Hidden Gems

Our regular feature in which we explore some fascinating off-the-beaten-track places and unique experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve …the Klein Karoo at its wildest best

By Zainab Achmat

I recently enjoyed the privilege of spending a couple of days at the Sanbona Wildife Reserve a stone’s throw from the picturesque and historic little town of Montagu in the heart of the Klein Karoo (Little Karoo). What a delight! As far as Hidden Gems go, this one is an absolute jewel.

Driving up from Montague to the reserve, I was struck by the rugged beauty of the surroundings – a vast landscape of indigenous flora punctuated by fascinating rock formations. Then, as we entered the reserve, we spotted in the distance some of the other treats that lay in store – an abundance of wildlife including the fabulous Big Five. Booked into our accommodation, our hosts made sure we were treated to every possible creature comfort.

Over the following few days we were spoiled rotten with delicious and wholesome farm-style cuisine. When not enjoying action-packed days out on safari – two daily game drives or wilderness walks – we felt like royalty relaxing in the comfortable lounge and relaxation areas, out on the pool decks with swimming pools, or at the superb spa facilities. The Relaxation Retreat menu presents a range of therapies and treatments, including a steam room at Gondwana and Tilney Manor. Other activities included wildlife excursions and photographic safaris, stargazing and guided rock art walks – all of this within a scenic 3-hour drive from Cape Town along the popular Route 62.

Our visit coincided with Sanbona Wildlife Reserve’s recent unveiling of its new-look Dwyka Tented Lodge and Gondwana Family Lodge. Recognised as one of South Africa’s largest privately-owned reserves, Sanbona stretches across 58,000 hectares of the wide-open plains of the Klein Karoo and is known as the Western-Cape’s premier wildlife destination. It offers an authentic safari experience in a malaria-free area close to the hustle and bustle of South Africa’s second city, yet so far removed from it because of the overwhelming tranquillity you’ll find here.

Sanbona is a sanctuary for indigenous flora and fauna, including the Big 5, but it is the vastness of the landscape and the alluring isolation amid the raw beauty and boundless plains which sets it apart. Embraced by striking rock formations, Dwyka Tented Lodge, which accommodates 18 guests in nine luxury tents with private Jacuzzis, is set in a horseshoe bend of a dry Karoo ravine framed by the beautifully weathered landscape.

The secluded lodge has received a complete revamp to the lounge and dining areas and the nine luxury tents, each with its own private deck and heated Jacuzzi, to epitomise the romance of a pioneering wilderness adventure. Tilney Manor caters for only 12 guests in six spacious open-plan suites leading on to private verandas. Gondwana Family Lodge also had a total face lift to the 12 suites, as well as the main lodge dining and lounge areas. Offering a family-safari in style, Gondwana welcomes children of all ages and is equipped with a kids’ TV lounge, indoor and outdoor play areas with a child-friendly swimming pool.

With mountain views the spacious thatched lodge overlooks the dam and is ideal for groups of friends and families travelling together. Inter-leading rooms are available, and all suites come with a comfortable sleeper couch to accommodate a child. The Sanbona Kids on Safari programme at Gondwana offers educational and recreational wildlife experiences. Welcome Packs include the Sanbona Activity Book filled with educational and interactive activities to teach children in a fun way about the wildlife at Sanbona.  Children four years and older are welcome on game drives with their parents, while the Interpretive trail takes children of all ages through the gardens to learn about important plants and animals on the reserve. There are many other kids’ activities too.

Under the stewardship of non-profit conservation organisation, the Caleo Foundation, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and sister property Jock Safari Lodge in the Kruger National Park have been pioneers of conservation, reserve development and eco-tourism. Sustainability and responsible utilisation are the cornerstones of all lodge operations.

Great Brak River…charming hamlet on a river and an island

By Stef Terblanche

While driving on the N2 highway, about midway between Mossel Bay and George, the road suddenly descends sharply from both directions and crosses a bridge over the wide expanse of a lagoon. You are crossing the Great Brak River, once the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony.

In the vicinity of the bridge you’ll notice a petrol station, restaurant and some other activity. Towards the seaside you’ll see some holiday homes in the distance, and if you look towards the inland side, you’ll spot a hint of a village nestled in a deep valley surrounded by forested hills. Travelling up the Great Brak Heights on the George side of the bridge, looking down, you’ll see what used to be a railway station and an island full of holiday homes in the river mouth.

But if you don’t slow down, turn-off and explore, that’s all you will see. While viewing this from your speeding car is still as pretty a picture as they come along the famous Garden Route, you will be missing out on experiencing a true slice of heaven on earth.

Over the years the holiday mansions lining the sand dunes by the sea – an area called Southern Cross – and up in the hills above the island have multiplied, and the commercial activity by the bridge was added. But in the little hamlet of Great Brak River proper, not much has changed.

