Category Archives: Sunday Times Travel&Food

Tequila slammer

Chris Harvie tries out an eatery whose decor is as fearless as its menu


One of Graaff-Reinet’s many claims to fame, along with its numerous national monuments and its Pierneef Museum, is the fact that, until recently, it was the only place in the world outside Mexico to distil tequila. Of course, being from outside Mexico, it couldn’t be called tequila, and instead was named agave, after the blue agave plant from which the spirit is made.

I say “until recently” because the factory is now closed, but around the time of its closure a year or so ago, this unrelated restaurant of the same name popped up in one of the old town’s oldest buildings.

The said restaurant then promptly burnt down and was rapidly reconstructed. Such is Graaff-Reinet – everything has a complicated history – but now Agave is up and running and acquiring something of a reputation in the surrounding Karoo.


Bold is the word. Bold red window frames and doors in a town where everything is heritage green. Bold art on walls, floors and mantelpiece. Bold mirrors. Bold candleholders throwing bold shadows from high above the tables.

There’s a bold menu to match, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a rightly strong emphasis on gemsbok and other venison, lamb and roosterkoek, but that’s not to say that Agave is stuck in a Karoo lamb rut (if that’s not vulgar); the dinner menu also features Italian, Malay and even Tandoori dishes and some very fine steaks.

There’s a shady courtyard out back with huge loafing chairs for the daytime coffee-and-cake brigade, but we went for dinner.


I chose roasted veg and pesto spring rolls (R40) followed by the open Karoo lamb pie in a crisp pastry shell topped with minted pea mash (R80). The pie was deliciously rich and gluey and the “mashy peas” a triumph. Around the table, the lamb loin chops (R85) came in for heavy praise but the biggest hit was probably the chicken, cranberry and camembert parcel (R65). I thought parcels were passe but I was firmly corrected by a fellow diner, who tucked into this particular package with gusto.

The desserts on offer were cardamom-infused panna cotta with a berry coulis – admittedly on the trendy side – and a more traditional choice of malva pudding or mango and passion fruit mousse (R25).

From a limited but well priced wine list, we enjoyed a Weltevrede sauvignon blanc and a rather delicious Hermanuspietersfontein 1855 Posmeester. The name is a mouthful and the wine is not very highly rated, but I thought it was a treat for R120.


Without wine but with dessert, it came in at about R160 a head. Some of us got away with less. While not cheap, there’s no compromise on quality and the smiling service adds value to the red-and-white decor, the red and white wine, and the unusually comfortable chairs.


Quintinn van Rensburg is through-and-through Karoo – his father was even the town’s postmaster until recently – but he learnt his trade at Spier’s Institute of Culinary Arts and formed his style in some of the country’s top kitchens, including the renowned Samara Private Game Reserve. He is young, ambitious, confident and determined. Definitely a name to watch out for.


Agave, corner Somerset and Bourke streets, Graaff-Reinet.

Phone 0498910250 or e-mail

Open Monday – Friday 8am to 4.30pm and 6pm to 9pm. Saturday 8am – 2pm; 6pm – 9pm. Closed Sunday.

Neighbourly Love

Despite a few scares on the way to the ablution block, Chris Harvie finds Zimbabwe ready and willing for visitors

Leander Starr Jameson stood on the steps of Bulawayo’s first hotel in 1874 and declared the town open. His speech – his entire speech – went like this:

“It is my job to declare this town open, gentlemen. I don’t think we want any talk about it. I make the declaration now. There is plenty of whisky and soda inside, so come in.”

That was it. And the good news is that, after years of chaos, the whole of Zimbabwe is open for business again and not only is there whisky and soda, there is also fuel at the pumps and food in the shops and restaurants. The electricity is on most of the time and there’s water in the taps. The phoenix has risen from the ashes and is soaring in almost-full flight.

Crossing at the Beitbridge border has never been easy. It’s still uneasy but if you follow the arrows, you won’t need any help from the chancers who will stalk you. The roads are in reasonable nick and the $1 tolls every 200km are obviously being put to good use in patching up the few remaining potholes.

The most surprising aspect of our stay was the outstanding quality of the game viewing. Far from being poached out, the animals and birds seem to have reclaimed their territory from mankind during the past few quieter years and are more visible and relaxed than ever before.

