A drum circle pounded a deep, incessant rhythm through the sultry South African night. A guitar strummed sonorous notes into the air. A smiling-eyed man with toffee-colored skin and slicked back hair, wearing a red button-down took me by the hand. “Will you dance with me?”
It was New Years Eve 2016. My boyfriend and I had traveled across the globe with stops along the way – from Los Angeles to New York for Christmas, New York to London for a day trip, and finally to Cape Town where we then took a four-hour drive to our faraway destination: Bushmans Kloof. Bushmans Kloof is like no other resort I have ever been to in that it is in the middle of nowhere, yet manages to remain a luxury property and provide VIP service in every way possible. However, there was no room service, our jet lag was extreme, and we were hungry when we were supposed to be sleeping so we were stuck dreaming about room service in Vegas – anything you want at all hours of the day and night. We awoke from our Bellagio dreams and found ourselves in the Western Cape of Africa. We longed for adventure, nature, and a sense of things as they used to be. I was pining for qualities I associated with the country of Africa: a slow, wild beauty, a Saharan oasis, and a starlit sky. That’s exactly what we found nestled in the foothills of the Cederberg Mountains, an ecological oasis within a roughly hewn and magical land. (It was important to us to find a wilderness reserve where the animals roam free. Locking them inside an area and calling it a safari isn’t something we support.) At this 16-room lodge, the guests are a small part of the big world and are mere bystanders witnessing nature like never before.
6am the next morning came fast and we were seated in our buggy as the sun rose. The world was quiet aside from the purring of the motor until we heard angry squeals coming from the rocks. A baboon fight is evidently a regular happening – two males scream, chase, and throw things at each other in an attempt to prove who is more masculine. Typical. They are aggressive animals so we didn’t get too close and didn’t stay long. Next, we saw three cheetahs hunting a deer – a mother with her two full-grown cubs. We saw them sink into the bushes barely moving, just watching, with their amber eyes glowing in the morning sunlight. Then, the pounce! One got the deer and it was feeding time from there on. It was an absolute shock when the guide urged us to get out of the vehicle and stand literally three feet away from the wild animals as they ate. Blood covered their faces as they devoured the kill; they didn’t seem bothered by us at all. Lions are the cats that attack humans. When we neared a lion, we were told to not even think about getting out of the vehicle and also not to move while inside it. There was a waiver we all signed when entering the property acknowledging that we would be staying on a wilderness reserve where wild animals live and their behavior is unpredictable. A guest once lost their arm to a lion attack while on this safari; I was still as stone. The safari also brought us up close and personal to elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and zebras. It was the thrill of a lifetime to see them primitively living out their lives, the way nature intended.
The next morning we were feeling athletically ambitious and arranged to take mountain bikes across the vast shrublands down to a lake where a canoe would be waiting for us. We were then to take the canoe and paddle to the edge of the lake where we would find a river that would lead us to a private picnic (for which they arranged a vegan meal) for two sandwiched between massive rock formations. They didn’t give us much direction so we figured it would be easy to find, but it wasn’t; we had a few mishaps along the way but it will forever be an unforgettable journey. The surface of the lake was so still, so flat; the only sound were our paddles moving in and out of the water. It was humbling to have trekked so far to immerse ourselves in natural beauty where nothing that seemed to matter before did now. The desire for purity had replaced the desire for plenty. To recover from such an exerting journey, we took a hot bath on our private balcony overlooking a sun-tanned grassland where the springbok deer played. We had so much more to do, so much more to see; we still had to make another four-hour trip back to the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town. But first, New Year’s Eve festivities were in store.
I was so excited to wear the dress I had bought from A.L.C. for this special occasion. It was a dramatic full-length pleated dress that screamed effortless glamour. To get to this mountainside holiday party we had to jump in a six-wheeled jeep and drive. Once we arrived we were greeted by people applying white face paint – making a line out of small dots starting above one eyebrow then between the eyes and underneath the other eye. We climbed flights of stairs up the side of a mountain to reach an enchanting display of wooden tables, tiny twinkling white lights, and a sunset view that stunned the senses. We sipped our South African wine and marveled at our current location. Aromatic spices such as cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, and chili were the first to hit my senses. Tents full of delicacies had me eagerly awaiting my first traditional South African meal. First up for me was chakalaka and pap, mainstays on every South African dinner table. Chakalaka is a vegetable dish made of onions, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beans, and spices, and often served cold. Pap, meaning “porridge”, is similar to American grits and is a starchy dish made from white corn maize. Next up was a much-talked-about dish thought to have been brought to South Africa by Asian settlers: bobotie. It is now the national dish of the country and cooked in many homes and restaurants. The dish is minced meat simmered with spices, usually curry powder, herbs, and dried fruit topped with a mixture of egg and milk and baked until set. I opted out of trying this one as I don’t consume meat or dairy, but I watched as others ate it and decided to make my own vegan version. (The recipe is on my blog.) The last cuisine impression I will mention was a desert called malva pudding. A Dutch import, malva pudding is a sweet and sticky baked sponge pudding made with apricot jam and served smothered in a hot cream sauce. This is South Africa’s answer to the British sticky toffee pudding, I imagine they make it often in an attempt to please the large amount of British tourists flooding the country; nearly all of the guests were British and we were definitely the only Americans.
After we feasted, a half-dozen musicians trooped in bearing guitars and harmonic voices, followed by young dancers stepped onto the floor in long skirts and bonnets. Their passion and energy were infectious and with the warm, caressing air, the delicious food, the music mingling with the stars, and the dancers free spirits and exuberant smiles, it was easy to get lulled into the spirit. We found ourselves on the floor, hips swaying, gingerlily perfumed the scene. Time slowed, and the discoveries of our stay coursed through me: the countries slow, natural pace, the warmth of the people, the soul soaring beauty of the place, the bountiful humor and risk we had encountered, the sense of plenty in rooibos and pawpaw, the sense of peace in the marula tree, grassland, and wild beaches. The leg-thumping and heart-pumping rhythms reached my deepest core like a key, turning and turning, unlocking mysteries that seemed even older than me.
We encountered numerous first-time experiences in this magnificent country, from wild animal sightings, to adventurous excursions, to out-of-this-world romantic dinners, to bringing in a new year dancing under the Milky Way in the mountains. It was the ultimate experience to bring in the new year.