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You Never Forget the First Tree You Plant

As published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog

The mountain stretched out its path before us.

“Follow me,” the winding red clay road said. Small rocks, like unruly tortoises, scattered the trail.

With each roll of the tyres, down the declines, along the flats, up the climbs, I saw the drop beside us grow.

We were headed up into the mountain but it’s never really as simple as that. When it comes to climbing mountains, when it comes to getting to the top most peaks of the Cederberg, one must go down too. Up and down, up and down.

I watched the cliff, the sun and the clouds, the ups and the downs, the tyres on the left of the vehicle – Bushmans Kloof’s game vehicle – like an eagle getting the lay of the land.

We weren’t here to see animals, we were on our way to plant the endangered and endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) in the mountains named after them. The Cederberg. But there is something about a game vehicle – an open sided 4×4 and the fresh African air – that makes your eyes perk up for the slightest hint of movement in the distance. These are the animal eyes of the safarigoer.

After the bontebok, klipspringer, red hartebeest, grey rhebok and zebra, the aardwolf, African wildcat and bat-eared fox of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, these mountains, a short drive from the lodge, pointed us to rock rabbits, baboons, tortoises, the great African Fish eagle and Black Harrier.

Arms would stretch out of the vehicle in slow motion as passengers pointed to their sightings, uncertain if it had been real, or a figment of safari imagination, of mountain elevation.

Because out in the middle of the Cederberg away from any view of city streets or lights, any sound of man, it seems unbelievable that anyone or thing could live here.

When you look closely (when you are accompanied by someone from Cape Nature, like Conservation Manager,  Rika du Plessis) you realise how inaccurate it would be to describe the region as barren. Remote yes, isolated yes. But not barren. Life has adapted to the terrain here in many different forms. Dung beetles, snakes, scorpions live side by side with the odd village donkey and the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The reason for the scarcity of cedar trees has more to do with the influence of the human hand than nature. Deforestation has ripped these icons of the area from the picture. Wild fires have not helped, nor the fact that cedars like to take their time. They’re slow growers, these trees.

To attempt to counteract this, Cape Nature and Bushmans Kloof host this annual Clanwilliam Cedar Tree event at Heuningvlei in the Cederberg Wilderness each year.

About 300 conservation volunteers, school children and families from all over the Western Cape unite to plant cedar saplings. To rewild the area. Participants include the Wildflower Society, the local branch of the Botanical Society and the Cederberg Conservancy, as well as local schools.

At a clearing high up in the hills, our vehicle parked, alongside the other treeplanters and guests. Our trees were waiting for us –  mature seedlings a hand tall that had been birthed and cared for in Cape Nature’s nursery.

Our feet took to the ground and we made our individual paths into the grove and the surrounding wilderness. Burnt skeletons of cedars past stood tall trying to hold onto the shifting sand beneath them. A few trees remained, signalling us with their bright Christmas tree green amid the browns and blacks.

Beside a stump for company, I dug my hole and planted my sapling. I covered her up with the sandy soil around her and sprinkled cold water over her.

And as though watching, attentively, to what our gathering was up to… as though hearing our soft words of encouragement and wishes to the plant gods, the sun slipped behind the clouds and rain erupted over us.

Over the dry earth. Over the donkeys and eagles and snakes. Over our young trees.

It’s difficult not to be a little mystically minded at moments like this.

The area, the whole of the Cape, had been in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. Rain was not common. And yet here we stood, drenched by what felt a whole lot like the earth trying its best to help us grow some trees.

It was all up to Mother Nature now.

We climbed back into the game vehicle and rolled back down (up and down, up and down) the mountain to the lodge, to our bontebok, to flooding gardens and puddled dirt roads and a great hopes to return in a year to see our handsome cedars still standing, tall and green.

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” — Wangari Maathai

Highlights of the Event

Everyone, strangers, friends, locals, travellers, coming together.