Zimbabwe’s national parks all have their individual appeal and each offers a range of accommodation, from well-equipped chalets to basic camping. It would be wrong to suggest that everything is perfect. Some of the buildings are inevitably a bit run down and the ablution blocks in the campsites are not in a great state of repair, but camping is about roughing it a bit, after all, so it’s no great hardship to push a rock against a shower door where the bolt has broken. The water is hot and the toilets are clean and functional. Surely that’s all you really need?

If you haven’t been to Matopos (officially now known as Matobo), you haven’t understood Zimbabwe. Standing on a giant koppie next to Cecil Rhodes’s grave, you can look out over bright lichen and boulder-strewn peaks, with seemingly endless ridges rolling away towards the hazy horizon.

It is truly a majestic place, which brings home all the contrasts of this disrupted land. Everybody wants a bit of Zimbabwe and the issues and claims are real but despite numerous attempts by the powers-that-be to shift him, Cecil Rhodes still has his World’s View, with Jameson, the whisky-drinker, alongside him.

We tried in vain to visit King Lobengula’s nearby grave but nobody seemed to know exactly where it was, this missing link in history seeming somehow anomalous in a confident land, proud of its heritage and broadly tolerant of its past.

Its views aside, camped on the dam at Matopos at the end of two days filled with rock art and rhinos and looking into an unpolluted star-scattered sky, we reckoned it couldn’t get much better – until we arrived in Hwange the next day.

After checking in at the main camp, we quickly pitched our tent next to the mangled fence. One of my co-voyagers had never been on safari so a quick drive in the late afternoon was called for.

“Oh look, there’s a wild dog,” announced the game virgin, and he was right.

In fact, at Hwange, he was to see three wild dogs and then two lionesses stalking a sable before he saw a kudu or an impala. A leopard brazenly dodged the potholes in the road in front of us and we photographed numerous idyllic borehole scenes with scatterings of antelope, zebra and giraffes. The bird life was equally rewarding, with sightings of crowned crane and frequent crimson-breasted shrikes.

A couple of days later, dragging reluctantly north towards Victoria Falls, I was filled with foreboding. On my previous visit, I had cycled across the bridge from Zambia for lunch at the Victoria Falls Hotel. Successfully fighting my way through the hordes of hawkers, I found myself alone on the hotel verandah, where I was offered a warm Coke and cheese sandwich, “If we can find some cheese.”

This time? Transformed. I had one of the most delicious pieces of salmon I have ever eaten on the same stoep, which boasted a polished refurbishment and dozens of tables filled with revelling tourists.

Camping on the river’s edge at the Zambezi National Park’s Chundu camp, with a long-drop loo and washing in the river, we walked along its banks, startling close-up waterbuck, kudu, baboons and numerous smaller critters. And yes, we saw wild dog on the way in. Eleven of them. Hunting. Wow.

The drive to Mana Pools from Vic Falls requires a stopover and ours was at Binga – rather a sad spot on Kariba, littered with abandoned houseboats. But Mana Pools is one of the most beautiful places on earth (once you’ve reconstructed your shattered skeleton after the road). Nine wild dogs wandered through the Nyameni campsite as we put the tent up. Truly.

By day, we walked freely in the bush, scattering the baboons and walking up close to eland, waterbuck and zebra. The earth-quaking roars of a pride of lion over the river in Zambia kept us awake all night and the hippos pulled up on the banks next to our tent, lying like fat ticks in the sand. The animals are described as “habituated”, which is an interesting term. They are not tame but they are used to human presence, which means a wide berth is still advisable. I had more than a few scares on the way to the ablution block.

Nyameni camp is truly astonishing. Next time, I shall stay for a week. Or maybe two.

Late one afternoon, we hired a kayak from a park official called Lovemore and a fishing rod from another called Trymore. Lovemore took us down the river gurgling with grunting hippos, stopping on an island or two to fish for bream in the pools. A pair of elephant tussled on the bank.

The sun dropped through an orange sky into the river as we headed back upstream with two fish bagged and the hippos erupting loudly around us. Safely ashore, we were greeted, unbelievably, by another member of the staff called Givemore. These names seemed to sum up the new Zimbabwe and all three of these Mores begged us to spread the word and send our friends. We promised we would.

A few last words of advice when visiting Zimbabwe: don’t rush. Be appreciative of the Zimbabweans’ enthusiasm for their new-found stability. Buy your supplies at TM supermarkets countrywide. Pay your fines with a good grace and get a receipt. Beware of wild dog everywhere.

