Issue 39
Lakes Deep, Mountains High
Wilderness is a source of endless delightful surprises with some of the most beautiful scenery and amazing people South Africa has to offer
By Jo Kromberg  ·  2017-09-05  ·   Source: | VOL.9 September 2017

(Photos by Jo Kromberg, Stefan Els and courtesy My Village My Valley) 
I don't like drama. And before you roll your eyes and say "who does?" I assure you there are many people who thrive on it. But there is an exception to every rule. Give me the drama of nature any day.

And such nature drama comes in no better form than the town of Wilderness on the Garden Route.

We set off by road on a brisk sunny winter's day from Cape Town and the four and a half hour trip flies by.

Hidden gem 

But before our Wilderness adventure begins, our first stop is the utterly charming Oakhurst hotel in George where we meet our host and developer/owner of Wilderness's destination marketing company My Village My Valley Jonel Ackerman. Apart from managing The Wilderness Hotel for the last three years and now Oakhurst, Jonel is practically Mrs. Wilderness when it comes to marketing this spectacularly beautiful and relatively unknown region of South Africa. "Say Knysna and everyone will know where it is, but Wilderness is somewhat off the map still, a hidden gem!" she says. It's clear that her passion for the area runs deep and we are about to find out why during the next few days.

Jonel fetches us after a wonderful night's rest and a great breakfast the next morning to drive the 10 km or so to Wilderness from George. The pristine beach goes on for about 21 km. As such, it has "Blue Flag" status, indicating that the beach is immaculate and this internationally recognized accreditation acknowledges the excellence in maintaining the highest standards of environmental management, safety, services and amenities. We have lunch at the iconic Wilderness Hotel and Spa, Grande dame hotel of yore which was lovingly restored by the new local management team.

The hotel has a classic childhood beach holiday atmosphere and makes me yearn for those endless holidays as a kid. It is a lovely, homey hotel without any pretense. One of the posters on the wall says: "Fashionable ostentation is absent here." There are 155 rooms, tennis and squash courts, a Spa (more about that later!), a massive restaurant, open deck area, gym, huge swimming pool and all sorts of entertainment options plus two bars inside and one outside. There are also seven conference facilities, and their rates are unbeatable for what you get.

But it's the staff that makes this place so special. To a man (and woman) they all greet us with warm smiles. The buffet lunch is superb and the roasted red pepper soup, fresh fish, pulled pork and homemade ice cream almost make me swoon with delight. We then traverse a route called "Map of Africa", negotiating the undulating valleys and hills behind the town of Wilderness in the mountains. The route is shaped like a map of Africa, hence the name and offers absolutely take-your-breath-way views of the town, lagoons, scattered holiday homes and wild ocean below. It's from these hilltops that I realize that Wilderness is not just this quaint little town off the N2, but rather this spectacular stretch of Eden in the heart of the Garden Route - known as The Wilderness Lakes Area. It encompasses valleys and villages on mountain tops, internationally proclaimed areas of wetland conservation, intertwining lakes, estuaries and river systems that flow out onto the windswept east coast beaches. It's a one of a kind on the continent!

Whales Way Guesthouse 

The sun inches closer to the horizon on this stunning cloudless day as we press on to our next abode for the night in the form of Whales Way guesthouse right on the ocean.

My photographer's room is lovely with a view of the ocean from his bath but then I am shown to my room... I am lucky enough to be in the penthouse and "penthouse" is not an exaggeration in the least. The stunning room goes on and on, making the gigantic bed look small. It features absolutely unbeatable views from its floor to ceiling windows - from the front the ocean, and towards the back the mountains. The room is decorated in shades of mauve, whites and creams with exposed wooden beams in the ceiling and stressed wood furniture. All gob-smackingly beautiful but the pièce de résistance is the huge Jacuzzi bath in the middle of all this space, with a view of the mountains. A lone paraglider flies past my window, etched against the blue sky and ocean. After a view laps in my humungous bath we go for dinner at a little Italian restaurant in the village called Pomodoro on Jonel's recommendation. What a find! It oozes genuine trattoria charm and the food, the service, the music - all unbeatable. I have the best chicken liver pasta I have ever had in my life and eat myself blue in the face. We take in some live music across the road at Cocomos before heading back to in my heavenly pad at Whales Way and I fall asleep to the roar of the ocean beneath me.

