The hills are alive
We’ve found the perfect post-lockdown escape. High in the hills of the Great Karoo just south of Graaff-Reinet waits a brand-new five-star offering in the big-five Magic Hills Private Collection, aptly named Sky Lodge
With lockdown shackles shaken off, I was champing at the bit to get out of Cape Town. The Eastern Cape would be our first destination in this brave and bemasked new world. After a quick, well-sanitised hop from the Mother City to PE with Airlink, followed by a short flip with Absolute Aviation in a Cessna Caravan to the little airstrip at Magic Hills, we were finally in a game vehicle bumbling our way towards the spanking new exclusive-use Sky Lodge, which sits perched on one of the highest points in the Karoo Noorsveld, more than 900 metres above sea level.
As we crested the first rise, a scene of emerald-bedecked undulations stretched as far as the eye could see. The swathes of extreme verdancy is owed to the strong presence of spekboom – the much vaunted carbon-scrubbing plant – which occurs naturally here. Later, as some of the first visitors of Magic Hills, we would each plant our own little spekboom to commemorate our stay, and to make our own small contribution to the massive rehabilitation project of restoring this tract of degraded erstwhile farmland.
Owners Erik and Alexandra Kovacs bought up a slew of unused and degraded farms with the vision of restoring them to their former glory in one fenceless reserve. They aim to have more than 20 000 ha completely rehabilitated before long, flourishing with spekboom, succulents and Karoo grasses, and crawling with free-roaming big game. Their mission, in short, is to convert the land back to how the Khoi would have known it before farmers settled in this beautiful part of the world.
They also established several world-class lodges on the reserve, one of which is Sky Lodge, the lovely sole-use property that played host to our gaggle of travel journalists for the weekend.
We arrived at the lodge having traversed a number of hills and seen towers of giraffe, a pronking herd of springbok and two big eland bulls. We were welcomed in the atrium, a marvellous work of interior design, with soft earthy tones and textures of wood, wool and leather – a testament to the excellent style and taste of owner Alexandra who designed the space herself.
Leading off the entrance hall is an expansive deck with picturesque panoramic views of the sprawling reserve and its bottle-green folds and kops. A sparkling infinity pool beckons, and is surrounded by inviting sun loungers and other shaded seating scattered around the gleaming deck.
The suites are another feat of composition and design. Modern with just the right measure of minimalism, they boast wooden floors and tasteful African touches. All seven have their own private terraces from which to savour the scenery and even some wildlife if you’re lucky, while two Superior suites boast their own splash pools. Each is equipped with all the creature comforts one could dream of including plush four poster beds, large flat screens, sitting areas, writing desks, coffee machines, minibars and spacious bathrooms with rainfall showers. Also on the premises are a bar area, dining room, several sitting lounges, a spa complete with jacuzzi and treatment room, and a small gym.
We were treated to two game drives a day led by ranger Warren, which served up sightings of various antelope, warthogs and a bevy of birdlife. Warren also stopped at a few breathtaking spots for morning coffees and evening sundowners.
One particular location had a viewing deck that overlooks a particularly lush valley. When we arrived just before sunset, the sky was a kaleidoscope ranging from deep purple to candyfloss pink. In the distance a fierce lightning storm was spearing the horizon with blazing bolts, while above us heavily pregnant cumuli gathered ominously. As the sun plummeted, the sky grew an angry red and, juxtaposed by the almost otherworldly green glow from the valley below and the purplish gloom from the distant thunder storm, it made for an exceptionally dramatic scene – all toasted with a round of G&Ts, of course.
The next morning’s game drive held an equally spectacular surprise. We stopped for coffee on the lip of a ravine, while guide and all-round entertainer Byron Hartung regaled us with stories of some of the rock art on the reserve. ‘Actually, this here ravine is home to a few if you’d like to see them?’ Of course we’d like to see them, we chorused. A few moments and a short hike later we were hunching under a little overhang squinting at faint markings on the rock.
Amazingly, Byron had explored the crevices and crannies of the kloof a few months prior when he came across the previously undiscovered paintings of hunting scenes and other figures. ‘In fact, they now call this little kloof “Hartung’s Kloof”,’ Byron proudly disclosed to us.
Later that afternoon back at Sky Lodge, Byron took us on what he called, fancily, a ‘Juniper Journey’. With the breathtaking Karoo hills as backdrop, he presented us with interesting facts and a delicious tasting of three gins and all sorts of unusual garnishings.
However, the weekend it wasn’t just about indulgence; we also took part in the serious business of fence dropping. As mentioned, the owners are in the process of restoring this collection of former farms to rude health as well as the removal of fences in order for game to roam freely. So, in a little emblematic ceremony, we all cut our own small section of fence and toasted the occasion – and the whole ambitious and admirable enterprise as led by esteemed general manager Declan Hofmeyr – with a glass of champagne. And, of course, we planted our own spekboom to offset our carbon footprint and to contribute to the sprawling natural beauty already so evident here.
Afterwards, the indulgences continued unabashed, the food being a particular highlight. Chef John Carelse pulled out all the stops and created beautiful masterpieces, most memorable of which was a delectable lechwe loin, and his own take on Cape Malay bobotie, all paired with beautiful wines.
The pampering didn’t stop there as we were each spoilt with full body spa treatments in the expertly healing hands of Byron’s wife Rudi.
It really is a bit magical at Magic Hills, and we count ourselves incredibly fortunate to have shared in the relatively embryonic stages of the reserve. We look forward, on our return, to see our own fully-grown spekbooms, but also a completely fenceless and flourishing reserve crawling with big game and complemented by the stunningly lavish lodges, not least of which is our new favourite offering in the Karoo, the inimitable Sky Lodge.
Apart from the sumptuous seven-suite exclusive-use Sky Lodge, the reserve also boasts two other luxury accommodation options namely Ilanga Manor House, a seven-room Cape Dutch style manor, and Elsa’s Farmhouse, an off-grid and solar-powered four-bedroomed sole-use house.
The reserve is just south of Graaff-Reinet, but the closest town is Jansenville.
Privately owned Airlink flies directly from Cape Town and Joburg to PE. Magic Hills is a two-and-a-half drive from PE, but one could also take a quick chartered flight with Absolute Aviation.
Visit magichills.com for rates, specials or any other information.