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Family travel in South Africa and beyond

Author: lucycorne

Things to do in the Cederberg – and how to make them kid-friendly

The first time I saw the Cederberg I was hooked. True, we were woefully unprepared for the weather. We had bought a tent on GumTree – a tent whose former…

The first time I saw the Cederberg I was hooked. True, we were woefully unprepared for the weather. We had bought a tent on GumTree – a tent whose former owners were eight years old and used to use it to play-camp in their garden on sunny afternoons. After one pretty miserable night we upgraded to a chalet and began to really enjoy what the area has to offer: craggy orange mountains in a variety of weird shapes and of course, that sky. By day, it’s the kind of crisp, vivid blue that you normally only see on a high-def screen saver. By night, the stars are so spectacular that they must make visitors from northern hemisphere cities weep. The region is both a blessing and a curse for Instagrammers: infinitely photographable but rendering every available filter completely redundant.

We’ve been back many times since and despite the absence of any typical kids’ attractions (petting farms, jungle gyms, hands-on museums and the like), it is the perfect place to take your children. We seem to spend a lot of time trying to find activities to entertain our little one and forget that kids need little more than a pile of rocks and a heap of sand to have fun. Here are eight of our favourite things to do in the Cederberg – and some ideas on how to make them even more appealing to the little ones.

1. Explore the Stadsaal Caves

The Cederberg is magnificent, but the crowning glory has to be the Stadsaal Caves. The story goes that National Party leaders held a meeting here in 1948 and gave the caves the name Stadsaal (City Hall) and graffiti inside the caves shows the name DF Malan alongside names etched in the 1880s. Use it as a teaching tool for your kids – defacing, well, pretty much anything, but especially a natural, historical site such as this, is plain vandalism. Kids adore the caves, with their cubby holes and crawl spaces and it’s just a remarkably beautiful place. Come in the early morning for utter tranquility, or bring along a snack and a tipple for golden hour sundowners. For permits (adult/child R40/20) head to Cape Nature’s Algeria office or  Sanddrif Resort – you’ll also find accommodation at both places.

Make it kid-friendly: I explained to Kai that people used to live in the caves and as we wandered around he chose places for the kitchen, lounge and allocated bedrooms for us all. It’s also a great place to give a kid a camera and ask them to take photos of their favourite parts.

stadsaal cave cederberg

“And this is going to be my room…”

 

2. Go for a hike

You can hike for minutes, hours or days in the Cederberg. Intense hikes like the Wolfberg Cracks and Arch are definitely not recommended with small kids, though teens will probably enjoy the adventurous aspects – scrambling over rocks and squeezing through gaps. But there are plenty of hikes for little legs. We tackled the three-hour round-trip walk to the Middelberg Waterfall from Algeria. It took considerably longer than three hours with a four-year-old, and he never quite made it to the top but gave it a good bash. There are also plenty of short strolls, including the trail to Malgaat from Sanddrif or the quick path to Lot’s Wife from the road.

Make it kid-friendly: Although Kai was super keen to be hiking in the mountains, I knew he’d quickly lose interest so I made a scavenger hunt for him to do along the way. Some he had to check off, others he could collect (like rocks), which also gave a chance to teach him not to pick wildflowers.

hiking cederberg

Views along the trail to the Maltese Cross

 

3. Read up on rock art

The Cederberg is rich in Khoisan rock paintings, some of which date back thousands of years. One of the most accessible sites is the Sevilla Rock Art Trail, a 5km path with nine rock art sites along the way. You’ll find it 35km from Clanwilliam, just off the R364. If you’re in the central Cederberg (this is the area we most often visit), you’ll find an impressive site close to the Stadsaal Caves (included in the entrance fee for the caves). These sites all have information panels so you can learn a little about why and how the paintings were made.

Make it kid-friendly: Our effort wasn’t great, but I had this idea to get the whole family together to paint their own versions of the rock art once we were back at the chalet (either on paper or you could find a small rock to paint on).

rock art cederberg

Elephant paintings near the Stadsaal Caves

 

4. Take time out for a tipple

The central Cederberg is home to two microbreweries and one magnificent winery. Nieuw Brew is based at Kromrivier, a family farm with rustic self-catering accommodation. It’s spectacularly scenic and wonderful for kids of all ages, with horse riding, a petting farm, mountain biking trails, rock climbing and a small restaurant where you can taste the beers. On the “main road”, you’ll find Dwarsrivier, home to both the Cederberg Winery and Cederberg Brewery. There’s a swanky tasting room for the wines, while a taproom for beer tasting is currently in progress. You can also arrange accommodation (chalets or campsites) and get permits for surrounding hikes here.

Make it kid-friendly: Bring them a colouring book and some crayons – sometimes it should be all about mom and dad!!

Cederberg Brewery’s beers are named for a pair of baboons in a poem by local writer C Louis Leipoldt

 

5. Admire the stars

We recently revisted the region with a friend visiting from Canada. When I told him about the Cederberg’s spectacular stars, he mentioned having just visited some Canadian park and seeing some impressive celestial bodies. Then he stepped out of our mountain chalet on a clear Cederberg evening and his jaw hit the floor. The stargazing here is simply world class. I sometimes feel like the stars are so bright you could actually sit out and read by their light. If you want to know more about what you’re seeing, I’d highly recommend a visit to the Cederberg Observatory, run by local amateur astronomers on certain Saturdays (check their website to see when they’re operating).

Make it kid-friendly: Learn a little about what you’re looking at and simply pass on that knowledge – kids of all ages are amazed when they realise they can see Venus or Mars without using a telescope.

