Cape Town - A flock of sacred ibis is flying to roost somewhere along the river that twists and turns through reeds, green meadows and indigenous forest.
Somewhere over the hills is nearby Plettenberg Bay, beautiful but bland. Huge suburban houses appear just plonked down amongst the coastal bush that lines one of Africa’s most scenic bays.
The beaches are golden, the sand soft, but the surrounding countryside is pretty featureless.
Maybe I feel this because I have just driven over some of the Cape’s most spectacular scenery – the Montagu Pass from George (South Africa’s oldest unchanged pass, built by convicts and opened in 1847, lined by steep ravines and overhanging rock masses); over the magnificent, challenging Swartberg Pass, built by the legendary Thomas Bain (also with convict labour) which spans the once insurmountable barrier between the Great and Little Karoo; Meiringspoort which opened in 1858 with its numerous drifts and bridges (still subject to flooding today as it was then); past the Knysna Heads; and so to a magical river lodge called Emily Moon, a few kilometres outside Plett.
But first, let me tell you about Oudtshoorn. Once the fabulously wealthy centre of the Klein Karoo, Oudtshoorn was the ostrich centre of the world in the late 1880s. Magnificent plumes that sold for 1000 British pounds a pair, (a fortune) were worn by European royalty, maharajahs, and potentates of all kinds, as well as adorning hats of the then global glitterati.
Glorious feather palaces were built in this semi-desert and ostriches pulled Santa’s sleigh at Christmas time.
But fashion trends rise and fall. Some said the feather boom collapsed with the advent of motorcars whose roofs were too low to allow for fine feathers. Others blamed wars and recessions.
But the ostrich farmers survived – as sales of ostrich leather, followed by the popularity of healthy cholesterol-free ostrich meat, took over.
“Feathers, leather, meat, the cycles continue to this day,” Kobus Potgieter tells me, as we drive round his farm under blue skies through red mountains. Today, bird flu and impractical government regulations have once again decimated the industry, but the farmers are tough, and continue to survive.
Rietfontein Ostrich Palace, some 30km outside Oudtshoorn, has been in the Potgieter family for five generations since 1856, and is the oldest working ostrich farm in the former Cape Colony.
I stay in a little cottage next to Kobus Potgieter’s grandfather’s original house. The red mountains glow in the early morning sun as thrushes and wagtails peck about the grass and cows low as they wait to be milked.
We drive off to one of the ostrich camps where Kobus talks us through the intricacies and skills of ostrich farming, as he throws handfuls of corn to a dozen or so be-plumed birds that jostle around us.
“There’s no way you can study ostrich farming,” he tells us, “you’ve got to learn it on the ground.
“Watch out!” he warns, as, attracted by my shiny earrings, ostriches try to peck at my ears. And believe me, ostriches have big beaks. And huge two-toed feet that can deliver mighty kicks. (I once knew of a lion whose jaw had been broken by such a kick.)
The beautiful old sandstone buildings of the CP Nel Museum in the town centre, once a boys’ high school, now a provincial heritage site and regarded as one of South Africa’s best rural museums, is a mine of information about the feather industry and has seductive displays of fashion items. (Did women really wear hats that big? With such huge feathers?)
The following day we visit the 20 million-year-old Cango Caves, and are overawed by their magnificence. They have sheltered humankind for over 80 000 years, and are still South Africa’s oldest tourist destination.
It’s back on the road then to Red Mountain Nature Reserve, just over the hill from Rietfontein Ostrich Palace. Ten years ago I came to these mountains with Charles Roux, the owner of the land, and he told me then that one day he would build here. His dream has now become a reality. We stayed in lovingly restored, stylishly furnished, old farm buildings next to a manor house that dates back to 1896. The spacious cottages all face the distinctive red rocks that glow at dawn and blaze at sunset.
On the next leg of our journey, my friend Marjorie (who grew up at George in the Southern Cape and is a fount of local knowledge) and I drive over the awe-inspiring Swartberg Pass, through towering mountains, round hairpin bends and spectacular views, past swathes of gloriously pink proteas and other flowering fynbos, to the little town of Prince Albert.
Its main street, lined by quirky little shops and inviting small restaurants, stretches straight through the town, with mountains at each end, like huge rocky bookends.
European visitors return again and again to this spot. Old English gentlemen with cravats and leather-elbowed tweed jackets, swap oft-told stories of the war (which war?) in the bar of the De Bergkant, a beautifully restored 1858 gabled house on the main drag filled with fine Cape antique furniture, paintings and memorabilia. It’s all a bit like a superior BBC soapie.
Elsewhere in the village, Germans, Dutch and French visitors taste the wine of the region and sample the homegrown olives and local cheese.
Our journey takes us next to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay – legendary Garden Route destinations. After the vastness of the Klein Karoo and the grandeur of the mountains and their passes, the seaside towns seem like suburbia by the sea. Plett is overpriced and pretentious (although thousands will disagree with me), and Knysna is a hub of noise and traffic as the N2 cuts through the middle of the town.
But a few minutes outside of Plett, is Emily Moon River Lodge, overlooking the Bitou river and lush wetlands, where fish eagles call and herons wade, a whimsical, enchanting mix of Asian and African styles, moods and artefacts. Dogon masks and carved wooden sculptures from West Africa, sit companionably with stone lions from the Far East.
A baboon intricately fashioned from scrap metal and wire, guards the pool, hand woven baskets from Botswana adorn the wall above a bed, an ancient mokoro is now home to flowering plants; animal skulls and Indian lanterns blend harmoniously in the restaurant, reclining or seated Buddhas smile benevolently down from gateposts and walls – somehow the eclectic mix works beautifully and the atmosphere throughout is calm, serene, lovely.
I sit on my deck and watch the river bend and twist, whilst Marjorie kayaks through the reeds.
On our way back along the Garden Route to Wilderness, we stop and enter the indigenous forest at the Garden of Eden – a 1km-long boardwalk that winds through ancient yellowwood, ironwood, and other mighty trees. The rich smell of forest is everywhere and a purple turaco shouts at us from a high overhead branch as we pass.
The last night we take a bottle of Bramon’s delicious Sauvignon Blanc (Bramon is the first wine estate in this part of the Western Cape) to Rondevlei Bird Hide – a RAMSAR wetlands site outside of Wilderness. Twenty-three waterbirds (including African rails, purple swamp hens and over a dozen bill-clacking spoonbills) share the sunset with us – a memorable ending to an unforgettable journey. - Sunday Independent
If You Go...
Emily Moon River Lodge: www.emilymoon.co.zap
Rietfontein Ostrich Palace: www.rop.co.za
C P Nel Museum:
Cango Caves www.cangocaves.co.za
Red Mountain Reserve - Calitzdorp: www.redmountain.co.za
De Bergkant Lodge: www.debergkant.co.za
Bramon Wine Estate: www.bramonwines.co.za