Holidays with the kids are all about fun-filled days and memories that last a lifetime. We have hand-picked our top family-friendly activities to make special memories, soak up the outdoors and expose kids to nature, without breaking the budget.
1. Berry Happy Holidays
A true taste of summer holidays involves picking a punnet of juicy strawberries. Families can wander the fields at Redberry Farm on Geelhoutboom Road, in Blanco and let the kids do all the work. Find the biggest, juiciest berries and scoff them warm, straight off the runners. This is excellent fun for kids. Small people can board the Redberry Express mini-train for an exciting 800 meter miniature railway ride. Older children love to navigate the tricky hedge maze. Its 10km of winding track is a firm favourite for energetic kids. Seven secret stations are hidden within the labyrinth of passageways. Acrobatic teens can show off their moves in the inflatable bubble balls which float on the farm dam.
Redberry Farm’s range of eateries will satisfy all budgets and palates. The deli-style farm stall is perfect for picnic treats while the Red Shed Coffee and Berry Bar serve a selection of strawberry themed beverages. The Noshery Pizzeria offers gourmet pizzas from their wood fired oven. Outdoor ambience is plentiful in the tea garden overlooking the kid’s playground and rabbit hutch.
Stop at the Framboos Handcrafted Ice Cream parlour to sample their artisan gelato served in crisp sugar cones. Kids can design and build their own ice cream sandwiches from a selection of freshly baked biscuit and flavoured gelato. Sumptuous sundowners are offered at the elegant Houtbosch Wine and Craft Beer tasting room. Sample their flagship Pinot Noir with a cold meat and cheese platter and finish with the phenomenal fudge and wine pairing.
2. Chug up the Mountain
There isn’t a better way to experience George’s by-gone days than to relax on the Outeniqua Power Van and chug back in time. The power van remains one of George’s most popular tourist attractions. It leaves daily from the Outeniqua Transport Museum. This rail trip is an absolute must for train fans of all ages and offers an unbeatable insight into our fascinating local rail heritage. Climb aboard the vintage rail inspection trolley and ascend the Outeniqua Mountains. Kids can sit next to the driver and enjoy panoramic views of the sheer mountain slopes, dripping forest, cascading waterfalls and purple heather.
The Outeniqua Transport Museum itself holds an epic collection of trains, ox-wagons, vintage fire engines and even a funeral hearse from the last century. The enormous museum also houses a fantastic array of private collectors' vintage cars, all in beautiful condition, including a Model T Ford, restored Italian supercars, as well as the MG Midget! A visit to the train museum is a brilliant idea for the rare rainy day in George. Energetic children can climb aboard some of the superbly preserved locomotives and even sit in the dining carriage of the Royal White Train.
3. Fabulous Falcons
The Garden Route Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Centre, at the George Wildlife Park, offers a fantastic educational opportunity for animal lovers. Falconers, Bertus and Lizette Beukes, opened the centre with the aim of rehabilitating injured, sick and orphaned birds of prey. Guided tours offer a rare insight into the lives of these magnificent birds. Inquisitive minds can learn fun facts about falcons, owls, buzzards and their unique adaptations. Tour guides introduce guests to over 30 rescued raptors and there is even an opportunity to hold a friendly Cape Eagle Owl. The birds of prey centre is a non-profit organisation and operates under Cape Nature Conservation regulations. Grab a coffee or fresh pizza at the on-site Italian restaurant, Caspita. There is a large jungle gym for little kids to play on.
4. Horse-back Holiday
Join Andrea and Neo at Black Horse Trails for a firm family favourite. They offer outrides from their farm into the indigenous forest at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains, in Wilderness National Park. Cowboys or cowgirls of all ages will enjoy their gentle horses, many of whom are rescue animals. The family-owner ranch outside Hoekwil has horses to match all levels of experience, from beginner to expert rider.
