When you feel like the bundu, but you don’t feel like the bashing …

2010-02-06 00:00

OH, you will no doubt find similarly luxurious beds clothed in clouds of cool white linen, the same Randlord-in-the-bush décor, the same great plushy bathrooms, ever-so-private outdoor showers and horizon-edge swimming pools at the likes of Singita­ in the Lowveld.

And, as certainly, you’ll find more polished butlers and waiters and more sophisticated menus at the George V in Paris or at any number of smart hotels in London, New York and Tokyo. (Not to speak of the Peninsula­ in Hong Kong … now there’s a six-star hotel on which to build dreams.)

But, as Pam Golding always used to say about property: situation, situation, situation. It’s all about situation! The fact is, Bushmans Kloof is in a very special place; a miracle place, really.

It’s not perched high on a spectacular cliff, or by a raging sea. There are no lions roaring at night, no stampeding buffalo. No drama. Bushmans Kloof is subtle, more profound, infinitely more humane.

Three hours’ drive north-west of Cape Town, you approach it from the world’s rooibos tea capital, Clan­william, via a long winding road through the Cederberg.

Lending a touch of nostalgia to the trip, if you happen to notice them, are two wayside graves: that of Louis Leipoldt, the region’s most famous poet (and chef-from-nature: see his recipe for tortoise baked in the shell, medium heat in a mud oven), and that of The English Soldier, the lone young casualty of a long-forgotten Boer War skirmish in this far-off reach of the empire.

After a while the landscape opens up until it’s just low, brushy veld and rocky ridges as far as the eye can see. You’re in the wilderness — but a different sort of wilderness. It creeps up on you — and then it overwhelms you: you find yourself breathing in deeply, sucking in the air ... and feeling at peace with the entire universe.

By the evening you will experience its infinite reach: the air and the sky are so clear, so clean, that at night you can see to its furthest corners.

Why was I not surprised when a geologist among the visitors described the landscape and sandstone rock formations of the Cederberg as possibly the most ancient on the Earth’s surface? To the modern eye, it’s like walking in a perfectly arranged, unspeakably beautiful modern sculpture garden.

Nature’s rock stacks are often dramatic but here so delicately and perfectly balanced that they are never hostile. More often, your eye is just drawn to the detail wrought by the wind and rain of a million years; to the muted, melded colours formed by lichen and oxidation.

Setting off the sculpture is a tastefully understated grey-green, semi-arid fynbos veld. As with the rock formations, the miracle of the Cederberg’s indigenous vegetation lies first in its quietly soothing overall effect, and then in the close-up detail of the scores of indigenous plants unique to this area.

Within no time one gets the sense of a world that, after millennia, has come ever so graciously to terms with the harsh realities of life.

An added bonus: this is African wilderness with mountain zebra — and no malaria.

This is also the place where man once lived in perfect harmony with nature: dotted around these few thousand hectares are hundreds of ancient bushman sites, caves and overhanging rock faces that still bear the remnants of their unique murals painted with black, white, red and ochre pigments extracted from these same rocks and plants.

Theirs was a culture entirely free of the bonds of possessions: they built no houses, kept no livestock, left nature to cultivate the fields. They were bound to the earth only by their intimate understanding of it.

Arrival at the entrance to the Bushmans Kloof “conservancy” therefore comes with a shock of irony­: there are no bushmen here any­more; today, you must, perforce, be encumbered with more possessions than most — certainly a great deal more cash than most in order to afford a rate of a few thousand rand per person per night — before you seek permission, over a crackling intercom system, to enter the high, electronically controlled gates to this relic of paradise.

But your spirit quickly returns to peaceful contemplation as you wind further down a red gravel road, through a river bed and over a rise to what for all intents and purposes is an isolated old Cape plaaswerf or farmstead with its many outbuildings and cottages. And then you notice the river, the dams, the pools; the massive, massive Natal fig tree and the three truly mighty, ancient blue gums that all proclaim: this is, in every sense of the word, an oasis.

I cannot help thinking it is no mean achievement to manage to maintain such a classy lodge hotel — that accommodates only a limited number of guests — three hours’ drive from the nearest city. (You can also fly in by arrangement: there’s a landing strip for small planes.) It has all the comforts you could hope for, plus some: luxuriously characterful rooms, heavenly beds, plenty of peace and privacy in acres of garden planted entirely with indigenous shrubs and flowers.

A bevy of well-trained masseurs will stroke away your stress and untangle every taut muscle. It’s a case of service at the press of a button.

The highlight of the day — apart from the must-do bushman-painting drive and kloof ramble — has to be brunch, always an indulgent meal, but here also spectacularly fresh, original and delicious.

After brunch, the entirely shameless drag themselves off for a nap in a deck chair under a tree; the guilt-ridden choose one of several great swimming pools perched on the river bank with views to sunrise and sunset — where they float and occasionally pretend to be swimming.

You can do lunch if you absolutely must, but high tea is the thing to aim for after a good hour’s walk in this wide landscape scattered about with intimate rocky corners. Then perhaps another dip in the pool, an invigorating outdoor shower or a deep bubble bath before ambling, hand-in-hand to one of the restaurants for a late gourmet dinner that comes with a selection of fine wines, even French champagne if you choose (all on the house — drinks are included in the daily rate).

A special surprise for those who can afford to stay a day or two longer than most: Bushmans Kloof has an excellent library and a rather special museum. Even the gift shop is way above average.

I say it again: this is but one of many top-class hotels to be found in many places around the world today — the excruciatingly contrived mid-Atlantic accent in which most of the attentive staff speak gives that away.

If that’s all you require or aspire to for a weekend away with someone you love, Bushmans Kloof is up to standard.

But that’s not why you really MUST visit Bushmans Kloof if there’s the slightest chance you can handle the rate. It’s to see — to experience, really — an ancient and amazing relic of paradise; a place and landscape of simple clarity rather than extravagance; one you will taste on your breath and sense in your bones when evoking its memory, probably for the rest of your life.

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