Spirit of adventure

Spirit of adventure

Bored by lazy days and ‘do nothing’ getaways? Keith Bain suggests a few alternative destinations for holiday fun away from the daily grind

Lofty hot-air ballooning in the Magaliesberg

Although the area is better known for what’s under the ground than up in the sky, the well-informed say that the Cradle of Humankind and nearby Magaliesburg present some of the best hot-air ballooning conditions in the world.

Balloon rides generally involve a super-early start, followed by the unusual, dream-like thrill of floating almost imperceptibly off the Earth’s surface to the accompaniment of a high-intensity hiss as the gas burner blasts a plume of flame and hot air into the balloon. You’ll experience periods of profound peacefulness and blissful silence as you cruise on the thermals and stare down at an extraordinary landscape dappled in the early-morning light.

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Floating just metres above rhinos is simply an unbelievable sensation: with AirVentures you’ll find yourself soaring above the Cradle’s wildlife with the magnificent Magaliesberg range as a backdrop.

Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris launches from the village of Skeerpoort in the Magalies River Valley. Predawn coffee is served in an Edwardian-style clubhouse as you watch the balloons being inflated – just in time for an unforgettable sunrise launch.

air-ventures.co.za, balloon.co.za

Crafty cider tasting in Elgin

Way back in 1998, the apple-growing Elgin Valley saw the arrival of Windermere, South Africa’s first artisanal cider. Crafted from the juice of bittersweet apples introduced from Europe, it’s a German-style Apfelwein that matures in French oak for six months before bottling. One sip, and you know it’s worlds apart from the mass-produced stuff we see today.

Today, Elgin’s small-but-growing craft cider fraternity includes the award-winning Everson’s, started by garagiste winemaker William Everson. He began fermenting in 500ℓ batches in 2009 and now handles up to 5 000ℓ at a time, boasting seven different products, including a pear cider. Everson’s son Michael has also developed Gnarr, an ultra-traditional, unpasteurised cider made in the style of English scrumpy.

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Down the road, Paul Cluver, a well-known wine estate with prolific fruit production, crafts Cluver & Jack, produced the old- fashioned way under the aegis of Bruce Jack, using hand-picked apples.

Then there’s Nicole Precoudis and Ian Downie, who together make Terra Madre Pommes Classique, a Normandy-style cider hand-crafted from a blend of Pink Lady, Braeburn, Sundowner and Granny Smith apples. The process of secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle and it’s corked in the style of bubbly. It’s also available at Elgin’s Houw Hoek and Peregrine farm stalls.

windermerecider.co.za, eversonscider.com, cluverjack.com, terramadre.co.za

Creative cooking in Prince Albert

Artists, gastronomes and a whole variety of creative souls have settled in time-trapped Prince Albert, transforming it into one of the Karoo’s best-loved destinations. One chief reason to visit is to spend time at the town’s culinary school, African Relish. With its bright, state-of-the-art kitchen – and gorgeous views – the school sets the scene for all kinds of totally immersive culinary experiences, including classes with visiting celebrity chefs, such as Reza Mahammad or Reuben Riffel. Students eat what they cook for lunch and may also assist in the preparation of dinners served to paying customers that night.

Classes are as much about obtaining new skills and discovering recipes as they are about the conviviality of small-town living – throughout the day, farmers and producers breeze in and out of the venue to deliver fresh-from-garden ingredients, and offer gossip and local insights.

africanrelish.com

Boozy beer sampling in Clarens

With its picturesque sandstone buildings transformed into guest houses, and an array of galleries, restaurants and shops selling keepsakes and home-made goods, Clarens is a popular getaway town, with activities ranging from golfing to horse riding, abseiling, fly-fishing, river rafting and hot-air ballooning to keep you active.

A more leisurely pursuit to be found here, though, is working through a tasting of beers and ciders at Clarens Brewery. It is the Free State’s first and only micro-brewery and among the country’s most successful, having spawned the Clarens Craft Beer Festival, which takes place for the fifth time this year on the weekend of 26 and 27 February.

The brewery also conducts some cool behind-the-scenes tours that are followed by tastings of its German-style unfiltered wheat beer Clarens weiss, chocolatey stout, English ale and India pale ale, plus ciders made from locally grown fruit.

clarensbrewery.co.za

Stellar stargazing in Sutherland

Unpolluted skies and the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere make Sutherland – a dorpie with just two tarred roads and a reputation for frosty, snow-bound winters – the stargazing capital of South Africa. Considered (in terms of astronomy) one of the darkest regions in the world, it’s also said to be among SA’s most seismographically stable areas. Plus there’s zero light pollution, it’s cloud-free for most of the year and being 1 760m above sea level means that there’s less atmosphere between your eyeballs and the heavens beyond.

