Lost in The Mists of Tom

Chris Harvie revisits an old favourite near Sabie and finds a Zimbabwean food fundi.

The top of the Long Tom Pass is seemingly always either bathed in sunshine or shrouded in mist. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between option. And atop the top, almost, sits Misty Mountain in an arboretum of a garden where strangely-formed trees hang out amongst hydrangeas and azaleas, ducks and trout.

In the summer, Misty Mountain provides a cooler alternative to the sweltering Lowveld below; in the winter, it blazes with cosy log fires and the sweet smell of moss. But it always seems warm there even when there’s a frost outside. And there often is.

The hotel has been in the Sheard family since 1974 and although James and Lisa, the current generation in charge, have made significant upgrades, the feel is still that of an old-style country hotel, albeit now with a modern conference room and two bars, one with a plasma-screen television on the wall and both with a view into the valley a thousand metres below the window.

All the rooms are fully-geared for self-catering (although there’s a very fine breakfast on offer) and all have thick walls, high ceilings, Jetmasters, and decks or verandahs with a braai.

The beds are comfortable, with layers of warm linen and blankets. In fact Misty Mountain oozes comfort and doesn’t do plush at all. Just the way a country hotel should be. Kids welcome. Quad bikes for hire. Fishing rods. A ping pong table and a pool table. Two swimming pools, one of them tipping into the infinity of the Rhenosterhoek Valley. An Amazonian jungle gym and giant chess. All the best traditions of South African hospitality, geared to South Africans.

In the day, following the view to the south, the far-off mountains of Swaziland break the horizon in the distance beyond hundreds of square kilometres of pine trees. At night, a panoply of stars pricks the clear black sky above. There’s no light pollution here. In fact there’s no pollution at all.

The Long Tom cannon is just down the hill on the way to the Devil’s Knuckles. God’s Window, Mac-Mac Falls and Pilgrims Rest are right around the corner. It’s the Escarpment the way you remember it when you were down there for veldskool.

A walk in the garden and over the mountain, gulping the fresh low-oxygen air in search of breeding blue swallows, brings a flush to the cheeks. It’s practically Alpine up there and strongly appetite-inducing. It is lucky, then, that Misty Mountain has Cletos Chiteza, an accomplished Zimbabwean chef, to feed that need.

On the first night, I choose a delicious trout carpaccio from a nearby stream, followed by a lamb shank Madras. But it is a tough choice. I am tempted by the pea soup, the coq au vin, the venison and so it goes on. At my second dinner, Cletos insists that I have seafood crepe although it is not on the menu and I am glad he does. The prawns are perfectly prepared – very slightly crunchy – and the sauce is a triumph. I follow it with a tender beef fillet in a gorgeous creamy mustard sauce.

Cletos tells me proudly that he is self-taught. He says that the wonderful thing about poverty is that it makes you learn. Well, all I can say is that Cletos’s poverty has made him into a very good self-teacher.

And whether the mountains are misty or sunny, and whether you are rich or poor, there’s nothing like a family-run family hotel to remind you of the important things in life.
BASICS

Where it is: Just below the highest point (2150m) of the Long Tom Pass 24km from Sabie and 31km from Lydenburg / Mashishing.

Why go there: For a reality check and proof that there are still hotels affordable to the South African traveller. Misty Mountain is clean, safe, good value and everybody-friendly.

What it has: 27 rooms, some sleeping two and others sleeping up to 6 people.
What to do on the way: Ogle the magnificent views from the climb up the pass from either side and marvel at the determination of the transport riders on the Old Harbour Road that carried them through these mountains to the Bushveld and on to Delagoa Bay

And the food: Cletos is just the goods. He is the proof in the pudding. Proof, in fact, that a bit of perceived poverty can bring out the best in everyone. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing fancy but imaginative and tasty. Even if you are just passing, drop in for a meal.

