We pulled up to Holden Manz Wine Estate in Franschhoek on a day that was the epitome of winter; although in her fine dress of vineyards and voluptuous mountain borders, this idyllic winelands town always manages to look beautifully dramatic on even the drizzliest of days. Situated in the southernmost corner of the Franschhoek Valley, sandwiched between the Franschhoek River and Stony Brook, the 22-hectare estate of Holden Manz boasts a unique terroir that is the progenitor of a range of truly exquisite red wines, including a ‘top 6 in the world’ Cabernet Franc and ‘top 10’ Merlot.
On the two occasions we have sampled Holden Manz wines before – the Franschhoek Summer Wine and Franschhoek Winter Wine festivals at which we had the Chenin Blanc and the Proprietor’s Blend, respectively – we were compelled by their depth of fruit, aromatic complexity, and pure elegance. And so it was with much anticipation that we swooned into the estate’s rustic tasting room to explore the full range before sitting down to a three-course lunch at Holden Manz’ restaurant, the Franschhoek Kitchen.
Holden Manz wine tasting
Our wine tasting was hosted by the dashing and charismatic Ruben, Holden Manz’ wine ambassador, who walked us through the estate’s very fine repertoire of award-winning wines, beginning with the lush and creamy Provence-style rosé, the gorgeous Chenin Blanc, and, the final white wine, the barrel-fermented Chardonnay 2018. Then, we embarked upon Holden Manz’ rich, elegant, and smooth reds, the grapes of which are grown in the topmost 16 hectares of the estate. To be quite honest, I would be hard-pressed to decide upon a favourite but under duress I suppose I would opt for the Holden Manz Syrah…and the Cabernet Sauvignon…and while we’re at it, the Reserve Merlot. Oh and their Visionaire, Cabernet Franc,and Big G Bordeaux-styleblend.
Do you see where I’m going with this? My absolute compliments to Holden Manz’ experienced and artful winemaker, Thierry Haberer.
Lunch at Franschhoek Kitchen
A rather gluttonous volume of wine later, we headed upstairs from the tasting room and cellars for a much-needed lunch at Franschhoek Kitchen, which has been rated one of the leading restaurants in a valley already lauded for its culinary calibre. In this classically beautiful, yet rustic setting with stunning views over rain bejewelled vineyards, we tucked into a feast crafted from fresh ingredients strictly sourced from the Franschhoek Valley.
For starters, we shared the gorgeous and velvety vichyssoise soup, served warm and paired with the Holden Manz Chenin Blanc, and the Franschhoek trout ceviche with yuzu mayo, horseradish crème, and a glass of the deliciously indulgent Reserve Chardonnay.
For mains, we shared (again, because variety is the spice of life) the pork belly with pomme purée, peach gel, shitake mushrooms, vine tomato, and shitake jus with a glass of Holden Manz Reserve Merlot, and the sea bass, which came swimming in a rich, creamy laksa (Malaysian curry) sauce with toasted coconut chips. The wine pairing for this dish was the exquisite Holden Manz Syrah Reserve. For a sweet ending, we chose the triple chocolate mousse, apple tart, and a nip of Holden Manz Good Sport Cape Vintage 2014, by which stage we had slumped into a miasma of hedonistic pleasure.
A visit to Holden Manz Wine Estate need not conclude with a meal. With the Holden Manz Country House being a stone’s throw from the tasting room and restaurant, guests – satiated with good food and wine – can collapse into the lap of luxury. This five-star guesthouse offers five spacious and lavishly appointed suites, all with breathtaking views of the upper Franschhoek Valley and the mountains beyond, as well as a pool, afternoon tea with homemade delicacies, sandwiches, cakes, and preserves, and generous breakfasts, featuring fruits from the estate’s orchards and eggs from their vineyard chickens.
Top culinary and wine experience
Holden Manz Estate owners Gerard Holden and Migo Manz, together with winemaker Thierry Haberer and every member of their staff, have created a wine and food experience that is every ounce as luxurious as it is unpretentious. There are few airs and graces here to dress up the offering because – no surprises here – absolutely none are necessary. Our first few encounters with the brand at Franschhoek’s seasonal wine festivals already had us impressed but our visit to Holden Manz took our impressions to stratospheric heights. Wine estate, fine dining country restaurant, wedding venue, wine tasting cellar, and luxurious five-star accommodations, Holden Manz has it all!
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have your tried-and-tested V&A Waterfront restaurant: the one you make a beeline for because you know the sushi is good, the wine list isn’t an insult to the wine educated, and the prices aren’t a total swindle. I know, right? Sounds like a bit of a unicorn at the V&A. The problem with this tendency is that restaurants like Firefish can sail under the radar, when in fact they more than meet all of the above criteria: the food is delicious (and healthy to boot), the atmosphere cheery and chic, and the views of Table Mountain a postcard of Cape Town you’ll take home and keep with you forever. And if all of that isn’t enough, Firefish is currently offering a winter menu special, which runs until 31stAugust 2019.
With all of this considered, I was seduced away from my usual V&A Waterfront routine for lunch at Firefish, hosted by the Kove Collection, the hospitality group behind this sophisticated harbour-side eatery and a portfolio of other South African restaurants, bars, and hotels.
Firefish Restaurant opened its doors towards the end of 2017, adding to V&A Waterfront’s existing cornucopia of eateries. Initially, the sheer variety of restaurants on the Waterfront’s Breakwater Boulevard can seem a bit overwhelming but once inside Firefish, its naturally bright and cheery interior and sophisticated, chic atmosphere drown out the noise and distraction of its neighbouring restaurants.
Firefish is an upmarket restaurant – and a Writer’s Choice Top Rated one at that – perched right on the harbour’s edge, yielding iconic views of the Cape Town harbour, from its tourist boats and restaurant-lined quay to the coruscating Ferris wheel and Table Mountain beyond. It has a delightful sheltered outdoor seating area but, due to the cold weather, we gathered inside and eased into our lunch with a flute of Graham Beck Brut and a bit of a chinwag with fellow foodie writers, bloggers, and photographers.
Three-course lunch with Kove Collection Wine
The Kove Collection has teamed up with various wine estates around the Cape to put together a signature range of wines, which we were treated to over the course of our lunch. To begin with, I had a glass of the Kove Collection Thelema Mountain White, an aromatic, lively, and elegant French oak barrel matured blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, and Rousanne. This paired excellently with my delicious starter of tuna tartare: cubes of raw, tender tuna served with avocado purée, crème fraiche, citrus dressing, and what tasted like a wasabi soy sauce with slices of raw chilli for kick. Also on offer were the parsley, butter, and lemon-dressed grilled baby squid and a fried goat’s cheese pastry, which, according to the exclamations of joy from my fellow diners were equally as delicious.