The Rock Pool Ride is a firm favourite for family groups. The three and a half hour trail ventures through the cool indigenous forest and offers glimpses of the Knysna Loerie, Vervet Monkey, as well as baboons and bush buck. Riders can enjoy a head-clearing, cheek-flushing trot through the forest with its hanging roots, bright toadstools and winding streams. Riders can savour a lunch break by a cool waterfall and take a refreshing dip in the rock pools. This trip is ideal for teenagers and offers several awesome ‘Instagram worthy’ photo opportunities.
5. Tour by Torchlight
Spectacular glimpses of rock pool life are on offer at Swartvlei Beach, close to Sedgefield. Families can take a starlight stroll on the beach with biologist and ex-teacher Judy Dixon on for a Moonlight Meander. Tours are held every spring tide at full moon and new moon (once every two weeks). The moonlight beach walks are ideal for multi-generational families and involve a relaxing stroll to Gericke’s Point. Judy combs the rock pools to allow families a glimpse of intriguing sea creatures. Billed as ‘the best fun you can have after dark on the Garden Route’, these torchlight tours allow eager kids to watch an octopus hunt and cuttlefish dart through the shallows. Judy introduces nature lovers to the local plough snails, limpets, chitons, barnacles and sea urchins, with fun stories and fascinating facts.
Soak up the sun at Herolds Bay or surf the waves at Victoria Bay.
Enjoy family activities Elevate trampoline park and go carts, Happy Valley indoor kids play centre, bowling at Mount View Resort as well as strawberry picking and the largest permanent hedge maze in the Southern Hemisphere at Redberry Farm.
The sleepy and picturesque little town of Uniondale is known for its quaint churches and quirky cottages, lovingly planted with bright roses in shades of cream and pink. This captivating town has an old-fashioned charm and a wonderful laid back simplicity. Time melts away in the Karoo, as fat orange pumpkins ripen on warm tin rooves. The winter days are crisp, sunny and cool. Evenings offer a chilly gauze of mist rolling in from the Kammanassie Mountains. The annual apple harvest in nearby Avontuur has yielded its fruit. The Cape Aloes are ready for gathering. Uniondale is the ultimate getaway, a calming retreat with a slow pace and the haunting legacy of a lonely ghost.
Sleep in Style
The beautiful Bon Accord Guest House was originally built as a bioscope and later used as the town’s roller skating hall. Bikers; Barry Mason and Candice Orford left their city slicker Johannesburg lifestyles to settle in the Klein Karoo and put their considerable talents to use running a three-bedroom guesthouse. Plans are afoot to restore the historic cinema to its previous glory, hopefully the faded mural on the theatre’s gable wall will be preserved. It features three shy French maidens sharing a secret.
The tea garden and swimming pool at Ouwerf sit in the shade of an ancient Peppertree. Pretoria natives; Michael and Antoinette Müller, run the Karoo Kombuis Koffiewinkel and Ouwerf guesthouse, offering old-school Afrikaans hospitality. Their traditional evening braai was served with delicious Mealie “paptert”. This savoury porridge pie is made with the South African staple, maize meal, as well as vegetables and cheese. This curious hunger-busting dish was plate-lickingly delicious. It’s little wonder that Ouwerf is booked out for the annual Karoo to Coast cycle race.
Vintage lace dresses decorate the tea shop and delicate milk tarts are served on antique china. The charming rooms are appointed in an ode to South Africa’s traditional building materials; copper, steel, wood and cane. Each room’s en-suite features a claw-footed porcelain bathtub, perfect for soaking away the chilly winter evenings.
Travel the Gravel
The African Aloe Café is a popular choice for energetic visitors. They offer a self-guided cycling tour of the town on their comfortable and brightly coloured cruiser bikes. The shorter route is an easy 5km and takes in the Synagogue, lamp-lighters home and Applewood Cottages, some of the earliest in the town, dating from 1850. The architecture is mostly Cape Dutch Revival, with fresh whitewashed walls, thatched rooves, ornate rounded gables and stoeps decorated with intricate metalwork. A longer route requires a pedal out to the Jewish cemetery, at a total distance of 8km. Guests can return to the comfort of the clay pot fire at African Aloe after their exertion, to enjoy a coffee and a delicious slice of coconut cake.
