How do you get ‘far from the madding CAPE TOWN crowd’ without travelling for days? Head up the N7 through Clanwilliam and turn right to Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge. It couldn’t be easier. Or more refreshing for your soul. Story by Keri Harvey.
On top of a mountain one feels untouchable, invincible and unfettered. There’s an air of freedom and pervading calm. The ascent in second gear to Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge is steep, but when you arrive at the top you immediately exhale. Down below and not far away is the town of Clanwilliam, yet it feels distant when you’re swathed in the serenity of the mountain top. And suddenly the world is ok again.
The Cederberg is wild and rugged, raw and beautiful. In summer, temperatures soar; in winter there may be snow in the mountains, but these extremes make one feel fully alive and connected to the elements. This place has a special feeling, an authenticity that is hard to find and harder to articulate. It’s 40C when we arrive in the afternoon. “Don’t worry,” says vibrant assistant manager Itu Mathole, “the wind will come up any minute and it will be cooler.” She’s spot on, and the breeze arrives as we do at our suite. And then we exhale again. All the suites have panoramic views over the rocky Cederberg and are exquisitely appointed. Neutral natural textures and simplicity pervade, botanical pictures are on the walls and fynbos sprigs rest in vases. There’s just a swish of colour in washed protea and sage, both of which also grow wild in these mountains along with a thousand other species of fynbos.
The window seat will certainly be enjoyed on lazy afternoons, as will the private veranda to watch the last light of the day dance over the mountains. And later at night, there are the star-spangled skies to admire. There’s also a reading nook outside in the sunshine and an outdoor shower for an al fresco experience. The white and glass bathroom is spa-inspired, though there is also a full spa with an extensive pamper menu. We brew cups of rooibos tea and dunk home-baked biscuits as we take in the view and slowly unwind. Today is for chilling; tomorrow will be active.
The surrounding Cederberg is named for the Clanwilliam Cedar Tree which grows at over 1 200 metres and is both endemic and endangered. These trees were virtually eradicated by European settlers who used the beautiful sweet-smelling wood to make furniture – and even as poles. However, the unusual spelling of Cederberg has always been a conundrum – now no more. In English it should be spelt Cedarberg; in Afrikaans it’s Sederberg, so the unusual spelling is a synthesis of the two namings, making Cederberg correctly spelled. This is also the world of rooibos tea, which grows wild and is the only place in the world that it does – and there’s plentiful rock art with over 2 500 documented sites. The rock art trail is first on our list of things to do tomorrow morning, and in the afternoon a lazy cruise on Clanwilliam Dam sounds enticing.
However, there is a whole menu of diverse activities with plenty of unusual ones too. Many are to enjoy on your own terms like self-guided walks and mountain bike trails. There’s also the option of guided walks and bike trails, excursions to the High Cederberg and to see waterfalls, tours of the grape and citrus farm, rooibos farm tours, excursions to the West Coast, flower tours in spring and even town tours of Clanwilliam. That’s if you don’t want to kick back in the spa or chill in your relaxing suite. At night there is stargazing into the big open skies above – which is exactly what we do before tucking into bed in absolute comfort.
Breakfast is a genteel experience, served out on the sunny deck of the homestead. There’s an exquisite cold buffet and a hot menu with unusual options – like a Salmon Bowl of smoked ancient grains, seared salmon and poached egg. Lunches are as light as a club sandwich or as heavy as eland steak, always gorgeously presented. Dinners are decadent with a diverse menu for all the courses.
After breakfast we are well primed for the rock art trail, and we head out for the four to five-hour hike along the Brandewyn River. There will be plenty of clambering, since the rock art is mostly in rock overhangs. The day is heating up too, so we head out clutching our lodge branded waterbottles, personalised with our names. The rock art is enchanting, and of people and wildlife, hunts and daily life. It’s an evocative glimpse into the lives of the ancient San people who called this rough terrain home. Some of the scenes are naturally faded, others remain vibrant. Some sites require short bursts of rock climbing, to see others you need to lie on your back and look up at the paintings. It’s a memorable experience with the sense of being part of antiquity. The San were deft artists for sure.
Back at the lodge we enjoy lunch, a cool shower and some downtime in air-conditioning before heading out for a sundowner cruise on Clanwilliam dam. After being nearly empty in the drought that gripped the Western Cape, the scenic dam is now full and its waters twinkle in the sunshine. Skipper Peter sees us from the opposite bank and heads over in his small elegant speedboat. We step in and he briefs us on the trip. There are just four of us on board, and the Finnish couple are relishing the summer heat. “It’s snowing in Helsinki now,” she says, and he adds: “You just don’t know how great your weather is.”
When the dam is full you can cruise 25km upstream, but we won’t go that far today. Peter turns the boat and we head off, enjoying the breeze as we go. We pass spurwing geese and a mango farm on the banks, and then he slows down and pulls up close to a cave on the bank and points. “If you look very carefully you’ll see a painting of an oryx inside.” And we do. Then it strikes us that we are actually viewing rock art from a boat, which is certainly unusual. This morning we were clambering to see it; now we are sitting comfortably and being driven right up to the rock face.
A little further on, Peter cuts the motors and offers us sundowner drinks and snacks. What a way to enjoy a fiery sunset, on water and surrounded by mountains. Life could definitely be worse. Peter talks about the area and what it’s like to live here. It’s certainly hot in summer, but the people are just as warm-hearted. A few years ago Peter swapped corporate life in Cape Town for a slower pace in Clanwilliam and he has never looked back. “When it gets too hot in summer, I just head to the dam and take a boat ride,” he smiles. “If getting hot for a few weeks of the year is all we have to worry about, then we have no worries at all. Here we have a great life.”