For mains, I chose the pan-roasted sea bass, cooked to succulent perfection with a crispy skin, and served with mussels, olives, cherry tomato halves, buttery baby new potatoes, and fresh thyme and fennel. Curious to try another of the Kove Collection wines, I veered from the tradition of pairing fish with white wine and ordered a glass of the Thelema Mountain Red, a gentle, smooth, and cherry-fragranced blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Shiraz, and Cabernet Franc. Whoever said red wine and fish don’t go together has clearly never paired their seafood with the right red wine.
Our final course was a choice between creamy coconut panna cotta with mango sorbet, lime soil, and fresh wedges of grapefruit and orange, and vanilla crème brûlée with strawberries and olive oil sponge. I know: what a cruel thing to do making us choose between the two! I opted for the former, since my love of coconut panna cotta knows no bounds; not even the lure of crème brûlée.
One in a million
Firefish is one in a million for several reasons. Quite literally, it is one of a million V&A Waterfront restaurants, many of which are located cheek-by-jowl along the harbour’s edge. In spite of that, it manages to stand right out with its delicious, well-priced, and varied menu; impressive wine list; artful food presentation; chic ambiance; friendly, efficient service; and, let’s not forget, extraordinary harbour and mountain views. And so, for more esoteric reasons, Firefish is, to me, one in a million!
Firefish is open Monday to Sunday, 12:00 to 22:30. For bookings and enquiries, please call +27 (0) 21 286 4933 or go to the website at www.firefishrestaurant.co.za
Shop 154 Victoria Wharf, Breakwater Boulevard, V&A Waterfront
The Westin Cape Town is in the middle of a grand revamp but you really wouldn’t know that because, in our svelte suite fifteen floors in the sky, it’s as peaceful as a spa (without the annoying pipe music). The multi-million-rand makeover – *cough R150 million cough* – is set to be completed by October 2019 just in time for the summer deluge of tourists; although the Westin Cape Town remains perennially popular owing to its appeal to business travellers, both foreign and South African.
Our task is to put the revamped and reimagined rooms to the test by luxuriating in one for the next 24 hours – I know, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to make sure the next guest is getting their money’s worth.
Spoiler alert: they most definitely are.
The grand entrance
The Westin Cape Town is a five-star luxury hotel located right next door to the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) and a five-minute drive from the V&A Waterfront. This sleek and stylish hotel is a mainstay of the Cape Town city skyline, as well as the international luxury hospitality industry. Wherever you travel to in the world, you can expect a high standard of comfort, luxury, and hospitality from the Westin.
Walking into our suite, our eyes were first and foremost drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the far side of the room, affording us sweeping west-facing views of the city from Signal Hill and the V&A Waterfront to the bustling Cape Town harbour, Robben Island, and the shimmering Atlantic Ocean beyond. Beneath our feet, we had a (gut-wrenching) bird’s eye view of a congested N1 highway feeding traffic into and out of the city. However, rather than evoking feelings of anxiety, as one might expect, we felt just a little smug to be ensconced in luxury accommodation while those little ants down there in their toy cars were stuck in traffic.
Suite features and amenities
Our room was the epitome of comfort and convenience, packing practically everything any visitor with any agenda could want and need. There was a large king-sized bed with poofy covers clad in clean, white linen; an office table with lamp, telephone, and multi-plug electrical outlet (where I currently sit and write this); a sophisticated coffee and tea making station with kettle and Caffitaly machine; bar fridge stocked with sodas, water, and beer; closets with complimentary fluffy bathrobes, slippers, ironing board, and safe; and a very beautiful, very executive-feel bathroom with shower, bath, and twin vanities.
Unlimited Wi-Fi and access to the Westin Club Lounge, which is open all day for refreshments, round out the offer. Oh, and we also enjoy complimentary access to the Heavenly spa lounge, pool, and sauna (you only have to pay for treatments). Right off the bat there are two things I’m looking forward to: (1) seeing the view of Cape Town at night from our suite and (2) falling asleep beneath a mountain of duvet after dinner.
In the meantime, with the sun making its slow descent into the west (as witnessed from our room), we hopscotched to the Westin Club for Canapé Hour.
Westin Club Canapé Hour
Every day, from 17:30 to 19:30, the Westin Club (on the nineteenth floor) offers guests a rather sexy lounge environment in which to chill, crack open a beverage, and enjoy a complimentary selection of cold mezze and hot tapas. It’s a place to unwind after a long day of touristing, travelling, or being important; it’s a place to enjoy a cold glass of wine or hot cup of tea, and to whet the appetite in time for dinner.
The Westin Club is also open for:
Continental and hot buffet breakfasts between 06:30 and 11:00.
All day “grab and go” snacks and beverages from 12:00 to 22:00.
A quick recharge meal chosen from the Westin’s organic and freshly produced daily rotation snack menu, 12:00 to 14:30.
Afternoon tea featuring homemade gourmet biscuits and a carefully curated tea selection, from 15:00 to 17:00.
In other words, if you’re hungry, thirsty, or in need of a fabulously atmospheric venue for a business meeting, a date, or to get charged up for an evening of fine dining or a night on the town, the Westin Club is the place to kick off. And kick the evening off we did: with a glass of house white wine (Huguenot Chenin Blanc or ‘Steen’ 2018), a little basket of nuts, popcorn, and dried fruits, and front row seats to a spectacular sunset.
Dinner at Thirty7 Showkitchen
With the sun tucked behind the western horizon, we caught the elevator to the ground floor for dinner at the Westin’s main restaurant, Thirty7 Showkitchen. This enormous, opulent space is quite something to behold, although a major fundraising event going on downstairs robbed the restaurant of the majority of any patrons it might have had, leaving us to the lion’s share of the staff’s attention.
For starters, we had ocean trout with trout tartar, and slow-cooked pork with pineapple chutney and a smoked apple aioli so gorgeous, it is my most ardent recommendation that they consider selling it by the bottle. For mains we enjoyed the 12-hour confit Karoo lamb neck, with roast carrot puree and gremolata, and black mussel risotto with smoked onion soubise and slices of regional cheese, both soft and crispy. Unable to extend our stomachs any further, we concluded our meal with an Irish coffee.
The chefs at the helm of Thirty7 Showkitchen are Stephen Mandes and Rohan Mudenda whose philosophy aligns well with today’s demand for free-range, ethically produced meats, sustainable, green-listed seafood, and organic, never frozen vegetables “as full of flavour and nutrients as the day it was harvested”. They also maintain a live-fire kitchen, cooking on charcoal fire, which is beautifully showcased by the food’s flavour and presentation.
Thirty7 Showkitchen is open Monday to Sunday, 06:30 – 10:30 | 12:00 – 22:30. For bookings and enquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org call +27 (0)21 412 9999.
