Out of (South) Africa

A simple line, culled from a travel website, told me, before I knew anything else about Bushmans, that this was somewhere I wanted to go:

“Bushmans Kloof is situated in the Western Cape, in a nature reserve between the Cederberg Mountains and the Great Karoo Plains.”

I was instantly sold. “God’s own country,” was how my grandfather, who knew South Africa well, always referred to it, with its big skies and savannah and vast plains and grasslands. A great wodge of a country, nearly 10 times the size of his — and my — native England, cemented, so it seemed, to the base of Africa.  Reader, I had to go.

I spent a week around Cape Town first, before heading west, acclimatizing to a new hemisphere and enjoying the late winter sun. There is lots to do in Cape Town, and many folks I know, and many more I met there, count it a destination in its own right. The air is balmy and the days seem lazy and long. Still too early for the beach, though, so instead I made trips out to the wineries (the South Africans call them wine farms), to Stellenbosch and Hermanus, rode the cableway to Table Mountain, joined a canal cruise around Cape Town’s famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront to see Madonna’s multimillion dollar home from the water, and took the ferry to Robben Island. This last excursion, to the scene of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration — where he lived for 18 years with a bucket for a toilet, permitted only one 30-minute visit a year — is a kind of homage that all visitors to Cape Town are bound to make, and certainly no visit to the city would seem complete without it.

But at my back each day, I heard the mountains calling. An ambitious plan to fly up to Bushmans by private plane was scotched at the last minute and I found myself being driven instead, sandwiched in the “short-straw” middle seat in the back of a Mercedes. The Germans know how to build cars, however, and the three and a half-hour drive to Clanwilliam went by in a trice.

Out through the wretched townships we went into open country — through Malmesbury, across the Ratanga Junction, through towns with gritty Afrikaans names like Piketberg and Citrusdal and on through the beautiful Olifants River Valley. Then, past the grave of C. Louis Leipoldt, the great South African poet, across the Brandewyns River, we swung off the road and, before we knew it, through Bushmans’ heavy gates.

Even before we had parked next to the big, blue gum trees and got out of the car, I knew instinctively that Bushmans was a kind of paradise. And so it proved over the next few days.

Our very first evening, at dusk, during a sunset game drive, just moments after we had stopped in a clearing and the back of the open Land Rover had been niftily converted into a bar — for gin and tonics with dry London gin and ice cubes the size of shoeboxes — we saw endangered bontebok (antelope) running ahead of us, graceful and noiseless as clouds scudding across the sky. The next day brought gray rhebok and lynx and in the days that followed, red hartebeest, aardwolves and bat-eared foxes. And, joy of joys, just when we had all but given up hope, taking a fork in the track on our last afternoon, we came across a zeal of rare Cape Mountain zebra — insouciant in their stripes, happily at home, untroubled for the moment by man or other beasts.

What you don’t come to this part of South Africa for are the Big Five — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephant and buffalo. (For these you will need to head to the Kruger National Park, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in Natal or one of the country’s seven private game reserves.) But at Bushmans, you are fully immersed in nature and the fact that the reserve is also a wellness “retreat,” sets it somehow apart from the big parks, which can feel formulaic and contrived, at least in my view.

And there is more, much more besides. Malaria-free Bushmans was once inhabited by indigenous San people (or bushmen), who are mankind’s oldest nation and have lived in the Cederberg Mountains for a staggering 120,000 years. Their fascinating rock art, found at around 130 different sites around the reserve, has been preserved and throws light on the San’s relatively sophisticated culture. Park Rangers conduct regular tours of the sites, introducing you to this lost world.

If rock art does not rock you, you can hike instead in the indigenous fynbos, home to more than 6,000 endemic plants, cycle or learn to fly-fish. And at the heart of all is the homestead itself, a jaw-droppingly lovely Relais & Châteaux property, with sumptuous accommodations based around colonial style rooms and suites; gourmet dining — at night, under a million stars; a handsome swimming pool; and a small, luxurious spa, where the hot-stone treatment alone is worth the drive.

Returning to Cape Town, we got lucky:  A private plane bringing people to Bushmans’ private airstrip, 20 minutes’ drive from the homestead (and known locally as BK International), whisked us back to the city in 50 minutes flat. Less than an hour after that, we were sipping kiwi martinis in the Leopard Bar at The Twelve Apostles hotel, Bushmans’ sister property, overlooking the ocean at Camps Bay.

God’s own country, indeed, although my grandfather would have had no time for cocktails. He was a whisky man himself.

For more on Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, in Clanwilliam, Western Cape, South Africa, visit Bushmanskloof.co.za.

For more on The Twelve Apostles hotel and spa, on Victoria Road, Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa, visit 12apostleshotel.com.

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