And avoid Jack’s Zimbabwean Whiskey – it tastes like meths, and is slightly purple in colour, so probably is meths. Even Leander Starr Jameson, however enthusiastic he might have felt for highland flavours, would have had to draw the line somewhere well above this tipple were it to fall to him to celebrate the reopening of Zimbabwe with a tot or two, but that reopening is nevertheless worthy of huge celebration.

On the road to Rhodes

Exhausted from standing in the burning sun of the Beit Bridge border and dealing with its long-winded officialdom, we stopped only once, for an ice-cold dry lemon at a spaza on the roadside, then pushed on to Bulawayo.

In a lay-by a few kilometres south of the city, a horde of hardy Ndebele women were flogging red onions and pumpkins alongside one of the $1 toll booths that now liberally sprinkle Zimbabwe’s thoroughfares. Cheerful pedestrians milled around in the hot afternoon sun, their smiles darkening only momentarily as a dusty twister blew through.

A bored policeman had recently and disinterestedly checked our vehicle papers before waving us on but Karen, our trusty Garmin Australian, was uncharacteristically confused (we found that Karen, with her obvious aboriginal roots, pronounced African names better than Serena, her pukka British counterpart).

We weren’t exactly lost. We were on Cecil Rhodes’s road on what is, I suppose nowadays, a somewhat politically incorrect pilgrimage to his grave. This required, we realised, a small detour from his Cape-to-Cairo route, up to the hills and balancing rocks of the Matopos. We just weren’t sure which was the quickest route, the afternoon was wearing on and we still had a tent to pitch.

We hailed a would-be red-onion-buyer, a tall man in his 30s, an oversized mac shielding him from the blazing sun. Hello. How are you? Fine and you? Fine and you? Fine and you? Etcetera. One must be especially polite when seeking directions from people in foreign climes.

“Which way to Matobo?” I asked, pleased with myself for using the new name of the park where Rhodes companionably shares his impressive World’s View resting place with his old buddy Leander Starr Jameson, eponymous of raid fame, Patrick Coghlan, a former Rhodesian PM; and sundry victims of the Shangani raid.

“‘Matopos?” said Mac-man, using the old name with reckless abandon.

“Yes, please. There seem to be hundreds of roads to Rhodes,” I jested, pointlessly.

“No there aren’t!” he politely corrected me, going on to prove himself conclusively wrong. “Travel straight for 3km, then, at the second junction, turn left into Cecil Avenue and go 1km, turn right and then left into Matopos Road.”

Cecil Avenue sounded promising.

“Or carry on and just before the Ascot Racecourse, turn left and go 1km and turn right and then left into Matopos Road.”

“Or go a bit further and at the Kenilworth Towers skyscraper and the Ascot Shopping Centre turn left .

“Or go on past the museum and Centenary Park and then left onto Matopos Road.

“Or just go straight and ask somebody,” Mac-man helpfully added at the end.

We decided to go straight on. Bulawayo is renowned for its wide streets in which you can turn a full span of oxen, so a U-turn in a bakkie wouldn’t be a problem if we went wrong.

What a place. Broekie-lace abundant in faded colonial glory; many mock-Tudor mansions with ill-fitting tiled roofs. The Natural History Museum with the world’s finest collection of stuffed animals and birds. Everywhere, Bulawayo’s droopy-Y-shaped streetlights towered above us. This was no longer a decaying city. It was alive with traffic and commerce.

But I digress. We had a grave to find and we were looking for Matopos Road.

Which was all very well except that it isn’t called Matopos Road until further out of town. Numerous oxen-free U-turns later, we found it. It’s called Samuel Parirenyatwa Road.

Karen, who would later in the trip get horribly confused trying to find the “Hwan”‘ National Park, says Parirenyatwa much better than I do. Nevertheless, it seems after all that Mac-man was right. All roads lead to Rhodes.

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.

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

Phone: 013 764 3377
Fax: 086 684 7843

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



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 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 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. 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 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 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.

Haven on earth

Chris Harvie enjoys the sun, sea and stars (all five of them) at a Hermanus hotel

I arrived at The Marine Hotel a bit of a whale-cynic. But never mind the whales. Let’s start, instead, with the Eggs Benedict, a brave dish and a crucial test of any chef’s skill. With soft poached eggs, a perfectly toasted muffin, tasty ham and a delicious, deep yellow hollandaise sauce, theirs was perfection. The best ever. That was at the end of my stay in Hermanus.

