On the road from Durban: Nambiti and Qambathi escapes
Story and photos by Wanda Hennig
“Dave says I’m Thelma and you’re Louise,” my food writer friend Anne tells me when she pulls up in her car to fetch me. Dave is her boyfriend. Thelma and Louise is the road trip movie. We are leaving on a road trip. We’ve done road trips before. For example, a memorable one where we visited cooking schools and foodie joints through Napa and Sonoma and wrote about them. You can see that story here.
“I am happy to see scenery and views when they are between one good restaurant and another. Besides that, forget about them,” was Anne’s road trip brief to me when I set up a previous itinerary that deviated from the culinary.
She had set up this one, leaving from Durban and taking us into central KwaZulu-Natal. I didn’t need to be a genius to know the focus would be food.
We would head inland from Durban and drive about three hours to Nambiti Plains Private Game Lodge at the Nambiti Private Game Reserve near Ladysmith and spend the first night there. We would go on game drives, hopefully see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino and buffalo), and food-wise, there was a vegetarian focus.
Next day we would double back about an hour and drive to Qambathi Mountain Lodge in the Southern Drakensberg. Qambathi also had a game drive option — not the Big Five, but Qambathi Reserve has zebra, hartebeest, blesbok, oribi, eland and various other buck. Not having the Big Five means that you can go for walks and hikes on the property. Qambathi Lodge had only been open two months. The food was supposed to be excellent.
On the road music
Going on a road trip? Take good music. We listen to Joe Cocker, Ry Cooder, Best of Chris Rea, Queen and John Cleary as we drive. We have directions from Ladysmith, which we reach by backroads (Anne prefers taking these) and the main N3.
At Ladysmith we continue along the N11 toward Newcastle. We have to look for the Elandslaagte Military Cemetery sign, cross a railway line and continue along a dirt roads to the Nambiti (game reserve) gate. This is battlefields territory. Various historic confrontations, including in 1899 between the Boers and the British, took place here. You can combine a trip to Nambiti Game Reserve with one of several battlefields tours.
Nambiti Plains Private Game Lodge
Nambiti is one of South Africa’s newer private reserves. I had not been there before. It comprises 21,000 acres and was created by the consolidation of six farms. It’s pristine bushveld country. Nambiti Plains Private Game Lodge, where we stay, is one of several lodges on the property that welcome visitors and offer accommodation — up to 10 people in one of five luxury suits.
On arrival we’re welcomed by the kitchen staff singing acapella, and manager Mark Schwulst. We’re shown our rooms with their huge beds and bedside baths that invite you to relax and unwind with the doors open to the deck and the privacy of the bush. Maybe an animal with voyeuristic tendencies will come for a peek. Elephants are known to come drink from the lodge’s swimming pool. Lion have been known to roam through the lodge, which is not fenced off from the rest of the reserve. This is not a malaria area but the mosquito nets are a lovely touch. Who can resist sleeping under one when they’re so seductive?
Chef Kenneth Matlhatsi has prepared us soya beef strips for lunch on a bed of rocket with onion rings, slivers of parmesan and an olive oil and balsamic dressing. For dinner, along with a couple of options, he prepares vegetarian chicken strips in a tomato and basil sauce, served with potato croquettes and mixed vegetables. The vegetarian beef and chicken meals come from Fry’s Vegetarian, a Durban–based company with an international following that specializes in vegetarian alternatives. Founder-owners Wally and Debbie Fry — owners of Nambiti Plains game lodge — arrive in time to join us for a late afternoon game drive with cocktails and dinner.
The Fry’s are committed to the world turning vegetarian for the benefit of the planet, the environment and our health. Committed vegetarians, they have developed a range of products including non-meat sausages, ground beef and polony as well as the beef and chicken strips prepared for us by Matlhatsi that they’re marketing in India, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere.
After a night black as a raven’s wing as you get far from city lights when the moon is under cloud, while on our our morning game drive, we stop and watch a lioness lazily stalking her prey. We don’t wait to watch the slaughter of a young impala but it’s good to know she’s got breakfast when game ranger-driver Geoffrey Mokgothu — a wealth of information on flora, fauna and the history of the area — stops and pours us a coffee near the waterfall on the Sundays River, a favorite spot in Nambiti for picnics and summertime dips. (There are no crocodiles there.)