Dirkie Coetzee is the colourful local guide trusted with escorting the more laid back visitors on Uniondale tours. Four guests can squash into the bright and bouncy yellow Tuk-Tuk for shorter trips. The Volkswagon Minibus is fired up for longer cruises though the passes and poorts. Dirkie motors leisurely around the town offering amusing anecdotes on his neighbourhood. The town boasts 42 churches, an ancient system of furrows and weirs and a dentist who will pull your tooth for R80. The Blue Chicken on Victoria Street offers craft and skills courses, including the opportunity to kill, pluck, gut and bone your very own chicken. The charming Communion Houses, Dirkie says, were used as accommodation for rural farmers when they came to town for church, once a month. He shows off the Blacksmiths Forge, where the horse brands still decorate the old oak doorway. A nineteenth century watermill stands on the hill, housing the largest wheel in the Southern Hemisphere, a restaurant and an art gallery.
Dirkie guides us to the imposing and elegant 1884 Dutch Reformed Church. A new stone tower was added in 1908, as the original sandstone tower was unable to withstand the strain of the heavy church bells. As we scale the 100 steps to the apex of the bell tower, the steps devolve from worn stone, to rickety wood stairs and finally a flimsy ladder. The ancient metal clock mechanism ticks away the decades and stained glass windows pierce the dim light. In the steeple, the colossal bell hangs overhead; Dirkie climbs a final precarious ladder and invites us to climb through a shuttered window onto the steeple veranda. The 360 degree vista is breath-taking. As the church bells ring noon, the tranquil town is spread out as far as the primordial plains. The blue Kammanassie Mountains frame the horizon.
In Search of Aloes
Guests to the region will see the aloe harvest as they drive northwest towards Willowmore. Thousands of regal aloes stand sentry in the arid veld, their red finge- like flowers pointed towards the endless blue Karoo sky. The leaves of Aloe ferox are carefully carved away and left to dry in the sun. These succulents contain a juicy pulp which is extracted and manufactured into health tonics and herbal remedies. The bitter sap of the aloe plant is well known in the region as a painkiller, a tonic for inflammation and sepsis, as well as a formidable laxative. Soap, shower gels, moisturisers and healing balms are made from the aloe pulp, as well as crystals for constipation.
A Lonesome Ghost
Driving out of Uniondale on the N9 towards Willowmore, tourists enter a region known locally as “The Paranormal Triangle”. Legend has it that this eerie stretch of road is haunted by the ghost of an elusive young woman, seeking her bridegroom. On a cold and windy April night in 1968 Maria Charlotte Roux and her finance Giel Pretorius were driving towards the town of Uniondale in their VW Beetle. The couple were set to announce their engagement and Maria was lying in the back seat of the car dreaming of her wedding dress. Tragically, at the 20 kilometre road stone, Giel lost control of the car and as the Beetle flipped and struck the ditch, Maria was flung from the car. Her lifeless body was later discovered by a rescuer in the roadside drift, amongst the thorn bushes and aromatic shrubs. It is said that the enigmatic figure of a bride in her wedding dress can be seen walking the road at dusk. Good Samaritans who stop to aid her, report a passenger who slips quietly into the back seat of their car. When they turn to their curious passenger, she has vanished. An icy chill and the strong smell of sweet apples linger in her wake. She had become fondly known in the region as the ‘Lady of the Karoo’.
The Eastern end of the majestic Swartberg Mountain range is home to a canyon forming a historic link between the Great and Little Karoo. This deep gorge was formed over millions of years by the rushing water of the Traka River and is known locally as Toorwaterpoort. Few trains chug through this beautiful ravine and no road exists, but the locals come here on hot days to swim in in the cool clear pools and savour the red lichen clad cliffs which tower above the valley floor.