Breakfast of champions
Waking up in the Westin’s immeasurably comfortable king-sized bed, I fantasised briefly about owning Mary Poppins’ handbag – you know, the one that can fit just about anything in it, for example, this king-sized bed. Of course, the Westin staff would soon notice the fact that a bed’s gone missing and since I would hate to be blacklisted by the Westin – never mind the impossibility of such a magical handbag – my fantasies soon shifted to breakfast.
Both Thirty7 Showkitchen and the Westin Club host breakfast each morning but since the former promised a more extensive and abundant hot and cold breakfast buffet, we took the elevator down, rather than up. The scene that greeted us could only be described as “food heaven”. Whatever breakfast food is popular in your country of origin, you’ll find it here. From cereal, oats, flapjacks, and fruit to fried eggs, bacon, salmon, sushi, and charcuterie; cheeses, croissants, and curry for crying out loud, to pretzels, stir-fried noodles, and smoothies.
Think of a breakfasty food: you’ll find it in the Westin’s breakfast buffet, served with just about every add-on, side dish, and condiment known to humankind. I particularly enjoyed their Superfood™ juices (I had the strawberry, date, and rosewater smoothie), which are the ultimate atonement for all the wine you may have drank the night before.
Let’s talk about water
One cannot sing the praises of the Westin Cape Town without mentioning its state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system that saves 40 million litres of municipal water a year. This hotel and many other buildings located on Cape Town’s foreshore stand on land that has been reclaimed from the ocean. Consequently, seawater flows through the underlying soil with the voluminous abundance of a river, which requires buildings in the area to actively pump millions of litres of water out of their foundations every day to keep from flooding.
The Westin Cape Town decided instead to pump this water, which has already been partially filtered by the rock through which it has travelled, through a reverse osmosis plant to remove the remaining salt and impurities. The result of this R4 million investment is 400,000 litres of fresh water every day, 180,000 litres of which is used on site (the rest is piped to its sister establishments, the Tsogo Sun Waterfront and Tsogo Sun Cullinan). The Westin’s reverse osmosis plant is a solution to the water shortages that once threatened Cape Town’s viability as a tourist and business destination and will hopefully contribute to our ability to survive drought conditions in the future.
With over a decade of luxury hoteliering under its belt, the Westin Cape Town has been given a multi-million-rand décor and design transformation to update and refresh its offering. It now boasts an interior to rival its sleek and sophisticated exterior, both in aesthetic and function, and with all the modern accoutrements and conveniences even the savviest business or tourist traveller could want and need. We enjoyed 24 hours of beautiful views, beyond comfortable beds, indulgent dining, and peace and tranquillity right here in the heart of the Mother City. And so it was with great reluctance that we bid our accommodations (and bed) a fond farewell.
The next time I travel, I know where I’m staying.
The Westin Cape Town is home to the award-winning Heavenly Spa and the Thirty7 Showkitchen. For bookings and enquiries, please call +27 21 412 9999
This blog was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine, the biggest lifestyle and leisure publication in the Western Cape of South Africa: www.southernvines.co.za/2019/06/04/testin-the-westin-dinner-and-overnight-stay-at-an-iconic-luxury-cape-town-hotel/
The Cape countryside is a patchwork quilt of rolling fields dotted with cows, sheep, blue cranes, and the occasional ostrich. Amongst the cultivation remain untouched stands of the Cape’s indigenous flora or taller tree imports from Australia. Winding through this tranquil, timeless scenery en route to Arniston, I mused that John Constable himself couldn’t paint a more bucolic landscape. And it’s in landscapes such as these, framed by the stoic, craggy mountains of the Cape peninsula and escarpment that the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of properties is located.
The Cape Country Routes is a loose coalition of hotels and activity-based experiences sprinkled across the southwestern Cape (in concentration) but that extends as far up the east coast as Port Elizabeth, and as far north as Hanover, the halfway stop between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our destination, however, was the Arniston Spa Hotel, a large luxury four-star hotel right on the beachfront in the quaint 120-year-old fishing village of Arniston, and whose bright façade gazes into the East over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Arniston Spa Hotel
We arrived fairly early in the day and as the Arniston Spa Hotel and its spectacular coastal surrounds came into view, we all pressed our faces eagerly against the car windows. Eyes aglitter, we could scarcely believe that this would be our address for the next 24 hours. The Arniston Spa Hotel offers pretty much everything one would need/want to enjoy a long, leisurely stay on the southern coast.
There is ample accommodation with four exclusive room options to choose from, all of which are kitted-out with luxury furnishings, satellite TVs, minibars, coffee and tea-making facilities, and complimentary Wi-Fi. There is also a full-service restaurant (more on that later), bar, Ginkgo Spa, and picturesque pool in a central courtyard so that even the rooms that don’t face the ocean afford guests desirable views.
With her aspect towards the east, I hoped for a sea-facing room, imaging just how beautiful it would be to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic. But before we could settle in, we had somewhere urgent to be and so we deposited our luggage and made a 180-degree turnaround. The tide was rising.
Arniston AKA Waenhuiskrans
Surveying this tranquil, cheery little fishing village today, it’s hard to imagine that Arniston was named after one of the worst naval disasters in South African history but indeed it was. In 1815, the British East Indiaman Arniston was bound for England. Aboard her were 378 passengers, many of whom were wounded soldiers. Tragically, a furious Cape storm – and perhaps a bit of a boo-boo on the part of the captain who miscalculated her longitude – smashed her onto the shore and only six lived to tell the tale.
If that story is a little macabre for you, there’s always Arniston’s other official name of Waenhuiskrans, which literally translates to “wagon house cliff” or “wagon shelter cliff”. This name is derived from an immense nearby tidal cave that was said to be big enough to accommodate an entire ox wagon team, the popular mode of transport several hundred years ago. And this was exactly where we needed to be before the rising tide rendered the sea cave inaccessible to us.
Coastal walk to Waenhuiskrans Cave
After a brisk walk alongside craggy ocean cliffs, past odoriferous colonies of cormorants, pristine coastal scrub, and dune systems that beckoned to our inner children, we finally arrived at the village’s namesake attraction. Waenhuiskrans cave was large, cool, and dank with its recent tidal bathing and was surrounded by rock pools riddled with brightly coloured sea life like anemones, sea urchins, and skittish fish. We took our photos, delighted in the sea spray and the reflections of the cave off its subterranean pools, and then, a whole morning’s walking under our belt, headed back to the Arniston Spa Hotel to check in, relieve our feet of their sodden shoes and socks, and finally appraise the views from our rooms.
Home, sweet temporary home
We were all lucky and secured sea-facing views. The suites were filled with natural light and spectacular views of the ocean and embracing coastline. I did a quick appraisal, which culminated in some seriously smug satisfaction, and then headed down to the restaurant, where I enjoyed a lunch of chicken and prawn Thai curry with a glass of Arniston Bay Sauvignon Blanc / Sémillon. That afternoon was taken at leisure with the exception of an hour-long massage at the Gingko Spa, from which I emerged pickled with pleasure. Mystified by how my fellow media people manage to use their afternoons productively for work, I sprawled out on my king-sized bed and snoozed.
