7 Secrets to uncover during a weekend at Grootbos

2015-04-14 11:51 - Nadia Krige
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It’s an amazing thing – the deep set connection we have with the terroir in which we find our roots. I grew up in a western outpost of the Overberg, by the coast, and spent my teen years commuting between home and school with towering, mysterious mountains on one side of the bus window and a majestic, unpredictable ocean on the other. Wild, wide open spaces, fenceless yards where carefully curated fynbos gardens spilled out into no-man’s-land, an utter disregard for seasonal weather patterns: the backdrop to my growing up, shaping my thoughts, ideas and outlook in a way no other place could.

So, when I recently hit the road with a group of fellow travel writers for a weekend at Grootbos, the highly acclaimed 5-star private nature reserve just outside Gansbaai (an eastern outpost of the coastal Overberg), I had the usual sense of homecoming. But there was also something else – an expectation to experience my home turf on a whole new level. A premonition that I would be uncovering a set of sublime secrets I’d somehow been missing out on before.

And I was right! Here are seven Overberg secrets that Grootbos let me in on (and in some cases, just reminded me about):

Fynbos you won’t find elsewhere

When you grow up surrounded by proteas, ericas, pincushions and blombos, you tend to become slightly immune to their charms. And sometimes even find yourself thinking that they’re actually pretty ugly compared to finer floral specimens that thrive in more moderate climes – roses, pansies, that kind of thing. Fortunately my ideas about fynbos have long since reformed and these days I carry a torch for its stark, tenacious beauty.

During a 4x4 flower safari at Grootbos, I was once again reminded of just how special this vegetation type really is. Making up 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom – which is the smallest of the world’s six floral regions, but also the richest per unit area - the diversity of fynbos is extremely high with over 9000 species of plants occurring in the area, of which over 6200 are endemic. At Grootbos alone, you will find an astonishing 765 flower species and among those six were discovered on the premises.

Obviously these impressive statistics pale in comparison to their real life expression – an endless rolling vista of herb-scented, life-infested, green, with accents of red and pink and yellow. Experienced from the back of an open safari vehicle, with a knowledgeable guide pointing out the tiny details that would normally pass you by, fynbos transforms before your eyes: from a homogenous blanket of flora to a world of intricate connections, home to armies of ants, battalions of bees, treasuries of bejewelled birds, tortoises, bokkies and, of course, baboons.  

The kindest horses

Along with the flower safari, a laid-back horse ride through the reserve is one of the adventure activities included in your stay at Grootbos. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should feel compelled to do it, but I would highly recommend it.  Of course this doesn’t mean that you should feel compelled to do it, but I would highly recommend it... And I’m by no means a horse fanatic. Quite to the contrary, I’ve always been a bit afraid of the majestic creatures.

Luckily, the horses of Grootbos are particularly gentle, making the activity accessible to even the biggest equinophobe.

I had the pleasure of slipping into the saddle on a handsome mottled boy called Maseru who, admittedly, had me a little nervous at first, especially when he decided to nip the lead horse’s bum and got a hoof to the chest.

However, as we picked our way along the narrow paths, snaking their way through dune land fynbos, I settled into the rhythm of Maseru’s gait and found myself feeling strangely at ease, even able to appreciate the breathtaking Atlantic views way down below.

A fairy-lit milkwood forest

Faerie at @grootbos #GrootbosMagic #VSCOcam

A photo posted by nadia (@nadia_safaria) on

Choosing the most magical moment among a weekend’s worth of magical moments is no easy task, but if I had to be honest with myself, I think our dinner among ancient milkwood trees would probably take the cake. Lit with what seemed like at least a thousand fairy lights, and scores of lanterns, the forest was transformed into a scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with a large banquet table laid with white linen and a bonfire crackling close by.

We sat down to a seafood feast featuring delicacies such as Patagonian squid salad, prawn and mussel potjie and a crayfish tail so big, it exceeded the limits of the plate. Wine glasses seemed to magically refill and by the end of the night we were starry-eyed and charmed… but luckily no one turned into an ass.  

Gull’s eye view

Hemel & Aarde Valley from above. Luckily they got that fire under control quickly #grootbosmagic #latergram

A photo posted by Traveller24_SA (@traveller24_sa) on

With a passion for getting guests to truly experience the surrounds from every possible angle, it comes as no surprise that hopping onto a light aircraft and getting a gull’s eye view of the Overberg is one of Grootbos’ flagship activities.