Even little ones… who were given cedar seeds to plant, to grow into saplings for next year’s tree planting event

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” — Wangari Maathai

Searching for animal life in the peaks and valleys

Planting – for some of us – our first ever tree

The beauty of the Cederberg and its rich, unique life

The inspiring introduction from one of Bushmans Kloof’s Chairmen, Michael Tollman, about the sustainability projects at Bushmans Kloof and the importance of the cedar tree event. Watch the talk here > 

The song and dance that concluded the event in the mountains… compliments of the local band and Reil dance troupe

And the lunch and sweet treats in between, from Bushmans Kloof Executive Chef, Charles Hayward

Returning to Bushmans Kloof for the night… A beautiful, welcome highlight without a doubt.

Read more: Good Hope FM breakfast host Dan Corder gets to know CapeNature and watch the video.


“Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” ― Anaïs Nin

Ellerman Sessions Parlotones 13

One Night With The Parlotones

As written for the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog


Musicians are just like us. They too are travellers. Adventurers. Their sunshine and starry nights are also often seen in new towns, with new people, while drinking in the unfamiliar. Like us, it’s not uncommon for them to fall asleep in one time zone and wake up in another. Sometimes, there’s no sleep at all. For us both, there are always new minds to encounter around tables, in the clear light of breakfast and the dizzy daze of dinner. There are always strangers who feel a lot like home, and strangers who get stranger. Every trip, every gig, is different from the next. Each one finds a way to open your mind a little more. Sometimes, with the right combination of thrill and soul, one day, one night, can feel like a lifetime. It can fill the heart with all the spirit it needs to go on. On every trip, every gig, there are moments you can’t shake, moments that linger in nerve and sinew. Adventure and soul are what travel and music have in common. Even for the audience, caught in the voodoo of the electric guitar and the wild beats of sticks on a drum. There is a journey in the listening as much as the playing. Sometimes the lyrics and their message take hold of us, pick us up like hitchhikers on the side of the long open road, and carry us from one place to the next. From the quiet red earth desert to the thick dripping rainforest. From memory to memory. For musicians, as with travellers, there is a sense of purpose. No time to waste. Only more life to chase and sink into. Of course there are different kinds of musicians just as there are different kinds of travellers, but in our hearts we’re made of the same stuff.

That’s how it felt watching the first of the Ellerman Sessions at Ellerman House in Cape Town. That’s what came to mind as The Parlotones, South Africa’s most successful rock band, spun for us, the travellers gathered in the Wine Gallery, the stories behind their songs. In between sets, Kahn Morbee, Neil Pauw, Glenn Hodgson, Paul Hodgson and Rob Davidson bared their hearts, told their truths, and took us on a voyage. Sitting with the band in their villa at the hotel, watching the sun dripping over the ocean through distant clouds, we spoke of the most unusual places they’ve played, the favourites, the never-go-back-to’s. We spoke the language of travel… of the airplane tickets, shot glasses and hotel slippers we’ve collected from each far-flung home. Of the adventures that become songs, the songs that become adventures. But most significantly, we spoke, musician and traveller alike, with the same soul.

Discover the other artists lined up for Ellerman House’s Ellerman Sessions here, and take a look at some images from the first night below.

Things I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Want to Know

Published first in the Sunday Times’ Accidental Tourist – 13 May 2018

They say there are things we know we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown unknowns.

Before going to the Seychelles, I knew there would be blue sea and white sand and coconuts and I had heard talk of bats and turtles. Other than that, I knew I was going in blind. And that excited me. I like not being a know-it-all. Perhaps I have no choice in the matter, but the surprise element was very appealing. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the things I discovered that I didn’t know I didn’t know.

The best case of this came one evening on a beach on a private island in the archipelago – the remote North Island that had taken three planes and two boats to access from Cape Town.

We had been hiking through the jungle terrain of one of the island’s peaks, slipping down fallen palm fronds and scrambling up giant black boulders. The guide led the way as we emerged from the wilderness onto white beach sand. I hung on her every word about Seychellois animal and plant life like a young Gerald Durrell aching to take them all home with me.

