SOUTH AFRICA: FAIRTRADE TOURISM

GUARDIAN A Fairtrade holiday sounds as if it might be just a little too worthy and smug for its own good.  Two weeks of unbleached cotton and a diet of organic lentils followed by the inevitable, if constipated, self-righteous after-glow doesn’t, frankly, tick any of my boxes.  I actually like to enjoy my hols.

So let me get my sermon over and done with; I’ve seen the light, I’m now a man converted.  The Fairtrade initiative in South African tourism has come as a revelation to me.  It’s not a right-on panacea – like the eco-tag some unscrupulous places profligately use as a marketing tool – but a strictly audited badge that guarantees very specific values.  Black empowerment, labour standards and development, community, environment and ecology are just some of the monitored categories in hotels, lodges and guest houses that are also happily loaded with comfort and style.  Quite simply, this is ethical travel with panache. Phew.
On my trip I visited three very different places, with three distinct styles of accommodation…  Fairtrade is the way to go.
Wine country

A couple of hours east of Cape Town (along the Garden Route) is the sleepy town of Swellendam.  Ten minutes past that is Jan Harmsgat Country House – a name that to my ears sounds more Muppet chef than small rural guest house, but don’t be deceived.  It’s situated below impressive mountains that change colour from mauve and green through gunmetal and pink depending on the time of day.  A chic grey swimming pool is surrounded by dry stone walls and lavender bushes that put me in mind of a Franglaise country garden – I could have been in the South of France.  Intriguingly it has the polish of a much larger establishment without loosing sight of its most attractive quality, intimacy.

Convivial pre-dinner drinks brought all the guests together for an instantaneous cocktail party and a chance to ruminate over the excellent wine list.  Smoked salmon mousse, beef fillet with wild mushrooms and pecan pie closely followed.  I was genuinely surprised with the results; their small kitchen produces quality food, the perfect foil for all the oenophiles and gluttons present (me on both counts).

Twenty miles away is McGregor; a heady cocktail of Scottish and African ancestry poured into an architectural infusion of Dutch gables and Anne Hathaway’s thatch – quite a combo.  Something of a one horse town, it improbably supports both a health-food cafe and store.  Diet teas, slimming teas (what’s the difference?), rejuvenating, detox and even a product that on first glance appeared to be verruca tea were all on offer to the minuscule population.  Someone told me earlier – in reverential tones – that McGregor sat on Ley lines.  Why do rural towns always seem to bring out the latent hippy?  Maybe those cosmic highways are the answer.

Vineyards are of course, everywhere – and the area boasts some pretty impressive drinking, which for me is the main reason to visit.  I managed to happily swig rather than spit my way through two of them, Bon Courage and Springfield, then scoffed a very good biltong lunch on the way home.  Another option for a fine lunch is the Old Gaol café and gallery space in nearby Swellendam.  Perhaps South Africa is in the process of hijacking the Mediterranean; other than wine, you can also add delicious olives and oil to the list of locally produced fare.

Yodi and Brin – the owners of Jan Harmsgat – took me out for a novel dinner in a nearby restaurant (bizarrely we took along our own wine and food).  Here they explained the ethos behind their operation.  It just doesn’t get much better for an old pinko like me; they are the real deal, intellectual liberals with a social conscience and commitment to good wine and food.  Bring it on.
Sea and adventure

Four hours away from Swellendam, past Plettenberg Bay and towards the end of the Garden Route is Hog Hollow Country Lodge.  It’s perched high on a ridge overlooking a deep forest-filled valley with mountains in the distance – what a fabulous backdrop.

Good eating and drinking rapidly became the leitmotif on this trip; huge communal dinners here being no exception.  I’ve got to put my hand up and sheepishly admit that I can do without the enforced social grazing – call it British reserve or just plain anti-social, it’s not my thing.  But don’t let that detract from the reputation that the kitchens here have justly earned – you will be well fed.  For those who fancy more intimate feasting there are plenty of other local restaurants to choose from.

