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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in South Africa.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in South Africa.
MAY TO SEPTEMBER: The Southern Hemisphere winter is the perfect time to explore Cape Town, South Africa. Temperatures are mostly moderate, and visitors can take on the city without having to brave crowds of tourists or shell out for the peak pricing markup.
Winter in Cape Town serves up a smorgasbord of more affordable tasting menus and available tables at some of the city’s top restaurants. Chef-owner Harald Bresselschmidt creates menus featuring seasonal ingredients at Aubergine in the historic Gardens district. “South African black truffles lend themselves to veal and springbok dishes, perfect for winter,” he says. At French hot spot La Mouette, chef Henry Vigar prepares a special winter six-course tasting menu that includes mushrooms with salt-and-pepper chestnuts and house-barbecued beef brisket with fermented car-rots and cauliflower-cheese puree.
Stay in a Silo
Cape Town will welcome its most exciting new hotel in years when the Silo opens at the V&A Waterfront in March. The 28-room accommodation will reside on the top six floors of a historic 1924 silo complex that also houses the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (due to open in September). Rates will start at 12,000 rand (about $850) in May (versus 18,000 rand/$1,274 in the high season).
Winter Wave Rider
“Because of the shape of the peninsula, we always have waves in Cape Town,” explains the owner of Gary’s Surf School, Gary Kleynhans. “But winter is when we get all the swell because of the cold fronts.” So suit up, since water temperatures hover around 60 degrees, and head to Muizenberg Beach in False Bay, where the waves are big enough to be thrilling, but gentle enough for beginners.
There are more options for flying to South Africa than ever before. South African Airways flies nonstop to Johannesburg from New York JFK and Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta. Discounted business-class fares (around $2,400 round-trip versus the $6,000-$10,000 norm) on a variety of carriers are also periodically available if you can get to a Canadian hub such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.
From the majesty of Table Mountain and the magic of Cape Town Harbour, it’s only about 50 kilometres to South Africa’s premier wine region, Stellenbosch. With more than 150 wineries and estates, first-class accommodation and wines at very reasonable prices, the region offers great value for the visitor.
Stellenbosch is in a valley with a variety of soil types and a Mediterranean-like climate of hot dry summers and cool wet winters. The main wine varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and the unique South African Pinotage. Stellenbosch is where Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, originated. Bordeaux-style blends are also very popular in South Africa and account for a significant proportion of wine production in the region.
We visited three of the region’s iconic estates for what could only be described as some very lekker wine matchings. In case you’re wondering, lekker is a Dutch and Afrikaans word that means good, pleasant or nice. It can also mean ‘slightly intoxicated’ which was very appropriate in this case.
You walk into Delheim through blooming gardens and leafy trellises, and on a sunny day with a view down the valley, there’s no better place for lunch or its unique wine pairing with cupcakes. Delheim says it’s a process of ‘spreading the love’ to pair four of its classic wines with some carefully crafted cupcakes. I know cupcakes have been a food fashion for some time, but I’ve never really been a fan. I must say, though, that a nice wine does wonders for the cupcake.
The pairings include a pomegranate cupcake, matched with Pinotage Rose; a Rooibos cupcake infused with lemon and topped with a cream cheese and honey icing, paired with Chenin Blanc Wild Ferment; a pumpkin and vanilla cupcake infused with star anise, cinnamon and nutmeg, and topped with diced pickled pumpkin, paired with Delheim Pinotage; and a traditional African makataan (wild melon) cupcake, topped with makataan syrup icing, paired with Gewiirztraminer.
I decided that I could get to like cupcakes and marvelled at the fact that Pinotage actually goes very nicely with pumpkin cupcake. A unique experience and very lekker.
South Africa’s first female winemaker, Elizabeth Catherine English, established Lanzerac in 1914 on land that had grown grapes since the 17,h century. Lanzerac was the first vineyard to sell Pinotage commercially in 1961. Chocolate and wine may be a common pairing but Lanzerac has taken great care to match its wines with some beautifully produced chocolates. All chocolates are made by Marionette’s, a chocolate maker in Knysna, especially to go with Lanzerac wines, and with each vintage they look at the pairing to see if it still matches.