Standing before the Indian Ocean, we watched the sun drop from view and blackness fill the world. And then we saw it. The long path leading up from the water to where beach met forest. We saw, in the light of the moon, turtle tracks.

At least, the guide saw them and pointed them out to me, before scurrying about like a turtle mother about to lay eggs herself – which is what she was looking for. A female about to lay eggs.

We snuck up to the end of the turtle’s trail – as marked by hind flippers trying to haul one heavy hulk on land. And there, above the high spring tide mark, we knelt down beside a huge green turtle and watched as she concluded the uncomfortable task of digging a hole. The remarkable part for me came when she reversed her tush over the hole and began to lay her offspring.

Having made an egg myself – in a frying pan in the kitchen – I expected a hard shell to drop from her. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that these ancient reptiles lay their young in soft, leathery casings that can land gently in the nest of more than a hundred sisters and brothers. In the dim red light of our torch, the eggs looked a lot more like ping pong balls (but with the softness of mascarpone) as they plopped free from Mum.

As the guide continued her soliloquy of I-know-more-than-you-isms, another fact came to light that I had never thought to think about: how to have a turtle daughter or a turtle son.

In the human world, old wives tales encourage you to drink a cup of coffee 20 minutes before sex if you want a boy. To conceive a girl, it’s recommended the man wear tighty-whiteys and the woman eat plenty of vegetables and sweets. In the 18th century, to ensure a son, men were advised to cut off their left testicle.

For turtles, the gender of juveniles is determined by the temperature surrounding them during their 60 days of incubation. Turtle fathers everywhere must be rejoicing! Cooler nests give rise to a male-dominated clutch while warmer nests produce females.

Just how these turtles do the fandango is a whole other nest of mascarpone balls and a particular detail I was quite confident to announce that I knew I didn’t want to know. We watched the mother tuck her babes in for the long sleep ahead and then switched off our light to let the family rest. And because, sometimes, not knowing how a story ends is part of the great mystery and delight of life.


Safaris & the Art of Being Yourself

First published in the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e e cummings

This is not a topic that concerns animals, but it is one that they so naturally teach – the art of being yourself.

It is a topic that separates us little bipeds from the wild world of our animal brothers and sisters. Sure, who knows really what a woodpecker mum gets up to when hidden inside her nest. But I doubt she is worrying about whether she is being a good enough mother, or if her feathers still have their youthful lustre. She is beyond even the stage of acceptance – she simply does not think about it. Sure, she doesn’t quite have the brain structure for such neuroticism. And we do, which gives us the task of overcoming self-doubt and learning to accept and embrace, all through life.

On the subject of neuroticism, let’s take my morning face, for instance. There is nothing like a 5 am game drive, I discovered on our safari at Mara Plains Camp in Kenya, while trying to pose naturally for a camera, to make you doubt yourself.

You might have had the coffee and the hot water and lemon and the muffin, but your face does not lie when it still desires an hour extra under the sheets. When the cold air blows and mascara rolls silently down the side of your face, you are presented with that great challenge – man versus nature, self versus other.

Bundled in khaki scarves and windbreakers with extra buoyant morning hair, do you ignore the reflection in the mirror and focus on the great male lion shaking his silky mane in the golden light of dawn?

Yes, you do, and you think nothing of it.

There is no time for ego on a safari. Only awe. Getting back to nature in any way strips you of the me-me-me thoughts, because suddenly you find yourself in a phantasmagoria of scents and sounds and sights. Attention shifts – the elephants call on you to be present for them. One look down and you could miss the grand show of flapping ears or a little one’s first steps.

Embraced in the right way, a safari is a truth-seeking journey. A simplifying and a refocusing of life. It is learning to concentrate less on yourself and more on the exciting world around you, which, in turn, helps you to be more yourself.

It’s that look after a long day out in the savannah and bush, a day spent riding horses in big cat country and bumping along in 4X4s over river beds and along dusty dirt paths. It’s the freckles popping on your sun-kissed nose and the mud on your boots. It’s the tired red eyes from hours of looking through a camera, darting from one eagle to another. It’s the peace that comes with it all – having let go, having jumped in, wholeheartedly – and it’s the smile that shows not a care in the world.

