Breeze away

Breeze away

Want to flee the city without straying too far? Keith Bain picks a few nearby escapes for that faraway feeling

 Cape Town

Kalk Bay, 30 km

Once a whaling station and, before that, the point of arrival for lime – or kalk in Afrikaans – into Cape Town, this fishing village between St James and Fish Hoek has evolved into a bohemian enclave with a community of artists who take life at a more relaxed pace. Its colourful little harbour remains a fulcrum of daily life – don’t miss the quayside fish market. Also on the docks is Harbour House, a swanky restaurant famed for its wraparound sea views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Kalky’s, meanwhile, is an ultra-casual, no-frills spot with plastic-covered tables and garrulous waitresses serving the most authentic seafood to tables packed with families and foreigners. The main road is littered with quaint antique stores and offbeat boutiques.

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Elgin Valley, 70 km

Fifteen years ago, there were just three wine estates in this apple-growing valley – today its drawcards include around 35 different wine brands, plus artisanal cidermakers, and even zip-line rides thrillingly poised above the fynbos-studded cliffs of Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. Elgin’s first vines were planted at Oak Valley – 100 years later, the farm also pioneered a spectacular mountain-biking scene with trails through orchards, vineyards and swathes of mountain fynbos. A fabulous summertime concert series is held on the neighbouring Paul Cluver estate, where you sit beneath tall ghost gum trees in an enchanting amphitheatre, Hope@Paul Cluver, enjoying picnic baskets and estate wines. If you really want to dig your heels in, though, sign up for the Green Mountain Trail, a 57 km multi-day slackpacking hike through vineyards and across mountains – nights are spent in lovely country houses with gourmet food and local wine along the way.

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Darling, 72 km

With its quaint Victorian cottages, broekielace verandas, and lovingly tended gardens, this West Coast darling may seem like a typically conservative, strait-laced village, but there’s heaps going on. Cloof Wine Estate just outside town hosts the annual springtime music festival, Rocking the Daisies, celebrating its 11th year. One of five wine producers in the Darling area, Cloof offers cellar tours and tastings, and has a lovely lunchtime restaurant. In the village itself, things really took off when the town was ‘discovered’ by satirist and national treasure Pieter-Dirk Uys, who bought the old railway station and transformed it into Evita se Perron, a destination theatre with a restaurant and a marvellously kitsch sculpture garden. Then, at the Darling Brew Tasteroom & Brewery, sample some
beer from the town’s successful microbrewery, tucking into ostrich burgers paired with Black Mist ale.

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Tulbagh, 121 km

A spectacular drive over Bainskloof Pass leads you down into this fertile, horseshoe-shaped valley. Follow this route in and out, and it feels as if you are disappearing into a private world enfolded by mountains. Atmospheric wine tastings happen in the former holding cells at Drostdy-Hof, one of Tulbagh’s most historic estates, while Lemberg is among South Africa’s smallest wine farms, and the cellar at Saronsberg doubles as a gallery of covetable artworks. At Oakhurst, you can taste incredible olives in the chic revamped tasting room and, during weekends, the Saronsberg Theatre hosts live bands and stand-up comedy; the theatre restaurant and bar are popular on Sundays when lunch is accompanied by a free show.

Joburg

Muldersdrift, 43 km

Despite proximity to the city’s outskirts, Muldersdrift offers a real sense of country life; stress-free and tranquil, it’s a haven of open space and farmland, and it forms part of the protected Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site buffer zone. Its popular Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve has three of the big five, although the best view of the area’s wildlife is definitely from above. Air Ventures operates hot-air balloon flights, with some bubbly served upon landing – the sensation of soaring above the animals, with the Magaliesberg as a backdrop, is magical. Back on Earth, Nirox Foundation Sculpture Park is a spectacular sprawling garden; its amphitheatre hosts the biannual Jazz in the Cradle festival. And at Ngwenya Village, you will find Steve Gilroy’s iconic microbrewery. During his popular Saturday morning ‘Beer Experience’, he mixes his personal brand of stand-up comedy with ale tasting.

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Cullinan, 94 km

Famous for producing the fist-sized Cullinan Diamond, this Edwardian-era mining village retains much yesteryear character thanks to its preserved stone miners’ cottages. Many visitors come to see the inner workings of a diamond mine. Adjacent to the gigantic opencast mine, the Diamond Hub displays replicas of the town’s most famous gems and there are diamond-cutting demos. Guides – many of them ex-miners – will also teach you to tell real diamonds from fakes. Lined with oak and jacaranda trees and gorgeous Edwardian buildings, which are fronted by wrought-iron gates and white picket fences, Cullinan’s hub is Oak Avenue – many of its old mine houses are now shops and restaurants. Also, there is The Cockpit Brewhouse, with a more than decent variety of handcrafted ales, stouts, seasonal beers and lunches to adequately line your stomach. Do also take a peek at Jan Harmsgat se Agterplaas, a quirky garden gallery decorated with inventively recycled junk.

