Tripping the tip of Africa

There is much to see and do in the region that forms the southernmost point of the continent, with its important land and marine reserves, quirky fishing villages and a legacy of shipwrecks over the centuries. Angus Boswell and the Prof enjoy an action-packed trip from the comfort of Kia’s flagship SUV.

An escape from city life is always a treat, and to hit the road in a luxury SUV to explore the southern tip of Africa, staying in upmarket lodges and hotels, feels almost unreal. We’ve worked out a packed itinerary with Cape Country Routes who market a countrywide selection of stayovers and activities, and our ride for this four-day excursion is Kia’s recently launched flagship SUV, the Sorento SXL, which has every comfort amenity one could bewishing for.

I’m a 100% camping and 4×4 enthusiast for my escapes, so this is way out of my comfort zone, but I had no trouble persuading the Prof (as my partner is affectionately known) to come along for the ride. All it took was a few key words: cold-water swimming, four-star accommodation and a car with aircon.

It’s perfect late summer weather, warm and windless, when we hit the N2 mid-morning early on a Friday, beating the crowds to Peregrine Farm Stall for the essential coffee and venison pie. The Sorento has been an absolute treat. It’s a big car that carries its heft well, and the newly fettled 2.2-litre CRDi diesel punches far above its cubic capacity. Its paired with a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the shifts are almost imperceptible, even when kicking down a few cogs to get ahead. It’s very relaxing to be inside this magically insulated capsule, wafting up Sir Lowry’s Pass with no fuss and little roll, and I have to reign things in to stay within the speed limit.

We flash past the turn-off to Hermanus, and turn right at Caledon on to the R316, a great stretch of road that dips, twists and turns through the famous Overberg wheat fields, taking one through Napier and into the agricultural hub of Bredasdorp. I can’t believe the fuel consumption. Admittedly I’m cruising along, but the digital readout stays between 7.2and 7.4 litres/100km. Remarkable for a hefty seven-seater with four-wheel drive.

The finishes on this Kia are perhaps a little blingy with all that chrome, piano black and diamond-textured plastic surfaces, but there are great touches that make this an ideal family wagon. Like the always-there head-up display, a blind spot view that pops up in the driver’s TFT-type instrument panel when you indicate left and right, and the panoramic sunroof that lets in acres of light and lifts upward to give extra ventilation– a premium touch. The high-set heated and vented leather seats keep you warm and cooled, plus they have easy auto-adjustment (and driver’s seat memory settings), so any body type can get comfy. Phone pairing is easy, and charging is both wireless and by a variety of USB outlets. The large horizontal central touch screen makes for pin-sharp navigation cues. I found the entire system intuitive to use, taking inputs via touch, the steering wheel buttons and the restrained array of analogue dials. The interior is really a good mix, put together with almost Germanic precision – a huge accolade in the car business. Suffice to say the ride is super smooth on the tar, helped by highway-terrain tyres. But let’s see how it goes on gravel.

The De Hoop magic

We’re headed for two nights to the 34 000ha De Hoop Nature Reserve, a World Heritage Site whose 70km stretch of coastline is also a marine reserve that stretches 5km out to sea. It’s a treasure trove of 1 500 plant species, 260 bird species, is home to a variety of wildlife (85 species), and, apart from the hundreds of Southern Right whales that breed here from June to December, its rocky coastline is said to host the largest array of intertidal creatures anywhere in the marine world.

This is familiar territory. We had hiked the four-day50km De Hoop Trail two years before, from Potberg to Koppie Alleen, and were mesmerised by the pristine beaches, archaeological remains, and the whales gambolling close to shore. The driving route is easy from the Cape Town side: turn left at the Caltex garage onto the R319 to Swellendam, turn right after 6km on to the Malgas/Infanta gravel road, and after 33km, take aright at the De Hoop Collection signboard. It’s 7km to the Cape Nature gate and another 8km to reception. The Sorento is smooth as silk on the gravel, very composed and rattle-free. It stays well in control even when pushed on the corrugated and rocky section leading to the De Hoop gate. What’s more, it keeps out all the fine dust. Good stuff.