My attempts at celestial photography are laughable, so here is a shot of clear blue skies from the Stadsaal Caves

 

6. Camp out

Kids love camping. Or at least they love the idea of it. There’s something about sleeping in a tent that appeals to little kids and it can be a great way to bond as a family. When it comes to grown-ups, some people are camping folks and some simply are not. We fall into the latter category (a four-month camping trip through Africa a decade and a bit ago just whacked any urge to sleep under canvas out of us for the rest of our days). So we combine all of our favourite bits of camping – stargazing, braaing, sitting outside and telling stories around the fire – with all our favourite things about sleeping – comfy beds and an en suite loo for midnight trips! Pretty much all of the accommodation options in the Cedeberg offer campsites and self-catering chalets. Just remember that it gets bone-chillingly cold hereabouts in winter (and pretty cold in autumn and spring too) so come very well prepared.

Make it kid-friendly: You probably won’t have any trouble getting kids excited about camping. Just bring plenty of warm stuff and torches.

algeria chalets cederberg

A a family we tend to be happier glamping than camping…

 

7. Cook over coals

There is only one restaurant in the central Cederberg. This is a place for those who like to cook outdoors, over a fire. Just be sure to shop before you head into the mountains. Most accommodation options have a simple shop, but they tend to sell the absolute basics – bring meat, bread and veg with you.

Make it kid-friendly: The most difficult part is getting them to steer clear of the fire – kids are like moths when it comes to flames! We let Kai pile up the logs before it’s lit…and then he’s always in charge of the post-braai marshmallows. A must in the mountains (or indeed, anywhere).

Do not braai the local lizards.

 

8. Spend time away from the screen

Perhaps one of the best things of all about the Cederberg is its remoteness. It’s less than three hours from Cape Town but once you get up into the mountains, you kind of forget that cities even exist. To my knowledge  and I haven’t stayed everywhere of course – none of the accommodation in the area comes equipped with a TV. and once you pass Algeria, cell phone reception wavers between crap, patchy and non-existent. With all the best parenting intentions in the world, most of us resort to Paw Patrol or Peppa Pig or, god help us, that woman playing with toys on YouTube from time to time so it’s nice to get away from screens of all sizes and instead spend the evenings counting shooting stars or singing campfire songs.

Make it kid-friendly: If TV is a part of the daily routine, try using the old ‘you get to stay up late with the grown ups card. The grownups will likely be going to bed early, but the kids won’t know that!

cederberg travel

No cell reception, no TV – but who needs it when you have a notebook and birds to mark down?

Getting there: The central Cederberg is accessible from east or west. From the west, head up the N7 to Citrusdal. About 27km past Citrusdal, look out for the turn off to Algeria on the right. From here it’s a gravel road all the way but it’s generally in good condition. There are a couple of passes to tackle. From the east, head for Ceres, then take the R303 north towards Prince Alfred Hamlet. The gravel road starts after the Citrusal turn off (about 50km from Ceres). The road is less vertiginous from this side, but generally more rutted.

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Five family friendly craft breweries around South Africa

I have four passions in life: family, beer, travel and writing and wherever possible, I try to combine them all. (I also love to dance, but that’s tricky to do…

I have four passions in life: family, beer, travel and writing and wherever possible, I try to combine them all. (I also love to dance, but that’s tricky to do while writing, though it does pair well with the rest). As well as this fledgling blog, I write a popular beer blog over here. I love beer and am constantly on the lookout for breweries that offer the trifecta – good food, great beer and a kids’ area that means Kai will enjoy himself as much as we do. Here are some of the best family friendly breweries around South Africa.

Western Cape

Franschhoek Beer Company, Franschhoek

Sample the food and beer paring platter while the kids play just metres away

The perfect package is a rare thing, but I think Franschhoek Beer Co. has nailed it. The beers are excellent, particularly the saison – for me the best example in the country (side note: at 8.4% ABV, you will need a designated driver). The food, overseen by Reuben Riffel, is superb and carefully thought out. And the kid’s play area ticks two boxes that so many don’t – it is shaded and it is right next to the restaurant/tasting area, so you don’t have to keep getting up to see what your little ones are up to. Imagine that – a relaxing lunch with great beers that pair well with the food.

Aegir Project, Noordhoek

Aegir Project is family-run and family-friendly

Sharing a kids’ play area with the Red Herring, Aegir Project welcomes kids to climb trees, paddle in ponds or sit inside and challenge one of the locals to a game of chess or draughts. On the food menu there are gourmet hotdogs, with a simpler version for kids. For grown-ups, the beers are excellent and usually feature a limited edition brew. It’s also dog-friendly, as long as your pooch plays  nice with others (notably the brewery dog, a ridgeback named Aegir).

Cape Brewing Company, Paarl

Grown-ups taste beer, kids taste ice cream at Spice Route

Chocolate tasting? Check. Giant chess set? Check. Jungle gym? Check. Ice cream? Check. Coffee, wine, charcuterie, pizza, lavish lunches, biltong? Check. Magnificent views? Check. Awesome craft beer to taste and take home? Check. Seriously – if you and the family can’t find something to do at CBC/Spice Route, I just don’t know how to help you.

Eastern Cape

Emerald Vale, Cintsa

Brew with a view at Emerald Vale

With brewery tours and light lunches, farm animals to spot and lawns to run around on, Emerald Vale is a deservedly popular Eastern Cape family hang-out. There are shaded picnic tables dotted around and to make a real day of it, you can even braai your own lunch on the premises. For those who want to know more about beer, brewer Chris runs regular tours of the brewery, which include a tasting of his range of ales.

Limpopo

L’Abri Fountain, Bela Bela

Tucked away amid Limpopo gravel roads, L’abri Fountain is a backwater brewery that welcomes families

Way up there in Limpopo, between Bela-Bela and Thabazimbi, L’Abri Fountain is South Africa’s bush brewery and perfect for a family fun day. Buck and warthog roam nearby or there are farm animals for kiddies who want to get up close to some furry friends. There’s a shop selling local crafts and freshly baked cake, a pizza oven churning out the perfect accompaniment to the ales, accommodation on site and a host of activities like fishing, hiking, mountain biking, paintball, star-gazing, canoeing, horse-riding and half-day wagon rides.