The 2016 Lanzerac Sauvignon Blanc is a tropical fruity wine with almond and peach flavours and gets a special lift paired with white chocolate. The 2015 Chardonnay is a light golden colour and coming out of nine months in the barrel, it pairs smoothly with a lemongrass/ lemon verbena flavoured chocolate. We also tried a 2014 Merlot 2014, 12 months on French oak with dark cherry and cigar flavours, paired beautifully with a 60% dark chocolate.
The standout pairing at Lanzerac was its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon matched with a Cape Malay spice flavoured chocolate, combining cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. This was absolutely lekker.
You may not be able to go back to Constantinople, but the best thing is that Turkish Delight is now available all over the world, and Lourensford Winery in Stellenbosch is using it to offer one of the most unusual and ‘wow’ pairings I’ve ever tried. The Turkish Delight is produced nearby with flavours to complement some of Lourensford’s best wines.
Its MCC (Methode Cap Classique) is made by the same method as Methode Champenoise. This Brut style is in the bottle for 58 months and made from 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir. This MCC has green apple and nutty undertones, which when paired with an almond Turkish Delight nicely picks up the nuttiness of the Turkish Delight.
Lourensford’s Rose MCC is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and having spent 36 months in the bottle, it has distinct strawberry and rose flavours. It was beautifully paired with a Rose Turkish Delight.
Lourensford has three wine ranges: River Garden (entry level); Estate Range; and a Limited Release Range, which is only produced in exceptional years. 2014 was one of those years and its Limited Release 2014 Chardonnay is a standout. Having spent eight months in 80% new oak, it was a sensational match with Orange Turkish Delight.
The most unusual pairing was with Lourensford’s Honey Liqueur. The bottle had been frozen, a technique that balances the sweetness of the liqueur, which is not fermented but is made from honey, spring water and added alcohol bringing it up to 24%. Lourensford produces its own honey and pairs this liqueur expertly with Ginger Turkish Delight.
Stellenbosch is a beautiful region with some excellent wines, attractive cellar doors and very good cafes and restaurants. However, if you are looking for something different there can be nothing more lekker than these fascinating wine pairings.
A formerly unremarkable area of Cape Town is becoming a playground for the city’s creative set
It wasn’t long ago that many Capetonians steered clear of the city’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and surrounding Foreshore. The area served as both industrial shipping hub and tourist magnet, trading in souvenir bric-a-brac, sightseeing harbor cruises, and Cinnabon Stix.
That perception changed with the news of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which is scheduled to open this September in a former grain silo that’s been overhauled by London architect-of-the-moment Thomas Heatherwick. The museum wall house one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary African art, much of it from the holdings of Jochen Zeitz, the owner of Kenya’s Segera Retreat and former Puma CEO. It’s Cape Town’s missing element: a cultural anchor to complement the city’s natural beauty and stellar food and wine scenes. “It’s an icon of the confidence we feel about being African, about our place in the world,” says Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator.
Soon, visitors will have a hotel option that befits the changing neighborhood: the Royal Portfolio Collection’s sleek, 28-room Silo Hotel opens next month on the top seven floors of the Zeitz MOCAA’s repurposed silo. Its bright, lofty rooms have traditional furnishings — tufted chairs, crystal chandeliers — with pillowed-glass windows that lend a futuristic note.
Even in advance of the MOCAA’s arrival, the area is becoming a haven for African artists and makers. This May, a Cape Town design group will open Guild, a gallery and shop that features work by African artists like Burkina Faso’s Hamed Ouattara, who transforms salvaged metal into housewares. The neighboring Watershed marketplace carries goods from more than 150 artisans (such as Pichulik’s rope-and-bead statement jewelry and Africa Nova’s patterned textiles) in a warehouse-like space. On Saturday mornings, hungry shoppers can stop at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market for local produce, freshly baked breads, and small-batch cheeses.
The adjacent Foreshore has become a dining destination, capturing the attention of residents with its global fare. “Capetonians are adventurous, and they know their food and drink,” says chef Giles Edward. After a decade working at Michelin-starred restaurants in London, Edward moved home last year and opened La Tete, a nose-to-tail restaurant in a 1930s Art Deco building on Bree Street.
