As we hit the summit of the Pakhuis Pass coming from Clanwilliam off the N7 from Cape Town, some of the anxiety I have about visiting a place I have exceedingly fond memories of, loosens a little.
In almost shocking ochre hues and grey surface washes, what look like large rock containers stagger up and away into a brilliant blue sky, and a valley sweeps into view.
It is here, appropriately, that cellphone reception ceases, and a kind of stillness – not just telephonic, but visceral – descends. We’re on our way to the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, in the northern Cederberg.
In the five years since I last visited, changes that have been wrought are so subtle that they do not interfere with memory. While the accommodation and service are top-class – it is, after all, listed in Relais & Chateaux and has won several prestigious travel awards – there is, it seems, a welcome aversion on the part of the owners to flashiness, and a humility towards the surrounding grandeur of nature.
We’re just in time for high tea, a particular delight at Bushmans Kloof. We ramble past the front of the old Manor House on to the lawn, past two inky swimming pools beyond which the Boontjies River crackles over plates of rocks, and past the drama of three 100-year-old wild figs with fancy air roots creating a mini forest beneath.
At the lapa, dainties and delights are spread out: tiny but richly satisfying savouries and fruity, creamy sweet things, served with teas and coffees. Before us is a pond where ducks quack and moorhens call. This 3pm high tea is a Bushmans Kloof tradition.
An unpretentious morning snack – rusks, muffins, coffee – is often served at about 8am when you’re out on the first game drive of the morning, and a lush breakfast awaits when you return. There’s no lunch. Nor need there be. Hunger is not a worry here.
Bushmans Kloof is rooibos country and the fine-leafed plant, along with other fynbos, finds its way into the cuisine under the hand of chef Floris Smith.
I had quail, delicate in appearance and taste, sprinkled with crumbled pistachio and flavoured, through smoking, with rooibos and vanilla. I also had asparagus with quail egg and parmesan shavings.
It was so good, I had this the next night too, the asparagus being the freshest and tastiest I’ve had in a long time. My partner’s ostrich fillet carpaccio was lovely, but he was less impressed with his fish.
The next evening he had guinea fowl instead, prepared just so, wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with tomato and ricotta cheese.
The rooms here are beautiful, each built in such a way that it faces towards a long view over the high plains in the distance, with the luxuriant lawn in the foreground, maximising outlook and privacy. Each has a little stoep furnished for comfortable relaxation. The rooms are cool and dark, recalling the African western tradition of thick walls and smallish windows to keep the harsh heat out. The rooms are tastefully and grandly decorated in voluminous furniture – much of it individually sourced from antique stores – large paintings or etchings and rich fabrics, but all of it working together to create a warm, hospitable African farmhouse feel.
Time stretches quite lusciously and we’re able to fill the two days with stimulating activity and the requisite slothfulness one so desires from weekend escapes.
A highlight of my visits has been the visits to one or two of the more than 130 rock painting sites on the reserve. Visitors are driven in open four-by-four game vehicles – taking in birds, bontebok, zebra, wildebeest, and other wildlife on the way – and then guided on a short walk to the sites. The guides at Bushmans Kloof are solicitous, helpful and quiet, but to see them blossom in the veld is a treat. The bracing experience of being out of doors in a place that one can sense was inhabited before civilisation is rendered priceless by the presence of the guides, who are so easily able to point out tracks, plants and droppings, and relate stories about them, lending high drama to a scrubby mountainside.
Seeing rock paintings in books is nothing at all like seeing the originals. Our party were entranced and our huddle around the paintings was marked by long moments of quiet astonishment, broken by our being told interesting facts and our chatter. To gaze at a rock painting is to feel one has crossed the stretch of time to look fleetingly into the eye of a human being who stood here 10 000 years ago.
A vegetable garden meander, a two-hour mountain walk, an afternoon of meditative bicycling around the lake, game-drives, sumptuous meals and post-prandial naps later, we paid our bills, had our car returned and drove away along the orange dust road.
For the second time I left with regret. Bushmans Kloof is magical – it brings you close up to something endangered by modern, urban life: awe.