Category Archives: South Africa

Travelogue Northern Cape: Part 2

NORTHERN CAPE Part 2

KAKAMAS
3 August

Having already spent our first night in the Green Kalahari belt, the plan was for our second day to be spent travelling to the farthest end such that the remainder of our trip would be spent winding our way back (slowly) in the direction of home.

This meant that Wednesday’s plan began with a visit to Augrabies Falls and had us sleeping in Kakamas.

With only 70km to cover and very relaxed hosts at Bezalel Wine Estate, there was no hurry to start our day. With the sun up and the makings of a lovely morning, it was very refreshing to put on our running togs and take a jog through the vineyards again while we discussed the finer details of the plan for the day.

We settled on a picnic at Augrabies Falls. And we already had all the supplies. Bonus.

On the road with our friends, Motley Crue (the audiobook into which we were now thoroughly engrossed), the time (and the endless bushveld scenery) whizzed by and we were soon at Augrabies Falls National Park.

We pulled up at the main building and – whether it was because of Covid, being midweek or just winter in the Northern Cape – discovered we had the place to ourselves.

Taking the winding path down to the gorge, it was a now-rare pleasure to be able to enjoy the open-air excursion mask-free. The Park has set up wooden walkways and viewing decks along the edge of the gorge and we walked end-to-end, able to admire the fierceness of the falls, the magnitude of the gorge and the scary drop between us on the overhanging viewing deck and the water so far beneath us.

Having done 2km along the walkways, we were ready for our light picnic lunch and enjoyed our sarmies, watching the little dassies sniffing and scurrying about the place, like chubby little Daxies.

The Kakamas Hotel was also directly on the N14 which runs from Upington to Augrabies so we’d passed it on our way through and, with the hotel being on the far side of Kakamas from the Augrabies side, by the time we checked in we’d had two passes through Kakamas which, thanks to boundless graphic signage, was enough to give us locals-level qualification on lay of the land and a very clear agenda. Wine-tasting and pizza at Die Mas.

The Kakamas Hotel for all its small town lodge charm boasted a 4-star rating, which showed in the efficient way we were managed from car to our ultra modern suite, with slimline admin consisting only of our obligatory Covid declaration form and the three little words everyone is always excited to hear: Breakfast Is Included.

Pausing ever so briefly to appreciate our pretty home for the night – from the gravel pathway across the shaded lawns down to the pond where the local gaggle was lazily sliding across the still waters – we were motivated to get back in the car and on our way to our next adventure.

Die Mas had come recommended to us by friends in Jo’burg, and lived up to the anticipation that had been set.

With Wine, Brandy and Gin tasting on offer, we settled (as the only customers, spilt for choice) at a bench table at the outer edge of the grapevine-covered terrace to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and wonderful view, and ordered the white wine flight.

The chap serving us had no sooner poured into the tasting glass when a gust of wind came along and blew it right over! With no intention of wasting any more wine, we moved inside to an upright-barrel table.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the white flight, we ordered the red as well. While swirling and sniffing and sipping and critiquing, a couple of swarthy chaps came in and sat at one of the sets of table and chairs.

With awe, we watched as they ordered the wines, the brandy and the gin tastings all in one go. AND a Brandy and Coke long drink each for in between. They did a bit of swirling and some sniffing, but mostly slinging and giggling and having the best time.

We, meantime, had been served the bad news that the kitchen was not operating. So no pizza. But, when in Rome and all that, so we did a brandy tasting (seemed to be working for our neighbours) and ordered a bottle of Rose Pinot Noir instead.

The wind had died down so we moved back outside and enjoyed the start of sunset with the lovely local’s finest, pleased to see our super-tasters from inside leaving with arms laden with the cases they’d bought to take home.

An extensive Google to try and find a dinner alternative revealed a distinct lack of options. Not believing what we were seeing, we took a drive through the part of town that seeped inland from the N14 and despite finding schools, the usual handful of town buildings, a compact and neat suburb and after a brief foray into the local settlement, we found that Google had indeed been telling the truth.

Fortunately, our hotel had a restaurant, so we had a very pleasant poolside dinner with another bottle of Die Mas Pinot Noir for good measure.

UPINGTON
4 August

While our hotel was a pretty slice of the countryside, it was also right on the main road, which left nowhere to do our now-ritual morning run.

Good opportunity for a sleep-in and a hearty brekkie before the hop back along the now-very-familiar N14 to Upington.

We’d called ahead and arranged early check-in at our hotel, the Oasis, which soon proved to be a lot of value for our money, from the prime location on park-and-walk-anywhere Schroder Street, to the airconditioned reception to the access to the amenities at the Protea next door. And yes, Breakfast Was Included.

Since it wasn’t yet midday, we had plenty of time for a session in the fitness centre in the Protea. Chris opted to do weights and whatnot while he had access to the equipment and I filled the gap of my missing running partner by running along with the Olympics contestants on the telly in the gym. I did 2 sets of 3000m steeplechase with the world’s finest athletes, cheating a bit since I didn’t think the hotel would appreciate me leaping on the treadmill or splashing through the kiddies pool for authenticity of my virtual event.

Our pre-planning had uncovered a local offering called “Sakkie Se Arkie” that looked worth a try. The review promised a relaxing couple of hours of sunset cruise down the Orange River, which sounded about our speed. Showered and ship-shape, we prioritised going down to the jetty to book so that we would work timings around that excursion.

Fortunately we had taken the car purely because the Orange River Wine Cellars tasting rooms were 4km from the hotel or we would have felt very foolish driving to Sakkie Se Arkie, which we’d assumed as a turn of phrase when the Oasis receptionist had told us it was ‘around the corner’, but which turned out to even be understated since it was just on the other side of the Protea Hotel building!

Sadly, the cruise season had not yet begun (combination of weather and lack of demand) so there would be no Arkie for us. But there was wine-tasting, so all was not lost.

And neither could we be since the tasting rooms were literally on our road. Four short kilometres straight-straight down dead-straight flat-as-a-pancake Schroder Street.

We were very soon seated at a table at Orange River Cellars with a flight of 7 of their finest wines to sample; 3 whites and 3 reds of our choosing + a bonus red one that was new and being promoted.

We worked through the rainbow of generous tasters while lunch was served and then, with nothing else on the agenda, ordered a couple of glasses of our favourites and frittered away the afternoon, absorbed in the novelty of wine-routing.

We had hoped to get a pint of Guinness somewhere in the Northern Cape to add to our online Index. Some Google research had offered the promise of an Irish pub in Upington. And of course it was said to be on Schroder Street.

A few doors down from our home base, we had driven past it on our way out. It looked shut at the time, but we irrationally hoped it was something odd like small town hours or curfew-related restrictions or somesuch.

No such luck. On our return to our side of Schroder, a close up inspection revealed a note in the door that advised the pub was closed owing to lockdown and it was unknown when or if it would reopen. Equal parts sad for them and disappointing for us.

This only left the Red Ox for us for sundowners.

A complete surprise, the Red Ox proved to be a particularly shiny hidden gem. Upmarket enough to be associated with Sandton’s Butcher Shop or Rosebank’s Grillhouse, but with the added appeal of being riverside with spectacular sunset views over the Orange, our only regret was that we had eaten so recently since the delicious cuts on display in the counterstyle showcases and in the “Buy to Braai” fridges at the entrance were nothing short of mouth-watering.