We concluded a perfectly hedonistic day with a slap-up dinner of fresh wild oysters harvested from the bay at Arniston and washed down with a glass of the delicate and elegantly perfumed Theuniskraal Riesling 2017, followed by a melt-off-the-bone lamb shank, which I savoured with a glass (or two) of the exceptional Strandveld (Rhône style) Syrah 2016. Unable to choose, we ordered three desserts to share: the baked cheesecake with sour cherry compote, iced nougat parfait with toasted almonds and maraschino cherries, and good old-fashioned pavlova with green peppercorn mascarpone cream and fresh fruit. Judging from the alacrity with which those desserts disappeared down our gullets, it’s safe to say that we all enjoyed them immensely.
That night, I was lulled to sleep by a belly full of home-style cooking, the region’s beautiful cool climate wines, and the gentle sigh of the waves on the coast.
Kassiesbaai and breakfast
As tempting as it was to remain swathed in sheets, I extricated myself from bed to go on a fresh, early morning walk through Kassiesbaai heritage fishing village, which sprawls right next door to the Arniston Spa Hotel. This is how Arniston began really: as a fishing community and it’s wonderful to see that the rustic, lime-washed, and thatched homes with their colourful doors and window frames remain standing, unspoiled, and inhabited by friendly fisher folk. We meandered through the 120-year-old village, enjoying the company of free-ranging dogs and the views of the sun making its escape from the eastern horizon.
Our final indulgence for the trip was a full-out assault on the most epic continental style breakfast buffet you could ever imagine. Quite literally, no breakfast item was left unrepresented, from fruit salad, yoghurts, cereals, and muesli to croissants, scones, flapjacks, cheeses, charcuterie, and smoked salmon. There was even a hot station where you could order your heart’s desire for an on-the-spot breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and any and every combination and iteration thereof. I ate like food was going out of fashion and it was good.
Your next getaway
What began as a colourful fishing community has since soared in reputation and popularity for its incredible natural beauty, whale watching opportunities (June to November), and human heritage and history. Chief amongst the draw cards to this rather remote neck of the Cape is the Arniston Spa Hotel, which offers travellers a quintessential Cape country experience and a luxurious and comfortable base from which to explore the region’s charming, breath-taking surrounds. And if you are yet to visit Arniston, you now know where your next weekend getaway should be.
The Arniston Spa Hotel is located at 1 Main Rd, Arniston, an approximate 210 km drive from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email email@example.com or call +27 (0) 28 445 9000
There is something wholly beguiling about the Middle East. The region is an ancient centre of civilization steeped both in spirituality and spectacular wonders, the vast age of which have imparted to their facades a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily humbling. The rock-cut palace of Petra in Jordan, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem (where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the eerily lit Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, and the Masjid al Haram in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest mosque…the Middle East is home to innumerable archaeological and architectural marvels.
Then, of course, there are the vast desiccated landscapes rippling with sand dunes and being ripped apart by yawning canyons, where the silence is so absolute that it’s deafening. Dusty museums display artefacts dating back thousands of years, when the sweeping stories told by the ancient record were almost too grand, too opulent, and too savage to be believed.
The Middle East is a place to feel humbled by age, beauty, desolation, affluence, vastness, and the deep devotion of a people to their God and their religion. In other words, it is the Holy Grail of travel kicks and, one way or another, every traveller should make his or her pilgrimage here.
Maligned by War
Unfortunately, the very phrase ‘Middle East’ evokes strongly averse feelings from the rest of the world and particularly the West. Perhaps rightly so. Bloody, merciless wars have waged in this region for decades now, if not longer, and news of bombings, terrorism, and appalling atrocities continue to dominate the headlines streaming out of global news centres. It is a war fuelled by greed, creed, and the utter conviction from every quarter that the violence is a noble and righteous cause, when in fact it is little more than humankind at its dastardly worst.
But, not all of the Middle East is a battlefield. In fact, much of this ancient region is peaceful and offers travellers an incredible off the beaten track experience. One such haven is to be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a collection of small islands and countries bordering on the Persian Gulf and tucked into the crook of Saudi Arabia’s landmass.
Dubai (International Airport)
It is in places like the UAE that intrepid explorers such as myself are provided with a somewhat sanitized, yet spicy taste of the Middle East without the terribly pervasive dangers one can experience further north in Iraq and Afghanistan, and south in Yemen. Dubai, the capital of the UAE and a hugely successful business centre, is perhaps the best-known city in the area. It is home to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – as well as many other architectural oddities, such as a man-made island resort shaped like a palm tree, which is best appreciated from the air as you take off from Dubai International Airport.
I can’t recount how many times I have traipsed through this airport en route to some other international destination. It surely has to be one of the most sophisticated in the world but, other than its souvenirs of smirking plastic camels, burka-clad figurines, and oases trapped in snow globes (how does that work?), it doesn’t offer one much of a cultural experience. Although, curled up on an airport lounger at some ungodly hour, eyes crusty from arid airplane air, I have felt compelled to smile by the haunting warble of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders calling people to prayer. It’s what tells you that – in spite of the yawning marble, glass, and chrome structure that envelops you – you’re in the Middle East, baby.
Aside from that, all I can say about Dubai is that it is hotter than Lucifer’s taint. One day, I shall have to spend more than just 12 hours in that country.
Two Weeks in Bahrain
Shortly after I submitted my Master Degree thesis (or, rather, threw it at my supervisor yelling “tag, you’re it!” before running away from campus and the country) I spent two weeks in Bahrain, en route to Thailand, where I would be spending the following two years of my life. I had always dreamed of travelling and now that my studies were finally done, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I, or rather we, spent two weeks in the sovereign state of Bahrain because my then girlfriend’s father lived and worked there, and the opportunity to experience a country I would never have otherwise thought to visit presented itself.
Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain, is another one of those havens where one can appreciate Middle Eastern culture without having to trade in one’s limbs for a debilitating case of PTSD: a lose-lose situation if I ever heard of one (pretty much sums up the U.S. war in Iraq, doesn’t it?) Coming from most places in the world, this island country in the Persian Gulf slaps you in the face as a totally alien place. Disembarking your plane, you don’t feel like you’ve stepped into another country; you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. And to support this point, Bahrain was used as the film location for Tattoine in the Star Warsmovies, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised as a child.
The country comprises a small archipelago sandwiched between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected by the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway. What immediately strikes you as you touch down here, even in the wee hours of the morning as we did, is the intense, suffocating heat and humidity. Then, when the sun rises, you’re confronted by an atmosphere and landscape so white and hazy with desert sand and dust that seeing colour comes as a physical relief to your retina.
