Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Travel: South Africa,The coast of many colours
From a dazzling kaleidoscope of spring flowers to the seclusion of a very green resort, Rachel Holmes takes the drive of a lifetime along South Africa's western shores
It was spring in South Africa - wildflower season - and my partner and I were off to tread lightly among the daisies - something I've longed to do since I was a child, growing up in the country. Having experienced the splendours of the well-trodden Garden Route eastwards from Cape Town along the Indian Ocean, we were eager to explore the road less travelled up the Atlantic west coast and into the Northern Cape interior.
There was a problem, though. As regular travellers, we were experiencing the frequent fliers' guilt. The flowers of the Cape are orange, violet, pink, and every vibrant colour in the spectrum - but were we green? We'd already burned carbon footprints into the ozone to get to South Africa, and like many stressed, time-impoverished late-30s holidaymakers, we had no intention of compromising on our creature comforts. Was it possible to plan a nature-trip through the Cape while trying to minimise our contribution to the destruction of the planet? The answer (in part) was to make our final destination Oudrif, a retreat in the Cederberg mountains dedicated to diverse holiday activities, luxurious relaxation - and sustainable tourism.
A drive of just over an hour on the R27 from Cape Town took us to the West Coast National Park, renowned for its annual fireworks display of daisies which flower for a few brief weeks in the Postberg section of the reserve. It's a spectacular drive: the highway runs up the coast between the Cape Fold Mountain Chain to the east, and the glittering sand dunes that border the turquoise Atlantic to the west. In the rear-view mirror, Table Mountain and Cape Town floated in a purple haze under a clear, sunlit sky. We dutifully obeyed the road signs marking tortoise-crossings: these creatures are endangered in the Western Cape, and all species are protected.
Inside the park, on the way to the Postberg daisies, we carefully skirted a huge puff adder in the road, and made several stops to admire less threatening wildlife, including ostrich, quaggas, zebra, and a whole range of boks; springbok, blesbok, gemsbok, bontebok, steenbok, grysbok.
The daisies are as much part of South African iconography as the Springboks, Table Mountain and Nelson Mandela. But despite the images of colourful landscapes I've seen since I was a child, nothing prepared me for the sumptuousness and power of their sensory overload. Viewed from behind, facing the sun, they spread out like a dazzling carpet. Then, when you look at them from the front, they burst into intricate details of pistils, petals and stamens. We found ourselves happily dazed.
Apart from the glorious springtime spectacle, the area offers whale-watching and environmental courses. If you want to stay in the park, Kraal Bay is a lovely hideaway. You can rent a houseboat either fully serviced or self-catering, and dive from it into the topaz lagoon that spreads out from the sparkling white sandy beach. The park authorities also have a house to rent in Churchaven, a picturesque 19th-century fishing village with a white-washed Anglican church overlooking the flamingo-filled bay. It has morphed from sleepy hamlet to exclusive leisure destination.
We had lunch at Geelbek Restaurant, among the stone fountains and shady vine-draped pergolas of this historic and graceful Cape Dutch-style country manor. The local wine list and reunion with much-loved friends promptly put paid to any daft notions of sticking to our itinerary.
Paternoster, next stop on the R27, is a restored Portuguese village of whitewashed stone cottages, brightly coloured wooden boats, sun-drenched beach, and what's possibly the most reasonably priced fresh lobster in South Africa. Those in the know go to the Voorstrand Restaurant in a century-old tin beach shack. Tastefully understated, Paternoster is posh in the way of holiday-home Cornish seaside villages: but walk 30m up the road and it segues into what remains of the old town - poor, overcrowded and unrestored. The bald, intimate inequalities of this uneven development are a telling aspect of the west coast experience.
Just a little further up the coast, Cape Columbine Nature Reserve offers a wonderfully located campsite in Titties Bay, right on the water's edge amid the rocks. It is presided over by Cape Columbine lighthouse, the first beacon sighted by ships from Europe rounding southern Africa.
