Adventure playground

Ready for action? Ian McCurrach visits at a game reserve in South Africa which offers a packed itinerary of activities for outward-bound visitors in the awesome surroundings of the Great Karoo
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The Independent Travel

After 10 days of hedonism in Cape Town, followed by three days of cosseting at one of South Africa's sumptuous safari lodges, I was more than ready for some action and adventure. My plan was to head for Clanwilliam and the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve in the foothills of the Cedarberg Mountains on the edge of the Great Karoo, a four-hour drive north from the Mother City. However, my plane returning to Cape Town had been delayed by six hours, so I found myself speeding through the darkness on the N7, desperately trying to get to Bushmans Kloof before midnight.

After 10 days of hedonism in Cape Town, followed by three days of cosseting at one of South Africa's sumptuous safari lodges, I was more than ready for some action and adventure. My plan was to head for Clanwilliam and the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve in the foothills of the Cedarberg Mountains on the edge of the Great Karoo, a four-hour drive north from the Mother City. However, my plane returning to Cape Town had been delayed by six hours, so I found myself speeding through the darkness on the N7, desperately trying to get to Bushmans Kloof before midnight.

For company I listen to the radio and the only frequency I find is an Afrikaans station playing ballroom dancing music badly. In the darkness I make out the faint outline of inky black hilltops in the distance, punctuated at intervals with large eerie, neon-lit crucifixes. A blazing refinery slips past, shooting flames upwards to heaven and the only people I see are occasional stray black travellers walking the lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

My instructions were clear, so even in the dark I make good time, leaving the N7, sleepy Clanwilliam and tarmac behind me for the next few days. I cautiously hit the gravel on the switchback Pakhuis Pass road, which leads to the turn-off for Bushmans Kloof. I thank the stars above me that I cannot see what are probably sheer drops on either side of the winding road. Just before midnight, I drive through the lodge gates and the crunch of gravel resounds around the deserted cluster of Cape Dutch style buildings.

Receptionist Trevor and head chef Floris meet me with a meal tray and sleepily march me to my bungalow, Karoo Plains II, a wonderful mixture of lavish and faux-rustic. Early morning calls are at 6.30am for coffee and croissants in the main homestead, before the first organised expedition of the day. Feeling exhausted, I decline the wake-up call. I jump under the Bushman print bedcovers and tuck into Floris's delicious soup and a bottle of Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, falling quickly into a deep sleep.

Leaping out of bed at 8am, I discover that I am in a manicured oasis, amid a strange, tumultuous landscape of wind-eroded rocks, dark, olive-coloured fynbos (fine bush), deep ravines and immense open plains. Five or six bungalows, a Manor House, the homestead and Spooners Lodge are surrounded by lush, rolling lawns and a stream with natural rock pools, which are terrific for swimming. There are also two very stylish man-made pools and a walled herb and produce garden. This is roughing it, Relais & Chateaux style.

I pick up one of the mountain bikes from the rack behind the homestead and career wildly across the arid country under an awesome African sky. The reserve was put together by the McAdam family of Cape Town and opened in 1996. Former, overgrazed farmland is slowly being restored to its natural state and stocked with endangered game, including wildebeest, Cape Mountain zebra, springbok, bontebok, eland and African wild cat. The absence of predators is deliberate, allowing the 32 guests to roam freely among the animals in approximately 8,000 hectares of reserve.

Beautiful herds of Cape Mountain zebra (slightly shorter, stocky relatives of common zebra) and wildebeest politely part to let me pass and I frequently change gear to cope with the rocky and challenging off-road terrain. Two hours later, windswept and sweating, I return for brunch, which is normally served in the open-ended Spooner's Lodge, but today, due to the wind, is being served in the main homestead.

Alison, my ranger, introduces herself and I meet her other eight charges, all looking amazingly smart and fresh from their early morning rock art expedition. For Bushmans Kloof has what no other game reserve has: an extensive and unique open-air art gallery of national treasures, dating back thousands of years. I opt for the three-hour Ravine hiking trail.

Scrambling up and down through the rose-coloured, gargoyle-like rocks, I pass arid succulents and rooibos plants, which make the famous rooibos herbal tea. The terrain is rough, but I manage to complete the circular trail in less than three hours, which leaves enough time to get back in the saddle and cycle down to the main dam for a spot of kayaking. Abandoning my socks and boots, I drag my kayak into the clear water and surrounded by high rocks, paddle upstream, feeling every inch the ancient explorer.

Back at the lodge, there is still time to swim in all of the pools before stuffing my face with a slap-up cream-tea. I then join the charges in an open-top, triple-tiered Land Rover, for an early evening game drive, which seems tame by comparison to my day's other activities. However, Springbok pronk to order, the highly colourful bontebok shine in the early evening sunshine, and the female eland amorously follow the males with the biggest dewlaps (the scraggy, pendulous skin, under their throats). Everyone heartily laughs at my sad joke comparing this with men and women and car size.

We stop for a sundowner as the sun stains the dam in the valley below a blood-red colour. It's easy to imagine the Bushmen performing their evening rituals here, before gathering their animals and taking shelter for the night. Later, Floris treats us to a gastronomic affair for dinner and I retreat early to bed, having eaten too much, under a star-laden sky.

I'm up with the six types of lark found here and the first to tramp up the dried-up riverbed in search of San Bushmen rock art. Alison leads us to one of the major sights in the lee of an overhanging rock. The red ochre paintings are of totemistic animals such as eland and exquisitely delicate stick-like figures performing dance rituals. Alison informs us that they were done by shamen as a result of wild trance dancing after taking hallucinogenics. I make what I think is a decent joke comparing this with the youth of today taking ecstasy in a nightclub, but this sadly falls on hollow ground.

My next stop is Franschoek, in Cape wine country and after a five-hour drive south on spectacular back roads across deserted plains and past mountains resembling the Paramount Pictures film logo, I cruise into this postcard-perfect frontier town and gourmet capital of the country. The attraction for me, apart from the fabulous restaurants such as the Haute Cabriere Cellar, which has a helipad on top (yes, the jet-set drop in here for dinner) and wine tastings at the vineyards, are the lesser-known high mountain trails.

Armed with a map and pass from the tourist office in the high street I spend my days on the mountain top trails with their vertigo inducing views into the surrounding alpine-style valleys. With troops of baboons for company I follow the Mont Rochelle trail and have a spectacular picnic at 1,575 metres. My base at the luxurious hotel, La Couronne has a supply of mountain bikes, so when I'm not hiking, I find myself off-road exploring the sumptuous La Motte reservation, cycling through fir, pine and eucalyptus trees, which is a great way of burning off the calories. This really has been the Africa, I'd been dreaming of.

The Facts

Getting there

Ian McCurrach travelled as a guest of Abercrombie and Kent (0845 0700 611; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) which offers six-night breaks from £1,305 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Cape Town with British Airways, three nights accommodatoin at Bushmans Kloof on a full-board basis, plus three nights accommodation at La Couronne on a b&b basis and car hire.

Further information

South African Tourism, 6 Alt Grove, London SW19 4DZ (08701 550044; www.southafrica.net).

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