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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.

The Jungles of Jonkershoek

As published on my personal project over at Mountains Creatures.

It went by the name Waterfall One. But it was clear to us that this was not the kind of waterfall you could belittle with a number. This was an individual. This was something otherworldly, a space out of The Lost World, which would make me Julianne Moore, the video documentarian and paleontologist, descending into the jungles of a deserted world, to play with dinosaurs… Dream job, right there.

And it would make the man I call both Dad and Mr Standing on One Leg, the mathematician and chaos theorist. As in, Jeff Goldblum, which would make Dad very happy I believe, on account of a crush on the film, The Fly.

We had done a fair amount of adventuring to get here, to this cavernous corner of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, where water gushed down from the cliff face above, into a cool pool below. It’s not that the trail leading to the waterfall was arduous, just that we had gotten lost. We had attempted to drive our low-hanging sedan over the terrain reserved for 4x4s, over great dongas in a dirt road careening around a mountain side.

The wind did not help. If we even attempted to flee our vehicle, the gale blasting through the valley would slam the door on our fingers. And my fingers were having a beating as it was. The cold had set in – in all but one finger. We did not know why the one escaped unscathed, but what I did know was that the only way to save my extremities was to stick them down my pants. Which I did, once we had located the “parking lot” and begun our traipse through new territory.

I believe that the warmth of my rear is the only thing that saved these poor soldiers and I cannot thank my well-honed reflex enough. According to my mother, it developed in my early childhood, when I frequently slept with my hands down my pants for warmth and for comfort as a young babe.

Playing in waterfalls doesn’t help the onset of frostbite, nor does it really distract you from the pain, but it definitely made for one of the most beautiful spots that Mr Standing on One Leg and I have taken our flask of hot water and our pop-up cafe of milk, sweetener, spoons, mugs, and Jacobs.

Jonkershoek hike 13

Jonkershoek hike 11

If the first waterfall surprised us with its sweet hidden glory, the second waterfall, similarly poorly named, Waterfall Two, completely eluded us.

We sat opening up our flask tens of metres from the actual spot, thinking, Oh, what a let down. But, as affords the tortoise in his race against the hare, we spotted a hiking group pass us and venture off into the depths of what we thought was a deadend. We followed. We scaled rocks and criss-crossed the flowing stream for some distance before we turned a corner and saw it. Finally. Yes. This was the treasure of our Lost World. This was worth the woes. This was worth freeing my hands from my pants to lift the camera to.

Jonkershoek hike 14

In spite of our peculiar beginning, the rest of the hike felt like home. It was that feeling you get when you’ve traversed the same path many times. The freedom it gives you once your feet are used to the particular shape of the rocks, used to the way they hug the soles of your shoes. You can run with abandon, letting the earth catch you with each leap.

We raced along the path back to the car, leaving the other trails for another day, a day less windy, less cold and with a chance of snow. The beauty of a mountain reserve as great and rugged as that of Jonkershoek is that you can do just that. Return again and again and seek out new trails, glimpse new sights, until every dirt path and rock face feels like home.

Even when in a sedan.

The Secret to Travelling and Travelling Well

Published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

There have been two significant moments on my yoga journey. Two occasions that made my myriad attempts to stand on one leg, one arm, one toe, a journey at all. There have been two teachers and two destinations.

After those moments, that was it, my body and mind found the rhythm, entered the flow. After years of falling around, of furious shaking (ok, I still shake), and having teachers give me that look, I finally, simply, instantly, understood what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps all those former failures weren’t failures, but rather the first cobblestones of my yoga path. Perhaps, I just hadn’t found the right teacher.

It happened first in a quiet corner of the lawn, beneath trees that hid the sky, at AtholPlace Hotel & Villa in Johannesburg. I sat beside Julia Geffers, a yogi much further along on her journey, but a runner, like myself. We had a connection. It was just the two of us. And not once did she give me that look.

As the air cooled around us on the September afternoon, Julia guided me through the positions, focusing on opening the hips, something runners cannot focus enough on. We closed our eyes and perhaps it was the serenity of the hotel’s gardens or the fact that neither of us had been able to go for a run in days and were aching to stretch and move, but my body, my hips, my joints, my toes found a new strength and breath. And they flowed. Simply, beautifully, and even with a little co-ordination. I felt the stillness for the first time. The quiet sense of presence that all the mat-carrying enthusiasts I had met in my life had talked about.

But I know that it also had a lot to do with my teacher. With her lack of judgement, her gentleness, her patience, her own comfort within herself, and an enviable strength that at once called on my own to take to the mat.

As Julia turned upside down and proceeded to stand on her head, I contentedly sat back and watched. One day, I said.

And I’ve been practicing ever since.

