Garden Route


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Africa » South Africa » Western Cape » Garden Route
April 2nd 2011
Published: April 14th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Exactly like the Garden of Eden. Except real.



I picked up my rental car from the entirely real and legit and not-a-scam-at-all company called Tempest. It was a little Tata Safire, apparently of Indian construction. It had many of the features of a real car, such as doors and a steering wheel, and I have to say a fairly good radio/cd player; but it was small and weak, like Switzerland. Nonetheless, it would suffice for this trip. I began my Garden Route adventure by driving down the western road to Cape Point. The most south-western point in Africa (the most southern point is Cape Aghulas, but there's nothing there) was a savage place. A soft green and blue canvas, slashed with grey-black rocks and splashed with white foam from the crashing waves. On the way there, we had stopped at several viewing points overlooking Hout Bay; near a pass in the mountains called Chapman's Peak, itself something special, the view across the bay is breathtaking. Returning from Cape Point, we stopped at Boulders Beach to check out the penguins (don't pay the 70 Rand if you go there; walk down the boardwalk to the right of the entrance, there is a quieter beach loaded with penguins). We could have had a swim with them, if we had the time and the swim gear. I had to go to Stellenbosch that evening, so we motored on back to Cape Town. I had gone to Cape Point with Magalie, a French girl whom I would share the car cost with later in the journey, and Petra, a girl working in Cape Town on a film awards event. I dropped them back to the Amber Tree, and made for Stellenbosch.

I arrived at Stellenbosch within an hour of leaving Cape Town. I was tired, and a little sunburned, so George gave me the turbo check-in. I had some ideas of looking around the town, but then it got dark, and the beer was so cheap...fast forward to the morning. I am hung over, having had a few quiet drinks with the bar staff at a pub around the corner. On the plus side, I spotted a Mark II Ford Escort 1600 Sport in the street. Nice. George, Tina and Sharon were lovely people, and I had a really good time at the Stumble Inn. I popped a few Ibuprofen and shot over to Spier, a wine estate 10 minutes from Stellenbosch. Being in the winelands, I had to try a few local products. Besides which, Spier has a raptor sanctuary (that's birds, Jurassic Park fans) and a cheetah conservation project. I didn't bother petting the cheetah; they are quite like cats when raised by hand, and not dangerous at all. Not that I would want to pet a dangerous cat, but there's not much point with a cheetah. I did hold some very cool owls, however, which were absolutely beautifully feathered. I went to do the wine tasting, and got to try 7 wines. Seeing as I was driving I had to spit them out. Still bloody good though. I'll look for Spier wines whenever I buy wine from now on. After the wine tasting, cheetah voyeurism and owl fondling, I was ready for lunch. I drove over to the next town, Franschoek. A sleepy, leafy little town, Franchoek is absolutely charming and peaceful. I had a very non-Saffer Thai green curry salad, and soaked up the atmosphere. I went for a little walk, and experienced calm. I also took the time to stop in at the Motor Museum just outside town. They had many classics, from the earliest models up to the 70's. They also had more modern supercars, such as the McLaren F1.

My next stop was Hermanus. I made good progress down the N2, then turned off onto the R43...it was empty. I was going to do this in record time! Oh, no, wait...gigantic brush fire. It was crossing both sides of the road, billowing smoke, and the police were turning everyone away. I had to divert through Caledon and follow the R320 instead. Which contains, anyone? Yep, 14km of dirt road! I would say that this was all part of the adventure. Not sure my little rented Tata would agree. It kept it's head held high though, and didn't crash even a little bit. Not for want of trying. I got to Hermanus in one piece, and checked into my backpackers. Hermanus Backpackers run a special deal: for 995 Rand, you get a night's accommodation, breakfast, lunch and a shark cage dive in Gansbaai. On like Donkey Kong. In the morning, I drove down the road to Gansbaai and met the shark-dive group. We had our briefing in the EcoVentures office, then headed down to the waterfront - delaying only to sign indemnity forms for the company. We boarded the boat, and enjoyed a swift, bumpy ride to the dive site. Well, some of us enjoyed...a few puked. We got wetsuited up, and grabbed masks. I was first in the water when a little sharkey showed up. It was just a small juvenile, 2.5 meters, but it was impressive anyway. As it approached the bait (a huge tuna head), they would pull it away, revealing the shark's teeth and cold stare. After a while looking, I climbed out to make room for more people. I observed from the top deck of Megalodon II, our catamaran, and saw 3 more sharks - 2 more little ones and a big 4 meter specimen. It was difficult to take pictures when they were under the water, but I got a couple as they breached a little. After everyone had had a go (except for one dude who wouldn't get in the water - what a waste of time), they asked if anyone wanted a second dive. Amazingly, to me at least, only 4 of us did. The rest changed back into their clothes and scoffed snakcs. We brave few dove back in and waited. And waited. After 40 minutes of nothing, the crew said "Five more minutes..." And then...the biggest fellow of the day showed up, around 4.5 meters. And he was awake. The others had been a little dope with the cold water, but this guy was whacking back and forth after the bait. Finally he caught it - not supposed to happen, apparently - and swam away. This rocked the boat, dipping the cage under the water. When he realised the bait was tethered, the shark swam back around in a tight circle and released it. As he headed away, he bumped the cage, striking my arm with his tail through the photo-gap in the cage. His head was inches away as he passed; I could see every scar, every tooth, and again the cold, unfeeling eyes staring in.

