Parenthood, for those of us with small children, requires love, patience, understanding, tolerance, calm. But mostly it’s bribery, coercion, naked threats, and fighting the urge to put the kids up for sale on the internet. I’m currently at the heart of the siege that is school holidays, a blur of noise and chaos and endless repeats of ‘Finding Nemo’ (and the resultant sushi craving), and it’s only an escape to a family-friendly slice of bushveld luxury, and its attendant wine list, that preserved the last shred of parental sanity.
Safari Plains has much to recommend it, starting with its location: it’s just two hours from Johannesburg, which meant only an hour and 50 minutes of the two-year-old asking when we were going to see kangaroos. (His grasp of regional zoology needs a little work; I’ll be speaking to his teacher when the new term starts.) Set in the Mabula reserve, the big five headlines an impressive spread of game, including an abundance of my favourite native of the wild, the giraffe, with the awkward grace that always suggests it’s trying its best not to show the effects of a bottle of Chardonnay for lunch.
The game viewing is excellent, then, and so too the accommodation: the tents that Safari Plains promises on its website sit within permanent structures that include a deck, a day bed, and the endless gift that is the complimentary minibar. And for added relaxation, a vast tureen of a bathtub that younger Capetonians will have heard grandparents talk of with wistful nostalgia.
But as nice as the rooms are, and as good as the game is, the real stars of the Safari Plains show are the staff members. They’re all vested of the permanent smiles that are usually the preserve of evangelical sorts ringing your doorbell on a Sunday morning, but the zeal is directed solely at ensuring happy guests – and this, bless them, includes welcoming, distracting and watching over children.
And so meal time, so often a platform for prime parental embarrassment as your children rinse their hair with Rice Krispies and pour orange juice over passing guests, became a delight: small people whisked off to explore the kitchen, to play hide and seek in the lodge lounge, or to continue the search for those elusive kangaroos.
Between Bertus, the manager, MK, the head of food and beverage, and their all-star team, there’s a perfect chord struck – a luxury escape that’s family friendly. It’s not an easy mix to get right, but these guys have mastered it.
As has Ben, who swapped life in the diamond trade for life in the bush, and is as wonderful a guide as I’ve spent time with. Thanks to Ben, I now know why the acacia is no longer the acacia (blame Australia), how trees muster defenses to ward off hungry giraffes, why Khoisan hunting methods have such a spiritual side, and what a wildebeest does to attract other wildebeest, knowledge that will now ensure I’m unlikely to ever eat one again. (Google it if you must.) A wealth of knowledge generously passed on and devoured excitedly by my children, in particular, made for four days of education and entertainment in equal measure.
It was also four days of measured indulgence. The food is exactly what you want in the bush: oxtail braised with no hurry, lamb baked just as slowly, and on one particularly enchanting night, impala potjie under the stars, the sky that much brighter for the lack of artificial light. And the wine wrapped it all up very nicely, a small list that’s in need of vintage, but offers a reasonable selection that becomes all the more pleasant when paired with the joy of the bush.
La Motte Sauvignon Blanc over lunch as giraffes check-in at the watering hole that’s just yards from the lodge. The Pinotage-led Retief Cape blend from Robertson, an uncomplicated companion to evening potjies. And very best of all: wine swept down at the end of a game drive, standing on the plains as the sun sets, and wrapping up an idyllic day in the bush perfectly.
Join Food24’s Wine Club – and get to have expertly chosen wine sent to you each month with no hassle.
In that setting, the wine could be just about anything, to be honest, but in this case, the quirky discovery of Doolhof’s 2008 Lady In Red in the Safari Plains cellar, welcomely robust after a decade and more, and a lively counterpoint to the evening chill. And a perfect end to a school holiday escape, leaving parental batteries recharged. Just a pity we didn’t see those kangaroos.
What I’m drinking this week: There’s a strong Robertson theme to the wine list at Safari Plains, headlined by the tourist-friendly Big Five house wines from Van Loveren. The region’s presence extends to Zandvliet’s Shiraz, a wine I’ve had plenty of over the years, and never been disappointed by. Perchance the new vintage was delivered last week and continues what Zandvliet has become known for – good, honest Shiraz full of dark fruit and easy tannins, and at R100 a bottle or thereabouts, decent value to boot. Pairs particularly well with an African sunset.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!