It’s one of the city’s most fearless kitchens, making dishes like kidney pudding and ox hearts with fries. A few blocks away is the General Store, a tiny timber-fronted cafe offering fare like za’atar-spiced lamb and French toast with thyme-roasted plums. And over at Bardough, baker Jason Lilley’s new bar-cum-bakery, the menu of sandwiches includes the “dawgzilla,” a brioche roll with grilled octopus, chorizo, and shakshuka. “The Waterfront has always been tourist- driven — it was never a draw for locals,” Lilley says. “It’s exciting to be one of the pioneers of a developing area”.
Sometimes you have to leave home to find the perfect house. Or more specifically, Herman House, a stylish boutique hotel in Cape Town, equal parts plush, pampering hideaway and chic city perch. With exceptional personalized service by a staff that closely guards its guests’ privacy and comfort, its the home-away-from-home of choice for discerning luxury travelers seeking an exclusive spot in the cosmopolitan Cape Town. We felt like royalty when we entered the multi-floored mansion, where we were treated with such special attention (as is everyone here), that it truly felt like we had the entire hotel to ourselves.
All amenities — including 24-hour gourmet dining, three-room spa, multimillion dollar contemporary African art gallery and spectacular 7,500-bottle wine cellar — are only accessible to guests staying in the 13 elegant rooms and the two contemporary villas. One of the premier collections of the 20th- and 21st-century African art fills the hallways, public spaces and guestrooms of the property.
Rooms with a View
Cape Town is one of the most scenic spots in the world — fronted by two oceans and framed by both Table and Lion’s Head mountains. The Ellerman House takes advantage of its enviable spot high above the beaches of fashionable Bantry Bay, offering expansive views of the city that we couldn’t get enough of, especially from the lush green lawn and sparkling pool where our gaze extended across Robben Island and onto the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.
The Cape Edwardian mansion that comprises the main hotel is filled with cozy spaces, including two plush dining rooms with large picture windows, a living room with fireplace and spacious guestrooms. Our favorite is Room No. 8, located on its own mini-floor, accessed on either side by a small staircase, with views out over the lawn, pool and the twinkling of the city lights below.
The top accommodations to book here, though, are the two contemporary glass villas filled with art and architecture that reflect both the outstanding views and the modern city. They offer the ultimate in privacy, luxury and service (Oprah recently called them one of her favorite places to stay in the world). Both villas are multi-floor residences that have their own entrances and include the services of a private chef and staff. They also have their own pools and multiple bedrooms and lounge spaces and large kitchens.
Villa 2 has a stunning hand-forged metal winding staircase (a work of art in itself) that connects the interior floors. The top floor has an open steel-and-glass kitchen (perfect for a cooking demo), which sweeps into a chic seating area with glass walls that disappear to create an open living space leading to a rooftop infinity pool and terrace. With a screening room and three large en-suite bedrooms, this villa is a great option for groups of friends traveling together.
Villa 1 is a top option for families (the rest of the property is 14 and above), with a five-bedroom configuration possible (including our favorite of the two villas — a turquoise highlighted space that seems like its floating over the ocean). It has its own elevator and a pool on the middle floor.
Some of the perks we adore here include top-tier chefs who are at guests’ disposal 24 hours a day. In the mood for curry? Want to sample local fish? Have your heart set on a springbok carpaccio? Simply chat with the chef over your perfectly poached eggs in the morning and it will materialize in the antique- and art-filled dining room for dinner. Feeling peckish between meals? The self- serve “Pantry” is open around- the-clock with freshly baked treats (try the decadent millionaires shortbread with its layers of caramel and fudge), sandwiches, and coffee and tea. Guestrooms also come stocked with wine, soft drinks and snacks (we were happy to find dried mango, gourmet chips, cashews and dark chocolate in our snack drawer to accompany a crisp glass of Chen in Blanc as we watched the Technicolor sunset from our balcony).
Note: The abundant breakfast, pantry and room snacks, and evening wine and hors d’oeuvres are included in the room price.
A wine tasting and food pairing with Ellerman’s resident wine expert Melusi Maghodi is another highlight of the property. We especially appreciated sampling a rare 2014 Arendsig Pinot Noir, of which only 2,500 bottles were produced. Tastings are offered in the unique wine cellar that houses a larger-than-life corkscrew sculpture holding 1,500 premier South African wines and a wall created from the actual terroir of the areas vineyards. This is also a spot to book a private dinner or a small dinner party for up to 12 guests.
