Near the top of the dirt road that constitutes the Hoogekraal Pass between the Outeniqua dorpie of Karatara and Wilderness flies a forlorn Italian flag. After passing it for about the fifth time a few years ago, I turned down the corrugated lane to which it stood solitary sentry.
If a journey of discovery begins with a single step, then that was my point of departure on an ongoing love affair with Wilderness, arguably the most undervalued gem of the Garden Route. Too many people speed past it on their way to Cape Town or Port Elizabeth, choosing instead to overnight at either Knysna or Plettenberg Bay.
In some ways that’s not surprising because there is no hotel in Wilderness. There are, however, a host of gorgeous (and some more basic) guest houses from where visitors can make adventurous forays into the surrounding area, which includes George, Knysna, Sedgefield and Plett… none of which is more than an hour’s drive away.
It’s an area of magic and mystique – a place where many of the residents are away with the faeries (there’s even an entire shop dedicated to the little folk in the Timberlake crafts centre just outside Sedgefield) – but only in the nicest sense. They’re free but grounded at the same time.
They’re welcoming and generally pretty service-oriented, too.
Bruno Battaini is surprised when I drive in to Hoogekraal Farm, where he’s casting garden pots and statues in the sun. It’s not a widely used road, so drop-in visitors are scarce. The real order of business, though, is production of Mastro Dario cold meats and Bruno’s walk-in fridges are packed with home-made salami, pancetta, bresaola and coppa.
Mastro Dario, I am able to decipher from Battaini’s almost-incomprehensible English, is Dario Soresi, a burly, blue-eyed and tattooed Milanese who started the business in 2005.
“This started as a hobby, but seven years ago we imported some specialist refrigeration and curing equipment from Italy so we could do things properly.
“It is still our passion. We don’t want to become a factory but rather remain artisan producers working in small quantities and big quality,” says Soresi, adding that the organic products are distributed mainly along the Garden Route as well as in Joburg. The biggest single market, however, is Soresi’s incredibly popular La Locanda (The Place) restaurant in George’s high street.
Having learnt his trade at the side of his Sicilian grandmother and mother, he joined the Italian army and was deployed to the officers’ mess under a man who was executive chef at a hotel on Lake Maggiore.
“He taught me many, many things and I even went to work for him on my discharge from military service. Finally, I went back home and started cooking for friends in my spare time… doing private functions and banquets. I’d been looking to move to Africa to open my own restaurant when, while on holiday in the Comores in 1992, I met an Italian with a farm in Hermanus. He told me a lot about South Africa and two weeks later I landed in Cape Town.”
After spending time in the Karoo town of Prince Albert, Soresi bought Hoogekraal Farm. La Locanda opened in 2007, serving traditional Italian dishes.
La Locanda is by no means unique for providing an exceptional dining experience in the central Garden Route. There’s the delightfully funky Île de Païn restaurant-bakery run by partners Liezie Mulder and Markus Färbinger on Knysna’s Thesen Island, while Wilderness itself boasts The Girls (also an art gallery), Pomodoro and Salinas.
At Pomodoro – a no-fuss, happy family Italian restaurant – customers are regularly welcomed by one of the town’s delightful characters, Mia Struwig.
Wilderness, to paraphrase sports reporters and commentators, is a town of “two halves” that is bisected by the N2. Inland is the lagoon or “old” Wilderness, while the johnny-come-latelies and foreign investors have gravitated to the dunes that abut the main beach, designated for blue flag status in July.
You’ll find fishermen and dogwalkers, paragliders and paramours, families and the odd (sometimes very odd) new age hippies on the way to their communal cave (true!). It’s quite common for people to share the surf with dolphins.
One imposing building overlooking the beach is the six-bedroomed Ocean View luxury guest house. Modern and glass-fronted to make the most of the views, the multi-storeyed house was built by Dutch billionaire Jan Heddema.
The modern furnishings are funky-minimalist in order not to detract from the ocean splendour. Heddema convinced his friend and fellow businessman, Harm Dijkstra, to come to SA to run it as a means of raising capital for a local social upliftment foundation. As a result, the two men have been able to build a fully equipped and staffed crèche for 60 children in Tembalethu in George.
Good works in the area are not all quite so earnest; some provide great entertainment. City folk, particularly those with children, can enjoy a clutch of interactive wildlife rehabilitation projects near Plettenberg Bay, such as the Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre, which lets visitors take guided walks with fairly tame cheetah.
The most fascinating, though, are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden. Both are enclosed – not to prevent the inmates getting out but to stop others from getting in, says marketing chief Lara Mostert.
“The person who started Monkeyland, Tony Blignaut, used to run overland tours and discovered how primate numbers dwindled… It was because the locals began trapping and selling them to unscrupulous visitors..”
Monkeyland opened in April 1998. Monkeys (including tamarinds and marmosets), lemurs and apes that were formerly pets, lab animals and surplus zoo stock from all over are unfettered in their 12 hectare forest.
The adjoining Birds of Eden is a riot of sound, colour and movement. Birds of Eden began as an offshoot of Monkeyland.
“People came here, saw the primates were free-roaming and thought it would be appropriate to donate their parrots and other caged birds for release into the forest. That would be fine except that Monkeyland has no roof!”
Birds of Eden’s massive meshed dome spans a canyon and is the highest of its kind in the world at more than 50m. Constructed on multiple levels, it has some blue duiker on the lowest and massive “flying fox” bats at the top.
If You Go...
l Wilderness is 440km from Cape Town and 310km from Port Elizabeth and, by road, is quickest travelled by following the N2 along the Garden Route. The alternative is flying to George (about 20 minutes away) and hiring a car.
l There are a host of official and independent websites for overall where-to-stay, what-to-do queries, but possibly the best of these is www.wildernesstourism.co.za
l The Ocean View guest house: 044 877 0137 or e-mailing email@example.com
l Restaurant numbers are:
Salinas 044 877 0001
Pomodoro 044 877 1403
l Other relevant websites are:
www.iledepain.co.za - Weekend Argus