Lazy, surprising Sundays

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iol travel april 29 Sundays River adventures

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Adventuring on the soul-soothing Sundays River. Pictures: Jim Freeman

East London - Mention the name Percy Fitzpatrick and most people imagine a plucky terrier cavorting around in what we used to call the Eastern Transvaal but now refer to as Mpumalanga. What few people know, however, is that the author of Jock of the Bushveld took his first and last footsteps in the Eastern Cape.

Again, most people know that the “Englishness” of the Eastern Cape stems from the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, brought to the Cape Colony to reinforce its border communities against tribal attacks. Perhaps only those better acquainted with Fitzpatrick’s life that know he was partly responsible for a second influx of British settlers to the region… a century after the first.

“Just after World War I,” recounts James Miller, sitting on the deck of Woodall Country House and Spa, sipping wine and trying to make himself heard over the racket of a myriad red bishops, “Sir Percy drew up a series of brochures and advertisements in the British press that aimed at enticing ex-servicemen to South Africa.

“It was quite funny because they were illustrated with orange orchards in California. There was nothing here but bush. The people who came here were so angry that he wasn’t able to set foot in the valley for quite a few years.”

Miller’s Scottish grandparents were among those who fell for Fitzpatrick’s con. It’s amazing (I’ll think as I traverse the area over the next few days) how much this area reminds me of the Trossachs, Speyside and Perthshire… right down to the tumbledown but picturesque farmworkers’ crofts and fields dotted with bright purple thistle.

This is the Sundays River Valley which incorporates Kirkwood, Sunland and Addo, the village that gives the nearby game reserve its name.

iol travel april 29 Sunday's River calf

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James and Debbie Miller are the ebullient couple who own and run the finest South African country hotel in which I’ve ever stayed.

Situated on a working citrus farm close to the main gate of the Addo Elephant National Park, this five-star boutique hotel offers contemporary African luxury accommodation, gourmet cuisine, an award-winning wine cellar (which the Millers are not averse to plundering for their own enjoyment) and spa, less than an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth.

Woodall, says Debbie, was born out of necessity.

“My mom was running a popular guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay and from time to time she had guests who came up to Addo and needed somewhere to stay when the park’s camp was full.

“We converted a family cottage into a room and that was that.”

James looks at his watch. “Drink up,” he interrupts amiably. “You’re going to experience a little Sunday’s River culture.”

Culture? This is the country of “Boet ‘n Swaer”, cheap beer and the annual Kirkwood Wildsfees where last year Valiant Swart and Spoegwolf were headline acts; what do you mean culture?

Thirty minutes later and just about 5km away, outside the hamlet of Sunland, we pull into the Hopefield Country House and Guest Farm, where an armada of dust-covered but swanky 4x4s has already assembled.

Inside, about 40 people are milling around in their Sunday’s River finery – open-necked shirts, shorts, velskoene or summer dresses – nattering, ordering drinks from the bar and, finally, settling into chairs that have been arranged symphony hall-style in the large parlour.

At the other end are a baby grand piano and a stool against which stands a lustrous, meticuously maintained cello.

Sunday’s River culture, it seems, embraces classical music.

For the next two hours they sit enthralled (though I spot one burly fellow peering anxiously out the nearest window as a thunderstorm rumbles closer) while the visiting Karlsruhe concert duo of Reinhard Armleder and Dagmar Hartmann take them through a programme of Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin.

Kobus Buys and Gerhard Maritz were classical musicians before moving to the Eastern Cape nine years ago and opening Hopefield a year later. It’s a four-star establishment with seven rooms. They charge visitors R595 a head a night in season (R495 out of season), bed and breakfast, and offer them a set three-course dinner for R195.

“We gave six concerts in the first year we were here,” recalls Kobus, “but the more popular the guesthouse became, the less time we had to perform.

“Last year we did only one concert and people kept calling us to find out when we would stage another. There are people here who are starved for culture, so we took the route of bringing in talented outsiders.”