Since all amenities are only bookable by hotel guests, clients can speak with chefs or spa technicians upon their arrival to request special services — space will always be created for them in the spa or for dinner. Ellerman House can arrange VIP wine tours of local Constantia vineyards as well as the Winelands region, approximately one-hour away, with a private guide and car, as well tours of Cape Towns art galleries.
The oldest surviving building in South Africa, the Castle of Good Hope was built by the Dutch East India Company between 1666 and 1679, replacing an earlier clay and timber fort erected by Commander Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. The castle overlooks Cape Town’s Grand Parade and is now home to a military museum, an art collection, and a banqueting hall; it is also the headquarters for Cape Army regiments.
The castle houses the famous William Fehr Collection of paintings, decorative arts, and furniture. Dr. Fehr (1892-1968) was a local businessman who started collecting colonial pictures and objects at a time when the practice was unusual. His collection now forms an invaluable record of many aspects of social and political life in the Cape, from the early days of the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) to the end of the 19th century. In addition to landscape paintings by the English artists Thomas Baines and William Huggins, there is 17th-century Japanese porcelain and 18th-century Indonesian furniture
In April 1652, the Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape with about 80 men and women to establish a staging post for the Dutch East India Company This was needed to provision the Dutch ships plying the lucrative trade route between Europe and Asia. Despite setbacks (20 men died during that first winter), the station eventually flourished and began to provide ships with meat, milk, and vegetables. However, rivalry with the indigenous Khoina people over water and grazing soon turned into open hostility and bitter wars followed.
The design of the castle was influenced by the work of the French military engineer Vauban, who was employed at the court of King Louis XIV. Pentagonal in shape, it has five defensive bastions from which the outside walls could be defended by cross-fire. The original entrance faced the sea, but it was moved to its present position in 1684. From the beginning, the castle was intended as a base for the Dutch East India Company in the Cape. Over the years, buildings were erected inside the courtyard, and a defensive 39-ft (12-m) high inner wall was built across it. Today, this area is the site of the William Fehr Collection. The castle also housed facilities to support a community, with living quarters, a church, a bakery, offices, and a jail with a torture chamber. In the 1930s, a new banqueting hall was created from a series of rooms on an upper floor.
The original bell, cast in Amsterdam in 1697, still hangs in the belfry . The coat of arms of the United Netherlands can be seen on the pediment above the gate.
Slate was taken from a quarry on Robben Island in the 17th century and used as paving material inside the castle.
Below the Nassau Bastion was the site where prisoners were tortured, in accordance with the Dutch law that required a confession before sentencing.
Sections of the moat were rebuilt in 1992 as part of an extensive restoration program.
Descriptions and sketches made by Lady Anne Barnard in the 1790s enabled the reconstruction of the Dolphin Pool more than 200 years.
William Fehr Collection
Reached via the De Kat Balcony, this includes historical paintings and period furniture. Other works give an insight into the lives of early settlers.
A teak copy of the original VOC gable features martial symbols: a banner, flags, drums, and cannon balls.
The bastions are named after the main titles held by Prince William III of Orange-Nassau-Leedram, Catzenellenbogen, Burren, Oranje, and Nassau.
De Kat Balcony
Built in 1695 as a part of the inner wall, this has a bas-relief sculpture by Anton Anreith. During the Dutch colonial era, it was the site for greetings visitors and reading out judicial sentences.
Castle Military Museum
On display is an array of military artifacts, including weapons and uniforms from the VOC and British periods in the Cape.
In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) was founded to trade with Asia, mainly for its prized spices. Hugely successful and powerful, by 1669 the company had a fleet of 150 merchant ships and 40 warships.
1652: The first Dutch settlers, under the command of Jan van Riebeeck, land on the Cape.
1666-79: The settlers build a stone castle to replace van Riebeeck’s earlier timber fort.
1795: Rule by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) en ds an d British forces occupy the Cape.
1952: Part of the William Fehr art collection moves to t he Castle of Good Hope.
Did you know trees can talk? Okay, maybe not in the conventional sense like you and I, but they can certainly communicate. If a giraffe munches on an acacia tree, it releases chemicals warning nearby trees of the hungry herbivore, so the trees can fend it off by producing strong, unpalatable tannins.
