One or two hundred years ago, South Africa was a very different place. Well, naturally. Our country was less inhabited, certainly less developed and more pristine and unspoilt. Human impact was negligible and nature ruled. Ag, ja, well, no, fine.

We have two hounds called Pingpong and Bentley, scruffy mixtures of unknown breed. Their mother was thrown out of a car (she was a Maltese) and rescued by a homeless man who cared for her. A few days later, she gave birth to four puppies.

A kind person who regularly cared for the homeless gentleman took the mother and puppies to an animal rescue shelter. A friend of mine worked there voluntarily and she suggested we each take two puppies. She chose the mother and two pups, and I took Bentley and Pingpong. That they had different fathers is obvious as Pingpong looks like a Schnauzer while Bentley looks like a Scottie cum Jack Russell.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to escape for the weekend and take along our two canine friends. My husband, an adventurer by nature, was equally keen to get away.

Now there's a very useful little book called The South African Pet-Friendly Directory written by Sharyn Spicer and Janine Nepgen, filled with listings throughout the country of holiday accommodation that welcomes pets and their owners. This is how we found the River Magic Cottages in Vermaaklikheid.

I should mention that the word vermaaklikheid is Afrikaans for entertainment or fun. So naturally the thought of visiting a place called Vermaaklikheid was tempting.

Where is Vermaaklikheid? Yes, well may you ask.

It is roughly a three-hour drive from Cape Town. The turnoff is about 3km from Heidelberg and is marked Port Beaufort/Witsands.

Coming from Gauteng, it's a somewhat lengthy drive to George but once there, you take the N2 to Riversdale and then turn off at the Vermaaklikheid sign.

Off we set with Pingpong and Bentley on the back seat. Once off the N2, we bounced along a gravel road for about 35 or 40km, driving towards the coast.

Around us were lush fields with blue cranes and ostriches.

Disaster nearly occurred when we stopped to let the dogs have a run and they shot across a field and barked at an elderly ostrich that we hadn't seen in the distance. Fortunately the ostrich looked sufficiently displeased, gave an aggressive ostrich honk and the dogs backed off and returned to the car where they were suitably reprimanded.

The countryside became drier and browner as we drove, then we rounded a bend and there was the tiny hamlet of Vermaaklikheid. And tiny is the operative word.

A wide African river called the Duivenhoks snakes through Vermaaklikheid and our self-catering River Magic cottage was about 300m from the river. Called Backtrack, it was the smallest of three available. It can sleep six. Base Huis right on the river sleeps eight to 10 while Glory Be, also on the river, sleeps 12. I should mention, in case you are worried, that there are no crocs in the Duivenhoks.

Backtrack was surrounded by reeds and the birdlife was prolific. The ecstatic dogs immediately shot off to a meadow beside us in which resided four horses. The dogs wagged their tails, the horses wagged theirs and peace reigned.

Vermaaklikheid is small. We were told by a local that there are not more than 30 or 40 families living there throughout the year, while weekenders come from Jo'burg, Cape Town, overseas or the surrounding platteland for a break.

The only other visitors we met while we were there was a lost English couple en route there who couldn't find Vermaaklikeheid at all.

Not surprising.

All the River Magic cottages have canoes, braais, fireplaces and are really well equipped.

Our kitchen had a gas cooker, copious fridge and microwave. So yes, there is electricity but there was no TV. Bliss.

Our own river frontage, down a narrow lane a short walk away, was grassy with a jetty from which you could dive into the deep Duivenhoks.

The fishing is apparently superb, but like the slobs we are, we hadn't brought fishing gear. Next time...

The owners, Paul and Bosky Andrew, whom we only met the afternoon before we left, are a most interesting couple. Architect Paul is a well-known painter and has exhibited his watercolours throughout the country. Bosky is an irrepressible bundle of sheer energy and we just didn't stop laughing in their company.

Their dog, a magnificent Bernese mountain dog, is called Oprah and is as handsome and intelligent as her namesake. And that's without a facelift. She is also a voracious biltong eater.

We'd taken books to read, the sun shone, the river flowed peacefully and at night the four of us, my husband, Pingpong, Bentley and I would braai and sit beneath the stars.

In the middle of the hamlet is a trading store and a riverside restaurant, called Duivenhoks. Naturally, we had to go and sample the food. So one lunchtime, we wandered in.

The restaurant is managed by a wonderful young man called Malcolm Moodie, and what a meal he presented to us.

There was a delicious seafood starter, then my husband had fish as a main and I devoured the largest and most succulent steak I'd enjoyed for a long time. With coffee and dessert the bill for two came to R210, which has to be the best value in South Africa. But more important was the excellence of the meal cooked by Malcolm.

Fancy-schmancy chefs could learn from this young man, who cooks like a dream and yet is one of the most unpretentious guys around. The place is not yet licensed, and we would have brought our own wine had we known. We rolled ourselves home and sat on the stoep of Backtrack watching the birdlife.

Then suddenly, there was a yowl. A leopard? No. Up a tree was the largest ginger cat I'd ever seen and below it, barking furiously, were our two dogs.

"I have to get the poor puss down," I wailed to my spouse.

"Rubbish, the cat will come down alone," he said, and continued sipping his cold beer, as husbands are wont to do.

I shut the dogs inside, placed a plastic chair beneath the tree and began to climb.

Balanced on both chair arms, I reached upwards for the cat. The chair split in two and I landed flat on my back. I swear, the cat laughed, as did my husband and Bentley and Pingpong who I could see through the glass door.

As I lay there, the puss purred and with the greatest of ease, leapt from branch to branch, onto the trellis to the edge of the braai and landed beside me.

According to the map, the river curves and there are wonderful sandy beaches but being in wind-down mode, we didn't have the energy to canoe up or downstream.

Paul Andrew has a boat and will take people on cruises. That's if he's around. When not in Vermaaklikheid, Paul and Bosky live in Cape Town.

To get back to my original statement that 100 or 200 years ago our country was unspoilt and pristine. Well, Vermaaklikeheid has that kind of feel. Apparently a handful of prominent South Africans in the know have holiday homes dotted along the river.

We didn't see them. In fact, we barely saw anyone and that, for me, was the beauty of Vermaaklikheid.

If you go...

  • WHERE TO GO: A rough location is that the small rural (very rural) settlement lies near the east coast between Stilbaai and the Breede River. It is 10km from the sea at Puntjie.
  • COST: River Magic cottages are hired per night. Backtrack cost us R550 per night plus an extra R100 for the cleaning service after we had gone, so we paid R1 200. We brought along our own food and drink. Had we been six people, it would have been ridiculously inexpensive. As it was, it was still very affordable. Glory Be and Base Huis are slightly more expensive as they are much larger.
  • WHAT TO TAKE: Food, drink and binoculars, swimming costume and hat. In winter, take warm clothes. Each cottage has a large log fireplace and you can buy wood for the fire or braais from managers Kai Essafu and Inus Bower. Kai also has a great vegetable garden so you can buy fresh veggies for a reasonable price.
  • MUST DO: Have a meal, or two or three, at the Duivenhoks Restaurant and let Malcolm Moodie and his small staff spoil you rotten.
  • ACTIVITIES: Swimming, fishing, canoeing, mountain biking (bring your own bike), birdwatching, reading, sleeping.

  • INFO: River Magic cottages, call Rob Andrew on 021 794 8065, e-mail: [email protected]