The De Hoop Collection is an enclave of restored historical buildings, run as a private public partnership with Cape Nature since 2007 by a team under entrepreneur and well-known hotelier William Stephens. We’re welcomed by the very professional staff and quickly checked into the Dassie Suite, close to the pool and FigTree Restaurant, in what used to be a storeroom. All the buildings keep to the original thatch and white wall themes, with wooden floors, sash windows and décor with an old school elegance.

The wind had picked up, so we’re advised to take our planned Eco Boat Cruise in the morning instead. The Prof immediately heads to the pool. I stagger in with all the luggage, then go walkabout, heading down to the campsite (now R495/site per night), take a look at the pristine rondavels overlooking the vlei, have a few close encounters with the bontebok that roam freely on the surrounding grasslands, and marvel at the buildings. The land belonged to the Dutch East India Company in the 1700s and was loaned by the so-called free burghers, with Frederick de Jager, a Dutchman, the first to build what forms the base of the Manor House back in 1739. It was acquired by the Cloete family in 1820, who successfully farmed Merino sheep and horses. This was when the manor house was enlarged, stables built and the perimeter wall or “werf” constructed to keep stock safe. There were many other owners over the years, with the Melkkamer section over the vlei sold some time after 1850 (then appropriated by the government in 1985), while the De Hoop homestead (Opstal)changed hands some 12 times before the area was bought by government in 1956 and proclaimed a nature reserve. The Opstal was declared a national monument in 1979, and the buildings refurbished over time by Cape Nature. The huge Natal Wild Figtrees (Ficus natalensis) casting huge canopies of shade about the central werf and the front of the reception area, were brought in from KwaZulu-Natal and planted in 1956 by the Department of Nature Conservation, and they are a magnet for birds and bats who feed on the fruit.

We’re treated to a gourmet dinner with excellent service at the Fig Tree restaurant, where customers in the suites have their breakfasts and dinner included in the room rates. It’s worth wandering into William’s Silo Wine Cellar, an oenophile’s delight where bottles – including a number of rare specimens – are stacked to the distant ceiling. Walking back to our room, what strikes me is the lack of light pollution. Apart from a reddish glow over distant Arniston, there’s nothing but the clear spray of the Milky Way and showers of stars to light the way. Sliding into sleep, another discovery makes itself felt: there is total silence, apart from the night calls of birds. The true calm of a remote location.

Waterbirds and sandy shores

It’s a 09:00 start for our Eco Boat Cruise on De Hoop Vlei, and after wolfing down a delicious breakfast and coffee, we meet our captain, Dylan and Albert (our guide) in reception. What a treat to be chugging slowly along the shores of this world-renowned Ramsar site, a 19km stretch of water that covers over six square kilometres when full. Albert tells us its basically an estuarine lake as shifting sand dunes close its path to the sea. Water comes in from the Sout- and Potberg rivers, as well as sub-surface springs, to form a rich ecosystem with frogs, fish and crustaceans that support a huge variety of birdlife.

The levels rise and fall quite dramatically, as the shorelines show, and the dense fynbos on the fringes teems with life. We spot terrapins in the water, and track dabchicks, grey heron, night heron, African darters, Cape teal and flocks of yellow-billed duck. A herd of very chilled Eland hoves into view, and then its more waterbirds – Spurfowls, seagulls, Hartleigh’s gull, common greenshank, a Caspian tern, Blacksmith lapwing, and an actively hunting pair of Pied kingfishers. We head the 500m or so over the vlei towards Melkkamer, which was partly underwater after a flood in 2021, and see Chacma baboons racing between a few Cape Mountain Zebra, and a huge flock of Spurwing geese. As we turn towards home, and a tasty coffee and pastry snack is set out by the crew, we chat to Alan and Lisa, a pair of digital nomads who have given up houses and other clutter to travel. We are entranced as White-fronted swallows stare up at us from the boat’s pontoon, then dart under the boat where they’ve made a nest. Then it’s the turn of a pair of African fish eagles, who flap from their perch on top of a large Milkwood, and lazily circle the sky.