Driving through the arid scenery of the northernmost parts of South Africa, I can’t help but wonder what the baobab trees would have to say about Mapungubwe. Perhaps I can catch them whispering in the wind with my window down. Many of them would have witnessed the rise and fall of South Africa’s first sophisticated empire. Or spotted Jan Smuts walking about, most likely examining the veld for different grass types (he was adamant this region needed to be protected). Or heard the thump of mining machinery at work before the land was finally left to return to its natural state – save for a few visiting cows that cross over from Zimbabwe. Now they watch tourists, visiting since its official reopening in 2004.
More than 10 years later, I’m driving the roads that wind their way between the eastern and western sections of this park, separated by private land, and they vary from lazy gravel loops to rocky 4×4 tracks.
There are several theories about what the word ‘Mapungubwe’ means, but my favourite by far is ‘place of the stone of wisdom’ – this is surely a place of spirit. There’s a true wildness about South Africa’s northernmost national park. It’s remote and untamed, on the brink of feeling menacing, but there’s a palpable ancient presence here that is equally peaceful.
It’s an enchanting feeling and I found it most stirring when quietly walking along the Treetop Boardwalk beside the Limpopo riverbank. Home to nearly 400 bird species, I reckon the trees whisper to the flying folk too. Creeping gently, I could get close enough to a pair of golden-tailed woodpeckers to feel the vibrations as they worked away at the wood of towering Ana trees, and through my binocs I spotted a broad-billed roller perching in the heights of a leadwood. Even in the parking lot beside the boardwalk, trees tower above the car enforcing their impressive scale.
I wake at dawn after a night spent at Leokwe Rest Camp and while driving up dirt tracks to find the best sunrise spot, I find my road trip is blessed with baobabs in flower. What a lucky encounter because the heavy, drooping white bulbs last just one night and sometimes a small part of the day. They are pollinated by fruit bats who can better locate them by their bright colour against the darkness of night.
Once the sun is properly up, it’s a steady climb up Mapungubwe Hill (you cannot drive yourself to this site) and then I’m walking where royalty once lived, who played games and grew crops. But now it’s time to follow the birds, baobabs and the lazy Limpopo River east, towards the Kruger National Park and another late Iron Age stone site called Thulamela.
The drive is easy, but a little potholed on the tarred section between Mapungubwe and Musina. I drive past farms and southern yellow-billed hornbills float in the wake of the wind thrown off by the brief sections that permit 120 kilometres per hour. I pass villages and roadside markets, then drive slowly between kraals (careful not to kick up dust) to reach Pafuri River Camp. Home for the night is a treehouse, nestled beneath an expansive nyala tree.
It offers a thick block of shade against the summer heat and an exceptionally perfect life-sighting of a narina trogon showing off its unmistakable red breast in the golden morning glow.
The northern part of Kruger National Park is equally breathtaking and although it shares the same river as Mapungubwe, it’s not nearly as rugged. Instead, there are more jungley riverine forests of fever trees, jackalberries and thick, yellow-trunked sycamore figs heaving with birdsong. Driving along the river bends, I expect an elephant lurking behind each expansive trunk and I never reach third gear.
After an early breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site, local Shangaan guides Carel Nkuna and Daniel Shibambu lead a group of us around the Thulamela Ruins. They have been faithfully reconstructed by local masons and are heavily reminiscent of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins further north. The guides are an absolute delight – passionate, easy conversationalists, they’re happy to offer as much insight as they can, telling the story about ‘the Leopard King and the lady who measured 1,7 metres in height’.
Thulamela forms part of what is referred to as Zimbabwe culture, which is believed to have started at Mapungubwe then moved to the Great Ruins before relocating here in northern Kruger. I am interested to hear that Carel and Daniel are scheduled to visit Mapungubwe and the Zim Ruins to learn more about the heritage of the area, courtesy of SAN Parks.
The two-hour Thulamela Trail is over quickly and after taking in a lofty view of the Luvuvhu River (you won’t find another public viewpoint of it elsewhere in the park).
I bid Carel and Daniel goodbye and make my way to the mopane-veld south, leaving the baobabs behind. Along the way, I scan the last lower branches of the forest for sleeping Verraux’s eagle-owls, and listen out for the Tarzan-like calls of African green pigeons, who can’t resist the delectable figs along the river.
