A town of two halves

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Wilderness beach. Picture: Jim Freeman
Jim Freeman

Wilderness is a town of “two halves” bisected by the N2. Inland is the lagoon or “old” Wilderness, while foreign investors and the Johnny-come-latelies have gravitated to the dunes abutting the main beach

Near the top of the dirt road that constitutes the Hoogekraal Pass between the Outeniqua town of Karatara and Wilderness flies a forlorn Italian flag. Bruno Battaini is surprised when I drive in to Hoogekraal Farm, where he’s casting garden pots in the sun. It’s not a widely used road so drop-in visitors are scarce. The real order of business though is the production of Mastro Dario cold meats. Bruno’s fridges are packed with homemade salami, pancetta, bresaola and coppa.

Bruno Battaini and Dario Soresi examine the organic meat in their walk-in fridge. Picture: Jim Freeman.

Mastro Dario is Dario Soresi – a burly, blue-eyed and tattooed Milanese – who started the business in 2005.

“It is our passion. We prefer to remain artisan producers working in small quantities,” says Soresi, adding that the organic products are distributed along the Garden Route and Johannesburg.

The biggest single market, however, is Soresi’s popular La Locanda restaurant at the top of George’s high street. He learnt his trade at the side of his Sicilian grandmother and mother – “she was good with cakes” – then joined the Italian army and got deployed to the officers’ mess under a man who was executive chef at a hotel on Lake Maggiore.

“After working for him, I went home on my discharge from military service and started cooking for friends.

“I’d wanted to move to Africa when I met an Italian from Hermanus in 1992. He told me about South Africa and two weeks later I flew to Cape Town.”

After spending time in the Karoo town of Prince Albert, Soresi bought Hoogekraal Farm.

The Ocean View Guesthouse.

La Locanda opened in 2007. It provides authentic Italian dishes, but is by no means unique in providing an exceptional dining experience in the central Garden Route.

There’s the funky Île de Païn restaurant-bakery run by Liezie Mulder and Markus Färbinger on Knysna’s Thesen Island, while Wilderness boasts The Girls (featuring an art gallery), Pomodoro and, Salinas At Pomodoro, a no-fuss, family Italian restaurant.

Wilderness is a town of “two halves” bisected by the N2. Inland is the lagoon or “old” Wilderness, while foreign investors and the Johnny-come-latelies have gravitated to the dunes that abut the main beach.

Walkies with a handome cheetah. Picture: Jim Freeman

You’ll find fishermen, dog-walkers, paragliders, families and new agers en route to their communal cave. It’s common for people to share the surf with pods of dolphins.

The six-bedroomed Ocean View guesthouse overlooks the beach. Modern and glass-fronted to make the most of the views, the house – featuring a life-sized fibreglass cow – was built by Dutch billionaire Jan Heddema and is run by his business partner Harm Dijkstra.

The furnishings are funky-minimalist and each suite exits onto a sea facing or pool deck.

City folk can enjoy a clutch of interactive wildlife rehabilitation projects based outside Plettenberg Bay.

At Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre you can take guided walks with tame cheetah. It’s funny watching European tourists being handed the leash when the cheetah decides to stretch his legs. The reaction is to hold on but there’s no way that’s going to happen!

Howler mother at Monkeyland. Picture: Jim Freeman

Most fascinating, though, are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden. Both are enclosed – not to prevent the inmates getting out but to stop locals from getting in.

When Tony Blignaut discovered how locals were trapping and selling the primates to unscrupulous visitors, he created Monkeyland, as a sanctuary in 1998. Monkeys (including tamarinds and marmosets), lemurs and apes that were formerly pets or laboratory animals from all over the world are unfettered in their own 12-hectare forest.

Also eschewing the concept of cages, the adjoining Birds of Eden, a riot of sound, colour and movement, began as an offshoot of Monkeyland. Birds of Eden’s massive meshed dome is the highest of its kind in the world at over 50 metres.