After surmounting the hurdle of some serious work deadlines and an art competition, it was time for a much-anticipated holiday to a little green patch of paradise: The Retreat at Groenfontein.
Chatting to a friend, the conversation went something like this:
Me: It’s about 45 mins away, but feels like the middle of nowhere.
Friend: So you live in the middle of nowhere and go on holiday in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s the same place.
Me: … Nowhere has a lot of middle in it.
Exactly. And we still plan to see ALL of it!
Thursday… more like Windsday
After a soupy lunch and a late departure from De Rust to Groenfontein, it was a fairly slow drive along the Oudemuragie back road towards Calitzdorp. And, while the scenery was spectacularly washed in afternoon winter sunshine, by the time we arrived at our oasis, everything in the bakkie was covered in dust. Fortunately we’d arrived in time for coffee and biscuits.
Having not slept much the night before and rushing around in the final stressful hours before slipping out of the clutches of normal life, the comfortable room was calling and I easily climbed under the soft throw on the bed and closed my eyes…
The Retreat really does live up to its name. For three days we occupied one half of the Weaving Shed, which contains a gloriously sized king bed, a beautifully cosy bathroom and a comfortable ‘lounge’ with a very effective ceramic fireplace. Outside, we took coffee on the veranda, which wrapped ¾ of the way around the Weaving Shed, offering lovely morning and afternoon sunshine. Coffee could be ordered at any time and was accompanied by delicious crunchie or choc chip cookies (or both).
Dinner in the main house
Brought over from England (and assembled like a Lego set) in 1902, the main house at The Retreat is a huge Victorian jubilation of solid walls, high roof, curly gables and beautifully maintained doors and shutters. The large windows allow ample light in, despite the deep wrap-around veranda, and the interior design had me taking copious mental notes for my own Victorian home’s restoration (which can hopefully start soon…).
Dinners at the main house are usually shared with other guests and we met a stunning couple from East London who’d ventured into this section of the middle of nowhere to enjoy hiking and biking and food and wine. Thursday’s three-course dinner was a delicious pork bone broth, followed by venison stew of kudu, braised in brandy and cooked in a red wine sauce with all the extras (think roast potatoes, cheesy cauliflower and broccoli, roast veggies and fresh salad). Dessert was a crème caramel with strawberries and blueberries… rounded off with the all-important coffee.
Stuffed and ready for bed after a long and dusty day, I descended under the covers after contemplating the flames of the fire… which was when a loud, boisterous berg wind blew through the mountains and down into the valley. The wind swept through the foliage outside our room, whipping trees around and hammering everything in its path… including something on the roof, which resisted the onslaught with a persistent plaintive squeaking noise that lasted… and lasted… for six hours! The roiling, rolling, thundering wind caused an unrelenting chaos in my head that no relaxation exercises or deep breathing could keep at bay. It was sleep deprivation torture and I thought I would go insane.
At 03:45 I got up to face this loud invisible demon, stumbling out of bed and peeking through the curtains: the bright light of the near-full moon cast dark shadows under the trees and shrubs that seemed to dance in a frenzied rhythm with the wind’s disorganised tune. I reasoned with myself: the cottage hasn’t blown away – you’ll be fine. My other half, however, continued to sleep fitfully, and if it wasn’t the wind and the squeaking keeping me awake, it was his restlessness.
I watched the clock tick over to 04:15 as the noise continued outside, and wandered into the mental territory of: What have I done to deserve this?! It was desperation of a different kind after that and I fell asleep because I just couldn’t help it.
Friday 11 August
Bleary-eyed and with a prickly tiredness that no amount of caffeine could smooth away, I pulled myself out of bed and into a somewhat vindicating shower (that bathroom is awesome, I’ll admit) before we made our way down to the main house for some breakfast. We were the first ones to the breakfast table (as the wind still pulled at our jackets and got in behind our ears), so I imagined that our coastal friends had also experienced the full brunt of the angry weather last night and chose to sleep in. When they did arrive at the table, their faces said it all… but we agreed: some hiking in the mountains would surely make up for it.
In spite of the wind, we were greeted at the table by a wide variety of bird life. From the two very tame Southern boubous, to around 30 weavers and a million mousebirds (as mousebirds don’t know how to travel in small numbers…).
The feathered creatures were fed with a buffet of fruit and other feed, so our sit-down breakfast consisted of food and a show!
Breakfast each morning was a choice of yoghurt or porridge, with nuts, stewed fruit, muesli, raisins, bran, fresh fruit (melon, pineapple and kiwifruit) and cheeses. This, followed by a choice of eggs (we opted for poached and omeletted, respectively) with fried tomato, bacon and a variety of sausages. And of course, freshly-squeezed fruit juice and – at this point, life-saving – coffee (or tea for the more well-adjusted in society).
Pepped up on food and warm beverages (and a post-breakfast nap), we headed into the mountains to see how many of the walking trails we could find and follow, and distract the presence of the wind by moving our legs.
It was a partly cloudy day, with some parts of the walk spent sweating in the sunshine and other parts spent pulling my hoodie up around my neck.
The sounds of babbling water lead us further in towards the rock pools.
After so much sleep deprivation, I was ready to jump!