We are on a high after all the sightings, but there is much more to see. We grab swimming gear and pile into the Sorento for the gravel and sand road drive down to Koppie Alleen, noting the many eland en route as the coastal dunefields come into view. The sun is now out in force, the sky clear and the sea a rich turquoise. It’s a fair tramp down to these a, onto a boardwalk and along a few beaches separated by rocky promontories. The reward is a few lagoon-like pools brimming with marine life of every sort, kept safe from the breaking swells by shelves of limestone. The visible parts are eroded into complex shapes, with shady caves around every corner. A real paradise, where we snorkel at every second pool, and break out a tasty picnic on the rocks.

It’s a relief to get into the Sorento’s air-conditioned comfort for the return drive, and time for another swim in the sparkling pool soon after we get back to our suite. Stormclouds are scooting over as the evening Eco Cruise docks just before sunset, disgorging a bunch of enthralled tourists, and its quite nippy as we settle in for another gourmet dinner. “Four seasons in a day? That’s the Cape for you,” jokes one of the diners.

I take an early morning run along the cliff face, following one of the marked hiking trails, revelling in the dense fynbos that rings the vlei. I come across two troops of Chacma baboons, who put up a mighty fuss, nearly trip over a hare, and ease past many eland who cast quizzical glances at this sweaty human. Time up, I head back along one of the tweespoor mountain bike trails, startling more birds than I can identify at a trot, then wait while a large family of ostrich made their leisurely way across the trail. A few Bontebok and Cape Mountain zebra also figured in the mix – in all, a real wild run.

This was a neat preamble to our next De Hoop Activity, a guided early-morning visit to the Cape Vulture colony at Potberg, the only such colony in the Western Cape. It’s a long drive in the open 110 Defender, with guide Mfundiso “Priest” Msululu at the wheel, followed by a stiff walk up towards the viewing platform. A few of these giant raptors with their fluttering 2.5-metre wingspan glide by on the thermals, and Mfundiso tells us there are 150 breeding pairs. We spot many of them hidden in the cliff face, from where they range out over a wide region to hunt on the local farms for carrion. We learn that the black tags on powerlines in the area protect them from getting tangled when scanning for prey. Suitably impressed, we are treated to even more bird sightings, including grey heron, blue crane and a jackal buzzard on our return journey.

After a tour of the impressive spread of accommodation at De Hoop, and a chat with general manager Hendrik Arendse and his deputy Dalfrenzo Laing we reluctantly pack up and get back on the road. Two days is just a taste of what’s possible.

Arniston’s anglers

After retracing the 50km of mostly gravel roads to Bredasdorp, we turn left onto the R316, following the signboards to the beach-fringed fishing village of Arniston. A halfway picnic stop in hammering wind offers up a plaque stating that the battered remains of an old fence nearby was erected in1837 to contain and protect the area’s Bontebok. Little has changed, then. It’s an easy 25km to our destination, the four-star Arniston Spa Hotel, and we feel like royalty rolling up to the entrance with its signature boat anchor, and unloading our gear from the swanky Sorento. I hit the automatic boot opener, and am reminded just how little room we’re taking up in the cavernous 821-litre boot. Even with the third row up (all it takes is the touch of a button) there is still 187 litres of packing area. The sliding second row offers masses of headspace and legroom. Space, they say, is the ultimate luxury, and it’s here in spades.

We are checked into owner Robert Haarburger’s favourite suite, a duallevel VIP room with four balconies, two lounges, an entertainment area, and enormous bedroom with an en-suite offering sea views from the shower. The hotel has 67 rooms, half of which are sea-facing with the rest looking out on the sparkling pool. Our big suite calls for a party, but instead we cross the road to the beach and join a few other swimmers striking out for the beacon that guides fishing boats into the nearby Arniston Harbour. Spent after the long swim, we bask in the sun and take in the views of the gently rolling swells and turquoise sea, wondering at the tales that could be told by the battered wooden fishing boats drawn up on the slipway (built in 1936) with names like Oom Jan, Timothy, Emma and Nicolene.

