Monique Van Der Walt’s visit to Chaka’s Cove

How did You Sleep at Brahman Hills?

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“How did you sleep” is a phrase you hear often at Brahman Hills, both in the real world and online. This was something different, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, like they were close friends or even family.

Although this sentence spoken by the all these voices creates a homely atmosphere, the resort is bold and fashionable. The architecture is a beautiful integration between classic and modern design; like the clean lines of the wedding chapel and conference venue offset by the country manor house.

After exploring the wilderness side of the KwazuluNatal (KZN) Midlands Meander and lunch at The Midlands Kitchen, we arrived at Brahman Hills at about 3pm. We received a fond aloe from everyone, a warm welcome from team members Melusi and Ayanda. After signing in, Melusi took us on a short tour of the beautiful hotel and sprawling spotless grounds at Brahman Hills.

He pointed to the left of the wedding chapel and said, “Your cottage is just over that hill, less than 1km.” I didn’t see the faint smile that flashed to his lips as he added, “but watch out for the lions!” My eyes widened before I realised he was joking and I felt like a real tourist (face palm).

I didn’t wait long to see the real Brahman Hills wildlife; on the first drive to the cottage and less than 100m from the road, I hollered my partner to a halt when I saw zebra and buck. At the sound of the shutter they stopped bucking about and turned looked right at me, ears on alert; a wonderful welcome indeed.

And then, when I thought I had experienced the best of the wonderment at Brahman Hills, I arrived at my overnight dwelling: the eco-friendly Impala Cottage. Solar geysers power the dual showers and basins and an unobtrusive cast iron fireplace assist the environment; while the delicious and large bed and couch plus the fully functional kitchen assist the guest.

And the cherry on top: I knew there were jacuzzis at Brahman Hills but I wasn’t aware that each self-catering cottage comes with a private deck and hot tub with breath-taking views. I have never in my life woken up and got straight into a jacuzzi – this is a memory I shall cherish.

Having dinner underground at 89 on Copper in a converted cellar is what you call an experience. Without windows, the natural light is substituted by a stunning array of different level hanging lights, wall light-boxes (actually circles), and table candles. It’s incredibly cosy and copper figurines and trims give it an elegant finish. Copper piping was discovered in while building the restaurant, inspiring the name & theme. Now the conduits shine elegantly along the corridors, lighting the way to experience.

The attention to detail in the a la carte menu is phenomenal, both in taste and presentation. In a sentence: shooting stars on the palate and robust symphony of flavours.

Aperitif: seared tuna

Starter: butternut soup with bacon, beetroot & saffron butter

Main: Green Thai Chicken & Prawn curry

Dessert: Lemon Cheesecake with carrot & mixed berry

From my younger days of silver-service waitering, I was delighted that our waiter, Joshua, checked all the boxes, giving right amount of attention and conversation while executing prompt, beautifully delicate, and efficient service.

The breakfast menu at Brahman Café has a lovely array of hot and cold, sweet and savoury style meals, and I loved the many windows and high ceilings in the room. My muesli came with a wonderful homemade Bulgarian yogurt, and I have made a note to next time try the option of the yogurt plus a veg/fruit of the day. And of course, my partner enjoyed his manly breakfast with incredible vigour! And the large size coffee is just what I am used to – a boat for a cup!

Another highlight of my experience of Brahman Hills was my favourites: the cows! I did not capture the living specimens themselves, but the artwork and sculptures captured me. Their sweet faces made me smile, like I did when I read the closing remark on my welcoming email from Brahman Hills: “we look forward to welcoming you in the herd!”

Wagon-loads of Goodness at Midlands Kitchen

The Midlands Kitchen branch in Nottingham Road, KwaZulu Natal, is exactly what South Africa needs in terms of road-side dining – and its in the right spot for it too, on the Midlands Meander right off the N3 highway at exit 132.

The SETUP: Indoor food market and restaurant put together. You can either order direct from each outlet or make use of restaurant section, with an all-inclusive menu of each outlet, plus gracious and sharp service. I visited on a Sunday for lunch, and the flow of people and cars was constant; they also all had seemed to have one thing in common: happy faces.

The hours are 06:00 – 16:00; there is a large outdoor area with antique wagon & some sort of steam engine, making popular for tired parents and stiff-legged travellers. There is also a completely separate Midlands Kitchen shop at the service station for a stop-and-go experience.

