In an exclusive serialised travel feature, we get behind the wheel with Alwynne Gwilt as she ventures off the well-worn asphalt of South Africa’s ‘Garden Route’ in favour of exploring a little further afield, and her first stop is a restored nature reserve where there’s magic in the air…
“It’s just so stunning,” I exclaim, as we wind our way down a dusty road in the heartland of the Cederberg Mountains. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen here before.”
It’s my fifth trip to South Africa, and I’ve started to feel like more of a local in some ways. The world class vineyards and gastronomy, the spectacular coastline and its incredible wildlife, and the varied terrain perfect for all sorts of outdoor activities all make it one of my favourite countries in the world.
But this is the first time I’ve ventured north to the wild Cederberg Mountains, named after a species of endangered cedar tree. It is a mere two and a half hour drive from Cape Town but feels far removed from the beaten track, raw and rugged with its orange and tan hued mountains that rise on either side of the N7 as one drives north.
For most tourists to South Africa, a visit to Cape Town and a drive up the Garden Route, alongside a safari will top their ‘must-do’ list. But a country as large as this has so much more on offer, and this neck of the woods is now officially on my recommendation list to all friends making their way to this beautiful country.
I am visiting as part of a stay at Bushmans Kloof, a stunning wilderness reserve and wellness retreat right in the heart of the Cederberg. A part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, the Lodge is renowned for its remoteness, but also its hospitality and activities.
As we – ‘we’ being my husband and I – arrive at the gates after a slow drive down a lengthy and winding road to the main entrance, we are immediately greeted by the team, which whisks our bags and car away, telling us to enjoy a cup of chilled Rooibos tea and settle in for the coming days. Looking around at the serene surroundings, the removal of our means of escape feels no bad thing in this case.
The area is famed for its Rooibos production, and just nearby in Clanwilliam – the largest town in this region – one can learn more about its cultivation and global reach, something we do after leaving the steadying confines of the reserve.
For the start, however, it’s a slow meander over to our lodge, Waters Edge 1, which overlooks the large ponds, and rocky escarpment where we will go hiking the next morning. The room’s quiet solitude is a beautiful escape after a long drive – cool white sheets line a four poster mahogany bed, and the dark beams and thatched roof ensconce us in comfort. A large deck outside is where we head to first, however, to enjoy treats left from the well-loved daily afternoon high tea, which the team has kindly set aside for us due to our later arrival.
Bushman’s Kloof, we learn, is a labour of love to preserve this remote part of the Western Cape. The 7,500 hectares which make up the reserve were first purchased over 30 years ago by Mark and Bill McAdam, who planned to allow the natural vegetation – namely the famous Cape Fynbos – to start naturally repopulating the rocky landscape. They began restoration on the nearly 200 year old manor house that was on site, while more indigenous fauna like the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra were also brought back to the lands. In the early 2000s, the Tollman family – a South African hotelier clan – bought out the reserve from the McAdams, with the promise to continue their conservation work, alongside bringing the estate up to a five star level with more facilities, lodges and dining, all of which blends seamlessly into the landscape.
Sitting on our stoop, enjoying a G&T, I am immediately brought to a level of relaxation which I find hard to achieve so quickly normally. There’s something slightly magical about the surrounding landscape – it’s perhaps due to the slow flight of birds whisking their way near the ponds as the sun sets, or perhaps the ancient history of the area, which has been inhabited as long as 10,000 years, most importantly by the indigenous San People, one of the oldest tribes in Africa.
That evening we dine at the Makana restaurant, enjoying local specialties in the quiet and peaceful surrounds lit by candlelight and gently buzzing with the hum of other guests’ conversations. It’s all very relaxed and welcoming, leaving us in the perfect headspace to retire for a good sleep and early wake up call.
The sun blazes brightly the next morning as we make our way at the break of dawn to meet our guide who will take us on a walk and tour of the surrounding areas to see some of the highly preserved artwork found on cave and rock walls. A quick drive in the jeep first leads us uphill with a group of compatriots, and we begin the tour learning more about the tribe that inhabited these lands for so long. Bushmans Kloof is home to over 130 rock art sites, and has gained heritage protection status to ensure they are carefully cared for. The air already humming with heat, we traverse slowly across the rocky terrain to scope out some of these ancient drawings, learning more about the interpretation of the symbols found on each. It’s fascinating and the perfect way to wake up to a new day.
The site itself offers numerous activities – either guided or independent – for guests to enjoy and after a beautiful and generous breakfast spread, we decide to hop on bikes and head down a dusty pathway to hike to a waterfall, hidden away in the rocks. It’s a bit longer of a hike than initially anticipated, so the reward after the heat of the trek is unbelievably indulgent: a freezing cold spring pool at the base of a small waterfall, which we have all to ourselves. We jump off of the rocks gleefully and cool our baking skin, feeling pleased at ourselves for going on an adventure when we could just have easily have lazed by the pool in the extensive grounds at the reserve.
A slow hike back – now cooled with our wet swimsuits still on – gets us to the reserve just in time to ready ourselves for the evening game drive. Everything at Bushmans Kloof feels both perfectly catered but also divinely relaxed – from the rusks and coffee on the morning hike, to the welcome cocktail as we arrive for the evening excursion. We feel pampered at every stage and it helps bed us into this resort, making the realisation we are leaving the next day snip at the back of our minds in an unwelcome fashion.
As the sun sets and we slowly trundle through the vast expanse of the reserve, we witness herds of Cape Zebra bound across the rocks, their stripes a bright contrast to the orange glow overtaking the brown and green landscape. At a high peak, we stop the jeep and hop out for sundowners made with a local Cape Fynbos Gin from Sugarbird, chatting with others in our group about life back in the UK, from which we all originate. The reserve itself gets a high proportion of local visitors in the off-peak seasons, which the team worked hard to cultivate when much of the country was shut down during Covid and couldn’t have any international guests. In the peak seasons, guests come from all over the world, and we find ourselves too easily slipping into conversations about London, from which we’ve all attempted to escape. Luckily, the landscape calls us back and we soon meld into its embrace, taking in the scent of Fynbos and sight of animals roaming nearby.
That evening, having heard it is a special anniversary for us, the team arranges a discrete and delightful dinner in the confines of the reserve’s organic walled garden. It’s a complete surprise, so much so we nearly miss the team member waiting for our arrival as we scurry past to make it to the dining room, due to running late. She beckons to us from the darkness, and we are led up a set of steps to a candlelit table with music and sparkling wine. It’s little touches like these that the reserve excels at – making one feel special, in an incredibly authentic way.
After too much dining, and too many spectacular local wines, we slowly meander our way back to a rose petal strewn room, and I nearly break into tears for the thoughtfulness of it all. An unnecessary touch, but hugely welcomed nonetheless.
As we collect our keys the next day to our car which we’d quite happily forgotten about, it is with a sense of sadness to depart. There truly is magic in the air at Bushmans Kloof, and the team exceeded any expectations or hopes we had upon arrival. Their ability to whisk one away into a time warp that allows you to feel as though you’ve stayed far longer than a night or two is testament to both the range and quality of activities on offer, and the peace which surrounds the area. I vow to hold that energy close to me as we continue on our journey south, thankful that after so many trips to this beautiful country, I’ve finally explored this remote area that offers so much.
For extensive information about Bushmans Kloof, including experiences, offers, and a series of their stories, and for booking information, please visit www.bushmanskloof.co.za.
Photos courtesy of Bushmans Kloof (unless otherwise credited)
Alwynne’s South African road trip continues next weekend, when she takes a welcome break from behind the wheel – in the company of penguins…