I BUMP into a baby elephant and knock her over… not the best start to safari, but, in my defence, the power is down and it’s pitch black in my lodge.
Thankfully, Ellie is still in one piece, and I return her to her home stop, the mantlepiece.
Maybe, not tell Iain, Mount Camdeboo Game Reserve’s owner, or Heart, who will lead our game drive today.
After all, who wants a klutz around a new mum and her new born?
We are here in the thickets and brambles up in the Great Karoo in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Thandie, Mount Camdeboo’s female cheetah IS taking visitors today, two days after giving birth to four baby cheetahs, if you can locate her, that is, on the 14,000 hectares reservation in the shadow of the Sneeuberg Mountain range.
It helps though if you have a tracker like Zimbabwean Hewart who leads us on a 20-minute trek up a mucky kopje and through jaggy branches before we spot Thandie through a bush, her four kittens, a black ball nuzzled into their tired Mum.
Meet your South Africa.
Of springboks, wildebeest, Savanna buffalo, Common eland antelopes, Cape Mountain zebras, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, etc. etc. All God’s creatures have a place in this choir!
And, of course, rhinos. So that’s two of the three Big Five they have here at Mount Camdeboo, the elephants and lions will arrive in the next couple of months.
Leopards, you ask? Well, you should always leave something to come back for.
The closest we got was Iain’s Leopard’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc up in the lodge dining room later than night, feasting on a warm carrot soup before tearing into a feast of venison and springbok kebabs on a bed of salad, with our hands.
No wildebeest though, we’ll leave that to Daddy cheetah, last seen by us cocking his head back on the veld trying to pick out his prey, thankfully ignoring the meat in front of him… not enough on those bones!
And, of course, that’s just those who walk on land, or more accurately bound across the veld. We began our Eastern Cape odyssey in Port Elizabeth, its largest city, two days previously, and for want of a better phrase, PE is a sea of activity.
Homosapien migrates here from the Western hubs of Durban, Cape Town and Jo’Burg (no South African would call it Johannesburg) for the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean.
But we have not flown to the bottom of the world to spot beach bums….its the colony of penguins, and the pods of blue-nosed dolphins, ducking and diving around the St Croix Island Marine Reserve in Algoa Bay, the most populous area in the world for bluenoses, that have us clutching onto the side of the boat, and our breakfasts.
All thoughts of home are far off though. We have 1,000 miles of Eastern Cape and 350 years of history to cover in just five days.
We are more familiar with the last 40 years, of course, and are reminded of it passing through South Endin PE and past the cop station where Freedom Fighter Steve Biko was interred before being transported buck naked an open police truck, 1,000 miles across country where would die in ‘police protection’.
And we hang onto that thought when our long day’s journey through the Valley of the Baboons in Baviannaskloof turns into night because of the damage done to the tracks from recent flash flooding.
Not that our guide Alan is fazed. The peoples of the Eastern Cape have long got used to their landscape shifting under them… whether it’s the geological movements which formed the dramatic Valley of Desolation in the Great Karoo where Les stops to treat us to G&T sundowners or the political power play between the English and Dutch colonists that spawned the Anglo-Boer War.
Then there were the battles with and between the indigenous African tribes.
We are in Xhosa country, from where Nelson Mandela hails and where the tribesmen click when they talk.
The aural acrobatics beat us but we all clicked with these joyful South Africans when we talked, and we did, late into every night.
Around us the tectonic plates of the Eastern Cape are constantly, slowly shifting.
A cart and donkey pass us on the dusty track in Nieu Betheseda, a dusty Karoo town which only got electricity in the Nineties and where locals sell carved Helen Martins owls and mermaids outside her home.
Helen Martins was a tortured should who retreated from a bad marriage into a worse life looking after her domineering father back in her oppressively religious home village.
Who can blame her then for taking refuge in her fantasy world of owl, mermaid and biblical camel glass bottle sculptures, or be moved that her obsession overwhelmed her and led to her taking her life?
If only Andre had been around then he’d have given her a hearty welcome at the Brewery and Two Goats Deli and filled her bottles up. We sampled cider, honey beer, hoppy beer and stout on a tasting rack, all for 36 rand which is just over two euro.
If you have time then let Andre spoil you with goats’ cheese, or if you just want to sleep it coffin the midday sun then you can also sway yourself to sleep on his mattress hammocks in the beer garden.
For us though there will be no sleep until Port Elizabeth.
We are bound for Cradock and Graaf-Reinet to learn more about the Afrikaner.
We already got an introduction to the Dutch settler (they’ve been here since 1647) up in the hills of Camdeboo where Afrikaners hero Commander Johannes Lotter, whose guerrilla force held up he British during the Anglo-Boer War, was betrayed by his own people and captured after a shoot-out in the cold and sleet of a South African winter.
Not that the Spring gives us any more shelter as we are handed apes to wear to keep out the chill giving us the look of the Living Dead, awoken from the gravesides besides those who fell nearly 120 years ago.
I think we’ve earned our supper!