For the full article, head over to my beer blog – you can read the full/regularly updated list here.

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Why you should visit Clay Cafe in Hout Bay

Clay Cafe is one of our favourite family-friendly attractions in Cape Town. It’s affordable, the food is good and you can easily spend a whole morning/afternoon there. I was pretty…

Clay Cafe is one of our favourite family-friendly attractions in Cape Town. It’s affordable, the food is good and you can easily spend a whole morning/afternoon there. I was pretty sad to hear about the fire that ripped through part of the property last weekend. But while the barn was destroyed – with thousands of painted and kilned items sadly destroyed with it – the restaurant and play area were unharmed and happily, it’s business as usual at Clay Cafe.

It really is a family-friendly attraction – appealing to every generation…

In case you don’t know the concept, here’s how Clay Cafe works: you book ahead – that’s important. Unless you’re visiting on a weekday during the school term, don’t just rock up and expect to get a table. They do operate a waiting list for those who haven’t booked, and kids can play on the impressive jungle gym and trampolines while you wait, but know that you will have to wait. Once you’re seated, you get a quick demo of the various painting techniques and then you choose your piece(s) of pottery. Each item is individually priced, and there’s everything from tiny bowls to giant platters; from piggy banks to foot-high Lego Batman figures.

And then you paint. Or you attempt to paint while also mopping up spilt water and trying to stop your eager child from pouring an entire pot of paint onto their chosen plate. And if you’re anything like me, you then look at your work and wonder why it doesn’t look anything like it did in your head.

The things we lost in the fire…It always takes me ages to pick up our items and I forgot this mummy/son creation. Good job I have a pic so we can recreate it!

But it’s all good, because it’s a fun day out, plus you get to take home souvenirs of varying levels of usefulness (if only he’d choose plates over Batman!) and beauty (yes, we do have some…interesting items of crockery in our kitchen cupboards). And of course, if your child is anything like mine, they will love it.

We first visited when Kai was three, which I think was a little young (it was a stressful visit). He’s now 4½ (that half is very important) and it’s actually a great activity. But you don’t need to have little children to enjoy Clay Cafe – I’ve seen parents with ten-year-olds and teenagers and indeed, I always see groups of artsy 20-somethings or creative grannies (sans grandchildren) sipping cappuccinos and creating the kind of plate that I see in my mind’s eye when I sit down to paint. Every time I visit with Kai I think, this would be a lovely place to come alone for coffee and cake and a nice relaxing hour or painting (mid-week, while the kids are at school), but of course I never do.

But I will be back soon to support Clay Cafe following the fire. And of course to add another selection of mismatched crockery to our cupboard.

Clay Cafe is open daily from 9am to 5pm. There is a standard studio fee of R40 per person, then you pay per item that you paint. You must return to collect your glazed and kilned ceramics around three weeks later. Bookings are highly recommended.

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De Hoop Nature Reserve: for families…or just parents

It’s nearly sunset and it has been a busy day. Before we meet for dinner, I steal a moment, find a bench and watch the sun dip behind the clouds….

It’s nearly sunset and it has been a busy day. Before we meet for dinner, I steal a moment, find a bench and watch the sun dip behind the clouds. There’s nothing to hear but birdsong and occasional footsteps as fellow visitors pass by on their evening walk. They nod, I smile and then they move on, understanding that even though De Hoop Nature Reserve’s accommodation is running at capacity, there’s still plenty of space for everyone to enjoy their own slice of solitude.

I’m staying at De Hoop on that rare and beautiful thing, a ladies’ weekend away, but I can’t help noticing that this would be a great place to visit with the family. There’s no big game here, so roaming, whether on foot or by bike, is encouraged. We however, opt to drive to the coast for a gentle morning stroll. The beach is a marvel – white sand, turquoise ocean, rock pools filled with urchins and starfish, scurrying dassies up on the rocks and once we’ve finished our guided coastal wander, a short slog up a sand dune for an al fresco breakfast with a view of the Indian Ocean below.

This stretch of coast forms part of the Whale Trail and indeed we see southern right tails splashing in the distance –  a sight I rather pointlessly attempt to capture on my phone. De Hoop might not have any of the Big Five, or even a giraffe or a hippo, but it does offer some matchless wildlife-viewing options. As well as whales from June to December, there’s the year-round spectacle of Cape vultures at Potberg.

The vulture colony is a short, bumpy drive out of the park and along a gravel road, passing glowing yellow canola fields contrasted against the vivid blue sky. Once we re-enter the reserve, it’s a pleasant walk through fynbos then a short but steep hike to the viewing platform. Here some 180 vultures roost in the last remaining colony in the Western Cape. After 20 minutes of trying to capture the perfect bird-in-flight photo, I opt instead to lie on the wooden deck and watch them glide silently overhead.

We haven’t really hiked enough to earn one, but once we’re back at the homestead we treat ourselves to massages at the spa, a fairly new and very welcome addition to the homestead. This is the centre of your stay at De Hoop – a village of whitewashed buildings containing the restaurant, gift shop, spa and almost all of the reserve’s accommodation. The accommodation is operated by the De Hoop Collection and covers everything from simple huts to stately rooms in the manor house, with meals at the excellent Fig Tree restaurant available to all (but book ahead to secure a table). For couples on a budget, the rondavels are perfect. They might share bathroom facilities, but they boast the best location of all the reserve’s accommodation, with front row seats to the picturesque vlei. Families are also well catered-for with a selection of homely chalets, each with their own lounge and braai area.