The FOOD: If I had to use two words: fresh and variety. Variety of food is fantastic, from Mexican to artisan coffee and woodfired pizza, gelato to burgers and Durban curry; and my favourite, the Vegan outlet.

I had the Wular Casserole (chickpea, coriander & lentil casserole with coconut milk & red pepper) – so so yum! And my partner had a Lamb Shwarma, he couldn’t stop remarking how flavourful & fresh it was. The value for money is also another attribute of the Midlands Kitchen, the casserole R50 and the shwarma R65 – and we were so full we wondered if we would need that wagon to get to our car.

Also, in the nature of my love for everything cow, I adore the names of the coffee sizes: Bull, Cow, Calf!

The SERVICE: You can tell many of the staff are invested in what they are doing, you can almost smell the enthusiasm. What also stood out was the speed in which the meals arrived, so fast and yet so tasty!

The CSI: The Midlands Kitchen employs local from the KwaZulu Natal Midlands area. From the beginning the owners decided their ingredients would be supplied by local farmers, even though it sometimes take 3 or 4 to meet demand which means more work. But the management team is as dedicated as the owners to uplifting the community and take the extra planning in their stride.

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The OVERALL: One of my favourite anonymous quotes is “Time is precious, he who wastes the least has the most,” and this is why I enjoyed the Midlands Kitchen. We were able to get in and out within 45  minutes but have an experience as full and delicate as a 2 hour lunch; and this my friends is exactly what many travellers are after.

Be still my Heart – Boston Bulwer Beat

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A lesser-known part of the Kwazulu Natal Midlands (KZN) is the Boston Bulwer Beat, perfectly positioned at the feet of the mighty Drakensberg mountains. I live in the farming village of Bulwer and +-40kms east is her twin-sister town of Boston.

In my typical Durban winter attire (socks & slops) or my usual leopard print gumboots, it takes me 2.5 hrs to get from Durban North to Bulwer because I stop for photos. Dad took 3 hrs to get from King Shaka Airport on his first self-drive trip. Remove stopping & traffic and you’re in for about 1.5 hrs to Bulwer and just over 1 hour to the start of the Boston Bulwer Beat.

Just a note: Boston currently has the most pleasant fuel stop and place to stretch your legs en route to the Southern Drakensberg. The owners are fifth generation farmers, and a few years ago they, like myself, kicked corporate to the curb. I smile when I pass at the far more generous offering that is now Boston Garage. Image Stewardship and Health, Safety, Environment recon trips where part of my corporate days in the fuel industry, so take my word for it.

The Boston Bulwer Beat is the ultimate and most splendid outdoor playground – hiking, biking, river rafting, paragliding, motocross, birding, wildlife & landscape photography, and pure off-road satisfaction.

Being my first winter in the area, I was dreading the ambiguous loss of eloquent summer vibrancy. But winter has stolen my heart with her rich earthy shades and is just as enrapturing in her stark beauty.

Every path calls you ’round the bend to complete serenity, with many an added thrill of high verges, cliff faces and powerful rivers. You can’t help but be endlessly 🚜atractored to the Boston Bulwer Beat, and surrender your heart to the Southern Kwazulu Natal Midlands.

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The Secret of Bulwer – In My Opinion

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Interview originally published via #TravelChatSA

  1. Please introduce yourself.

Monique van der Walt – In the smallest of nutshells: From corporate PR to Purpose Driven Life.  Less than a year ago I resigned my corporate PR position to seek my true purpose. I currently find myself living and loving Social Media Tourism, PR & Photography.

  1. Where do you live – and where is the town located?

Bulwer is a small farming town in KwazuluNatal (KZN) about 2.5 hours drive from Durban in the Southern KZN Midlands, right at the start of the Southern Drakensberg region.

  1. What is Bulwer “famous” for / or what should one know about the town?

The town itself is pretty old, and is named after the Lieutenant Governor of then Natal from 1875-1880, Sir Henry Bulwer, and is home to one of the oldest yellow-wood churches in SA. The village rests in the shadows of Magwaqa Mountain, boasting a biosphere, fantastic forestry & a world-famous Paragliding site.

