Friday 21 November 2014

Grootbos - A Big Treat for a Little One (and the big one's too...)

I am a besotted mother. I waited long enough for this privilege. And while I waited I compensated for what I knew was my emptiness. Jacques and I travelled a lot. We went on great holidays and stayed in some magnificent places as is the way of DINKies ( Dual Income No Kids. Well strictly speaking 1 1/2 incomes as mine doesn't count for all that much…but you get my point.) My husband would mock me by saying that I surfed the interwebs salivating over gorgeous hotel rooms the way other peoples trawled for porn. What can I say? I like constellations of stars and high thread counts. And so we spent our income on long-haul flights to exotic destinations and short romantic mini-breaks. We dreamed of being a family while arranging couple spa treatments, irresponsibly depleting hotel mini-bar stocks and eating in decidedly non child-friendly places. 
A website I returned to again and again during the childless years, having first seen the seductive images in the pages of style-obsessed VISI, was Grootbos Nature Reserve in the Overberg. I had fallen in love with the clean lines, the enormous glass windows, the romantic bath, the incredible views of Forest Lodge. I wanted to stay there. Badly.
And then during the course of last year (or was it the year before?) I was approached with an offer to spend the night at Grootbos. The Gods of Hotel Luxury has heard my impassioned pleas! But then before I could take up the marvelous offer, life and loss got in the way; there was the traumatic failed adoption, a husband who had to write his specialist exams, my mom's battle with cancer and her eventual death and then miracle upon miracles our son Sebastiaan came into our hearts and lives. And so high thread counts and panoramic vistas  were pushed to the back of my mind. My definition of luxury had changed to 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep,  1/2 hour episodes of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and conning Jacques into changing more dirty nappies than I did during the course of a day.
But a year had passed and so we planned a mini-break with our son. To celebrate our life together. And then I remembered the long-forgotten Grootbos invitation and made contact.  And how very glad I am that I did. Admittedly there was my initial disappointment at being relegated to the family-friendly Garden Lodge rather than the Forest Lodge, but I quickly overcame this once I'd reminded myself just how long I'd waited to join the members-only club consisting of family-friendly hotels and exclusive-use Moms and Tots parking bays.  The two lodges are run as completely separate entities, separate swimming pools, separate spas, separate dining areas, separate lounging areas, in fact the two are set so far apart that they can barely be seen and can only be reached by car or a very-very long trek. And nobody's going to be doing that with child, much to the relief of the adults-only crowd on the other side. (Those without children will no doubt be jumping up and down with joy at the pleasing prospect of a romantic destination in which ankle-biters are neither seen nor heard. I know I used to be one of those…)
In my-pre-child days, the idea of a luxury hotel room and pouring rain would have been absolute bliss. I was however filled with trepidation when as we cleared Stanford and neared the Grootbos Nature Reserve the rain came pouring down. And didn't stop. The weather guide warned of 2 days and a night of pissing-down rain. And I panicked what would we do with our toddler. But our warm welcome settled my fears. First things first, a roaring fire in our lounge and fabulous views of misty fynbos vistas. So we huddled up in bed and read Dr Seuss. And The Hungry Caterpillar…. and could not have been happier.
The Garden Lodge is the oldest of the lodges (the private Villa is the the most recent and can be rented out to groups of up to 12 very lucky people) and while it may lack the contempory design elements that I usually lust after, the cottages are extremely comfortable and stylish. And common areas are a dream for those with kids. The children's playroom had both a fussball and ping-pong table which would go down well with the older kids but our son fell in love with a doe-eyed little girl and they proceeded to throw balls at one another and nobody complained or gave us the side-eye. Relief!
In their marketing there is often references to the Grootbos Family. I thought it was just marketing but in fact this magnificent 5 * eco-reserve really does have a family feel. (well a functional family anyway) as everyone is friendly and helpful and tries to make you feel at home. Dinner and breakfast was a joy as not only was a high chair brought to our table without asking but when Sebastiaan got niggly, he was quickly whisked off by one of the waiters  and kept amused so that we could finish our dessert and wines. An unheard of luxury when your toddler has suddenly discovered that he has both feet and a (very loud!) voice.
The next day's breakfast was a lovely start to the day as the sun appeared which boded well for our planned Fynbos walk. Sebastiaan got his favorite eggy and we ate our way through the lavish buffet.
There is so much to do at Grootbos, 4 x 4 flower safaris, horse riding, bird watching and various big hikes. But we were taking it easy. Having a small one is the perfect excuse to do so. And our fynbos walk was perfectly managable for me in my inappropriate leopard print wellies and for Jacques carring a 13kg boy on his back. An expert guide, beautiful flora, fantastic views and a milkwood forest that offered protection from a sudden rainstorm made for a very special morning. So did the visit to the ponies, the pigs, the rabbits and the chickens. Having dragged our son away from the children's play area complete with sandpit, swings and slide, we headed back to our cottage for a long afternoon nap. The joy of three-in-a-bed snuggling under a fluffy duvet while the rain lashed against our window was almost worth missing lunch.
When we woke up the sun had appeared and so had the work emergency that forced us to cut short our trip. There is a photo of Sebastiaan throwing an almighty tantrum as we got ready to leave. And for once I indulged him. How could I not? He was expressing exactly what I was feeling. Leaving Grootbos is hard. But you take a bit of it with you when you go. The scent of the fynbos, the memories of the views, and in our case the gifted milkwood tree and the three white shells I picked up  in the milkwood forest. One for Jacques. One for Sebastiaan. And one for me. The Trinity.

