Catherina's original manor house is now the Steenberg Hotel. Photos: Kate Turkington
Catherina's original manor house is now the Steenberg Hotel. Photos: Kate Turkington
Guide Simone interprets San rock paintings.
Guide Simone interprets San rock paintings.

Vast blue skies. Red sandstone boulders scattered over rocky hillsides. Golden sandstone sculpted by time and weather into fantastical shapes. Green lawns and indigenous gardens of such beauty that they complement not compete with their wild-growing neighbours. Not a sound, save for a soft early morning conversation between two laughing doves and a bokmakierie singing from the top of a spreading acacia tree.

It’s dawn at Bushman’s Kloof in the Cederberg.

“I never knew what the English word ‘tranquil’ really meant till I came here,” explains Arina de Jongh, head therapist at the Spa, which is a grey, cream and white cocoon of loveliness fashioned out of stone and marble and set in more rolling indigenous gardens.

It’s that total feeling of tranquillity that distinguishes this remote wilderness reserve and wellness retreat just 270km inland from Cape Town, and has earned it, among other unique attributes, the accolade of being named No 1 hotel in Africa and the Middle East, and No 2 in the world earlier this year by Travel + Leisure World’s Best Service Awards.

Bushman’s Kloof is known not only for its outstanding location and hospitality but also for its superb San rock paintings – over 130 of them – which lie under weathered overhangs and alongside mysterious caves. No visitor to Bushman’s Kloof can miss a visit to one of these sites where a knowledgeable guide will try to interpret them. They remain a living legacy of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.

Find out more about this ancient people in the Heritage Centre with its famous collection of tools, hunting kits, jewellery, photographs and musical instruments.

Next door to the centre is the vegetable and fruit garden that supplies the lodge and the medicinal herb garden where plants known to and used by the San have been cultivated. Stomach ache? Try Kapokbos (Eriocephalus africanus). Heartburn, colic or indigestion? The African wormwood (Artemesia afra) will put you right. And if you fancy a puff or two of Wild Camphor (Tarchononthis camphorates) it’s reputed to cure everything from toothache to bronchitis as does the sagewood or buddlia.

The Cedarberg mountains, once full of tall cedars, are today stripped of their former forest glory. But cedars are again being replanted. Once a year a band of dedicated volunteers carry a small tree from the Bushmans Kloof nursery to plant on the mountains. Simone Wood-Callender, my guide, says the occasion is one of her favourites. “You have to climb as high as you can up the mountain and only then can you plant your tree.” These trees are then registered and monitored to check their progress.

Head chef Floris Smith celebrates Bushmans Kloof’s botanical diversity (over 755 indigenous species) with his cooking that includes fynbos plants. So you’ll sample not only contemporary Cape cuisine but also signature dishes that use wild fennel, wild ginger, wild rosemary (more fragrant and less pungent than its cultivated cousin), morogo leaves and buchu.

The lodge’s conservation efforts also extend to conserving the region’s game. You’ll find over 35 species of mammals including Cape mongoose, the rare Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit, the shy Greyrhebok and the largest privately-owned herd of the dazzling and charismatic endangered Cape Mountain Zebra.

In one of the five freshwater dams, the endangered Clanwilliam yellow fish is thriving, finding its way into the rivers and streams which crisscross the reserve.

And then there’s the famous rooibos plant which has come a long way since it was first discovered by botanists in 1772, and even further since Botswana’s Number One Ladies’ Detective, Precious Ramotswe, introduced it to millions of readers of the famous literary series. One of the only indigenous SA plants to have achieved global celebrity and still produced in its natural distribution area around Bushmans Kloof, it’s found in beauty products worldwide and rooibos tea is sipped in every continent for its therapeutic properties.

As the full moon rises one perfect evening in October, I sit silently with artist, landscape gardener and friend Coral Reynolds on our wide stoep. We are facing the mountains backlit by the setting sun. She draws a breath and says quietly: “I am overwhelmed by the beauty.”

Beauty of another kind is waiting at Steenberg Hotel situated on the Cape’s oldest farm in Constantia. Its buildings, lovingly restored, are now a national monument, a far cry from the days when a feisty 22-year-old Dutch widow, Catherina Ras, arrived here 10 years after Jan van Riebeeck, and found herself a husband and importantly, land. She had more luck with land than with husbands. Number one was killed by a lion, two murdered by a Hottentot, the third was trampled to death by an elephant. History does not record the ends of husbands four and five, but Catherina acquired lots of real estate.

Over 300 years later, Steenberg is a multi-award winning leading hotel of the world under the aegis of general manager, Gaby Gramm. It has a vineyard that produces award-winning wines. I learn that it has just won the 2011 Conde Nast Traveler US Readers’ Choice Awards as the Top Hotel in Africa and the Middle East. That award comes hot on the heels of scooping the 2011 Best Luxury Hotel in Africa by

So what makes it so special? Its history, glorious old Cape Dutch buildings, its service, its location, its golf course, its superb food – the list is endless. Choose fine dining at Catherina’s restaurant or eat imaginative but great comfort food at BistroSixteen82. Brad Ball, an innovative young chef, has caught the mood of the moment perfectly with the elegant yet informal design, the mix of good food and fine wine.

Then there’s the inviting Ginkgo Spa, where among the lush vineyards, you’ll be pampered, de-stressed, and restored.

We’re staying in the Khoi-Khoi suite: from the outside typical Cape Dutch but breathtakingly modern inside. Cream wooden shutters framing the vineyards and mountains just a champagne cork away, a huge contemporary kitchen, Khoi-Khoi art, a circular staircase up to bedrooms under thatch, bathrooms so large you could host a party in, and every luxury imaginable.

On the final leg of our Cape journey we come to rest at Mont Rochelle and Mountain Vineyards in Franschhoek. After tasting his fantastic wines on our cellar tour we lunch at Country Kitchen with one of SA’s youngest winemakers, Darran Stone. At only 27 he is bringing passion and barrel loads (oak, of course) of experience gained locally as well as in the US and Europe to his new job.

Look out at the valley in all its moods and seasons – most of which happen in one day. Guests return for the glorious views, comfortable accommodation and relaxed, intimate atmosphere. And you cannot claim to be a foodie of any note if you haven’t eaten at the award-winning restaurant Mange Tout.

What I learned in a week at the Cape is that Capetonians seem to spend all their time eating and drinking or talking about eating and drinking.

Come to think of it – there are worse ways to go… - The Sunday Independent

lKate Turkington was hosted by Bushmans Kloof, the Steenberg Hotel and Mont Rochelle.