BILLY SUTER visits Antbear Lodge in the Drakensberg, near Estcourt, and finds a peaceful retreat with great food, magnificent views and delightfully quirky artistic flourishes. All of this was embellishment to a bucket-list moment – a night in a luxury cave with a private, three-course meal served on its deck.
CARVED, gnarled wooden hands on a pub wall clasp a coffee bean-shaped wooden cupboard housing an expresso machine. Nearby, a giant wood and glass rooster fills the full width and depth of one of the large windows in a diningroom.
In the large diningroom are several individually unique, ornate wooden chandeliers, laced with fairylights, showcasing candles in colourful cups or tin mugs. All the light-wood tables and chairs are quirky and hand-made.
A few steps away from the diningroom, a wide, winding wooden staircase – leading to a spacious lounge dominated by a magnificent, sun-shaped stained glass window – overlooks a reception desk.
The reception desk is alongside a wall featuring a towering artwork depicting a tree whose snaking branches are created with mirrored mosaics. Under that are restrooms tucked behind curved, novel, layered-wood ‘screens’.
It’s all very cheerful. Very unique indeed. And it’s but one small part of the wonderful, whimsical, sprawling world that is the must-visit Antbear Lodge, nestled not far from Estcourt, in the Drakensberg, and offering terrific views above the Bushman’s River valley.
It is a beguiling and notably different getaway spot for those seeking some quiet time – far from the madding crowd and run by amiable and efficient staff. And on a clear day you can see forever – well, certainly a spectacular view across the Drakensberg Mountains, most prominently of White Mountain, Giants Castle and, on a good day, even the Amphitheatre some 120 km away.
I spent a memorable weekend at the lodge with my partner recently and experienced not only a tranquil escape in a magical setting, but the unexpected delight that is the abundance of quirky art on show – most of it created, in a labour of love, by the lodge owner, Andrew Attwood.
What was even more special was that our first night was spent in the lodge’s only luxury cave offering the best views of all – of hills, lakes, dams and distant mountains – and where donkeys and cows play in the grasslands under a sweeping private deck.
The cave has a large bath in the room and, off the deck, a separate en suite shower and toilet. The bedroom’s glass doors open onto a wooden deck with hammock chairs, and dinner is served there by request. We took up the offer – and what a memorable, under-the-stars occasion that was. Pure enchantment.
The cave, originally an enclave that served as a tea room at the lodge years ago, is a short stroll from the Antbear Lodge’s main building housing the reception, pub, diningroom and a downstairs children’s play area.
Surrounding this, tucked amid fruit trees and gardens, are 16 other unique units, most thatched-roof cottages, many mountain facing… and each with a surprise in store.
Artistic flourishes are in every bit of furniture in the chalets which also feature colourful bathroom wall mosaics depicting fun African characters, and where the hand-carved wooden bed headboards depict a large chameleon or canoe here, a feather or lizard there.
But most fascinating, and worth a walk around the lodge for a peek at each of the units, are the elaborate wooden doors and windows, each lovingly created by Andrew, who makes use of unique wooden hinges and complicated closing mechanisms.
A programmer by profession, but a passionate artist with a penchant and flair for woodwork he creates in a large workshop on the property, Andrew bought the property with his German wife, Conny, 17 years ago.
Married since 1996, the two had always longed to start a lodge in the Drakensberg, and when they acquired their dream property they named it in memory of an antbear that was found living under rotting floorboards in the original ruin of a home that was on the property when they bought it.
The antbear scuttled off when the Attwoods got stuck into renovating the property which today boasts not only the chalets for visitors, but also an impressive, organic vegetable garden and assorted fruit trees. The 220-hectare property is now also home to two pigs (R2 and D2), some 88 head of cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, dogs and cats.
To fully appreciate this little hideaway, lodge management advises that guests should ideally spend at least three nights there to fully experience the rural ambiance of this charming country hotel.
There are fireplaces in the rooms and comfortable beds. There are no TV sets in rooms but there is one in the lodge should you feel it absolutely necessary.
Lighting is kept low throughout the grounds to allow maximum enjoyment of the sunsets and starry nights, so each room comes with a little red torch that is a wide-up affair resembling a pepper grinder.
Nice touches include a tiny posy of flowers and a chocolate on each bed when one arrives, as well as a welcoming little decanter of sherry on the room’s bar fridge. Each fridge, by the way, is encased in a unique wooden cupboard made by Andrew.
Rooms have no air conditioning, which might be an inconvenience in high summer, certainly for me, but the beds are very comfy and there are showers and jacuzzi spa baths in most units. Limited and slow wi-fi is available, the best reception seemingly coming from the lodge lounge area.
The cost of a night’s stay at Antbear Lodge includes dinner and breakfast, and under friendly and talented chef Jason (“call me Jay”) Turner – who has been at the lodge for nine months after working for the Spar group and various Durban restaurants, including Ninth Avenue Bistro – one can look forward to some real treats.
Jay’s fillet and veg creation, with crispy, wafer-thin potato slices, followed by an exquisite pud of meringues and lemon sauce, all served on the deck of our cosy cave room, was hard to beat.
Then, however, I tasted his breakfast buffet scones, served with cream and a heavenly jam made from prickly pears picked from the lodge garden. They made such a huge impression hat I begged for some to take on our road trip home. Jay kindly obliged, popping three into a brown packed stapled closed with a sprig of rosemary.
Antbear Lodge, take note, makes its own cream, jams, mayonaisse, yoghurt and a variety of excellent cheeses. Fresh eggs, milk and much fruit also comes from the property.
Food was sublime throughout the weekend we were there.
Comfortably accommodating up to 50 guests, Antbear Lodge is also proving popular with weddings. The cutest chapel, with fairylight-strung wooden chandeliers, is to be found alongside a chalet attached to a Rapunzel-like tower of wood and corrugated iron. The tower is a delight and popular for wedding photographs.
The chapel’s glass windows offer a spectacular view and the lodge is used as the reception venue.
The Attwoods are very eco-conscious and make use of alternative materials such as straw bales to build. They also have solar heating, source water from a natural spring and use a reed bed filter for cleaning waste water.
If you are keen to do more than simply chill in the fresh air or help yourself to a drink from the pub ‘honesty bar’ off the lodge’s large wooden deck, note that two dams stocked with bass are available if you feel the urge to fish. Hikes are also on offer, including an hour’s light stroll around the property.
Also worth a visit is a labyrinth in a leafy area of the Antbear Lodge grounds. Look out for a pond, dreamcatchers and nearly 40 orchids that have been newly planted by chef Jay Turner
You could also consider doing what we did – take a 50km drive (beware hectic, dirt road potholes) to the Giant’s Castle nature reserve, to which admission is R40 per person at a boom gate. Great picnic spits, views and walks, including one to the river’s edge.
One could also consider a game drive in the nearby Zulu Waters Private Game Reserve or visit an impressive rock art site at nearby Kamberg. Antbear Lodge is also known for occasional hot air ballooning as well as microlight gliding, Andrew being big on the sport.
…………….ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW……………….
Address: P171 Moor Park/Giants Castle Road, Central Drakensberg
Website and directions: www.antbear.co.za
Phone: 076 4412362 or 036 3523143
Costs (valid until October 31, 2018):
Garden View Suite – R1350 per person, per night (includes dinner, bed and breakfast).
Mountain View Suite – R1750 per person, per night (includes dinner, bed and breakfast).
Luxury Cave – R1750 per person, per night (includes dinner, bed and breakfast).