But while there are parts of Bahrain that are just vast expanses of white, crumbly rock and soil, there are, conversely, parts that have been nurtured into lush gardens, palm forests, and flowerbeds. It’s illogical and it’s beautiful.
Money, Money, Money
The Arab Sheiks, oil barons, business moguls, and royal family have the money to turn infertile desert into man-made oases of intense biological activity. These people are rich. They are richer than Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but we never really hear about it here in the West. This stratospheric affluence was evident in the sheer number of ambitious building projects there were scattered across the island: building projects that had been abandoned, not because their investor ran out of capital but because they got bored, leaving behind dinosaur skeletons of would-be super malls and palaces.
The homes of wealthy Bahrainis are almost senselessly palatial, the business district is dominated by spectacularly scaled and designed skyscrapers, everyone drives big expensive cars, and the kind of gifts that are exchanged between affluent members of society can be measured in acres (it’s the square footage that counts, right?) Even shopping malls are ostentatious brick-and-mortar odes to an incomprehensible level of affluence, with their polished solid marble flooring and gilded bathroom faucets. But of all the displays of wealth that leave one slack-jawed in Bahrain, by far the most outrageous were the beggars. Outside of a grocery store, right around the corner from where we were staying, a man pulled up next to us in an Audi – not the latest model but infinitely nicer than any car I have ever owned.
And he stopped to beg for money…money to put petrol in his car, fetch his kids from school, and feed them. Something that, we were told by our host, isn’t uncommon.
In Bahrain, the evidence of ancient custom, deep religious fervour and history is juxtaposed by the country’s thriving economic activity. This, in turn, is juxtaposed by desperate poverty. Blue steel-and-glass monstrosities rear up out of the flat white landscape, almost defying physics with their size. These monolithic entities give way to Bedouin camps and clustered, terribly impoverished housing where Indians, Thais, Filipinos, and other hopeful foreigners live. Oil and gas pipes ubiquitous to the island run for miles and miles through its white wasteland. Some of these pipes end in vents that sporadically erupt in a monstrous burp of gas and flame, which has, according to our host, roasted many a poor and unsuspecting soul.
Bahrain by Foot. Bad Idea.
For two weeks, we explored this tiny island nation mostly by car because, in spite of its size, daytime temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius made walking a very real health hazard. More than any risk of heat exhaustion, however, were the younger Bahraini men and the constant unwanted attention they slathered in copious amounts over us.
Eager to experience Bahrain on my skin and in all its intoxicating fragrances and fascinating scenery, we struck out on foot on one of the first few days of our trip. Within the first ten minutes, a man pulled his car up next to us and, leering out of the open window, gabbled something in Arabic. We tried to explain that we didn’t understand. He proceeded to stare at us, no, drink us in with his liquid dark eyes and with a revolting lecherous smirk on his face. Minutes later, another complete stranger pulled his car over, once again, to stare at us. It’s like we were tall glasses of ice water on legs and these men in their expensive cars were fresh from dying of thirst in the desert. We were fully clothed (long shorts and T-shirts that covered our shoulders, as was recommended to us) but I couldn’t have felt more blue-arsed naked. I was shocked to my core by their complete lack of what the West regards as rudimentary etiquette.
This is the incredibly confronting reality that visitors to most places in the Middle East have to come to terms with. This is a man’s world and women are second-class citizens for the most part. Seriously battling the temptation to pick up a dog turd and throw it in the next leery asshole’s open car window, we ducked into an air-conditioned mall for an hour or two before catching a taxi home.
The men of Bahrain were redeemed a day or two later when, attempting to catch a taxi home from sightseeing, a kind man stopped his car and offered us a lift. Thinking he was a taxi, we climbed in and were astounded (and somewhat shaken) to discover when he refused to take our money that he had gone completely out of his way to deliver us safely to our doorstep. He was friendly and chatty and simply welcomed the opportunity to speak to a couple of foreigners. I’m sure he was also concerned for our safety.
It must be said that most of the older Bahraini men we met during our two-week stay were polite and generous. It was the younger generations who appeared to need a serious clout about the ears.
What I Remember Most
In Bahrain, the morning dawns and the day closes with the haunting warbles of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders. Accompanying this gentle soundtrack are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises, which is what I think I remember most about Bahrain. With the atmosphere being so thick with white dust, the early morning light gets refracted into a billion shades of pink and blue pastels, and all of this gorgeous light caresses the Bahraini landscape’s white desolation and visionary architecture.
We spent two weeks exploring the ancient archaeological ruins of the Bahrain Fort, enduring the incredible heat, marvelling at the strange and exotic imported fruits in the grocery store, and trying new foods, the names of which I have long forgotten. We went to bars where we couldn’t afford to drink (thanks to the steep exchange rate), to the desert where I felt as though the emptiness and silence would swallow me whole, and to the beach, where the salty waters of the Arabian Sea lapped at our feet. We wandered the souks, the malls, and the streets of this very strange country, the first international adventure I’d had since travelling to Singapore as a child.
I enjoyed Bahrain intensely and the scene I carry – and will always carry – as my mental postcard for this magical place is of a gently pink dawn over the bridge to Manama.
The Cape (of South Africa) is brimming with attractive hotspots for tourism. These have become regarded as the epicentres for our dining and art scenes, our heritage and history, and the thrill that is to be found here, whether it’s from dancing in a thrumming nightclub or abseiling down the stern countenances of the peninsula mountains.
Yet, between these hotspots, a little off the beaten track, perhaps along a secondary road that few people know of and even fewer tourist establishments thump their chests over, you’ll discover the Cape countryside and the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of hotels. These offer quintessential country-style accommodations and hospitality, and it was to experience this beguiling offering that we journeyed to the southernmost tip of Africa, to the Agulhas Country Lodge in the town of l’Agulhas.
The Agulhas Country Lodge
With one eye on the l’Agulhas coastal road before me and one eye on my GPS, a spectacular-looking building loomed into sight and I whispered to myself: “Oh please let this it!” If you somehow didn’t know where on Earth you were, approaching the Agulhas Country Lodge, you might very well believe that you’re in the Scotland. The hotel perches on the rocky limestone hills adjacent to the shoreline and its construction from natural limestone blocks gives it the presence and grace of a castle.
Inside, the hotel has been jigsaw puzzled together using materials salvaged from such enchanting origins as shipwrecks and old railway yards. Bare stone walls, dark timber ceilings, bespoke décor, and low, romantic light lend the Agulhas Country Lodge a tangible touch of history without being gloomy.
The suites, while gorgeously ‘country’ in theme and feel, have been considerately put together for the modern traveller, and feature mini-bars, tea and coffee stations, free Wi-Fi, and, in my case since I somehow landed the honeymoon suite, an enormous Jacuzzi bath. I also had a private balcony with inspiring views of the hilly coastline and its thick coat of Fynbos vegetation, the winding l’Agulhas coastal road, and the glittering ocean beyond.
