Within minutes of pulling out of 1)Johannesburg airport on to the motorway heading north, I am hit by a sense of freedom as powerful as the warm air flooding through the window. The wide open plains of the 2)Highveld stretch to the horizon, with the occasional tree among the tall, 3)blanched grass. 4)Paul Simon’s Graceland is playing on the stereo, cliché I admit, but every road trip needs a soundtrack, and nothing could fit the mood better.
Our first stop is Cybele Forest Lodge, a5)retreat 6)tucked away on 300 acres of dense forest. It is only a three-hour drive from Johannesburg but the scenery is dramatically different, with deep green woodland and rivers and lakes replacing the arid grasslands. We pull into the drive and park under a large 7)turpentine tree that reaches across the courtyard. Inside, the lodge walls are painted in red; antiques are scattered around the rooms and heavy rugs on the old farmhouse’s stone floor. In the morning, we wake up late and have a lazy breakfast in the shade of the 8)bright purple9)jacaranda tree as butterflies dance around us.
After two nights we reluctantly leave this 10)blissful retreat to head for 11)Kruger National Park. It has the advantage of being home to the Big Five—lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, and 12)rhino—which not all parks offer and certainly not in such numbers. I’m particularly keen to see leopards and have chosen to stay at Tinga Lodge, which is in an area with the highest recorded density of the predator in Africa. Getting out of the huge, elephant-sized bed for the early morning 13)game drive is not easy. Frankie, our guide, claps his hands together like a football coach, encouraging us with the news that he has a good feeling about this morning. He’s not wrong. We see 14)plodding elephants, giraffes 15)nibbling on trees, a lioness with her 16)cubs tumbling around in the long grass and even wild dogs, which are rarely seen. But Frankie saves the best for last, spotting a leopard up a tree. It takes me a few moments to place it but when I do I find its face, and its eyes, yellow-green and piercing, looking right back at me. After some time, sitting 17)nonchalantly looking back at us, it rises elegantly, pauses, then 18)bounds effortlessly down the trunk before disappearing into the bush.
It’s a surprise to wake up to the sound of rain on our 19)deck, but it clears by the time we set off on our long journey to Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the 20)Drakensberg Mountains. For large 21)stretches of the journey there is very little traffic on the road, which takes us from the north to the heart of South Africa, across countryside that seems to change constantly. It reminds us of the flat 22)landscape of Holland one minute and the rolling hills of 23)Tuscany the next. At last, after 10 hours of driving, we reach the farmhouse. The air is 24)crisp and chilly, but our cottage is25)toasty and there is a bottle of sherry waiting for us. In the morning, I open our door and am hit by the magnificence of the Drakensberg Mountains. Named “mountains of the dragon” by the original settlers, they smoke with clouds that swirl above them. With a six-26)course dinner to come, my wife, Jules, suggests some exercise would not be a bad idea so we decide to climb the mountain. The only problem, which hits me halfway up as I get stuck in the 27)boggy bank of a stream, is that my 28)deck shoes are made for boats rather than mountains. But eventually we reach the summit from where we can see across to other ranges, mighty and awe-inspiring.
Leaving the lodge is a 29)wrench, but after the mountains and tranquility of the Drakensberg we head for the sea and excitement of 30)Cape Town. We are staying just outside 31)Hout Bay, a fishing village that hums to the noise of idle chatter in the cafés and boats 32)rattling in the harbor. A few streets back from the powdery white beach, the road curves around up to 33)Chapman’s Peak, which offers stunning views across the bay towards 34)the Sentinel, a rock that 35)juts out like the horn of a rhinoceros. At night, we can hear the ocean lapping against the shoreline.
Easy though it is to lose track of time here, we 36)retire at a decent hour as I have planned a small tour of the wine-lands and don’t fancy doing this with a 37)hangover. Starting out along the leafy avenues in 38)Constantia, we drive first to the large, traditional farms, such as Rustenburg in 39)Stellenbosch, with their 40)Cape Dutch architecture. Then on to Tokara, a more modern 41)winery that overlooks a 42)vista of breathtaking beauty—perfectly lined rows of vines cover the slopes of 43)purple-tinged mountains that 44)tower over the countryside.
Back in the car, we begin our long journey into the 45)Cederberg Mountains. 46)Craggy and sharp, they cut across the arid landscape like broken teeth as we pass giant rust-colored47)boulders balanced 48)precariously on flat rocks. Dust swirls around us as we 49)negotiate the 50)potholes on the deserted road towards Bushman’s Kloof—a hotel made up of a series of Cape Dutch cottages in the middle of 18,000 acres of wilderness. By day, the landscape glows red with an ancient, almost mystic quality, and by night it is covered with the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, shimmering with a dazzling intensity.
After two weeks on the road, and more than 2,000 miles, we head for the airport. The car, once white, is now light brown, and is missing a 51)hubcap, while I’ve gained a few pounds, a52)taste for South African wine, and a love of this beautifully diverse country.