Contact Grootbos
Telephone: 0283 848008

(Up the garden path that leads to Garden Lodge)

(Miles and miles of beautiful Fynbos)

 (The incredible view from our cottage)

(A warm welcome. Sebastiaan being shown how to make a fire.)

(A welcome gift for the grown-ups. Our very own milkwood tree that has been plannted in our local park. Forever to be referred to as Sebastiaan's Milkwood. May they both grow up to be strong.)

(The loveliest personal welcome note, small bear to cuddle and a perfectly made up cot with comforting duvet and pillows.)

(Boy meets Pony. Boy admires Pony's beautiful mane. Pony carries on eating grass…)

( As happy as two pigs in Grootbos…)

(Seemingly endless views of fynbos and ocean. Space. Peaceful space.)

(Going for a fynbos hike. Just before the rains came down.)

(The magical Milkwood Forest)

(It was here that we found shelter from the rain.)

(The beauty and mystery of the hard white shell of the very special milkwood forest snail.)

(The tantrum before leaving. I knew exactly how our son felt. Nooooooooooo!)

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Hip Hip Hooray! Our Son Turns One!

(A family. At last.)

(The original Kalmoesfontein homestead)

(The ceremony outside the cellar)

(The Anne Pienaar choir. Cue: copius amounts of tears…)

(Morning refreshments)

(Gorgeous dipped animal cutouts)

(Music is a must)

(Callie Maree and his steampunk smoker)

(Callie. Dishing up…)

(Pork worth waiting for…)

(Coleslaw, pickled and pulled pork slider)

(A long table. The only way to celebrate and commune)

(Cara's traditional koektafel)


(The Funfetti cake and mini meringues. Outside...)

(The Funfetto cake. Inside…)

(The Glory)

(Our very special and incredibly generous friends. Adi and Cornelia Badenhorst.  A million kisses.)

(Our son. Sebastiaan Sonwabo. Happiness.)

So, amid all the heartache of the last few years, our son burst into our lives. And suddenly every thing makes sense. I now know that nothing happens by chance. He has made me believe in miracles.
On the occasion of his first birthday, I wanted of a farm feast of gratitude and celebration. Our friends made the magic happen.

The Feast of Sebastiaan

Who would have thought that the most beautiful words I would ever read would be written by the Department of Social Development? But they are. In a letter accompanying the adoption order of our son, were the seven words telling us that he was ‘your child as if born to you’.
And indeed he is, this miraculous child who has brought us so much joy.

I did not know such happiness existed. Could not have dreamed that one day I would be woken up in the middle of the night by a giggling baby boy who would blow raspberries on my belly. I did not believe that a child could heal my hurt. I could not have imagined this love.

Sebastiaan’s arrival signified the end of a rather brutal period of our lives. Loss and grief had been almost constant companions. We had been sad for so long. And yet his spirit chose ours. We were where he wanted to be and so he came to us, this smiling, engaging baby, who, along with interrupted sleep, brought us the gift of laughter.