The dining room is bustling with diners, all seemingly opting for the hotel’s signature seafood platter. We settle on more modest mussel and risotto dishes, feeling we might be losing out on the hotel’s signature meal. The slap of the sea lulls us to sleep, and I am up at sunrise to explore the harbour and the fishermen’s access road to Waenhuiskrans Reserve. I tentatively point the Sorento up this sandy track, and it takes the challenge, even handling a few deep cross-axle hollows with no sign of wheel slip. It’s only when the track runs over a series of deeply furrowed limestone steps that the Kia scrapes its chin a few times, signalling the limits of its road-oriented front overhang. I turn back for breakfast, and with the morning still crisp and clear, the Prof and I strike out on foot. We head into the charming 120-year-old fishing village of Kassies baai, with its squat whitewashed stone cottages, and look in at Willeen’s Restaurant offering arts, crafts and meals. Then we stroll on past the promontory of Langklip krans which protects a long stretch of unspoilt beach called Markus baai. Its high tide and this mean walking on the cliffs towards Dassiekrans and on to the monument further on which honours the terrible loss of lives when the Arniston Transport went down here in May 1815.

This ship was parted from its fleet in a big storm and struck a series of reefs, with just six survivors. The original 1816 beacon was rebuilt in 2010 by hotel owner Robert Haarburger. Further on, the beach is littered with metal fragments and the remains of a wooden hull, a sign we are at the wreck site, if not of the Arniston, then perhaps one of the many other boats wrecked here over the years. Walking back the 6km or so to the hotel, we reflect on the dangers faced by those early sea travellers, using the crudest of navigation methods. There’s action on the slipway where the boats are coming in from a long night’s fishing, this time with a decent catch. We watch them being hauled out of the water on a powerful engine-driven winch.

There’s more adventure to be had in Arniston. We drive to the nearby parking lot then hike along the beach, looking for a low route to the famous Waenhuiskrans Cave, which can only be safely accessed at low tide. It’s enchanting to watch oystercatchers scramble about on the sculpted rocks, but sea surges make the route dangerous, and we turn back to take the sign posted route further up the road, skirt around a giant pyramid of stones, and drop down a signposted set of steps where fellow tourists warn us the cave entrance is hard to find. In fact, its little more than a tiny hole at the back of a rock overhang. Crouching through, we emerge into a huge, surreal space of magical purples and greens, echoing with the crash of waves surging into the entrance. It’s hard to take in the size of this phenomenon. Wow! So this is what the fuss is all about?

We feel elated during the walk back in blazing sun, meeting up with Morag and Mark Atherton, family friends who’ve recently retired from a hard life of farming in KwaZulu-Natal and are enjoying the Cape’s attractions. Another swim beckons, and we share the warm, turquoise waves with a few kids having a blast on their boogie boards.

The Cape of Needles

It’s a scenic route to our next stop, the Cabo dos Agulhas (Cape of Needles), so named in the 1400s by Portuguese wayfarers, including Bartlomeu Dias, not only for the sharp reefs, but also because true and magnetic north do not vary at this point. Out of Arniston, we take a left onto gravel, passing Prinskraal, Klein heuwel and Zeekoevlei, avoiding the left to De Mond, another nature reserve worth a visit. Joining the R319, we take the left towards the old fishing village of Struisbaai. At its picturesque harbour where one can stop at the Catch Cook Restaurant for a seafood feast, and watch out over the often windswept 14km-long beach – the longest in the southern hemisphere, and the location for dozens of shipwrecks over the years. There’s a campsite here too.

A short hop takes us to L’Agulhas, re-named by the French, and the southern-most point of Africa where, in theory, the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. Of course, it’s a myth as shifting currents mean that meeting point ranges from the Cape of Storms to further east, but it’s a good story. This is a dangerous part of the world, and the wrecks of more than 150 ships lie scattered on the reefs which stretch out to sea. It’s why the Agulhas Lighthouse was commissioned and built to a design by one Colonel Charles Cornwell Michell and first lit in 1849. The second oldest lighthouse still working in South Africa, it was declared a national monument in 1973, after which its original stonework was plastered over to protect the crumbling sandstone.

We’re booked into the Agulhas Country Hotel, an imposing multi-storey stone structure built in 1997 and set just back from the main road as one enters the town. Half of its eight rooms have sea views, while the rest look towards the hill which backdrops the town – slightly spoiled for now by recent construction work. We’re met by manager Peter Ngirenda who shows us to one of the premier sea-view rooms with a balcony and plush furnishing. The lodge features lots of reclaimed Oregon pine fittings and slightly Baroque décor, themed around owner Phil Fenwick’s time as a SAAF pilot and his work in sea rescue. It’s a fascinating blast into the past, and I’m sure the stocked honesty bar and adjoining cigar room have seen many a festive evening.