I stick to the tar for the most part, until I branch off on the riverside loops around Sirheni Bushveld Camp – they are more productive in terms of seeing game than the mopane flats. At Sirheni, the camp groundsman tells me about a nesting site and I’m treated to the sight of a trio of fluffy southern white-faced owls at sunset.
My plan was to return to Johannesburg via Punda Maria Gate, but feeling dispirited at the thought of having to leave, I decide to drive a little longer and exit at Phalaborwa Gate, adding two more hours to the trip.
I wind down the window and cruise slowly south… maybe I’ll catch more of what those trees have to say.
Need to know
A 4×4 or high-clearance vehicle is best to explore Mapungubwe property and it’s ideal to have height for game viewing in Kruger Park. However, Mapungubwe’s camps are accessible by normal sedan vehicles. There is no filling station or ATM available here, so you need to fill up in Musina or Punda Maria and stock upon self-catering supplies and wood before you leave town.
Day 1: Joburg to Mapungubwe
Allow 5-6 hours
From Joburg, take the N1 north all the way to Makhado (roughly 440km) and turn left on the R522 (towards Leshiba Wilderness) to Vivo and then right onto the R521 to Alldays (you can see the beautiful Blouberg in the distance if you look left). Fill up at the Alldays fuel station – both your tummy and the car (the card machine didn’t work when I was there, so carry cash in case). Drive the remaining 80km to the main Mapungubwe Gate and then on to Leokwe Rest Camp. Be sure to visit the Treetop Boardwalk at sunset.
Day 2: Mapungubwe to Pafuri
Distance Around 200km (depending on how much driving you do in Mapungubwe)
Allow 2 hours (Mapungubwe Gate to Pafuri River Camp)
Take a flask of coffee to the confluence point and then explore Mapungubwe on the heritage tour before it gets too hot. Leave Mapungubwe on the R572 heading east, then right on the N1 into Musina. Stop at the Engen to refuel and then take the shortcut (R50S) towards Tshipise. At the T-junction 40km later, turn left onto the R525 which goes straight to Pafuri Gate to enter Kruger, but just before the gate turn right up a gravel road and follow the signs for four kilometres to reach Pafuri River Camp.
Day 3: Pafuri to Sirheni
Allow 7 hours
Leave Pafuri River Camp as early as you can, depending on when the gate into Kruger opens (this varies), and spend sunrise at the Luvuvhu Bridge for the best birding. Then have breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site before starting the Thulamela Trail. While in the area spend time at Crooks Corner, before heading south on the tarred H1-8 and H1-7 to Sirheni Bushveld Camp. There are gravel loops around Sirheni that take you along the riverbed for game drives.
At Babel, the hotel’s cowshed-turned-restaurant, the question “What’s for breakfast?” is best answered by taking a look at the eight-acre garden. Your double-cream yogurt might come loaded with guava and cape gooseberries; nut, fennel, and curry powder granola; and a spoonful of blue gum honey from on-site hives.
Top the wood-fired country loaf—made with wheat from the farm— with heaps of salty Serrano-style ham and Gorgonzola (or just a slab of hand-churned butter). And if you had a glass too many of the Babel red the night before, a shot of ginger in your fresh-pressed beetroot and blood orange juice should do the trick.
This is so much more than a hotel: it’s a working fruit farm with a historic Cape Dutch homestead, a destination restaurant, an award-winning vineyard, a brilliant bakery and, above all, a sensational garden. Over the past 10 years, owner Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos have transformed what was once a derelict, 300-year-old farm at the foot of the Simonsberg mountains into the coolest destination in the Cape winelands. The couple recruited Patrice Taravella, responsible for Le Prieure d’Orsan cloistered garden in the Loire Valley, to establish the 3.5-hectare walled kitchen garden that is the core of the property and which supplies the restaurant, known for its fresh, inventive salads and vegetables picked young and cooked whole.
The hotel itself is small, with just 13 suites carved out of old farm-workers’ cottages which line the oak-tree-edged avenue bordering the garden; the original farmer’s house was recently converted into a nine-bedroom lodge. Roos delights in combining the historical – small, shuttered windows and rough-hewn stable doors set in thick white washed walls-with the contemporary. Kitchens in the cottages are essentially clipped-on glass boxes that jut into the little private gardens; a Philippe Starck Ghost chair presides over a traditional fire-blackened hearth; on a modern four-poster bed is a handmade crochet blanket, and everywhere the sound of water running through culverts in a gravity-fed irrigation system that dates back to ancient Babylon itself. Nowhere else in the winelands manages to feel as fresh or relevant as Babylonstoren.