Operated by African Wings, a small aviation company owned by brothers David and Evan Austin, the scenic flight takes off from Grootbos’ rustic runway and takes you over a stretch of Atlantic Ocean absolutely teeming with life – whales, sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins – swings over Hermanus and then takes you up through the vineyard-rich Hemel and Aarde Valley. The plane is just big enough for the pilot and three guests, offering an intimate and informative experience. We had Evan in the pilot’s seat entertaining us with crazy stories and anecdotes. At one point he nonchalantly gave the controls over to fellow blogger Anna-Belle and leaned over to have a chat with Tim and I in the back seat. While we all looked at him with big eyes, he assured us that at cruising level, flying was way easier than driving a car, so we sat back and relaxed.

While the trip is absolutely spectacular at any time of year, it comes even more highly recommended during whale season (July – November), when you can spot the gentle gargantuan and their calves languidly swimming along way down below.

Unlike the fynbos horse ride and 4x4 flower safari, this does come at an extra cost, but well worth every penny.

Epic rock formations at Die Plaat

Go explore! Checking out De Kelders with the #GrootbosMagic crew

A photo posted by nadia (@nadia_safaria) on

One of the first things you notice when walking through the doors of Forest Lodge’s reception area is the breathtaking ocean view on the other side of the large glass windows. It seems to stretch on forever and a day, curving in and out of variously sized bays.

If you zoom in a little bit, you will find that one of these little bays shelters a picturesque hamlet called De Kelders, which is home to a truly magical length of pristine beach known as Die Plaat. On a sunny Saturday morning we hopped into the Grootbos bus and headed down to the beach for some exploration, mussel collection and even a little swim. Picking my way among the rock pools, inspecting anemones and little fish and shimmering shells, I felt like a kid again – in wonder and awe at the life that simply burgeons whether we’re looking or not.

What blew me away most of all about the beach, however, was the collection of fascinatingly formed limestone outcrops. Looking like waves, caught mid-break or dunes petrified in the moment of windswept transformation. Once you start investigating them in more depth, you will discover caves and caverns and quaint little spots to hide away just for a bit.

Farm-fresh food

When it comes to food, Grootbos’ reputation precedes it. Of course I had heard many things about the reserve before visiting – all good things – but somehow people would always end up with something along the lines of: “But even if there was nothing else, I would go back again and again, just for the food.”

Now, look, I’ve never considered myself much of a foodie – give me a wrap or a pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich and I’m pretty happy – but dang! Grootbos really upped my standards. Every meal was an experience and every bite an exotic taste explosion. And I think the best reason I can give you for the amazingness is the fact that all the ingredients are sourced as close to the kitchen as possible.

But it’s not only the proximity that plays a role, it’s also the fact that most of these ingredients – herbs, eggs, honey, vegetables, fruit and pork – are produced by the Grootbos Foundation’s Growing the Future project, a Food Production and Life Skills College.

Located on the Grootbos property, Growing the Future involves members of the local community in cultivating fresh produce, which they sell back to the lodge, forming a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

All seafood is bought directly from Hermanus and Gansbaai Harbours, as well as the Langkloof Trout Farm located close by.

Ocean adventures

Last, but not least, Grootbos serves as a gateway of sorts to an array of memorable saltwater adventures, including shark cage diving with Gansbaai-based Marine Dynamics.

If, however, the idea of getting THAT close to an apex predator is not on your list of must-do activities, hop on a double-decker rubber duck with Dyer Island Cruises and enjoy the wind in your hair and the salt on your lips as you speed along Walker Bay in stomach-lurching rises to and falls from the crests of swells. The cruise will take you through the infamous Shark Alley - a little strait between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, which serves as a sort of take-away drive through for the ocean predators, as more than 60 000 cape fur seals - alongside African penguins, cormorants and gulls - frolic, feed and play here on a daily basis.

Even though we did the cruise way outside of southern right season, we were blessed with the appearance of a Bryde's whale. Like most lucky animal sightings, the creature's presence was first made known by its footprint. A whale footprint?! You may ask. I also never knew they existed, but our scout quickly pointed them out - large smooth spheres forming a trail on the otherwise choppy water, marking where the shy gargantuan had surfaced for breath during its journey across the bay. We spotted the stumpy dorsal once or twice... and then it was gone. 

While the luxury, beauty and wholesomeness of Grootbos puts it in a class completely its own, it was the reserve's deep-rooted 'Overbergness' that stole my heart. It reopened my eyes to the incredible privilege it was to have grown up in a part of the world that is still so richly entrenched in natural goodness. 

Nadia Krige was  hosted by Grootbos as part of a media visit to Grootbos and surrounds. 

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