Southern comforts

Rory Ross takes an indulgent tour of South Africa, from the refined elegance of the Western Cape winelands to the wild frontier of Limpopo province

The machine gun rat-tat-tat of pneumatic drills and the distant grinding of heavy machinery herald the boom in Cape Town real estate. Every day another development pops up, springbok-like. "Whenever the rand dips towards 18 to the pound, Cape Town becomes a long-weekend destination," says Luc Deschower, owner of Les Cascades, a boutique guest house (African furniture and art, nothing fluffy or Victorian).

The machine gun rat-tat-tat of pneumatic drills and the distant grinding of heavy machinery herald the boom in Cape Town real estate. Every day another development pops up, springbok-like. "Whenever the rand dips towards 18 to the pound, Cape Town becomes a long-weekend destination," says Luc Deschower, owner of Les Cascades, a boutique guest house (African furniture and art, nothing fluffy or Victorian).

However, a long weekend in Cape Town, as culturally diverse and picture-perfect as it is, hardly does South Africa justice. After sieving hot white sand through our toes at Camps Bay and surfing South Africa's gastronomic wave at La Colombe restaurant in Constantia (Mark Thatcher country), we left the beauty of the city and drove 270km north up the west coast into the Cederberg mountains. South Africa is a fabulous country to see by car. The roads are virtually empty and mercifully straight. You can "ooh" and "aah" at the scenery, or shut your eyes and floor the pedal with almost total impunity.

Under cloudless skies we bowled past wheat fields, vineyards, scorched plains punctuated by eucalyptus trees and a sign reading: "Ostriches getting laid. Please no hooting". The further inland you drive, the wider the horizon. The southern hemisphere often plays this trick - down south, you can pack so much more scenery into one eyeful than in Europe. I suspect the Earth is pear-shaped.

Soon I'd run out of superlatives to capture the scenery and started to dwell on abstracts like the wonderful sense of space, the light, and the "why do I live in London?". By the time we'd sped through Citrusdal, home of Outspan oranges, and Clanwilliam (ditto rooibos tea), and began to climb into the Cederberg - a rugged belt of sandstone outcrops that split the coast from the Great Karoo - I was already dreading the return trip.

The Cederbergs resemble the aftermath of a vengeful act of God, with gnarled and shattered boulders angrily hurled about. The landscape carries an intimidation that feels extraterrestrial. Just as I was thinking we'd disappeared into a hole in the time-space continuum, a large gate presented itself by the roadside, emblazoned: "Bushman's Kloof, Relais & Chateaux". Eight kilometres further along a dirt track, we reached a series of immaculately whitewashed houses and emerald lawns. "Welcome, Mr Ross. Here are details of your spa treatment." Yes, this definitely was another part of the galaxy. Bushman's Kloof is an escapist's utopia, an incongruous piece of civilisation amid the mountain desolation. "I keep thinking I'm Meryl Streep," says my wife, dazed by the scenery. "I haaard a faaarm in Aaafrica."

Few wilderness reserves in South Africa have the guts to advertise their lack of "big five" as a main selling point, but Bushman's Kloof is one of them. You can walk or cycle along designated trails, drinking in the peace and soul-nourishing beauty without being pounced on by lion, charged by rhino or trampled by elephant - although you might be tickled to death by one of the 30 rare Cape mountain zebra, kudu, bontebok, gemsbok, rhebok, springbok and several pairs of Reeboks that are all kept on their toes by two brown-eyed hyenas. In your room, there is a check-list of hundreds of animals to tick off. This is Africa lite, the version for people who crack if they stray more than a few metres from five-star hot and cold running luxury.

Did I tell you about the spitting cobra? To avoid being blinded, shield your eyes with your hands and peer through your fingers. The puff adder is even more respected, thanks to its lightning-fast strike and potent venom. But the most savage beast you're likely to encounter here is the owner's dog Zoe, six inches of terrifying Maltese terrier.

Each guest at Bushman's Kloof is assigned a ranger. Ours, San-Marie, was the multi-tasker's multi-tasking Jeeves. A walking Who's Who and What's That of African wildlife, she could drive a 4x4 while panning a searchlight and commentating on flora and fauna. She could set up and operate a makeshift boma (bar), and tell you the blend of grapes in your wine.