The R617 is the only road that will take you to the village, but don’t blink, you could miss it completely. Little Bulwer has a Library, Police Station Station, Fuel Station, grocer / odds ‘n ends store, a few trade stores and couple of funeral establishments. There is a new Municipality under construction which is expected to bring great development to the town and possibly even a Shoprite/Checkers. As it is now, the nearest retail chain store is Spar, 35 kms away in Underberg; but the produce from the local farms is readily available at the smiling street vendors.

Marutswa Forest is one of the most active clouds forest in SA and draws international visitors. The forest is a sanctuary for the Cape Parrot and has a boardwalk with viewing platforms for a chance to spot the many rare and odd birds calling Marutswa Forest home; some say there could be unknown species living deep inside the thick bush.

The vehicle registration for Bulwer is NIP, and the standing local joke is it means Nowhere In Particular. But in particular, look out for the Nguni cows and jolly goats that wander the highway and pepper the byways throughout the area.

Bulwer is also the hometown of the 2017 Comrades Marathon male winner, Bongmusa Mthembu.

  1. What are the top things to do in Bulwer?

Being such an off-the-grid town, the list of things to do suits the nature lover to a T, with vast forests and serene nature reserves all around Bulwer Village.  Bulwer is known for her off-road trails that provide the perfect terrain for hiking, horse riding, cycling, motocross, 4×4 or even just a slow nature and birdwatching meander.  Fishing, tubing, and swimming the nearby rivers is on Bulwer’s summer agenda. There is even a place called “Bulwer Beach”, natural pools hidden deep in the forests, and you’ll only ever hear about it or go there with a seasoned local.

But there is a wildcard thrown in for the adrenaline Junkie. Bulwer Mountain is known as one of the best paragliding sites in South Africa, so much so that there is a resident paragliding school on her slopes (Wildsky Paragliding – with onsite log cabin accommodation).

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Ard Lui B&B

  1. Any dining places you’d recommend?

My favourite way to “eat Bulwer” is the numerous fruit and veg stalls, packed with fresh and delicious local produce. This is sufficient for me as I have a plant-based and raw-food diet, but for everyone else, there are a few places to eat in Bulwer:

On the west side of Bulwer is Nip Inn, Pub & Grub – the favourite local hangout; the kids area is fantastic and the food is wholesome and hearty.

On the east side is Mountain Park Hotel with its old-world charm pub and restaurant.

The Shisa Nyama in central Bulwer is an authentic experience for the any traveller and an up-and-coming function venue. In the spirit of small town living combined with welcoming Zulu culture, you will find that almost anyone can join the festivities.

I must add that being a country town, things are delightfully informal. Not a restaurant per se, Loretta of Ard Lui B&B said she could rustle up a good meal or high tea, to be enjoyed with a view of fantastic gardens and Bulwer mountain.

  1. Recommended places to stay in Bulwer?

Ashtonvale Guest Farm is a working four-generation farm, family owned and operated. Beautiful hillside rondavels, three waterfalls on site, animal farm, tennis court, swimming pool, entertainment lounge pony rides (and more), it’s a fantastic & reasonably priced family getaway.

Nip Inn boats lovely log cabins with DSTV, campsite, caravan park and onsite pub and restaurant and is the meeting place for many a rural activity.

Established in the 1940s, Mountain Park Hotel is a your landmark for arriving in Bulwer. The garden cottages are a pleasant and serene budget stay, and once the hotel rooms are upgraded they will surely provide the same. The restaurant and pub fireplace provide tasty and cosy country comfort.

Ard Lui B&B is an enrapturing and historic place to stay, with exquisite grounds and interior décor that seamlessly blends of classic and modern design. Little touches like the nightcap tray give you a timeless feeling in a room that is modern in design and flow.

  1. What is your favourite thing to do in Bulwer?

Bulwer’s complete country immersion is perfect for me; as the saying goes, early to bed and early to rise makes you healthy (check) wealthy (I am in soul) and wise (continual WIP). So, my top activity would be simply exploring the acres of forest surrounding the area, and capturing Bulwer’s beauty. I also enjoy “cow-spotting” – finding and photographing roaming cows in random places.

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  1. Why should one visit Bulwer?

It’s a place where KZN Midlands Serenity meets Drakensberg adrenaline, and almost everyone can find their perfect balance of the two in Bulwer, South Africa.

