The road to Skilpad Flower Camp
I wanted to show the Frenchman the flowers in Namaqualand. When I read about the pop up "luxury tented camp" at Skilpad I booked in a flash. Tents in the flowers, just for as long as spring lasts. Let's splurge for our first two nights on the road. (We did not have the time to prepare for a self equipped camping trip. Time has become very precious.)
We could have stayed at Kamieskroon, the hamlet 20 minutes east via a dirt road, but although their hotel is quaint in a 1971 kind of way, the food is not good and the accommodation is very basic (I have stayed there several times, with my mom in previous springs, and once with the Frenchie, en route home from Namibia).
Being right in the flowers sounded special.
And it was. The location was perfect, with a bonus of grazing Dorper sheep and lambs.
Staff tents, Skilpad
If only Chiefs, the camping outfit that runs this concession within the Namaqualand National Park had not attached that word "luxury" to the experience. It created expectations. And expectations, as I learned from my friend Marijke, must be managed.
Spot our tent
Our assigned tent closely resembled our own tent, the one we have used in Namibia, the Kgalagadi, the Karoo, the eastern Free State and Eastern Cape - large enough to accommodate two camp beds, in this case, and high enough so that you can stand upright in the middle. Here, the beds were made up nicely with good linen, and the electric blankets were indeed a luxury in the context of any camping experience. The first night was very cold, and I needed mine.
Vince has already written about the first teething problems: obtaining ice for the obligatory sundowner. Ice is a surprisingly ubiquitous commodity in the driest of South African camping experiences. But here we were given a grudging glassful when we asked, about 5 cubes, and it was made clear by facial expression that this was a very special favour.
We could (should, said the face, which belonged to the young lady-host) have had drinks in the communal dining tent - zipped tightly shut into its dark space while beyond it the sun set over a sea of flowers and granite outcroppings. We chose the view outside our superbly situated tent, using our own traveling bottle of good gin, and tonic in small cans.
But we had incurred a black mark.
When we went up to supper in that large tent, still zipped against the wind, its rigging was singing in the gale. We already knew that we were not permitted to bring our own wine (we offered to pay any corkage they liked) and I surveyed the luxury wine selection without enthusiasm: a grand total of two reds, both Rhebokskloof, an inoffensive and unexceptional wine, and a young vintage. What was exceptional was our small collection of carefully chosen (and only slightly shaken up) bottles in the Landcruiser.
Among the modest offerings of bog-standard liquor bottles on the bar table I spied Old Brown Sherry, a nastily sweet fortified wine best known for keeping surfers warm inbetween catching frigid Cape Town waves.
Why not offer handcrafted, small-batch Stilbaai gin, Swartland vermouth, Calitzdorp tawny red (what South Africans call port) and just a few of the best wines South Africa makes?
Manulea altissima . You can buy it at Annie's Annuals, I kid you not.
Dinner arrived. We did not know what it was, and the kind and silent man who put it before us did not elaborate; we'd missed the small chalk board menu in a dark corner. But we enjoyed the mysterious piece of tender meat (I thought it might be mutton), while I was perplexed by the pesto'd heap of orzo beside it (not exactly the traditional braais or potjies advertised, nor is basil in season in September). A token piece of broccoli rounded things off. That was dinner.
Later came an exceptionally small and uninteresting brownie. To be fair, few desserts turn me on. Brownies just happen to be at the bottom of the heap. But we perked up as coffee was announced.
The first hint of trouble came from fellow guests milling near the coffee table. "Instant coffee! Where is the moer koffie?" asked a man, referring to an old fashioned country method of brewing coffee, where the grounds are suspended above the boiling water in a muslin bag, percolator fashion.
"If you had wanted real coffee you should have paid more to stay at the beach camp," snipped our young hostess, in response, referring to the other Chiefs tent location, right on the coast (it had been full, so we booked inland, which turned out to be a good thing).
O-K. You lost me right there.
Are you serious? Telling a guest he should have paid more, when, by local standards, he has already coughed up a sizeable sum. Telling a guest he is wrong to demand something better than instant coffee. Telling a guest - an explanation followed - how hard it is to create a camp out of nothing? What the...
ID need - a succulent and furry rosette beneath
Ja nee, as they say in those parts.
In Brooklynese: Whaddaygonnado?
So the next night we ate out, in the hamlet. The food was really not good but our hosts were so genuinely warm and gave Vince so much extra custard with his dessert that it didn't matter. On the way home in the dark we saw owls, a hare, a small buck, flying, dashing and darting out of the headlights and into the Namaqualand night.
The only running water in camp ran from the bucket showers, filled to order (3 minutes per shower) by the same silent, kind men, who first had to heat it in drums over a fire. For drinking, there were two small bottles of water left in our tent. One each, about 250ml. They disappeared fast. At dinner we grabbed two each, from a bucket on the drinks table. We needed them for drinking and tooth brushing, as our little canvas wash basin had no water in it. The next morning we collected more at breakfast, and so on. That was the only water available.
On checkout, we realized that we had been charged for every bottle.
I get that water is precious. But if there is no water on site, you prepare people for that fact, ahead of time. You give them the opportunity to bring water. And how about filling covered glass carafes and leaving those in tents, rather than these dinky little environmentally unfriendly plastic things?
We were not permitted to carry coffee mugs to our tent and its view, so after breakfast in the dark tent - instant coffee and rusks (and the sugar packets had run out) we walked, and that was wonderful. And then we drove, which was wonderful, too, until it wasn't, but that is another story. We visited the beach camp, and sniffed the air hopefully for its coffee.
Very handsome caterpillars
The experience at this camp rattled me because hospitality fascinates me. How easy it feels when flawless, how awkward when it is not. It is Tolstoyan, where every happy experience is happy in the same way but where every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way (to misquote from Anna Karenina).
What it is to be a guest and what it is to be a host. The fine, fine line where things go wrong.
Flower shadows at the foot of our tent, sunset
The desire to be pleasing, and the anticipation of need are at the heart of genuine hospitality, and where they are missing, a meanness of spirit infects the experience. What was wrong here was attitude. Maybe it was the wind. It can get to people.
Preparing to fill a shower with hot water
It had the potential to be exceptional. The landscape is so beautiful. The misses are near-hits.
But this pop up was a fizzle.
I guess we will have to stick to our own style of luxury camping, in future. Where the espresso, sundowners and wine flow. Where we never run out of ice. And where service comes with a smile.