The following morning we visited the ancient rock art of the San people. The San were nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed Southern Africa thousands of years before European colonisation. When not hunting or gathering, they painted. The Cederberg is their Tate Modern, with thousands of sites in locations that are kept secret to prevent vandalism. Bushman's Kloof has 135 rock-art sites, some dating back 7,000 years, making them the oldest recorded examples of human art. After a purposefully disorientating drive, San-Marie leapt out of our Land Rover and fearlessly plunged into the bush. We followed and soon confronted a huge rock bearing blurred and faded images of elephant, zebra and wildebeest cantering across its face. Many images depicted elongated human forms with quivers, cloaks, huge calf muscles and obscured faces. Among these figures were mysterious shaman with praying-mantis heads.

Returning to the farm, we passed ostriches that looked like shocked Victorian women in fancy dress as painted by Francis Bacon. In evolutionary terms, the world's biggest bird seems to have had a crack at competing with giraffes before thinking better of it. Far trickier to poison than guard dogs, ostriches make excellent burglar alarms. An oryx shot across our path at full tilt; a majestic black and white streak across the veldt. A herd of pronking (pogo-ing on all fours) springbok materialised on the parched plain. Close up, their blinding white and fawn livery looks so much more graceful and delicate than a thousand wall-mounted hides would have you believe - and springbok tastes delicious, as we discovered at dinner.

Next stop: Franschhoek, 250 km to the south via Wellington. Franschhoek is a Huguenot farming village in the Cape winelands, a landscape defined by high crags, scented valleys, vineyards, citrus orchards and gleaming stucco farmhouses with swooping gables and thatched roofs. With all the charm of Tuscany or Napa, but none of the queues and high prices, Franschhoek is going places (if it hasn't already arrived). Nelson Mandela spent the last five years of his prison term here. Having befriended his guard, Warrant Officer Swart, he would wander the streets unrecognised.

"A number of years ago, Franschhoek decided to become the wine and food capital of South Africa," says Susan Huxter, the town's unofficial mayor, a make-it-happen trail-blazer who owns Le Quartier Français, South Africa's pre-eminent hotel-restaurant. "You've got to be cheeky in this business. We've since grown into it. Whenever there are wine and food awards, we seem to win. Chefs from all over South Africa work here, sharing ideas and creating a new South African cuisine."

When Huxter bought Le Quartier 15 years ago, it was a restaurant open for lunch, and for dinner twice a week. Under chef Margot Janse it has risen to global prominence, and is known for its excellent lamb burgers. Huxter and her brainstorming all-women team then added a hotel, built as a quadrangle of adjoining cottages, that are almost smothered with vines, jasmine, lavender, salvia, agapanthus, orange trees, white bougainvillea and weeping mulberry. "I like restful colours, blues and whites, and a peaceful, overgrown feel," she says.

Huxter was only warming up. She then opened a 30-seat cinema, a deli and a shop, Touches & Tastes, which sells local artefacts (handbags, glasswork, candles, homeware, ornamental ostrich eggs). Meanwhile her family owns the Môreson winery nearby, where she runs the Bread and Wine restaurant. She also co-founded the local school. "I think we'd had too much wine one night," she says. "We began with 75 children under a tree on borrowed land. Now it has over 500 pupils and makes a great difference to the mix of people here. I can't tell you the number of guests who stay with us and end up buying property here."

Recent arrivals include Lord Puttnam, and Monte and Gary from New York who run the local estate agent office. Holidaying in Franschhoek in 1998, Gary and Monte fell in love with the place and toyed with the idea of relocating. Back in Manhattan they "hated everything", so returned to Franschhoek to check that their idea wasn't just a holiday fantasy. It wasn't.

Judging from their property particulars, I could swap "restricted circumstances" in Shepherd's Bush for a rolling estate with two houses, gardens, pool, garage and vineyard with mountain views. "Franschhoek is Lifestyle Change Central," chimes Gary, a former lawyer. "It is cosmopolitan but still South African. It is a village where people have cross-pollinated. You could be a starving artist or a steel magnate..."

"We're all a little off-centre here," adds Monte. "If you were normal, you wouldn't survive. Thanks to the school, young people can live the dream and have kids." So how does Franschhoek compare with neighbouring Paarl? (Look of mock horror.) "Paarl is a town. Franschhoek is a village. Once there's a traffic light here, that's me gone."

You can't spend a week in South Africa without visiting its most famous institution: the "big five" reserve. As more and more farmers switch out of cattle there are thousands of these sanctuaries, trampled on by elephant and zebra and criss-crossed with the slots made by eland, wildebeest and the hungrily chased tourist buck. Each reserve has game lodges; some are open to the public and run like hotels while others are privately owned.

We flew to Johannesburg and drove 250km north-west to the Makweti game lodge in the 33,000 hectare Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo Province. Welgevonden teems with white rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, cheetah, wild dogs and several hundred species of bird.