That look is the look of someone on safari, of someone who has stepped into themselves.

Thank you for the lesson, Mara Plains Camp.

Take a look at a few images from our safari to this beautiful part of Kenya – on the northern border of the Maasai Mara – below.


The Peculiar Virtues of a Cactus Garden

When we speak of gardens, we all imagine different things.

Some of us conjure up images of wild jungle-like spaces with towering palm trees and human-size ferns taking over ponds, or secret paths winding under pockets of cool shade from giant oaks and dappled light created by ancient cedar trees. These kinds of garden lovers are the dreamers and adventurers of the horticultural world and, like their gardens, they prefer not to be tamed.

Their fingernails, toe nails, nostrils and brows are all marked with the soil they excitedly embrace with a whole heart. They are easily distracted by the call of a bird – one wonders if they have not created their garden solely for the enjoyment of these winged vagabonds. As a place for the birds to enjoy and for the garden lover to enjoy the birds. You can detect this with the countless bird baths, handmade suet balls and seed feeders scattered around the greenery. And the chairs set up beside them.

Some of us settle on an image of a prim and proper English rose garden, manicured and sculpted like the people who saunter through it in their fancy garden hats. These types of garden lovers always wear gloves and quite like to sip tea while seeing to the perfect petals that swim out of cherished rose buds. They are also fond of rolling evergreen lawns and fountain statues of angels with water flowing from their mouths. They would never use the word spewing although it is more fitting than flowing, and they would never pick out the other kind of angel statues, with water emanating from a lower orifice. Ducks are fond of following them around, awaiting a crumb from all those cucumber sandwiches.

Some of us envisage the greatest of vegetable gardens. These are the dungaree-wearers, who like to practice the art of staying in the moment while digging new little homes for their Swiss chard and fennel bulbs. They bring their whole selves to the garden each day, while sprinkling water over their herbs and harvesting their broccoli florets. Gardening is about more than mere enjoyment for them. It is a way of life. A turning away from the consumerism around them and an embrace of the concept of living off the earth.

Obviously, there are different degrees of veggie garden growers, but no man or woman grows an edible plant without the intention of eating it or selling it to someone else to eat. Their plants are what they stand for, they are all their hopes and beliefs tilled in between the dirt and roots and insects of the undergrowth, and watching them grow into thick, flourishing crops ready for harvest is enough to make them pop a wheelie with their wheelbarrows and dance in the buff with their spades as great warrior spears.

I am definitely this kind of loon. But I am also, deeply, called by the sparseness of a cactus garden.

The one day surprises that bloom out of the tall green pillars. Their covering of hairs, spines or barbed bristles. The unbelievable variety and kooky names – like peyote, prickly pear, hedgehog cactus, the Old Man of Perufee, Mother-in-Law’s-Chair, Horses’ Teeth, Elephant Feet and Bushman’s Grape.

Perhaps this, below, is why I consider myself a cactus person…

But it is also the peace of a cactus garden, the quiet, the honesty, the individuality and the character. The Sheilam Cactus and Succulent Nursery near Robertson is one of the best places in the country to see all 2000 or so species together and it is recognised by authorities as one of the finest collections of specimen plants.

I’d say the cactus gardeners among us are likely of the glove-wearing tribe. They also have the ability to see the beauty in the unordinary, in the unconventional. They are individualists, highly independent and, much like the cactus, often a little hard on the outside, but with a heart that supports and creates life. They hold a significant and lively interior world inside their spiky walls. That is their allure, their mystery. That is their peculiar virtue.

Here is a look at the Sheilam Cactus and Succulent Nursery from our latest visit. But we’ll be back.



In the land of lions and leopards

As published first in Instantsthe Relais & Châteaux magazine.

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” ― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa.

Once you have had a taste of life, real life, as Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen saw it, it is impossible to turn your back on it. It holds onto the deepest parts of yourself and starts you on a journey to even greater depths.

