Out and About in Africa

Time for a trip down wildlife-laden memory lane. Don’t know when I’ll get back to South Africa but it can’t happen soon enough. What a trip


THE penny drops as soon as the lion is sitting upright. Lit by the guides’ lamps, the lump of snoring fur we had left a couple of hours previously is now coming to his senses, his eyes dazed and squinting like an old man disturbed mid-nap.


The nose comes to life then, sniffing the breeze before the mouth cleaves itself open in a whale-swallowing yawn. He looks sideways, his face half coated in lamplight, half in the African night, and a profile is chiselled out of the blackness, proud and almost human in its wild determination. Millennia of religious and political iconography now makes perfect sense.

Little else blindsides you on your travels like wildlife, and Africa is for good reason our planet’s epicentre of animal viewing. The connection made with that lion, that semantic link cementing its place in the consciousness with a drowsy glance, occurred in the presence of other furred, winged and scaled icons, no longer moving circuitry on a television screen but huffing, heaving and preening citizens of these expanses.

Welcome to Kruger National Park.

To be more precise, Sabi Sabi, a privately owned chunk right next to the legendary 20,000sqkm national park in the South Africa’s north-east corner. Over a few days in the company of this private game reserve, we are introduced to wildlife of the kind that you never seriously expect to get an audience with when you visit the Rainbow Nation.


We sat for a starstruck hour in our safari truck under a tree one evening while a female leopard ate its kill above. She then poured herself down the trunk like molten amber to clean herself on the grass beside us.


We heard the morning booms of ground hornbill on oDSCF3305ur way back from shadowing a troika of lion brothers through the grasslands. Hyenas loped by with smirking eyes and a huge martial eagle reassessed its kingdom from a riverside treetop. Traffic comes to a standstill as a baby elephant takes a dust bath near the feet of older family members. Pachyderms aren’t used to making way for others, it seems.


When you stay at Sabi Sabi’s Earth Lodge, a miraculous Bond villain’s lair pressed seamlessly into the land, you feel in amongst all this. Golf buggies collect you from your luxurious private villa for fire-side fine-dining, just in case a big cat is wandering through. The gentleman serving us had been raised in the Bush and spoke 12 different South African languages fluently. This he told us as he set down game cooked to gourmet standards that only hours previously blinked back at us from the grasses. You can even shower beside nature, out on your patio with the sun on your back.

But the real clincher of Sabi Sabi are its guides. Before sunrise and again before sunset, they collect you in custom Land Rovers and take you ranging through the dirt roads. A radio grapevine means the fleet are informed when a leopard print is sighted or a rhino and its calf are happened upon. When the sun is up or just going down, they pull in and decant coffee or chardonnay, depending on the hour.

That black branch under the sharks mouth is my leg. And yes, the shark's head is inside the cage. And yes, it was unintended. And
That black branch under the shark’s mouth is my leg. And yes, its head is inside the cage. And no, it wasn’t meant to happen.

Wildlife, on roadside verges, billboards and car stickers, chases us all the way down to the southern tip of Cape Town. In some ways, it is even more untamed than the Bush, a city from which you can vanish in a prehistoric cloud up the top of the omnipresent Table Mountain or marvel inside a stainless steel cage at the humbling sleek beauty of great white sharks.

Winchester Mansions, an elegant hotel heirloom to times past, is a short stroll from Cape Town’s swanky V & A Waterfront, where everything from designer footwear to organic food markets can be found, all encompassed in vintage maritime stonework.

Cape Town is peculiar, what with its tangled layout and unsettled weather. The words “beautiful” and “edgy” often appear near South ADSCF0044frica, but while I have certainly been in edgier cities than Cape Town, where a bit of loitering was the worst of it, few are as prepossessing. There is something incredibly romantic about its position, there in the pathway of two colliding oceans at the end of the world. Colonial architecture rattles through modern fixtures in the city centre, and things look better again out in the leafy suburb of Kenilworth, or the swanky seaside village of Camps Bay where the flush and fetching sip mojitos by sunset.

Other things collide here too. Expectations and sensations. You can sail out to Robben Island and get a tour of the unearthly penitentiary by one of Mandela’s fellow inmates, and then wash lobster down with Stellenbosch that night for a fraction of European prices. No, they’re not people strolling down the road out at the windswept talon of Cape Point – they’re baboons. And yes, you did just see penguins on that sunny suburban beach.