A bright blue new day announces itself and a walk is afoot - yes, pun. "Hi, you must be Jo and Stef. I'm Mark, lovely to meet you." So introduces our guide and botanist Mark Jackson to us at breakfast and he turns out to be one of the most fascinating individuals I have ever had the privilege of meeting.

Mark knows the Wilderness forests and its inhabitants like the back of his hand and he explains the fauna and flora of the area en route to Woodville Indigenous Forest. We walk around the forest for a while with its enormous trees and intricate eco-system and my head spins with all the fascinating information Mark imparts about the secret life of plants and trees. The wood wide web, he calls it. We take the scenic route back and Mark says that there are five lakes here, offering the most spectacular views from Rondevlei.

A stop-off at a bird hide follows - birders love this part of the world and it is apparent why - and then we get deposited at The Wilderness Hotel and Spa for the evening, but not before delicious homemade chicken pie for lunch at the quaintest little coffee roastery/restaurant called The Green Shed. At the Spa (yes, it is later now) I am overcome by a blissful state of hypnagogia in the more than capable hands of my massage therapist, thanks to the lovely Spa manager Ciska. The Spa offers custom therapies such as hydrotherapy, including the ancient art of Rasul which targets all five senses and provides the ultimate balance between mind, body and soul. Traditional treatments include facials, massage therapies and body treatments such as manicures, pedicures and seaweed slimming wraps. The stress flows out of me like Donald Trump's sense of humor at a press conference and I feel totally revived and relaxed.

Canoeing, cheesecake and luxury tents 

Sadly our journey is coming to an end but not before a couple of very special experiences. We find ourselves gently floating down a river in our two-man canoe on the Kaaimans River with the soft August sun gently shining down the following morning. This is definitely a must-do, courtesy of Eden Adventures. The canoe trip takes about an hour, depending on your own "self-drive" speed and then you stop off at a rocky little beach from where you walk about half an hour over wooden walkways to a stunning waterfall. Pack a picnic and make a day of it. Eden Adventures is situated at the Fairy Knowe Hotel. Yes, contrary to some rumors, Fairy Knowe Hotel is open and Jonel and her team have very exciting plans in place to restore this iconic landmark to its previous glory.

We've worked up quite an appetite after this so we then head to a delightful little coffee shop tucked away on the top of the hill called Hoekwil Country Café. It is a locally hidden gem which most people never find or find by chance and it's only a five-minute drive from the N2.

The Cafe is a mix between a little local convenience store and a coffee shop cafe. They serve the best voted cheesecake in South Africa, as voted by Eat In. There are three delicious flavors to choose from: lemon, Belgian chocolate and the best-selling Blueberry flavor and every bite is sheer, light, creamy heaven.

Our abode for the last night is Seven Passes Tented Camp situated near Wilderness at Woodville between the Touw and Diep River Passes on the Seven Passes Road. This famous and scenic route was once the only road between the city of George in the West and the holiday town of Knysna in the East but now it's a peaceful, quiet country lane that just begs to be explored. The camp features six relatively luxurious, en-suite safari tents overlooking a small lake and the Outeniqua Mountains. Each tent has its own deck and Jacuzzi bath and the views of the mountains and tranquility is unsurpassed.

In terms of activities, this is mountain biking country and it's also a great destination for birding, walking and hiking, horse riding, motor bike touring, canoeing, scenic drives... and just relaxing. This is what we do. We have sun downers overlooking the lake, listening to the mooing cows coming home as the darkness gently descends across the land. The amazing camp manager Nola makes us homemade stew for dinner and we chat late into the night with the massive fire place a source of cozy.

Wilderness is a source of endless delightful surprises with some of the most beautiful scenery and amazing people South Africa has to offer. Plus, it's really affordable. So go. Stay for a week. Stay for two! Not only will you come away with memories to last you a life-time but you would have had the opportunity to just breathe again...slowly.


Facebook Page: Wilderness South Africa

Getting there: 

Air China outbound flights to Johannesburg in South Africa operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, with return services from Johannesburg offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  

Flights will departs from Beijing at 23:15 Beijing time, and arrive in Johannesburg at 7:35 local time on the following day. The inbound flight departs from Johannesburg at 11:50 local time and arrives in Beijing at 7:30 Beijing time.   

Go to:  

Fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town via Airlink where you can take another Airlink flight to George airport and we suggest you rent a car to explore this beautiful part of the world in your own time.  

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