After the dive, the guy leading the tour told us more about sharks and their anatomy and behaviour. He explained how the shark had indeed been looking at us, but would see us as being part of the cage and not alive due to the magnetic field. He also explained how shark cage diving was not harmful to the sharks, an accusation that had been levelled at me when I told people what I was going to do. Nor do sharks associate humans with food after the fact, another misconception I had heard. We finished up with lunch, and I jumped in the car, bound for Mossel Bay. Mossel Bay was where I was to meet Magalie, the French girl, and where I would accompany her on one of her interviews. Magalie is half travelling, half visiting fair trade companies, hoping to set up a company supplying fair trade goods in Spain. We met up at the bus station (aka the Caltex petrol station; they don't really have bus stations in small towns), and headed to Candle World with Riaan, the owner. They employ 8 locals from the township, and pay them a relatively good wage. They make some lovely and unique products, including stackable candles and citronella anti-mosquito candles. Beyond that, I wasn't too impressed: they are applying for fair trade status, though they don't get any of their raw material from fair trade sources. I don't think that the last step in a chain can be considered "fair trade" if they get their decorative beads from an Indian sweat shop and their chemicals from a German corporation. What's more, while I reckon we're health and safety crazy in Europe, the safety conditions here were appaling. And the first aid kit was nearly empty. Anyway, Mossel Bay itself was pleasant enough, if a little dull. I took in some sun on Diaz beach before collecting Magalie and seeing the factory, and that alone was worth the visit. After the factory, we got a quick lunch at Pavillion (tasty and reasonable) and headed for Oudtshoorn.

At Oudtshoorn, we checked in at the Karoo Soul Lodge, a lovely place with a view of the flat plains below the mountain. The Karoo is an arid, almost desert region, and we were on the edge of it. The unusual soil and tall green trees made for nice viewing. The place itself was clean as a whistle, just pleasant to be in. We met Erik and Ann, our Belgian friends from Amber Tree, and shared dinner and a few glasses of wine. In the morning, we daparted late-ish (Magalie - not in to early starts so much) after saying goodbye. We went to the Cango Caves first. Aside from me liking early starts, I was also on quite a different budget from Magalie; so, I went in while she waited. The caves were a striking sight, but more impressive for me was the age of the features, ranging from 150,000 to 1.5 million years. We got to see what it was like for the original cave explorers, as they turned off all the lights and lit an electronic version of a candle. The tour was around an hour, though there was what sounded to be an infinitely more interesting 1.5 hour tour which involved crawling, climbing and sliding. Couldn't delay too long though, due to the waiting party outside. So, I departed and headed down to Cango Wildlife ranch. It was an excellent place, exactly in line with my thoughts on zoos - that they should be a way of funding conservation. We got to see a lot of indiginous and a few non-indiginous species, including nile crocodile, cheetah, white tigers and cougars. There was also a reptile and snake house, and a meerkat lodge. Our tour guide was funny and informative - and patient. Some idiot Indians were being loud and boorish; my hat is off to the guy for not throwing them to the crocs. At the ranch, you could go crocodile cage diving. I was considering it, but the crocs were basking, and I didn't want to wake them just for my entertainment. After the tour, I did try some croc meat though...it was bland and chewy, but I figure they owe us a few dinners.