Here, around the river in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, the 10,000 odd residents still go about their daily business pretty much in the same way their forebears did, with many of them still living in the little cottages the local shoe factory built for its workers. For many years the shoe factory, still producing its famous Watsons shoes, and a saw mill were the commercial core of the village. Today the village forms part of the Garden Route District Municipality.

The village straddles the river that emerges at this point from a deep, narrow valley to widen into a large lagoon. A small bridge connects the eastern and western parts of the village at a junction in the road marked by the Searle Memorial Church with its terracotta roof tiles and Mediterranean look. On either side of this pretty little church you’ll see two large and stately Victorian country manor homes, one on the bank of the river, the other high up on the wooded hill. These were homes in which the founding members of the Searle dynasty once lived. They once owned this entire village.

The Searles were the legendary founders and owners of much of Great Brak River who arrived here from Surrey, England. Richard Searle, a labourer, arrived in South Africa in 1845, and then worked at Great Brak River for the Central Road Board from 1850, where he was soon joined by his younger brother Charles, and sister-in-law Pamela. In 1859 they founded the village of Great Brak River and became the local toll-keepers (operated by private contractors back then, much the same as today’s tollgates on major highways).

They soon established a shop, tannery, saw mill and the shoe factory. More businesses were added and in 1949 the company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange as Searles Holdings. In 1980 it was sold to Desmond Bolton, becoming Bolton Footwear in 1987. Shoes could not readily be bought in the area back in the 1860s, so like everyone else around here, Charles started making his own rugged leather “veldskoene” – stitch-down boots that he started selling to the operators of the ox-wagon trains transporting goods between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They proved so popular that soon the shoe factory was established, which prides itself to this day on the fact that all its shoes are handcrafted.

On a personal note, I remember as a small child accompanying my mother on occasion to both of the Searle homes for tea and scones. I distinctly remember the one Searle lady – I no longer recall her name – seeming quite proper and very English with a regal appearance and thought to myself, this is what the Queen must look like. The picture has stuck in my mind.

Today most of the village still consists of the original Searle homes (one is now a B&B establishment), the church plus a later addition by the Dutch Reformed Church, the primary and secondary schools (although now housed in modern buildings), the shoe factory, some shops, the timber business, the factory labourers’ cottages, a police station and a camping and caravan park on the banks of the river. The village and the valley are green and lush, with the deep dark waters of the river tranquilly flowing through it, bringing a sense of serenity to the village. The character is still quaintly old-world, much the way it must have been towards the end of Charles and Richard’s time.

More houses, restaurants and other businesses later developed along the road leading down to the sea as well as housing developments on the road going up the hill towards the Outeniqua Mountains and the erstwhile mission station of Friemersheim. In 1869 the Reverend Johann Kretzen of the Berliner Missionary Society established a school and church at Friemersheim on a part of the farm Gonnakraal, which Kretzen had bought for his sister. When she died in 1872, he bequeathed it to the Dutch Reformed Missionary Society, and it was renamed Friemersheim, after Kretzen’s town of birth in Germany. In the 1960s it was sold to the state.

Apart from the original mission church, here at Friemersheim you can still visit the home of the original owner of Gonnakraal, Petrus (Pieter)Terblanche, a direct forebear of this writer. His wife, known as Hanna Agent, was a legendary character of whom many stories are still told although much exaggeration has been added onto the original stories over the years. This house, mostly still intact and lived in, later became a slave lodge when they built a second home for themselves. The slave house was built in the style of a German longhouse, which in turn was based on the Viking longhouse.

One current occupant of the house, Aunt Millie Uithaler, and her helpers cook about 100 bottles of delicious jam each day that are for sale. Inside the house one can still see the yellowwood beams that the slaves originally cut down up in the mountain. Preceding Aunt Millie, other more recent occupants of the house included the late Stegman, a legendary self-taught motor mechanic of the area and his wife, Dollie, and later the indefatigable farm manager of Gonnakraal, Abraham (Tier) Pieters. Looking across a ploughed field from the slave house, the graves of Petrus and Hanna can still be seen in the field.

It is here also that the first Volkwyn arrived in the early 1800s and started making furniture, which later led to the brothers Charlie, Hennie, Isak and Aser of Friemersheim producing their famous Volkwyn yellowwood and stinkwood furniture, a tradition still carried on by their descendants. Most famous of all was their ‘Volkwyn Chair’, also known as the ‘Cape Regent Chair’, a much sought-after antique piece these days.

