Halfway through unpacking his bags the night I picked him up from the airport, Craig handed me a long white envelope, with ‘Lisa’s Surprise’ written in neat blue ball-point across the front. A couple of sparing clues given me over the previous month did not prepare me for what I unfolded from this innocuous envelope.
Five pages evidently printed straight from a website, my mind soaked up text and images in happy disbelief : a weekend away in a dreamy tree-house overlooking a river and nestled in a mountainous valley… Besides the fact that surprises are one of my favourite things EVER, it was this element of surprise, combined with the thoughtful planning, sheer expense and uniqueness of idea that made my heart contract with an excruciating combination of elation and regret : this was the most romantic gesture I’d ever been gifted! (my heart pumped : ‘wow….wow….wow….wow…wow..’)
With my little green Ford Fiesta packed with towels, food, beers and books, we headed out towards Malmesbury along the way to Citrusdal – the sun hot and dazzling through the windows – my car heater somehow managing to have gotten stuck on the red a week before (no comment.) After stopping at a quaint, road-side café near Citrusdal where we were the obvious attraction/distraction for the day – an icy Coke each and we hightailed it out of what reminded me too much like a scene out of ‘Deliverance!’
A little while later we turned right at the sign to Citrusdal – 500m later and we took another right onto a desperately pot-holed farm road at the sign to Kardouw Tree Houses. After 16km of a road that required a fair amount of nifty manoeuvring, we hit the 8.5km gravel road which made me feel proud of both Craig and my little Ford Fiesta which tackled the challenge with finesse and great gusto (though in retrospect, I’d recommend a bigger car or even a 4x4 on this particular stretch of the adventure!) The plus side to this dusty obstacle course of ruts and rocks is that it keeps your average yobbo away! (hmmm… I sound distinctly like my father!) Driving through orchards of orange trees in full fruit, we arrived a little earlier than our 2 o’clock check-in time. Beneath a natural canopy of very shady oak trees, we tried not to park a trio of other cars in – all the while looking for some sort of reception area but finding none. A little confused, we decided to follow a wonderfully inviting wooden bridge leading into the whispering, cool darkness of the trees beyond. In the distance, we heard the contented murmur of visitors, punctuated by the odd toddler’s shriek of delight. The solid but deliciously exciting wooden bridge branched off here and there directing the way to quaint wooden huts, their entrances privately obscured and giving the illusion of being the only hut nestled there amongst the tree tops. Eventually, the bridge began to taper downwards and in the distance we saw a sunlit patch of grass with the river sparkling lazily alongside it, and the source of the voices we’d heard earlier. They explained that the check-in procedure was to choose the hut that most tickled your fancy and move yourself in! Seeing as there was still an hour or so left till our check-in time, we changed into our cozzies and unfurled our towels out onto the grass, consciously neglecting to put sunblock on our lilywhite post-winter flesh, and hauling out our individual novels : ‘The Green Mile’ for Craig and ‘The Wedding Officer’ for me. Within seconds I was swatting and swiping in a mild sort of panic at the million little spiders that somehow seemed magnetically attracted to me (arachnophobia notwithstanding!) Needless to say, this caused Craig to enter a state of shocked but laughing amusement – he’d not been officially informed of this arachnoid distress of mine!
Once the super-efficient army of cleaning staff had left the area, Craig left me in all my lazy suntanning glory to find us a hut! Returning a little while later, he told me he’d chosen us the best tree-house : the one with the view directly over the river – the orange orchards and mountains beyond. Perfect! (Already, I was beginning to feel like a princess!) He unpacked the car, taking our bags and packets of food along the bridge to our little hut while I lay in the sun, wondering how it was possible such a kind and romantically thoughtful man could possibly exist?! Interrupting my cynical ruminations, Craig returned – and it was time to get up to see the tree house we’d driven three hours to spend the night in.