In the evening, we departed for Wilderness. Aptly named, it is green, isolated and peaceful. We went to the Beach House Lodge, owned and run by Annie, originally from Youghal, Co. Cork (bhoy), but living a long time in S.A. Annie told me about the Schotia game park, which I would visit on a later date. The Beach House Lodge was split over two and a half levels, and you could see the beach from just about anywhere. It was a 5 minute walk down to the shore. We had a quick look, then settled in back at the lodge for the evening. Annie threw together some truly awesome pizzas for everyone, and we had a few drinks and chatted with some fellow guests around the large fire pit. Bliss. In the morning, an Irish guy and his English wife whom we had met came with us down to the beach. We all spent the morning in and out of the water, floating out on rip tides and crashing in on breakers. Body surfing is awesome, though salty and sandy. You also need to watch out for blue jellyfish. They won't kill you, but you don't want to be seen peeing on yourself either. I stayed sunscreened up, and managed to avoid a scorching.

The next couple of days were basically spent in the same pursuit: taking some sun, drinking a few brews, swimming in the lovely Indian ocean, and generally forgetting about all responsibility. We stayed in some fantastic places, each with it's own particular flavour: Buffalo Bay, outside Knysna, totally isolated and directly on the beach; and Plettenberg Bay, another beach paradise, located on the egde of a town with a very busy boardwalk. In Plettenberg, Magalie and I stayed in seperate hostels. I needed WiFi badly, but Magalie didn't like the place that had it. I stayed with Dave in the Amakaya lodge, and loved it. Dave and I, along with Quentin, a South African traveller, cooked up a lekker braai (very good barbecue) and shared it with some other guests. I had a quick shower (Plettenberg is a drought area) and hit the hay. In the morning, I collected Magalie from Plettenberg Backpackers; the place had been emtpy except for her, which I think suited her, though I prefer a place with good company. I dropped Magalie to her bus back to Cape Town, and began to trip to Storms River.

Dijembe backpackers is a rustic hostel, made largely of wood, with a fantastic little bar, a jacuzzi and three dogs to keep you entertained. They were: the lazy but pretty Jessie; little Stoorky, with no tail; and the super-intelligent Tiger, father to Stoorky and fetcher of anything, anywhere. The staff, including Brad, my friend from Cape Town, were awesome and laid back. On the first day, we took a lazy horse ride around the area, and into the township nearby. It's not like Soweto, it's just a place for people to live when they can't afford larger places. The houses are plumbed and have power, and it is totally safe. In the evening, we munched pizza and got quite drunk. It was a fun party; a local guy called John had us all in stitches with his stories, and I had all the locals in stitches with my lank good Afrikaans accent. I met a bloke from England called Jamie, and we decided to go tubing on Storms River and do the bungee jump from Bloukrans the next day. In the morning, there weren't enough heads to go tubing. So, it dawned on me, now we had to go bungee. Now. Go. Now. Bugger.

I took some deep breaths, and drove to Bloukrans. The valley was many things; it was steep; it was green; it was rocky; it was stunningly beautiful; but, above all, it was bloody deep. At 216m, Bloukrans bungee is the longest in the world. There is another 100m or so to the canopy of trees below, but you don't want to get any closer, really. Would be a lucky shot to hit the river. Anyway, surprisingly, I was fairly in control of my faculties while heading there and getting harnessed up. Even as we sat and joked about imminent death, I was fine. On the walk out, I was a little creeped out by the view, but mainly I was struck by the maliciousness of the person who designed the little walkway. I mean, I'm sure the little bolts are quite sufficient from an engineering standpoint, but they could be bigger. And as for the flexible, wire mesh flooring...just plain mean. Regardless, I made it out. I was jumper number 10; then got booted up to number 3, for some reason. Bugger. After watching the other 2 go over, I was not feeling great about this. Oddly, I was not concerned about safety at all, but more about the height of it all. Sure enough, after getting tethered up and teetering to the edge, I was not feeling good. Before I had time to think it through, they completed the countdown and shouted bungee, gently helping me off the ledge. Watching the video back afterwards, I can see that I did indeed give a little jump. I completely forgot, or refused, to put my head down though. I stepped out and dropped in a standing position. The abject fear of looking down at the canyon floor just negated all thought. On the way down, I felt the rope against my arm, and had the good instinct to move it away instead of grabbing it. Again, I've picked this up from the video, because all that was in my brain during the first drop was "I am falling". It was pure hindbrain; my frontal lobes just shut down. I didn't think "I'm going to die", or "Don't worry, there's a rope around your feet". It was just "I'm falling", and not even in words, just pure feeling. As the rope tensed and I began to fly upwards, my brain booted up again. As I reached the apex of my upward flight, I had begun to enjoy it. Each drop, each bounce, each rise was another mind blowing experience. I held out one arm, using the air to spin. I looked up...which was really down, and saw the river, trees and rocks. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, and the initial extreme fear threw the joy into sharp contrast. As I rose back up with the assistance of one of the crew, I was annoyed at having cocked up the dive, but elated at having done this amazing thing. At the top, I was greeted by my fellow jumpers. You could tell who had jumped: we looked like we were on drugs from all the
Spray at Brass BellSpray at Brass BellSpray at Brass Bell