Dinner is served
After an afternoon spent with my feet up on possibly the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever had the luxury of sinking into, I met my fellow media people in the cosy bar/lounge area for a drink before supper. Here, we met the lovely owners of the Agulhas Country Lodge, Sue and Phil Fenwick, whose multi-decadal love story is an inspiration to us all, whether single, engaged, or married. We also learned that the bar’s air force and maritime theme was informed by Phil’s rather dashing history as a pilot in the South African Air Force.
With cheeks warmed by romantic tales and a glass of red wine, we headed downstairs to the Agulhas Country Lodge’s small and intimate restaurant where, with a roaring fire warming our backs, we sank our teeth into a delicious, three-course meal home-cooked by none other than Sue and her lovely daughter Chelsea. A heart-warming starter of tasty vegetable soup and crisp homemade bread was followed by a sumptuous seafood potjie (we all continued to rave about for days afterwards), which went beautifully with the First Sighting Shiraz 2016, a peppery yet silky smooth, black fruited red wine from Strandveld Winery. We concluded the meal with what was advertised on the chalkboard menu as “the best carrot cake in the world” and which, I’m very happy to report, was no hyperbole.
Falling asleep has never been so easy!
Cape Agulhas historic walking route
The following morning, after a breakfast of homemade muesli, fresh fruit, boiled eggs, and my daily-required dose of caffeine, we hit the road to explore Cape Agulhas, a region of immense historic and geographical significance. Our walk began at the Agulhas lighthouse, a sad reminder that modern technology is fast robbing our culture of the need for these stoic and romantic maritime structures.
We then walked along the coast through fynbos vegetation atwitter with canaries and bejewelled sunbirds to the southernmost tip of Africa, where the warm Indian Ocean clashes with the cold Atlantic. From here, we hiked to the boardwalk at Rasperpunt, which offered blessed respite from the hard-to-walk-on sandy and pebbled beaches and lead us along the coast past the Meishu Maru 38 shipwreck, a Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground in 1982 (allegedly on purpose…for insurance purposes).
Our walk even took us past the lagoon at Pietjie se Punt, where cormorants gathered along the pool’s edges and plovers ploughed the sand for morsels. With the brisk sea air invigorating our lungs, our feet ate up kilometre after kilometre of beach terrain and, before it was even noon, my Fitbit counter registered 12,000 steps. Is there anything better than a well-earned lunch?
Seafood buffet and bubble bath
Our reward for our rather epic morning walk was a seafood buffet of fried calamari, hake, prawn cakes, and chips washed down with Springfield Estate Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc 2018 at the Sea Shack in Struisbaai, a casual seafood eatery located right on the beach. We then atoned for the fry-up with a short walk along the coast to the harbour of Struisbaai before returning to the Agulhas Country Lodge to enjoy our suites and a little solace.
Being located on porous limestone, l’Agulhas is in the fortunate position to have vast underground reservoirs of water at its finger (toe?) tips and so while the rest of the Cape languished in drought, the tiny coastal town remained flush with fresh water. And so, I treated myself to a guilt-free bubble bath in my suite’s enormous Jacuzzi tub, whose jets churned the water into froth and blissfully buried me in fragrant bubbles.
The Agulhas Country Lodge is just one of the Cape Country Routes’ properties, a loose coalition of hotels sprinkled across the country but that exists in greater concentration throughout the southwestern Cape. Together, these establishments offer visitors a quintessential Cape country experience, which is all about tranquil settings, sweeping vistas of nature, hearty dishes crafted from fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, a heady blend of luxury and comfort, and good old country hospitality. The Agulhas Country Lodge does a fabulous job of upholding this philosophy, sending us away positively glowing with all of the above, in addition to the extraordinary beauty and history of the Cape Agulhas countryside.
The Agulhas Country Lodge is located at 9 Main Road, L’Agulhas, an approximate 220 km distance from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org call +27 (0) 28 435 7650.
When one speaks of the internationally-renown Cape Winelands, the leafy, winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek tend to dominate the limelight. Yet, two-hours outside of the city lies a pristine valley, where winemaking tradition, history, culture, and talent is as strong as it is in its celebrity counterparts: the Robertson Wine Valley. Here, a constellation of wineries contributes tirelessly to the wine culture of our country and a shining star among them all is Esona Boutique Winery.
“The very one”: single vineyard, limited release wines
Esona, which means “the very one” in Xhosa, lies sandwiched between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale in the heart of the Robertson Wine Valley, with the Langeberg to the north and the Riviersonderend Mountains to the south. From the second floor of its pretty winery, one gets a sense of orientation and views of vineyards that extend all the way down to the Breede River, the valley’s central artery that supplies all the farms with life-giving water.
Floating like a stalwart ship in an ocean of green vineyards, Esona’s winery and underground cellar is a compact building that caters to every expectation: stylish interior with charming historic elements, delicious food platters, a lovely selection of wines, friendly staff, absolutely gorgeous views, and a unique underground cellar tasting experience. In order to get there, one is required to walk through a short section of vineyards, which is testament to the boutique status of the estate because if they had hoards of visitors, the plants would likely suffer.
Girl power at Esona Boutique Winery
The assistant winemaker at Esona Boutique Winery is Charmaine, who, in addition to obliterating the male winemaker gender stereotype, worked her way up from farm labourer to her current position. If anyone has an intimate understanding of the grapes and the vineyards, it’ll be the person who once tended to them with their very own hands.
In this way, the family behind Esona are dedicated to empowering their staff and the people in their community, not only by hiring them, but by training, mentoring, and allowing them to realise their full potential irrespective of where they started out in life. Wine tasting assistants are able to become managers, and farm labourers are able to become wine makers. These individuals have the talent and the team at Esona gave them the necessary education, skills, and techniques.
A candlelit, Riedel glass wine-tasting in the “Kuip”
Upon arriving at Esona Boutique Winery and after a welcome glass of their fresh “Frankly My Dear” Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir, our party of four descended into the quiet, dimly-lit, and intimate space of the “kuip”, the underground cellar. Decades ago, in the era prior to the adoption of sophisticated climate control technology, winemakers would build great cement cisterns underground where temperatures were cool and protected from the daily fluctuations. Within these great subterranean cisterns, the juice from the grapes would be allowed to ferment in peace, producing quality, delicious wine. The old cellar at Esona has since been reconstructed to accommodate guests such as us and for one of the Cape’s most unique wine tasting experiences.
And so we sat down to an absolute must-do of an activity for any visitor to the Robertson Wine Valley: a “vertical” wine tasting (and food and music pairing) from Riedel glassware. On the table were two vintages of three different wines from Esona’s collection – a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. The idea is to taste the difference between the two vintages of the same wines and how an extra year or two plays out beautifully in the character and depth of the wine. The tastings were also done using famous glassware known as Riedel glasses, which have been specifically crafted to draw out the subtlest of flavours and most nuanced of aromas in specific cultivars.