In the meantime, Julia sends me images of her doing headstands wherever in the world she finds herself. Wherever there is a flat, quiet piece of earth, she rolls out her mat and tinkles her toes at the sky.

I started to see the accessibility of yoga. While I couldn’t run everywhere in the world, for instance not alone down foreign streets at night, or while in big cat country, I could do yoga anywhere. In my hotel room, in the garden, on the pool deck.

So when I found myself a couple thousand kilometres further north, at ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya, I saw a yoga mat in the closet and a printout of a few yoga poses and I leapt. Every free moment I had, I felt a great draw to pick up the mat and roll it out in front of my villa, looking out over the vast plains, at the zebra and giraffe moving slowly, slowly.

I sat the instructions down in front of my feet and let myself take over as teacher, reconnecting with that quietness, that ease, that strength, that patience and that kindness that Julia had shown me.

During each session I felt a space of quiet enter the excitement that being on safari in a new land brings. A stillness between the busyness of having so much to do and to see. A silence between the many conversations. A belonging amid the strangeness, a sense of control amid the unknown. And a home while away.

Now at home in Cape Town, I have, without effort, held onto the practice. I feel the same gravitation to hug the earth and bend my body to salute the sun every time I see a quiet piece of ground (whether carpet, gravel, tile, grass, or wood) that Julia probably does.

And while I have a goal – that elusive headstand – I also have something much more, something that I can always access. I have a sense of peace, no matter where in the world I am. I have the secret to travelling and travelling well, to remaining present and fully feeling and enjoying the moment, whether on a lawn in Johannesburg or at a pool overlooking a waterhole in Kenya.


The Beauty of Solitude at Sunrise

First published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

I want to tell you about the sunrise, because you weren’t there. You were 5000 kilometres away and I was alone on Paje beach on the east coast of Zanzibar, still expecting you to take your place next to me. I waited for the sun to peep out of the darkness before I stood up and decided to take the step forward, to explore, by myself. If you weren’t going to join me, I would enjoy it for the both of us. I would explore everything.

I know that it is often that which first appears quiet or dark that holds the greatest mystery. And it did. The stillness of sunrise revealed a whole other world to me. People always say that sunrise and sunset stand like bookends on the tale of a day, but I realised that they hold stories of their own, if you take the time to look closely.

Sunrise is a different story across Africa, but on a beach in the Indian Ocean, I have found it often to be quite the same.

Sometimes you have been beside me, sometimes not, but you’ll remember me telling you about the waters of low tide that initiate the dance of local men and women heading out fishing in the morning – by boat and foot. I’ve sat with my camera to my face, tracing this dance – in Mauritius, in Madagascar, in Pemba Island, and here, in Zanzibar.

The beach is a different animal as the sun begins to rise and break across the clouds. It is still but moody, like a lion starting to wake, like you before your morning coffee. The ocean is darker, not yet the light turquoise that will coax other travellers from their sun loungers at midday.

I stood silently on shore. There were no foreigners yet, only the local Zanzibari that have moved across these waters for generations. I listened to the women talking among themselves as they tended to the seaweed farms scattered across the low water. I listened to the men heading out in dhows. Their Swahili was lost on me, but not all stories require words to be told. Soon the tide would rise and the women and men and dhows would disperse and the story would end, like the fire of sunrise. But I would have understood the moral. The lessons.

Since you weren’t there to give voice to my thoughts, I’ll try now. I felt then a deep almost dazed peace wash over me like the sea slowly moving over the shore and I was reminded of something I’d forgotten. I was reminded that in me is a stillness that needs not only to be alone from time to time, but to be truly still, watching and listening, not thinking, analysing and anticipating.

I also realised that out here in the early morning, I had only myself to rely on. I was the sole narrator. Back home, I knew I would tell you about what I had seen and you would add your own views, your logic and knowledge. You would make sense of it all and my mind would be broader for it. But until then, I could tell myself whatever I liked. My imagination was free to run wild.

That’s the beauty of being alone on an island at sunrise – lost in translation with the few locals out and about. There is a sweet sense of freedom and dare I say valour of venturing into the unknown. But I did it for us both, remember that.

Keep following the Relais & Châteaux Africa and the Indian Ocean blog for more from our recent adventure in Zanzibar, while staying at Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa.


Travelling is not like riding a bicycle

My latest article in the Sunday Times Travel section… Published 15 October 2017


Haven’t had a holiday in ages? Travelling is nothing like riding a bicycle, writes Tamlin Wightman.

We hadn’t travelled all year. Not as a family or individually. Cabin fever had been setting in for months. During times like this, my aptitude for adventuring doesn’t just take a leave of absence. It goes to meet its maker. So as the nomad of the family, I was of no help as we headed, Mother, Father, Only Child, from Cape Town to the Grahamstown Arts Festival.