Makweti is the Claridge's of game lodges, but, with a capacity of just 10 guests, is far more exclusive. It has great food, four-poster beds, mosquito nets, gorgeous linen, paraffin lamps, log fires and impeccable service. It is the brainchild of a New York-based South African couple who spent three years building it as a private lodge, but then decided to take guests. He is an eye surgeon, so not surprisingly it is a photographer's paradise, rendered in low-impact wood, stone and thatch with viewing decks overlooking a valley with no roads, no telegraphs, no people and no mobile phone reception - just trees, rocks and game.

Wayne and Vicky Nel run Makweti. A livewire character, Wayne has the highly developed sixth sense of a bush-raised professional backed by a fatalism forged by several brushes with death. He could as easily charm all four legs off a lion and persuade it to walk, as put guests at ease. His knowledge was wrapped, Attenborough-like, in science and bushlore, and transcended the ranger's adage that: "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, blind them with bullshit." Vicky took care of everything else with her eye for detail. You could spend 10 days here and never eat the same menu off the same beautiful hand-beaded table-setting.

At 5am the next morning we boarded an open-topped Land Rover and set off. Wayne kept up an amusing commentary - "I try to make this as life-altering an experience as possible." We paused at fresh lion tracks. "Two females," says Wayne. "They lay down there." He pointed at freshly disturbed soil. On we clattered. A steppe buzzard soared overhead. "If it's flying away from you, give it a name. If it's coming towards you, give it another look." We stopped again. "Brown hyena tracks. Distinctly canine footprints. Two lobes at the back, claw marks at the front. Useful animals. If you don't like a pilot, cover his wheels with chicken livers. Hyenas will soon sort out his tyres."

The dawn chorus was by now sounding like a wind orchestra warming up. A woodland kingfisher, just back from Europe, sang its charming song of "Yimp - trrrrrrrrrrr". Two massive hadeda ibis flapped past, with a cry that sounded like: "How high are we? How high are we?" "Ah the music of a happy bush after the rains," coos Wayne.

The bush is one big game of cats and dogs, the Lion King as a documentary. Everything else is food. Welgevonden hosts 30 big cats plus cheetah and leopard. Wherever these bush celebrities go, a tail of spectators follow. We stumbled on a pride of six lionesses and one lion lolling about by a bush.

During a picnic breakfast (rooibos tea, rusks, muffins), word came through of a kill. A malachite kingfisher flashed past as we raced to the scene. A lone bull wildebeest, whom we'd already past several times that day, stared at us as if we were mad. In the shade of a tree we found three lionesses calmly nibbling on a male warthog, which to them was little more than a canapé. They took turns to munch, then flopped down panting. "Heat is a limiting factor on big cats," says Wayne. "They regulate their temperature with their tongues." Cheetahs, lightning over 250m, take two hours to cool down after a sprint. We headed home. An impala with the hauteur and body-fat level of an underwear model leapt across our path. "The impala filet is the tastiest morsel in the bush," says Wayne.

The next morning we went in search of giraffe, and soon found one via the bush telegraph. One forgets how ridiculously tall they are. This one had snow on it. To track a giraffe, you have to play grandmother's footsteps, slowly zigzagging towards it. It was interesting to note how, as soon as I'd left the Land Rover, the cold hand of fear gripped me. Getting out and walking is a whole new experience compared to seeing Africa by mobile armchair. What if a cheetah raced up behind me at 80mph? What if a lion leapt out? What if I trod on a puff adder? "No worries, eh?" says Wayne. "If you can see two per cent of what sees you, you're doing well." Now, was he dazzling me with brilliance or just baffling me with bullshit?

Rory Ross travelled as a guest of the Africa specialist Bales Worldwide (0870 241 3208; www.balesworldwide.com)

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting There

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) all fly non-stop to Cape Town. It's now peak season so cheap flights are likely to be scarce; the best prices should be through a discount agent like Trailfinders (020-7938 3939).

Staying There

Les Cascades de Bantry Bay in Cape Town (00 27 21 434 52 09; www.lescascades.co.za) has doubles from R1,350 (£123) including breakfast

Bushmans Kloof in the Cederberg mountains, Western Cape, (00 27 27 482 2627; www.bushmanskloof.co.za) has double rooms from R3,800 (£347) full-board

Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek, (00 27 21 876 2151; www.lequartier.co.za) has doubles from R2,500 (£228,) room only

Makweti Safari Lodge (00 27 82 339 4499; www.makweti.com) has doubles from R5.900 (£538) full-board and including all game drives

Eating There

La Colombe in Constantia Uitsig (00 27 21 794 2390; www.lacolombe.co.za)

Further Information

Contact South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net)

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