Rates: R495 pp sharing B&B

Contact:
Phone: 013 764 3377
Fax: 086 684 7843
Email: mistymtn@iafrica.com
Website: www.mistymountain.co.za

Scorched sand safari

Chris Harvie tours Namibia with his tent and enjoys friendly people, sociable weavers and affordable oysters

MAKE no mistake, Namibia is vast. Crossing the frontier at Ariamsvlei, just past Upington, it is sobering to think that this border stretches northwards from here for 1000km in a dead straight line and that this line still only covers about half the distance to Angola.

With an average population of only 2.5 people per square kilometre (compared with South Africa’s 39), Namibia has a lower population density than all but one country in the world: Mongolia. It shows. You can drive for hours on end without seeing a soul – but there’s so much more to Namibia than its souls.

This seemingly empty country opens the traveller’s eyes like no other – the epitome of good travelling and astonishing broad landscapes. Occasional cheerful, tight-knit communities brim with multi-cultural people living harmoniously under a huge, clear blue sky. The roads are excellent and, what’s more, the Namibians are great outdoorsmen. Their country, therefore, offers superb facilities for campers.

The last few wearing kilometres of our journey are mitigated by the cheerful waves of the grader-operators. Unimaginably long views over yellow grass are backed with lines of black craggy mountains in the east, and in these mountains lies the world’s second-largest canyon.

Winding down the ever-narrowing gullies, we arrive just before dark in Ai-Ais camp, at the southern end of the Fish River Canyon. The resort has been destroyed by the river three times since 1970, but was recently rebuilt with conclusive flood defences. The resulting new complex is seriously swish.

Ai-Ais, aptly, means “scalding water”. After our evening cycle up the hill, watching the klipspringers and avoiding an irritable ostrich, the bathwater-temperature swimming pool has no cooling effect whatsoever and the mineral springs are almost too hot for a dunk.

The canyon’s main viewpoint, near Hobas in the north, is a truly gasp-inducing sight and the hike along the rim renders us worthy of a good home-grown lunch at the nearby Cañon Roadhouse, where we shelter from the midday sun. The garden is inexplicably littered with rusting, wheel-less skedonks – a warning, maybe, of the risks of driving into the desert unprepared.

Weaving down to the Orange River the next day, our route to Lüderitz takes us deeper into the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. It is an unmarked but typically well-maintained piste around the bottom of the canyon, crossing the Fish on a causeway and meandering across dusty plains and along kloofs of tortured mountains, towering black and burnt orange above the road. Raptors soar hungrily along the ridges.

The diminutive port of Lüderitz, more German than Germany, boasts impressive lines of architectural continuity in Bavarian style. The nearby Diaz lighthouse, the flamingo pans, the wild horses and the extraordinary ghost town of Kolmanskop all make the long detour worthwhile.

We arrive in the town to find that our accommodation at the Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) Shark Island hasn’t been cleaned and, by the look of it, isn’t going to be entirely habitable once it has. After some negotiation, we relocate to a (marginally) more modern unit, perched on the rocks, overlooking the entrance to the harbour and buffeted by the gale, then set out to investigate the town’s fledgling waterfront for oysters, oysters and more oysters.

A few days later, oystered out and going northwards, we make a handy one-night stay-over between Aus and the (disappointing) Duwisib Castle. Helmeringhausen is a tiny farm settlement with petrol station, shop, museum, hotel and a very fine gemsbok steak. Bear in mind that cycling and camelthorns are incompatible – we pick up 10 punctures per wheel from a short spin down the main road towards Mariental.

Everybody, understandably, wants to go to Sossusvlei, our next destination. Once a remote and unheard-of field of dunes, it came to the tourist world’s attention on television, spattered with windsurfers, on one of the rare occasions that the Tsauchab River has pushed through and filled up the pan. Its popularity is, of course, its downfall.

Lines of buses and backpackers queue at the gates before dawn to see the sun rise over the dunes. Avoiding the crowds, we go in at 9am, past Dune 45, where the great ant-like backpacker columns climb over the pyramid of orange sand, and push on, instead, to Dead Vlei.

