Wild glamping way off the beaten track
Up a valley far from anywhere was a pop-up adventure in fine dining, electric blankets and a jacuzzi that must have come as a surprise to the local family of porcupines.
The rough track had clearly been a porcupine highway for a long time – or perhaps the recent path of a single porcupine having a bad hair day.
By the time the sun peeped over the surrounding renosterbos-cloaked hills I had gathered a handful of quills. It was clearly for good reason this bit of wilderness had been named Porcupine Hills.
Other than the soft gurgle of the valley stream, the silence was utter. Were the birds and insects still asleep? Standing there, the incongruity of the situation hit me.
Though I was far from the city, 15 minutes earlier I’d crawled out of my bed heated by an electric blanket, stood under a piping-hot shower and been served a cappuccino any barista would be proud of. After my walk there would be a brief galumph in the hot jacuzzi followed by a slap-up breakfast prepared by a master chef.
After breakfast some of us embark on a circular hike up a hill that seems to turn into a mountain, but from the top the views are spectacular. Far below, our tents look like pepper on a yellow tablecloth.
Two months earlier there was nothing here but a small field next to a seemingly forgotten, reed-choked dam. Now there was a boutique hotel. A month from now it would all be gone and you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence of a luxury encampment.
The Canvas Collective conjures magical destinations in wild places out of cloth, steel, ingenuity and good planning, but leaves no footprints.
All this began with a love story between Samantha Stern and Dez Lundy. Stern is skilled in event management and catering as well as being a sommelier, goldsmith and diamond grader. They met, appropriately, when they worked on the Ladles of Love campaign. That started as a small soup kitchen and ended up serving hundreds of thousands of meals to vulnerable children and families in the Western Cape and Gauteng during Covid-19 lockdowns. It’s now at about four million sandwiches and counting.
For 20 years Lundy had been involved in the mobile tented camp industry. With the pandemic wreaking havoc on the tourism sector, that ground to a halt. He and Stern met and each discovered they’d found a soulmate. They also had skills that meshed like the gears of a well-kept Land Cruiser.
Event management, catering, mobile camps? Stir well together and experiment. The trial run – though not clear to them it was one at the time – involved a tented camp event for the Young Presidents’ Organisation. It was a huge success. The dream grew: stir in more funds and a huge dose of courage and Canvas Collective Africa was born – along with their son.
“We decided to start with only 10 tents plus a restaurant and make it 100% perfect,” Lundy says as we watch his team prepare the evening fire circle. “It took 18 months to conceptualise and we did mock-up set-ups.
“When you’re far from anything you can’t get it wrong. It’s mobile so every three months we move and reassemble. From set-up to pack-up it has to happen like clockwork.
“Each time it’s organised chaos for 10 days, then it’s done. We have separate teams for each type of job. Canvas Collective takes about 40 to 50 people to build and unbuild.
“Our goal was to provide the perfect staycation for glampers who relish camping but prefer not to be parted from their creature comforts,” says Stern. “It’s like a bonsai hotel experience complete with continental breakfasts in bed and artisan coffee or mimosa cocktails.”
“Our next move is to Biedouw Valley in the Cederberg until September,” Lundy adds. “Then to Witzenberg near Tulbagh in the Swartland until the end of December. Next, somewhere by the sea and after that back here to Bot River, which is a nature reserve. We’re a luxury, five-star mobile tented camp, but most people understand the term glamping – glamorous camping.
Stern and Lundy found a valuable team member in Roaan van Vuuren, who worked in the US carnival industry. Compared with that, putting together a boutique hotel in 10 days is small cheese.
“We’re talking about massive theme parks there,” he says, “merry-go-rounds, big wheel many storeys high, all the electrics and electronics and big safety margins.”
To work, Canvas Collective has to be fully modular. Everything arrives on eight flat-bed trucks and is built from the platforms up. Each unit comes in one big bag all folded up. Every teaspoon, plate and corkscrew has its appointed packing space. The entire contents of every tent is colour coded for packing and fast reassembly.
“Afterwards we pull up all the piping, plumbing and electricity lines,” says Lundy. “All chemicals used are biodegradable and waste is trucked offsite. We bin everything. When we leave the site looks like it was before we arrived. Bottom line is we want guests to have a great, seamless experience. Afterwards, we leave no footprints.”
On the first evening we sit around a roaring fire (slightly suspended to prevent earth damage). Clutching glasses of potstill brandy, we get to know each other while we watch the moon rise.
As the temperature drops a cup of hot soup appears before an invitation into the restaurant. There we meet shrimp cocktail, beautifully presented Karoo lamb with paired estate wine and a complex sweet difficult to describe but delicious, all prepared by chef Mechelle Spann and her team.
At 10pm that night the soft thump of the generator dies, dousing the lights. In the sudden darkness the dome overhead seems to light up with the sort of skyshow you only get in deep countryside far from human lights.
In the kitchen the next morning – after a breakfast of homemade muesli, fruit, nuts, yogurt and eggs hollandaise served on an English muffin – I come across Spann making chicken and beef wraps and binding them like Christmas crackers with coloured string.
“They’re padkos for everyone on the way home,” she explains. She’d fed us such a magnificent breakfast I wondered where we’d have space for more.
At just 30, Spann is a master chef with her own catering company which can feed more than 1,000 people a day. At weekends she treks over the long and winding road to create a dining experience for Canvas Collective.
“It takes careful planning,” she says. “If you run short there’s no shop down the road. Guests need to have a seamlessly great time, but of course there’s a logistics backstory. I make lists then lists from my lists to ensure I have everything. This isn’t just cooking, it’s fine dining, and it has to be perfect.”
Before going private, Spann was the chef at the Spier wine estate, then at Salt on the Paul Cluver wine estate in Grabouw.
“I believe in cooking a product for what it is, bringing out the essential taste of each thing I cook then placing it beautifully. And I treat my staff well. Happy people make better food.
“When I was in training, I was treated like a dog – it was part of the tradition. I don’t know why. A lot of chefs think that because they can cook they can treat people however they want. I used to go home crying. I promised myself if I was ever in a senior position I’d never make people feel the way I did.”
As we pack the car on our final morning the fire heating the jacuzzi is dying down and the staff are grabbing a mid-morning breakfast. It had rained the previous week and the sun is pulling up a light haze, softening the edges of the surrounding hills. High overhead a jackal buzzard is catching a thermal. It’s all over too soon.
On the rough, winding track we take out of the valley it’s hard to imagine how eight flat-bed trucks will manage it. But three weeks later Canvas Collective will be elsewhere.
An hour into the trip back home the aroma of the wraps insists we pull over to investigate: Spann’s final gift. They’re delicious.
It costs R6,500 a tent per night that accommodates two adults (children under 12 stay free). This includes accommodation, breakfast in bed if you wish, a delicious picnic lunch hamper, high tea in the veld, dinner and midnight snacks under the stars. All non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages (except international wines and spirits) are included in the price and include en-suite bathrooms and a mobile glass, steel and canvas cabin. The Biedouw Valley is a closer alternative to marvel the stunning spring flowers, with options for hiking and rock climbing. DM/ML
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