As much as I am loving the ladies’ weekend away, I can’t help notice the features that would make this an fine family break: plenty of space to run around, a kids’ playground, excellent rock-pooling on the coast, scheduled activities during school holidays, kids’ bikes to rent, tennis courts and a swimming pool to splash in. In fact, I’m starting to think that my next visit will definitely involve the husband and son. Then I find a quiet spot above the vlei with some the reserve’s 260 bird species for company and I think, then again, perhaps not…

De Hoop Nature Reserve is operated by Cape Nature. It’s a three-hour drive east of Cape Town. Entrance is R4o for adults and R20 for children. Accommodation is operated by the De Hoop Collection and starts at R1200 per night for a rondavel.

Disclosure: I stayed at De Hoop as a guest of the De Hoop Collection.

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Five tips for taking a pre-schooler to Disney World

I love Disney. The closest I ever got to being a collector was when I was at university and I wanted to own all of the (then) 40 animated classics,…

disney world travel tips

A family holiday, five years in the making

I love Disney. The closest I ever got to being a collector was when I was at university and I wanted to own all of the (then) 40 animated classics, on VHS no less. I am probably one of few parents that actually says “hey, don’t you want to watch Frozen again?” to my son and have basically been force-feeding him Disney movies for the past year and a half (although he doesn’t actually take much persuading).

When I was pregnant, I came up with a plan. The year that Kai turned five, we would take him to Disney World, before he could outgrow the magic. It just so happened that this year – the year he turns five – I was attending a conference in the States, and so the plan actually came to fruition.

We ended up travelling to New York, Washington and Nashville before Florida and in the end we didn’t have much time to spend at Disney World, sadly. In fact, I can safely say that I spent three times as long planning as we actually did in the park. And it still didn’t actually go as I had anticipated, so I thought I’d share a few tips I picked up along the way. Perhaps they can help your dream trip run as smoothly as possible.

Plan, plan and plan some more

Want to dine with Cinderella in her castle? You better make that booking at least three months ahead of time. Looking to watch the fireworks from a boat on the lake? That’s not the sort of thing you can reserve a week ahead of time either. Do you want to go to one park for three days, or four parks for 10 days? Or if, like we had to, you’re squeezing your Disney experience into one sole day, which park should you hit? I pored over the official Disney website for hours and hours trying to decide which park to choose. They’re pretty smart and spreading out the attractions – the Star Wars stuff is all at Hollywood Studios, as is the Toy Story team (the official Toy Story Land opens on June 30th 2018). Nemo and Frozen – two of my son’s faves – are to be found at Epcot, while the classic Disney characters reside in the Magic Kingdom, along with lots of pre-schooler-friendly rides and of course the legendary parade. For most, it’s a once-upon-a-star-in-a-lifetime trip, so you don’t want to rock up at the gate saying “so, what should we see?!”

Get the app

These days there is an app for everything (seriously – I recently learned about RunPee, which tells you the best time to nip out of the movie theatre if your bladder can’t manage an entire movie. Which if you’ve had a couple of kids, is actually pretty useful). The My Disney Experience app is free to download, great for planning and invaluable while you’re in the park. It’s an interactive map with character greeting times and most importantly, up-to-date queue lengths so you can plan as you go. You can also make restaurant reservations and view all the pics Disney staff have taken throughout the day (presumably for those whose cell phone batteries have died). There’s free, fairly fast wifi throughout the parks, so you won’t need a local SIM to put the app into practice.

disney world children

Deep conversation with Pluto

Pack a picnic

The restaurants at Disney World are expensive. They’re expensive and not very good, unless you book a few months ahead for a proper sit-down restaurant. We simply grabbed a hot dog between queues (well actually, lunch turned out to be just another queue) and having polished off the overpriced, underwarmed sausages, my mum wiped her mouth and said “well, that was food.” I think she was actually being a little over-generous. But it is easy to avoid lining up to eat a crappy, expensive slice of pizza – bring your own picnic.

For some reason I had assumed you couldn’t bring your own food, but the guy in front of me looked like he had packed enough snacks for three days (or maybe three minutes if you have a son like mine). The only things you can’t bring are glass containers (unless it’s baby food) and booze. Booze is sadly in short supply at Disney World. From the park’s opening in 1971 there was no booze at all until 2012. These days you can get a well-earned beer at one of the sit-down restaurants – but you will probably have to book ahead for those.

Rent a stroller

I had ummed an ahhed about this for weeks before we left Cape Town. My son is four, but he’s the size of a six year old. He’s also not fond of walking long distances, but man he is heavy to carry around. Would he want to sit in a pushchair? Would he even fit? Should we buy a cheap one to take with? Rent one locally? In the end we did nothing until a day before we were headed to Disney World, when I mentioned the possibility of getting a stroller to him. I swear as we got off the monorail from the car park, he was more excited about sitting in a pushchair than he was about meeting Mickey. It was the best US$15 we spent that day (and you spend a lot of $15s at Disney World!) It meant that he had some shade, we had somewhere to balance our bags and bottles of water. It meant that he had somewhere to nap once the heat and the excitement got too much. And what it really meant was that we could fully enjoy our day at Disney World – without it, by 2pm he would have been miserable and wanting to go home and play Lego.

disney world travel tips

This face can’t stop smiling

Don’t underestimate the power of magic

I had planned our day around the rides I really thought Kai would most want to experience. It’s best to head to the most popular rides first, so we joined the queue for the fairly new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It was not a good plan. We waited an hour to board, which Kai managed admirably, but I think it kind of put him off rides for the rest of the day. Oh, and it scared the crap out of him. He’s not even a big fan of swings and slides, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I was starting to wonder if, even after all those hours of planning, I had made the wrong decision on which park to visit when we walked past the castle and heard a fanfare. We turned to see Mickey, Minnie and the gang up on the stage. Kai was mesmerised as characters from movies he’d never even seen put on an all-singing, all-dancing show. And then Olaf the Snowman came out. I felt the collective joy of 200 parents as Elsa and Anna followed.