The Chardonnay glass, for example, was elegant, long-stemmed, and had a round, almost fish bowl-shaped (not sized, unfortunately) vestibule. This shape is said to complement the voluptuous character of Esona’s Chardonnay and to allow its rich buttery, caramel notes to sing. The effects of the shape of the glassware on the flavours and aromas of the wine were highlighted by sniffing and sipping the same wine out of low-end restaurant wine glasses. For someone with an education rooted in the sciences, I was at first sceptical, but the difference was not just perceptible but significantly so!
Riedel glassware is the creative collaboration of talented and experienced glassblowers and winemakers, the product of which is the perfect vestibule from which to enjoy your Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.
Wine, food, and music pairing
In addition to the vertical tasting and the use of Riedel glasses, there was a third and a fourth element: a pairing with Lindt chocolate and fruit preserves and music to match the wine. Our round of Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed with light, classical music, while the Shiraz had country music as its soundtrack.
Every element of our visit to Esona Boutique Winery – the tasting, glassware, sweet accompaniments, music, views, food, walk through the vineyards, and of course Esona’s limited release single vineyard wines – was lovely and came together to create a (highly recommendable) symphonic experience.
Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?
– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist
The steep rutted dirt track levelled out and the thick vegetation that had hemmed in the road grew sparse and then fell away, revealing a breath-taking and quintessentially African vista. Before the safari vehicle yawned a vast open expanse of rolling green plains punctuated by enormous fig trees under which white rhino sought respite from the sun.
Like an imagined scene straight out of an early Wilbur Smith novel, the plains were alive with wildlife. A single glance revealed upwards of five different species of animals, from waterbuck, which look as though they’ve sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, to warthogs with faces that only a mother could love. Rhino moved about on the plains like giant grey tanks, slowly grazing at the lush grass as the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the air, lending a bluish tinge to the mountains in the background. Overhead, gaudily coloured European Bee-eaters wheeled and swooped.
The Fig Plains, as they are aptly called, was our first real introduction to the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Welgevonden Game Reserve and it was such a spectacular and breath-taking greeting that I couldn’t wait to see what my stay at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa would show me. I was right to be excited: before the end of the day, we’d see the most elusive member of the Big Five.
The Welgevonden Game Reserve
The Welgevonden Game Reserve is a 35,000-hectare slice of heaven located an approximate three hours’ drive from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This rare malaria-free reserve is home to Big Five game – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo – as well as just about every other species of African animal you can think of, big and small.
Birdwatchers: prepare to annoy the living daylights out of your fellow explorers as you make the ranger stop the vehicle every few hundred yards for a new bird sighting. But, at the end of the dusty road and a drive filled with adrenalin-laced game viewing, is the heart of the operation: the luxurious five-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa. It was to this veritable oasis of luxury that I had been invited to write an article about their offering.
A Home for the Heart
The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa consists of a beautifully appointed main lodge (which functions as a reception, guest lounge, and restaurant), a spa, a “boma” for dinner under the stars, a curio shop, and a luxurious collection of rooms, suites, and a villa (accommodates six people), every bedroom of which has views over the lawns and watering hole that lie directly in front of the lodge.
Mhondoro has clearly been built with this in mind: offering guests an immersive wildlife experience that continues even after you’ve alighted from the safari vehicle, retired to your room, and gotten into your pyjamas. This is a true story: many of the photos I took of wildlife were taken from the vantage point of the villa’s master suite (and in my pyjamas). In fact, one of my favourite pastimes between game drives was sprawling out on my ridiculously large balcony with a glass of bubbly to watch the warthogs rolling in the mud and the baboons chase and pester each other.
I don’t know which divine entity favoured my fortunes but I somehow got lucky and landed the villa’s master bedroom suite. I had, completely to myself, a bed large enough to sleep an elephant, a walk-in closet, an enormous luxurious bathroom complete with his and hers vanities and a separate toilet, my own lounge with a fireplace and writing desk, and a wrap-around balcony and patio with views of the watering hole. My suite also came with an outdoor shower and so – super eager to try it out – I washed off the day’s travel while watching zebras graze around the watering hole and take the occasional nip at each other’s rumps.
The space was enormous and yet it felt cosy, intimate, and like home away from home (with five-stars, attentive service, exceptional food, and ridiculous extremes of pampering thrown in).
Mhondoro Dining Experiences
Dining at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa is a celebration of the reserve’s spectacular and abundant wildlife, not in the sense that this wildlife finds itself on the menu, but rather in that every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – is taken outside, either on the deck of the lodge or on the deck of the villa, where the views of the watering hole and its animals and birds are uninterrupted.
On our first night, however, we found ourselves in the atmospheric “boma” – a small, open-air arena with tables and seating arranged in semi-circular arcs around a central fireplace, where we enjoyed a traditional South African braai and fare (think oxtail potjiekos and boerewors) and even a song and dance performance by the staff. The service was unrelenting in its attentiveness and we didn’t once want for anything. I fell asleep that night in the sweet embrace of silky soft white linen, red wine over-indulgence, and a mosquito net that cascaded, dream-like, down around my elephant-sized bed.
The Watering Hole and Game Drives
One of my favourite features of Mhondoro, not surprisingly, was its underground watering hole hide that is connected to the main lodge through a 65-meter long concrete tunnel, which makes it the very first and the only luxury lodge in the country to offer guests (literally) eye-to-eye encounters with the wildlife that come here to drink and take a dip.
Throughout our stay, we had a troop of 30+ baboons pay the watering hole a visit, as well as wildebeest, zebra, impala, elephant, a rhino mother and her very young baby, and a family of ever-present warthogs. According to the staff, lion, leopard, and cheetah have been seen from the excellent vantage point of the lodge, not only coming to drink, but in the case of the cheetah, to take down a gazelle and enjoy a leisurely lunch as well (they would have had to pry me from that hide with a crowbar).
And then there are the game drives. Mhondoro maintains a fleet of safari vehicles that are not only bigger and sturdier than most of the animals you’ll encounter on your excursions but are very comfortable to sit in even while the vehicle negotiates dongas the size of the Grand Canyon and bounces over roads more rutted and pockmarked than the surface of the moon.
The absolute STAR of the show are the game rangers who take you boldly into the bush, wear their passion for nature on their sleeves, know how to track the wildlife, and are tomes of knowledge on the park’s fauna and flora. Our lead ranger, Fritz, knew more about birds than I do, which was at once ruffled my feathers and impressed me.
