Outside South Africa's main cities is a road less travelled that leads the intrepid voyager to vibrant villages and fruitful vales top-heavy with charm for little cost.
We discover jewels aplenty on our motoring meander, selecting five enchanted places. Some are on historic wine or fruit farms, some tucked into bucolic valleys, one is integral to a slackpacker hike and two are in big game country.
WILDEKRANS COUNTRY HOUSE, HOUW HOEK
Cradled in the arms of rugged mountains and fertile orchards an hour from Cape Town is a tiny piece of heaven called Wildekrans Country House.
Owners Alison Green – art collector, engineer, visionary chairwoman of the area's conservation-focused Groenlandberg Conservancy – and Barry Gould – architect, kitchen winemaker, olive bottler and keeper of the garden – have transformed their 1811 gabled Cape Dutch homestead into a harmonious combination of quirky, bucolic, artistic, eco-friendly and sophisticated.
The four-star lodge in the Houw Hoek valley has been crafted with care and passion – much like the artworks that bedeck the walls and enhance the garden. The old homestead has three en suite guestrooms with contemporary artworks, antiques and four-poster beds. There's a guest living room with cosy open fire and library.
Mountain View suite has its own balcony, living room with fireplace, library plus dramatic mountain views. The restful Art room is eclectically furnished, while the Garden View room has tranquil views of garden and pool.
We are in separate Birch Cottage, a two-bedroom, whitewashed authentic Cape cottage with kitchenette. To sit on the front stoep (veranda) with its green and lovely garden views, birds warbling and mountain deepening to lilac as evening falls is a thing of joy. We sip Barry Gould's Bordeaux-style wine and enjoy complimentary local Cape Overberg (over the mountain) cheddars, pesto made with garden basil and pecans, slathered on homemade bread.
Wildekrans is also integral to the four-day, 60-kilometre slackpacking Green Mountain Trail. This gourmet hike through pristine fynbos (indigenous vegetation) crosses vineyards, orchards and mountain reserves, staying at places like Wildekrans. Guide Andreas Groenewald, a passionate and knowledgeable proponent of the local fauna and flora, takes us into the mountain for an exhilarating taste of the hike.
The people of the valley are equally passionate, establishing the conservancy through which the trail runs – a 34,000-hectare ecotourism and conservation hotspot of endangered flora and fauna, run by landowners dedicated to ensuring their valley remains beautiful, not just for generations to come, but also for lucky visitors.
AFRICA ON FOOT, GREATER KRUGER
It's 9pm in South Africa's far north Limpopo Province but the glittering African sky is forgotten. An almost mystical sight – 11 lions lapping at the night waterhole, their tawny reflections shivering – reduces our photographer friend to tears.
Our five-day, four-night walking safari at Africa on Foot, a private bush camp in the 60,000-hectare Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, is part of the Greater Kruger, which shares unfenced boundaries with the Kruger National Park.
Africa on Foot is less costly than most other Greater Kruger lodges, though the guiding and tracking is second to none. The unfenced bush camp has only five thatched chalets or rondavels, with indoor and open-air showers, solar-powered lamps, plus an optional treehouse sleepout for adventurous romantics.
Owners Courteney and Cecilia Blunden, their guides and trackers work hard – waking us at 5.30am for the four-hour walks, tracking big game on the night drives and only retiring when we do after dinner about 10.30pm.
You are virtually guaranteed the Big Five – we see them all. Walking among wild animals is dangerous but on foot gives you Africa close up. We track a huge black mamba and shiver to see the snake's discarded skin; we track leopard, giraffe and rhino and find them. We learn bush lore, identify birds and insects, animal tracks and, yes, dung. Winter's cooler and better for game viewing.
BO LA MOTTE GUEST COTTAGES, FRANSCHHOEK
The Franschhoek wine valley, close to Cape Town, is a Mediterranean beauty uncannily similar to Provence, steeped in 300 years of French heritage and winemaking.
Up the valley only 10 minutes' walk from town and at the foot of the Middagkrans Mountains is Bo La Motte farm. It's one of the nine historic wine farms the French Huguenots originally settled in 1672. Dotted among its vineyards are six restored guest cottages, with views of the Franschhoek Mountains that are alive to the changing light.
The whitewashed, traditional Cape Victorian cottages with their wide sash windows, stable and french doors, flagstone floors, beam and wood or rush ceilings and broad stoeps are named Pear Tree, Milkwood, Oak, Goose, Pump House and Owl.
Ours is two-bedroom Pear Tree cottage at the top of the farm in an old pear orchard overlooking the dam and Franschhoek Valley, with mountain and vineyard views from every room.
The front stoep is where we breakfast and barbecue, watching the sky colour the mountains, the squirrels bury their autumn larders, the blue cranes, ducks and hadedas (ibises) cool their toes in the dam and the clouds roll up the valley.
It's a deeply comfortable cottage set among bougainvillea, wisteria, gerberas, roses and lavender and edged by vines. In the kitchen are bottles of farm wine, champagne and olive oil. There's an open fire and electric blankets for when the cold creeps over the mountain and sun loungers for Franschhoek's renowned golden days.
