Garden Route and Cape Town
After a brief stop in Jo'Burg we start the long journey south it will take 2 days of long driving to get to the Garden Route, the kids reside themselves to the fact that they will be in a car for 2 days and we expect the odd augment in the back, they handle the journey well, they played top trumps and wrote in their books mostly. We look at the map and a halfway point looks to be Bloemfontein, being a Tolkien fan I knew this is where JRR Tolkien was born and felt it would make the perfect layover, I search the web for hotels and find the Hobbit hotel, the only thing in Bloemfontein that commemorates JRR Tolkien, I needed to look no further and book the hotel. The drive down was long and it started to rain heavily on the road but we eventually reached Bloemfontein, driving through the city we pass a sign for the Hobbit Hotel, Edwina pipes up "What a tacky place that is, you haven't booked it, have you?", "Yes" was my reply. We pull into the hotel and are greeted fondly by the hotelier and are assigned the Galadriel room (Queen of the elves). The hotel is a charming place and even Edwina warms to it. We head out for steak and are reminded on the way by a lovely security guard lady (who couldn't resist giving out cuddles to the kids saying she "just wanting to feel the kids kind spirits" squeezing the life out of them) that it not safe to walk around here at night, luckily we are just round the corner. This is one of the reason we want to get to the Garden Route as the crime in South Africa is mainly in the cities which we are keen to avoid.
The next day we wake up early for breakfast which is a modest affair, something the hobbits I think would be ashamed of but certainly enough for us, I take a picture next to the plaque stating that JRR Tolkien was born on this site which was taken from a building around the corner. Todays a long day with 10 hours ahead of us, the drive consists of very long roads, winding their way through solitary mountains something you would normally think of seeing in the wild west of America. As we approach our last pass before hitting the Garden Route we get a blow out on the rear wheel, with the tyre is shredded we have no choice but to change the wheel close to the road with trucks and cars hurtling pass within inches of the car. We get the children out of the car and stand well to the side as I try and remember how to use a high lift jack demonstrated at the Bushlore office. Luckily a pickup truck stops to help, it's completely laden with freshly picked pears they had just bought. Together we change the wheel and are sent on our way with a huge bag of freshly picked pears, a lovely example of the kindness of strangers, but saying that they told us they stopped as there is a lot of crazy people in the area and with dusk falling who knows what could have happened. Our first stop on the Garden Route is Knysna, after the cold night in Bloemfontein we decide not to camp and book the Knysna Backpackers for 3 nights. We call the backpackers to tell them our arrival time and soon find out they don't have secure parking, something we now know is a necessity, as the car is our home and all our possessions are inside and without it we would have to call our trip to an end, we really like the sound of the place so we decide to hire a security guard to look after the car all night for £10 per night.
After a good night sleep we are pointed in the direction of grumpy Dave to fix our tyres and head down in the morning. It becomes clear early on why he is called grumpy Dave with no meaning of customer service, he grunts as I approach him and tells me off for parking in the wrong area. Eventually we get the tire fixed and head down to Knysna waterfront for lunch, Knysna is a very affluent area and we really love the feel of the place. We head back to the backpackers where we have Wi-Fi for the first time since Jo'burg and spend the afternoon catching up on the blog. We don't see the kids all day, they enjoy their own space, reading, watching movies and just relaxing on their own beds which seems such a simple luxury for us. With the roof tents the kids all have to sleep closely together, the girls at one end and Luca at the other, so when we are somewhere with their own bed they really value their own space, no elbows, arms, bottoms or feet invading each other's space.
Like most places in South Africa, Kynsna has a township on its periphery. We decided to book on an organised tour to show them that not everyone was lucky enough to enjoy the lifestyle most people back home have. We head down to the waterfront to be picked up by our guides Ella and Penny. Ella and Penny met each other 15 years ago through church and 7 years ago set up their non-profit organisation which consists of 5 safe houses for the township community. Ella and Penny are selfless people who have thrown themselves into the work and they work tirelessly to improve the wellbeing of children and adults in the community.
The Kynsna, township has a population of over 20,000. When Nelson Mandela became president he instituted a policy to build houses throughout the townships for those earning less than 4,000 rand per month. It's a policy that has had mixed results, but in Kynsna it achieved some success, building new houses and providing jobs for the community. It was great to see the improvements and to hear from Ella and Jenny the enthusiasm in the community for the changes.