More than 80 years after Karen published her tales of life in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, I ventured to the Great Plains Conservation’s Ol Donyo Lodge, where the Chyulu Hills stretch out and touch the plains of Kenya’s Amboseli, and to Mara Plains Camp, in the private Olare Motorogi Conservancy, on the edge of the Maasai Mara.

And those tracks Karen wrote of, the trails left by our safari vehicle moving across the land in search of wildlife, they still continue to wind themselves through my mind, long after I have returned home. Because to live, for a moment, among lions and other big cats – leopard and cheetah, the giant tusker elephants and immense herds of wildebeest and zebra, hyena and giraffe, topi and impala, secretary birds and go-away birds, is to feel life pulsate through you like never before.

It is the sense of fear and the unknown, it is the humility and the awe of being out of your comfort zone and face-to-face with the threat and majesty of wild animals. To not simply view them from behind a screen or fence, but to roam among them, sleep and eat beside them… that feeling keeps returning to you until you return to it.

At ol Donyo Lodge, our safari unfolded in the private 275,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch in south-eastern Kenya, next to Chyulu Hills National Park, with the summit of Africa’s greatest icon – Mount Kilimanjaro – in the distance. The ranch is owned by 4,000 Maasai and is leased from them by Great Plains Conservation. The full lease fee and per person conservancy fee goes to this community on the understanding that they will ensure the conservation of the ranch and the wild animals which call it home.

The result is an area rich in wildlife, where you can glimpse Africa’s last giant elephant bulls and listen to the calls of the leopard and lion that are being pulled back from the brink of extinction in this region. We headed out on morning and afternoon game drives, with Maasai guide and photographer, Jackson Lemunge, and spent time among the antelope and birdlife. The predators remain elusive in these parts, but rather than being a drawback, it allowed for some exquisite hiking, horse riding and mountain biking over the plains and hills.

On one cycle, after a slow morning horse ride and a bush breakfast beneath the shade of an acacia tree, guide Nadine Ospelkaus and I found ourselves completely surrounded. Alone in the wilderness, we looked around to find an endless journey of giraffes making their way across the horizon in front of us. From right to left, a herd of wildebeest and zebra kicked up dust in their continuous trek, while behind a Maasai herder and his great horned cattle closed in on us to complete the circle. Rather than fear, we felt a deep sense of being part of the wildlife scene here, of being one of the players in this wilderness, one of the animals.

Further west, at Mara Plains Camp, amid a thick, riverine forest on a bend in the Ntiakitiak River on the northern border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, I found myself in a land quite different. I found myself in predator country. With guide, Nicholas Ratia behind the wheel, we spent every possible opportunity in search of the wild things. Whether early morning, late afternoon or night, on a game vehicle or merely dining in camp or lying in bed in the immense canvas tents, the sounds, sights and smells of safari life took hold.

Watching lions mating, feeding, sleeping, playing, and mating some more; watching the sun rise over a leopard mother and her cub, the cats stirring, leaping and rolling together as the sleep left their bodies; these scenes were all the more special because of the camp’s exclusivity, its isolation as one of only five camps in the 100,000 acres of the conservancy.

For what felt like an entire morning, Nick, our leopards and I sat in silence together. Not another soul in sight. Mere metres between us. As the cub sniffed our tyre and curled her tail around the edge of our vehicle, it looked up at me sitting inside, its big blue eyes meeting mine. And I felt it… a deep sense of what Karen Blixen wrote of. I felt the life rush through me and I knew it would never leave.

Cycling with the Wild Things of Kenya

First published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

No matter how many times I get on a bicycle and head out on city streets or country roads or mountains trails, it is always Einstein I see. With his big lawless mop of white hair and his goofy “spent too much time in the lab” smile. And I hear his words about how cycling is just like life. “To keep your balance, you must keep moving,” the great physicist said.

It’s useful advice should you ever forget how to ride a bicycle, or, simply, how to do life. How to keep your balance in the continuous play.