Lisa is front of house at the Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor in Cradock while Mum Sandra entertains her friends in the background.
She has earned it after spending a lifetime collecting antiques and putting her stamp on Market Street, broad enough to take oxen and cart in its day, and where her family owns 30 Karoo-style guest house cottages which have been restored to an 1840s theme while the signature hotel is a reminder of Victorian days.
The grand surroundings suggest dinner jackets and cocktail dresses, rather than a ragbag group of safari newbies but Lisa sees the hunger in our eyes.
A buffet of the richest and most intriguingly-titled produces of Cradock and those who have passed thorough, Afrikans, Xhosa, Cape Malay, are displayed before us. Umgqusho (maize and bean stew) and babotie (mince and chutney)k and the sugar rush pastry koekister (flour, sugar, eggs, butter and cream) test my voice chords.
We raise a glass to Lisa, the Victoria Manor and Cradock in time-honoured fashion around here, with a Springbok. No, not the king of the veld, or even one of the national rugby select’s players, the Springboks, but a cocktail in their green/gold colours of peppermint and Amarula.
There must be something in the water, or Amarula, in Cradock which produces such strong and inspirational women and you cannot visit Cradock without paying homage to Olive Schreiner.
Let’s face it, it can’t have been easy being a feminist in 19th century Afrikans South Africa, and credit here too to her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, or Cron, as she affectionately called him to take her name.
Olive shocked the literary world when she revealed a dark, repressive South Africa while also exploring women’s rights in her breakout novel The Story of an African Farm including an Irish villain, and even a cross-dresser. A world far remove from tales of big beasts that readers had been used to.
Olive lived a full life herself, the anti-war activist mixing with the great minds of her time such as KarlMarx and Mohandas Gandhi.
A visit to her house gives a rare insight into a woman’s lot in colonial South Africa, and how one strong-willed woman broke out into a man’s world.
Speaking at the funeral of the activists Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhauli, the Cradock Four, who were abducted at a roadblock and whose charred bodies were found later near Port Elizabeth, ten years after their assassination, in 1995, Mandela said: ‘Cradock was the first to render the apartheid organs of government unworkable.’
‘The death of these gallant freedom fighters marked a turning point in the history of our struggle. No longer could the regime govern in the old way. They were the true heroes of the struggle.’
One such, Amos, clears our dishes, though, really I feel I should be clearing his after his testimony of police victimisation and jail and his declaration: ‘We weren’t afraid to die as long as we died in the struggle.’
We visit other foot-soldiers in the Long Road to Freedom in our short passage through the Eastern Cape and each stirs the blood and humbles us who only looked inform a safe distance.
We spend our last days in Graaf-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa which David Livingstone described as ‘the prettiest in South Africa,’
Livingstone brought a seed as a gift for Rev. Andrew Murray whose parsonage which once boasted a vineyard, is one of over 220 heritage sites in the town.
A challenge for even the most ardent of history anoraks.
And thirsty work.
We spend our last night at the Coldstream restaurant, much as we have done our previous six days with our noses up to the window of South African life.
The Graaf-Reinet Club is the second oldest private social club (it has only admitted women members in recent years) in the country and our guide Les who is a member tells us of bullet holes embedded in the bar from the Anglo-Boer War.
This still being a churchy town and the parts shutting at 9pm-10pm, we retire for the night to the haven of the plush Drostdy Hotel where we are staying where we raid the mini-bar, settle by one of the swimming pools and look up at the night sky.
Ours is a gilded life but I am reminded of Oscar Wilde as I contemplate visiting the oldest and biggest township in SA the next day: ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in April 2019.
From 496 euro from Dublin-Port Elizabeth (via Heathrow) and Johannesburg with Aer Lingus and British Airways.
WHERE TO STAY
The Boardwalk Hotel from 155 euro pp per night. www.suninternational.com/boardwalk/rooms.
Drosdty Hotel from 117 euro pp per night. www.newmarkhotels.com/places/hotels/drostdy-hotel.
Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve from 135 euro pp per night. www.mountcamdeboo.com.
WHAT TO DO
Cited guided tour. Port Elizabeth www.nmbt.co.za/,
Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve – Motor Trail. www.bavaiaanskloof.net/trails.html.
MarineSafari Algoa Bay Raggy Charters – from 94 euro pp. www. raggycharters.co.za.
Historic Anglo Boer War site www.battlefieldsroute.co.za/anglo-boer-war/
Graaf Reinet, a sundowner and a a trip to the Valley of Desolation. www.karooconnections.co.za/tours/valley.
Owl House Museum www.karooconnections.o.za/tours/nieu.
A tasting tour through Cradock: Xhosa cooking demonstration and lunch with Chef Maswazi.
WHERE TO EAT
Coldstream Restaurant www.newmarkhotels.com/place/in-house/coldstream-restaurant/.
Camdeboo Restaurant www.graaffreinet.co.za/index.php?page_name=more&listing_id=121&restaurants=The+Coldstream+Restaurant.