Our first stop in the minibus was at the side of a road and it immediately became apparent just how different doing this tour with children would prove to be. A bunch of local kids were playing so our kids got out and offered them some of their sweets. Luca, our youngest, decided to slip down the hill on his backside to give a sweet to a boy at the bottom. This immediately led to an impromptu bottom-sliding competition on little bits of cardboard and great laughs for all.
Next, we dropped by the local 'shopping centre', a collection of shipping containers where locals run their businesses. We were really impressed by the shoe shop; the owner's craftsmanship was amazing and he had a real passion for his business. Unfortunately Edwina's feet were too big for the ones she liked! We continued on, pulling over the van whenever Penny spotted a stray dog, and dolling out treats from a big bag of dog food she kept up front with her.
We then stopped off at the local library, outside are ANC and another political party (DA) are campaigning for the upcoming elections, talking with Neil (Backapackers manager) last night we got a very gloomy picture painted on the future of South Africa, Zuma heading the ANC has brought a lot of corruption and numerous attempts to impeach him have failed, the Rand has plummeted and he gave the impression that the ANC was here to stay. It was refreshing talking to Ella who voiced her opinions and quotes Nelson Mandela "When the ANC stops representing the people then it's time for a change". It makes me think maybe a change is coming after all for South Africa.
The local library is a fantastic government-run facility loved by all the community, our children learned about schooling in the township. There are six primary and two secondary schools. Children start at the age of five and finish at 19, and free meals are provided. Books and pens are expensive though, so Penny gave our children some to hand out to the local kids studying at the library.
Our next stop was a real eye-opener. Ella is a foster mother to 15 children, one of whom was coming to stay at her house. The girl's name was Grace and she is eight years old, cannot walk and does not attend school. She hardly talks and is neglected by those who are meant to care for her. Grace has the most beautiful smile, though, and her eyes really light up. Ella approached the family about a month ago asking if they would like some assistance as they have nothing and don't know what to do with the child just leaving here to fend for herself. Slowly trust is building a relationship with them, Ella has been taking the child to her home a few days a week. The girl is interacting with other children and been welcomed into the family life. Here they are encouraging her speech, social skills and walking. They have also been taking her to see a specialist to see if they can assist with her walking, life is definitely on the up for this little girl.
We spent the next hour at Ella's house in the township. Our kids immediately fell in with the local kids, playing drums and learning some local songs. Seeing Ella's home, hearing her stories and meeting the other children in her care, we felt nothing but admiration for her and the work she is doing. Knowing and understanding her passion and business by going on the tour we have seen where all the money is going and that is to help those in the community that really have nothing and we saw the results and their work first hand.
So, how did our kids feel about this experience? Well, they thoroughly enjoyed being with other children, children don't see any difference when it came to playing. Obviously adults were talking and touching on subjects that are sensitive and hearing the story of the little girl neglected by her family, our kids had a few questions around what is neglect and when they met the girl they looked that they now understood, especially Maddalena and Arabella.
After the township visit we reflected with our children about poverty and having nothing talking, about other countries that we have also visited. Like seeing children in India, Indonesia and Malaysia on the streets, begging, working, and Nepal going to the orphanage, seeing the shocking environment they are forced to live in. We all came to the conclusion that there is hope in South Africa, as there are worse off areas that we have witnessed in other parts of the world with no help, no social housing and no free education, it's purely down to the survival of the fittest.
Back at the backpackers the kids go do their own thing, Edwina make herself busy sorting stuff and discovers one of the pistons is broken on the canopy, just a minor problem but one that needs sorted so I track down a supplier for when we get to Cape Town (This turns out to be a blessing in disguise). On the last night at the backpackers there was an incident where 3 youths approached the backpackers, the guard scarred them off and fled but not before throwing some bricks at the house, we don't know if they were after the car or furniture left outside but we were glad we hired the guard that night. We really enjoyed our stay at the backpackers it was home away from home, having a kitchen, lounge, individual space and a fantastic view from the veranda made it a good place to relax. Saying our goodbyes to Neil we head off to stay at De Hoop Nature Reserve 84,000-acre coastal, mountain and dune scenery with whale watching, hiking trails & rich wildlife. Unfortunately it was not the season for whales but when we arrived we were happy, fantastic camping and a great braai under the stars. Refreshed in the morning we had a relaxed start managing to get the kids to do some math games and reading before heading to the coast. The kids armed with their swimming googles, and a cardboard carton we head to the sand dunes in hope of some excitement, but the dunes just weren't steep enough to get some good momentum so off we all headed to the beaches and enjoyed exploring the coast and massive rock pools for a few hours, we felt like we had the whole coastline to ourselves. Back at camp we enjoy an easy dinner Edwina had prepared at the backpackers and start to pack up camp aiming for a 7am start in the morning.
