Craig Platt heads to a rocky retreat rated one of the best hotels in the world.
Where's that next cairn?
I'm standing among the rocks surrounding Bushmans Kloof, a wilderness retreat and game reserve with a reputation for being one of the best hotels in the world. And I'm lost.
Bushmans Kloof sits about three hours' drive north of Cape Town in South Africa, nestled at the foot of the imposing Cedarberg Mountains.
In 2009, the respected Travel + Leisure magazine declared Bushmans Kloof to be the best hotel in the world. More recently, Conde Nast Traveller named it 'Best for food' in its 2012 Gold List of the world's best hotels. With that reputation, I've taken the opportunity to come and experience it for myself.
But right now, I'm wondering how to find my way back to the lodge.
My walk started out easily enough, strolling along one of the many walking tracks that can be found around the 7500-hectare property, which is home to just 16 rooms and suites for guests.
Within a couple of minutes of setting out I've spotted a few large lizards sunning themselves, followed by a mongoose that runs across my path and disappears down a crack in the rocks.
Heading up among the spectacular sandstone formations, the track disappears as I hit bare rock. From this point on, small cairns mark the way forward. I follow them slowly, eventually making my way into a sheltered overhang where I discover to my delight a series of vivid, ancient rock paintings.
Bushmans Kloof is home to more than 130 ancient rock art sites, created by the San people (the 'bushmen' for which the area is named) – South Africa's earliest human inhabitants. Many of the art sites remain in excellent condition and depict humans, elephants and a variety of other wildlife, painted in ochre that has lasted thousands of years. It's considered a highly significant site by archaeologists and researchers are among the regular visitors to the property.
As I move a little further on, with the bright springtime sun shining down upon me, my mind begins to wander. I soon realise I've come off the trail. Looking around me, I can't figure out if a nearby pile of rocks is a cairn or … just a pile of rocks.
After retracing my steps back and forth several times, I realise I'm lost (and feeling a little isolated out here - I'm thankful at this moment that this part of South Africa has no dangerous predators).
After about 20 minutes of wandering around in the increasing heat, an ingenious (I think) solution hits me. I've been so busy taking snaps of the various views and rock formations, I'm able to use the display on my digital camera to guide me back to the path, moving around until I can match my real-life view with those in the photos I earlier took.
Even though, from my position above the retreat, I never lose sight of the property's buildings, I still feel like I've had a little adventurous experience here on the rocks. (It also occurs to me some time later that I was carrying a detailed map of the trail in my back pocket the whole time, which I'd forgotten about.)
“Experiential” holidays are the buzzword in the tourism industry at the moment and Bushmans Kloof fits this mould. Sure, the accommodations are beautiful, with huge private rooms, a wonderful restaurant and excellent service from the attentive and friendly staff, but the retreat offers experiences beyond just comfort in a spectacular setting.
Along with trips out to various rock art sites on the property, where the retreat's guides provide insight into the history and meaning of the ancient paintings of the Bushman for which the valley is named, there are also evening wildlife excursions where we get the chance to check out some of the animals that live on the property, including zebras and springboks among the 35 mammal species that roam the area. There are also aardvarks on the property and, while they are rarely seen, their huge burrows are easy to spot.
As the sun sets over the rocks, we enjoy the traditional South African 'sundowner' drinks and nibbles before heading back to the main lodge for a terrific dinner. The produce is sourced from local farms and from the retreat's own garden, making for fresh and fascinating dishes. I can begin to understand why Conde Naste rated the food so highly.
As I retire, I find my room has been turned down, the lights dimmed, the bed ready and a small piece of paper placed on the pillow. It's a 'bed time story' – a short tale from Beyond the Cedarberg by Peter Slingsby, about some of the local characters from the history of the region.
“If you stand outside your quiet cottage on a star-spangled night and you think you hear the distant bark of the baboons, look up to the hills and contemplate that real baboons, like most people, are asleep in the dark hours…” it finishes, causing me to reflect on what a unique part of the world I'm in.
And so to bed, before I rise in the morning to head back to Cape Town.
After a couple of nights at Bushmans Kloof, can I pass judgment? Is it the best hotel in the world? Without having stayed at all the other contenders, it's impossible to be definitive (perhaps, one day…).
What I can say is that Bushmans Kloof offers a wonderful, unique experience and its setting and historic art set it apart from any other place in the world.
Still, I do recall the bread was a little dry on one of the sandwiches I had for afternoon tea.
Does that sound like nitpicking? Yes, because that's exactly what it is. When you stay at a place like this, nitpicking is the only criticism you can offer.
The writer travelled as a guest of South African Airways, South African Tourism and Red Carnation Hotels.
South African Airways flies daily from Sydney and six times a week from Perth to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Return air fares from the east coast (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) start from about $2236 and from Perth about $2117. See www.flysaa.com
From Cape Town, ground transfers can be arranged by Bushmans Kloof for the three-hour journey via the scenic Pakhuis Pass.
Room rates at Bushman's Kloof start from R2000 ($A249) per person per night in low season (April 1 to August 31) and R3050 ($A380) in high season (January 8 to March 31, September 1 to October 31). All meals, nature drives, guided rock art tours and several other activities are included. See http://www.bushmanskloof.co.za