The suave Belgian adjusted his cravat as the golden silk dangled perilously close to the steaming bowl of home-made soup. Seated at his side the tattooed American expat. was once again regaling his audience with swashbuckling tales of living in Zimbabwe, whilst across the table the Cambridgeshire couple admonished their son Monty for using the wrong cutlery. Not shy of holding back his opinions, their host Andrew plunged head-first into the lively conversation, which soon turned to politics, keeping everyone involved and interested. Religion and sex had already been covered over the hors d’ouevres.
Meanwhile the young English couple at the other end of the table poured themselves more wine. They’d need a few glasses to give them enough courage to join the debate with the gusto that it deserved, and listened avidly as their fellow guests bandied arguments back and forth across dishes of slow-roasted garlic chicken and freshly baked bread.
Back in Blighty the discussion would by now have led to either a punch up or someone storming out of the room. Yet sitting here, tucked away in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains at the Antbear Guesthouse, it was simply the natural thing to do. All nationalities, politics and viewpoints were welcome at the dining table, no matter how controversial. It was a refreshing joining of travellers of intellect, opinions and ideals. As good food, wine and conversation flowed, inhibitions were finally thrown out of the window and it was late into the night when the guests finally retired to their rooms.
Now when I say rooms, I’m not talking bland, sterile square boxes squashed next to each other in a concrete hotel block.
Nope, I’m talking some of the most beautifully presented, unique abodes lovingly decorated with Andrew’s inspiring hand-crafted wooden furnishings.
I’m talking light and air and charm and tradition all rolled into one, with privacy and artistic quirkiness in abundance.
Oh, and have I mentioned the views out across towards Giant’s Castle and the Drakensberg mountains? Words won’t do it justice so just take a look at this…
Built on a natural plateau overlooking the Bushman’s River and Giant’s Castle, Antbear is so idyllic that you could be forgiven for not venturing further than your front door. Our particular front door happened to belong to the gorgeous thatched honeymoon suite below (it’s called Room 1, Luxury Suite). Now it wasn’t our honeymoon, and we’d actually booked one of the cheaper rooms, but when we arrived weary after a long drive up from Lesotho, Connie greeted us with her signature cheerful enthusiasm and showed us into the huge pink thatched cottage towards the edge of the grounds. Apparently they weren’t fully booked and since we’d made our reservation some while ago she’d swapped us, at no extra cost, to the best spot in the place! Now this happens to us quite often, simply because we’ve booked so far in advance, so it’s certainly worth doing if you’re a planner like me!
We had two bedrooms to choose from (perhaps in case the newly weds have too much of a good thing?), and whilst the bed up on the mezzanine surrounded by wood and thatch looked incredibly romantic, we opted to sleep downstairs where the morning sun could caress us gently awake through the vast picture windows.
There was a giant hand-carved chess set but alas Hubbie and I didn’t know how to play. Desperate to use it, we instead were very uncultured and used it for draughts. We also had our own lounge complete with open fire and mini fridge for our obligatory beverages. Add to that a glass or two of wine in the jacuzzi bath and you’re more than set for a romantic stay.
We stayed here for several days so ventured out to explore Giant’s Castle, because it had a cool name, and well, it was taunting us from our window so it would’ve been rude not to. With much on offer, from walks and bushman paintings to outdoor activities and the Midlands Meander, it was difficult to decide on the order of the day, but we soon opted for stretching our legs on the intriguingly named ‘World’s End’ trail.
We set off in our car to drive the short distance to Giant’s Castle gate and visitor centre along the vast network of dangerously (yet excitingly) potholed lanes. Hubbie was driving whilst I rifled through our lunch bags to see what tasty treats Connie had packed for us that morning. We’d not seen another vehicle since leaving, so it was a bit of a surprise to see a massive articulated truck appear over the summit of the hill in front of us. It was even more of a surprise to realise it was actually hurtling down the road towards us. Sideways! It had clearly hit one of the hundreds of potholes peppering the tarmac and was careering out of control down the single track. We were right in it’s path.
Now I’ve always wondered why on earth Indiana Jones, in his Raiders of the Lost Ark film, doesn’t just jump sideways when that huge boulder comes crashing down behind him rather than trying to out-run it. However now we found ourselves in a similar situation all I could do was sit and watch in horror and think how there were surely better ways to die. I did for a vague moment consider jumping out into the ditch, but just couldn’t take my eyes off the fast approaching tonnes of heavy metal. Luckily Hubbie had the presence of mind to slam the car into reverse, and back we wiggled at an agonisingly slow pace. We just made it to a slight widening in the road as the truck flew past, mere inches between our vehicles. Stunned, we sat in silence for a while, before the expletives took over. The truck came to a halt behind us and the driver staggered out, visibly shaken but at least everyone was in one piece.
Some while later we made it to the visitor centre where we thankfully left the car and set out on the trail, happy to be out in the open air, although legs were still a bit wobbly. The path meandered through the landscape crossing valleys and hillsides, vleis (marshes) and grassland, the undulations revealing small groups of eland (antelope) and pesky troops of baboons that were a little too inquisitive for my liking.
The plateau at the end of the hike was carpeted in meadow, with wild flowers and butterflies in abundance. The piece de resistance however were the views – 360 degrees of Drakensberg peaks and not a soul in sight. Definitely worth the effort and a fine spot for a picnic.
The weather however had other ideas as the previously sunny morning suddenly turned into a dramatic storm with hail, wind and lightning strikes all around. After a few moments of thinking how awesome this was, we soon realised it was actually pretty dangerous to be out on the hillside and legged it as fast as we could all the way back down to the car, stopping only for an unscheduled traverse above the baboons who were by now sheltering none too happily on the path. The day may have ended a little prematurely but at least we now had a tale of our own to tell at dinner.
The next day we drove up to Spionkop, the location of one of the most notorious battles of the Boer War in 1900. The British lost, rather dramatically, and the dead were so numerous they were simply buried in the trenches where they lay, these now marked out with white stones. I thought I’d feel horror and indignation at so many of my fellow countrymen being killed on this arid, godforsaken little hill, yet all I felt was embarrassment at the British being the intruders yet again. Sure, it’s great our Empire was so strong, but why couldn’t we just leave other nations and their people alone? It was an odd experience, and we didn’t linger too long in the intense afternoon heat.
As owners Connie and Andrew say, Antbear is a bit off the beaten track and more of an ‘insider’s tip’ than just another guest house. A place to come to rejuvenate your soul as well as explore the magnificent surrounds of the KwaZulu Natal area of South Africa.There are only seven double rooms at Antbear, giving the place a friendly vibe whilst maintaining privacy. The key ingredients that make Antbear Guesthouse so special are candles, thatch, vines, home grown grub and a rustic eccentric elegance, all set in a landscape that rivals any we’ve seen in the world. A stay here is guaranteed to become a treasured memory if not the first of many return visits.
I can understand why an antbear decided to make his home here several years ago. Sometimes nature really does know best!