Avontuur, Prince Alfred’s Pass and Jonksrus
A 10km drive south of Uniondale on the R339 takes you to the sleepy hamlet of Avontuur. The region is famous for its apple orchards and a replica of the narrow-gauge steam locomotive; the Apple Express, which once transported the apple harvest from the Langkloof to Port Elizabeth, can be seen in the village. The fertile valley produces bumper crops due to the cool misty evening and winter frosts.
The road leads into the wild and unspoiled scenery of the Prince Alfred Pass. Thomas Bain began the building of this historic pass in 1860 as an access way between the Langkloof and Knysna. The drystone retaining walls built by the convict labourers can still be seen supporting the twisting gravel road. Afrikanns place names record the history of the construction of the pass. ‘Tiekeliefie’ ridge is where the convicts were finally given their ‘ticket of leave’ in 1867. The road turns beneath sharp hanging crags of sandstone, tiny succulents and lichens cling to the cliff edges and waterfalls gush through the ravine.
The hamlet of De Vlugt is a stopping point for road-weary travellers. Adri van Rooyen and her family were born and bred in the village and operate Die Plaaskind Padstal. The farmstall sells everything from home-grown sweet potatoes (for R12 per kilogram), to antique lanterns, local honey, handmade quilts, fruit preserves and their homemade goat’s milk cheese. Adri is the original farm-child, she makes the best beef burger and chips, topped with creamy fresh goat’s milk cheese and avocado. There is no phone signal or WIFI in the valley. The only option it to sit back and slow down. Watch the grazing lambs and listen to the rushing of the Keurbooms River. Be brave, use the long drop toilet, fondly known as the ‘Poef and Doef ‘.
Behind van Rooyen’s paddock is the Bain Cottage; which housed Thomas Bain and his family during the construction of the pass. The cottage remains a rustic rental for adventurous guests. Light is provided by gas lanterns and a romantic wood-burning stove squats in the farm kitchen. Entertainment involves overlooking the serene valley and watching the milking goats jangle home. Cold beer is on offer at Angie’s G Spot, a bikers’ pit stop just a short walk through the hamlet.
Local guide Katot Meyer offers guided hiking on the ox wagon track made famous by botanist WJ Burchell. Burchell travelled this route in 1814 on a special narrow wagon and recorded species such as Burchell’s Gazelle, the wild-pomegranate and Blue-headed Loerie.
A fascination with succulents drew artist Allana Willox Fourie to the splendour of the Kykoe Valley, outside Uniondale. Her studio and gallery Kannabos sit overlooking her lovingly tended succulent nursery. Tiny grey stone plants snuggle in the rocky soil, indigenous fat plants and exotic cacti grow in rows. Named in honour of the chewable Bushman’s Prozac ‘Sceletium’; Kannabos Studio was built by Allana’s husband, Pieter Fourie, from plastered straw bales. Allana and her husband Pieter spend much of her working lives designing and fabricating sets for movies such as 10 000BC, Mad Max and The Mummy. At home, Allana paints the vibrant people and landscapes of the Klein Karoo. Tranquil music floods her gallery. The ever-present Cape Aloe is depicted in crimson pastel on paper. Delicate pottery bowls display her quirky jokes. The ‘Beautiful People of the Langkloof’ are presented in charcoal strokes. A work in progress sits balanced on a wooden easel. It shows a pair of carefree farm children laughing against a backdrop of golden sunlight. Kannabos is a truly testimony to the allure of the Klein Karoo.