Hog Hollow has a lot more going for it than the purely epicurean.  Rather than hook straight into whale spotting or one of the many nature walks on offer, I was more tempted to stay put and wallow in the hotel’s very comfortable surroundings.  I decided on a funkier option instead.  Xolani, the hotel’s resident font of all local knowledge, took me off to hang out in the townships – a much more personal alternative to some of the larger township tours more commercially available.

The difference between townships and shanties is huge, the former are well organised communities with electricity, water and drainage, the latter are ramshackle huts with virtually no amenities whatsoever.  We hit a tavern in Plettenberg straight away, pastel blue and humble; the focal point of what looked set to be a long weekend.  The greetings were warm and I quickly became a “cool Buddha”.  Not that I’d been mistaken for a religious dude, rather gratifyingly I’d been welcomed in as a brother.  The pool tables were busy, drinks flew out from behind the metal grille over the bar and music pumped.  I kicked back and watched an elderly woman dance; she was light-footed and beer-heavy – what a mover.

A lot of the Saturday morning revellers I met were from the Xhosa tribe – people who speak with a disarming array of clicks and pops.  This Bantu language – related to that of the Kalahari Bushmen – proved to be every bit as intoxicating to me as the liquor was to everyone else.

Lunch at Enrico’s followed my slow half in the township’s boozer.  The pizzeria hovers above a spectacular beach that’s misty with windblown sand and iced like a gateau with massive rollers – surfers among you take note to bring boards or hire them on arrival…  As popular with local trendies as it with tourists, lunch at Enrico’s will set you back a fiver.

There’s a drive in this neighbourhood that should be compulsory.  Bloukrans Pass meanders from the highway through spectacular scenery into a thickly forested canyon.  You’ll also get a wonderful view of the Bloukrans Bridge, an elegant curved span than seemingly floats hundreds of feet above the river below it.  It’s also the site of the highest bungee jump in the world.  I watched the brave and fool-hardy hurl themselves into the abyss and bounce back up again from a few miles away and still suffered violent vertigo.

An addiction to adrenalin isn’t the only reason for visiting this area, although an adventurous spirit might help.  You’ll find another Fairtrade operation –Tsitskamma Canopy Tours – in Storms River Village.  These guys have set up an aerial safari; steel cables swing you from treetop to treetop for an unbeatable view of the canopy.  And not only does this outfit score highly in terms of its social responsibilities, it does multiple back flips with its eco credentials.

For an altogether different groove, try to spend a night at Geraldine’s house in the local township.  You’ll stay in a spare bedroom in her bungalow.  It’s spotlessly clean and simply furnished – and she’ll take you out on the town to meet her friends.

Safari

At the other end of the country, beside the Kruger National Park lies Djuma Bush Lodge.  This is another small operation; just eight individual chalets create a sense of informal exclusivity.  All the rooms have decks with plunge-pools that look out into bush, so expect to be joined by a variety of wildlife that’s a lot more exotic than Jackie Collins: think anything from elephant downwards.

The constant thrum of insect noise and the whooping and squawking of birdlife helps set the scene.  As do words of warning from the manageress, Pinky: NO ONE is allowed to walk unaccompanied after dark, a ranger or guide has to be present as you never quite know what animal might make an unannounced visit.  It’s true, safaris can be dangerous and a disclaimer form has to be signed.

Whenever I hear the term game-drive, I inevitably imagine tweedy beaters trying to rustle up a few pheasant on a bleak wet moor.  Not so here.  Spotting the Big 5 seems to be something taken for granted, on our first drive we saw: waterbuck, zebra, kudu, hyena, lion, warthog, giraffe, wildebeest, baboon, buffalo, elephant, mongoose and rhino.  I managed to catch cheetahs the next morning as well as a clutch of honking hippos that sounded like bass didgeridoos.  The ease with which we managed to spot so much wildlife was a slightly unnerving experience; I was convinced there were men winding up the reptiles or plugging batteries into mammals and switching them on when given the nod.

The bush walk – a gentle ramble around the lodge with my guide Solly –totally won me over.  A wild looking space age plant, elegant with post-modern pom-poms turned out to be baboon marijuana.  Dung beetles put on extraordinary performance, burying turd-gobbits twice their size in a matter of minutes.  All a lot less flashy than a leopard for sure, but somehow just as interesting.

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