You see, for a four year old, that’s not an aspiring actor in a suit, that really is Olaf, having stepped straight from the screen onto the stage. At that moment, as I literally fought back tears of joy at the grin on Kai’s face, we scrapped the whole plan and dedicated the day to meeting as many characters as we could. It cost around R7000 for the three of us to go to Disney World for one day (and that’s before we’d eaten anything or bought the requisite mouse ears). But it was worth every hard-earned cent when, standing in the queue to meet Buzz Lightyear my four-year-old son turned to me and said “mummy, my face can’t stop smiling.”

 

 

 

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Five tips for road tripping with kids

The school holidays are here again. Two weeks without the tedium of trying to think of something healthy and substantial to fill the lunchboxes every morning. Two weeks without those…

The school holidays are here again. Two weeks without the tedium of trying to think of something healthy and substantial to fill the lunchboxes every morning. Two weeks without those daily monologues: “Can you please brush your hair! Where is your other shoe? No, I don’t want to play Easter Bunny meets Batman now. Get in the car, get in the car, pleasegetinthecar“. You know – the kind of monologue that  leaves you needing a G&T at around 8.30am when you’ve finally dropped them off at school, hair brushed and both shoes in attendance (if not necessarily on their feet).

The holidays present a dilemma – on the one hand you really want to celebrate, get away, hit the road and at least deal with the daily refusal to get dressed in a different town. On the other hand, the roadtrip to get to said town leaves you in a state of panic only slightly smaller than when you’re told that it’s dress-up day tomorrow and you need to fashion a vegetable costume before daybreak.

I’m not going to lie and say “but roadtrips with small children can be fun!” – the sort of cheery crap that will have you reaching for the vomit bag even before your most nauseous offspring. But roadtrips with kids are doable – and here are a few ways to make them more bearable.

Plan your route

When travelling with small children, there is a simple equation: tap your destination into Google maps, note down the total estimated travelling time and add on 53%. You cannot begin to hope that your journey time will be the same with kids as it is without. Planning is required – check out farm stalls and restaurants along the route so that you can schedule stops for peeing and playing and eating the ice cream that you bribed them into their car seats with when you left the house…It sounds like a simple thing, but knowing that you’re only 47 minutes from a roadside cafe with a jungle gym and a petting farm is going to save everyone’s sanity. And of course, be sure to plan the longest stretch around your kid’s naptime, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing in your life.

Prepare a soundtrack

This is something we usually pull out after three or four hours, when Kai is really starting to tire of sitting in his seat and even passing a big red truck is no longer newsworthy. Whip out your phone, or USB drive, or CD if you’re one of those retro types and your kids haven’t jammed the CD player full of coins and paper… Before you left the house, you would have carefully prepared a child-friendly soundtrack. It might be the kind of soundtrack that would typically have you reaching for the earplugs, but even It’s a Small World sounds amazing after 12 solid minutes of “when are we going to get there?” on repeat. I load my phone full of tracks from Moana, Trolls and yes, even Frozen. It kind of sucks, but when we’re all belting out He’s a Bit of a Fixer Upper together, it’s also kind of awesome.

Make a list of games and songs

Playing car games with pre-schoolers can be challenging, not least because they have an attention span that would make a goldfish raise his eyebrows. That said, I kind of rue the day I introduced Kai to I Spy, using colours instead of letters (“I spy with my little eye something that is red…”) for he will play that game for hours. That’s why you need to come equipped with a list – so that you can throw out a new game whenever you, or your kids, are getting bored. A few of our favourites are the car game (choose a colour each, first to see ten of their colour is the winner), guess the animal noise and (with limited success) 20 questions (using animals). We also love playing “Stop the music”, which Kai made up. One person starts singing and then when someone else wants to take over they simply shout “stop” and carry on the song. It’s simple, but it sure beats having to single 16 verses of Old McDonald by yourself (seriously, I once heard myself singing “And on that farm he grew some wine…”).

Pack a giant bag

Get the biggest bag you can fit on the back seat and fill it. Fill it with snacks and juice, with teddies and books, with toys and paper and pens, bubbles and for that last half hour, when all else fails, a fully charged tablet filled with education games (or crap cartoons – no-one is judging). Don’t forget the nappies (if you need them), a change of clothes (for the inevitable juice spillage), sunscreen (for pit stops) and hats. And perhaps a photo of your destination, just to remind yourself why you’re doing this…

Just do it

I know people who love road-tripping, but once their children were born they didn’t take a drive of more than an hour or so until the kid was in double digits. This is madness! For a start, when they’re really little, road trips are so easy unless you have a rare baby that vomits instead of sleeps whenever they’re in a moving vehicle. All you need to do is stop every so often to feed them, let them wriggle and change a nappy at the side of the road. But even when they start to crawl and walk and talk, don’t let it put you off. Yes, a five-hour road trip will turn into seven hours (and will probably feel like nine) but once you arrive at your holiday house/campsite/luxury hotel, all will be forgotten. Like many things about parenting, you do have to make compromises – maybe you have to sit in the back with the kids, maybe you have to stop every hour for a half-hour break, or maybe you have to listen to Let it Go on repeat all the way from Cape Town to De Hoop, but like many things about parenting, the rewards will make it all worthwhile.

What are your top tips for a road trip with the kids? Which games do you like to play on the road? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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Family friendly sleeping: Spier Hotel

Spier Hotel, Stellenbosch. Tel: +27 (0)21 809 1100. www.spier.co.za Double from R1900 per night. Great for: Babies, little ones, tweens. Sometimes you just need to – as Parks & Recreation’s Tom…

Spier Hotel, Stellenbosch. Tel: +27 (0)21 809 1100. www.spier.co.za
Double from R1900 per night. Great for: Babies, little ones, tweens.