Sheena Ridley’s art is exhibited at the Langkloof Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Her oil and pastel paintings demonstrate the magical simplicity of the region; ladies washing laundry, cows grazing, children playing. Wander through the garden and her true passion and talent is unveiled. Her life-size sculptures peep shyly from between the ripe olive trees in her beautifully landscaped garden. A cement cockerel stands on a wall watching the African sun melt into the horizon. Sheena builds her one-off sculptures from a steel armature, which she covers with wire, layers of cloth mesh and cement plaster. Each piece is unique. An ‘Aspiring Acrobat’ bends impossibly backwards. ‘Bather’s Leap’ captures the gay abandon of a plump lady bounding into a cool pool of water. The shy and curvy sculpture of ‘Naomi’ shows off her beautiful legs. Ridley also offers artists retreats and sculpture workshops with on-site accommodation in her beautifully renovated barn.
The Ghost Cabaret
Back in Uniondale, the quaint Tourism Office has been converted into the Little Theatre Café for a haunting concert. Ricardo Classen, the local Tourism Officer, is putting on a rare performance of the “Ghost Cabaret”, accompanied by his talented daughter, Kahlo. Friendly locals have gathered with bottles of wine and platters of snacks beneath the thatched eaves.
The building once housed the local Protestant Church. It was built in 1843 and later converted to a school house. Ricardo’s father, a missionary preacher once ministered from the pulpit. Ricardo has converted the space into an eccentric tourist information centre as well as a truly bohemian arts and music venue. The tiny stage is strung with glittering disco balls and draped with heavy velvet curtains. Beaded chandeliers dangle from the shadowed rafters. The eclectic decoration includes family portraits from the 1800’s, opulent soft furnishings and muted lighting.
The duo tell the haunting story of a little school boy, killed tragically in the building when a section of the roof collapsed. He occasionally visits the building causing mischief, unscrewing light bulbs, rattling doors and interfering with the sound system. Ricardo and Kahlo placate him with a touching musical medley. Chopin’s Death March echoes around the building, as wisps of dry ice settle between the tables. Kahlo lulls the naughty spirit with Afrikaans nursery rhymes and a poignant lullaby. The performance ends with the tale of the Lady of the Karoo, told in song to a remade rendition of Hotel California. Kahlo’s captivating voice drips with honey and blues. It perfectly captures the essence of the soulful Karoo and the tragic death of a lady on a long lonely highway.
The Garden Route is renowned for its pristine natural beauty and has become a mecca for adventure seekers. Here, in the warm heart of the Garden Route, majestic mountains tumble down to meet the cool blue of the Indian Ocean. George and Wilderness host a wealth of unspoiled beaches, forest trails, surging canyons and tranquil rivers. This nature-lovers playground is home to a number of reputable companies specialising in outdoor adventure tours for fearless individuals and laid back families. Independent explorers will enjoy the opportunity to discover our National Park, golden beaches and waterways.
The upper reaches of Kaaiman’s River are a paradise for adrenalin junkies, thrill seekers and nature lovers. Professional guide Marthinus Esmeyer from Paradise Adventures offers one of the most popular, raw and thrilling ventures in the area. The rip-roaring ‘Adrenaline Tour’ involves over four wild hours of ‘kloofing’, a local term for canyoning, through some mind-blowing scenery. Explorers descend the soaring and spectacular Kaaiman’s gorge, scramble over boulders, abseil down thundering waterfalls, jump off ravine cliffs and swim through icy water. Marthinus, a professional mountain biker also has over 25 years of white water experience and prides himself on offering an authentic ‘once in a lifetime experience’. This is a relatively remote trip, in completely untouched wilderness. It is ideally suited to small groups of nimble daredevils. Look out for the local leopards and tree snakes who can fall into the ravine and hitch a ride. Paradise Adventures also offers tailor-made mountaineering, rock climbing and abseiling trips to suit all abilities.
For aerial adventurers, Deon Borrett from Dolphin Paragliding offers exhilarating tandem paragliding tours of the Wilderness skies. Soar over the National Park, sparkling lakes and 18 kilometres of golden beach. Keep an eye out for dolphins, whales and even Great White Sharks in the surf below.