As his first birthday approached we knew we wanted to celebrate his being. We wanted to feast with our loved ones, those who had been such compassionate witnesses on our journey towards parenthood. They had been there for us in our sorrow and now we wanted to share with them in our joy.  We needed them to witness our gratitude and love for our son.

Our friends Adi and Cornelia Badenhorst generously offered to host such a party on their farm, Kalmoesfontein, in the Paardeberg where Adi makes his award-wining wines and Cornelia conjures up creative and beautiful events. For years my friends had consoled me with the promise that when the time came, they would throw an obscenely large and lavish baby shower for me. That day never came. But something else did: the chance to celebrate our son’s first birthday, the receipt of his adoption order and his name-giving ceremony. In addition to being the most special of venues, it was also symbolically right that we should celebrate our son on the farm where four years previously at Ana’s Christening, I had wept so many tears and begged God to make me a mother as well. Cornelia has, on occasion, referred to their farm as the place where love and hope merge. And indeed it was so on the day of Sebastiaan’s feast. A day when cardboard cutout animals whipped breezily in the wind and where the large white flags fluttered gently signifying the peace and healing that Sebastiaan has brought into our lives. There was rainbow bunting hung above long tables where clusters of friends and family sat down to eat and brightly coloured lanterns and satin ribbons outside the cellar where the ceremony took place.  We had asked that in lieu of gifts, our friends donate to a neighbouring farm school instead, and so some of the children, all regular visitors to the farm, came to sing a hymn and a song they had specially written for Sebastiaan. It was poignant and meaningful and made us all cry. Afterwards all the children ran wild, ate cakes, and played together, oblivious to the differences in backgrounds and economic status. Completely unaware that they were giving the adults a glimpse of a different, better future. Everywhere there was laughter and love: the perfect accompaniment to the foods we had specifically chosen to give thanks.

Upon arrival guests were offered small blue glasses of warm, milky spicy chai and buttermilk rusks. Adi made the chai and Yoliswa Mpazi made the rusks. (Years ago I witnessed Adi teaching Yoliswa how to cook from Mrs Beeton’s cook book. This year Yoliswa prepared the farm’s harvest lunches from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. They are a formidable duo in the kitchen. )
In keeping with the informal festive atmosphere we wanted to create, lunch was a street food vibe, which I love. Callie Louw of The Southern Smoke pulled in his hand built Texas-style slow smoker (an authentically Swartland Steampunk invention) and made the most spectacular slow-smoked pork and brisket sliders, served with a choice of BBQ, mustard or ranch dressing sauces a side of coleslaw and a large pickle. The wine was Secateurs, of course, and like the love that day, it flowed.  
Dessert was a lavish old-fashioned cake table, typical of traditional Christenings. I specifically wanted my friend Cara to bake the cakes as I wanted them to be baked with love and I know she loves our son. There was a indulgent multi-tiered chocolate cake topped with home-made truffles and drizzled with caramel, a couple of sophisticated orange and poppy seed cakes and my personal favourite, a delightfully frivolous Funfetti cake, dotted with sprinkles and flavoured with a rose essence that once belonged to Cara’s great-grandmother. I had also asked Cara to bake my mom’s carrot cake which she graciously did, understanding completely that I needed to have something symbolic of Sebastiaan’s Ouma Marie on that table.

In deciding on a second name for our son, Jacques and I wanted a name that would embody all that we wished for him. We also wanted a name that would honour the heritage of his birth mother. And so we named him Sonwabo, meaning ‘happiness’ in Xhosa, because more than success or riches, or a multitude of talents, we wish for our son to be happy.  
There is a photo taken of Sebastiaan Sonwabo at the end of the day. It shows the telltale signs of a one-year old who has not slept at all, who probably ate too much icing and who played too hard and too much. His shirt is undone and the cuffs flap around his wrists as he crawls on the grass. He looks directly at the camera and laughs. A boy secure in the love he feels. In this image, now imprinted on my mind, he is the embodiment of happiness.
Sonwabo. Our son.

Contacts of Some Very Important Persons
Adi Badenhorst –
Cornelia Badenhorst –

Cara Brink-Mana -
Callie Louw - The Southern Smoke – Email Callie on 
Maree Louw too these beautiful photographs.

(This story first appeared in Taste July 2014)