• Image about South Africa

THE WOMEN WHO own Red Cedar Cosmetics, located in the small village of Wupperthal, are working in the company’s soap-making facility and haven’t had time to finish labeling all the bars, but it doesn’t matter -- customers are snapping them up, anxious to take home the rich smell and luxurious feel of products made with locally grown rooibos tea. Here, at the base of the Cederberg mountains, four-year-old Red Cedar Cosmetics is a growing business in a town that hasn’t seen much growth for years.

Though it’s just 46 miles from the nearest town of Clanwilliam, Wupperthal, which was founded by German Rhenish missionaries in 1830, feels incredibly isolated. To get here, you have to descend down a long gravel road into the valley, passing by farmers who still rely on donkey carts to collect the honeybush they sell for tea as you go. While telephone lines stretch across the valley, there is little evidence of other modern technologies.

It takes but a second to completely relax in Wupperthal. A complete tour of the town, including the bakery, the Wupperthal Shoe Factory, and the local cemetery and church, doesn’t take much longer.

The bare-bones feeling of Wupperthal is a stark contrast to a destination just a few hours away: the five-star Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Retreat.

Shortly after arriving at Bushmans Kloof, after the bags have been whisked away to rooms that are straight out of a dream of the perfect South African lodge, it’s time for the first game drive through the reserve in an open 4x4.

It’s startling to see a zebra in the wild for the first time. This one, a Cape mountain zebra, has an orange patch above its nose. And those stripes, those dazzling stripes. Are they white on black? Black on white? The debate rages on. Then, a herd of springbok race by, their ridged antlers stand tall and their sides are marked with a telltale swoosh. A female bontebok, bothered by her teen son, chases him away; soon enough, an older male makes it clear that there’s only room for one male in the area, and the young bontebok is chased once more.

The next morning, it’s back into the 4x4 for a drive to one of Bushmans Kloof ’s highlights, the Bleeding Nose rock-art site, painted by the San bushmen as many as 30,000 years ago. Once there, and before heading off on foot, our guide, Jacques, serves breakfast at the back of the truck. An elephant shrew, one of South Africa’s “little five,” darts around, entertaining the group until the coffee is gone. Then, it’s off to the site. The paintings were made by tapping a small tool loaded with pigment against the rock. While the San used several colors, including yellow made of yellow ocher, white from clay and ostrich-egg shells, and black from charcoal, just the stain of the red ocher, made by mixing ocher with sweat, tears, or animal blood, remains. “They believed you had to give something of yourself,” says Jacques.

Nearly a quarter of the paintings that pepper the Cederberg mountains are of eland, an animal that was particularly sacred to the San. “They would prove fitness before marriage by killing their first eland,” Jacques tells us. “They believed it was the smartest, and God’s favorite, animal.” Along with several eland images on the oyster-shell-shaped rock at Bleeding Nose are paintings of mongooses, giraffes, and the site’s namesake figure, a shaman with a bleeding nose.

THE WAVES KEEP THREATENING to douse everybody walking out to Bird Island, just offshore from the seaside town of Lambert’s Bay. They crash over the giant concrete forms piled up to protect the harbor and land hard on the causeway.

At first, it’s nearly impossible to hear anything but the power of the ocean. Then, with the waves safely dodged, the squawking becomes audible. Though Bird Island is also home to cormorants and, at times, penguins, it’s the Cape gannets that try to grab all the attention. It’s hard to ignore them. Between 4,000 and 6,000 pairs of the birds use the island as home base; their guano sits thick on the ground.

In the morning, after a drive down the final stretch of the coast (and a stop to watch a squadron of pelicans feeding and a visit to one last roadside gift shop to purchase local crafts, including tiny guinea-hen dolls made from seed pods), it’s back to Cape Town traffic. Though it’s a relatively calm day weatherwise, Table Mountain is, as always, creating its own weather. It’s shrouded in stormy clouds and seems to say, “Nothing left to see here; go home.” Though there wasn’t a single lion or elephant spotted along the way, there are no regrets on this trip, no feeling that the true South Africa is still out there, waiting. Surely, Grietjie Adams, a star of the west, would agree.