Gorah Elephant Camp: Place of legends, wildlife and fine dining

By Louise Liebenberg

SALVELIO and I recently spent a most memorable weekend at luxurious Gorah Elephant Camp, in the heart of the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park. Five-star Gorah was the first private concession to be granted in the park and today, 10 years since it first opened to guests, is still delivering superlative service, magnificent game viewing and of course an unforgettable colonial safari experience – so much so that last week it beat hundreds of top-notch establishments around the world to receive global group Relais and Chateaux’s coveted annual Welcome Award.

For a full travel feature on Gorah and all its triumphs and treasures, plus an opportunity to win a splendid tented safari stay for two – accommodation, meals and game drives included – check the MyWeekend section of Weekend Post today!

In the meantime, here are some envy-inducing pictures taken by Salvelio during our recent spring visit – and a bit about Gorah’s poignant and fascinating history. You can also scroll down for a profile and Q&A on Gorah’s highly-talented head chef, Marshall Petla, as well two of his signature recipes.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

The Main House at Gorah, now a national monument, was built in 1828 by the Vermaak family, whose matriarch was Hester Catherina Vermaak. In front of the house is an ancient Belumbra tree which the animals love and which is probably as old as the dwelling itself. The building that now houses the office and curio shop (not visible in this picture) is even older, dating back to the 1700s. Hester lived at De Gora Farm, as it was then known, from 1854 until her death in 1915. To the left are four of the 11 luxurious, thatch-canopied safari tented suites which Gorah is now famous for, thanks to the vision of the Hunter family of Plettenberg Bay, whose other elite properties include Hunter’s Country Lodge and Tsala Treetop Lodge, both in Plettenberg Bay, and Marataba in Limpopo’s Marakele National Park.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

This picture of Louise and three African elephants was taken from the verandah at Gorah, shortly before a sumptuous lunch. The largest water hole in the 5000 hectare Gorah Concession is situated right in front of the Main House, which practically guarantees unparalleled game viewing, so much so that guests often refer to their ‘sofa safari’. After all, who gets to see ellies and buffalo bathing just metres away while sipping tea or a G&T?

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

The tented suites at Gorah offer a dreamy and utterly romantic private sanctuary in the wild. There are no fences which means game – including elephants, buffalo and the occasional lion – venture virtually up to your tent door. The only fenced area is the gorgeous lapa by the pool, which was added a few years ago as the elephants had the annoying habit of sneaking in and draining the pool!

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

The splendid tented suites, which one guest at Gorah described as “Ralph Lauren meets colonial-style African safari”, are luxurious and roomy and boast beautiful en-suite bathrooms reminiscent of the golden era of safari at the turn of the last century. Be warned: Leaving this restful spendour behind for a return to frenetic city life is likely to be a shock to the system!

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Mr Elephant back for another bathing and slurping session at the water hole in front of Gorah’s Main House. Moments before, an entire herd of buffalo – some 75 to 80 in all – piled into the pond for a languid soak and a spot of socialising.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Our field guide for the weekend, Gareth Robbins, was a delightful young man with an absolutely astounding knowledge of indigenous birdlife. He took us on several fascinating game drives and answered each of Louise’s countless questions with enormous patience. One memorable drive took us to the newest section of the Addo Elephant Park, the Colchester section, which was opened in August this year – a momentous occasion which saw the return of elephants to that area for the first time in nearly 80 years.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

These purple plains, vividly adorned by spring-time vygies at the time of our visit earlier this month, were once cleared for all manner of crops, including wheat, oats, lucerne, maize, potatoes and pumpkins. Ostrich farming was where the De Gora Farm of old had earned the bulk of its wealth from, at a time when ostrich feathers were sought after by the fashion industry. Other stock farming included cattle, but this would eventually end De Gora’s farming days for good due to disease.  The last known crop to be planted was sunflowers, which were sown on the Nyathi plains due South West from the homestead. Gorah is derived from an indigenous word for “spring”, as it was known as a place of water since long before the arrival of the European settlers.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Worn down by the elements – and elephants – over the years is the grave of Hester Vermaak and her two husbands, lying silently on the plains in front of the homestead that today is the Main House at Gorah Elephant Camp. Hester never had children, whether with husband number one Thomas Anthony Vermaak or husband number two, Henry Ernest Attrill, but her adopted daughter Blanche Emily Crozier, later Bean, eventually sold De Gora Farm in 1949. Blanche, who died in 1963, had a daughter, Joy, whose son, Michael Hodgen, now living in Australia, remembered many of his grandmother Blanche’s stories about her time spent at Gorah. Michael was able to fill in many of the blanks around the family’s legacy in the area, and some of the artifacts from his family have since been donated to the Cory Library in Grahamstown.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Louise reposes a while in the tasteful ante lounge of the Main House at Gorah. Where the fireplace is today is more or less where visitors would originally  have entered the home in Hester Vermaak’s days. Hester never cared much to be photographed and a rare picture of her hangs in this room. Many residents from the area remember stories of their ancestors attending lavish parties and social events at the homestead, so its transformation into the hospitality heart of Gorah is deeply symbolic. When sitting quietly in the half light you can almost imagine Hester still keeping an eye on the comings and goings of visitors to the home she once loved. The farm of De Gorah which in the years following her first husband’s death she ran almost single-handedly, would go on to know both triumph and tragedy. Hester’s second husband and the true love of her life, Henry Attrill, was killed by an elephant on the farm while out in the veld his adoptive son, Sydney Crick. Sydney and Hester never really saw eye to eye, and it is believed she indirectly blamed him for Henry’s death, an event that left her bitter and lonely. Following the tragedy Sydney disappeared without trace; some believe he committed suicide in the veld, as human bones were discovered some years later. Nicola Schwim, a former field guide at the camp, was so moved by the story of Gorah and its past inhabitants that she wrote a book about it in 2006, which was published with assistance from the Hunter family.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Gorah offers superb dining in the Main House. We arrived on a chilly spring afternoon but the cold was instantly banished by a satisfying lunch platter served by the fireside.

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Gorah hostess Xoliswa Appolis, who hails from the nearby town of Paterson, was a delight. All of the staff we met, including general manager Suzanne Vine, award-winning chef Marshall Petla and others, made us feel special and welcome – it’s clear they earned Relais & Chateaux’s highly sought-after Welcome Award fair and square!

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Salvelio enjoying pre-dinner drinks in the section of the Main House where guests get to mingle and exchange game-spotting stories. The bulk of Gorah’s visitors are foreign and we met two charming couples from Holland and Germany respectively. The Dutch guests, keen foodies in their own country, were most impressed with chef Marshall’s culinary offerings – keep an eye on the blog in the coming weeks as we may have coaxed them into sharing a recipe of their own!

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Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Situated where the homestead’s kitchen once was, the dining area at Gorah is a magical place at night. Lamps and candles are used throughout, including in the tented suites, as the camp is powered by solar energy supplemented by a generator for just a few hours of the day.

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