Soaked a good few patrons here...we got out dry
blood that had rushed into our eyes. I noticed that I was not afraid of the height any more. I wanted to walk out to the edge, have a look down again; I even considered a second jump, so I could make up for my shitty dive. After a while, the adrenaline wore off, and I began to come back to my senses. My fear of heights is not gone, exactly, though on the walkway on the way back, I was able to walk without clinging to the rails, and even able to look down at the valley floor through the very bendy mesh. Back at the hostel, we watched the DVD's of our jumps, and laughed and sighed. I still can't believe that I did it. It was horrific and wonderful, brilliant and stupid.

After lunch at a 50's themed diner, complete with 4 huge Caddilacs, Jamie and I headed to Storm's river mouth. It was misty and hot, but a savage and impressive coastline. We trekked over the suspension bridges and into the bush a little, climbing what looked like a dried up waterfall. We saw aloe vera growing wild, and lots of frogs and spiders. It
The Amber tree gangThe Amber tree gangThe Amber tree gang

Petra, Magaile, Stephen and Wayne
began to get dark, so we trekked back to the car and headed to Dijembe again. There were a few new people around, so we decided to cook up another braai. 30 Rand per person, and we had a good one: baked potato with chili beans, lettuce, tomato and green pepper salad, boerewors sausage and a burger on a bun. Lekker. I had to depart early in the morning, so I crashed to bed and dreamed - probably of falling.

I set out at 6am for Schotia Game Reserve, a little bit past Port Elizabeth on the N10. I booked through Annie from the Beach House Lodge, and got a further discount for paying in cash. For about 150 Euro, I got 4 game drives, breakfast, dinner and lunch, and a night's accommodation on the reserve, listening to lions roar during the night. On the first morning, we started out at 10am, after coffee. On a minibus, we drove through Addo Elephant park, next to Schotia. We saw some zebra and a kudu, but mainly, the place was stuffed with elephants. We saw their youngest, a 6 week old baby, and their largest, Paul, a huge one from Kruger Park. The Kruger Park elephants have been brought in to reintroduce the genes for horns to the females, who have lost theirs at Addo. We watched them playing in the mud, spraying themselves to keep cool, and generally doing discovery channel stuff, for a few hours. The behaviour was fascinating, especially the sub-adult males and how they were around Paul. We went back to Schotia for lunch, then headed for the first game drive. We had some unbelievable luck that afternoon. The lions were just inside the gate, and right beside the road. We took some great pictures, and watched one playing with a large bird chick. It didn't kill it, but pounced and shook it like a domestic cat would. Over the course of the day, we saw impala, warthog, wildebeest, yellow-tail mongoose, blesbuck and white blesbuck, rhino, kudu, springbok, zebra, hartebeest, crocodile, giraffe, leopard tortoise, drongo, Cape wagtail, guinea fowl and ibis. Our guide George was extremely knowledgable and informative, spotting things we would never have seen. We headed to a lapa (thatched hut) for dinner, a delicious kudu stew served with sweet potato and peas. Afterwards, we went for a night drive. We saw a nocturnal spring hare and a house snake, paused to look at some golden orb spiders, and finally caught up to the lions again. I got some good pictures of the dominant male, sitting just feet from the Land Rover. I couldn't believe how much stuff we saw in one day, and how close we got to each animal. As the night drew to a close, we went to our rather plush rooms. There was a power failure, so I wrote my journal by the light of a parafin lamp. The rhino were grazing in the garden outside, and the crickets sang me to sleep.