Turning left off the main walkway, we walked along the side of the hut (most of the fronts of the huts are concealed from the main walkway!) and turned the corner of the hut to discover the most perfect little balcony overlooking the Olifants River, a shimmering canopy of leaves causing the light to fall in a kind of lace across the dark silver wood of the balcony, where there was a little black wrought-iron table and two chairs just waiting for us to sit down with a cup of tea. The whole front of the hut is covered in floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors – a fresh, modern touch to the simplicity of the bamboo and thatch ceiling and wooden floors. The double bed, covered in plump pillows and a down duvet – the fresh white cotton linen almost begging for us to climb in – dominated the interior. To the left of the entrance along the wall was a cabinet neatly filled with the basics in crockery and cutlery, as well as a mini-stove/oven and a kettle. Craig’d bought us colossal croissants for lunch and he opened an icy Savanna for me, and a Windhoek for himself. And after this perfect lunch, we decided it was time to crumple those immaculately smooth white sheets! With the glass doors left open to the dappled afternoon light and cool breeze, we kissed and kafoefled like teenagers until all of a sudden we were visited unexpectedly by the first of a couple of uninvited guests! One of the previous guests arrived at the open door to tell us he’d brought back the little gas stove ---- I don’t know who was more embarrassed : us or him!! (It was actually SUCH a comical situation but do you know what? I think that I’m still too embarrassed to write about it!) We reckon he either told no-one or everyone!!! After THAT we were too wide awake too sleep (after much hysterical laughing!) and it was time to see if the red and white canoe moored in the reeds along the shore was sea-worthy! Like the true gentleman that he is, Craig stood chivalrously in the cold, brown water, holding the kayak so I could climb in without mishap. Once I was safe and sitting, Craig climbed in but almost causing us to topple shrieking headlong into the shallow waters only a half-metre from shore! With a couple of inches of river-water swirling around our bare feet, Craig paddled us quietly giggling and relievedly dry downstream. I felt like a Victorian lady being wooed by her suitor – all I was missing was a parasol and a corseted dress! The view of the mountains from the river past the thick bulrushes and flittering birds and weavers’ nests was humbling and magnificent. And the long trailing waterblommetjies, waterswept under the dark water, with their white, waxy flowers and leaves of greens, golds and reds… surreal. Reminding me of Ophelia. Hearing the turbulence of rapids ahead, the romantic tranquillity of the moment was turned upside down as I bossily told Craig to turn us around – I was NOT in the mood to a) capsize in a cold, black-watered rapid and b) have to walk the kayak back upstream along the shore! Ya. Not very romantic behaviour, Lisa! And so, my darling Craig dutifully turned us around and paddled us up into the late afternoon breeze while I sat lazily on the prow – Cleopatra or the Queen of Sheba?! – pointing out weavers nests and baby waterfowl!
As the afternoon grew more gold and the shadows leaned more and more away from the setting sun, we went to sit out on the balcony with another chilled drink, wishing we’d had the foresight to have bought a bottle of wine (i.e. not being able to buy wine on a Sunday doesn’t apply in the Eastern Cape!) A little walk down to the grassy banks and other decks revealed an even more incredible view of the mountains – the light had set the mountains beyond on fire – the rocks literally blood red, but overshadowed with deep lilac skies the colour of old bruises. We talked about how this place would make an amazing wedding, birthday or New Year’s venue! The guests could stay in the ample accommodation – there even being allowance and space for tents to be pitched down below on the grass. And the tables and chairs on the wooden decks just perfect for a feast! There are even old-fashioned oil lanterns on the tables one could light as it got dark. And with the night drawing in, the rhythmic rumble of bullfrogs combined with all sorts of trilling birdsong over the lazy surge of the river.
Tastefully decorated in a modern colonial style, the bathrooms were clean and somehow rustically luxurious. We showered under plenty of steaming hot water, feeling like adventurers as we stepped out in our clean bare feet onto the wood of the bridge. (I didn’t feel quite the same, however, when we went to brush our teeth later that night and there on the walls were all the species of spider known to the Cederberg region!!! Thankfully when I needed a wee at 4am, Craig escorted me to the loo and checked the walls and behind the loo for potential man-eating spiders!)
After a humble but yummy supper of soft white bread rolls and cold, roast chicken from Woolies, we lay in bed and chatted about the quiet but powerful beauty of the area, my apparently amusing arachnophobia and what we would do the next day. With the trees sighing like the most tender lullaby, we drifted off to sleep with the doors open to the wild darkness wrapped languidly and a little sunburnt in each others’ arms.
*scuttle, scuttle … sniff ….* I sat abruptly up in bed . 4am. There was someone or something in the hut!! I sat and listened to the furtive scurrying and hungry sniffing. Next to me, Craig remained semi-comatose. I decided it was time to shake him awake – he is the MAN after all!! He looked up to see me sitting rigid and hyper-alert in the bed but as blind as a bat without my glasses. (He found this quite funny apparently!) After telling him about the ‘thing’ in our hut, he got up to close the door. A few minutes of hysterical laughter later and Craig needed a pee – and I suggested just peeing off the balcony into the anonymous night rather than trudging all the way in the spidery dark to the loos. Standing at the closed glass door and gazing like a sleepwalker with a rather full bladder, out of his throat slowly came a delayed and gutteral ‘F – U – U – U – C – K !!’ as a rather large and stripey mongoose/monkey that at the sight of a half-naked Craig jumped hara-kiri off the balcony into the tree-tops in terrified escape! Needless to say we kept the doors tightly shut for the rest of the night.
But then at around what felt like 9am, I heard some more sniffing and surreptitious shuffling. Repeating the same bolt-upright sitting position as a couple of hours earlier, I met, eye-to-eye, with a strange little pink-eyed jumbo albino jack-russel thing which almost seemed to be smiling and talking to me! “Please may I jump on your bed? I’d love to even come home with you if you’d want me!” (Hmmm… Craig had opened the door after sunrise – sure that the Lesser Striped Winkie Eating Monkey Mongoose had disappeared with the rising of the sun!) Honestly? I’d rather have a cute but odd-looking white dog in the daylight next to my bed than a smallish werewolfey thing in the middle of the night!! For breakfast we ate yoghurt and fruit on the balcony, wishing with all of our holiday-deprived hearts that we didn’t have to go home that same day… Besides the various escapist options we discussed about me bunking work for the next week, we decided we would definitely come back : probably in March 2008, and then maybe again in the November!