There are also a number of newly established private game reserves in the area where the owners have reintroduced some of the wild game that once thrived here, as well as a few odd species that never really existed here. Unfortunately, some of these reserves have either demolished or transformed many of the original buildings of these farms or built new ones – in one case an entire ‘safari’ village – that have changed the original character of the immediate area. They have also somehow managed to ‘privatise’ the gravel road to Little Brak River, a very scenic route that follows the river and is now closed to the public, much to the chagrin of locals who have lived here for generations and used the road as the shortest route to Little Brak River and Mossel Bay.

Back in Great Brak River you can cross the bridge to the eastern side where the shoe factory is and then follow the road towards the sea. After passing under the N2 bridge you’ll find the old railway station, now a popular restaurant famed for its excellent food and wine. Nearby is a rickety single lane bridge to The Island, barely wide enough for one car at a time. The island is completely filled with holiday homes, but offers a few lovely, small secluded coves and beaches alongside the river. The river and lagoon are ideal for leisurely kayaking, allowing you to observe the bird and marine life of the lagoon.

Following the road back to the western side and then towards the sea, you’ll pass some lovely sand dunes ideal for sandboarding, although the dunes today look much smaller than when we were kids. Close to the sea the lagoon provides a lovely naturally enclosed corner ideal for swimming. Cross over the small dune to the beach and miles and miles of Indian Ocean fronted beach is yours for the taking. From May to November the sea provides the added attraction of pods of Southern Right and other whales playing just behind the surf.

There are also a number of excellent hiking routes in the area, some along the river, some near the ocean and others making their way through the forested hills around the village. Other attractions in the area include the local history museum (housed in the old school house built in 1902 on Amy Searle Street), the Wolwedans Dam, an art route, cycling routes, the nearby Outeniqua Mountains, a fragrance route (lavender planted in local gardens) and a historic route. There are also a wide variety of excellent B&Bs, restaurants, coffee shops and pubs. Next time you pass here along the N2, do take a day or two off to explore this magnificent little paradise.

Kwafubesi Tented Safari Camp…luxury ‘camping’ and Big Five two hours from Gauteng

By Sophie Baker

“If you can’t remember my name, you can just call me Sir Rhino. People even write that on TripAdvisor” our smiling guide Cyrano chirps from the front of the game vehicle. We had left Pretoria just two hours earlier in the pouring rain for a relaxing bush weekend at Kwafubesi Tented Safari Camp, situated within the Mabula Game Reserve. Fortune was on our side as the rain eased off and the sun valiantly shone through gaps in the clouds on our Big Five-spotting adventure.

A small, intimate lodge of only five luxury tents, it’s clear from the get-go that good service is the name of the game at Kwafubesi. We’re greeted at the main Mabula lodge by the Kwafubesi camp manager Sammy, before eating lunch and being driven to the camp by Cyrano, where chef Johannes is waiting for us with a wide smile and a cold iced tea. Our bags are neatly deposited in our canvas tents while we ready ourselves for the first game drive of the stay; with the other guests running late due to the rain, we had a private drive.

My requests? Oh, just the entire Big Five in one weekend. ‘I’ve only ever managed to do that twice’ laughs Cyrano ‘but I’ll try.’ I compromise and say that I’ll settle for a cheetah instead of a leopard if necessary, which, strangely, doesn’t seem to make him any more sceptical. We get off to a good start with rhino and elephant on the first day, alongside the usual host of buck, zebra, and warthogs.

He’s a passionate, enthusiastic guide with a knowledge that far exceeds his years and from the titbits of information on birdlife, plants, and bushveld-related survival, we instantly recognise that any game drive with him at the helm will be an exciting one. Throughout the weekend we manage four of the Big Five, with only the leopard managing to elude us. With much urging, the ever-obliging Cyrano does his best to find the cheetah instead but after following their tracks for an hour, we just can’t quite pin them down.

Nevertheless, it’s quickly forgotten after spotting a lone Kalahari lion male strolling through the bush, his thick black mane enough to make the Kardashians jealous.  We were granted the privilege of being the only vehicle privy to his display before he quietly disappeared into the surrounding bush five minutes later. Another highlight is a horseback safari where ten minutes in, we find ourselves a mere two metres away from two rhinos. They’re unperturbed by the presence of the horses, who regularly graze with them and despite my own unease about locking eyes with a two-ton animal, it’s the kind of experience that takes your breath away.

Everything about Kwafubesi is designed to be intimate and customisable. After arriving back from a chilly evening game drive on the first night, we were promptly handed a glass of sherry before our orders are taken for the night. “Everything is set up for the private dinner on your deck already” Sammy says. It’s news to me but I’m definitely taking all the credit, and it’s clear that Sammy knows this when he winks and whispers to me that he thought it would be a nice surprise. After taking our orders (leek soup, salmon and couscous, and a chocolate brownie and raspberry coulis) we’re led back to our tents which have been painstakingly set up with red tablecloths, white china, perfectly folded napkins, a gas lantern, and a good Pinotage ready to be enjoyed. You can request this for any lunch or dinner at Kwafubesi. It’s date night to the extreme and trust me when I say that you’ll be earning serious brownie points with your significant other for setting it up.