Up in the rollingDSCF0690 winelands of Wellington, the wonders don’t dim, they just change flavour. One person who knows plenty about this is Roger Jorgensen. Describing himself as “just a farmer looking for an edge”, he began producing handcrafted, artisan spirits after the Apartheid ban on distillation was lifted. Jorgensen’s Distillery is now on the slow-food map for its potstill brandy, traditional spelt vodka and gin flavoured with wild herbs and berries. We’re welcomed like old friends to his period farmhouse, where, with phrases like “top-notes” and “accents”, he enraptures us about czars, stills and absinthe. “90% of our product stays in South Africa,” he smiles. “Local is lekker.”

We could stay all night but we have an appointment out at Bontebok Ridge, a private game reserve in the Limietberg Valley. The sun is setting as we drive

DSCF0713slowly through the fynbos past zebra, springbok and wildebeest. Diffused dusk colours are washing the rocky hills in pinks and violets as our host pours buttery chardonnay for our “sundowner”. Bontebok Ridge fulfils a role as a place for busy Cape Town professionals to exhale, but it does the job for Irish ones too.

“Doolhof” is the old Afrikaans for “maze”, and the word lends itself to the Doolhof Wine Estate, where knots of cliffs and passes allow only one way in and out. Nestled in among the 380 hectares of vineyard, garden and horse paddock, the estate’s manor house presides. This is Grand Dedale, our five-star lodgings and the subject of many Lotto-fantasy conversations since.

DreDSCF0623ssed in cool whites, greens and blues, the spacious 18th Century abode is disarming, from the second you step on to the long veranda. All is calm and collected. A couple swirl wine on the terrace and a cat pads along the polished marble floors. Our room is one of six individually appointed masterpieces of muted interior design. Less is more.

It’s all pleasingly understated, a quality prone to Southern Hemisphere nations. I’ve seen a New Zealander describe an All Black rugby stampede as “a bit of footie”. or Australians call cordon bleu food “good tucker”. South African’s have it in spades, that ability to let perfect sunsets, birds and beasts and dramatic landscapes do the talking. Under a full moon on the veranda of Grand Dedale, our tummies and souls smiling, we’re reminded that man is an impressive creature too. Lest we forget.


Getting There

Hilary flew Turkish Airlines from Dublin to Capetown, with the edge being taken off the long journey by the carrier’s four-star service, excellent food and ease of transfer at Istanbul. Turkish Airlines also has a generous baggage allowance of 32kg, which came in handy. It flies daily to Johannesburg/Cape Town from Dublin (via Istanbul) starting from €620 return, all taxes included.

Take Three

Sabi Sabi

You can’t rock up to South Africa and just assume you’ll see the Big Five and the other wild riches that dwell there. No, you have to be with people who will help it reveal itself while hosting you in levels of resplendence that would make a Bond villain blush. Sabi Sabi is that place. If you are serious about seeing African wildlife, eating fine cuisine and unwinding in both comfort and vibrancy, these guys are the only show in town.

Cage Diving

Forget Spielberg and bigger boats, viewing great white sharks is an experience that is unforgettable and possible in only a few locations worldwide. Located in Gansbaai near Cape Town, Marine Dynamics are the best in the business at getting you into these beautiful and imposing creatures’ world, blasting away the myths and revealing the grace and evolutionary perfection of these maligned and persecuted animals.

Grand Dedale

“Very hard to find as well as leave” was our guest-book note at this jewel in the wine lands of Wellington, an hour from Cape Town. Once the private residence of the owners of the Doolhof wine estate, this extraordinarily tasteful five-star country hotel had some of the best cuisine, luxury and service we’d found on our trip — or anywhere, in fact. Make a promise right now, this instant, to visit Grand Dedale before you die.



First published in the Sunday Independent


Nominated: Beara treasures

This Sunday Independent travel feature I did last year on the Beara Peninsula has nabbed me a nomination at tonight’s Travel Extra Travel Journalist of the Year Awards. Fourth time lucky? We’ll see. Competition is massively stiff but it’s always a good night out.


Finding the Beara necessities of life

THERE are little kingdoms, to quote a Kevin Barry book title. They exist on this island in abundance, especially on the jagged, sea-hewn south-west coast where those five long fingered peninsulas of ours jab out into the ocean.

Beara stretches out in the middle, a little kingdom of west Cork mystery. Often bypassed for famous cousins in Dingle, Cahersiveen or Bantry, its time had finally come for us. Instead of living in ignorance, we would make the long winding journey down to Cork and then out, out and out through winding roads lined with Scots pines that twist along the water’s edge of Kenmare Bay.

If we ever found the place, we’d be in deepest, darkest Co Cork so there was nothing for it but to swing by the People’s Republic itself and stock up. But there are stocks and then there are stocks, and from what we knew of our destination and the luminaries it had housed over the years, only top-drawer fare would do.