We made do with sampling the local Kalahari Lager and Red Ox pilsner as it got dark and we planned our next day.

KURUMAN
5 August

When we had done our planning, we had only booked up until Upington, leaving the last couple of nights free in case we wanted extra time anywhere or got referrals along the way. Neither being the case, we were flying a bit blind, with the internet as our guide.

Scrutinising the route home, we made two decisions; firstly, to spend Thursday night in Kuruman (because we’d heard of it and there was a hotel in the same chain as the Kakamas Hotel that we’d so enjoyed) and secondly, to return home on Friday since the remaining distance was manageable and there was nothing else ‘must do’ en route.

Thursday morning began with a last run in the vineyards, accessing them by crossing the Orange on the bridge we’d seen from the Red Ox the night before, followed by a hearty breakfast at the hotel – a rare-pleasure buffet, carefully managed by the banqueting staff in line with rigid Covid protocols.

The only stop we made on the trip to Kuruman was at Kathu.

Established as an iron ore mining town, our limited view of Kathu gave us the opinion that although nice enough, there’s not a hell of a lot to see and do, so we settled for a quick visit to the local mall.

Leaving Kathu, it would appear that the town holds future promise with a lush looking country club and some adjacent residential development.

We did not hold a similar opinion of Kuruman which, sadly, was dusty and delapidated by first impression.

When the hotel manager at check-in warned us off the town’s claim to fame, the Eye of Kuruman, because of threat of vandalism and theft, the day’s fate was sealed.

We had booked a garden unit and it was right next to the pool so we did with our last afternoon on this roadtrip what we so seldom do on holiday. Absolutely nothing. And loved it.

Travelogue Northern Cape Part 1

NORTHERN CAPE

31 Jul – 07 Aug 2021

After a long year of ups and lockdowns and the bitter disappointment of a cancelled skiing trip to Lesotho in July, a roadtrip getaway was exactly what the doctor ordered. And, with international borders a challenge, the Covid virus still in a brutal Third Wave and a country recently ravaged with violence, where better than the most remote part of the country, the Northern Cape.

Knowing little about the region, surface-deep research revealed that we’d uncovered a hidden gem. Having thought of the Northern Cape as desert, we were delighted to find that it is also home to the Green Kalahari, a lush fertile strip along the Orange River with all sorts of unexpected and exciting things; most notably, a wine route!

Intentions set, we plotted a fun and relaxing week-long roadtrip. And having booked our leave at short notice, were in the car a few days later, heading off on our adventure.

The first day was the longest drive with 480km to Kimberley. A relaxed departure, good roads and traditional Wimpy pitstop had us at our hotel late afternoon, to enjoy the last of the sunshine. And to revel in being in short sleeves after having struggled through weeks of gruelling Joburg winter.

We’d picked the Protea Marriott because of its location overlooking the famous Big Hole of Kimberley, fancying drinks on the terrace while taking in the biggest hand-dug pit in the world… 

But a hole is honestly not much to look at, so we went to the Big Hole Museum (literally next door) instead.
The Museum is housed in an Old Town reconstruction of the early buildings that sprung up around the mine and became the first beginnings of Kimberley.

The museum (and access to the Hole viewing deck) was already closed when we got there, but we were free to wander the dusty streets with its quaint collection of examples of the shops and offices that must have serviced the miners that flocked to dig their way to fame and fortune.

The experience includes an Old Town pub and grill, called The Occidental. Decorated like an old world tavern, but with the benefits of new world technology and a very modern menu, we settled into the sepia setting to spend the evening watching the Springboks play the Lions, while munching on delicious deep fried pork belly and rump strip nachos, washed down with the local Vokof craft beer.

On Sunday morning we decided to do our own jogging tour of the newer part of town to build up to breakfast, so hit the roads on a winding tour that took us past sportsgrounds, university, schools and shopping centres.

A quick Google had revealed that a lot of coffee shops and breakfast spots weren’t open on Sundays and nothing much opened before 10, so we figured we’d squeeze in a quick walking tour of the old Victorian suburb of Belgravia to give Kimberley a chance to wake up properly.

We showered, checked out, and drove (no more than a few minutes) to Lodge Road to go and see the beautifully preserved building, some 130+ years old. 

Belgravia is a stark contrast to the modest suburbs we’d run through earlier in the morning, with manicured lawns and water features bridging pretty fences and the neat and sturdy brickwork that had so well preserved this slice of history.

Using the internet as our guide, we matched house numbers with significance, which centred mostly around the Oppenheimer dynasty. 

Unfortunately the museum and gallery were not open (unclear as to whether a Sunday thing or a Covid thing), which motivated us to get to the breakfast that had morphed into a brunch.

Good thing too, because when we got to the Crazy Horse to get their famous Full English (and then some) breakfast, we were initially disappointed to be told that they were no longer serving breakfast… 
But fate was on our side because this forced us to try a Kimberley special; crumbed and deep-fried rump drowned in cheddamelt sauce. Served with the most buttery mash. What a treat! 

The kitchen was not only epic but also super quick, and we were on the road again just after midday, heading towards Groblershoop for our Sunday night stay.

Driving the Northern Cape really is ‘the open road’. With decent highway slicing through the flat dry bushveld, barely any traffic and continuing the audiobook we’d started the day before (the story of Motley Crue, as told by the band members), the two and a half hour drive was almost relaxing. 


GROBLERSHOOP

Sunday 1 August

As a pitstop to break the journey, we’d chosen Groblershoop for its remoteness, and a quaint little farmstay cottage overlooking vineyards and pecan nut trees on a working farm.

We were most pleased with our choice and were soon lazing on the deck chairs on the sunny stoep – exactly as we’d imagined we would be from the moment we’d seen the ad on Airbnb – admiring the lush lemon trees in our oasis garden, with the grey wintery vineyards as backdrop.

There’s really not much to report about the rest of the day, since we barely moved more than a few metres from the deck chairs to the bench table to play backgammon for hours while the sun set and the stars appeared on the pitch black blanket of sky.

On meeting our host, we had asked about running trails in the area. He’d indicated that we were welcome to run through the vineyards, which would lead us to the Orange River. So, since we awoke to a perfect morning, that’s exactly what we did.

We were fortunate to be exploring this part of the world at this time of the year because any sooner and it would have been too cold and any later too hot to have both a refreshing morning trot and a leisurely start to the day. What a novelty to be able to run in these surroundings and deposit ourselves on the riverbank (which looked remarkably like a beach!).

Also in no particular hurry – with our host having invited us to take our time checking out and to just leave the keys in the door (!) – we were able to take our time exploring the farm and still fashion a relaxed brunch from the things we’d brought with us in our cooler, planning ahead for our remote location and self-catering.


KEIMOES

Monday 2 August

Having previously enquired, we were expecting no-option self-catering at our overnight on the Bezalel Wine and Brandy Estate, so we broke the 130km-odd journey up with a quick stop at Kalahari Mall (which an inadvertent slip of the tongue had us calling it Calamari Hall from the get-go) in Upington to get a few supplies. Nothing fancy, just snacks and treats to see us through, with lunch to be the main meal of the day.

It was very easy to spot our home for the night, with a very conspicuous castle-like entrance on the main N14 road we were travelling from Upington.