We opt for a windswept coastal walk, hooking a left down Hangnes Road and following the field past a small bay and rough tidal pool known as the Soldier’s Pool. We later learn it was built by the Jewish-German owner of the imposing traditional thatched house Shalom, just opposite. Clouds are rolling in as the lighthouse emerges in the distance across the next bay, and we wander back, taking a moment to ponder the meaning of a giant metal cockerel tethered to a tree near a house that appears too big, too far forward. There’s politics here, for sure.

Dinner is in town, as this is not offered at the lodge, and we opt for Gavin’s Trattoria, newly moved from Struisbaai and humming with customers enjoying all sorts of delicious Italian fare. Its enough to set us off for another early night and early morning, and I’m up at sunrise again to catch the golden light with the Sorento in front of the famous lighthouse. It’s another perfect day, and while I go for a coastal run towards the southernmost point monument, the Prof heads off to join one of the local ladies for a swim in the waves that crash over the wall at the Soldier’s Pool.

The kitchen staff pop out a delicious breakfast, and we get on with our exploring, starting with a visit to the recently-built giant relief map of Africa that marks the southern tip. The stone walls and board walkare attractive, but one could imagine better ways to spend a municipal budget than on a huge metal and ferrocrete sculpture. The original stone cairn and bronze plaque are still there to keep tourists happy. We drive further on the public road through Agulhas National Park, stopping briefly to gaze at the remains of the Japanese trawler Meisho Maru #38, which was washed up here in 1982 and is now disintegrated to a rusty prow.

We drive further to Suider Strand, where houses are being built at pace, and stop at the Agulhas National Park gates – their range of guest cottages on offer, including those at Renoster kop, are a definite must visit for the future. As a last active treat, we stop at the roadside entrance to a boardwalk that leads some distance through thick fynbos down to Rasterpunt. This is a strange area of shallow bays, where a series of half-moon shaped piles of stones mark where Khoi-Khoi fishermen used to stand hundreds of years ago in the shallows, spearing the fish they had trapped.

Stanford Cruise

Next on our busy agenda is a river cruise, but first we must get to Stanford in time. Backout on the R319, we turn left on the gravel road which runs past Soetendalsvlei which gets very slippery after rains, and on through the historic town of Elim where there is a vast church and historic workers’ cottages stand cheek-by-jowl. Another time. Then on the tar past Baardskeerdersbos where we encounter a herd of cattle wallowing in a dam like water buffaloto escape the intense midday heat. From the R43 the route heads right past Gansbaai, De Kelders and finally Stanford. After a hasty picnic on a platform above the Klein River, we hop aboard the Lady Stanford, a double-decker craft equipped with comfortable seats, a cooler box to keep drinks chilled and all the kit to mount a proper sunset barbeque.

Skipper Peter Hochfelden, Chairman of the Stanford Bird Club, welcomes us aboard along with a number of guests from nearby lodges, including Grootbos. He regales us with tales, talks up the local whisky tasting club attended by the important local cognoscenti, many of them retired captains of business, and launches into a lament at the current Russia-Ukraine situation. Then it’s back to birds, which Peter admits are more prolific in the morning. Still, we spy terrapin, a beautiful fish eagle, more yellow-billed duck, darters and both Pied and Giant kingfisher. The stress drains off us all as the boat chugs the 7km towards the Hermanus Bird Sanctuary, and we hear that the Klein River assumes a huge horseshoe shape along its 80km length, It’s claim to fame being that its head and tail are just5km apart. We also get talking with former East German writer Harald Schutte, here on his second visit as a guest at Grootbos for the financial newspaper syndicate he works for in Hamburg. He also writes biographies, and with a smile confides in us: “I do love birds, but I am more interested in people.” We rope up in some reeds so that some of us can jump off the top viewing platform into the warm brown water, and, with guests suitably rinsed off, Peter motors back to the mooring. We are all lulled to silence by the changing play of light on the mountains that ring the town.