Now let’s go back to the beginning, where the hotel’s car park, manned by a jolly oke, is only 20m from the front door, but by the time you reach reception (all of a minute after passing through the gate) your registration card is already on the desk, filled in and ready for signing. They’ve been tipped off, you see, by the jolly oke.

That’s what The Marine is like. Everybody knows what you want before you tell them. I told the receptionist I might go to the Sun Lounge and have a Bloody Mary. I had just walked into that room and was gawping at the silver streaks of sunlight on the dark Walker Bay seascape when the said drink appeared in my hand.

I had always thought I made the best Bloody Mary in the world. Theirs was much better and it arrived with less effort.

Spacious, uncluttered rooms with sensible, practical furniture dominate the hotel, not only on the ground floor with its airy bar and restaurants but also in the bedrooms and bathrooms. And for a town hotel, albeit a seaside town, the views in all directions are astonishing.

Dinner was in the seafood restaurant. A light and glassy eatery, with bright and classy service. My colleague and I ordered our meals and let the waiter choose the wine – every other need had been successfully anticipated thus far – and he got it right, a good-value local Walker Bay white.

I love an open-plan kitchen. Everybody has obviously been watching Gordon Ramsay. It’s gripping to watch the energy, the detail and the interaction between the chefs and their waiters, while waiting for the shout of “service” and watching for an accidental lick of the finger or use of the F-word.

We started with half a pint of prawns and a snoek pate, before our anticipatory peering into the kitchen eventually revealed an impressive Cape Malay Seafood Bunny Chow – I bet Gordon has never made one of those – and a sole so good I muttered “my sole doth magnify the Lord” under my breath.

And nobody had sworn or licked their fingers, although it must have been tempting. We couldn’t manage pudding, but it would have been lemon meringue pie with raspberry meringue ice cream.

After a cosseted night of fine linen came a morning bath with towers of towels and dozens of lotions and potions overlooking the ocean, before a whale-free wander along the cliffs. Breakfast was served in The Pavilion Restaurant, a vast mahogany table piled high with fruits, cereals, cheeses, cold meats, seeds and juices. Greeting me by name (although I had never seen her before), a smiling face asked what I’d like for breakfast. I thought the smiling face might somehow have known by Marine magic, but I told her anyway.

It was only one night and we had to leave shortly after breakfast, but the proof was in the Benedict – and in every aspect of this establishment. The Marine effortlessly blends informality with class and it is, without a doubt, a five-star hotel by anybody’s standards. If there were six stars, it would get seven.

“Goodbye,” said the jolly oke. Somebody must have told him we were ready to leave and, in that one minute, he’d apparently cleaned the car.

If you go

Where it is: Marine Drive, Hermanus. On the cliff-top, above the moody, ever-changing light of Walker Bay with 3000 miles of open sea between you and the South Pole.

WHY GO THERE: To prove to yourself that we have hotels in this country as good as the best and to see hospitality at its finest.

WHAT IT HAS: 42 bedrooms and suites. Spa. Heated pool. Tidal pool. Internet lounge. Whale-watching from your bed.

AND THE FOOD: Two restaurants. Seafood at The Marine, where two courses are R185, three R220 – or order a la carte. The Pavilion offers a tasting menu (R375 for food only or R575 with wines) and an a la carte menu.

RATES: From R4000 (high season) and R2250 (low season) per double room per night. No children under 12.

CONTACT: Phone 0283131000; e-mail or visit


Tribe’s good vibes

More and more South Africans are visiting Kenya for both business and pleasure. In the capital, Chris Harvie discovers the perfect hotel

I have never been against hobnobbing with big businessmen and ambassadors. Even minor royalty. And they all obviously feel quite at home here. After all, Tribe is a world-class establishment geared to top brass in suits – but it is equally comfortable for small change in shorts like me. That’s why it’s so good.

Getting through security at Tribe is like gaining access to Wonderland. You become part of a great illusion. The hotel has 137 rooms and yet you could be forgiven for thinking it had only 30. There’s never a queue at reception. The servers in the restaurant are so genial you feel they’d like nothing better than to shoot the breeze with you all day. The housekeepers are invisible, but your room is always immaculate. And so it goes on.