We knew immediately that we’d chosen the right place when we were met at the door by an enormous chocolate coloured dog, who took to us immediately and spent the better part of the afternoon bringing us things to throw for him to retrieve.

With the afternoon’s primary entertainment being a wine and brandy tasting, we prioritised getting a good lunch on board to line the stomach. For once we, never usually liking to be the only people in a restaurant, were grateful for the freedoms it allowed, so we could take off our masks and enjoy the garden and playing fetch like good humans.

With a hearty lamb pie and delicious springbok ciabatta behind us, we started our tasting at around 3pm. 

Martiens, the owner and 4th generation farmer on the Dyasons Settlement, narrated us through a captivating couple of hours, effortlessly mixing tastes of their wine, brandy and infusion products with education on how everything is made and colourful anecdotes of his family’s heritage and experiences.

There was lots to tell, bearing in mind his great-grandfather had started Bezalel Estate, having moved to the Kalahari from Johannesburg, where his grandfather had been the Bezuidenhout who owned the farm that included the current Bez Valley!

We walked away richer for the experience and with a selection of bottles of what was available for sale.

The area and industry had really suffered from the prohibitions of the last couple of years so we were pleased to be able to support local industry with such self-satisfaction.

We returned to our cottage at around 5, in time to crack open a bottle of the Colombard we’d just procured and wile away the sunset overlooking the vineyards and the tranquil little pond that completed the picture.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 4: Port Alfred

PORT ALFRED
2-4 Dec 2020

It was our decision to end off in Port Alfred - the closest big dot to the East London airport, from where we would need to depart for home on Friday - that our 'few days in Kenton' became a roadtrip of the Eastern Cape. Port Alfred was just that little bit too far as a homebase from which to satellite to the places we'd earmarked as of interest.

We'd had to make some big decisions and trade-offs to make everything fit, one of the more difficult ones being foregoing staying over in Kenton. We had rationalised that it was the most likely destination we'd return to for a longer stay and so comprised to a drive-through on this trip.

We left a murky Colchester behind and drove through a chilly and drizzly Alexandria to pause in Cannon Rocks to see what there was to see (not much; 2 canons and 2 anchors) and then emerge in a sunny Kenton-on-Sea. Quite a microclimate experience in only 80km!

We parked in town, did a bit of window-shopping (mostly of bakery and restaurant menus; can you ever really be too informed??) and walked down to the beach. Even though it was clear skies with the lightest breeze, the beach was empty. Maybe the inclement weather had been there earlier, maybe it was because it was a weekday and shoulder season or maybe Kenton does lunch or siesta in a big way. 

It was quite nice to have the blue flag beach to ourselves though.
Also nice to have taken the walk rather than drive down. Gave us time for a proper gawk at the big and beautiful holiday homes, choosing which would be ours should our ship come in.

It was then just a short hop (a bit like the Garden Route) to Port Alfred, where we had no trouble finding our accommodation, one road before a massive bridge and one road on from the main road. Even the navigationally-challenged like me could not but help find the place!

Wiltshire cottage is a little granny flat in the garden of the main house, on a road dotted with Wiltshire rental properties. Owned and managed by a lovely couple, we were warmly welcomed, given a tour and some great advice on what to do and see in the neighbourhood.

Not in any rush to go dashing out again, we enjoyed the comfort of our cosy lounge with an episode of The Crown, which had us hooked after the episodes we'd watched in the downtime enjoyed at our Colchester studio.

Sunset saw us taking a wander down to the beach - an easy walk and near impossible to get lost with beaches curling our neighbourhood on two sides - and along the beachfront to seek sundowners at The Highlander pub, opposite the St Andrews Golf Course.

With Prawns as the chef's daily special, sundowners soon turned into a seafood feast, which seemed very fitting for our seaside surrounds.

Always a treat to be able to walk home from dinner and en route we smelled the most delicious aroma wafting from a heavenly restaurant that we resolutely decided would make for the perfect farewell dinner.

With precious little to do on our last day, we started the day with a slow run around the golf course and along the beach. When we got back and were cooling off on our little patio, our host's stopped to chat and gave us both advice on what to do for the day and an invitation to join them for a social in the evening.

Following their advice, we took a little drive down the coast to see the Lighthouse. Even though tours had been cancelled because of the pandemics, it was still possible to drive right up to the lighthouse - and get some great pics from the prime location.

Our host, Roy, had recommended a roadside diner for our lunch. On arrival we found them mid- power failure and apologetic that things were taking longer than usual. We were in absolutely no hurry, so settled in at the beer garden at the back. It was worth the wait and our surf n turf and seafood combo were both excellent (in value and in taste). 

That left time to retreat back to the couch for a few episodes of The Crown before taking Roy up on his invitation to visit his bar in the early evening, while Leanne was hosting her bookclub in the main house.

Popping across the garden with the last of our beers, we were greeted by a tableful of gents, communed for their ritual bi-weekly social. 

Roy had an impressive bar, walls lined with memorabilia that it had clearly taken a lifetime to collect. Beer bottles, Stein's, framed pictures of important event... His flash guided tour didn't do justice to the treasure chest of memories!

Roy also had a private library annexed onto his bar, with an enviable collection of hardcover books that concentrated on biographies and autobiographies; right up Christian's alley so led to an energetic back and forth about which ones were best, which stories were believable and what gaps remained to be told of protagonists who were still alive and making history.

On completing the tour, chairs were added to the table for us and, as cameo guests to this clique, we were faced with the usual set of questions (where we're from, what we do there, what we were doing here and for how long) and then were peppered with appropriate stories in response from group, who were mostly retired to Port Alfred from Joburg, Durban and CT.

They were great company and had it not been our last night, we might have been tempted to stay longer. But alas, it was, so we made a break for it and headed down to the beach for the sunset.

Of course, I'd completely misjudged the directions and so the spot we'd earmarked for sundowners was on the wrong side completely and already well into dusk by the time we got there!

No mind, we still had the restaurant to look forward to and so we made our way over there.

What a gem of a find! Only open 2 months, KC Italia was an intimate eatery with a very focused menu of no more than 8 pasta specials. A good thing too as we still struggled to choose from those limited options! In the end, the coastal theme drew us to the prawns linguine and the salmon tofe (fancy name for shells pasta). 

Able to see into the kitchen through the wide window connected to the dining area, we could see the chef working his magic and creating his masterpieces. It was very up our alley to be able to watch him swirling delicious things in the assortment of pans and scooping our steaming food into bowls, to be picked up immediately and served to us at our table seconds later. 

We had a long and lingering dinner, enjoying every bite of our meal. It was so wonderful I would have licked the bowl if I thought I could get away with it! And I said as much to the chef when he came out to check on us and he beamed, obviously thrilled at the sincere compliment.

His partner, the hostess, spent quite a bit of time chatting to us, excited by their impetuous decision to open the restaurant - post both of them being displaced by Covid closures - and optimistic for their chances for a busy December holiday period. She said that there was fortunately still consistent appetite for restaurant-eating in Port Alfred since there is a large retired community, who have been less economically affected by the pandemic.

A portion of that community were still having a whale of a time when we got back to Wiltshire Cottage. The bookclub had become a lot more audible and we caught snatches of the conversation and intermittent roars of laughter from the gents at the pub. 