That wraps our Tip of Africa trip, but of course there’s more. We stay over in Stanford with a friend, spend a balmy night at a local restaurant, and depart early after picking up a large jar of Fynbos honey from a local producer, and ordering a padkos coffee from the Ou Meul Bakery. A brief stop for some delicious camembert from Stone House farm on the R326 out of town is essential after revelling in the sweeping corners along the Akkedisberg Pass.

Then we are back on the R316 to Caledon while the Prof joins a conference on her laptop. I relax into the drive and quietly get some music going on the Sorento’s crisp12-speaker surround sound system developed by Bose. It’s been an intense few days, yet even so, this area offers much more to see and do. Our time with the Sorento feels similar. We’ve enjoyed this sophisticated family wagon’s features, yet it’s clear it has many more talents. They will have to wait for the next voyage of discovery.

Travel Guide

De Hoop Collection

Upmarket three-star accommodation in restored farm buildings, some dating back to the 1700s. Suites (1 to 2persons) sold on a DBB basis at the Opstal (Stable, Vlei, Figtree, Cloete, Otter and Dassie) are at R3 400 to R3 850per person per night. Self-catering cottages for 1 to 6 guests are the Opstal Houses, Vlei cottages, Equipped Cottages and De Hoop Village at R2 800 to R4 995 per night. The Melkkamer offers three options (Melkkamer, Foreman’s Cottage, Vlei cottage) from R4 350 to R10 000 per night. The Campsite Rondavels (braai only) are R1 650 per night, and camping/caravan sites are R495/night. Activities include the Eco Boat Cruise on the De Hoop Vlei (R375pp), the Vulture experience (R500pp), Nature drive experience (R375pp), Guided bird walk (R175pp), Interpretive marine walk (R250pp) and Guided mountain bike trail (R360pp). Bikes can be hired, and there are three MTB routes and two marked hiking trails.

CONTACT: +27 21 422 4522 | info@dehoopcollection.co.za | www.dehoopcollection.com

Arniston Spa Hotel

A family run four-star lodge with fabulous seaviews offering four room types, sold on a B&B basis, all with balcony sea views and two with jacuzzi baths. Rates are dependent on the season and number of guests. The Aviation theme full bar and separate cigar lounge with huge fireplace is an ideal spot to relax and a pre-booked set menu dinner is available for groups.

CONTACT: +27 028 445 9000 | info@arnistonhotel.com | www.arnistonhotel.com

Agulhas Country Lodge

Eight rooms, some with sea views, one with a jacuzzi and one family room. Priced from R2 200per room (or R1 100 per person) on a B&B basis. Family room at R995 per person. With honesty bar and free WiFi.

CONTACT: +27 (0)28 435 7650 | info@agulhascountrylodge.com | www.agulhascountrylodge.com

Lady Stamford River Cruises

Two-hour trips on a double-decker launch at set times daily on the Klein River, departing from Stanford at R225 per person. Vagabond kayak hire also available, at a daily rate of R350 single/R500 double.

CONTACT: +27 66 3749 386 | +27 82 766 8319 | www.ladystanford.co.za

All the accommodation and activities are members of Cape Country Routes:

+27 76 203 8929 | bookings@capecountryroutes.com | www.capecountryroutes.com

Behind the Wheel: The Family Cruiser

After 20 years of development, the Kia Sorento has come a long way from Generation 1 in 2002, to the current updated Generation 4. It features an all-new ‘large SUV’ platform and the latest Smartstream version of the 2.2-litre CRDi turbodiesel engine, with 148kW of power on tap at 3800rpm and 440Nm of torque from 1750-2750rpm.

It’s mated to a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and on-demand four-wheel drive. Premium features include a 12.3-inch driver’s TFT instrument cluster and large central touchscreen. Seven USB charging points are available across three rows of seats. A full safety suite and many driver aids, from smart cruise control to a lane keeping assistant, make this a safe and polished choice as a family adventure vehicle. Sold with a six year/90 000km service plan and five-year unlimited kilometre warranty.

Priced from R809 995 for the two-wheel drive EX+ grade. We drove the flagship SXL, priced at R988 995.

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