You truly feel this balance when you’ve conquered something, like incline after incline, and when the smooth ride of the flats leads into a fast and glorious downward soar. It’s a feeling that is all the stronger when out in the wilderness, in big sky country like Kenya’s Chyulu Hills at ol Donyo Lodge.

Here, vast stretches of uninterrupted land surround you in every direction. Wild animals roam beside cattle and their Maasai herders – cheetah and lion, wildebeest and elephant.

Perhaps the most profound part about getting on that bicycle in a wild terrain like this is knowing that animals are out and about, while you move among them on two wheels.

The joy is in being closer to the land – as compared to game drives – and in finding yourself looking up at a journey of giraffe only metres away from where you stand. Because, needless to say, you will have to stop at some point and just take it all in.

The joy is in being able to move your body, your legs, and to feel not merely like a bystander, an onlooker, but a player, a member.

Our guides knew just where to lead us, along the sandy paths in the flat scrubland. We followed them to a giant boulder beside a thick canopy of trees (definitely a good place for a big cat, considering the bones scattered below) to catch the last rays of the day shining through an unruly swathe of clouds that looked for a moment like wild-haired Einstein staring right back at us, reminding us. Keep going, never give up.

The guides knew where to find the magic but they also knew how to keep us safe. In addition to that, it is said that due to decades of Maasai roaming the plains and living in and around the wilderness here, the predators have become used to people – used to knowing that they should stay away. On foot, they recognise us, but climb on a horse or into a game vehicle and watch the dynamics change.

We all ride for different reasons – some of us simply for exercise, for fitness, and some for that intense feeling of being alive. Alive among lions, giraffe and zebra, well that’s even better.

Discover more about ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya here.


The Bandit’s Way of Winemaking

An Interview with Craig Hawkins

By Tamlin Wightman

As published in ICC magazine

Craig Hawkins is the biggest advocate of natural wine in South Africa. Together with wife, Carla, he left the Swartland winery, Lammershoek, to follow his dreams and pursue his TESTALONGA brand of wines at their new farm, Bandits Kloof. Meet the man behind some of South Africa’s most exciting wines.


He doesn’t mention Bob Marley. But there the dreadlocked reggae singer sits, smiling in his frame on the cabinet. This is Craig Hawkins’ office, but really, Craig says, it’s just where his music is, here and reverberating through the speakers of the wine cellar.

He doesn’t mention Marley, as we catch up over the telephone connecting us between his and his significant other, Carla’s farm, Bandits Kloof, in the countryside of the Swartland, Paardeberg wine region, in South Africa, and me, in Cape Town.

But who Craig does have time to mention is Eminem.

“I don’t only necessarily get inspiration from the wine world,” the winemaker says. “For instance, I listen to a lot of music. Somebody like Eminem is such a role model to me. He was this white guy entering the rap world. It was unheard of. And he had such raw passion. He was also highly intelligent and had incredible business sense. He grabbed the world. He just did what he did. I respect that. And Mozart… who was the Eminem of his period. A complete outsider. Those are the guys that inspire me, the first properly original pop artists.”

Music is so much a part of Craig’s creative process as a winemaker that he admits, “Our sound system in the wine cellar is from an ex DJ. It’s louder than some clubs. I enjoy music. I enjoy the story it tells, and the emotion it has. Wine can give you that same feeling, which is what I try do with my labels. I try to tell a story.”

Doing what he wants is important to Craig and it is something evident not only in his wines and their labels, but in the life philosophy that he is, slowly, composing for me.

“Winemaking is the tool that allowed me to do what I love. It encompasses everything –outdoor life, and indoor with the creation side of it, creativity, meeting people. It has enabled me to buy a farm, to spend time in the fresh air and it has taught me that life is not about just chasing your tail. Winemaking for me is a way to live the life we enjoy.”

It is his brother who introduced Craig to the world of winemaking. “Initially, from my limited knowledge, I found it quite boring, quite generic.”

“I got into wine as a result of my older brother, Neil (who now makes wine in Australia at The Wine Farm) while still at school, just as a way to earn extra money, working in his vineyards when he was based in South Africa. He showed me his cellars and the transformations that took place. From there on, I had the bug.”