Sometimes you just need to – as Parks & Recreation’s Tom Haverford would say – treat yo’self. Last year, hubby had been working overseas for a couple of weeks and was back in the country for a few days before heading off again for another fortnight. After three days of single parenting (side note: single parents, you absolutely rock), I started researching hotels with kids’ clubs and was rather delighted to find a luxurious and yet affordable hotel with a dedicated kids’ club within an hour’s drive of our home in Cape Town.

We have, of course, been to Spier before  to eat, to taste and to take Kai to see the excellent bird of prey display at Eagle Encounters. But I’d always imagined the hotel was prohibitively expensive. Plus I had no idea how child friendly it was.

Granted it was a bit of a splurge – certainly more than we usually spend on a family weekend, but well worth it for the relaxation factor. Rooms are large and plush with muted, relaxing decor. They’re set in double-storey, flat-roofed villas in a peaceful corner of the estate far from the wine tasting centre and restaurants, and of course come with plenty of amenities, but you’ll doubtless spend little time in the room.

The greatest draw here is that you can ditch the car for a weekend and explore on foot, never leaving the estate unless, of course, you really want to. Our first stop, following a buffet breakfast, was the kids’ club. Kai was instantly in love – and that was before he found out about the bouncy castle and the baking classes. It’s an extremely well-equipped play centre with, of course, dedicated staff to take care of the kids. So we signed him in and went off to explore the farm.

Hotel guests can borrow bikes for no charge, so we spent a morning exploring, stopping to check out lunchtime restaurant options and of course, to use the wine tasting voucher we were given at check-in. When we came back, we had to drag Kai away, but he soon found that the rest of the estate was almost as kid-friendly as the clubhouse. Whether you’re in reception, having pre-drinks at the hotel bar or grabbing lunch at the wine tasting centre, there are miniature tables everywhere, with pictures to colour, cups full of crayons and baskets of toys. And wherever you are, you feel like staff have been briefed to make you and your offspring feel completely welcome, even when dining out (as beer lovers, we opted for Hoghouse on our first night – definitely recommended).

As I was in the business of treating mo’self, I headed off for a two-hour spa treatment while the boys went to visit the hawks and vultures at Eagle Encounters. That evening we grabbed food to go so that we could do the one thing we hadn’t yet found time for – enjoying the calming, comfy room.

We’d visited Spier perhaps a half dozen times before we discovered the hotel, but I suspect they’ll be seeing us again this winter (when prices drop!) In fact, we might just make it an annual family retreat.

We decided to have a phone-free retreat so I failed to take any photos; images for this review were supplied by Spier.

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Small-town South Africa for small people

“I love Carnarvon!” It was a sentence few before him had probably ever uttered, but our brief stop in the Hantam Karoo town had clearly impressed our son. I’m not…

“I love Carnarvon!” It was a sentence few before him had probably ever uttered, but our brief stop in the Hantam Karoo town had clearly impressed our son. I’m not sure why he was so taken with Carnarvon. As a family of beer enthusiasts (well, me and the hubby anyway) we had stopped only to admire the expansive collection of beer cans at the Carnarvon Hotel. Kai got a rare bag of chips out of the deal but I was still rather surprised as we strapped him back into the car seat and he blurted out his love for the little sheep-farming town.

I think we underestimate a small child’s ability to find joy and amusement pretty much anywhere. I for one am always searching for family-friendly restaurants or attractions, but you can’t guarantee petting farms or giant jungle gyms or fairgrounds full of rides and stalls wherever you go – and I am grateful for that. It forces you to research a little and think outside the box, and with a little imagination, you can find kids’ entertainment even in the tiniest of towns. Here are a few of our favourites:

Sutherland, Northern Cape (population 2836)

It was love at first sight. I first visited Sutherland about ten years ago and it remains one of my very favourite SA dorps. I love the lack of decision-making required at dinner time. I love the fresh air, the car-free streets and of course, the massive, star-filled skies. But would a three-year-old love Sutherland too? The nexus for visitors is the South African Astronomical Observatory, which sits atop a chilly hill 19km east of town. By day, you can take a peek inside SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope) and its smaller counterparts; by night you can peer at the sky for a guided star safari, often ending with an unforgettable glimpse of Saturn’s rings. Beware though, Sutherland gets very cold – if you plan to bring your kids for an evening visit, be sure to wrap them (and yourself) up warmly and consider bringing a thermos of something warm and a hot water bottle. Even in summer, it gets pretty nippy at night.

We visited in winter, so decided on a day visit. To keep Kai interested, I told him that the telescopes were spaceships and he loved seeing the framed photos of various planets and constellations once we stepped inside. When he’s older, we’ll certainly return and he can learn about telescopes and nebulas and sub-zero temperatures. But for now, inventing tales (I prefer this term to “lying”) about the place meant that I could enjoy the guided tour and he wasn’t utterly bored.

Sutherland is also the place to eat lamb (and indeed, the place where we discovered our son’s ravenous appetite for lamb chops). The town’s handful of restaurants all serve lamb in some form, but most agree that Cluster d’Hote is the place to dine – book ahead, or leave, as we did, disappointed.

visit South African Astronomical Observatory

Embracing the cold at the South African Astronomical Observatory just outside Sutherland

 

Graskop, Mpumalanga (population 3996)

For grown-ups, the allure of Graskop is fairly obvious. It is the southern gateway to the Blyde River Canyon, a dramatic drive peppered with lookout points, picnic spots and a selection of scenic hiking trails. I’m not sure at what age people begin to truly appreciate scenery. My son did comment a couple of weeks back, while driving over Ou Kaapse Weg in Cape Town, “Mummy, look – there’s a beautiful view!” and while I acknowledge that this made my heart melt, I don’t know if I could yet sell him on a day out based entirely on looking at notable landscapes. Still, a picnic is always a great seller and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes have an other-worldiness about them that is easy to sell to little kids.