Owners Jennie and Maarten have restored the farm to vines and olives, replanted indigenous trees to attract the insects, frogs, bats and birds, renovated the winery and converted the cottages. They treasure their little piece of history in the country's gourmet capital, once called Olifantshoek (elephants' corner) for its calving elephants.
Fine restaurants abound, such as Grande Provence, The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, Pierneef a la Motte, La Petite Ferme, Haute Cabriere, Cafe des Arts among dozens, but we are fortunate to score a cold-night cancellation at newcomer Foliage.
Former La Motte chef, Chris Erasmus, creates fine dining with organic, seasonally foraged ingredients. My barbecued beef brisket with forest mushrooms, braised fennel, burned pears and onion panzanella, celeriac and sorrel salad ($19) is a divine autumn dish, followed by bittersweet Valrhona chocolate potplant, carrot cultured cream and buchu icecream ($8).
ADDO DUNG BEETLE GUEST FARM, EASTERN CAPE
Sitting on the wooden veranda of your bush cabin, firing up the braai (barbecue) while the air is heavy with the scent of orange blossoms is manna for the soul. Even better when night falls and the sky presents a shower of stars.
This mountain-top guest farm in the heart of the Eastern Cape's malaria-free Sunday's River Valley overlooks succulent bushveld, citrus groves and the far Zuurberg Mountains.
It is also on the doorstep of the 180,000-hectare Addo Elephant Park – the only national park in the world with the "Big Seven" – the Big Five, plus the southern right whale and great white shark. As well, it is home to the Addo flightless dung beetle, found almost exclusively in Addo and which boasts its own street sign.
Guests are also fortunate that the enthusiastic owner, Rod van Heerden (with his wife Magna), is an outstanding wildlife guide. His Geared2Go four-hour guided tour through Addo, which includes a lunch and tour CD, is highly recommended.
If you're willing to rough it, the three-stilted self-catering rustic wooden bush cabins (minimum two nights – $65 a night double) scattered across the hillside among indigenous vegetation with marvellous views, are a nature-lover's dream. Not child friendly or for those with walking difficulties, they have barbecue, outdoor flush toilet and hot shower, bar fridge, single hotplate, fan, mosquito net, crockery, cutlery and linen. Only recommended for mid-seasons – they'd be too hot in summer and freezing in winter.
There are five chalets with more home comforts and views over the working citrus farm named Miskruier (Afrikaans for dung beetle) or four dung beetle-shaped suites set in valley bushveld.
DIE KLOOF, KOELFONTEIN, CERES
In a crescent of mountains 90 minutes from Cape Town is a valley of abundance named for Ceres, Roman goddess of fertility. Here, the finest deciduous fruit in the country grows plump and sweet, the birdlife flourishes, and the world turns more gently.
At the top of this valley and shaded by oaks is Die Kloof, an 1800s cottage on the fruit and wine farm, Koelfontein, in the Conradie family for seven generations. The last place to get the sunrise because of the surrounding mountain ridges, it was nicknamed "the honeymoon cottage".
Now, this restored historic building with foot-thick whitewashed walls, thatch roofs, traditional stable-doors, antique farm-style furniture, rush ceilings and open fires is a comfortable self-catering retreat. Here, birdsong obscures the world's more prosaic sounds.
There are mountain hikes at your doorstep, Koelfontein's wines, pears and apples to munch and a sensational "binne-braai" (indoor barbecue) in the farm kitchen when the cold wind blows to sizzle your meat bought from Mr Geldenhuys in nearby Prince Alfred Hamlet. He's renowned for his biltong, boerewors, droewors (dry sausage) and spiced chops.
When the nights are warm, however, there's an outdoor firepit and hot tub under the stars to soak away the aches of a climb up the Christie Prins walking trail into the mountains above Die Kloof.
In this unique ecosystem are large tracts of unspoiled fynbos – two thirds of the 90,000-hectare farm is non-arable mountainside. When not producing award-winning fruit and wine, owners Handri and Noelani Conradie are dedicated to the preservation of virgin fynbos, including some sections of rare, endangered lowland fynbos.
And the fynbos attracts native birds. We walk through a "sugarbird alley" as the long-tailed honeyeaters flit from protea to protea, accompanying our climb. The distraction means we lose the trail, ending 700 metres up the mountain, then bush-bashing home through dense fynbos and snake bush, beloved of berg (mountain) adders.
How wonderful to arrive unscathed, light a fire and sink into the deep Victorian clawfoot bath as a storm rolls up the valley scattering the guinea fowls and whistling through the thatch.
• Africa on Foot from $208 per person per night full board and activities. See africaonfoot.com
• Bo La Motte Guest Cottages from $100 a cottage. See bolamotte.com
• Addo Dung Beetle Guest Farm doubles from $65. See addodungbeetle.co.za
• Die Kloof, Koelfontein cottage from $54. See koelfontein.co.za
Alison Stewart was a guest of Wildekrans and SAA, was assisted by Bo La Motte and otherwise travelled at her own expense