Here, although never quite alone, one can still immerse oneself in the isolation of the spacious white clay pan, dotted with the dead acacias, the red dunes towering 300m overhead.

The star turn is naturally Sossusvlei itself but here, too, the crowds impose and the sociable weavers attack our picnic. We escape by climbing along the ridge of a nearby tall dune, from which we can look down on the vlei and across the hundreds of dune-tops. Only from up here, away from the screaming 4x4s, is the true grandeur of the place fully revealed.

There are dozens of accommodation options near Sossusvlei and, geared to the top end of the market, some are built in the most extraordinary designs. Castles, wigwams and glamorous urban Tuscan are all here and all out of place. The most expensive option looks like the back end of an industrial laundry.

The best value accommodation is Sossuvlei Desert Camp, offering a line of cunningly-designed self-catering units strung across the sand with spectacular views of Tsarisberg as it changes colour in the sunset. And it’s far enough off the road that you won’t hear the early morning convoy or be caked in its dust.

Further north, en route through the Naukluft Mountains, lies the tiny hamlet of Solitaire. It is little more than a trading store and coffee shop, but offers one of the best slices of Apfelkuchen this side of the Danube. A few kilometres further on, Solitaire Guest Farm provides rooms, biting meerkats and campsites under thatched lapas, although even those can’t offer protection from the rare east wind, which blows up suddenly in the night and pounds us with flying gravel.

The road to the coast is an ongoing assault of bright-sun sights and open scenes. Cracked rocky cliffs lead winding roads down into dry river beds followed by steep climbs to viewpoints high over the Namib. Loose lines of thorn-bush show where the underground rivers run but, these apart, the desert stretches out across hundreds of kilometres of unchanging pale yellow. And everywhere there are gemsbok, springbok, ostrich and more sociable weavers – all somehow surviving in this all-encasing heat.

Twenty kilometres from Walvis Bay, approaching from the Namib-Naukluft, we are enveloped by a deep cotton-wool fog as the temperature drops from 40°C to 15°C in the space of a kilometre. These are perfect conditions for us to go German for a few days – to eat local asparagus, delicious smoked barbel and pork chops with sauerkraut at the Brauhaus, drink Swakopmund’s famous Hansa beer and go mad on pastries. And more oysters.

Swakopmund is so German you almost feel as if the cars are on the wrong side of the road and that you’ll be locked up for jay-walking but, after more than a week in the desert, it’s good to be cold, to swot up in the museums, to marvel at the Kristal Gallerie and to walk around the shops and stock up on leather.

For a few days only. Then the open spaces of the Namib, the searing heat, the magnificent mountain passes, the oryx and those friendly sociable weavers call again.

It is going to be a long road home but it holds no dread. We have pumpernickel and bratwurst for sandwiches and we are even enjoying the oompah Bavarian music on the radio. Namibia, ich liebe dich! – © Chris Harvie

IF YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY:

Ai-Ais Camp, Fish River Canyon: Has hotel rooms from R500 pp B&B and a campsite for R100 pp.

Shark Island in Lüderitz: The camp site (R50 pp) is very windy and the self-catering (R100 pp) very scruffy. Try to get the Lighthouse (R150 pp). For both of the above, visit www.nwr.com.naor phone +264 61 285 7200 (Windhoek) or 021 422 3761 (Cape Town).

Helmeringhausen: Camping, B&B, museum, horse riding, restaurant, well equipped rooms. R390 pp sharing B&B or R540 DB&B. Camping from R160 per site. Visit www.helmeringhausen.com or phone +264 63 283 307.

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, Sesriem: High quality self-catering. From R990 for two people sharing. No camping. NWR runs the only Sesriem campsite, contact details above. Visitwww.desertcamp.com or phone +264 63 683 205.

Solitaire Guest Farm, Solitaire: Camping, self-catering, B&B, game drives and hiking trails. From R520 pp B&B. Camping R90pp. Visit www.solitaireguestfarm.com or phone +264 62 682 033.

