Eastern Cape & Garden Route - Falling for South Africa
Hermanus, South Africa
No adventure through South Africa could possibly exclude the garden route; a stretch of coast that runs for a couple of hundreds kilometres from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay. Having left the remoteness of the wild coast, the garden route meant a culture shock. Tour buses and self drivers on 2 week breaks, local holiday makers and backpackers flock to this stretch filled with beaches, national parks, glamorous towns and outdoor activities. African culture is tucked away and replaced by nature and tourism in abundance.
It was with trepidation that we headed for Jeffreys Bay first; a surfers mecca with tubes, super tubes, tip-tippety-top tubes all thundering into mile after mile of wide beaches. The hostel summed up the Jeffreys Bay vibe. Tanned, muscular bodies poured into neoprene, trotted around the place barefoot whilst golden girls with matted blond hair talked of rip tides. The ageing hostel owner had clearly lived in the surfing bubble. With a matted hair and a deep leathery tan that ended at the neck and a way of talking that was so chilled it almost lulled you into narcolepsy. We were shown to our small self contained flat with two rooms, one for us and one for Cedric and Ula; a fantastic couple with big hearts and masses of enthusiasm. After an evening of taking full advantage of a flat screen TV and a cloud like sofa the boys booked a surfing lesson. The next morning Cedric and Simon precariously balanced on boards in the sand, followed by lots of toppling off once in the water! Simon was told he was a natural - surfer or diver though?!
The afternoon was spent on horse back. Whilst my childhood dream of galloping along an empty beach with the spray catching the light and the wind in my hair was realised, it also involved an hour of listening to Simon's small whimpers whilst he made constant 'adjustments' in order to save his sanity (and virility). His badly chosen swimming shorts offered little or no cupping of the Harris jewels so with each and every trot his wild and free nether regions were in real danger of being sandwiched between his plummeting body weight and the hard leather saddle. How a couple of hours can change a man. From a cheerful, upbeat fellow, larking about in his ridiculously oversized hat and strap on chaps, he was withered into a silent and slightly irritable man with a tentative swagger. Thank goodness for the cloud like sofa!
Next stop, Tsitsikama; a thin coastal stretch of forest known for otters (without claws apparently. Poor poppets) and waterfalls. It is also the home of the Storms River bungee which, depending on who you speak to, is the highest bridge bungee in the world at a ridiculous 700 feet! The piece of elastic is tied to a road bridge and plummets into a forest laden ravine and river. At first sight it is truly ludicrous to think a human being could be persuaded to do it, let alone pay for the experience. But pay we did. The horror of the entire experience started with the nasty woman behind the counter insisting I weighed myself. I closed my eyes so as not to upset myself in what could possibly be the last moments of my life, but the wicked thing WROTE it on my hand in large black marker pen! Only later would I learn that this would also denote your place in the queue which sadly meant I was between the short body builder and the tall hiker as well as everyone else knowing that the holiday menu was catching up with me.
Once suited and weighed we were herded like cattle to the slaughterhouse down a small netted corridor along the udder of the bridge to a platform where far too cheery men attached willing victim after willing victim and 'assisted' them into the empty air below. Simon had a little word with the lead executioner and got my position changed to be before him so he could film my leap. My name was called and I was tied at my ankles by a flimsy knot by an even flimsier strap. I hadn't let nerves really enter my head up until the point I had to bunny hop to the edge of the only piece of concrete that separated me from the chasm below. Oh and then boy did they hit! Every inch of my instinct told me to ignore the fool telling me to topple forward but stubbornness made me do it anyway. Pride really did come before a fall... a very long, bouncy, utterly terrifying fall which involved twists, turns, spins and a very distinct and real feeling of my ankles slipping through the straps! This topped with eye popping blood pressure whilst dangling upside down meant it made for what can only be described as the most awful 4 minutes of my existence. Adrenalin rush? Oh definitely. Paired with panting, heart palpitations and a need to whimper. As I was hauled up like a mackerel on a line I saw Simon's grins and questions about how I felt. Traumatised just about summed it up.