Parys, 111 km

It may not boast the Eiffel Tower or Champs-Élysées, but this northern Free State town packs in plenty of outdoor adventure and is close to the Vredefort Dome, an ancient World Heritage Site, said to be Earth’s oldest and biggest impact site, formed 2 023-million years ago when a 10 km-diameter asteroid collided with the planet. Trails within the Dome lead to well-preserved San rock paintings, and there are remnants of stone villages dating from the Iron Age. Parys is also located on the Vaal River, with the river’s only rapids – including the legendary ‘Big Daddy’ rapid. From late-November, you can pick your own gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries at Bon-Af berry farm – it’s 17 km from town and the tea garden serves incredible berry cheesecake.

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Hartebeespoort, 74 km

For many Joburgers, Harties is pretty much a second home, a place to flock to for lazy weekends on the dam or zipping around in a speedboat. It isn’t just about the water, though – there’s paragliding and hot-air ballooning, and hikers climb the nearby mountains, too. The easier method for gaining altitude is aboard the Harties Aerial Cableway – you can make your way into the Magaliesberg in six-seater cable cars with wraparound picture windows, and at the top of the range there are walks, restaurants and picnic bomas. Down below, interact with rescued pachyderms at the Hartbeespoort Elephant Sanctuary, and next door, Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary is a lush seven-hectare foster home for cute spider monkeys, lemurs, tufted capuchins and bushbabies liberated from dodgy animal traders. Nearby, at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, more than 800 cheetah cubs have been bred for release into the wild since 1971. Aside from spending time with cheetahs, visitors get to see other rare animals, including wild dogs and endangered riverine rabbits, too.

Durban

Shongweni Valley, 41 km

Although only 25 minutes from Durban and a mere 5 minutes from Hillcrest, Shongweni is authentic ‘back to Africa’. Formed by the confluence of the uMlazi, uGede and Sterkspruit rivers, you turn down into the valley and find yourself surrounded by wild, raw African bushveld with steep mountain ridges, waterfalls, wildlife, and tranquillity. There are more than 200 species of birds in the valley and at the Shongweni Dam you can see giraffe, buffalo and rhino on game drives with rangers at the Msinsi-managed nature reserve. You can canoe, sail and paddle on the dam, but power boats are banned, so its surrounds are perfect for picnics. The Shongweni Farmers and Craft Market is every Saturday morning. More than 200 stallholders sell everything from heirloom vegetables to griddle-pan rösti stacked with poached eggs, salmon and spinach.

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Howick, 105 km

In the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, 7 km from Midmar Dam, this bucolic town is known for its waterfalls. In Zulu, 95m-high Howick Falls is called kwaNogqaza – ‘Place of the Tall One’. The official Howick Falls Gorge Walk starts from Harvard Street in town and passes through a gorgeous riverine forest, grottos and meandering streams. While the town’s well known for its waterfalls, few know that Mark Twain spent time in Howick during his visit to South Africa back in 1896, and, in 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested 5 km from the town itself. The Mandela Capture Monument is a memorial sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose that now stands at the site – its 50 steel rods are arranged so that from a certain angle, Madiba’s face comes into focus.

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Salt Rock and Umhlali, 52 km

Ballito’s beaches are always packed, but it’s a short drive north to Salt Rock, where it’s much quieter. Four Poles, a beach on the border of Salt Rock and Sheffield, is utterly unspoiled, and there’s a sand bank, so swimming is safe. You can explore the rock pools here on a snorkelling safari with Tidal Tao – their after-dark missions reveal loads of curious-looking sea creatures. Salt Rock’s inland neighbour, Umhlali, has been virtually unchanged for 20 years. Between the two villages is The Litchi Orchard, a family-run farm hosting a market with live music and incredible food, fresh produce, antiques and handmade crafts.

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Mtunzini, 140 km

Zulu for ‘Place in the Shade’, Mtunzini is a lovely little patch of paradise on the KZN north coast, with everything a nature bunny could want – mangrove swamps, estuaries, endless dunes, long stretches of sandy beach, and pristine forests with superb bird and animal life. The village became a trendsetter back in 1995, declaring itself a conservancy and introducing strict conservation policies that have preserved the integrity of its lush, green surrounds. Semi-wild zebras roam the streets and are occasionally chased from the Spar. They’re also found nibbling the fairways at the country club, where there’s a tricky nine-hole course and a restaurant with great views and top-notch curry buffet. The village is right next door to the Umlalazi Nature Reserve – a timber boardwalk takes you through the swamp forest to a grove of protected raffia palms, humongous trees that produce fruit eaten by Mtunzini’s colony of rare palm-nut vultures.

Photography: Africa Imagery Photography, Alamy/Dennis Cox, Gallo/GettyImages
October/November 2016

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