Frosted grass Salute from a Weather Nerd

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I’m a bit of a weather nerd, as well as many other types of nerds – tech, cats, puns, language – perhaps just an all around nerd. So I’m delighted to tell you that, as expected, yesterday morning’s pink skies were indeed a warning of fierce winter weather!

Our predawn real-feel in nearby Underberg, Southern Drakensberg was a cool -6° Celsius (21° Fahrenheit) and Bulwer certainly felt like it too.

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My easiest way to get going in the mornings is to have a quick coffee (wait a bit), then a brain-freezing teeth-brush and mouthwash, followed by vigorous online workout. After this I am warm enough to brave whatever degree temperature to capture the winter weather.

On with my leopard-print gumboots and into the garden I trot, the grass and frost crunching beneath my feet. Within a few minutes my hands are like ice, I grasp my Canon tightly and drop to my knees to get the shots.

With a positive leap of the poetic imagination (and frozen fingertips) I try to put words into pictures, undeterred by the lack of feeling in my fingers.

So, with my hands-on approach, I (and photobombing cat) salute you with frosted grass from the Southern KwazuluNatal Midlands.

 

 

 

Colourful KZN weather Wonderings

Every once in a while I climb on my rooftop to capture the KwazuluNatal (KZN) mountain sunrise. She rises beyond the KZN Midlands and igniting Durban‘s golden shores from her Indian Ocean horizon.

Today it seems the KZN Midlands is having her Sunday morning lie-in under a thick blanket of  mist; I brave the cold to capture her sleeping beauty.

Again the old wise saying rings true; our red sky this morning sure is a shepherds warning. A cold, wet and snowy spell has hit South Africa, predicted to arrive in Bulwer this evening. The Southern Drakensberg is expected to see temperatures of around -3° Celsius (27° Fahrenheit) during the night, with possible snow.

Something interesting is that this morning was completely devoid of birds; even the sturdy Hadedas were nowhere in sight, as if they’re aware of approaching weather.

Climbing to and from the rooftop is a little more tricky at this time of year, a thin layer of ice coats its surface. About a week ago got brain freeze from my mouthwash, and its now a daily occurrence. But there is still no place I’d rather be.

Drakensberg Snow Road Trip: Sani Pass

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“Do you think we’ll get up?” I asked Craig nervously as the 4×4 wheels of our Toyota Fortuna skidded confidently the in thick mud.

He didn’t bat an eyelid at the sliding vehicle and said, “We’ll get close! Good thing we got in early before the rest of the world coming to see the Sani Pass snow, the more the cars pass through, the more messy the road becomes with melting snow.”

Two days ago, the first proper snowfall of the season had blanketed the Southern Drakensberg, just in time to turn our road-trip into a snow-trip. Saturday 13 May 2017 we left Bulwer before 9am wearing 3 pairs of socks, gloves, beanies, thermals and our cold faces. The trip from Bulwer up to Sani Pass is <70km, passing through the KwaZuluNatal towns of Underberg and Himeville, then over the South Africa/Lesotho border, and finally the steep climb up the Southern Drakensberg mountains.

“Here, ask this family coming past what’s happening further up the pass!” I urged as the second of 4 vehicles gingerly made its way down towards us.

It wasn’t good news; we were told the road was very bad ahead and a few of the early-bird explorers had turned back. But fortunately, Craig is a seasoned Sani Pass tripper, having done it plenty times, and he reassured me we would be fine to press on.

A few times we had to stop and wait; either at a safe following distance behind an ascending car, or far enough over for a descending car to pass.  The die-hard explorers without 4x4s had long since disappeared and the majority of 4x4s were proudly Toyota, their passengers of all ages. I was stirred by the intense feeling of comraderie between us travellers; the sheer epic of the Sani Pass experience formed a common bond. Almost every person you make eye contact with smiles, and there is a knowing in their eyes.

After a 4 minute stop at border control and a stamp in our passports, we were back on the muddy road and could see the thick snow on the Drakensberg peaks. As we climbed, the dark green landscape became more and speckled with white, until all around us was winter wonderland and sparkling snowflakes were falling from the sky.

About 80% of the way up and before the zigzag section, there were at least 15 cars creeping down the slope and we could see a queue up ahead. The the road was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles side by side, but fortunately just up the way there was a verge.