With a plane to catch the next morning, we snuck into our cottage and popped on an episode of The Crown rather than getting tangled in the raging nightlife in our back yard.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 3: Grahamstown & Colchester

GRAHAMSTOWN & COLCHESTER
30 Nov - 02 Dec 2020

Leaving Bathurst we travelled along R67 for a quick stop-in at Grahamstown en route to Colchester, where we'd be staying for the next couple of nights. It was just a short hop down the road and held the promise of lunch at the end of the journey.

Pulling into town, we paused at the 1820 Settlers Monuments, which we were expecting to be a single statue but turned out to be a conference centre with a few statues, a small locked-up fort, a sundial and a very solid lay-of-the-land viewpoint for the town below.

Leaving the monument, we drove down and parked outside one of the many red brick buildings we assumed to be part of the Rhodes University campus, intending to explore the town on foot. It appeared that most of the campus was locked up with occasional signage stating the obvious, 2020 measures in place. 

We walked down High Street, noting the contrast of the elegant brocaded buildings with the modern street level experience, the usual collection of brands every town has (no matter the size) and how relatively easily reversible the neglect could be, to restore some of the town's lost charm. 

When we'd asked a Grahamstown local we happened to meet in the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst the night before what he recommended for our sightseeing, he'd responded enthusiastically that his hometown highlight is the new curry den. On our loop back up New Street we spotted the very same. The Curry House. Large as life and definitely, by the smells of things, worth a try.

We ordered a pair of bunny chows with a giant samoosa to start and since Covid rules prevented the eatery from seating customers, we walked back to get the car, thinking we would drive to the Botanical Gardens and have a picnic of sorts.

Obviously, it turned out that the Botanical Gardens were right by where we'd parked the car so we drove to get our food and then back again (probably no more than a kilometre or two roundtrip). 

Botanical Garden is a bit of an oversell of a name - lest it create mental images of rollong manicured lawns or structured flowerbeds - but let's say that 'lunch in the park' was a success.

We ticked off the last sight on the list, conveniently (and coincidentally) next door to where we were. The old Grahamstown Prison which now serves as a cafe and bakery. With only a handful of cells, the little prison has been delightfully converted with a themed private dining room in each of the cells, several tables in the open courtyard that served as an open exercise area for the inmates and the kitchen and (self-)service area in what was the guard house. Very quaint. And worth a visit for a meal from what we saw on display.

Having whipped around Grahamstown quicker than expected, Christian suggested that we overshoot our day's destination to pay a visit to Port Elizabeth for a stroll along the promenade and an early sundowner.

Less than half an hour added onto our journey, it was a splendid idea and we were soon wandering along the beachfront in PE, with the bright sunshine balancing the chilly bluster for which the Windy City is famous.

Chris had spent some time in PE for work so was able to give a vague lay of the land and point out some landmarks. A lovely little big city indeed. Hard to believe we hadn't visited before.

We rounded the tour with a quick toot at Barney's beach bar, which was already buzzing with patrons even though it was mid-Monday afternoon.

Back in the car we retraced our footsteps to our next home, in Colchester. We'd been attracted to this sleepy little town since 2020 and it's pandemic had robbed us of our plans to visit Colchester in the UK for a wedding in July.
We were wowed by our accommodation; a brand spanking new, immaculate and tastefully decorated studio that had the best of everything you'd expect - and all sorts of things you wouldn't (like a sandwich press, a humidifier, an electric beater, Netflix etc etc). We also had a private walled garden (good for keeping the wind out) and a pretty little plunge pool.

We took a wander around our neighbourhood, knowing from the map on the booking site that we were on the Sundays River but not much more than that. Houses were built far from the riverbank with open pedestrian access so we were able to walk alongside the wide, sparkling waters that stretched and slowly ambled from the nature reserve on the right to the sea on the left. 

Being in a secured estate our explore was hampered by the electric fence perimeter, which was our cue to get the car and take a drive to view the other wildlife, at the local pub, Grunter's. 

It was very quiet (it was a Monday evening after all) but we were pleased with our surf n turf dinner and happy to call an early night since we had an early morning ahead of us.

Our early morning was to get into the Addo National Park while it was still cool enough to favour good animal sightings. With our nest literally across the road from the Southern entrance of the Park, we'd saved ourselves any additional early rising or unneeded car time. 

We were able to fashion a modest breakfast with our patchwork of supplies and the amply equipped kitchen and rolled into the park, determined that we wouldn't leave until we saw at least an elephant.

The park issues a map with a checklist of animals each with a points allocation. Christian was thrilled when the first sighting for the day was his; a Dungbeetle scoring him 8 points. Things got tense when he then spotted zebra for an additional point. But, turning a bend that saw the brush give way to an open veld, I evened the scoreboard with not one but two elephants!

From there it was a landslide; kudo, elephants, eland, zebra, elephants, warthogs, elephants, buffalo, camels. It's a very rewarding game drive experience, getting saturation point of sightings within a couple of hours!

Smug from a very successful morning in the park, we retired to our studio where we enjoyed the rest of the day lounging around, able to relax because there was nothing else unseen or undone in this sleepy little enclave. What a great day.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 2: Bathurst

BATHURST
29 Nov

We dropped our friends off at East London Airport and drove along the coast as far as Port Alfred, where we turned inland for the 10 minute stretch to Bathurst. We had chosen to stay at the Historic Pig & Whistle Inn because it houses the longest running pub in South Africa and puts on a legendary Sunday roast.

Cutting it very fine for the kitchen's published 3pm close, we called ahead to secure our roast (lamb) dinners and made it in the nick of time, pulling into a parking bay in front of the hotel with mere minutes to spare. There were a few tables of diners and drinkers being entertained by a live band positioned underneath the hotel's sign on the wide curb.

The chefs had waited to plate for us, so we were served fresh piping-hot roasted goodness smothered in a rich gravy - and for that moment all was right with the world!

With a full belly we were newly excited to explore our surrounds, so without bothering to complete check-in or unpack the car we embarked on a self-guided walking tour of town. 

Established in 1820, it's hard to believe this peaceful little village on the banks of the Kowie River had such a turbulent start.

Established on the frontier, it was an area of fierce conflict between settlers moving northwards and African pastoralists and refugees from the Mfecane moving southwards.

The settlement was named after the secretary of State for the colonies at the time, a Lord Henry Bathurst, and was intended to be the administrative capital of the Albany Settler Country, but that was moved to Grahamstown because of its superior military position.

Bathurst is now renowned for its quaint and old architecture, counting among the visible relics - all on our short self-guided walking tour of the town centre - the oldest unaltered Anglican church building in South Africa (St John's), the oldest functioning primary school and the oldest continuously licenced pub in the country, housed in the historic Pig and Whistle Inn, which is where we chosen to stay for the night.

The inn building was originally built as the Bathurst Forge in 1821 but converted into a hotel in 1831 and has housed endless guests in its first floor 10 rooms, with countless more guests "having a swig at the pig" or enjoying the traditional Sunday roast lunch as we had. 

On finally checking in - a process managed by a local patron from the bar in the tender's absence - we were escorted to Room 8, a corner room which overlooked the town's main crossroad, and we were delighted with the hardwood floors, the old-world 4-poster bed and in-room basin (with the rest of the facilities shared and accessible from the landing). 