You are greeted by everyone you meet as if you are the only person staying and it’s your 100th visit. There are other guests around; you see them occasionally as they waft effortlessly through the seemingly endless numbers of lounges, bars and decks. They are always smiling. It’s not surprising.

They’ve probably just been back to their rooms and found that, during their brief absence, an invisible housekeeper has snuck in and left a bunch of lilies or a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne.

Or they’ve just ordered a snack on an island among the interlinking pools and it turned out to be an exquisite piece of sushi. In Nairobi.

Or maybe, curious, they have wandered onto a different sofa-strewn storey, studded with off-beat chandeliers, and found yet another collection of rare and beautiful African, Persian and Indian artefacts.

In many hotels, the friendliness is artificial – and you know it immediately – but here it is obviously genuine. Every member of the staff is a dedicated expert. The bar manager, for example, is an old hand of Nairobi club society. What Mazaar Githegi doesn’t know about the social scene here is not worth knowing. I asked him where to dine. He sent me to a fabulous curry house, Open House in Westlands, and then recommended that I drop into the K1 Klubhouse nearby, where there would be a Smirnoff promotion that night. I did and he was right .

The “Party in the snow – the hottest party in chilling conditions” was a great bash. Free booze, loud music, dancing girls, hundreds of people and, yes, it snowed in Nairobi, albeit artificially.

A few days after my return home, I received an e-mail welcoming me to the Tribe family and hoping I’d be back again. Well, I hope so too.

I am left with so many abiding memories – a spectacular breakfast, an atrium with towering glass and billowing curtains, endless books, fascinating art and stunning style.

But more than anything, I remember a welcoming group of people. The hotel’s GM, Mark Somen, told me their slogan, “One Planet, One Tribe”, referred to a belief that we are all of the Human Tribe, an admirable sentiment.

In truth, though, staying there is like being on a totally different planet. One immeasurably superior to our own.

If you go

Where it is: Tribe: The Village Market, Limuru Road, Gigiri, a suburb north of Nairobi, not far from the famed Muthaiga Country Club, where Karen Blixen had her last dop in Kenya.

Why go there : Because Nairobi is accessible and different, but with a strong feel of home.

What it has: Laid-back class. Spacious rooms, magnificent suites, four boardrooms. A vast mall next door with excellent shops, banks, dozens of restaurants, a cinema and even a bowling alley and foefie-slide. The Maasai Market on Fridays is a massive curio extravaganza.

And the food: The Epic Restaurant: diverse, multi-themed, with visiting international chefs and cunning local twists.

Rates: From $320 (about R2400) per double per night, with breakfast; $280 (about R1870) for single occupancy.

Getting there: SAA and Kenya Airways both fly non-stop daily to Nairobi in just over four hours. Tribe will pick you up from the airport in a limo or you can take a taxi (about 40 minutes).

What there is to see on the way: From the plane, Lake Malawi and Mount Kilimanjaro. From the limo, the vibrant, flower-lined streets and constant traffic of East Africa’s biggest and most exciting city.

Contact: Phone +254207200000; e-mail; or visit Tribe is marketed in South Africa by African Pride Hotels (

Visa and Health requirements: No visa is required by SA citizens visiting Kenya. Proof of yellow fever vaccination (Yellow Card) is required by all passengers on re-entry into SA.

LOCAL ATTRACTION: Cool things to do around Nairobi

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK Well worth a visit. 117sqkm of surprisingly wonderful game-viewing. Also affords some most unusual photo opportunities of animals in front of a line of skyscrapers.

THE KAREN BLIXEN MUSEUM In Karen Road, in the suburb of Karen. You can’t get away from her, of course, but did you really think you’d go to Nairobi and not do some Karen Blixen? This was her house, now preserved as a (very fine) museum.

DAVID SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST A non-profit organisation, reintroducing orphaned elephants and rhinos into the wild. On a plot within the Nairobi National Park.

GIRAFFE CENTRE Protecting rare Rothschild giraffes (if you are lucky, feed and even kiss them). The Gogo bird sanctuary is alongside and offers birding walks.

Plus walks in the Ngong Hills, a day trip to Lake Naivasha and other Rift Valley lakes or a visit to the Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site. Nairobi also offers numerous museums, galleries and fine restaurants.

