I'm about to discover.
"Let's pop into this shop first," Nicky says as her voice trails after her vanishing form. The Vanilla Rose is a gift shop next door to the coffee shop. It's not your typical farm store shop, with a few preserves and pickled onions on wooden shelves. Whoever put this shop together certainly has style. It's full of gifts, tasteful decor items, clothes and other accessories.
However...I'm bored in 2 minutes. It's not my kind of shop - where's that coffee shop. I'm feeling a lot more optimistic. As we enter the Olde Duck my anticipation begins to rise. The same tasteful decor welcomes us into the warm interior where the sound of a crackling fire mingles with the chatter of patrons and the tantalizing smell of coffee in the air.
We are ushered in with a friendly welcome to our table by Di. We sit at a table near the huge glass windows that afford us views of the green fields, awash in the golden glow of the morning sun, stretching towards the magnificent mountains in the distance.
"So how's your coffee?" I ask Di. It's our standard question, although I'm not sure why we ask it. Everyone always answers, "great!" - yet few are. Normally I look to see what their coffee machine looks like, and then I ask to meet the barrister so I can ask them a few questions. Our motto is simple - "If in doubt have tea." However my trepidation is about to vanish.
"We just won second place in the Top 100 coffee shops for Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands," Di says proudly pointing at the new award hanging on the wall. Now I'm getting excited. However we have been to places that have won awards and not been impressed. After all, every coffee is a single work - and if the barrister is off his or her game or it's another barrister, it's just not the same.
It's then that we get to meet Siya, the barrister. He beaming with pride about their win and I can already sense that he loves what he does. That's a good sign. And I'm about to discover why he looks so proud. "I learned most of what I know from watching YouTube videos and then practicing," he says. Wow, that is impressive. It's time to taste what he can do.
Soon the welcome hiss of Flat Whites being crafted fills the air as we wait in eager anticipation. Moments later our carrot cakes are delivered followed by four works of art. Wow! Without taking a sip I can normally predict if the flat white will be good. This is looking fantastic. The foam looks dense, the cup size is perfect and the temperature feels just right. What's really amazing are the four animals perfectly painted atop our coffees in the foam - an elephant, beer, pig and rabbit.
Flavor, smooth, rich, explosion. That's what the first sip is. I've found one of the best flat whites I've ever had. Accompanied by a delicious, moist carrot cake, stunning views, and warm atmosphere we've stumbled upon the secret of the Berg, and I can't wait to come back again. It just shows, you never know what might lie at the end of a little farm road.
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