Craig asked Neil who he considered the most “out-there” winemaker in South Africa at the time. “And he told me about Eben Sadie. I called Eben and asked for a harvest job, which he gave me and I worked for him for five years, which is how I came to the Swartland. Eben opened my eyes. He had a whole new approach to winemaking. I wanted to learn more, to keep growing, after that. I spent six years in Europe following that, working six months overseas and six months with Eben.

“The greatest influence on me was Tom Lubbe. I spent a lot of time working with him at Domaine Matassa in the south of France, acquiring the knowledge and experience that helped me later on. He really pushed me over the edge, to the point of no return, in terms of what I want to do in wine.

“We don’t have the wine culture here in South Africa that they have in Europe. I wanted to work with guys who grew up in wine, not just who studied it. I kept searching for purity in wine while in Europe. That’s how I discovered natural wine.”

While working in France in 2007, Rémy Pedreno from Roc d’Anglade introduced Craig to a skin macerated white wine, a white wine fermented on its skin, made by Antonio Perrino, a winemaker in Italy and a man whose nickname, Testalonga, meaning “long face”, Craig would use to name his own brand of wines.*

(* “Testalonga is also the name of a famous bandit and politician from Sicily. I like that connection,” Craig says, “because our wine is a little bit different. And I like to think that we have a bit of a sense of humour.”)

“It had an orange colour and to me it was a new set of smells, flavours and tannins. That changed me, tasting natural wine for the first time. Antonio’s was the first skin contact wine I tasted. It was the most different thing I’d ever tasted, and it all came down to the way he farmed and what he did in the cellar. It blew my mind. I thought I’d go back to South Africa and find someone doing this, but no one was.”

Craig returned home to South Africa in 2008 and while working for Eben, he made his first wine – a skin contact Chenin called El Bandito, under his brand, TESTALONGA. “It was a white wine made like a red wine. People asked me how I’d sell it because it was so different, so unique in South Africa, but it snowballed and sold itself.”

“I was dating Carla back then, we both studied wine and were in the business together. I was working for Eben and she for the wine estate, Lammershoek, which my now father-in-law part-owned. I like things small and focused but he asked me to come and work for him and even though it was a bigger land, I did – for five years. I changed the whole farm into organic. For me, organic farming is non-negotiable.”

At the end of 2014, it was time to go their own way. “Carla and I left the company and bought a property in the north of the Swartland, where we now live, farm and make wine.”

The new farm lies off on the national road, the N7, which travels northwards from Cape Town, parallel to the Cape’s West Coast. The farm, still in its infancy, is open to guests by appointment.

“Carla and I discussed it and to do what we really wanted to we had to start from scratch. We looked for land and found this farm in the far north of the Swartland. It needed a lot of work. It still does. It’s 180 kilometres from Cape Town and had no electricity at first, no vineyards, but amazing soil and water. We lived with just generators for six months. I had to get the cellar right, put in the electrics… Now we’re preparing the soil and vines for next year. And in the meantime, we use grapes from the farms we rent.”

Craig rents about 10 hectares of farmland in the area – vines growing from the granite soils of the Swartland, Paardeberg. Together with Carla, he currently produces 13 going on 15 wines, under the names El Bandito and Baby Bandito. In terms of winemaking, that’s a lot. “I’m not doing for the sake of making more wine,” Craig says, “but every label and wine is a separate vineyard.”

In line with his natural winemaking philosophy, all of the vines they work with are dry farmed – as in that they aren’t irrigated but rather survive on rainwater. “They were planted in the 60s and 70s and have adapted to the climate so they don’t need extra water. You get 100 times more intensity this way. It’s my goal to farm like this, but it will take seven or eight years to get the new vines to adapt.

“Natural wine is largely about the farming process. There are no pesticides in the soil, or going into the vines. You’re not killing anything. You’re still farming but you’re farming in the pure sense of the word.”