Concerts are held on Sunday afternoons so people can drive home safely in daylight… which is what we do back to Woodall.

By this time the thunderstorm has arrived and, instead of freshening up in the indoor bathroom, I head to the outdoor shower. There’s something incredibly sensuous and inherently African about showering in the rain while lightning rages.

Woodall is renowned for haute cuisine presented in an earthily funky restaurant that serves the occupants of its 11 rooms. (Have I mentioned the wine cellar?)

Debbie Miller takes up the interrupted conversation over pre-dinner drinks: “We realised we would have to start offering meals when we increased the number of rooms.

“We also started with a three-course meal, but things have evolved from there.”

Evolved means a different six-course set menu each night, featuring such dishes as portabellini mushroom, leek and whisky soup; smoked snoek and trout terrine; east coast sole; springbok loin; dark chocolate and pistachio nut terrine or lemon and orange crème caramel using fruit harvested from Woodall farm.

The next day, the Millers hand me into the care of their neighbour, the charming Anne Read of Elephant House.

As quirky and eclectic as Woodall might be, Elephant House is unabashedly colonial and, well, horsey… especially around the large lounge-library whose walls are lined with equine prints and high shelves filled with leather-bound breeding records going back almost a century.

The equestrian flavour is hardly surprising because not only is Addo the elephant capital of the country, it is also regarded as the home of polo in South Africa.

The ethos of Elephant House, says Read, is for guests to relax – to the extent kettles and cups are absent from the rooms. “We actually want you to call room service if you want tea or coffee,” she says.

It’s a perfect base from which to journey to the Addo Elephant National Park or explore the Sunday’s River Valley before returning to cool off in the huge, secluded pool and dine (simply and well) by candlelight at its side.

It’s from here that I leave to experience my final valley delight: a bird-watching canoe trip with Chris Pickels of Crisscross Adventures.

He picks me up in the early morning and we take a short drive to a causeway where he settles me into a broad, stable canoe and we push off into the slow but powerful current of the Addo River. It’s a glorious morning, so still that the reeds are motionless and the only sounds are the soft splash of Chris’s paddle, distant cattle lowing and birds, birds, birds.

We get awesomely close; malachite kingfishers, a Goliath heron, a pair of iridescent white-fronted bee-eaters and that most majestic of all African birds, a fish eagle that obligingly swoops down just in front of us to claw a small fish from the water.

An hour later, standing on the high bank of the river and looking over citrus orchards to the distant Zuurberg mountains, I think: this has got to be about the best South Africa has to offer.

Not far from where Sir Percy Fitzpatrick lies buried, one follows a rather steep and rutted dirt road to a kopje that overlooks the village of Addo – which comprises the communities of Sunland and Hermitage – and the entire Sundays River Valley.

At its crest is one of the many surprises of the region: Shamrock Chapel, home of the Lauterbach organ.

The instrument is the oldest South African-built pipe organ, with construction taking place over 13 years from 1872 by two Lutheran missionaries in present-day KwaZulu-Natal, Johannes and Adam Lauterbach. However, they would not allow it to be used for anything other than church music so it lay in a barn for nearly 25 years (despite an offer of purchase from the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra), say its current owners Lukas Coetzee and Johan Strydom.

The hand-crafted organ eventually found a home in the Lutheran Church at Wartburg, near Howick, where it remained in operation until 2011.

“The church called and asked whether I would play a ‘farewell’ concert for the organ,” recalls Strydom, who studied music at Stellenbosch University, “as they had bought a newer and bigger one. The church donated the organ to the Shamrock Chapel project. We did some minor restoration work, then built the chapel around it in April 2012.”

It was inaugurated last August and is currently used for weddings, christenings, funerals and concerts.

“There are older pipe organs in South Africa,” says Strydom, “but they were all imported from Europe.” - Saturday Star

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