Opening our windows we could hear that the Bathurst Arms across the road was rather festive so, after having an obligatory Guinness in the Pig and Whistle (for Indexing purposes), we made our way to see what was going on. 

The pub was full to bursting, with an open mic style live music show drawing and holding the patrons. Some were more conventionally talented than others, but the small crowd cheered all gamely and sang along whenever the words were known. No doubt both the brave showmanship and the good spirits were fuelled by house beers sold in quarts.

Not particularly hungry, but spurred by the numerous mentions of the town's epic pizza place, we rounded the evening off with a pizza to share at Pickwick's seeing as it was across the road from our hotel. We could see what the fuss was about as we enjoyed our large, topping-laden cheesy nightcap.

Waking the next morning we filled in the gaps left on out on the walking tour from the previous day, with a jogging tour that would see us completing the further afield sights within an hour or so, on a wider 10km route.

First target was the Old Powder Magazine, which is the oldest building in Bathurst and was erected as a military supply shelter in advance of the establishment of the town. We headed off, thinking we knew where we were going but ended up taking a few wrong turns - easy to do when your destination doesn't have a formal address and none of the roads are marked. Nonetheless, we found it and were pleased that besides the landmark itself, the position on top of the hill offered a worthwhile panoramic view of the surrounds. 

From there we ran past town and up another hill to the Toposcope. This is a stone beacon that was built for land surveying purposes and still shows the plaques indicating which settler families from where were allocated which farms and what distance from the beacon. An open air and free experience that is a wonderful slice of history.

Running down the hill and back to the main road, we ticked the last box with a visit to the giant pineapple which, despite the rich history of this living relic of a town, is most often the first thing to be mentioned. 

Situated on Summerhill Farm, the Big Pineapple stands three stories high with a viewing deck on top and a pineapple museum inside. At 56 feet tall, it is officially the biggest pineapple in the world and was built by members of Bathurst's agricultural community in the 80s to pay homage to the prickly fruit as it had provided salvation to the farmers in the 1800s who had struggled to grow anything until they planted pineapples. 

Completing the last dash home along the main road, we washed, dressed and packed up, ready to head to Grahamstown for the next adventure.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 1: Hogsback

HOGSBACK
26-29 Nov 2020

Having last been to Hogsback for a surprise wedding - and having a truly fabulous weekend! - we jumped at the chance for a revisit with the then-bride and groom, Tim and Wendy, this time to participate in The Hobbit Trail run race. It was supposed to be in April but with 2020 doing what 2020 did, had been postponed to the last weekend in November, which magically coincided with the happy couple's 4 year wedding anniversary! 

With much excitement, we headed to OR Tambo Airport and found it to be tumbleweeds compared to its usual bustle. With a life-saving Wimpy on board (it had been a mad breakfastless panic to finish off last bits of work in the morning and Covid measures meant no catering in the air) we were ready for our next adventure.

Landing in East London, Chris secured our chariot and we were soon racing off in our Toyota Corolla, blazing trails into the mountains that would be our home for the weekend.

On Tim and Wendy's endorsement (they had stated there before) we had booked Bredon Cottage, on the Applegarth Estate. Cosy and homely, our accommodation was equal parts immaculate and welcoming. Our lovely hosts had left a bottle of red wine for our arrival and put chocolates on the pillows. We were just short a holiday dog or two to complete the picture.

Being Tim and Wendy's anniversary, it was a shoe-in to have dinner at The Edge, where they had been married. And their wedded bliss was perfectly paired with our dinner bliss over the oxtail-stuffed spuds and magnificent impala shank. 

With a fridge full of champers (from our 'grocery' shop en route) and a fireplace beckoning from our lounge, we eagerly made our way back to our cottage to enjoy our first evening in front of the fireplace, entertaining ourselves with the generous selection of retro CDs in our host's collection.

Late November and mid-summer or not, we woke to a chilly morning, with the mist rolling lazily through the valley view from our terrace. Warm enough in the sunny spots, we basked and admired the panorama as the morning became the midday.

The only thing we'd scheduled to achieve on Friday, being pre-raceday, was to take a walk to find The Big Tree, which had eluded Tim and Wendy on their previous trips. Consulting a map, it seemed an easy ask with a trail that led from Hogsback's main road (which was the dirt road at the end of our driveway).

Wanting to preserve our legs, we drove to the start of the trail and then followed the existing signage to our destination. It was a taste of what lay ahead for us as the trail was a bit muddy from the cold and wet weather and we did a fair amount of slip-sliding along the path to get to the 800 year old, 36m high tree.

Feeling we'd achieved enough for one day, we returned to our cottage to relax for a while until heading out for the evening market at The Edge.

Being cool but clear, we went out early, with time to do the twists and turns of the Labyrinth and then stare out into the sunset at the edge of the edge with the breaktaking mountains and valleys.

The 'market', it turns out, was 4 trestle tables that sold baked goods, hot chocolate, gluhwein and such, so besides buying some fudge, we were quite commercially safe. And given the opportunity to try The Edge's pizzas, which had been teasing us with the aroma of golden crisping cheese hanging in the air. Perfect carbo-loading for the sweaty Saturday that was to follow.

Tim had signed up for the 38km trail run, which was way beyond our interest or ambition. He was due to start running at 8 so Chris drove him down while Wendy and I were only rousing, with plenty of time for our very-civilised 8am start.
Soon enough though, we were lined up at the start; a very respectably socially-distanced collection of milling athletes rather than the anxious cluster that is normally champing for the gun to go off.

There really was no point in hurrying though. With the slippery course that started winding steeply downhill along the narrow and muddy trail we had taken the day before to get to The Big Tree, along rickety bridges and tip-toeing on mossy stones in trickling streams, and up the mirror-image on the other side... It was a cautious and careful balancing act more than an attempt to set any records.

Breaking out of the canopy of trees on the other side, we were welcomed by what looked like an easy dusty downhill. It didn't last long though and that downhill was matched by a very long and very steep uphill that had us puffing and panting and moving at hiking pace rather than a trail run race. The views were spectacular though and it was easy to see why this underrated race is so appreciated and evangelised by the runners who have completed it.

The last few kilometres were a bit more of a classic trail run experience, with a slightly quicker pace along paths with matted leaves that allowed for better grip and a collection of obstacles in the path that were more of a workout than a life threat.

Arriving at the finish line, we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done, coming in at 75th and 76th, which for us is a great achievement being first-time trail runners. 

The event sponsors, Merrell trail running gear, did a great job of welcoming everyone as they came in, and giving out loads of spot prizes so almost everyone got something. As they said, with formal prize-givings being forbidden under Covid restriction they had had to be a bit more creative and had actually spread the sponsorship more evenly across all the participants. Having little to compare to, the smaller field of runners suited our novice skills better and we would have had a far more pressured experience if we'd had runners pushing to get past on the narrow paths.

Tim came in several hours later, sweaty, sunburnt and caked in mud. The longer trail had included a lot more challenging bits than ours - and Tim had stopped to enjoy a dip in a waterfall pond along the way. The runners in the longer races have to carry backpacks with thermal blankets, windbreakers, food and water and all sorts of other things in case they get injured and need to sustain themselves. I can't imagine I'd have enjoyed having to do more than double the distance AND lugging a backpack!