The beautiful noise of rushing water…
We first found the rock pools (in summertime these will be easier to traverse as you’d just jump in and swim upstream) before doubling back onto the Klipspringer Trail, which required a bit of a climb up onto a ridge to the left of the farm. And we really did see the reason it’s called ‘Klipspringer’ – the sound of falling rocks gave away the presence of a buck fleeing over the stones, it’s furry white bum going thattaway…
See that winding trail? Yup.
Incredible 360-degree mountain views that made me feel like I could stretch out and touch both sides of the horizon.
Note the wind still on a warpath of craziness!!
After a two-hour walk, we arrived back at the cottage. What did I have for a lunch? That’s right: a nap.
Let me show you stuff in the meantime:
One side of the Weaving Shed – also our front door for the weekend.
I spent many an hour on that couch while the fire was going; writing and thinking (or just thinking…)
The place of the afternoon naps!
The place where I fulfilled my promises of whiskey and chocolates.
Do not feed the animals
You know that feeling when you wake up from an afternoon nap and you don’t know where you are? Best ever.
And then you go outside and fresh coffee and biscuits are waiting for you.
And what else is waiting for you?
That’s right: Misty. Misty’s waiting for you.
Because Misty wants your Tim Tams.
That was the hardest I’ve ever had to resist a dog, but I respect the owners’ wishes that the dogs not be given treats. She still came back to sneaky-sneaky empty the milk jug, though 😦
Basking in the post-coffee haze of joy, there was one thing that could have made the day just perfect… and then it started falling: rain. The fact that the crazy-scary wind from last night could be transformed into the soft pattering sound of rain this afternoon is part of nature’s charm. If this kept up then all of last night’s forced wakefulness would be forgiven…
I’ve been teetotalling for the most part for the last two years, and every so often I break my commitment to total sobriety and enjoy a drink. Tonight was one such occasion on which I partook of the amazingly non-sweet Boplaas Cape Ruby (port) as well as a superb wine at the dinner table. The snoek starter was followed by a tasty gammon (and I’m not really big on pork) with kei apple sauce (made from the kei apples directly from the garden) and a range of mustards; accompanied by roast vegetables (including the most delicious roast beetroot I’ve had in a long time), roasted greens, caulirice, roast potatoes and salad. This was chased with a tiramisu with strawberries and blueberries, and some lovely company to boot.
And then this is where the night ended…
Saturday 12 August
After a night of rain falling on the roof (and no wind whatsoever) and a deliriously long 9-hour sleep, the temperature was considerably cooler and the world a little prettier.
We enjoyed breakfast inside, then took a drive to Calitzdorp and ambled around a couple of wineries and shops. Evading the grasp of city life in C-dorp, we escaped back to the farm where I asked for some horse snacks with our afternoon coffee.
These were not some snacks made of horses, but rather some bribe material so that I could keep the horses busy enough to let me get some photos of them.
I was a little wary at first of shoving my hand into a horse’s mouth, but soon we became good friends… They got a little jealous of each other and – yes, I said it – horsed around.
Never ones to shy away from a challenge, we decided to try the most difficult trail. Any guesses as to what it’s called…?
Having seen and heard the baboons in the mountains, I expressed my concern, but was encouraged to find a gun-shaped stick.
So I did. And it came with shotgun noises and everything.
And so we began walking the relatively easy path… which was only relatively easy until it began to ascend rather steeply and rapidly. At one point it was a bit difficult to spot the blue and white painted markers… which was about the same time that my vertigo began to rear its head. Where my knees refused to bend, I pulled myself up by the hands… more mountain-hugging for this person right here. Where we couldn’t see the trail markers, we simply followed the flattened vegetation and the baboons’ own markings… of which there were plenty!
And soon we were on top of the world again.
I can’t tell you the altitude, except that it was pretty damn high up. The Baboon Trail follows the ridge to the right of the farm and descends quite quickly again behind the paddocks, which are to the far left in this picture:
All the baboons were in the ostrich fields (they didn’t like the noises my stick-gun was making) and they didn’t pay us any mind. We took a slow saunter back to the farm as patches of cloud broke apart and ushered in some gorgeous sunshine.
Despite knowing we didn’t have anymore food for them, the horses were still friendly enough to come and say hello. I put out the back of my hand and as the horse sniffed, time stopped: each time she exhaled, her nostrils flared and warm air brushed over my fingers. It was surreal; a gift of a moment meant just for me.
After a lazy afternoon spent reading and writing, and enjoying the fireplace… jackpot! Dinner consisted of a Karoo-themed banquet of epic proportions: ostrich carpaccio lovingly draped over ostrich-liver pâté, followed by Karoo mutton stewed in red wine with another wide array of vegetables and sweet potato. And desert: an apple tart with raisins, layers of ice cream and topped with strawberries and blueberries.
Can you say ‘spoilt’? I can… just not with a mouth full of dessert!
Sunday 13 August
Enjoying another lie-in, but fully aware that our holiday was soon to come to an abrupt end, I experienced a deep gratitude for the human privilege of being able to enjoy nature with all five senses. Going away is not just about a passive ‘escape from reality’, but an active taking in of everything that another place has to offer.
After our final breakfast, hosts Grant and Marie sent us on our merry way with warm hugs and a generous gift. I will surely be back again to this gorgeous place!
If this blog has inspired you to visit The Retreat at Groenfontein, you can find more information here. Also check out their video 🙂