Total immersion in nature is offered by Fearless Adventures. The man at the helm is Roche Schoeman; an endurance adventurer, medic and extreme sports lover. Fearless offer an exceptional three hour Stand-Up-Paddle boarding tour of the glorious and secluded Kaaiman’s estuary. Water lovers will be in their element gliding upon the glass-smooth river mouth. Steep forest clad slopes enclose the canyon. The green cliffs are mirrored on the river’s smooth surface, from the ‘Map of Africa’ curve all the way to the iconic Kaaiman’s Train Bridge. Experienced guides from Fearless Adventures relay the fascinating history of Khoisan habitation, early ox-wagon traverses and the sensitive ecology of the Kaaiman’s estuary. This is a quintessential Garden Route experience and an ideal trip for families. Skilled teenagers will enjoy the challenge of balancing and paddling the SUP boards and smaller children can be catered for in canoes. Snorkel, float, swim, paddle, laze and enjoy the majestic waterfall. Fearless aims to educate guests about their footprint and minimise environmental impact, thereby preserving the unspoilt nature of the valley. They offer zero waste packed lunches, as well as homebrewed Kombucha and filtered water in recycled glass bottles. This company also boasts the highest abseil in the Garden Route as well as local surfing lessons, exhilarating rock climbing, canyoning and slack-packing tours for the lazy back-packer.
Eden Adventures in the peaceful village of Wilderness, offer a mellowed experience, including canoe hire from the Fairy Knowe Hotel. This is ideal for exploring the extensive network of rivers, lakes and estuaries in the Garden Route National Park. The stable two-seater canoes can also accommodate small children on an extra wooden seat and are perfect for paddling the Touw River Rock Pool Route. Nature seekers can pack a picnic and swimming gear in Eden’s waterproof buckets and head up the serene Touw River through placid reed beds and splendid indigenous forest. Bask in the sun and snap pictures of Half-Collared Kingfishers, Fish Eagles and brightly coloured Knysna Turacos. Watch the shy Red Knobbed Coot nest in the reeds. An easy 40 minute paddle takes you to a beautiful swimming and picnic spot. An alternative canoe route traces a longer path along the Serpentine River to Island Lake. Eden’s experienced guides also offer local canyoning and abseiling tours.
Naturalists will love the Garden Route National Park. The Wilderness Section of the park contains the Ebb and Flow camp with its immaculate camp grounds and chalet accommodation, gentle waterways and scenic forest hikes. The Half Collard and Giant Kingfisher Trails are a popular option for able walkers and families. The trail head is accessed adjacent to the campsite. Hikers pay their SANParks fee and immediately enter a vast cathedral of mature forest. The 7 km path winds its way alongside the Touw River, offering glimpses of sparkling still water. Walkers can propel themselves across the river at the rope and barrel pontoon, a brilliant experience for young adventurers. This trail isn’t suitable for baby strollers but fit families can easily carry toddlers in backpacks. Much of the trail consists of wooden boardwalks with numerous stairs, and many picnic sites are available. The top of the trail boasts a roaring waterfall, magnificent boulders and unbeatable swimming pools. Early mornings offer the best chance of glimpsing the shy forest bushbuck. The National Park also offers more strenuous multi-day hikes along the Outeniqua Trail as well as bird hides and canoeing trips.
An easier option is the 2.2km Forest Buzzard Trail which starts from the Witfontein forestry station outside George. Located in the Outeniqua Nature Reserve, beneath the mighty Outeniqua Mountains, this circular trail winds through pine plantations and indigenous forest and takes in a cascading waterfall. This is a relatively easy walk on gravel road, jeep track, footbridges and forest paths. Look out for cyclists on adjacent busy biking trails.
