‘Tarzan Roast’ offers Mrs Smith from the passenger seat. ‘You hang a leg of lamb from a branch in a tree,’ she explains ‘over a wheelbarrow full of burning citrus logs’. We are driving South Africa’s Garden Route; a short hop today from Knysna to the Harkerville Forest and my navigator is leafing through Jason Bonello’s ‘Cooked in Africa’. This dish is fairly representative of his ‘bush’ style (think Jamie Oliver meets Bear Grylls) and we agree that any recipe calling for galvanised wire (one metre) and rope (three metres) has to be tried in these Smiths’ kitchen on our return. Or, weather permitting, the Smith garden. Meanwhile, we are looking for the Tsala Treetop Lodge signpost, and wondering what we will make of a boutique hotel on stilts.
The Lord of the Jungle reference seems apt as we are guided from reception along a forest boardwalk that rises and falls before finally climbing towards a slatted gate to our suite. Treehouse doesn’t begin to describe what we discover on the other side. The panoramic view across the canopy of the indigenous forest to the valley beyond is undoubtedly the star of the show; but stone, timber and earth tones make up a strong supporting cast with copper, horn and shell providing the cameos.
Wandering from private courtyard to living room to bedroom alters the frame, but the glorious picture remains throughout an ever-changing materials palette of sawn timber weatherboards, planed and polished to become honey-grained floorboards, rough-hewn natural stone walls smoothed and shaped into a freestanding bath and wrought iron which gives way to gleaming beaten-copper. Even the water of the plunge pool morphs into a blazing fire in a pottery hearth.
Watching day ease into night from the cantilevered balcony, darkness enfolds the forest below until the only branches visible are those occasionally darting from the shadows into the light thrown into the abyss by our fire. We’ve settled in, run long hot baths and donned the regulation white towelling robes and slippers before beginning work on a thoughtfully provided aperitif. About this time we’d usually be giving in to the temptation to check emails and download something atmospheric from iTunes, but the lack of wireless or docks is in keeping with our comfortable rural seclusion. Hopeless romantics or eccentric recluses needn’t leave their suite, as meals from the three restaurants in the grounds can be delivered to the deck, but since I’m more of a hopeless eccentric, we decide to dine out.
The weekend’s gastronomic running order has been decided in earlier negotiations. Now we are venturing into the night; me brandishing torch, she cradling heels in deference to the slatted walkway. Stockinged feet aside, the walk isn’t arduous, but adds to a sense of occasion and heightens anticipation as we wind our way further along virgin boardwalk, zigzagging up a path towards the shining beacon we are fairly sure is Zinzi.
A local foodie has told us that this kitchen knows how to put together great ingredients, the menu promising African and Asian influences in a contemporary setting. Explosive little deep-fried capers dotting the Carpaccio starter certainly bore-out the recommendation, and the smoky soy source we dunk grilled squid in nodded east as promised. Mrs Smith’s crème brûlé arrives unmolested (phew), the chocolate fondant is very nearly as good as my own dear brother’s (gasp) and we even make it back through the darkness after some excellent Pinotage without falling off the decking (hooray).
Which unfortunately is a trick the cutlery is unable to imitate next morning at Mrs Smith’s birthday breakfast, as butterfingers meet butter knife, resulting in a silent freefall lasting for the count of one thousand, two thousand… Kamikaze monkeys further remind us of our elevated position, practicing extreme sports into branches of trees far below, while we discover ‘Calahari Eggs’ – the best variation on Eggs Benedict ever.
Smith anniversary breakfasts have long revolved around this dish (despite an annual accompaniment of early morning Hollandaise Sauce rage). In the past we’ve crowned our eggs with everything from Jamón Ibérico to smoked eel. But I can confidently say that smoked springbok beats everything. Having savoured one of South Africa’s official emblems, we scoot off to visit some of its national treasures at Knysna Elephant Park, which is so close – and brilliant – that even the hopeless romantics and eccentric recluses should drag themselves out of their suite for a couple of hours. Buy plenty of fruit when you arrive, and go early. Then you a) have the elephants to yourselves and b) can spend the rest of the day doing more or less nothing. If the weather were better we’d head to the beach for a splash around, but showering en plain air prior to our last supper at Tsala is as close as we'll get.
If Zinzi majored in carefully assembled ingredients in a contemporary atmosphere, then Sage at Hunters is a lesson in taking dishes apart in an old school colonial setting. Mozambique Prawn Curry arrives as feuding prawn, rice, vegetable and sauce factions. The former in bangers and mash is a sausage-shaped duck confît beside puréed root vegetables. Banana split is delivered as deep-fried custard accompanying caramelised banana. We half expect to see the flaming wheelbarrow make an appearance as deconstructed oven. The food is delicious, and thankfully wines from the 3,000-bottle cellar all arrive in one piece.
Lying in bed that night, neither of us is looking forward to leaving, although we know one last helping of Calahari Eggs will help dull the pain. And in any case, we suspect we’ll be back sometime. Even if we have to swing from tree to tree to get here.