Edwina and I had a discussion around our anxiety's and the unknown ahead, especially with our own vehicle to care for and knowing some of the areas that we will be going to, our concerns mainly lie around breaking down in an area far from help, basically having the kids safety and wellbeing at the forefront of our minds. The blowout had left us exposed and gave us a jerk into how quick a situation can turn from when you feel safe to one when you're vulnerable. We have heard of people taking 4 days to be helped, stories I think sometimes you wish you didn't hear but at the same time help to prepare you. We do have a satellite phone with us and supplies to see us right but it's just the anxiety of the unknown and living with this is something that we both just have to deal with and take each day as it comes - African style.
On track for the 7am start, only for Edwina to misplace her mobile phone so we had to search the camp area, bathrooms, kitchen but no joy. I'm convinced it's in the car so we head off with a very quiet Edwina thinking she has lost it for good. The plan for today was to head for Stellenbosch but looking on the map we see Cape Agulhas is only a 90 mins away which is the southernmost tip of Africa and the divide between the Indian and Atlantic oceans, Africa is a special place for us both as we met travelling here and felt it was a landmark we should visit. We arrive at Cape Agulhas "Cape of the Needles" and get out for the obligatory photo with the sign and the kids do a blog. Edwina still mystified by the loss of her phone (I should add this happens on a regular basis) Maddalena suggests that I call her mobile phone which I do, sitting in the cab we all silently listen for any noise and not disappointed we here a vibration coming from the roof tent. It was all too funny, Edwina had left here mobile in the roof tent something that we had been trying to avoid and now not camping for the next 6 nights there was no way I was going to help undo the tents to reclaim the phone. I think a lesson has been learnt.
We continue on our route and have to stop be the vineyards in the area of Robertson, its understated area and described as a more relaxed area for wine tasting. The main reason was a surprise for Arabella. We pulled into Arabella Vineyard, and Arabella was over the moon, we let her sample some of the wine and she buys a wineglass with her name of it and a camping mug, gets photos taken and of course we buy a few bottles to enjoy. We carry on to another vineyard Excelsior and have a scrumptious artisan lunch, milkshakes and wine for Edwina since she is not driving, it turns out she is the main wine sampler. When we get to yet another vineyard Van Loveren, here the kids sample different grape juices taking it very seriously and colouring in while Edwina struggles with the large selection of tasting glasses mid-afternoon. She now starts contemplating when we get to our place for the night, getting her phone out of the tent, this is a sight that I would find amusing to watch after several glasses of wine and I only encourage the idea for entrainment value. We both can't get over how cheap the wines are, costing anything from £2.50 per bottle and they are really good wines.
It's a long day in the end and we arrive in Stellenbosch around 5pm here we are staying for 2 days the plan to explore vineyards and sort our supplies before heading to Namibia but the highlight for Edwina was having a washing machine, its great travelling with limited clothing and a pain not have access to a washing machine so this was a big deal to her instead of hand washing. We manage home-schooling and a visit to Spier Vineyard we didn't want to do any tasting but we let the kids enjoy the grape tasting which Spier are known to do really well. The man taught the children how to hold a glass, swirl and to look, smell etc it was brilliant watching the kids take it all in.
In the morning we drive to Cape Town it is only a 30 min drive from Stellenbosch, the kids are playing up like they normally do in the morning and the anxiety has probably starting to get the best of me. Luca hits one of the girls and I get him out of the car and make him stand in the corner and then proceed to get a piece of paper with Cape Town written on it and ask him to demonstrate hitchhiking, he soon apologies and gets back in the car slightly broken and a harsh lesson learnt. We head to Alu Cab to pick up the Piston that broke back in Kynsna. They were really helpful fitting new pistons, and some other storage in the kitchen area. Whilst there the boss comes out and talks to us about our suspension and that we should have it looked at as it wasn't looking high enough for some of the terrain we would be coming across in Namibia, Botswana etc. He kindly made some calls and instead of heading into Cape Town we head out to some industrial estate to speak to R&D overland specialist about sorting our suspension, we saw going to Alu Cab as a blessing and that someone advised us to have our suspension seen to. An hour later at R&D we have been sold on upgrading the suspension and the car is booked in the following day for the work to be done.