A predilection for industrial aesthetic took us on a rewarding detour to admire the state-of-the-art Saldanha Steel mill. Commissioned in 1998 and recently completed, this sublime Bauhaus-style factory is a triumph of modernist functionalism and total design - and the only steel mill in the world to have eliminated the need for coke ovens and blast furnaces, making it a world leader in emission control. The salt-factories, concrete breakwaters and flocks of flamingos at Velddrif and Laaiplek at the mouth of the Berg river continue the symbiosis of industry and wildlife.
The holiday resort of Elandsbaai has a spectacular beach, as wide as an eight-lane motorway. It is frequented mostly by South Africans - but known internationally as one of the coast's best surfing spots, notwithstanding the fact that the ocean feels like liquid ice.
The R27 veers inland here, but there is a way to stick to the coast: you can pick up a permit for around £2 in the saloon of the run-down Elandsbaai Hotel. The document allows access to the graded dirt track that runs adjacent to the state-owned railway line.
The first major settlement at the end of this route is Lambert's Bay. It offers open-air seafood dining at the Muisboskerm restaurant, Khoi rock art, and boat trips to see Bird Island's gannet-breeding colony. From here, the rutted and potholed road to Doring Bay is a dramatic route of wild coastal veld, sand dunes and sparkling salt-pans. We drove to the wave-beaten cliffs and headlands of Doring Bay, a quaint and characterful working fishing port with a pungent fish factory, railway workers' homes, and hoary fishermen working from rowboats. Die Anker - bar, restaurant, guesthouse and cornershop in one - is the only place for refreshment. It is undistinguished in everything, except for its notable fish and chips, served on the deck of a wrecked boat cemented to the front of the building overlooking the ocean.
Strandfontein, 8km up the coast, is good for a swim before you turn inland, via the extraordinary salt-pans of Papendorp and its nearly deserted tumbledown village.
The route inland takes you through the winelands of the Oliphants river. Between stretches of scrubby veld and fynbos, we drove over bridges spanning reclaimed riverbeds now verdant and lush with grapes - the result of an innovative irrigation scheme which has rehydrated (and revitalised) the local economy. As you can't swim in these rivers of future wine, the hot springs at Citrusdaal are worth heading for. Farm stalls on the way sell plump dates, oranges, olives, nuts, honey and "novelties" (half orange, half naartjie) to nibble while you take to the steamy waters.
After stopping to buy rooibos at the tea factory in Clanwilliam, we made tracks to our final destination - Oudrif. This peaceful retreat is located in 200 hectares of remote, pristine, red stone wilderness straddling the Doring river in the ancient Cederberg region (between 500 and 345 million years old). The area was once an inland sea; the tidal lines on the tops of the towering koppies and mountain escarpments are still visible. Fish fossils more than 400 million years old have been found here. The rugged landscape is strewn with artefacts left by Stone Age peoples and by extraordinary open-air galleries of ancient San and Khoi rock art, still sometimes referred to by the old-fashioned and patronising description of "bushman paintings".
The Cederberg is to African art history what Italy is to Renaissance art. Around 8,000 years ago, * *the San stood in front of the blank canvas of rock overhangs and cave walls with red, yellow, maroon and ochre natural pigments ground into a fine powder and mixed with water, blood or plant juices. Guided hikes to see this mysterious art are one of the main reasons for visiting the Cederberg. Bill Mitchell, who runs Oudrif, is known for his knowledgeable tours, punctuated by plunges into refreshing cave rock pools.
The Cederberg has a long history of conservation. As far back as 1876 the British geographer Sir James Alexander complained of the wanton destruction of the ancient cedar forests for economic expansion. His intervention resulted in the appointment of the first forest rangers. In 1897, new fast-growing plantations were established to prevent further cedar harvesting.