Simon was up next and he took a different angle. With very palpable terror prior to the jump, he now looked as cool as a cucumber. With the Go Pro in hand he was able to prove that he was in fact enjoying himself and despite the blasphemous language his smile didn't shift. I honestly think I'm marrying a lunatic.
Accommodation in the area was pricey and so a permanent tent was all that was affordable. I'm happy to tolerate a camping situation despite having to unwrap myself from a cocoon and heave myself from the floor every time I need a pee. In this instance however it was cold. So very very cold, and despite completely closing the top of the sleeping bag in order to create a more manageable biosphere inside my bag I still felt like I was trapped in a bag of frozen peas. In short, the day was not one to write about in a postcard. I did however 'wish you were here.' Anyone in fact with whom I could swap a bed with.
We arrived in Knysna in rain, without a place to stay. With the town being pretty overrun due to the holiday season we predicted a mission. It's a town where the people have come to spend. With yachts and summer houses, restaurants, shopping malls it is a place to indulge. The town itself spreads over steep hills which surround a lagoon making for good views wherever you stay. After phone calls and disastrous haggling we finally found a cheap granny annexe with a braai, everything a pyromaniac and greedy fiancé could ask for! Each Knysna evening was spent huddled around hot coals with yet another glass of wine and more pipe-dreaming. The days were spent exploring neighbourhoods; one was a little England with a Cotswold church to boot, another had views of angry seas whilst indulging in good coffee and brownies. We had found a great deal for flights to Tanzania, in a one day sale and was determined to get the ridiculously reasonable seats. I took the opportunity to steal the car and drive myself into the depths of the famous Knysna forest; renowned for its untouched beauty, leaving poor Simon with the short straw of trying to negotiate African customer services to book our flights. The drive there was a little worrying with muddy potholes and slippery mud puddles and despite the urge to turn back I persevered, not wanting to tell Simon I was too wimpish to try! After a bumpy journey through remote forested mud tracks where hardly anyone else was seen I arrived at a tea shop and campsite. With boots adorned I set off on one of the tracks through overgrown wilderness, small streams, heaving myself over trees and rocks. Knysna forest feels real like it hasn't changed since time began. It's lush greenness and damp floors means everything has grown in abundance and with not a single soul on the route I'd chosen it was like I was Livingstone expecting to find some long lost tribe or creature. I did find, however, many a creepy crawlie. It was fortunate I was on my own. The yelps and very un-courageous hopping up and down whilst trying to untangle myself from a giant orange web and it's unseen owner was not reflective of my imagined heroine persona!
I got back to a very frazzled Simon who after many failed attempts have eventually come good and managed to book our super-cheap tickets. Both missions accomplished!
Wilderness is another small coastal town that perches on leafy hill sides which hug idyllic coast line. How much of this can we take?! With only time for one night we decided to spend our time on the farm where our room was booked. With vast views over hills, dales and waves it was no hardship to have the expected braai perched on a 360 degree view. As kittens played, cows moo'd and horses trotted, we supped wine and watched the sunset over a town immersed in the woodlands. Para gliders swooped close over head whilst Simon and I got slowly sloshed. A perfect sundowner venue! Also a good sun-uppers venue (not that we saw it). We spent the morning walking along the banks of a river with cool and mossy paths to yet another dramatic waterfall. It was only Simon walking into a huge branch and nearly scalping himself that put a slight downer on the day. I learned a valuable lesson too; just as in toe stubbing, any sympathy or affection offered during the "pain stage" is both unhelpful and a possible catalyst to more intense irritation.
Ibuprofen taken and back in the car it was a quick trot onward to the hills of the Karoo desert and to Oudsthoorn; the land of the ostrich. As a town it isn't anything to write home about. It is flat, soul-less and dull. It's location, though, is where its worth lies. Nestled just below the Schwartz pass, it is the gateway to breathless views between the rise and fall of an endless mountain range. Each peak follows the other in a row, spreading across South Africa in a neat queue. On the winding road to the pass there are ostrich farms, wildlife sanctuaries, caves and odd little churches. Simon was yet to experience an ostrich up close so we went to where the little ostrich circle of life is truly noticeable; scrambled ostrich eggs on the breakfast menu, ostrich eggs in the hatchery, baby birds in the nursery, young 'uns in the petting farm, adult ones to feed and even ride, and then finally an ostrich burger for lunch and shopping for ostrich leather purses! Luckily an ostrich brain is only the size of a peanut so none of them had seemed to work out the grand scheme of things.