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SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) is one of only two instruments of its kind in the world – the other’s in Texas. Besides brilliant night-time stargazing sessions with amazing views of the Scorpius constellation, the SALT observatory offers daytime tours for an awesome opportunity to gain a better understanding of the technology.

tours.saao.ac.za

Blissful coastal soaring in Wilderness

A perfect marriage of beach, thick indi­gen­ous forests and inland water­ways, Wilderness  is all the more magical when viewed from above, preferably tethered to Jan Minnaar. This paragliding professional launches from Map of Africa, offering tandem riders some of the dreamiest coastal soaring on the planet. With your feet dangling above the cars shuffling along the highway, this sense of weightlessness throws the entire world into spellbinding perspective. People on the endless strip of golden, sandy beach below look like ants and further up the coast, green-covered cliffs disappear under blankets of mist enveloping the Outeniqua Mountains… Or, on clear days, you can see as far as the Knysna Heads.

Minnaar, one of the first tandem pilots in the country, considers Wilderness to be among the five safest training areas in the world for recreational paragliding. Besides tandem flights, his Cloudbase Paragliding offers instruction – you can train for your licence in 10 to 12 days. Conditions are best from January through March.

cloudbase-paragliding.co.za

Unique birding in Creighton

Honoured South African author Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country starts with a beautiful description of the rolling, grass-covered hills that surround the small KwaZulu-Natal town of Ixopo – lauded as ‘lovely beyond any singing of it’. A row of what the local dialect describes as ‘little hills resembling a maiden’s breasts’ is what separates Ixopo from Creighton, an even tinier village that has managed to retain its pastoral, faraway loveliness.

It’s also notable for its 28 endemic bird varieties, which include the endangered blue swallow – a species now in decline because its wintering grounds in central Africa have been compromised. Leading Creighton twitcher Malcolm Gemmell can show you not only the protected swallows, but also the local Cape parrot population. ‘And,’ says Gemmell, ‘behind virtually every cow, you will find a grey-crowned crane, decked out in magnificent headdress and precious colouring.’

Also seen in abundance are southern bald ibises with bright, shiny red heads and thin, finely curved bills. Less often seen is an obscure bird called Baillon’s crake. ‘It’s very mysterious, but it really does exist – on one of the farm wetlands, between turtles, otters, and kingfishers. You’re lucky if you see it.’

buttonbirding.com

Dusty book-spotting in Richmond

Richmond, a teeny-tiny settlement in the Northern Cape, has more bookshops per capita than any other community on the continent, if not the planet. Located in the Karoo – on the N1 midway between Joburg and Cape Town – it evolved into a ‘book town’ when many of the original houses on historical Loop Street were bought up and lovingly transformed into refuges for their new owners’ book collections. Now you can wander from one interconnected house to the next, while browsing through an unbelievable selection of rare and out-of-print tomes.

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The town’s love of books has resulted in two annual literary fairs: a May festival dedicated to two icons of South African literature, Athol Fugard and JM Coetzee, and Boekbedonnerd (literally ‘book mad’) in October. Shop owner John Donaldson claims he has around 70 000 books, plus 30 000 rescued LP records; while Marthie Connolly’s Classic Books has expanded into an art gallery and visitor info centre.

richmondnc.co.za

Rustic meanderings on the Wild Coast

Stretching some 280 scintillating, untamed kilometres, the Wild Coast comprises sandy and rocky beaches, secluded coves, luscious estuaries, peaceful lagoons, wave-bashed cliffs, thick coastal forest and mangrove swamps. All told, it takes about a month to walk it, with parcels of three- to six-day sections ideal for more manageable hikes.

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One outfit, Wild Coast Hikes, offers a guided five-day trek between Port St Johns and Coffee Bay, with nights spent lodged in either dedicated hiker’s huts or rondavels in traditional Xhosa villages. Days can be spent discovering some of the country’s most glorious scenery. Meander along grassy hills and stare out across treacherous sea, known as a graveyard for ships. And, at night, with the waves thundering nearby, stare up at a dazzling canopy of stars.

wildcoasthikes.com

Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, Wynand Basson Images, Africa Imagery Photography, Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safari, Courtesy images
February/March 2016

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