Just as well we’re in Cork then. An excuse is found for lunch in the English Market’s Farmgate Cafe before we hit the vendors; Hegarty’s cheddar and Crozier Blue from On The Pig’s Back, pork belly from Tom Durcan and fish procured under the royalty-wooing grin of Pat O’Connell.

Our second, albeit more scenic and squiggly, half of the journey could begin.

Westwards we wound, through Macroom and Kenmare. We should count ourselves lucky – the architect Robin Walker made this journey many times in his life long before the arrival of the M8. From 1970-72, one of this country’s great modernists selected a steep oak-filled hillside just outside Ardgroom as the setting for his family bolthole and temple to friendship, Bothar Bui. We crawl down an elusive canopied driveway and find his vision glowing in the fading light, a bundled settlement of historic and modern buildings linked by paving stones and mossy verges.

Inside, artworks by Patrick and William Scott, Christo and Gerard Dillon hang casually on the walls like they have nowhere more important to be. Seamus Heaney, a friend of Walker’s, was among many icons of arts and politics to stay here over the years, and even reflected through verse on the “athletic sealight on the doorstep slab, on the sea itself, on silent roofs and gables / Whitewashed suntraps, hedges hot as chimneys”.

From the huge studio loft at the top of the site, sundowners go down particularly well, accompanied by a view that tricks you into believing you’re the only souls for hundreds of miles. Across the bay, Glanlough, Sneem and the Kerry Reeks are painted amber and purple by an Atlantic sunset.

When you awake, you see other things, or at least you think you do. Out through ceiling-height bedroom windows in our chalet, layers stack up perplexingly like a Scully painting – treetop, water, cloud, land, more water, more cloud, more land. As the mists clear, it makes more sense from the breakfast patio, the view shared with friends and dogs and the local hawks and swallows up above.

We emerge to find a nation of humans and cars occurring outside Bothar Bui and decide to explore it. There is much to see and more to walk in this endless coastline of undulations, textures and sharp angles where treasures hide. The wind is a little brisk for the cable-car crossing over to Dursey Island this day, so we walk the coves and slopes around Billeragh Head. The signposts say “The Beara Way” but we encounter only young ravens and the odd wheatear picking among the daisy-lined drystone walls.

If all this was not soothing enough for the city-singed brain, there is always the Dzogchen Beara Centre, a Buddhist retreat offering free daily sessions at their secluded clifftop perch. We prefer our meditation in noisier surrounds and make a committee decision to drop into Castletownbere to find MacCarthy’s Bar, the legendary battle cruiser of Pete McCarthy’s bestseller and the setting for that chapter about an impromptu “all-night hooley”.

While landlady Adrienne may have McCarthy’s Bar on sale here along with the rollicking memoir of her war-hero father Aidan, MacCarthy’s does not sell itself as some curio on the tourist trail. Groceries are sold in the front bar and Spanish fishermen gabble away down the back on a stopover at this bustling fishing port. “You can come in here sometimes and not hear a word of English spoken,” Adrienne chirps as she adds the finishing touches to a pint.

On the pier, the sun is settling in for the afternoon. At the far end, next to a slip by a little inlet, sits the converted stone warehouse that is the Sarah Walker Gallery. It is bright and airy and a fine space to show off works by its owner as well as paintings, prints and ceramics by other artists.

If this building and the woozy energy of Walker’s art seem somehow genetically related to Bothar Bui it’s because they are. Robin is, of course, Sarah’s father, and along with architect brother Simon, she would have spent a chunk of her life in that house absorbing its unique philosophical and geographical outlook.

The sting is taken out of our farewell on the bottom half of Beara as we skirt along a shoreline that proves once and for all that Ireland in the sunshine is unbeatable. Off to our right, the water is turquoise tinfoil sheeting around the islands of Bere and Whiddy. It remains thus on that meandering road through Skibbereen, the stunning estuary lands of Timoleague and on to our final resting place in Kinsale.

It’s a summer wonderland of paddling infants and cheerful bikers as we sit on the pier at the Bulman, looking back on Kinsale. Beara feels like a different continent that we cannot shake from our minds as we sip icy cider. For all the magnificence of what Robin Walker designed 45 years ago, it would be nothing without that architecture of topography that harbours Bothar Bui. That perfectly haphazard natural design that cannot be drawn up in an office and only half makes sense in Nobel prize-winning verse. Every broken line and wild arrangement of that little kingdom.

Getting there

Travelling from Cork, Castletownbere is approximately a two-hour drive. Bothar Bui is situated about five minutes outside the village of Ardgroom (around 20 minutes north of Castletownbere). It is available to rent year round on a self-catering basis with a minimum stay of two nights from €115 per night and sleeps 12+. Botharbui.com

First published in the Sunday Independent