Lamu’s Like That

Chris Harvie visits this exotic island off the Kenyan coast to find no cars, little alcohol, but lots of charm

IT had been an early start to catch the flight to Malindi, where a three-hour layover was just long enough to get a glimpse of the bottle-blond “glamour” and the pizzas and gelati that make this Italian enclave north of Mombasa, when contrasted with Lamu, so utterly unappealing. You need Italian to order a coffee. Flavio Briatore (latterly of Renault) has a house here. I asked our taxi driver if there was any crime. Only the Italians killing each other, he said. Over business, not women.

Landing at Lamu town later that morning, we were to meet Omar at the airport. We had been repeatedly assured that he was the best guide on the island. And there he was: a slight, round-faced man in a kufi. Omar and his wistful smile would be our companions for the next four days. With my rucksack on his back, he looked like an overloaded tortoise, leading us to the motorised dhow which would take us from the airport to the island.

Most places look best when approached from the sea and Lamu, this ancient Swahili town, is no exception.

Tall, white buildings with reed roofs line the water frontage, towering above myriad white-sailed dhows and the colourful apparel of the Muslim crowd aboard. Here and there, a taller, pillared building or the dome of a mosque breaks the skyline. The salt smell melds with the sweet spice and seaweed and the air is filled with the lively calls of the boat crews.

We were to stay at Yumbe House, a 10th-century, four-storey coral “castle” at the northern end of town. Omar led us through the labyrinthine streets, pointing out landmarks along the way to enable us to find the place on our own later on. It was no small task.

There are no vehicles on the island; only donkeys. The streets, with their towering walls, are therefore just wide enough for two donkeys to pass, rendering the lurching, laden advance of these creatures strangely threatening. And, for obvious reasons, you have to look immediately in front of you as well as ahead of you.

The bedrooms at Yumbe are at the top of a perilous set of steps, overlooking a courtyard, and open on all sides. Billowing batiks break the breeze in the apertures. There is no glass. The temperature is consistent all year round; light gusts of wind cool the rooms, day and night. We had a view right over the rooftops to the sea.

Sleeping up at the top of Yumbe was like sharing a dormitory with 20000 chattering people, 26 hollering muezzins and 4000 anti-social, braying donkeys. Not peaceful, but endlessly fascinating.

Like its cousins, Zanzibar and Mombasa, Lamu’s varied culture is deeply blended with its Muslim faith. There are Omanis, Arabs, Swahili people and Nguni people. There’s a splattering of Hindus, Europeans, a few Masai and the odd Rastafarian. On every stoep is a gathering of friends sharing stories and on every roof the children play hide-and-seek. The music owes as much to Bollywood as to the dictates of the imam; the dukas (Swahili for shop) that line the streets sell everything from tamarinds to hair-straightener. There’s soccer on the radio and karate posters on the walls. A cooling wind funnels down the corridor roads.

The fact that everyone travels on foot is a great leveller, thus the air is filled with cheerful greetings. Passing one mosque, the imam commented on my colleague’s Tiger Woods baseball cap. “I wish I was Tiger,” said my colleague. “I hope not nowadays,” said the imam, beaming benevolently. He was an Iranian, trained in Leeds, according to Omar. Such is the diversity of Lamu.

All the food is fresh. Breakfast at Yumbe is a feast of fruit – mango, pawpaw and granadilla – followed by a Spanish omelette. At lunch and for supper, we gorged ourselves on calamari, lobster, kingfish, red snapper and crabs the size of footballs. Beer and wine are hard to come by but the fresh juices are so delicious that it’s easy to forget about alcohol for a few days.

Many of the old Swahili merchants’ houses have been restored by Westerners, we discovered, as Omar led us around the town, but there is no resentment. Better that they are restored than that they fall down – and the work provides employment and perpetuates skills.

We spent the next two days lolling around in dhows. Our captain, Bubu, squatted on his haunches at the tiller while Hassan, his son, provided death-defying ballast on the trapeze. Omar and I bantered about our two countries’ politics as we swished up and down the mangrove-lined channels, the persistent cracks of the shell-breaking crabs around us and the swooping bee-eaters above.

We met the dhow-builders and basket-makers of Matondoni. We visited Takwa, the ruins of an abandoned Swahili settlement once home to 1330 people, and drank ginger tea at Shela, Lamu’s wealthier neighbour up the coast, with its never-ending sandy beaches.

On the last afternoon, after a wander around the museums and the fort, I took a walk up above the town and lost myself among the palm trees, the plantations, and the numerous sandy football pitches. As I walked past the girls’ school, a youngster, her hair covered by a hijab, leaned out of the window and said, in perfectly enunciated English, “Please will you bring us some chocolate?” I swear I would have done if I’d known where to find some.