As the organiser of the trip, Mom was even more lost. For one, she thought that overnighting in a backpackers was a good idea. And a closed one at that, because booking the right date is only something the frequent traveller does.

The entrance hall of the Mossel Bay Backpackers taunted us with bright lights through a locked, bolted, security-barred door. It was 11 pm, the sky was black and the air cold. We paced the empty parking lot, wrapped in every woolly item we owned. It was the sort of lot you expected a Fight Club to emerge upon at any moment. At least our fall would be soft.

We crossed the road to a Protea Hotel we had spied. Inside, we approached the night manager and tried on the most forlorn of looks in an attempt to get the cheapest room. Their idea of cheap was not the same as ours and so, bar from sleeping in a car park, our only option was to continue driving.


Five hours of Rankin’s Rebus on Audible later, we arrived to a town on lock down. That’s what Grahamstown looks like at 4 am. Apocalyptic and forsaken. Except for the odd donkey chewing at grass brave enough to spring from a crack in the tar road. And the occasional line of locals queuing at a 24hr petrol station ATM, as though the town could run out of money at any moment.

Without anywhere else to go or anything to do, we simply had to wait. For the sleeping sun to rise, for the artists to begin the show. And because we had no clue of how to do this cross-country road trip thing, we tracked down another parking lot and passed out.

We woke up too bushed and crooked-necked to attend most of the shows we had booked and paid for. We attempted to resurrect the vacation with coffee. It was at the local Mugg & Bean, after my fourth Americano, that I realised that trying to travel after time-off is nothing like riding a bicycle and everything like drinking coffee. You have to keep doing it or you lose tolerance. You lose the knack.

The withdrawal from caffeine does to your brain what that from travel does – it turns it to mush. Next thing, you find yourself with Mother’s steel knee in your ribs and a stranger (resembling Tyler Durden after a fight) ogling you through the steamy car window while you attempt to sit-up sleep.

But as the milky brew took over my nervous system, I began to ponder something profound. I began to see the silver lining.

Perhaps we hadn’t been that awful. We had remembered the audiobook, after all. We made it to one show, one great show. And we had done what we had set out to do. We had bonded. Over the mishaps and exhaustion. Over the stillness of the road at night. Over wrong turns down dirt roads scattered with broken glass from shebeen brawls. Over the inevitability that it all works out in the end. Because, as they say, if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.


How I got over the hill

Accidental Tourist Tamlin Wightman tried to mark her 30th birthday with a daring excursion – and got way more than she bargained for.

What I did on my 30th birthday and what I should have done are very different things.

Much like when I told people, “I’m totally buzzed to be turning the big 3-0. How great to grow old and wise,” – when what I really meant, deep inside my aging heart, right down to my fast-fossilising sinew, was, “!@£$%^&”.

Time is an illusion. Resist the hour. Yes, yes, I too uttered such proclamations.

But I was still 20-bound then, on top of the hill with nowhere to go but down. And so, for the big day, in sympathy for myself, I decided to throw myself off the hill (attached to a cable while ziplining, yes, but do not dismiss the danger of a little steel in a lightning storm).

The Cape, allegedly amid a dry spell, turned dark and damp, very damp, within minutes, as we started up the Huguenot Mountains in Elgin in an open-sided truck.

The rain spat out from clouds shrouding the view of an empty Theewaterskloof Dam and filled our shoes and gloves with ice water. As we sledged to the first canopy – the point of no return – an air raid of lightning surrounded us and I uttered those famous last words.

“What happens if the lightning strikes the cable while we’re on it?”

Hoping for a response that would entail backtracking and coffee around a fireplace at the base camp, I was met instead with the guide’s flippant own last words, “Ja, well, he, ha, urg, you don’t want that to happen; it’s gonna feel like being struck by 50,000 kilowatts (or was it killer watts? All I really heard was, “Bite your tongue, Murphy, bite your tongue.”)

As said guide connected himself to the cable to show our team of terrified zipliners what to do, those 50,000 kilowatts struck the line and danced along to where he was holding on.

Our little lightning conductor shot into the air. Hail beat down on our backs as we hugged the rock and expelled expletives. The guide swung back onto the thin, wooden canopy built into the side of the mountain and, with a f***, f***, f***, he disconnected himself and trembled to a clearing not on the edge of a cliff.

Somehow, he radioed for help. We swam uphill to the drop-off spot and waited for the truck, which then glided us down the meandering mountain pass on what felt more like a white-water-rafting trip.

There were tears, there were doctors, but there were no Harry Potter scars and our guide managed to escape any serious circumstances, although not the nickname Flash.

And I decided, or rather nature had decided, there would be no birthday. On second thought, the earth was saying, go back to bed. Thirty is not for you. Stay young and dumb.

Of course, it could have been saying, “Tough luck, cookie, you’re 30 and it’s all downhill from here.”