Mellow Strolls and Scenic Sundowners
Birding enthusiasts can enjoy a truly tranquil experience with Wilderness River Safaris. Guide and skipper Mike Raubenheimer has an extensive knowledge of the ecology and bird-life on the Touw River and Island Lake. Cruise the lagoon on a purpose-built shallow draft boat. Photograph the bird life, encounter magnificent scenery, take a picnic or bring a bottle of bubbles on their sunset tour. This relaxing hour and a half eco-safari is suitable for all ages and abilities. Mike picks up guests at various guesthouses and picnic points along the river.
The Garden Route Botanic Gardens on Caledon Street in George has a wealth of activities for families with children of all ages. A stroll around the dam is ideal for families with pushchairs or bicycles and will pass the bird hide where you can watch the Cape Weaver Birds build their nests. Attentive strollers will spot the Striped Mouse as they dart across the path and terrapins sunning themselves on the banks of the dam. The Mushroom Meander is a short stroll which criss-crosses the stream and has a beautiful picnic spot under the leafy canopy. A fun and exciting Geocache Treasure Hunt in the gardens allows kids with smart phones to navigate to a number of secret treasure chests. Exhausted parents can relax at the Getafix Garden Café.
‘Dine with a Local’ is a social revolution. It represents cultural immersion at its absolute best. Be warned however, this adventure is ideally suited to open-minded tourists, daring diners and curious nomads. Intended to simply connect visitors to a family meal in a local home, willing visitors may be rewarded with much more than a cultural experience. You will be invited to wine and dine with the locals, but you may leave feeling like a part of the family.
The Township of Thembalethu lies on the outskirts of George. The name means “Our Hope” in isiXhosa. It’s a densely populated and vibrant community of over 50 000 people, where dilapidated shacks, make-shift barber shops and bustling taverns sit side by side. Raw meat, including whole sheep’s heads, known locally as smileys, are sold at sidewalk butchery’s on busy street corners. Children play soccer and dance to kwaito music in the streets, women queue at hairdressers, taxis zip through the hustle and washing flutters in the breeze.
Mama Nolusindiso Gila and her family invited us to their dining experience. Arriving at their home, we were greeted to the joyful sound of excited giggling, as a troupe of tiny dancers surrounded us. “Knock, knock, open the door,” they chanted in Xhosa. The little girls were dressed in the traditional skirts and the colourful beaded jewellery of their tribe. Their smiling faces painted with swirls of white clay dots. The dancers stamped their tiny bare feet and spun in elegant circles, shuffling, nodding and clapping in harmony. The African spirit of warm hospitality was already on display. The rhythm and joy of the tribal dance is truly infectious. Soon the guests were clapping along and swaying stiff hips, despite the giggles of mirth from our proficient performers. Ukuxhentsa is the dance performed by young girls during festivals and traditional ceremonies, the choreography is passed down from mother to daughter over generations.
Mama Sindy greeted us warmly with the traditional African handshake. A complicated ritual of shaking, thumb clasping and nodding. I failed miserably. She forgave me and folded me into her generous bosom in a warm hug instead. Mama Sindy’s firstborn son Unam and his girlfriend Nomzama ushered us inside their modest home and immediately offered us some Amarhewu. The thick white liquid is a popular drink made from fermented mealie meal and is considered a local superfood. Unam poured the customary beverage out of a pitcher into porcelain cups. It tasted tangy but bland, like a slightly sour, gritty, thin porridge. “This is the brew we make for weddings, funerals and customary events in my culture,” Mama Sindy explained. “It’s a real hunger buster, we serve it as an appetiser, so your stomach will be happy for a while.” My grumbling tummy was sated by the satisfying brew.
