After driving for kilometres along the South Coast, through KwaZulu-Natal’s famous fields of sugar cane, the winding 9km that take you to The Gorge Private Game Lodge & Spa are unexpected. They pass through lush, indigenous forest, full of birdsong and the sound of the Mzimkulwana River. The air smells different. Richer. Cooler.
Emerging from the forest, a group of 9 crowned cranes flies over the road, which weaves through fields of tea tree and rosemary. In the warmth of the midday sun, their subtle fragrances fill the air.
It’s a taste of what’s to come at this 5-star lodge, with its spa, restaurant and rooms with panoramic views of the Oribi Gorge. I am not prepared for the view. I am not prepared for the magnificence of the gorge: it's about 25km long, 150m deep and at places 1km wide. I am not prepared for the lodge, its attention to detail, its food and the friendly, professional service from Siyeta Ngandu and Ndaba Mlotshwa, who greet me warmly on arrival. I get used to it pretty quickly, though, as I take a seat beside the rim-flow pool, sip a welcoming drink, order lunch and breathe in the scent of sun-warmed lavender.
I meet Mike Cross, who runs the lodge with his partner, Catharina Classen. Catharina's brother, Derrick, runs the farm that cultivates tea tree, rosemary, lavender, peppermint and many other plants that are carefully distilled into the lodge’s range of essential oils.
They each played a different role in The Gorge's development: Mike working on the gardens; Catharina furnishing the luxurious rooms perched on their 4m columns on the edge of the gorge; and Derrick liaising with the builders. The black and white photos on various walls tell the story of the lodge’s construction, recognising the team effort that goes into running an establishment of this calibre. I love that nobody is forgotten.
An afternoon drive with Mike takes us through the Oribi Conservancy, designed to protect this beautiful little antelope from which it takes its name. There are only a few hundred left in KwaZulu-Natal, most of them on private farmland. What a privilege to see 2 of them, who stare at us before bounding across the road, fluffy tails in the air.
The gorge itself is also a nature reserve, where baboons, monkeys (samango and vervet) and birdlife abound, and where the constant call of the sombre greenbuls is interspersed with those of other forest birds. Here you can see the Knysna woodpecker, African crowned eagle, Knysna turaco, narina trogon, gorgeous bush-shrike, grey and olive sunbirds, and green twinspot. The farm is also home to a large number of plains game.
We stop in view of Hell’s Gate, so-named because the difficult terrain made crossing the gorge, on foot, in ox wagons and then on the old N2, ‘hell’ for travellers. I wonder if any of them imagined the 4.5km of zip-lines that now criss-cross this end of the gorge? These form the Lake Eland zip-lines, some of the highest and longest I have seen. They take you on a thrilling descent back and forth across the gorge, some of them high, high above the dense vegetation below, and some through the indigenous canopy.
In the area, there is also a suspension bridge that crosses the gorge, caves with rock art, and mountain-bike trails and hikes to do.
Later, at a secret spot on a neighbouring farm, we perch on the edge of the world, watching Cape vultures soar beneath us on thermals, bringing Ruskin’s words vividly to life: 'A bird is but a drift of the air, brought into shape by plumes.' The sun sets on cliffs that are home to a breeding colony of 150 Cape vultures, and it’s a privilege to witness.
The lodge’s philosophy is one of timelessness; you eat when you want to, sleep when you want to and plan activities at your leisure.
Dinner is risotto, fillet steak and warm, fragrant apple pie, and I sleep deeply and wake while the sun rises, painting the sandstone of the gorge in golden light. In the coolness of the morning I head off along the Lazy Cycad trail that takes you down into the heart of the gorge, which is home to more than 500 plant species. Some of the most popular species are exquisite orchids, proteas, aloes and various cycads. Many of the indigenous trees are labelled and the ground is full of tracks: bushbuck, oribi and a small cat. It’s beautiful, but be prepared for the climb back up!
At the lodge, Siyeta is waiting with fresh coffee. I’m not surprised that he, Ndaba and the other staff members are frequently mentioned by guests in the visitors’ book. The heartfelt compliments – sometimes written over pages – are consistent testament to the quality of the experience the lodge offers. A breakfast of bacon and banana brioche with figs and brie is followed by a reflexology session and an Indian head massage at the spa; Mpho Mashinini and Cebile Magwaza have magic hands.
The lodge's philosophy is one of timelessness: you eat when you want to, sleep when you want to and plan activities at your leisure. Your senses are your only guide. You'll find that as you stare at the magnificent view, inhale the fragrance of the gardens, taste the carefully prepared food, listen to the sounds of nature and indulge your sense of touch in the spa or through your room's luxurious linens, you finally understand what timelessness means.