It had not been an auspicious start. From Warrillow Towers to Sun Eden Naturist Club, 70 miles north of Johannesburg and 20 east of Pretoria, is a 24-hour journey by rail, air and road – even if you don’t get lost.
I did. A total novice on gravel roads and fooled by the fact that our planned exit off the main highway was shut by roadworks, I spent another two hours driving around within a couple of decent rugby kicks of Sun Eden, without being able to find it.
Eventually, I stopped at an Army barracks where a friendly South African soldier (when did you last read those words?) pointed out our destination.
So we arrived, frazzled and not a little relieved, at the bush paradise that is Sun Eden. We drove past the springbok and impala grazing in the grounds and found our accommodation – a magnificent thatched-roofed chalet with a sun terrace looking out on to the veld.
After a friendly initial welcome from our hosts, we returned to our rooms to unpack before rejoining them for a cold drink on the terrace. Still slightly spaced out and not completely sure of the undress-code, we opted for shorts (me) and a sarong (Mrs. Editor) – but as we turned the corner to the terrace, our female hostess threw open the patio door, ripped off her sarong, flung her arms open wide and with a big nude smile, enquired: “So why aren’t you undressed yet?”
This was clearly going to be some holiday. You could never describe Sun Eden as ‘five-star’. It’s a naturist club owned by the members, many of whom have built houses in the grounds. A few of those live at the club all year round and rent out chalets to visitors. Ours was one such. Named Sunbird and owned by the delightful Willem and Ann Straathof (it was Ann who had leapt out on us when we arrived), it was well-appointed with a large living room/bedroom/kitchen and bathroom.
From the main room, we could walk out into the garden which looked out over miles and miles of veld containing only the aforementioned springbok and impala and seemingly hundreds of different species of birds. For Mrs. Editor and me, who love nothing more than to throw off our clothes and relax in the sun with a good book, it was perfect.
If you want much more, Sun Eden probably isn’t for you. Because it is a naturist club run along the same lines as similar clubs in the UK, don’t expect to be waited on hand and foot.
There is a restaurant which serves meals, but only at weekends. There is a bar with a big-screen TV, but it only opens when members are available to staff it. There is a shop on-site which sells the basic requirements, but you’ll have to drive at least a dozen miles down gravel roads to find a supermarket.
But that wasn’t the point about this two week holiday. From that first memorable moment when Ann appeared out of her living room and surprised us, we were made to feel as if we were part of the Sun Eden family. Having finally stripped off, we hardly wore anything for the rest of the time we were at the club – because neither did anyone else.
Ann and Willem’s friends and neighbours invited us into their homes on a regular basis and took us under their wings, so that every other night seemed to see us as part of a group of people sitting naked under the stars, a glass of wine in one hand and a giant pork chop in the other, as we enjoyed a braai (barbecue in Afrikaans).
On one memorable evening, we were one of three naked couples rummaging through cupboards and refrigerators trying to find something/anything with which to put together an evening meal. I can’t recall what we dined on in the end, but the fun and laughter of that night will live with me for a long time – as will the sumptuous breakfasts which we enjoyed every morning on Willem and Ann’s patio. No need to dress – just fall out of bed, leap in the shower, stroll around the corner and enjoy a feast of cereals, pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee.
And as Sun Eden is so far out in the veld, the wildlife can sometimes be closer than you think. Brightly-coloured millipedes, known to South Africans as tshongololos, are ubiquitous on walls, floors and ceilings. After two days spent gently picking them up on newspapers and carrying them out on to the terrace, I gave up – they follow you back into the room just as enthusiastically as a domesticated tabby.
Then there was the unfortunate incident when a large brown frog made his home for a day in one of my slippers. I picked up the slipper, he poked his face out, I screamed – and he spent the next 12 hours asleep underneath our bed before I found him, gently carried him outside and dropped him into a rock pool.
There is five-star luxury to be enjoyed not too far away, however. Mrs. Editor and I spent a day at Tranquillity Spa and Lodge, which is about a ten-minute drive away from Sun Eden and owned by a couple who are members of the club. Tranquillity Spa’s website calls it ‘a serenely silent sigh of the soul,’ a perfect description for a place which delivered so many memories.
From the morning hour which we spent having our feet and legs gently massaged as we gazed out over the Dinokeng Game Reserve which borders Tranquillity; to the time we spent nude in the hot tub, gently sipping cold lager while the resident Great Dane, Merlin, nosed around in between us, to the full-body massage we enjoyed in the afternoon, Tranquillity will never be forgotten by either of us.
It also produced one of those moments you remember and curse for the rest of your life. On our second night at Sun Eden, we were invited to a birthday party for one of the owners of Tranquillity. Twenty people gathered on the terrace for pre-dinner drinks as a giraffe, one of the residents in the Game Reserve, appeared at the bottom of the garden not 50 yards away. He gave a languorous glance towards the terrace, bent his gigantic knees and eased down to take a long, slow, drink from a natural pool. As the birthday guests watched, I whispered to Mrs. Editor: “Where’s the camera?”
“I think we left it at Sun Eden,” she said. Reader, I swore...especially when she opened her handbag later that evening to look for her glasses and found the camera.
It would be entirely possible to spend a fortnight at Sun Eden without leaving the club’s confines, such is the warmth and friendliness of the people you will meet. But we had spent a lot of money on this holiday, so we had to venture out on occasion and see what the Gauteng area had to offer.
We visited Cullinan, home of one of the world’s most famous diamond mines; we went on two game drives, being thrown around in the back of a Land Rover in pursuit of lions, giraffes, zebras and all the other classic species of African wildlife; we visited Mystic Monkeys, a safari park which puts to shame any of the dismal examples of that genre in the UK; and we visited Mahela View, an amazing lion reserve in the depths of the forest not far from Tranquillity. Anyone who follows your editor on Facebook will have seen my profile picture; it’s an astonishing shot which was taken at Mahela View – yes, that man is really standing next to a fully grown lion.
We would go back to Sun Eden tomorrow – we met so many wonderful people and had so many wonderful experiences. As a birthday celebration, this was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime. It certainly was that.