We pulled over and I lurched from the van and began to frolic in the 30-60cm snow in my leopard print gumboots, throwing snowballs and feeling like a kid – completely forgetting my frozen fingers in the fun of it all.

On the verge, there was a solo traveller that made the trip annually to stay in the mountains for a few days. He told us that up ahead a vehicle has lost its cargo and this had caused a traffic jam on both sides, with at least 18 cars waiting to ascend.

It was now around 11am and the snow was falling rapidly, dramatically reducing visibility. So reluctantly I said “Let’s go back, it’s a pity we will not get to Sani Mountain Lodge for lunch though. But we’ll will do Sani Pass again, on a sunny day, so we can get the most of the views from the top.” And at that we began our hair-raising descent, slipping and sliding down the pass.

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Back down where there was more mud than snow, we saw one of the few non-4×4 vehicles on the road. A MiniBus Taxi, fully loaded with commuters and luggage appeared to be helplessly stuck in the mud, like a wildebeest about to be taken by a mountain of a crocodile. We were at the top of a hill they were trying to ascend, so we stopped and waited. But this was no problem at all for these locals! Out the vehicle they jumped, some unloading and carrying baggage up the hill, while the rest began to push and within I minutes the taxi was back on its way.

 

I was quite astounded, but Craig gave me the insider’s perspective “These are the Basotho people, they grew up in these mountains and have travelled this road many times. This must be a regular thing on the drive to and from work in and around Underberg. They know what they are doing.”

A couple of slippery and sludgey kilometres later, we were back through the border and onto tar road, on an absolute high! We came, we saw, and the way my heart felt, I could conquer the world.

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Timeless KZN Travels: Bulwer – Ard Lui BnB

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I’m writing a feature article on my new hometown of Bulwer for Travel Chat SA. So while I dash around the KwazuluNatal (KZN) countryside compiling content, I will share what I find with you.

In my last post via Tourism Guide Africa I shared top things to do in Bulwer‘s area, now I will share a series of posts specifically focused on the town itself, where to sleep, eat and play. So when you head this this way, be sure to keep your eyes open for this magical place to stay.

Bulwer is at the end of the KwazuluNatal Midlands, and the start of the Southern Drakensberg region, also called the Southern Midlands (yes, it confuses me a little too).

On the west side of the village is Ard Lui B&B, a haven of tranquility, tinged by a personal touch that puts it in a class of its own. The designer, owner & operator is Loretta, who having come to Bulwer in 1959 returned to retire 13 years ago. But retire is far from what she has been doing!

‘Ard Lui is just my hobby’ Loretta humbly describes the historic Victorian stone farmhouse that has clearly had years of attention, making it the inviting Bed & Breakfast that is today.

The gardens are breathtaking in beauty, a seamless blend of  experience and a natural eye for flow & functionality. Twice Loretta has allowed her arm to be twisted into hosting  ‘I Do’ ceremonies on the lawns nestled below Bulwer Mountain.

The dining room and lounge area is decorated tastefully with old and new pieces. The overall feel is homely, welcoming and really just calls you to linger, perhaps take a look through the guestbook.

What struck me most about the bedrooms was the Nightcap tray on the dresser; so beautifully old-fashioned I felt like I was in an Audrey Hepburn movie. But yet the room’s decor is funky and fresh, the bathroom fitted with modern design.

After coffee and red velvet cupcakes we viewed yet another piece of history found at Ard Lui. The shell of an old vehicle, most likely from the ’40s, that was discovered on the property buried under years of underbrush.

What was barely a 2hr visit at Ard Lui B&B left me with a timeless feeling, I had traveled on a tarred road through history’s dusty byways. I saw through another’s minds eye; and like all trips in KwazuluNatal, the scenery was exquisite!

 

Top things To Do in Southern Drakensberg

Ever wondered what there is to do in the Southern Drakensberg? Well, let me point you in the right direction to find your perfect blend of country serenity and outdoor adrenaline.

Written & pictured by Monique van der Walt

The Drakensberg (Dutch – Dragon Mountains) is the largest and highest mountain range in South Africa, described best by her Zulu name “uKhahlamba” which means ‘barrier of spears’. The mountains majestically span…read more