John Maytham's local travel diary: One Flew over the Turaco's Nest
Botswana, Sweden, Austria and Turkey - that had been the travel plan for the year. Luxury game lodges in Botswana, an international book fair and cultural sightseeing in Sweden, Alpine hiking and wine tasting in Austria, a beach holiday on the Turkish Aegean Coast to end off the year. Travel dreams of the dreamiest kind. Instead, we got stuck in the lockdown nightmare. The coronavirus pandemic had other plans for all of us.
I count myself lucky. My line of work was considered essential from the start, the company I work for took great precautions to guarantee our safety as far as it was possible, I had a home to come to at the end of the working day and I managed to keep healthy, but the pandemic, the lockdown and the global and local consequences of it all had me feeling claustrophobic. Stuck in a mad situation.
As local travel restrictions began to lift, I packed my bag and was ready to explore just how lekker local could be. I have been a regular at Oudrif Straw Bale Cottages on the banks of the Doring River in the Cederberg for close to two decades. It was the obvious start to the adventure.
Scroll to view John's Oudrif album below:
The owners of the place, Jeanine and Bill Mitchell, were reporting the most exciting flower offering around Oudrif in years and advised to factor in some extra time for the final dirt road stretch of the journey for viewing of the botanical show on display. The landscape of the area is magnificent for different reasons at any time of the year, but to see it come alive in such vibrant colours was extraordinary. And what delight to be introduced to the extraordinary creature that is the Brush Jewel Beetle. . From the moment you arrive at Oudrif's Central Boma and are welcomed by a refreshing Hoghouse beer, your worries begin to dissipate and a languorous atmosphere sets in that allows for true relaxation. For someone like me, inundated with the barrage of negative news and the necessity of trying to keep sane throughout the insanity of our times, to have no cell reception and internet access for a few days, was an enormous relief in itself.
You can focus on the beauty and natural wonders of the surrounds and engage with Jeanine and Bill who offer guided walks every day after breakfast. For the rest, you can swim, bike, bird-watch or simply be lazy. In the evenings, the communal dinners have a tendency of bringing new friends into your life, as more often than not intriguing people end up next to you at the generous table (now divided into a few tables to allow for social distancing). Jeanine and Bill are excellent chefs. The dishes they serve are mostly vegetarian, but the carnivores among us always get a braaied steak or chop or a piece of sausage to satisfy all tastebuds. And if you are lucky, they will bake their legendary chocolate cake on the braai on one of the evenings you are there. A few nights under Oudrif's starlit, endless sky and you can face life's challenges again.
Scroll to view John's photos of Prince Albert in the Karoo below:
Fortunately, all I had to do after my relaxation in the Cederberg was to travel into the Karoo to the picturesque town of Prince Albert, where the new owners of Onse Rus B&B, Neil and Leonard, make you feel not only welcomed but as if you belonged. Being recent inkomers themselves, with decades of experience in the hospitality industry in London under their belt, they know how to 'sell' Prince Albert to individual visitors.
They recommended and organised an early trip into the Karoo with the town's birding expert, Gita Claasen, for my first morning in town, and a historic ghost tour of Prince Albert with the resident storyteller, Ailsa Tudhope, for the afternoon. The Prince Albert and the Jürgen Schadenberg Galleries showcase local and international artists of note and are definitely worth a visit. I also went biking around the area and drove into the Karoo to see the Weltevrede Fig and Guest Farm and walk around the Labyrinth, bizarrely located on the farm beyond it right up the boundary of the Gamkakloof Nature Reserve.
Onse Rus itself offers charming rooms situated around a beautiful garden with a refreshing swimming pool right in the middle of the property. A Spotted Eagle-Owl watches over late afternoon drinks in the garden or hoots a good morning while the hosts serve you home-baked bread and freshly pressed blood-orange juice for breakfast. Prince Albert is home to quite a few quaint, delightful restaurants such as The Rude Chef, The Lazy Lizard, the Real Food Company, O for Olive, and Karoo Kombuis. But I was told that, sadly, the local wine farmers have switched to cultivating the much more lucrative onion seeds, so if you have a bottle of Fernskloof Tinta Barocca in your cellar, treasure it - it is the last of its kind.
After three nights in the Karoo, the road beckoned again. The last time I travelled on the impressive Swartberg Pass it was while on holiday with the family and with a trailer attached to my ancient Honda Jazz, hardly managing in first gear. I don't know what possessed me to attempt the Pass that time because I distinctly remember anticipating that we would roll back down the hill on several occasions, but we somehow made it. My Ford Eco-Sport had no problems on the mountainous road, but unlike the previous trip, this one did not deliver a Cinnamon-Breasted Warbler sighting on top of the Pass. The gale-force wind made sure of that.
Next stop: Rondevlei and Reflections Eco-Reserve. The flashy Knysna Turaco flew over my head when I got out of the car outside the entrance to the Brownhooded Kingfisher Hiking Trail. The entire trip delivered great birding opportunities, especially with Tim Carr of Reflections guiding you around the area. The Narina Trogon appears when summoned by Tim's expert calls. An excellent birder and passionate environmentalist, Tim understands the local habitat. The Eco-Reserve offers several, secluded guest cottages and two luxury en-suite tents near the Rondevlei's edge. Tim and his wife, Angelique, put all their efforts into environmentally-friendly hospitality and conservation. The luxury tents have a stunningly designed braai area where you can relax at the end of a day spent in soul-restoring nature. And of course, the Wild Oats Farmer's Community Market is a must-visit, especially if one loves oysters that are as plump as they are inexpensive.
Scroll to view John's photos of the Reflections Eco-Reserve and Mosaic Lagoon Lodge, Stanford below:
Last stop on my holiday was the Mosaic Lagoon Lodge outside of Stanford. Two days of pure luxury on the breathtakingly beautiful lagoon. Even the rain could not spoil the walks around the private reserve, where spectacular views, birdlife, fynbos, and the lavish comforts of the Lodge compete for your attention. It was the perfect end to a much-needed holiday.
I wish I could have fulfilled my international travel plans this year, but at no point on my tour of the Western Cape did I feel that I was getting a second-rate experience.
We have all that a traveller's heart could desire right on our doorstep: world-class hospitality, cultural treasures and awe-inspiring nature - enough to fulfil any dream one might have until it is safe to venture out into the wide world again.