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Family travel in South Africa and beyond

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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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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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Why travelling with children can really be quite wonderful

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next…

When I met my husband, we were embarking on an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He’d been backpacking through Europe, I’d been living in Spain. Over the next eight years or so, we visited 25 countries together across four continents. It was only the sheer beauty, vibrancy and diversity of Cape Town that eventually soothed our itchy feet.

I’m not telling you this to brag or attempt to incite jealousy but to show how travel has always been a major part of our life together. We are engaged in a perpetual competition to see who’s been to the most countries (it’s him, but I will catch up), our shelves are full of guidebooks, our walls full of maps. So when we had a baby back in 2013, you can imagine what people said. “Oh, that’ll be the end of your travels.” “Your life is going to change!” “You won’t be able to travel around once the little one arrives.”

Who needs a kids’ playground when you have a sunset shadow to play with?

 

Of course, they were right about one thing – our lives changed. Of course they did – anyone who thinks they can bring a small human onto the planet and not change pretty much everything about their lives is probably a fool. But it’s often insinuated that when it comes to kids, the change will be a negative one. I don’t want to sugar coat things – travelling with babies or toddlers is tough and you  may well have to rethink the way you travel. Gone are the 24-hour train rides and the days spent walking 20,000 steps around a city; here instead are plans that revolve around bottle-warming or nap times or being back at the accommodation in time to start the bedtime routine.  But there really is something quite magnificent about travelling with young children, particularly when they reach the chatty years.

Kai – he was named for the city in which we met – is now four, and he is a pretty cool travel companion. Sure, stuff goes wrong. Sometimes you spend weeks carefully planning an itinerary tailored just for him and then all he wants to do is stay in what he calls the “holiday house”. There are tantrums to deal with, colossal piles of luggage to bring, road trips are certainly not as much fun as they used to be and more often than not, we all end up going to bed at 8pm.

No TV, no wifi, no central heating, but still the best holiday house ever

But here’s the pay-off: children are so innocent, so unjaded that everything is wondrous. As grown-ups we rock up at destinations with preconceived ideas of how our trip will pan out. Our bucket-list destinations had better be perfect, our game-viewing experiences had better be David Attenborough-worthy and we want our perfectly-planned holiday to run, well, perfectly. We can learn a lot from travelling with little kids – they can help get back to the basics of travel and help us to appreciate not just the world wonders but everything we find along the way.

We just got back from a short road trip through the Northern Cape. Admittedly it was shorter than planned (after realising just how cold Namaqualand is in winter, I vetoed the camping section and we came home early). There were no big ticket stops on our list and virtually nothing you’d label a child-friendly attraction, but Kai embraced it all as though we were at Disney World. “This holiday house is my favourite!” he shouted as we arrived at the 19th-century corbelled house just outside Carnvarvon. “I’m going to stay here forever!” he told me excitedly, as I cursed the temperature and my decision to visit in winter. “I love Carnarvon so much!” he yelped as we briefly stopped in the tiny town to check out a collection of antique beer cans (yes, really). It’s a statement I can only imagine doesn’t get uttered too often. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Carnarvon, but it’s not exactly Paris. It’s not even Springbok.

Smelling the flowers – all 12 of them – at the Hantam National Botanical Garden outside Nieuwoudtville

One of our main goals on the trip was to finally witness the spring flowers after living in South Africa for seven years. But there was not a lot blooming in Namaqualand thanks to the drought. I was pretty disappointed and regretted my choice to tell Kai that we were going to see lots of flowers. But then I had an awakening of how travelling with children really can be something special. My momentary disappointment in the lack of floral carpets was quickly washing away by Kai’s boundless enthusiasm for every petal he spotted. “Mummy, I found a yellow one!” he’d shout, gleefully, as he ran through the barren Hantam National Botanical Garden on the most exciting flower hunt he could ever imagine.

It was on this trip that I finally decided to start a family travel blog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, on-and-off, ever since that first ultrasound. I hope you’ll join us as we try to see South Africa – and the rest of the world – in that wide-eyed way that every child does.

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