The rangers maintain constant communication with each other, reporting sightings and sharing information over the radio, which gives guests much better odds of experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sightings of special animals, like leopard. In fact, it was on our very first game drive (on the evening of the first night) that Fritz spotted a leopard slinking low in the yellow grass. Had it not been for that communication network, we would never have stopped at that bend in the road to search for the leopard and, undoubtedly, had it not been for Fritz’ keen eyes, the big cat would have slunk past us completely undetected.
Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks
After a few hours’ of fruitful game viewing, the rangers make a habit of stopping the vehicle, usually somewhere with a beautiful view, and break out the coffee, tea, rusks, and other breakfasty snacks (on morning drives) or the gin-and-tonic, wine, liqueurs, and nibbles (on late afternoon drives). And let me tell you… there are few moments are profound as finding yourself standing in the middle of the African bush with a gin and tonic in your hand, watching the setting sun paint a blaze of fierce colours on the horizon.
The hardest part of writing this article was trying to keep it short and sweet and even that I have failed to do. The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa and the Welgevonden Game Reserve into which it is nestled is, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the luxury of visiting. So much so, I could have written a novel-length account of my stay there. From the lodge’s major services, amenities, and offerings right down to the minute attention to detail paid by the staff (that opening quote was placed next to my bed on a printed out piece of paper), Mhondoro is a home for the heart that, once departed, will forever beat with a deep love for Africa.
This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, a Cape Town-based lifestyle and leisure publication that focuses on food, wine, travel, and adventure in South Africa.
Although my family had a beautiful home in Hout Bay (my father is an architect), we weren’t what you’d consider a wealthy family. Our travel philosophies were a testament to this: we’d rarely fly anywhere, we’d almost always stay in our caravan, and lunch was taken on the road and more often than not consisted of soggy jam sandwiches, floury apples, and sweet coffee. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for these early thrifty travels, though, because they defined my perception of luxury.
To me, as a kid, luxury was a hunk of biltong to chew on for hours during our long, tiresome road trips around the country. It was getting to sit down and eat at a restaurant, even though my concept of haute cuisineat the time was a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. But the very pinnacle of luxury, the Mount Olympus of all treats, was getting to stay in a hotelroomwhere my parents’ snores could be shut out by a door, rather than bundled into our tiny cots in our tiny caravan.
On the odd occasion we did overnight in hotels, they were ancient budget establishments, usually named something like “The Standard Hotel” or “The [insert one horse town’s name] Inn.” These were places with creaky wooden floorboards, ancient paintings of forgotten people, furniture that would belch out decade-old, musty air when you sat in them, and cracked porcelain bathroom basins.
In other words, they were in desperate need of an accidental electrical fire so that they could be burned to the ground, completely redesigned, rebuilt, and refurnished.
To me, however, they were luxurious and the excitement of sleeping in a hotel superseded any kind of miserable reality that might entail. In other words, I was taught to be happy with what I needed rather than what I wanted.
My parents were and are not misers. My father is one of the most generous human beings I know and will never, ever turn down the opportunity to buy you a chocolate bar whether you want one or not (or a cheeky shot of tequila on a trip to Hollywood, Los Angeles).
But to my parents, traveling is about spending 14 hours a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through foreign cities. It’s about feelingthe climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine…but also its struggles.
There’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – to be sure, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?
On a caravan trip up the Garden Route – so called because of the region’s lush, verdant forests – along the east coast of South Africa, disaster befell us. Cresting a particularly hilly hill a few tens of kilometres from the epitome of one-horse towns, Heidelberg, our caravan caught a tail wind and began to fishtail violently from side-to-side. It felt as though my mother, who happened to be driving, was yanking the wheel from left to right, which she was but out of sheer desperation to counteract the forces of the fishtailing caravan on our little red Toyota corolla.
Totally out of control, the car lurched sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other before the caravan swept right around in a massive arc, ending up at right angles to the car and forcing us into a deep ditch on the far side of the road. I remember my mother’s hysterical concern over her precious cargo on the back seat juxtaposed by my dad’s eerie calm, who immediately set to work rationalising what had just happened to us.
To my mother: “We must have caught a tail wind. You should have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes – that would have pulled the caravan back into a straight line behind the car.”
I don’t recall my mom’s precise words but they were probably something along the lines of “gaan kak”, the Afrikaans equivalent of “get fucked!”
Sitting there on the back seat, emotionally rattled but physically unharmed, the strangest thing happened. Our high drama on the highway began attracting an audience but not of people – we were in the middle of nowhere after all. From far and wide and seemingly out of the crackling white horizons, tall, comical-looking birds materialized and began loping over to the fence to ogle unashamedly at our appalling situation. Ostriches! Before long, we had drawn a crowd of the world’s largest birds.
Our caravan, which was bent at a torturous angle to the car, was quite simply and totally fucked. There was no way we were going to make it to our holiday destination. To make matters even more uncomfortable than having just been in a potentially fatal car accident – not to mention blatantly stared at by a gaggle of stupid-looking birds – we found ourselves stranded under the blistering countenance of the African sun. Oh, and being sometime in the 1990’s, none of us had a cell phone to call for help.
I don’t recall precisely how we got out of that mess but I believe that another car arrived soon after our accident and kindly offered to drive my father to Heidelberg, where he could hire the services of a tow truck. Thereafter, we found ourselves in this tiny Karoo town with nothing other to do than languish, for three days and three nights, in a hotel room. My parents were in hell – the trauma, the expense, the boredom.
I was in heaven.
Rags to riches
I unpacked my entire suitcase into the closet as a way of claiming my new space, had a greasy cheeseburger and undercooked fries in the nearly deserted hotel restaurant for dinner, and drifted off to sleep trying in vain to read the Old Testament bible (the ones that were always nested in the bedside drawers of hotels).
To this day, staying in hotels excites me, although my perception of luxury has changed somewhat. I’ve had the privilege of landing a job that sends me to wonderful places in and around Cape Town to stay in luxurious hotels and guesthouses, all of which are four stars and higher. One such assignment sent me to a five-star luxury resort in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province (northeast South Africa). Another to a five-star guesthouse in Paarl, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, where I drowned in expensive sheets and delicious local Méthode Cap Classique (our equivalent of Champagne).
In spite of this unbridled, exquisite assault upon my senses, I remember how excited I was as a kid to be able to stay in a hotel for three nights, even if it was a terrible car accident that landed us there in the first place. I have, however, given up on trying to read the Old Testament since then, or any bible for that matter.
Unless I’m in need of a sleeping aid, that is.
Find me on Facebook: Hey you! There is SO much more going on in the life and times of Wander Woman Thea so find me on Facebook, give my page a like, and see all the wine-fuelled shenanigans and adventures I get up to! If you like my page and drop me a message, I’ll return the favour!
When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.
On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.
Daytime on the Orange River
As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.
The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.
With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.
This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?
Don’t date those people.
Nighttime on the river
African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.
With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.
Earning your experience
We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.
The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.