Our second day was spent in a wildlife sanctuary where Simon had dreams of playing with lion cubs...it was a shame to learn that the cubs were now actual lions and as such not such great sports with rough and tumble. The consolation was a lemur walk but the sad face and long arms on Simon seemed to imply a no. Only a braai could make it better and so it was unfortunate that the evening was marred with a troubled gentleman who insisted he was a negative person and proved this by naming, explaining and accusing others of how rotten only his life could be. I was too stubborn to go and Simon had lost the will to live, necked the food and gone to bed. The next morning was no consolation as whilst our 'friend' had gone we were greeted by the sunnier dispositions of Hilton. Hilton and his wife were cat lovers to the extent where they admitted to us that humans no longer interested them, they avoided family occasions, social invites and in fact changed jobs from social care to tax! This insular feline world had clearly left its mark as the habit of talking at, answering for and not expecting replies meant it was largely a one way conversation. Simon's tolerance for this was less than zero, so I had a wonderful, and actually quite interesting 'listen' for two hours.
Route 62 is an unsung treasure in South Africa. A long empty road that drifts through the Karoo desert, over mountain passes and through small white washed towns. It was only a passing comment by the dear Hilton that drew it to our attention and so after much dawdling and fannying (a signature of the Harris/ Clarke partnership), we decided to veer away from the coast and head into the wild beyond.
As we drove though the vast nothing I felt at peace, like meditation. Away from civilisation, shops and people. Just raw nature and vistas and only a smattering of wood clad houses and white washed farms. I had day dreams of living on a hill top, with a stream and breath taking view; of having zebras in my back yard; of opening my doors to wanderers, growing my own food, living from wind and sun and earth. Simon on the other hand had visions of putting his foot down and getting somewhere that wasn't so darned baron. Never mind....
With a burning desire for a coffee and cake we pulled up in Barrydale. A quaint, tiny town with neat roads and tidy houses, a wedding cake church and a happy little community. Whilst tucking into a fine example of carrot cake we were convinced of Barrydale's charms. So our plans changed again. We searched for available accommodation in budget which was a struggle and just as we had resolved to leaving we passed a sign for a holiday house. A cockney named Dan answered and it must have been the dulcet tones of a fellow Londoner that led him to agreed to our price. He led the way to the house...not just a room in a house but the entire thing! A two bedroom, beautifully designed and decorated cottage that could have leapt straight from the pages of Elle magazine! Another stroke of SA good luck! We played 'house' for the rest of our stay, cooking in our kitchen, wafting amongst the beautiful furniture, clinking wine glasses and mooching on glamorous cushions. We watched the sun set and the sun rise over the red soil with freckles of green. We had been given the heads up that one of the private game reserves had an unused public highway running through it and if we got up at day break we might have a free viewing of the big five! It was a long and bumpy journey. Mr 'grumps' Harris was out that morning, as was drowsy, 'no conversation' Clarke. This coupled with not a (big 5) sausage meant the whole 9 hour journey was both unrewarding and tedious. It rained. Each possible sleep destination was a no-go. Just one of those days that need to be written off. Option five, Hermanus, was our last resort before dark and luckily for us Hermanus Backpackers had a cottage without another guest!! A 6 bedroom house with fireplace, TV, swimming pool, garden and sofa all for US! Everything happens for a reason! We found an Indian curry house, bought a few bottles of plonk and waited until morning to explore the town. Smiles all round!
Hermanus is a seaside town with everything you could need. Simon was in photography heaven and I had chance to speak to loved ones on uninterrupted wifi! Simon watched footie whilst I got the braai prepared. Simon cooked whilst I drank. We walked along the shores looking for whales. Hermanus was our last stop before settling into Cape Town life and it was a fabulous end to our big journey from Jo'burg. Both of us were excited to see what Cape Town would hold. I had been before and knew Simon would fall in love. Would I be able to persuade him to leave....?