GROOTBOS FOREST LODGE
And so, an African safari lodge of a different kind. The idea here is not to track and spot the fabled Big Five of the bush, but to learn about the curious habits of cranky honey badgers, tufty-eared caracal cats and pollinating scarab beetles, and to be immersed in a floral realm of about 800 indigenous species, many of which are rare or endangered.
The Afrikaans word fynbos refers to the fine-leafed vegetation of the heathland and there couldn’t be a better description for the landscapes of Grootbos private nature reserve, set high above Walker Bay and the unruly Atlantic Ocean in the Western Cape region, a few hours by road from Cape Town.
Ranged across 2500ha, this property, which occupies just a tiny parcel of the estate, has garnered multiple international awards for conservation, community involvement and sustainability, and to stay here is to immerse yourself in owner Michael Lutzeyer’s sprawling vision. Those guests who choose just to wine, dine and slumber miss a grand opportunity to engage in a truly inspirational dream. The property was opened in 1996, partially burned down in a bushfire that raged for a week in early 2006, and was rebuilt and reopened the same year. Along with the regenerated flora, botanists discovered about 70 new species of fynbos thought to be long extinct in the region.
The magisterial elevation of the three Grootbos accommodation options allows for near-180 degree views of sea and sky from guest suites folded into natural clearings. Child-friendly Garden Lodge, with its own dining area and pool, plus two new villas, with four or six bedrooms respectively, are ideal for families and houseparty groups. Just to the south, Forest Lodge, opened in 2004, has a lovely main building of stone walls and high bamboo-clad ceilings, a generous pool and a little day spa set in the bush, where a Jewel of Africa massage will dissolve all known knots. Forest Lodge is the romantic shot for couples, with an inventory of 16 front-row, freestanding villa-style suites winding like a ribbon along the escarpment, spaced well apart and an easy walk from the main lodge through arching trees.
The Forest Lodge habitats are resolutely contemporary, even a touch Scandinavian, in style, with separate lounge area, fireplace, massive ensuite with window-side tub and rainshower, and a second guest bathroom. Full glass walls on the western side frame views of unearthly beauty, and sunsets of intense vermilions and tangerines. Clearly the invitation is to burrow and linger, especially during winter months, when you could almost grab the binoculars and watch migrating whales without getting out of bed. There are long decks on which to loll, two suites come with private plunge pools, and there is great attention to detail and context – including African beaded and wired statement pieces, installations of lacquered shells and witty carvings in the décor, such as timber hat-and-coat hooks styled as antlers.
I am super-cosy in No 27, with its white walls, silvery-sage carpets that echo the natural surroundings, and mosquito net billowing over a high bed facing the coastline – all rinsed greys and smudgy blues in the late afternoon, like a Japanese sumi-e painting. It feels like another planet, a satellite, perhaps, of God’s Window, the reserve’s tallest mountain. If I strain my eyes there is the Cape of Good Hope, a sentinel hulk on the far horizon, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans merge. The light begins to fade over Grootbos, a place of immense purpose at the very end of the African continent. Susan Kurosawa is The Australian’s travel editor.
You are a captive audience at this sky-high lodge, with meals included and the closest town a good drive away. The chefs use herbs, fruit and vegetables from their organic plots and the acreage’s seven farms. Expect eggs from contented Leghorn chooks and possibly the world’s best fynbos honey ice cream, courtesy of bees at the Grootbos hives. The single-blossom honey, made from the nectar of pink-flowering Erica irregularis, is also in the handwashes and body lotions provided in guest suites and sold at the excellent lodge store. Dinners are six-course affairs and can be served in the Forest Lodge cellar, paired with the sommelier’s selections. Much of the wine is limited edition, sourced from the annual Cape Winemakers Guild auctions, with an emphasis on the Overberg region, known for its pinot noir.
EVERYONE’S TALKING ABOUT
The Grootbos Foundation encourages and empowers locals, many from townships such as Gansbaai, where long-term unemployment is high, to be trained in hospitality and horticulture or to pursue sport scholarships. There are about 150 employees, 80 per cent from disadvantaged communities, and guests can visit the Foundation’s Green Futures Horticulture and Life Skills College, its greenhouses and nursery, where endemic plants and trees such as wild olives are propagated, and see the solar pumps that extract spring water from an aquifer. The water, which is bottled on site, appears at meals and in suites in recycled glass containers. Staff serve guests with such quiet dignity and sunny smiles that surely the foundation is a template for best community practice.
Sundowner drinks under a mottled milkwood tree? Sit on folding chairs in a semi-circle by a campfire under an ancient tangle of branches hung with lanterns and strands of tiny lights. It feels like a fairytale glade as waitresses with names as uplifting as Fortunate and Goodness serve warm savouries, and pour Cape wines and generous gins sourced from small-batch distilleries.
Nature jaunts aboard comfortably converted Toyota Landcruisers are included in the tariff. Environmental scientists, botanists and keepers of local knowledge, such as guides Christoph and Nash, explain Grootbos’s topography and quirks of nature. Keystone species here are abundant types of protea (behold varieties with names as evocative as sugarbush and silver-edge pincushion), and thatch grasses. Look, a nectar-drinking Cape sugarbird; over there, an unambiguously named raucous toad. There are horses to ride and trails to walk, or venture to the coast, explore rocky caves and gaze down upon wind-tossed beaches as Nash prepares a pop-up sunset bar on the bonnet. For sightings of a more showy kind, Dyer Island Cruises at Gansbaai offers eco outings from January to May and whale-watching from June to December. Here you have the Big Five: southern right whales, great white sharks, African penguins, Cape fur seals and dolphins.
Grootbos, Gansbaai, South Africa; + 27 28 384 8008; grootbos.com. One-bedroom suite at Forest Lodge from ZAR10,600 ($1088) a night for two, inclusive of all meals and selected activities; alcohol, private excursions and spa treatments are extra. South African Airways flies six times a week overnight from Perth to Johannesburg and onwards to Cape Town; Virgin Australia operates codesharing connecting flights. Business class features flat beds and 32kg baggage allowance; flysaa.com.
Clockwise: Grootbos Forest Lodge exterior and pool; the pool deck; aerial view; the bar area; a bedroom suite and its balcony; the main lounge; the wine cellar