It is the heady aroma as you get closer to Port St Johns, the underlying odour of tropical fruit and dampness of pristine bush that sharpens your senses as you turn off the national tar road up a dusty track towards the Wild Coast Kitchen.
It is with a sense of excitement too; we had heard so much about Thea Lombard and her incredible home that we were like children impatient to experience instant gratification.
Vervet monkeys peep from the forest canopy above us, and as we spy the setting sun through the branches we are overwhelmed by the cacophony of birds as they settle for the night.
The trees and undergrowth are astounding. Everything is so lush that you expect to find the road closed over with growth in the morning. We arrive at last, at sunset, after a long drive, to meet the lady we had heard so much about.
The setting: exterior
Arriving at the thatched entrance gate, Thea and her motley crew of dogs in varying sizes are there to meet us, hugging a typical warm Eastern Cape welcome. She is all about food, this incredibly hard-working lady. Food and enveloping you in the exotic paradise she has created in the historical village.
Enormous thatched rooms, masses of timber that tower above you and all over, the interesting bits of art and quirky mementoes she has collected along her life.
Bedrooms with heavenly comfortable beds, crisp cotton linen, marvellous antiques, art all original, and all the rooms set so that they are comfortable, private, with their own portion of stoep, and an unparalleled view of mighty Umzimvubu River. (Xhosa word for home of the hippo).
There are endless wooden walkways that lead you to corners where you can sit and mull over the “essence” that is so special here.
Some of the most amazing collections of ancient grindstones collected from the local areas in her travels are lined up along the “bridges”, as there is no pattern to Thea’s style. It’s just “there”, exuding warmth and comfort. You feel at home immediately.
Hammocks swing from amazing trees and the giant Coral trees are smothered in outsized Delicious Monster plants. The smell of granadillas hanging heavy on their vines, avocado, and masses of lemon trees interspersed with paw paws – it’s like a fruit salad in a garden.
The veggie and salad garden are equally delightful. Everything grows so large there.
The gentle throb of the diesel generator reminds you that you are not quite in the village, that electric power is as precious as the water that trickles down from a mountain spring to service the house. While trying to take it all in, there’s laughter and the pop of corks, with the smell of a wood fire lingering somewhere.
The setting: interior
The huge airy dining room/cum lounge is bedecked with giant leather ’20s couches, Persian carpets hang from the beams, grass matting on the wooden floors and masses of heavy tables, casually dressed in amazing linen and sparkling crystal.
What we loved was the mismatched hallmarked silver cutlery and fat spitting candles dotted everywhere – and platters of “nibbles”, as Thea calls them. Fat diced smooth avos, pecan nuts shelled, oozing cheeses, hefty slices of homemade bread, peeled melons, sliced biltong, and here and there, bananas still on their stalks make up the floral display. And hugging, as it were, little glass vases stuffed with perfumed geranium leaves. Even these are oversized.
One side of this magical room is an enormous set of shelves bursting with books of every description. From cookery to history and travel, you eye these making a silent promise to yourself to investigate when there is time.
There are masses of pots along the one long picture window, sprouting a colourful array of floral umbrellas. “It rains a lot here in summer,” she says in explanation.
The smell of wood in a fire gets stronger as you are led onto yet another stoep, this one her outside kitchen. Here you are confronted by two oversized pizza ovens burning brightly and smouldering with the sap from the meat she has seemingly tossed directly onto the coals. One with meat, and the other with giant-sized crayfish.
From Whale Coast to Wild Coast
“Kom sit, ek’s nou daar,” Thea calls with her almost Marlene Dietrich voice. She is effervescent and blonde with a hearty belly laugh.
Thea was a marathon runner in her day. Now she uses that energy to run her Wild Coast Kitchen. People and food are her strong points, stemming from the 15 years that she owned a guesthouse on the beach in Hermanus.
We asked about her establishment, and why she had moved from the Whale Coast to this rural paradise. “I needed a change from that type of environment. When a friend suggested that I look at Port St Johns, I took a chance. One visit, and I bought this farm immediately,” said Thea.
Hermanus was too perfect; she needed challenges and to cook. “Remember Karen Blixen? Well, I now too have a farm in Africa,” she says.
Her farm, near a natural spring, also has coffee trees, which she planted in her garden. No Robert Redford in evidence, we ask. “Nee wat. I have been a single mother for years. I only need handymen now,” she laughs.
We were all commandeered to give a hand with that evening’s feast, while our spouses dutifully help with the fire, full of typical South African male advice on cooking over a fire. Everyone knows that it’s the size of the fire and the number of drinks that ascertain good stories.
To the melodious strains of “Nessun dorma” sung by the marvellous Three South African tenors, Agos Moahi, Given Mabena and Lucky Sibande, the music emanating from somewhere in the roof, we explore the downstairs pub area.
This lady is a sommelier of note. Hearty wines from the Cape which she personally chooses and fetches herself, having befriended most of the wine masters over the years. Good unknown wines like “Eagles Cliff” pinotage, “Excelsior” shiraz and “Hangelsberg” merlot winked at us so we had to try them. The array of single malt whiskies and KWV brandies were also tempting.