Bringing it back to his other love, Craig says, “It’s a bit like with music, everyone has an opinion. It’s a matter of taste, how it makes you feel. You can’t put your finger on just what is different. Like you can’t with Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles. With natural wine there was a purity that attracted me, that I had been searching for. It’s more wholesome. I can taste the difference between natural and more heavily manipulated wines. Over-manipulated wines make me foggy. When I drink it, I don’t feel happy. It’s like eating Mc Donald’s food.”

Craig shares his love for natural winemaking with other farmers in the Swartland as well as a few South African winemakers who are catching on to this phenomenon.

“We have good relationships with the farmers around here,” he says. “People come to me for advice on my style of wine-farming and skin contact wines. It’s brilliant to be able to share ideas. We’re fairly likeminded winemakers. It’s this closeness between the people here that I love about this area. You don’t see something like this in the wine world that often. We’re not competing. It’s just 20 wine producers wanting to sit and have beers together.”

Natural farming may be new for South Africa, but this way of farming certainly isn’t in “the old world,” as Craig calls it. “I was fortunate enough to be invited to natural wine fairs in France early on and we were always the only South Africans there.” But as a result of the sharing of knowledge in the Swartland and the Butterfly Effect of Craig’s natural winemaking, he says, “there are more and more South African wines at international fairs these days, which is the best thing I could ask for. They’re friends of mine. That’s what I like about the natural wine thing. We have a party, we share wines and ideas. It’s a community.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this and the most revealing about the power of winemaking is that Craig isn’t even a people-person. Not naturally. “What I love most about winemaking is the people we’ve met,” he now says. “I was a very shy, introverted child and winemaking has allowed me to come out of my shell. With winemaking you engage with so many people and you’re exposed to so many different cultures. I’ve learnt a lot about other humans through this business and about what is truly important the more life goes on.”

And what’s important is being able to own a piece of earth where you can live freely, doing what you love, with those you love, while Eminem and Mozart alternate over a speaker somewhere close-by.


Craig Hawkins, e-mail

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What People Mean When They Say Madagascar is Beyond Words

As written for the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

Anything I have ever said about Madagascar before this was just words.

Before I boarded a plane and flew over her curves and glimpsed her rugged red hills separated by winding rivers gold with the reflection of sunlight. Before I came to meet her, slipping through her narrow roads, past a world where time seems to have stood still, with its French cars from the 60s and 70s sharing the road with man-drawn and pushed carts, past rice paddies, past man, woman and child all out with somewhere to go or someone to share going nowhere with.

I feel foolish for ever thinking I could write or talk about the country in any real way before. I hope to I remember this the next time I try to write about a place I have never been. The truth of a place, its spirit, is lost on you until you see it in person.

On my first night at a hotel in the capital of Antananarivo, the Ibis Hotel, owned by the same family who owns Anjajavy le Lodge, I met a fellow South African and we shared dinner in the restaurant – a buffet of zebu salad, fish curry, mixed green vegetables and couscous. Sometime during the meal, he commented, “Surely everything that could be said about Madagascar has already been said? How do you possibly write about the island in any unique way that hasn’t been done before?”

My answer was convoluted. But now, as I fly over this island on my journey north to Anjajavy le Lodge, I think that all we can do is write, or talk, in a way that is true to ourselves – that is, in a way that speaks of the place through your own eyes.

We may share opinions of a place, but our experiences of them will never be the same. This is my experience. In a world where travel articles are recycled from magazine to magazine, website to website, the first-hand account is unique. Madagascar is so unlike anything else that the only way to write about it is from experience, truthfully and fully. From the heart.

You can read these words or those from another who has travelled to this island and maybe they will wind their own way into your psyche, laying an impression for you, but you need to see it for yourself. Otherwise it is only words and Madagascar is so much more than words.

Getting to Anjajavy le Lodge

Thanks to SA Airlink, we flew from Johannesburg in South Africa directly to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, where we overnighted at the Ibis Hotel, before flying with MTA on a private charter from Antananarivo airport to Anjajavy’s own airstrip.