We arrived at Oudrif after dark, illuminated only by starlight. The African sunrise revealed the style of the location. Oudrif has five straw-bale cottages and a large central boma (open-plan dining and lounging area) with huge outdoor fireside, braai, and sprawling veranda designed in harmony with the natural environment. The cottages and boma are constructed using the 200-year-old building method of plastering straw bales for use as building blocks, and painted in biscuit and cornflower tones. The eco-friendly result is both practical and delightful. Inside, the spacious and comfortable cottages all have lounge areas and separate shower-rooms. The combination of art deco furnishings with streamlined modern African design is understated and tasteful, with added details of beaded curtain tie-backs and artisan wire light-pulls.
You are not going to meet the crowds here: Oudrif accommodates only 10 people at a time. The ambience is intimate and relaxed. Though you are so close to nature, it is quietly luxurious - and fully catered, from pre-breakfast muffins and coffee to starlit, fireside wilderness haute-cuisine dinners. For us, cold beers were an essential accompaniment to our secluded late afternoon skinny-dipping and lounging by the river while everyone else was sleeping.
Bill runs the place with his fellow owner-manager Janine Rawson, supported by their border collie Bella. Once a prominent Cape Town chef, he has a laid-back charm and constant bright humour, sparkling eyes and the intelligence of the innovator and humanist. Janine is an equally luminous host: a qualified field guide with expert knowledge of local plant and animal life, and natural medicinal cures. She also has a philosophy of environmentalism that should have the ear of international policy-makers and governments.
Off-grid and with no external power, Oudrif is designed and run to lessen environmental impact in every way possible. A solar pump provides water from the river, and solar panels charge batteries for electricity. The fridges and freezers run on gas, the building fittings are recycled (the hardwood cottage doors were salvaged from a bank), and the straw itself is a renewable resource and excellent insulator, reducing the need for artificial heating and cooling. Janine has raised an organic market garden of vegetables, delicate salads (including piquant wild rocket) and herbs from the hard red-stone earth.
For all this, Bill and Janine do not paint Oudrif with the eco-tourism brush. "People are by their presence destructive," says Janine, "but every action makes a difference, however small." Working for neutral impact, their aim is to re-stabilise overgrazed and eroded land. It is inadequately described as a holiday resort, though it offers diverse activities: hiking, rock art, swimming, paddling, sunbathing, wildlife, fly-fishing, bird-watching, guided tours through the rooibos farms. Then there are the long, restorative siestas, stargazing, excellent food and a well-stocked library. And, as we discovered as we were enveloped in the landscape of phosphorescent daisies and wildflowers, the spring here is breathtaking. In truth, it is even more spectacular than in the West Coast National Park. Once you've seen them here, you can close your eyes and take these daisies with you everywhere.
British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and South African Airways (08707 471 111; www.flysaa.com) all fly from Heathrow to Cape Town. From today, Flyglobespan (08705 561 522; www.flyglobespan.com) starts flying from Manchester.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Cape Town, in economy class, is £21.20. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
Oudrif, Doring River, Cederberg Mountains (00 27 27 482 2397; www.oudrif.co.za). Rates start at R425 (£30) per person per night, full board, including activities.
Kraal Bay houseboats (00 27 21 689 9718; www.houseboating.co.za). Rental of a four-person houseboat starts at R945 (£66) per night. Beach Camp, Cape Columbine Nature Reserve (www.ratrace.co.za). Camping from R110 (£8) per person per night, including entry to the reserve.
West Coast National Park (00 27 22 772 2144; www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast). Rooibos Tea Factory, Clanwilliam (00 27 27 482 2155). Farm tours also available, R35 (£2.50) per person.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Geelbek Restaurant, Churchaven (00 27 22 772 2134; www.geelbek.co.za/restaurant.htm).
Voorstrand Restaurant, Paternoster (00 27 22 752 2038).
Muisbosskerm Open Air Restaurant, Lambert's Bay (00 27 27 432 1017).
South African Tourism: 08701 550 044;