We made our way home with intentions of refreshing ourselves and then heading out for dinner, but our view was so idyllic and the fireplace beckoning so we stayed home instead, clearing out the last of our supplies and recounting snippets of the epic day we'd had.

Travelogue South Africa: Kynsna

KNYSNA

13-17 July 2017
Based on a New Year’s resolution to get fit(ter) in 2017, we succumbed to entering the Knysna Half-Marathon that our friends had been trying to get us to enter for years, unsuccessfully.
It seemed like July was lifetimes away and there would be plenty time to train… But you know what they say about time when you’re having fun. It’s not training, it’s flying.
We had planned ahead with the flight though and had Vitality Flight Booster in place to get us from Jozi to George for a long weekend to balance the running bit with a lekker experience on the loveliest coast in South Africa (in our opinions).
Half day’s leave aside, it was the usual frenzied depart from the Big Smoke and we both banged away madly on laptops on the flight down. A worthwhile exercise such that we could arrive with ducks in neat rows, to join our friends Tim and Wendy who’d be our partners in crime and who had flown down earlier than us.
They had caught a taxi to Oubaai Spa and Resort and made a mini-break of the few hours our later arrival afforded. They’d brunched and had a massage and by the time we arrived were nestled in the bar lounge with their own very comfy couches and fireplace that they’d made the setting for their card games. With their Bluetooth speaker and not another customer in sight, they were not only told to make themselves at home, they were the atmosphere.
All excited to be on holiday, we shared a welcome drink and a catch-up on our quick and painless transfers and then headed for the car – a very fancy free upgrade Mercedes – to make our way to our actual destination for the weekend.
We’d booked better than our usual, thanks to the Vitality travel benefits and found our digs to be very lush; a double storey cottage in the very lovely Belvidere Manor lodge. With bedrooms on both floors, we found ourselves with private suites as well as a cosy communal lounge (complete with fireplace) and kitchen/dining room.
Giddy at our good fortune, we moved to The Bell – dubbed “The smallest pub in Knysna” and the deal-sealer on our choice of accommodation.
With the outer appearance of an old-school barn, in black and white with a big wooden door in a low doorway that Christian had to bend through to avoid hitting his head, and its 10 or so tables in the inviting low yellow glow, The Bell was perfect for our welcome dinner. AND it served the local craft brew, Forresters, on tap!
With a formidable menu of pub grub favourites, we ploughed our way through bangers & mash, fish & chips and a chicken and mushroom pie that was to die for. So far Belvidere Manor was shaping up to be our kind of place!
Friday morning began with the included breakfast; a tasty buffet of fresh baked goods, cold meats, preserves and cheeses, and scrambles and bacon for good measure. We were allocated what we considered to be the best table in the house, a round wrought-iron table in the corner of the wrap-around verandah that hugged the house, with the rolling lawns that infinitied into the view of where the clear blue skies met the sea beyond.
We lingered over breakfast, loosely planning our day but mostly enjoying the morning sun, so strong enough in winter to cut through the chill of the morning but moderate enough to allow for proper basking.
Our first and only mandatory task for the day was collecting our race numbers for the next day’s Marathon. The registration set-up was in a marquee in the same grounds as the Knysna Oyster Fest grounds, so there was already quite a bit of activity with participants of both making their way onto the field.
The process was very well organised and it was only a few minutes later that we were on our merry way with our goody bags in hand.
The stands in the registration hall were all sports related, pedalling all sorts of sportswear, accessories and paraphernalia. It’s scary how expensive everything is for a sport that technically requires no equipment. This certainly wasn’t looking like an event where you just pop on some trainers and hit the road!
The boys took part in one of the interactives, where you had to pedal as fast as you can for a minute and they rewarded you for calories burned with the equivalent amount of Smart Shopper points. Wendy and I shopped (and bought nothing).
With our admin done, we made our way down to the Waterfront to have a coffee in the upstairs restaurant that afforded us the best views through the floor-to-ceiling windows, but out of the icy light wind.
It was really good to have a Friday to ourselves to relax and watch the day go by. With the race the next day, we intended to take everything at a leisurely pace, so planned to stock up on snacks and head back to enjoy the fireplace in our cottage with an afternoon of cards and laughs.
We’d seen signs for a Superspar so headed off in that general direction. Walking a few blocks in and having no new clues as to its whereabouts, we asked a couple of car guards for directions. Their “you can’t miss it” style directions were an oversell and despite our best efforts, we seemed to criss-cross the better part of the whole of town… And ended up at Checkers!
We do love a new card game and were grateful to have an afternoon of tutorial and practice for this cool new game Tim and Wendy taught us that was clearly designed with drinking penalties in mind! With a cosy fire and easy company, we had a fun and relaxed fritter into the evening.
Dinner had been predetermined as Chatters pizza parlour, based on the delicious aromas that had wafted from the restaurant as we passed on our hunt for the Superspar (whose superhero ability must certainly be invisibility, from our experience).
We arrived at Chatters just before 6pm, amped for an early dinner to suit out early night aspirations. Chatters was already busy and were fully booked for a double sitting. Not taking ‘No’ for an answer, we tested a new technique and just hovered until someone (else) made a plan… Which saw us sitting at a garden table and eating fresh pizzas 20 minutes later, washing it down with a single glass of red to balance celebrating the good life with good sense of the impending morning ahead of us.
Returning home we thought we’d prep ourselves for the morning and then resume position playing cards, not realising how much admin goes into race prep! Besides the usual stuff like pinning numbers to shirts and whatnot, this race had some sophistications like electronic timing tags that had to be attached to shoelaces, conveniences like a togbag service that required ID tagging, and of course situational circumstances that needed a whole bunch of pre-planning.
The race starts at the top of a mountain so we needed to catch a taxi to the park-and-ride shuttle meeting point (and there’s no Uber in Knysna so it was a prearrangement that had to be made at hotel reception with a local driver); the shuttle required a tag that was included in the race pack. Once at the top of the mountain there was an inevitable wait while the 8500 participants all were shuttled up to the start so we needed to be warm.
The organisers had advised that they would be collecting discarded clothing and blankets to be donated to the poor and those affected by the terribly Knysna fires that had ravaged the town only weeks before leaving countless people homeless. This meant that we didn’t have to ration clothing on the day, having to carry whatever we wore through the whole race. It was a blessing and a curse and resulted in a veritable tower of clothing that I intended to layer myself in – a bold combination of colours that possibly even the homeless may baulk at!