Our dining table featured bright yellow Shweshwe fabric and paintings by local artists adorned the walls of the home. The hostess regularly invites local singers or poets to “Dine with Locals”, so the evenings are varied and display the talents of the neighborhood. The lady of the house introduced herself as Mama Sindy, a 58 year old school teacher with surprisingly modern views. The granny is plump, vivacious and forward thinking despite her traditional dress and manner. She introduced the head chef and sous chefs; her two daughters also dressed in traditional fabrics. Grandchildren peeped in hoping for an introduction or a cuddle. Sindy joked that she is still waiting for Lobola for her youngest daughter, a tribal “bride price” traditionally paid in property, cattle or cash.
Sindy speaks of the “Dine with a Local” experience with characteristic warmth, “I’m not a business person”, she says, “but I can see that this is a worthy endeavour”. “I am happy to be a host and to meet lots of new people.” Her son Unam has more specific aims for the meal sharing enterprise. “It’s my belief that this cultural exchange can help to bring employment into our neighborhood and address local issues of crime, drug abuse and hopelessness” he explains. Unam speaks eloquently about the challenge of living in the township and the need for local entrepreneurs to make whatever they can with the materials available. “We can’t always buy what we need, we sometimes have to improvise,” he smiles as he cuts a two liter milk carton and folds it into a card wallet and change purse. The guests have a chance to practice their recycling skills too. “We live among a lot of people who have lost their dreams”, he explains, “and a government who don’t deliver on our vision either”. “We need to learn to be persistent and to reach for our dreams ourselves”. Nomzamo agrees, she sees the experience as a path to restoring her cultural dignity. “Often when people see our townships they just see decay,” she laments, “we want to use our talents, our traditional arts, crafts, poetry and dance to tell people who we are and how we celebrate life”.
The first course of the meal is a bowl of chicken giblets in a spicy vegetable broth served with traditional steamed bread. We dig in to the chewy fresh bread and hearty soup. I have no idea what a giblet is and I’m reluctant to ask. Before I have an opportunity to embarrass myself another guest informs me that it’s offal, including the stomach and neck. It’s delicious. I’ve never seen this on a menu in South Africa and I’d probably never be brave enough to order it. This is subtly pushing me out of my comfort zone, but I feel welcome. The starter is served with red wine and a huge pitcher of zingy homemade ginger beer.
Between courses local artist Bulelani Bob arrives to tell us about his work. His magnificent art sits above the dining table. A crying child is painted in every color of the rainbow, his huge eyes bursting with tears as he drinks from his mother’s breast. It’s phenomenal. Bulelani Bob explains that he only began painting in 2013, but he simply believed that art is “in him”. He is softly spoken and has a soulful, charming and gentle nature. He explains that he grew up listening to the Xhosa phrase “Indoda Ayikhali”, which means “men don’t cry”. He painted this crying child as a form of catharsis. “In my culture men are not expected to show their emotion,” he says, “but I cried painting this picture because I have so much pain burning inside of me”. “When a child feels pain, his mother can ease that pain. Her milk is a source of comfort warmth and love. I still go to my mother when I need to express myself because she doesn’t judge me she accepts me. Mothers sense our pain and know how to comfort us. His powerful story resonates with every mother in the world despite our color or cultural differences.
Our main course was a hearty mound of umfino, a savory maize porridge flavored with spinach and carrot, steamed cauliflower and broccoli with a cheese sauce, rich buttery carrots and chicken drumsticks roasted over an open fire. Traditional hearty ulusu stew was served in a chili spiced sauce. This is a rustic dish of offal, consisting of the sheep’s stomach. This was new territory for me. I plucked up my courage and tucked in to the spicy flavorsome meat.
The simple homely meal was peppered with Mama Sindy’s funny anecdotes about her community. As my fellow diners cleaned their plates the conversation swirled from English to Xhosa to Afrikaans. The main subjects fell on common ground; our families, our jobs, our experience traveling and our favorite foods. We ended the evening with a slice of homemade milk tart and a group photograph.
“Dine with a Local” was a unique encounter. The highlight was experiencing the deep sense of pride the Gila family have in their culture, customs and community. I left them feeling a little more daring, a lot more cultured and certainly well fed.