Cooking on the wild side
Thea entertains in a manner born. She throws fillets on fires, serves them beautifully underdone, with crunchy salads, homemade bread and farm butter, succulent crayfish, and lots of “waatlemoenkonfyt”. You can hardly move after all this, and then the cheese board arrives. Dessert wines and exquisite coffee, if you can manage it, rounds it all off perfectly.
The breakfasts are a feast deluxe, with everything the heart desires, including mountains of fruit all served on the patio overlooking the gardens.
Those sunrises over the sea! They almost but not quite rival the sunsets, with the mist that rises over the river.
Wild Coast Kitchen is about food, good company, and simply celebrating life. Thea has come up with this most innovative concept, having experienced tourism from the incredible Whale region down in the western portion of the Cape.
Here, in the heart of the Wild Coast, Thea has taken the cornucopia of local attractions and activities, packaged them into an unforgettable experience – a little offbeat, and far removed from the mundane.
She accepts “overnight guests”, but the focus is Wild Coast Kitchen, where couples, singles, and groups can learn from great international and national chefs to “cook on the wild side”. It’s a five-day stay, with the cookery classes taking up three full days, amidst great hilarity, much food tasting and wine sipping.
Most people prefer driving down through the green hills of this former Transkei region, but Thea also fetches her guests from Mthatha, or from the local airstrip if they prefer to fly in by chartered planes.
Things to do
Here, in peaceful Pondoland, pleasurable activities are aplenty, not discounting the soothing effect of just being there. These include skydiving, fly-fishing as well as sea and river fishing, scuba diving, surfing and whale watching. At the time of our visit, the annual sardine run was just passing by, with a stampede of game fish and seabirds in tow.
The beaches are pristine and most of them safe for bathing, whilst possibly the most famous activity is bird watching. No less than 250 species of birds can be sighted with little difficulty, as the forests along the river are dense and intriguing.
These birds are actually recorded in the Port St Johns area and as far South as the Umngazi River and as far North as the Mtafufu River over the last ten years. These include the sea-birds. We spotted Green Pigeons, Cape Parrots, Cinnamon Dove, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Purple, Crested and Knysna Loeries, Red-chested, Black, Emerald and Jacobin Cuckoos, Wood, Cape and spotted owls, Swifts, Hornbills, and yellow necked swallows. Astounding.
A meander through the six-hectare property reveals bird-hides, little streams, a dam, unexpected gardens, secret hideaways, unbelievably lush vegetation, and outcrops of huge rocks festooned in moss.
During a stiff walk along the road among the enormous forest trees clad in mosses, lichens and epiphytic orchids and lilies blooming on the forest floor you see glimpses of Blue Duiker and Bushbuck, indigenous to the forest but secretive and seldom seen. Large stands of banana-like Strelitzia nicolai blanket some of the sea-facing slopes, where red-hot pokers and Flame Lilies explode in colour.
Beauty and mystery
The one thing that has no meaning in this paradise is time. But then again, time is the one thing you do need when you visit here. The seemingly sleepy village offers a myriad of things to do and see, such as a drive up the airstrip to a lookout point which is jealously kept secret by the locals, who only share it with a fortunate few. Here you sit down to sundowners with a bird’s eye view of the vast ocean, the river far below, and the ancient hills and heads of Mt Thesiger and Mt Sullivan, the “gates” of Port St Johns.
The origin of the name of Port St Johns is something of a mystery. It was long assumed that the village was named after the wrecked Portuguese ship Sao Joao, but this vessel actually ran aground at Port Edward on the northern border of the Wild Coast. Others say that on a good day you can see the profile of St John the Baptist etched in some cliffs overlooking the river.
Because this area is so unspoilt, there are sections where no man has actually ever put foot. This is prime hiking country, full of forests, waterfalls and trails. Canoe trips, horse trails, dolphin and whale watching, golf and simply chilling out are all leisure options regularly exercised in Port St Johns.
Cultural tourism and shopping for African items go hand in hand, and the choices range from reed ware to walking sticks, clay pots, traditional beaded pipes and quality fabrics. You can also visit neighbouring Pondo villages to meet locals and see how they live, and catch a glimpse of a real practicing Sangoma. Tradition is very much still real here.
Thea offers an optional “extra” in the package, wherein she will share her private paradise, her clay house at the magnificent Umngazana swamps. This is a mind-boggling experience – the Indian Ocean, warm mermaid pools with cave dotted limestone rocks as silent witness to ships passing.
Little wonder then that this area with its untamed beauty has become the preferred location for international film crews, of whom we met during our visit.
The giant red moon rising over the sea capped our stay with Thea, as we sat in the darkening night and listened to the night sounds, the rustles as the “critters” settled for the night.
Not so long ago night time was marked by traditional drum beating, and one can still imagine what it must have been like, this era long passed.
Underlying are the ghosts of the ancient mariners, ships that floundered and wrecked, isiXhosa tribes who passed through the regions, wars fought and lost, a nation of survivors and their descendents, now living together in relative harmony.
Story submitted to SAinfo on 20 June 2008