By the time we were done it was bedtime. A great call – a good night’s sleep is invaluable when it comes to anything taxing, especially something tasking the mind as heavily as it was bound to task the body. I was still VERY intimidated at the thought of running 21km in a row!
But the morning came and our prep paid off. The taxi was waiting at 6am, as arranged. The shuttle was an incredibly well-oiled machine. And we had no more than a half hour to hover and worry and not get toooo cold (although I couldn’t feel my toes, they were so numb).
Soon we were huddled at the start, counting down to the gun going off… And we were away.
Well, not immediately away. It takes quite some time for that many people to even get to the start line and it was a good 5 minutes before we were even on the official track, taking the first official step of oh-so many.
As always, the first kilometre was slow and clumsy while the pack sorted itself out. And again we wondered why people who fully intend on walking the race still jostle to get to the front for the start.
The first few kilometres were uphill but we were pleasantly surprised as we’d prepared for quite a climb based on the anecdotal accounts we’d been given from friends who’d successfully completed the course in previous years.
It was still good relief when the course plateaued – and another relief when the several kilometres of downhill were not as death-defying as they’d been painted to be.
The hardest part was actually the last couple of kilometres as the course joined the seafront promenade. After all the ups and downs, running on flat ground was a lot harder than it should be. Most likely because of the 20 odd kilometres that had been put onto my wildly unprepared legs already. Running out of juice, I even had to walk a bit in the home strait, able to see the Finish line; so close but yet so far away!
We did remarkably for our first attempt; I came in on 2 hours and Christian 10 or so minutes after me. We’d set our sights on somewhere around the 2h15 to 2h20 mark and had thought that to be optimistic as Half-Marathon virgins! Of course, we didn’t hold a candle to Tim’s ridiculously fast 1h48 finish! … But that just meant he had time to get the beers in while he waited for us!
Conveniently, the Finish line for the race was into the Oyster Fest ground so it was an easy sell to have a lovely long sit and sample all the Forresters craft beers that were flowing freely. The weather had truly been kind to us on this winter’s morning and even though it was chilly with a persistent icy breeze, the sun was still smiling on us – and it could have been a LOT worse on a coast that’s known for being Cold And Wet.
Lunch soon became a concern – hardly surprisingly only with a few bananas on board and almost 1500 calories burned! – but the queues were too long as the Festival stalls to make them viable for standing on weary legs, so we decided to see what the town had on offer.
Exiting the grounds, we lucked upon a bank of taxis sponsored by Europcar that were shuttling guests to local places of interest. We jumped in the Thiessen Island one, which left immediately almost as if on command and with us as the only passengers so we felt quite swish.
We were going to hit the Forresters brewery for lunch, but it proved to be as elusive as a Superspar… Which worked out to our favour as we found ourselves on the doorstep of Freshline Fisheries, a name I’d seen featured highly on TripAdvisor and which perfectly fitted my proposed brief for lunch: the finest fish n chips in Knysna.
At that it was. What a fabulous lunch!
Snoek cakes, battered hake, deep-fried calamari, grilled gurnard, Thai prawn curry, fat finger crispy chips. We mowed through the lot! With insult to injury being that the place isn’t licensed so the boys ended up having to hunt down Forresters brewery anyway to get takeaways to accompany lunch!
Fed and happy, we phoned our taximan from the morning to come and fetch us and were amused that he’d upgraded us from the morning’s Camry to a Mercedes – he must’ve heard about how well we’d run!
He took us home where we welcomed a long shower and slathered lotions and potions on our tired muscles to try stave off some of the impending pain that inevitably comes with such a test of endurance as we’d put ourselves through.
The sun was out and our patio sheltered from the rain so we were able to relax and bask in the sun and in the afterglow of our achievements.
All too soon it was the time that every Saturday brings. Rugbytime.
The boys had decided it was an event most suited to The Bell so at 4.30 we made our way down to get settled for the 5pm Lions vs Sharks game. We weren’t the only ones with that idea of course and our little pub was packed, bar one little table for 4 that suited us nicely, thank you!
We settled in and had dinner there as well before grabbing a take-out bottle of wine to resume our positions in front of our fireplace with a new card game to try, called Exploding Kittens, which was probably only marginally more dramatic than the mammoth achievement we’d accomplished that morning.
We woke up to a grey, wet and very cold Sunday, thanking our lucky stars that the Big Day prior had been so mild by comparison. It would have made a tough race even tougher if it had been as bitterly cold… And a proper “character building” exercise if it had been raining as well.
Hobbling to breakfast, we were seated in the cosy lounge to have our first course (fresh baked goods and hot drinks) while we waited for a table to free up. The leisurely pace was appreciated with my aching body making everything take a little longer than usual anyway!
We’d assigned the day to doing a bit of sightseeing and oyster-sampling and were not going to let a little damp weather spoil our plans. We were however going to happily let it delay them a bit, relishing the opportunity to light another fire and enjoy some couch time (and a new application of lotions and balms to soothe the muscles!)
A break in the drizzle prompted us to get moving and we drove around to the East Heads and explored Leisure Isle and its sliver of beach as well as a flash visit to the look-out point to get some snaps.
Content that we’d ticked the tourist boxes, we made our way to the Forresters Brewpub. Which was closed. As was the boutique where I wanted to get fun denim jacket we’d spotted earlier in the trip. And the waffle shop we’d earmarked for afternoon snacks. Clearly Sunday is not a big business day in Knysna!
We backtracked to Thesen Island which is always lovely and lucked out on the last table at a very festive restaurant called Tapas & Oyster. They had a live duo belting out classics and an army of servers bringing endless little plates of tapas to the tables, which made for a buzzing atmosphere.
It was a great choice. As not-a-fan of oysters, even I couldn’t resist sampling the interesting choices on the menu. We started with splitting portions of tempura oysters, oysters in garlic butter (sort of like snails usually are served) and an exotic oysters in tequila with a splash of chilli, a dollop of cream cheese and a whiff of caviar. All were delicious… But not enough for me to join the others in the final round of classic conventional oysters.  But I did try the crispy salmon California rolls which, with their layer of batter around the outside, was completely my speed.
It was a very pleasant afternoon indeed! … Which we closed off with watching the sunset over the horizon, creating a silhouette over the boats docked in the harbour.
Quite smug at our successful afternoon, we rounded off with a last few rounds – and a waffle! – in our local before taking a last bottle of red back to our cottage for a final fireside fritter.