Back in the town itself, there’s a great attraction for big kids: The Big Swing, where you can fly, abseil or of course swing across the gorge if you’re brave enough. For the rest I have one word: pancakes. Oddly enough, Graskop is kind of synonymous with pancakes, thanks to Harries, which opened here 20-odd years ago. I personally wasn’t wowed by the food, but the promise of a pancake filled with chocolate and banana worked as the perfect treat (OK, bribe) to keep Kai in his car seat for the best part of the afternoon while the rest of us oohed and aahed at our surrounds.

Heading for the less terrifying of Matjiesfontein’s two museums

Matjiesfontein, Western Cape (population 422)

If you’ve never veered off the N1 for a lunch break in Matjiesfontein, put it on your 2018 ‘to do’ list. And be prepared for some weirdness. It’s a weird, and if I’m honest, kind of creepy place. I audibly yelped when I was silently greeted by a time-worn mannequin in the old post office (do not watch House of Wax before visiting Matjiesfontein) and the Marie Rawdon Museum is – for me – one of the scariest tourist attractions in South Africa, with its rambling collection of porcelain dolls, old commodes and Victoria dental equipment… But Matjiesfontein makes for a very convenient leg-stretching stop and it’s the kind of place kids love.

Staff wander around dressed in period costume, an old-timer by the name of Johnny tickles the ivories in the Laird’s Arms pub (yes, we do take our son to a lot of pubs), the museum is full of interesting old knickknacks, there’s a red double-decker bus parked in the street and at the end of town (you can walk the entire town at a leisurely pace in under ten minutes), a second museum is filled with trains, trams and classic cars. If you stay the night, you get to board the bus and also take a ghost tour of the 19th-century railway siding – perfect for older kids.

Arniston, Western Cape (population 1267)

Arniston is a fine example of a tiny town with no in-your-face kids’ attractions that is in fact very family-friendly indeed. For a start, there’s a lovely beach with paddleable (that’s a word right?) waters and plenty of rockpools to rummage in. There’s the Waenhuiskrans Cave, found at the end of a fine walk and scramble along the coast (be sure to go at low tide – trust me) and the pretty old town with its maze of fishermen’s cottages and quaint ocean-side restaurant. And of course, if you’re looking for a more traditional form of family fun, there’s the Arniston Hotel, with a pool, spa and fully fledged kids’ club, complete with minders to take them off your hands (in school holidays only).

Attempting to get to Waenhuiskrans as the tide comes in with a not-so-small child in hand – what could go wrong?

Montagu, Western Cape (population 15,176)

The largest on the list is filled with pretty old buildings and charming restaurants – two things guaranteed to thrill pretty much no child between the ages of two and 15. But if you dig a little deeper, there are some kid-friendly attractions. The Leidam Bird Sanctuary is right in the town, free to visit and great for babies and toddlers still fascinated by flying things. You can hike from here to the Avalon Springs, where kids of all ages can wallow in warm water and whiz down waterslides (you can of course drive as well, if the short hike doesn’t appeal).

Nearby is Die Stal, a charming tearoom with space for little ones to run around. But perhaps the best thing for families to do in Montagu’s vicinity is to take a tractor ride into the Langeberg. Trips from Protea Farm leave on Wednesday and Friday mornings and end with an optional potjiekos lunch under the trees (though I would recommend lunching back in town). The trip is particularly wonderful in winter, when there’s often a sprinkling of snow on the ground and kids jump down to build microscopic snowmen.

Plenty of pretty for moms and dads to look at while the kids enjoy the tractor (and yes, this is a very old photo)

 

What are your favourite South African small towns to visit with the kids? I’d love to hear your suggestions – please share in the comments section below.

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The Gorge Cottage at Augrabies Falls National Park

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do….

When I was a teenager, long before txt spk wz a thng, we used to shorten words in a way that only teenagers seem to be lazy enough to do. One of my faves (see what I did there?) was ‘gorge’, most often used to describe whichever pin-up we were in love with that week (at a risk of ageing myself, it was usually Corey Haim). When the SAN Parks powers that be named the Gorge Cottage, they could almost have been using my teen years lingo. They weren’t of course – it is named for the geological marvel it overlooks – but it could have been, for if there is one thing you could say about the Gorge Cottage, it’s that it is gorgeous in every way.

My pic of the cottage was blurry through excitement – thanks to SANParks for this version

They didn’t get the name 100% correct though, for I’m not sure I would call it a cottage – more a dream apartment or a super swanky bachelor pad. It’s simply furnished with a double bed, comfy couch, a kitchenette and a few shelves and side tables. Photos taken in the park hang on one wall, though I couldn’t describe them with any conviction. No-one comes here to comment on furniture or admire paintings. One whole wall is made up of windows and the couch and bed face these windows the way they would face the flat screen in your average hotel room. Here of course, there is no TV, and nor is there any need for one. Instead you have the kind of panoramic view of the Oranjekom Gorge that no TV show or photograph could ever faithfully replicate.

For the longest time, this place was simply a lookout point. It still is, with a viewing platform sitting above the cottage, but in late 2016 some smart soul saw fit to add the park’s most impressive place to stay. As dusk approaches and the park’s gates close, the day visitors disappear, throwing back envious glances at whoever is lucky enough to be staying over at the cottage. And my advice to you is to put it on your bucket list, like now. I can’t begin to properly convey the magnificent silence and the deep honour of having this view all to yourself. And it only gets better if like I did, you manage to time your stay with a full moon.

I tend to peddle more in straight-talking than poetry, but sitting outside on a huge boulder sipping cold beer as the moon softly illuminated the 240m-deep gorge gauged out by the Gariep/Orange River – well, it was nothing short of magical. There are no sounds except birdsong and the distant flow of the river and just as I thought the scene could get no more perfect, a dassie scurried by, leaping over a gap in the rocks in that agile manner that their tubby appearance belies.