Alte Brücke Campsite, Swakopmund: Chalets (face-brick but comfortable) from R380 pp sharing, B&B. Bigger chalets work out cheaper with more occupants. Civilised, paved and lawned camp-sites with braai, private shower and toilet from R280 per site. Visit www.altebrucke.com or phone +264 64 404 918.

Remember: South Africans benefit from a special SADC or regional rate at many lodges and camps in Namibia, so always state your country of origin when booking and checking in.

Pilgrim’s Unrest

It seems there’s a host of wandering souls in this Mpumalanga town

‘If we are going to be contacted from the other side anywhere in the house, it is likely to be here in Marjery’s room,” said Sherry, our guide. At that point the lights went out.

Marjery, Sherry had just explained, had died at Roedean, a school which, in the early 1900s, prided itself on losing very few children every term. The girl in whose bedroom we were standing was one of those sad few, succumbing to meningitis at the age of 13.

The family dog’s name was Jock – not that Jock, although this was Pilgrim’s Rest – and his favourite chair was next to Marjery’s bed, with a distinct dent in its cushion. A photographer the previous week had been unable to focus on it as if, he said, there was something moving there. His camera had been smashed inexplicably into pieces as he left the house. Ours would only switch on in certain rooms and steamed up in others.

Marjery’s room was much colder than the others and sometimes, Sherry said, there was a strong smell of cologne. I could smell talcum powder.

Even Sherry seemed a bit shaken when her words plunged us into darkness, and she has a seven-year-old spook living in her house up the road. He fiddles with her children’s Gameboys and plays loud music on the stereo at 3am.

She went downstairs, trying not to trip over the orbs that she had told us were there, to get some lamps. In Marjery’s darkened bedroom, there was much nervous laughter, squealing and surreptitious pinching of bottoms. Sherry returned and we continued the tour by lamplight. So much for Pilgrim’s Rest’s having had power before London. Marjery had certainly put an end to that.

A light drizzle had been falling on Alanglade House as we’d arrived in the late afternoon and the impressive residence had all the hallmarks of a Scooby Doo set. We half expected Shaggy to come hurtling down the steps, pursued by a rattling skeleton. In fact, Sherry said, one woman had seen someone in the window the previous week and refused to go in; another had been chased out by a full body manifestation in a top hat.

But back to Marjery. Sometimes, Sherry said, she’d slam her bedroom door and nobody could get in but they’d come back in the morning and find it open. And often her toys were moved. Indeed, that day, a pram of hers had mysteriously made its way upstairs from the playroom to the governess’s room.

We ended the tour of the house huddled around a couple of paraffin lamps in Mr Barry’s bedroom, looking at a family portrait taken on Marjery’s birthday in the year she damaged Roedean’s survival statistics.

Her brothers, it seemed, had not been much luckier. One fell off a mountain, another went down with a sinking ship and the third was shot down 12 days before the end of the First World War. At least they didn’t seem to have found it necessary to stick around in the family house.

As we left, Sherry told us something had mysteriously eaten all the peacocks. A leopard, presumably, or maybe Jock’s wraith. I think if a peacock had cried right then, we’d all have dropped dead in sheer terror.

“Let’s go the cemetery,” said Sherry and it seemed the right thing to do, so we did. She poured us a glass of her namesake outside the gate to steady the nerves and told us the week before she’d seen an extra person standing behind one of her colleagues at a graveside.

Probably Naboompi, she said, who’d had his legs sawn off below the knee because he wouldn’t fit in the coffin. Or Mrs Stopforth, who had 11 children before her husband left her for another woman. The week before that, Sherry said, a woman in her group had walked around the graveyard and shaken hands with all its inhabitants.

As we stood at the Robber’s Grave, three in the group saw, several times, a figure looming up behind a grave up the hill. Looking downhill, I saw a streak of bright light shoot past a large headstone.

Then the street lights came back on.