Travelogue: Drakensburg

DRAKENSBERG
12-15 May 2017

We were fortunate enough to be invited by our friends Vern and Kaya to his family’s sharehold on a house in the Drakensberg for a long weekend; an invitation which we grabbed with both hands!
Vern’s family had owned their stake in the cottage for decades – since his early childhood – and he spoke of it so animatedly that our only concern was that there wouldn’t be enough time to do all the cool things he told us were on offer at our destination.
Getting together for a planning session (and a curry) 2 evenings before departure helped enormously as we crafted both an itinerary and a grocery list so, with everything in place, all we had to do was bide the 2 sleeps and 2 long work days until our roadtrip to the ‘Berg.
Friday eventually came and Christian fetched me from my office a little later than planned, thanks to the commencement of a fine drizzle that both heralded the start of a much-publicised coldfront and the inevitable traffic chaos that comes with the slightest sign of any weather interruption. Within half an hour the route that Christian had taken to get to me that we were retracing to begin our journey was already frought with traffic light outages and bumper-bashings. Ah, Joburg. There’s no place like home… but we were quite happy to leave the carnage behind us for a weekend!
It wasn’t so bad and about another half hour later we were on the open road, with Christian expertly juggling the challenges of the rain and a team telecon (on mute, so they couldn’t hear my tiktiktik on the keyboard of my laptop while I finished up my Friday).
The weekend forecast of a coldfront was not a word of a lie and we’d gone from a literally short-sleeve start to the day to a very chilly, very early sunset, pitch black by 5pm.
We made good time and hit Harrismith by 6pm for the ritual refresh and rewater. That pitstop sure has changed since my first memory of it (in the 80s); it boasts a better restaurant selection than many shopping centres in the Big Smoke now! But we weren’t shopping – and the raging fireplace in the bathrooms reminded that we were headed for our frosty mountain adventure.
Back on the road, our progress was slowed by chevrons guiding us through the perpetual upgrades in the Harrismith interchange and onto the magnificently improved R74 (that had been a colander of a road when we’d travelled to Spionkop for a wedding in 2011). Unfortunately all good things come to an end and the last section of the journey was on tarmac pocked so badly along both sides that Kaya had already advised us to stick to the middle of the road wherever possible.
Arriving into the ‘Berg we used the major resorts as our guide and were soon at the Drakensberg Sun, our neighbour for the weekend. The “cottage” (as Vern modestly referred to the 4 double-bedroom home) is in Bergville Estate, a quaint little suburb behind the Drak Sun with traditional family-style bungalows on old-school suburban-size plots winding up the mountain from the valley on tree-themed roadnames. Ours was Bottlebrush.
With only an overnight bag each, there was little settling-in to do, so after the “R2 Tour” (as Vern called it) of our home for the weekend, we focused on helping with the finishing touches on dinner.
A little drizzle had not deterred our hosts from pushing the proverbial boat out on the evening meal and there was a mammoth stuffed chicken on the Weber under the covered patio with ovenbaked veg and more pork sausage stuffing in the oven making the house smell heavenly! Kaya whipped up a brown onion gravy while Christian was tasked with manning the roast potatoes and I laid the table, and we were soon clinking glasses with an epic roast meal to celebrate our arrival.
Half an hour later we were in a similar situation to the poor bird that was no longer. Stuffed to the hilt!
With a crackling fire on the go, we retired to the lounge with red wine, Lindt balls, a pack of cards and a new game that Vern taught us (“Knock Knock”) for entertainment.
Mountain life was going to suit us juuuust fine!
We woke on Saturday to a chilly morning (that was apparently, ironically, nowhere near as cold as home, thanks to the killer coldfront that had hit Joburg in our absence) and stuck to the  programme, heading out to Valley Bakery for breakfast and to procure the baked goods and treats we’d mapped on our weekend plan.
It was easy to see how this eatery had earned its place as top restaurant choice in the ‘Berg, with mingling aromas of strong coffee and fresh bread and the option to browse, sample and buy all sorts of sweet treats – and the reserve some Pasteis de Natalie (custard tarts), which Vern and Kaya had had before… and had missed out on on a previous visit where the fresh tarts were being put on display when they arrived, but were all gone by the time they finished their breakfast!
Revitalised (and 8 Pasteis in hand), we ticked off the other “admin” item; we restocked our firewood. Well, more accurately, the boys sorted the firewood while we snuck in a cheeky homemade chocolate tasting and browsed the local craft store which, in my case, lead to the purchase of the world’s softest scarf.
Back at the house, we took advantage of the break in the drizzle to investigate our surrounds. The valley is gorgeous and the estate immaculately maintained – presumably by the hotel, that trades access to its facilities in return for use of the estate’s roads for more convenient access to its timeshare chalets.
We were exploring the hotel’s lakeside paths when the rain returned so we caught solace in the hotel bar, The Grotto Lounge, to grab a cocktail (also on our To Do list). We were in luck to not only get a comfy table for 4 in the quite-full bar, but also to have stumbled across the hotel’s afternoon indoor entertainment – quiz and bingo.
Naming ourselves after our cocktails, The Bloody Marys swept up first place in the quiz and picked the bottle of red wine as our reward. We passed on the bingo since our quiz round had been more of a test of patience than trivia with just 10 questions being draaaaawn out by the quizmaster to fill an hour! He was fond of prefacing every question with pointless things like “I would love to know…”, adding superfluous dramatics onto the questions (“what is the shortest element on the Periodical Table evaaaa?”) and then consulting with every person in the room before revealing the correct answer. Our sweeping victory on 7/10 (the nearest contester was 4/10) was a great note to leave on, so we headed back to our cottage.
Even with the intermittent drizzle, the afternoon was moderate, so we made the most of the scenery, taking to the (covered) patio to continue the afternoon’s theme, cracking open the cottage’s copy of Trivial Pursuit. The challenge of it being the 1982 UK edition didn’t concern us at all and we rehashed the excellent quizmaster skills we’d learnt earlier on to turn what can be a serious boardgame into a marathon giggle!
Between our inability to roll exact dice and the taxing questions – jogging non-existent memories of Yugoslavia and Rhodesia, arbitrary connections to the Royal Family and impossibly detailed entertainment questions about TV shows that haven’t aired in 40 years or more – the game took us through dinner preparations (another slap-up affair, with bacon-wrapped fillet prepared on the Weber and served with Kaya’s (now) famous mushroom sauce. WOW!) and into the evening, with a crackling fire to keep us company.
Sunday morning started the way every great Sunday morning does, with a giant fry-up. Christian had woken up motivated and hit the kitchen so the rest of us roused to the delicious aroma of frying bacon. And eggs. And sausage. And mushrooms. And beans. There was so much food, we didn’t even have enough space on the plate to bother with toast!
Feeling a little guilty after the extravagant feast and spurred by the fresh, clear morning, we decided to take a walk to the Blue Grotto, which is easily accessed from walking trails signposted from the lakeshore in the gardens of the Drakensburg Sun. It’s an easy walk with well-marked tracks through the indigenous forest and we were soon at the Blue Grotto, admiring the waterfalls and rock pools. Way too cold to enjoy them in the water, but pretty to look at nonetheless.
The trail isn’t circular so we retraced our footsteps and were ejected from the hike back at the same starting point… which is also the launch point for another, shorter, walk around the lake. Since the weather was still good and we were still (moderately) fresh, we kept going and circumnavigated the lake, over the dam wall and back up through the hotel gardens.
Not a bad effort, with about 10km all in all. And it clearly shifted breakfast since we were unanimous that our dinner plan – an outing to Winterton – was definitely going to have to move forward to Late Lunch territory. The idea was to do a short drive to absorb the countryside and eat at a place Vern and Kaya had enjoyed many times previously, a place called Bingelela just outside Bergville.
Heading out to dinner at 3 in the afternoon (!) allowed us spectacular views of the fields and snow-capped mountain backdrop… and softened the blow of the restaurant being shut when e got there! Being Mothers Day, it seemed as if they’d done a big event for lunchtime and were not  opening for dinner trade.
It wasn’t a problem though, having seen a few worthy contenders on our roadtrip, we returned the way we came and pulled into the Thokozisa Lifestyle Centre, a small collection of shops in a brightly decorated thatched complex – clearly the Drakensburg’s warm and rustic interpretation of a mall.
The restaurant was happy to seat us and we welcomed the cosy table close to the fire. Kaya and I went for a gander around the shops while our food was being prepared and returned with a(nother) scarf and a big bag of koeksusters, which would serve nicely as a dessert around our own fireplace later on.
Another upside to the (very) early dinner was that we could return while it was still light and have some visibility of the pocked roads. And still have time for a few rounds of card games before our early night in advance of our 5am departure.
It had been a very shrewd decision to leave on Monday morning instead of Sunday afternoon as we’d managed to squeeze in so much more in just the few extra hours!