The laziest photo I’ve ever taken – the view from your bed at the Gorge Cottage

Those beers – or G&Ts or whatever way you choose to celebrate sundown – could come back to haunt you later since the bathroom was built some 30 metres away. Luckily, a plan has been made for those middle-of-the-night calls of nature. It’s undoubtedly the least romantic aspect of the accommodation and not something you’d be keen to use in the early stages of a relationship, but the chemical loo is a bit of a godsend if you wake up after one sundowner too many (or if you’re a mom and midnight peeing is just a part of your routine). It’s been done as well as it could have been, hidden away in a wooden box and emitting no aroma. And it really is the ultimate loo with a view.

This place is firmly filed under “parental retreats”. I really don’t think kids would appreciate the setting and anyway, the cottage sleeps a maximum of two people. I visited alone on a work trip. I thought I’d get plenty of work done but the view is such that I couldn’t take my eyes off it and I didn’t write a word other than to gush about the beauty of it all.

But while it’s undoubtedly a fine place for some ‘you time’, this really is a perfect spot for couples; for reconnecting or recharging batteries. We actually spent one night of our honeymoon at Augrabies many moons ago and I’ll tell you this, if the cottage had been there then, we wouldn’t have spent the night trying in vain to sleep in a tent in the oppressive January heat (side note: the cottage has no air con and will get obscenely hot in summer). But I will be back here soon with Shawn, for the Gorge Cottage has made it firmly onto my “second honeymoon” bucket list (which is now a thing). Now to find a babysitter for Kai…

The Gorge Cottage costs R1600 per night for two people. It’s situated 10km from the main camp and there’s no access to the camp’s shop and restaurant once the gate closes around 7pm. There’s a small kitchen and a braai area but a distinct lack of plug sockets – bring an adaptor for phone-charging. There is cell reception.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary night’s stay at the Gorge Cottage.

An attempt to capture the vista from the Gorge Cottage

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Family activities on the Garden Route: George

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me…

Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me mutter, “that would be such an awesome train ride…” My biggest travel regret of all time is that when I first visited SA in 2002, I didn’t take the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. The insanely scenic trip from Knysna to George has been out of action since floods damaged the tracks in 2006, although there’s regular talk of the line being repaired. There are occasional steam train trips between George and Mossel Bay, but if you’re looking for a reliable train ride to do with the kids, there’s always the Outeniqua Power Van.

I’ve taken the Power Van twice and I think the weather in this pic is pretty representative of the region…

OK, so the Power Van isn’t exactly a train, but it leaves from George train station and it runs along tracks, so most kids will let the nomenclature go. It is in fact a rail trolley – a funny little petrol-powered vehicle that pulls a small carriage behind it. Trips leave from the Outeniqua Transport Museum – also a cool place for kids that like trains, trucks, cars and – well – transport.

Into the mountains…

The Power Van trundles up into the Outeniqua Mountains on a 2½-hour trip. A local guide joins you on board, giving a commentary on the history and geography of the area but you’ll excuse me for not being able to share too much of that info with you. It was just me and Kai so between trying to get him to stay in his seat and stopping him from eating every last bite of our picnic before we got anywhere near the picnic spot, I didn’t take in much of the info.

Driving the Power Van

I can tell you that it’s an extremely scenic ride offering views of the Cradock, Outeniqua and Montagu Passes. I recall hearing that the track was built by convicts. And of course, having travelled with a four-year-old, I can tell you that we went through seven tunnels (you can thank Kai for that piece of information). After about 90 minutes of scenic trundling, honking at the occasional klipspringer playing chicken on the tracks, you turn around and come back down towards George. And when I say you turn around, I do mean you and not the van. The seats all flip, so those who boarded last and got stuck at the back on the way up get the best views on the way down.

There’s a cursory picnic stop with views over George – you get about half an hour to munch on anything that your children haven’t already eaten. And note there are no toilets on board or en route, so come prepared for some au naturale ablutions…

In truth, I think Kai might still be a little young for the trip. He enjoyed sitting at the front and pretending to drive, but at 2½ hours it might be more suited to kids a little older.

Strawberry picking… and another train

One thing he utterly loved was the Redberry Farm in Blanco, just west of George. The farm is perfect for little kids, with a mini train (got to admit, I think I enjoyed this just as much as Kai), bunnies to feed, bumper boats and a pretty cool jungle gym. For slightly older children there are go-karts, horse rides and bubble ball (kind of like zorbing but on water). And for even older people, a craft beer and wine tasting room is about to open. And there’s dessert everywhere… You could easily spend a couple of hours here, lunching and partaking in the activities, which range from R20 for a five-minute session to R35 for the maze, which could take hours…

This is Kai’s proud face. He took the strawberries to playschool in his lunch box the next day so he could tell everyone he’d picked them himself

But the biggest hit was the strawberry picking itself. Granted, I felt like a bit of a party pooper as I attempted to explain the concept of ripened fruit, but I didn’t want to end up with a punnet of minscule, lime-green berries. Kai was so excited that if I hadn’t intervened, he would have picked the first twenty strawberries he’d seen, most likely uprooting each plant as he went. But after a little schooling on what constitutes a good berry, we spent half an hour filling our containers. And as we left, Kai turned to me and said “Mummy, I love it here. And I love you…forever!”

In my book, that’s a pretty successful day out.

 

The Outeniqua Power Van operates Monday to Saturday. Times vary and booking are essential. It’s R150 for adults and R130 for children. To book, call or SMS 082 490 5627.

Redberry Farm is open Monday to Saturday, 9am-4pm, although many of the activities only operate on Fridays and Saturdays. New cafes and shops were due to open when we visited.

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