Qambathi Mountain Lodge
We leave Nambiti for the Qambathi Mountain Lodge after breakfast. This means heading back indirectly back toward Durban, branching off at Mooi River (this Thelma and Louise trip involves no convertible, many secondary roads, mood music and slow speeds), and continuing toward Rosetta and the Southern Drakensberg.
The best way to see South Africa is by road. The diversity of both the physical and economic landscape is profound. We travel from dry bushveld vistas and hectic roads abuzz with people, trucks and taxies to the pristine farmlands of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Driving along a narrow winding road with sweeping views we pass a watering hole called the Knackered Bar and a sign that says Butt Farming (if you know what it is, please tell) then take the Kamberg Rock Art Center turn-off, travel about a mile along gravel, and punch ourselves in at the gate we’ve been looking for with a code we’ve been texted.
We maneuver the country driveway in misty rain down to the parking lot in front of an unassuming building, follow co-owner and general manager Stephan Erasmus in through the front door — and kept seeing things that have us both involuntarily mouthing “Wow, Wow, Wow.”
Qambathi Mountain Lodge has the Wow! factor.
What do I mean?
Only that the place is stunning.
The lodge is built on the foundations and walls of an old jail and post office. Originally constructed in 1918, the jail part back then was used as a temporary holding area for people arrested for stock thefts.
Co-owner (with Erasmus) and the architect responsible for the magical transformation is Gerhard le Roux who worked with Rosetta–based Francko Owen on the interiors — hand-crafted items made with meticulous and creative attention to details from indigenous timber and recycled materials.
Turns out Le Roux, among many bigger projects, was also the the architect who designed Nambiti Plains Private Game Lodge — the place we just came from.
The resident team at Qambathi are Erasmus, assistant manager Armand Viljoen and chef Jenna Develing, who turned out a lunch of goat cheese and herb stuffed chicken breast on carrot and cumin smash with mixed greens from the garden and a delicately flavorful cranberry sauce that was also, “like Wow,” followed by a chocolate torte that remarkably had grapefruit as one of several ingredients that married so well, you couldn’t believe they are ever served apart.
My “cottage” room for the night — one of five luxe-suites with attitude available to guests — was a greenhouse in a former iteration of this gorgeous mountain reserve where you can go on game drives, walks and mountain hikes. Or use it as a home base while meandering the Midlands.
Eco-friendly works of art
Qambathi has only been open for two months and already it’s getting international guests. In the cards are cooking classes, which will be taught by Develing. There will also be art getaways, aptly, given that every item from the unique hand-crafted African bead and glass contemporary chandeliers and wall drapes, to the art hanging on the walls, to the rock-table, the hand-forged light fittings, hand-crafted wood tables, deck recliners and bed frames are eco-friendly works of art.
We’re served a five-course dinner, and given that gourmet cuisine is one Qambathi’s myriad attractions — dinner, bed and breakfast — each course is a delicious adventure starting with Develing’s “Amuse bouche” — African harissa spiced beef tartar and avocado tianne, mixed cresses and spring onion salsa (“an African twist on a French classic,” she says) through to her Masala chai crème brulee, lemon poppy seed ice cream, fresh berries dessert, complete with “the warm inviting flavors of cape Malay/Indian spiced tea,” to quote Develing, and one of many examples of what she describe as “eclectic fusion.”
“I get immense joy from combining foods and flavors from all over the world,” she says. “I love to brainstorm with flavors, colors, textures and cultures and to bringing it all together like a symphony on the plate.”
A symphony it was. Followed by a delicious night. And a drive back to Durban after a delightful Develing breakfast.
We didn’t shoot anyone Thelma and Louise style. We didn’t soar off a cliff and into oblivion at the end of our journey. We did have a textured trip. We drove back to Durban planning to be on the road again soon.
Visit the Qambathi Mountain Lodge website for more on the lodge, the location, the interiors, the chef, the art and to book.
© Wanda Hennig, 2010
See more about Durban here.
Visit Durban’s official tourism site here.
Fly to South Africa with South African Airways, the national carrier. SAA flies to South Africa from Washington and New York. SAA recently formed an alliance with Jet Blue for flights from the West Coast. Read about the SAA-Jet Blue link here.
Visit Tourism KwaZulu-Natal here.