On the second night, after a day filled with game viewing, indulgent spa treatments, reading next to the pool, lazy gin and tonics, and long soaks in the stone baths we take dinner in the boma. A feast of perfectly cooked meat and traditional accompaniments keep the noise down as we all tuck in, but as the flames grow and the wine flows there’s a satisfied, appreciative murmur emanating from all ten guests as we relive our stories from the bush.

The night draws to a close when Cyrano and Sammy come skipping down to the bonfire excitedly asking if we’d like to see Steve, their resident porcupine. The answer is a resounding yes, so, gathering up our wine glasses with the intention of retiring to our tents after a night-time porcupine sighting, we leave the remaining embers to slowly burn out. Steve has conveniently parked himself right outside our canvas hotel, so we get five minutes of admiring his long quills and the clear night skies before zipping our door closed for the night and retiring to our king size bed.

We fall into a deep sleep tucked up under the goose down duvet, ready for one final jaunt on the game drive vehicle the next morning before leaving the company of elephants and lion and returning to the city feeling rested and thoroughly at peace with the world.

The Novelty of Newlands… from hipsters to history buffs, there’s something for everyone

Supplied

From its majestic Josephine Mill Museum and Brewery Tours that take you back in time, to its trendy Dean Street corridor, nestling in the southern suburbs of Cape Town behind the mountain, Newlands will satisfy anyone from hipsters to history buffs.

Although it’s tucked away in a quiet pocket between Rondebosch and Claremont, the largely-residential suburb of Newlands is hardly sleepy. Newlands is famous for many things besides its quaint Victorian cottages and winding back lanes: renowned sports stadia, landmark hotels, excellent restaurants, superlative schools such as SACS and Westerford, gourmet food shops, significant national monuments, a design centre, and a natural spring whose ever-flowing waters defied the recent drought in the Western Cape. It’s also notorious for being the wettest suburb in Cape Town due to its annual rainfall levels.

Trivia aside, here are some of the not-to-miss aspects of Newlands:

The Josephine Mill Museum is open to visitors by appointment, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to appreciate the building. Astonishing for its industrial revolution architecture and a water wheel that still functions, the on-site restaurant is set on the banks of the gently burbling Liesbeek River. Close by is the Newlands Brewery, one of the oldest commercial beer breweries in South Africa. The #beerexperience will take you on a tour through all things malt and hops. Compare old favourites with new-fangled craft brews.

The Montebello Design Centre on Newlands Avenue is another must-visit destination for lovers of creativity. This collection of 25 painters’ studios, potter’s workshops and craft shops – huddled together in a fine example of period architecture – is a beacon for devotees of art, craft and design. The charming Gardener’s Cottage restaurant hunkers down below giant trees and overlooks a verdant nursery that spreads out around a historic Greenhouse.

As for sport, why watch on the big screen when you can see your team play live at Newlands Rugby Stadium or the cricket grounds? The PPC Newlands Cricket Stadium is said to have the loveliest batting pitch in the world thanks to the majestic backdrop of Newlands Ravine and Kirstenbosch.

If you are in Newlands for the sporting action, the Park Inn by Radisson Newlands is so close to the grounds it’s likely that you could lob a shot into the nearby stadium from the hotel lobby! Besides the uber convenience of the location, the venue offers upscale accommodation and conferencing in a contemporary setting. It is a standout hotel thanks to its unique and ongoing commitments to supporting DeafSA – 20% of the hotel’s administrative staff are hearing impaired.

A mecca for foodies, Newlands can brag that is has not one but three artisanal ice-cream parlours. The Creamery’s ices are rich and decadent, and the choice selection is distinguished by an ever-changing Flavour of the Month. Gelato Mania, in close proximity, has a name that says it all for those who are crazy about Italian-style frozen confectionary. Le Delizie is run by a friendly Italian couple who have made Newlands their home. Massimo is a third-generation gelato maker and confectioner who – besides noteworthy flavours of ice-cream such as Crèma della Nonna – conjures up an irresistible range of handcrafted chocolates using ultra ingredients such as hazelnuts imported from the Piedmont region of Italy. You’ll quickly become a loyal customer!

Dean Street and surrounds are peppered with a score of upmarket eateries and a trendy smattering of smoothie bars and taco joints. Exploring Newlands will uncover even further gems that will expand this growing list of lust-worthy locations. And it is possible to do it all on foot.

  • Contact Details: Park Inn® by Radisson reservations and more information, visit parkinn.com; or contact Stephanie via stephanie@scoutpr.co.za or Tel +27 (0) 21 685 0169.