by Matthew Sterne on May 17, 2010
6 min read


“I have enough money to last me the rest of my life. Unless I buy something.” Jackie Mason

That was precisely how we were feeling among the financial doom and gloom. So, sick and tired of talk about the recession, we took off from Durban for a ‘gentlemen’s retreat’ in the nearby Midlands. I’d heard it was beautiful, but with only its namesake the English midlands as a reference, I didn’t really know what to expect…

I hate traffic, so in a neurotic frenzy to beat it we set off at 6am. We arrived in the stunning midlands a little before 7.30am – just 6.5 hours before check in.

Truth be known we were chomping at the bit for some pampering at Fordoun spa and hotel in Nottingham Road. Not wanting to seem too keen (or be charged for an extra night!), we decided to play it cool and breakfast at Rawdons – a real English pub affair with its own brewery. In the boozer before 8am – not the ideal start to a health retreat, but very enjoyable nonetheless and not too different from the English midlands after all…

Midlands Meander

At a slightly more appropriate hour we made our entrance into the enchanted world of Fordoun – down a majestic oak lined driveway to the tranquil, dairy-farm buildings dating back to the 18th century. I was on the lookout for Dr Elliott Ndlovu, the African traditional healer, Inyanga (medicinal healer) and Sangoma (spiritual healer). He’s actually a director at Fordoun and has launched his own range of shower gels, bath salts and massage oils. The canny and entrepreneurial Sangoma has over 120 species of healing plants growing in his fascinating garden through which John kindly took the time to show me around. From time to time Dr Ndlovu performs the traditional bone throwing fortune telling ceremony and is available for consultations (and possibly children’s parties).

I digress. We arrived on a perfectly sunny day with plenty of time for me to slip into my newly acquired, malfitting speedo and catch a few rays by the outdoor pool overlooking a charming meadow full of cows and sheep which were lucky not to catch a glimpse of Tommy and the twins as I writhed around on the sun lounger in slightly nervous anticipation of our first treat for the day – the flotation tank.

The flotation tank is meant to be the ultimate relaxation device, awakening your Alpha state – the ideal state for meditation and, believe it or not, learning. The brain is relaxed, but still aware. It is said that half an hour in the Alpha state is the equivalent of 8 hours normal sleep. Bliss.

Slightly red faced, I eagerly agreed to the next treatment – the rasul. We were shown into the most exquisitely mosaiced steam room and told to cover ourselves in nurturing mud. This was followed by 20 minutes of steam and then 5 minutes of ‘tropical rain’ where the mineral rich mud magically vanishes. By now I was really rather hot under the collar. Time for a break.

Off to lunch we trotted and promptly abandoned any ideas of a detox in the all too enticing Skye restaurant. An ice cold bottle of rosé to replace those lost fluids. The rosé matched my complexion beautifully and was extremely soothing against my temples.

Soon after the sumptuous lunch, we adjourned to the sofas where I drifted in to an alcohol induced fug while removing the last of the mud from my ears. I was awakened by an overly familiar peacock, clearly attracted to my warmth, just in time for my late afternoon treatment – a full body massage. Does life get any better than this?

After a further post-nap nap, I was ready for our third indulgent meal of the day.

Midlands Meander

The food at Fordoun is superb – we quaffed a delicious Bordeaux which went brilliantly with my wild dagga (marijuana to you non-locals) smoked kudu. For mains I enjoyed a perfectly cooked biltong crusted beef fillet served with a potato, mushroom and tomato hash. Local cheeses and a glass of port and before I knew it I was back in la la land with the aid of some Africology sleep gel rubbed in to my temples. An excellent touch in place of the usual Guylian seashells which you normally find on your pillow before bed.

After a splendid breakfast of Welsh Rarebit made with Midlands’ Pickled Pig Porter Ale we took off on a meander. There really is so much to see and do in the KZN Midlands, admire the Ardmore pottery which sells at Southeby’s no less, chocolate tasting, cheese shops and fine wine stores – you certainly won’t go hungry. Then you can walk it all off on exquisite hikes. The Midlands is just a short distance from the adventures of the Drakensberg and the spine tingling Battlefields.

The Midlands is also home to a couple of my all time favourite coffee shops – Blueberry Hill has the feel of a converted barn/art studio, incredible views and perfect croissants while the more rustic Cafe Bloom is quirky and set among immaculate gardens – it’s slightly further towards Nottingham Road.

Midlands Meander

There are restaurants aplenty in the Midlands including the acclaimed La Lampara, and Hartford House (one of SA’s Top 10 restaurants). But for a secret gem, I’d recommend The Cooking Bear – an intimate restaurant where the food and ingredients are simple and delicious – these guys love cooking and it shows.

If you haven’t been to Hartford House, it is one of my favourite places to stay in South Africa. The deputy prime minister, Colonel Richards, established the world-renowned Summerhill Stud on the property, which today hosts stallions for the rulers of Dubai. You will revel in the beauty of this spectacular place.

I cannot speak highly enough about the four lakeside suites. Each one is totally unique and majestic. Scraping my jaw off the floor, I surveyed the “Siyabonga” (“thank you” in Zulu) suite with its twin egg baths and private pool. An emperor-sized round bed dominates the Inkanyesi Suite or the UFO as the staff like to call it, while “Nhlanhla” (“good luck”) combines exquisite pieces of imported Asian furniture with bold furnishings such as the bright copper bath glinting in the bathroom. Made entirely out of hay bales, this amazing example of sustainable luxury accommodation is so close to the dam it is practically floating.

I can heartily recommend a little trip to the midlands in these slightly depressing economic times. I came back feeling like a million dollars – it wasn’t so much a detox as a retox, but it was certainly good for the soul.

Midlands Meander