There was nothing cute and fluffy about Big Bunny. It rumbled ominously and spat water over the rust-coloured boulders that clogged the river downstream. Ian Morgan, my rafting guide, led us to the riverbank where we beached our inflatable kayaks and set off on foot to scout out the rapid. Clambering over terraces of gneiss rock, polished smooth by floodwaters, we reached a viewpoint over the room stretch of churning water. Big Bunny gnashed its teeth and I felt my stomach tighten.
On the previous day of our four-night Orange River expedition we had tackled Scorpion, Corkscrew and Screwdriver – rapids that you expected to have a few twists and turns, or a sting in their tail. We had prepared ourselves for the ups and downs of Dolly Parton and had no choice but to portage around Ritchie Falls. But as hard as I stared at Big Bunny, I couldn’t find anything that resembled a fluffy white tail. Instead, Ian pointed out stopper waves, boils, strainers and a particularly vicious looking boulder half-obscured by the flying spittle of the rapid.
My two other guides, Jan and Geoff, went first, paddling kayaks heavily laden with food and camping gear. For a moment it looked as if they might make it. Their kayaks bucked and spun, almost vanishing from view as they clawed through the rapid. Then Big Bunny bit back. The half-hidden boulder caught both kayaks broadside and, with a sharp kick, flipped them over.
I watched the upturned rafts disappear downstream, Jan and Geoff clinging on, helpless to do anything until Big Bunny had finished chewing them over. Ian gave a wry smile and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Maybe we should try a different route through the rapid,” he murmured.
As we walked back to where we’d left the inflatables, my mouth felt dry, but there was a ripple of anticipation spreading through my body. Ten days earlier, I had set out from Cape Town following an unorthodox route north in search of a wilder, more rugged and adventure-packed corner of South Africa Big Bunny seemed like a fitting climax.
Early in South African history the site of the Free State National Botanical Garden was inhabited by Iron Age Basotho dwellers. Remains of their pottery have been found and are on display in the Education Centre. The Free State National Botanical Garden dates back to 1965, and is one of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)’s ten national botanical gardens in South Africa. SANBI is a statutory body whose mandated focus is on South Africa’s national biodiversity heritage.
The garden spans a valley between dolerite koppies (small hills) capped with rocky outcrops – typical of the area.
The natural vegetation is composed of grassland, woodland and fascinating Karoo plants. Succulents and bulbous plants form a natural garden amongst the rocks on the koppies and can be seen along the scenic nature trails.
The garden has an abundance of wildlife, including over 140 bird species, 54 reptile species and about 32 mammal species, with over 300 plant species in the developed area.
Lapa: The lapa can be used for social functions such as birth-day parties, weddings, year-end functions, etc. it is equipped with chairs and tables, a stove with oven, and a fridge.
Marquee area: A picturesque marquee lawn is available for big functions. The lawn is 35 m wide and 70 m long. This area is suitable for functions such as weddings, concerts, meetings, birthday parties, etc.
Walking trails: We encourage all visitors to walk the beautiful Motshetshe and Garden View trails. These will showcase the beauty and diversity of our Free State plants.
Nursery: We encourage the use of indigenous plants in home gardens by making them available at competitive prices. This service is available daily. A special plant sale is held annually, usually late September, with the full support of the Botanical Society of South Africa.
Braai area: A braai area is available for visitors who want to dine alfresco.
Environmental education: To further the vision of environmental education for sustainable living, our programmes offer learners hands-on experience in the garden environment Guided tours: Guided tours for schools and other interest groups require prior arrangements with the administration office, during working hours. Restaurant: The restaurant operates privately. Visitors can bring the whole family and enjoy good service from the restaurant with a stunning view of the garden. The kids can play on the lawns in front of the restaurant while you relax with a sundowner.
The water-wise demonstration garden illustrates the use of indigenous Free State plants to conserve water in domestic gardens. A self-guided tree route introduces visitors to 43 of South Africa’s beautiful indigenous trees along our two walking trails.