In the morning, we had another drive through the park. The giraffe were up early, but most other things were still concealed in the bush. Mainly, we were seeking out the hippo, which we had missed the night before. We missed them again; none of the other groups spotted them either. After breakfast at the lapa, we headed back to the HQ and took our cars. I exchanged details with the 2 British couples I had been on the drives with, and got going. I had a long drive to Bloemfontein to cover. I left at 10:30, and arrived at 6pm. The road to Bloemfontein was lovely, very rural. Roadworks made for bad delays, sitting for 20 minutes in the baking heat sometimes, but I was mostly lucky, hitting them while "Ry/Go" was displayed. On arrival in Blowemfontein, I headed straight to Evergreen Accomodation. I was greeted by the very friendly Catherine, and made some friends among the black labourers staying here by sharing fruit and yoghurt with them. We chatted about work and our respective countries (most of them were from Lesotho). I retired after writing some blog stuff (including this sentance - trippy temporal writing or what?).

Bloem is a slightly shabby university town. The nicest parts of town still look a little in need of care. That said, it is one of the most peaceful and crime-free places in South Africa. I drove to a few places around the town - the Rose Garden, Loch Logan Waterfront, and the Anglo-Boer War museum. The Rose Garden contains over 4000 roses; it was out of season unfortunately, but you could still smell the sweetness on the air as the sun shone down. The gardens are very well tended, lush and green lawns setting off the red roses. The waterfront is directly beside the Rose Garden (10 Rand entry to get into both), and it contains numerous canopies complete with tables, chairs and a braai pit each. It is beside some water, though it is a man made lake; Bloem is not coastal. Across from this green space is a big, ugly shopping center, but if you turn your back, all you can see is green, and all you can hear is the fountain. I had some delicious pears for lunch and read some Terry Pratchett in the sun. Afterwards came the Anglo-Boer War museum. I know it was a bit biased towards the Afrikaaner side; I know that the current generation of Brits are not responsible for it; I know that being Irish, I tend to think of them as colonialist, imperial gimps; but fuck me, the bastards did a number here. 26,000 women, children, old people and infirm died in concentration camps - yes, the British invented those - mainly from starvation and illness. If you swore allegience to England, you got better rations and medicine. Sick bastards. They, with a force of 450,000, were unable to contain or defeat an Afrikaaner force of about 30,000 commandos, so they imprisoned their families and murdered the innocent until capitulation came - and all for the gold and diamonds offered in Kimberley and other places. It was outrageous, but then another thought occurred to me. The Afrikaaners had no more right to those materials than the British. They did the same, and worse, to the black populations of Southern Africa. No white man's war can be justified in this continent. Being here opens your eyes to so much...the black people of this country are poor, uneducated and taken advantage of, directly because of European intervention. It is also true to say that many of them act in an irrational and irresponsible way, even when given opportunities, and that many of them are dishonest or downright dangerous. Reconciliation will involve change to all communities here, be it white, Afrikaaner white, Zulu, Khosa, etc. It will take generations, perhaps, before a real reconciliation can be achieved in South Africa; I wish them the best.

On the morning of the 2nd, I jumped in the car at about 08:30 and shot straight for OR Tambo airport. It was a little difficult to find, as roadworks had removed all the roadsigns and left very few replacements. In the end, I got there and dropped the car off with Tempest. I should have my "no damage and full fuel tank" refund within 3 working days. If not, the Cape Town office is in for a surprise. I took the Gautrain, Johannesburg's new rail service from the airport to town, and jumped off in Sandton. This is where the Westford hotel can be found; the Westford is the jumping off point for my Intrepid Travel tour in Botswana and the Okavango delta. I am sitting there now, awaiting the tour group.

The garden route is an absolutely incredible place. I wish I had more time to take all the detours, and to go further along the Wild Coast as well. I have fallen in love with the place, and, while I realise it is not the real Africa as such, it is somewhere I feel I have learned a lot too. I will return here some day, and hopefully several times. It is somewhere that is always changing, but constantly beautiful, so it can never get old.

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