I fell in love with Africa in 2008. I had visited the continent before, as a child in the 1960’s, visiting Tunisia and Libya. I had experienced the Arab Africa, the souks, the Sahara and the Saharan Atlas, in my teenage years. Its landscape and brilliant light forever altered my colour vision, impacting my painting in later years, but true love for the continent only blossomed when I started to go to Southern Africa, Namibia and South Africa particularly although Botswana is top of my bucket list right now.
In 2008 I went into South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains and fell in love. The road from the Cape into the Cederberg is good, and driving was easy, South African drivers being very polite when sober. Turning off the main road into Clan William we obeyed instructions from our destination, Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, a combination of game reserve and luxury hotel, to fill up with fuel and ring them when we were leaving, as the drive over the mountains was on an unmade road with no cell phone signal. This, I thought, is an adventure.
It was a clever piece of theatre from the reserve, and in the intervening years the road has been improved and surfaced, but on this first visit our rental clanged and banged as stones from the unmade rutted surface bounced from the underside. Emerging from the gorge that forms the Pakhuys Pass over the mountain, we gazed from high across the Cederberg’s breath-taking landscape. Down below the dusty road snaked across the plain, and we rattled and rolled to the entrance gate to the reserve.
The destination belongs to Relais and Chateau group so has a gate with a button to contact Reception – 8 kilometres away inside the gate! The gate is to keep the wildlife in the 16,000 hectares’ wilderness area rather than anything else. One story I heard is that the reserve bought ten rare white tailed wildebeests as a breeding herd as part of the conservation breeding programme. One bull and nine cows. On particularly rainy period the solar panels failed to charge up the gate enough and it stuck half open. Out walked the wildebeest. They were recovered minus the bull, which probably ended up on a braai somewhere.
The reserve initially focussed on the Cape Zebra – then an endangered species. The breeding programme was successful and breeding pairs were sent to reserves elsewhere in Southern Africa. I didn’t even know at this stage there were different brands of zebras, but now I can tell them apart – a weird skill for an urban Englishman! Staying in the Reserve sets the pattern of the stay, with drives into the bush to see the wildlife and birds setting a delightful rhythm. As I write tis the emphasis has turned to the Cape Leopard, an elusive creature but which has left signs of its presence seen by the rangers.
The 4×4’s used to take guests into the bush are kitted out on the morning drive with a hot cupboard so a stop and walk in the bush is rounded off with hot coffee and croissants and other foods, until a full brunch poolside at the lodge after arriving back at the lodge. Game drives are always better with a knowledgeable guide – they read the spoor, know the local patterns of the animal’s movements and have a wealth of tales. Piles of poo and source of knowledge, every hole and scuff on the floor carries a story. The evening drive backtracks the game paths to the water holes and finishes at a boma on a height to watch the sunset and drink a sundowner, for magically the hot cupboard on the back has become a refrigerated bar of cold drinks, returning in time for a sundowner again before the evening meal
Sitting in the boma watching unicorns drift past in the brush, the guide commends us to look out for smaller animals too, and my delighted eye, looking over the edge of the seating area, pick up this elephant shrew on its evening hunt. As we drive back bat eared foxes dash across the track and a line of ostriches meanders inelegantly past. Dusk is a magical time to see the animals, with hares bolting almost under our wheels, dark shadows moving in the bushes and bats fleetingly glimpsed in the lights. I return hear again and again because my partner has a yearning to see an aardvark a creature of the night who’s holes we spot in daytime but of which a sighting eludes us.
We have stayed on the reserve in summer and winter. Winter floods the trails and drives can be mercilessly cold but just as rewarding, and the lodge rooms are a delight when they have the log fire burning in the hearth. It may be a game reserve but this is also a five star hotel and the lodges reflect this in their comfort levels. In winter the spa overlooks a stream that becomes a torrent, its chuckling roar providing the background to treatments more relaxing than mystic muzak. Visible from its relaxation area are those small relations of the elephant, the jassies, whilst the fynbos provides the scent of herbs naturally.
Set against the stream the hotel buildings, just 16 rooms with a central bar/restaurant /pool area nestle in a green hollow amongst the hills. There is a small museum dedicated to the local community and history and extensive information of the many cave paintings which continue to be discovered on the estate. The hotels and reserve both continue to win awards. In 2009 it was named by Conde Nast as the Best Hotel in Africa, in 2016 it came third, but also won an African Responsible Tourism Gold Award for the Best Contribution to Cultural Heritage Conservation, along with an award for the Ultimate Safari Experience.
The road is now surfaced all the way to the hotel, which has influenced the presentation of rooms. There are now large flat screen televisions where before the wilderness was the vision, but the improved road means guests can no longer be stranded in the hotel and has increased the number of guest coming in winter months when the hotel was virtually inaccessible. One winter when I stayed my partner and I were the only guests. Our own private reserve for two days, treated like royalty, a memorable experience.
I have been to many places had many adventures, few compare to the delights of Bushmans Kloof. Asked to sum up my visits by a friend, I said “Simple, this is a little piece of heaven come to earth”.