|Photograph: Matthew Howarth|
French Kissing in the RSA - Parys, Free State
From "love" signs at the local market to swooning over the view, Chris Harvie falls head-over-heels for Parys
Wandering up the N1 on a Sunday afternoon, we were looking for the Vredefort Dome.
It is 300km wide, so it shouldn't have been hard to track down, but our first two attempts led us onto badly corrugated gravel roads where, in French style, we surrendered. On the third gravel road, however, we recovered our pluck and pushed on, ending up, to our surprise, in Parys. Very French.
The last time I had visited, Parys was still on the highway to Cape Town and consisted of a long road filled with warehouse antique shops. Nowadays, it is a charming backwater country town with a range of stores selling both quality and tat furniture and collectables, some fine restaurants and - when we were there - a very good NGK kersmark (Christmas market) with everything from smoked olives to those ubiquitous "peace" and "love" signs. Where do people put those things?
Anyway, we unsuccessfully trawled the riverbank for somewhere to sleep. The lines of abandoned guesthouses were all evidently closed, so we crossed the bridge into what was now technically North West province. And what a revelation.
Here, we were in conference-and-wedding-venue country and endless possibilities emerged. We could, for example, choose The Home of the Lion or Stonehenge in Africa Lodge. Why, I wonder, would anybody want to get married at a reconstruction of an English prehistoric monument, built here in a crater formed by a 10km-wide meteorite that struck over two-billion years ago?
For this, we discovered, is what the dome is all about. The meteorite was twice the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.
However, not wanting to get married, to confer, to meet a lion or to hang out under artificial caveman rock arches, we pushed on and, a couple of kilometres later, stumbled across SunWa River Lodge. Like all the other places, it is designed for team-building, but it's just as good for weekenders.
With a wooden walkway over rock pools full of ducks, the lodge scatters along the bank with a restaurant and bar at its heart. Our room was on stilts, with a view over the river and the mountains that rim the dome.
There's both a swimming pool and a pool table. There's volleyball, paintball, quad-biking, rafting, kayaking and a climbing wall. More surprisingly, there's also a ski slope - and how about some pole-fishing or blindfold-soccer?
For the more sedate of mind, there's a game drive, up close with giraffe, zebra and a variety of antelope, including a sable with horns so long they touch his back when he walks.
We opted for a gentle drift down the Vaal. The river was fairly tame, so we took the rapids backwards to liven things up. The scariest part was at the drinks spot, where we disembarked on the riverbank only to be charged by a couple of St Bernards.
At dusk, we settled on a bench and watched the sun go behind the distant koppies. A troop of whinnying horses came down to the river to drink and below us a pair of otters splashed into the water as the last of the rafting groups came home to roost. Another peaceful night on the riverbank lay ahead of us.
Before heading home the next morning, we indulged in a bout of bargain-hunting and then lunched at Ruby's restaurant, where the food was unforgettably delicious.
The view outside Ruby's was bizarre. Opposite, a pink Chevy stuck out of a diner's roof. It was a weak impression of the Champs Elysées' Hard Rock Café, but Parys, Free State, is about as far from Paris, France, as you can get. No Eiffel Tower. No Notre Dame. No River Seine.
But there's the Vredefort Dome, the NGK and the Vaal. And it's a great place for a weekend.
So forget "Vive la Paris!" Viva Parys Viva!
WHERE IT IS: On an open stretch of the Vaal River, an hour's drive from Johannesburg.
WHY GO THERE: For a fun-packed weekend with a bunch of mates or just go on your own. You'll have just as much fun.
WHAT IT HAS: 68 vaguely Swiss-looking rooms and the most bizarre selection of activities imaginable. Imagine you are on Survivor.
AND THE FOOD: A stonking breakfast to set you up for your energy-sapping day and plentiful and tasty carvery to refill you when it's all over.
RATES: From R400 per person sharing. Dinner R136. Breakfast R80. Rafting R280 for a half-day.
GETTING THERE: From Parys, cross the Vaal, turn left and travel 10km past the lions and the not-so-ancient monuments. SunWa is on the left.
WHAT THERE IS TO SEE ON THE WAY: More antique shops than you can shake a stick at.
CONTACT: SunWa Lodge: Phone 056 817 7107, visit www.sunwa.co.za or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Ruby's Restaurant: 37c Bree Street. Phone 056 811 5080 or go to www.rubysparys.co.za.
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