The great pause

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Soul-searching and regenerative travel in the Cradle of Humankind.

By: Keith Bain 

When cabin feverish Joburgers want to get away without going too far, the Cradle of Humankind offers a mix of detoxifying nature, wide-open space, and places to pedal an off-road bike or run on hilly trails. It’s popular, too, with art enthusiasts who go to wander through the leafy grounds at Nirox Sculpture Park

Right next door, there’s Farmhouse58, a sublime slice of chic rural life in the Kromdraai Valley where, instead of your typical hotel experience, time is given over to a more soulful engagement with the environment. 

It’s built around the concept of regenerative travel, which The New York Times describes as an approach to tourism that aims to align our holiday expectations with local values rather than forcing our way of life on the places we visit, giving back instead of merely consuming. At Farmhouse58, it’s the spirit of ubuntu that you feel; a special quality that seeps into your soul while you’re there. 

Its sleeping quarters emphasise minimalism and functionality over excess and opulence. Set in converted farm buildings, guest rooms are imbued with a kind of monastic chic – a touch rustic, slightly sparse, marvelously uncluttered. The rooms help quieten your mind – then you step outside and into a magical garden and the wilder environs beyond.  

FARMHOUSE58. Photo: Keith Bain

No sooner had I arrived than I was traipsing into purest countryside on a beaut of a day, the Highveld sun wrapping itself around the contours of voluptuous hills, tingeing everything with its life-affirming golden glow.  

I was following upward winding paths on a ‘mindful hike’ with resident fitness guru Lesego Mapeka. We had already spotted a small herd of wildebeest grazing just round the back of the open-air bar-cum-restaurant where breakfast had been served. The wild beasts barely glanced up as we slipped past them and set off up the side of the hill, a parallel universe of tall grass, dirt trails and wraparound views.  

We ventured through grasslands and up ancient rolling kopjes, and at the end of our hike there would be a stop at a gorgeous little waterfall at a rock pool, tucked away like something from a fairy tale. Along the way, we stopped to talk about some of the outdoor art installations, spent time in silent observation at several viewpoints, and spotted zebras, their twitching ears poking through the camouflage of khaki-coloured grass. 

In many ways, these rural scenes are the antithesis of urban Johannesburg, which together with its work-work-work bustle, is just 40 minutes away, maybe longer if you hit traffic. Instead of schedules, meetings and deadlines, we worked our way up to the top of a high hill. There we spent time at a weathered wall that is in fact an artwork by Moroccan artist Amine El Gotaibi. 

That is when Mapeka looked meaningfully across the valley and gestured expansively. “This,” he said, “is where it all began.” 

He was not hyperbolic. The Cradle of Humankind really is Gauteng’s very own slice of Indiana Jones territory, riddled with around 165 subterranean caves, eroded into a vast dolomite belt that stretches between Carltonville and Tshwane. In other words, yes, where it – some strand of it at least – began. 

Apart from busloads of school children, visitors from around the world come to tour chambers of the Sterkfontein Caves, the world’s richest hominid fossil sites, where the longest continuous paleoanthropological dig in the world has resulted in thousands of discoveries since excavation began in 1935.  

Some 15 sites comprise the UNESCO World Heritage area, officially proclaimed in 1999. Apart from the famed Mrs Ples and Little Foot fossils, there are Orpheus and Eurydice, a pair of Paranthropus robustus unearthed in 1994; they are among over 160 fossilised hominin specimens dug up at the roofless Drimolen paleocave.  

In 2020, specimens dating from between 1.95 and 2.04 million years ago were found. These included the skullcap and teeth of another Paranthropus robustus and the cranium of our direct ancestor, Homo erectus. They are possibly the oldest specimens of their kind yet discovered and part of a growing body of evidence unearthed in the Cradle that three genera – Homo, Paranthropus and Australopithecus – shared this terrain at about the same time in history. 

To unpack these finds, there’s Maropeng, a visitor centre just down the road from where we were hiking, reminiscent of some sort of gigantic ancient burial ground, but inside shelters state-of-the-art exhibits alongside its commercial endeavours.  

A more adventurous way to explore, though, is with Wild Caves, which will have you abseiling into subterranean caverns and potentially squeezing through tight fissures in the rock. While their tours have a geology focus, you are almost guaranteed to get dirty – and to have heaps of fun. 

Heading in the opposite direction is Air Ventures, a hot-air ballooning outfit that gives you a unique glimpse of the Cradle’s scenery with the Magaliesberg mountain range as a backdrop, plus close-up views of wild animals as you sail through the air above some of the area’s private game reserves. 

One such wildlife estate is Letamo where Roots restaurant serves contemporary South African cuisine using produce from its farm neighbours, so there’s a great variety of Italian cheeses, mushrooms, duck, dairy and lots of vegetables and herbs. 

Throughout the Cradle, in fact, there are efforts to offer visitor experiences that differentiate this fringe-of-the-city hub from anywhere else in the country. 

“We’re not trying to be a hotel,” Maseka said, as we made our way back down the hill towards the heart of Farmhouse58. “This is a space to connect. We encourage you to just be – whatever that means. Just be in nature.” 

Activities to sharpen this connection with yourself and others happen, too. Aside from breathwork classes, guests can join Thomas Nkuna for a “mindful running” session accompanied by athletically inclined local children. 

And there are informative tours of the on-site kitchen gardens, which are tended by people from the community. The focus, of course, is on seasonal produce and on farming in ways that rejuvenate the soil. 

The resulting goodness can be tasted when you tuck into food at The Shed, a restaurant with tables spilling out of the barnlike space and onto the terrace at the edge of the slightly wild garden, lawns rolling down to another pretty dam.  

What is grown here also supplies And then there was Fire…, the hugely popular destination dining venue overlooking the Nirox grounds. The owners are using their venue to showcase an assortment of international culinary masters being hosted as part of a chef-in-residence programme. Kicking off the 2024 season is Argentinean kitchen maestro Tomas Pietragallo. 

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