Lamu is not perfect. There is a lot of rubbish lying on the beaches and floating in the sea; people complain about the sewerage system and the dirty water. I asked Omar what worried him about Lamu. Overcrowding? Pollution? Hunger? His answer was immediate. Nothing. How many people can say that about the place they live?

I was genuinely sorry to say goodbye to him and his gentle peace, his innate intelligence and the intangible sadness that hung about him; but there was one aspect of Lamu I wouldn’t miss.

A Swahili proverb says: “A man without a donkey is a donkey”. As I boarded the dhow for the last time, a particularly over-confident creature bared its teeth at me only metres away and trumpeted repeatedly with all the excruciating volume of a vuvuzela. Confirmation that I will always be a donkey.

Recipe: James Wainnan’s fresh fruit juice

Add the flesh of six large passion fruit (or four bananas or three mangoes or one pineapple or a few tamarind or six lemons or anything else you like or any combination of the above) to half a cup of chilled water and blend. When pulped, sieve the remaining mixture, return it to the jug and blend again with eight blocks of ice, another half cup of chilled water and sugar to taste. It’s simple and delicious. Drink with a straw from a pint mug.

Blood, sweat and cheers

Chris Harvie investigates two of South Africa’s dry national parks and finds three rivers, one full and two empty, but no leopards.

The river runs with my blood and shall henceforth be called the Orange River. I fell off my bicycle crossing a slimy ford in the Augrabies Falls National Park and a few nasty gashes sent a not insignificant quantity of my left arm’s liquid contents trickling into the great river below via a small tributary. Tying a handkerchief around it, I bravely pedalled onwards and dried out almost immediately in the sun.

We had asked at reception whether cycling was permitted in the park but nobody seemed to know. Perhaps there are not enough nutters wanting to cycle in 40 degrees of dusty desert for it to be required knowledge but, while the receptionist expressed concern that we might become the protein in a ‘laypod’ picnic, permission was eventually granted.

We cycled early every morning before taking shelter from the heat under the vast Camel Thorn trees in the shaded campsite. Wittily, we called it ‘taking cycle-logical advantage’ of the early cool air. The gemsbok took refuge in the narrow, angular shade of the quiver trees and even the springbok were panting. Only the geckos and the soaring eagles seemed content in the sweltering sun. We saw no laypods. Luckily.

The park offers well-graded roads to its viewpoints through undulating patchy streaks of yellow grass dotted with rusts and reds, under an endless blue sky broken only by sudden juts of black rocks. The closest is Moon Rock, a large, smooth climb from the end of a sandy track with an outlook stretching right across the park. From Ararat, further along, there is a long view both upstream and downstream along the 18-kilometre gorge carved by the Orange River below the falls. Echo Corner is the furthest viewpoint over the river and, as its name suggests, is not always a quiet place.

Dassies and meerkats hurtle across the roads and I fear I may have clipped the tip of a Kalahari sand snake’s tail with my front wheel on the return journey. It whipped back at me angrily before slithering off. With this sinuous exception, however, cycling proved a low-impact and highly rewarding way to explore the park. The passing occupants of rare, sealed vehicles looked out with envy, leaving us covered in dust but infinitely more in tune with the smells and sounds of the veld.

The camp at Augrabies, like most SANParks camps, is clean, comfortable and efficiently managed. The brick-built chalets have been thoughtfully constructed and sensitively positioned to reduce the impact of their presence on the natural phenomenon they celebrate.

Several people have fallen over the 56 metre drop of the falls through the years, but nowadays there is safe viewing from seemingly-endless wooden walkways and platforms over the river and its bulging gorges and gurgling pools. Safe, even for amateur bush cyclists. Especially those with a tendency to fall into rivers.

The campsite, like any campsite, is only as satisfactory as its residents. We were kept awake one night by a neighbouring camper’s hysterical screams when she couldn’t find her cellphone to call her brother-in-law in the next tent to come and rescue her from a cricket she had discovered in hers. And we were woken at 5am every morning by her hairdryer. The dozens of fat dassies, on the other hand, are good company, provided you check under you car before pulling out for fear of splatting them.

The facilities were good, the camp was spotlessly clean and the ablution blocks were in very good nick. There were even coin-operated washing machines and dryers in full working order and a good solid fence to which to chain bicycles.