We drive to the Hilton and park up out the front, the bell boy comes with his trolley and we start unloading our plastic ammo boxes with our clothing in, we ask if many people check into the Hilton with plastic ammo boxes and he said it not the norm. The plan is to have 3 nights in the city, the first evening we head to the V&A Waterfront for a walk around and dinner. Cape Town has a really different feel to the rest of the places we have been, it is vibrant and very multi-cultural. Early in the morning I had to drive the Landcruiser out to the workshop for the suspension to be done, Edwina remained behind with the kids seizing the opportunity for more schooling and downtime. When I arrived at R&D I was like a kid in a candy store and was keen to find out what else I could do to the car, like the suspension wasn't enough!! An hour and a half later I had bought a larger rooftent for the kids, replaced the bull bar so they could fit fog lights (a legal requirement in UK) and added a bash plate at the bottom. The theory was it was a lot cheaper to do it here, which it was, I reckon about a third of the price as the £ to rand is so good.
Having to use taxis to get around I download the app for Uber, we astounded with the raise of Uber in all the countries we have visited and with a 25% commission can see how they have become a large player in a short time. We order a Uber and head up to catch the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain, we were not disappointed with the perfect still weather or the view, really amazing, after spending a few hours walking around taking in the 360 views we took the cable back down and asked about the cost of the open air bus back to the V&A Waterfront, it was too expensive for us all so lingered around pondering how to get back to town. In the end I think the tour operator took pity on us and told us we could get on for free, so we jumped on and plugged into the commentary about Cape Town and surrounding areas, it was fantastic as we thought we were going directly to the waterfront but ended up having a really good tour around the coastal areas ending up at the waterfront about one hour later, a good experience had by all and a modest tip left for the driver.
Saturday morning we planned to collect the landcruiser but a phone call later it was pushed back to the afternoon, shame was I had booked the Robben Island tour and this was something that Edwina and I really wanted to go to together with the kids, so another phone call later in the day the landcruiser was still not finished so we all ended up going on the tour to Robben Island. Robben Island was really interesting and first part of the tour we had a good look around the island learning the history and then we headed to the prison where we were greeted by our guide. His name was Sparky Mlilwana an ex political prisoner, his prison number was 56/83 (the number was his new name forced on by the guards). Sparky was 17 years old when he was jailed in 1983 and released after 7 years of his 15 year sentence. Sparky with his passionate and powerful voice provided us with a vivid account of the harsh reality and cruel conditions that were enforced upon the political prisoners. We moved around the prison and lead to the courtyard where Nelson Mandela and many other inmates spent 30 mins per day in the open, here Sparky pointed out the area in the garden where Nelson Mandela hid his manuscript for his successful autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The one in the garden was found by the guards and confiscated, but another copy was smuggled out by Mac Maharaj who in Nelsons Mandela government ironically became minister for transport. We then were lead to Mandela's cell. We all gained a great deal of knowledge from our trip to Robben Island and it is something that we really hope will remain with the kids as they grow up and that they will be able to reflect and learn more of the importance of this historical place and events that took place in our modern day history. We also didn't realise that Namibia was a state of South Africa until apartheid ended and then became independent.
Sunday morning and it's time to leave Cape Town but we still haven't got the car back, I head to R&D where the guys have been working over the weekend of it for us, unfortunately I don't get back to the hotel until 2pm, so we decide to stay one more night and head out early the following day. Edwina and I inspect the new suspension and are really pleased to have done it, it's over 16cm higher and I have already ripped my trousers climbing into the driver's seat.
We have asked the kids on how they feel about being in South Africa and asked if they feel safe here, maybe they have been listening to our conversations and concerns in the back of the car, but they didn't feel safe, interesting to her Maddalena talk about the houses being surrounded by walls and barb wire it gave her a unsettling feeling.
We all looking forward to Namibia and can't wait to get there.