Paragliding or fishing or simply lazing about  the choice is yours in Wilderness. Pictures: Jim Freeman
Paragliding or fishing or simply lazing about  the choice is yours in Wilderness. Pictures: Jim Freeman
Imposing guesthouse that's sheer luxury.
Imposing guesthouse that's sheer luxury.

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 to appease my curiosity.

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 under-valued 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 was one but it closed years ago and its doors remain chained to the public while all manner of legal and financial wrangles are settled. There are, however, a host of gorgeous (and some more basic) guesthouses from where visitors can make adventurous forays into the surrounding area, which includes George, Knysna, Sedgefield and Plett… none of which is further 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 and 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 homemade 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 Johannesburg.

The biggest single market, however, is Soresi’s incredibly popular La Locanda (“The Place”) restaurant at the top of George’s high street. Having initially learned his trade at the side of his Sicilian grandmother and mother – “she was very, very good with desserts and cakes” – 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 initially spending time in the Karoo town of Prince Albert, Soresi bought Hoogekraal Farm.

La Locanda opened in 2007, providing traditional Italian dishes using largely authentic Italian ingredients.

“Sometimes we use a little bit of local innovation – such as using springbok venison but, again, in Italy we have something very similar … the capriolo.”

Soresi shudders: “We don’t put banana or pineapple on our pizza.”

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 (which also features an art gallery), Pomodoro and, most recently, Salinas.

At Pomodoro – a no-fuss, happy-family Italian restaurant – customers are regularly welcomed by one of the town’s delightful characters, Mia Struwig.

As they say in Britain, “she’s but a slip of a lass” but she’s got a handshake that might make you wince; quite appropriate when your day-job is massage therapist and natural health practitioner.

She gravitated to Wilderness “for its abundance of spirituality and love” after completing her training.

Wilderness, to paraphrase sport 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 which is designated to achieve blue flag status in July.

You’ll find fishermen and dog-walkers, 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 guesthouse. Modern and glass-fronted oceanside to make the most of the views, the multi-storeyed house (featuring a larger than lifesize fibreglass spotted cow – apparently it’s a national symbol of Holland) was built by Dutch billionaire Jan Heddema.

The modern furnishings are funky-minimalist in order not to detract from the ocean splendour and a story about the house was published in prestige international architecture magazines. Each suite exits either on to a sea-facing balcony or pool-deck and features flat-screen television and full DStv.

Full English and continental breakfasts are prepared by local staff. As befits a luxury establishment that caters predominantly to international guests, most whims can readily be accommodated.

Heddema convinced one of his friends and fellow businessmen, Harm Dijkstra, to come to South Africa 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.

Peoples’ good works in the area are not all quite so earnest; some provide great entertainment. City-folk, particularly those with children, will especially enjoy a clutch of interactive wildlife rehabilitation projects based outside Plettenberg Bay.

Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre allows visitors the opportunity to take early morning or evening guided walks with fairly tame cheetah. It’s funny watching European tourists being handed the leash to hold the cats… and then the cheetah decides to stretch his legs. The immediate reaction is to hold on but there’s no way in the world they’re going to make that happen!

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 as these became popular. It wasn’t that the primates moved away: it was because the locals began trapping and selling them to unscrupulous visitors. Tony swore that, if ever he was in the position, he would create a sanctuary for animals caught up in this trade.”

Monkeyland opened in April 1998. Monkeys (including tama-rinds and marmosets), lemurs and apes that were formerly pets, laboratory animals to surplus zoo stock from all over the world are unfettered in their own 12 hectare forest, with plans afoot to extend the facility.

The adjoining Birds of Eden is a riot of sound, colour and movement. Also eschewing the concept of cages, Birds of Eden began as an offshoot of Monkeyland, says Mostert. “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 for the fact 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 over 50 metres. 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 some 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 guesthouse:

044 877 0137 or e-mailing [email protected]

l Restaurant numbers are:

Salinas 044 877 0001

Pomodoro 044 877 1403

l Other relevant websites are: www.monkeyland.co.za

www.birdsofeden.co.za

www.tenikwa.co.za

www.la-locanda.co.za

www.iledepain.co.za - Saturday Star