The South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 380km up the road via Upington, offers no cycling, principally because laypods are not the only danger. We had taken a round route through Namibia and come into the park through the Mata-Mata gate which has recently been opened to tourists. The road runs along the Auob riverbed and ends at Twee Rivieren Camp, where the park’s two rivers meet. The Auob flows, on average, once every eleven years and its sister river, the Nossob, only a couple of times in a hundred years, so they provide little disruption to game-viewing and the wildlife concentrates around the numerous boreholes scattered along their beds.

On the run from the Namibian border to Twee Rivieren, I saw a number of mammals I had never seen before. A Cape fox lay half-submerged in the cool sand on one side of the road, while on the other side a huge Kalahari lion lay motionless in the shade of a Camel Thorn. The Kalahari is like that. Endlessly surprising and unpredictable. There’s always something, a bush, a flower, a creature at which to marvel. And to wonder how it survives in this unremitting dryness.

We saw a number of giraffes sitting awkwardly under trees with their necks held aloft, frequent wildebeest, red hartebeest and gemsbok and vast herds of springbok, one numbering more than five hundred animals. Our second lion sighting was probably the best I have ever experienced in a national park two males and four females, all with different colourings and character-full faces boasting more scrapes and scars than my left arm. Only five metres away. And with none of the jostling, hooting and squashing of small creatures that characterise lion sightings in the Kruger and the busier reserves.

The joy of the Kgalagadi is its silent isolation and its lack of vehicles. In two hours on the Dune Drive we passed only one vehicle. The road runs through vivid orange sweeping sands between the rivers and offers impressive birding with close-up sightings of crimson-breasted shrike, kori bustard, secretary birds and northern black korhaan. We later sat riveted while five bat-eared foxes romped under a Shepherd’s Tree.

Twee Rivieren offers large, cool chalets and another excellent campsite, this time with wooden shelters under which to pitch tents in the shade. The camp managers are enthusiastic and helpful and allowed us to pass through the gate to ride our bicycles down the road to Upington when we had tired of cycling the perimeter fence.

The only annoyances were the jarring crow of the alien cockerel, from outside the park at dawn, as it mingled with the wail of the hyena and the unfriendly shop. But the camp’s display of Kalahari enthusiasts’ photographs alone makes the long journey worthwhile and the region’s star-gazing is unsurpassed.

The Kalahari offers game viewing on a higher plain (sorry) with its harshness and its vast open spaces, the light and the colours, not to mention the history and the hardships of the San and Mier communities still living there and those of the more recent settlers and trekkers.

As the writer Oliver Goldsmith said, “Life is a journey that must be travelled, no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” The Kalahari may well seem a long, long way away for most of us and it is but let’s face it, the roads are good and the accommodations are outstanding.

A South African traveller’s life is a journey incomplete without visiting and absorbing these two Kalahari national parks. And if you take your bicycle, use it, but go slowly through the fords. And mind the laypods.

If you go 

Bookings for both parks may be made with SANParks on 012 428 9111., or look up the exceptional SANParks website for more information or to make an on-line booking. It is quick, easy and efficient.

Augrabies National Park (55 383 hectares) named Aukoerebis, ‘place of great noise’, by the Khoi. Conservation Fees R22 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Chalets from R600 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R145 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R100 per adult / R50 per child. Overnight hiking trails and kayaking also available. Mountain bikes for hire, in theory. Contact the park for details. The excellent Dassie Interpretive Trail is 5km long and there is no charge. Just follow the numbered signs but, as the map says, please don’t remove them!

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (3.6 million hectares in South Africa and Botswana combined) means ‘place of thirst’ in the language of the Khoi. Conservation Fees R40 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Twee Rivieren Camp : Chalets from R690 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R135 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R145 per adult / R70 per child. Walks and 4×4 Eco trails available. Contact the park for details. The park’s roads are described as ‘not sedan-friendly’ but sedans are permitted to enter certain areas at own risk (and, frankly, would not have had a problem on the roads we travelled). The road from Upington to Twee Rivieren has recently been tarred. NB All visitors entering or leaving by the Mata-Mata gate on the SA-Namibia border are required to spend a minimum of 2 nights in the park. Improvements are under way to the infrastructure of the park, roads are closed in places and both Mata Mata and Nossob camps are currently being upgraded (although Mata Mata remains open).