Looking past the Eastern Head along South Africa’s southern coast.
I peered out the window as we drove past the impoverished townships on the Cape Flats. Smoke was billowing out of a cluster of corrugated iron shacks, adding to the brown haze sitting directly above the slums. The haze was almost symbolic – a ceiling of pollution trapping the inhabitants below in their poverty.
What greeted me in Stellenbosch was almost the complete opposite.
Here was a leafy suburbia of manicured, tree-lined avenues dripping with wealth. It was like what you’d imagine if the golf club at Augusta was extrapolated into a town.
Stellenbosch is famous chiefly for two things; the vineyards that surround it, and the university that makes up half the town. I felt like I had been dropped into an American college campus town, the sort that you’d might see on American Pie. Or Scary Movie.
My hostel was pretty quiet ad wasn’t the most social – I ended up watching Champions League football on both my nights there, which wasn’t too bad though. I also had a whole dorm + ensuite to myself which was really nice – something that was to become a theme on my journey along the Garden Route.
Stark Conde Estate
Stunning backdrop for a vineyard
did what some might consider a little dangerous while in Stellenbosch – a cycling and wine-tasting tour. I managed to survive however, without any drunken accidents – the countryside scenery at the Stark Conte estate was breathtaking, and the tasting at the Lanzerac estate was clever in matching chocolates to your wines. The local tour guide Paul was very knowledgeable and eloquent, not just about wine – he also told us about the Stellenbosch’s rather white, right-wing and conservative history while also giving an insight into how this was slowly changing, especially with the black rugby players being picked up from the townships to play for the prestigious university rugby team, which has produced many a Springbok.
After buying some souvenirs (springbok and fish biltong
, as well as a dried-fruit sweet) from a cute, unchanged 19th-century shop, I walked over to my third winery of the day, the Bergkelder.
I didn’t really think that any of the wines I tried that day were especially amazing – they were all a bit acidic for my liking (a result of the soil according to Paul) although the whites were better than the reds. The best wine I tried was the Bergkelder dessert
The biggest monkeys that live at Monkeyland.
wine, which went perfectly with some salted fudge.
Now I’m no wine connoisseur – my palate isn’t the best – but it was fun pretending to be, among the real aficionados in my tour groups, as I remembered the tips I learnt in Bordeaux a year and a half ago
. Maybe they were pretending too.
It was then off to Mossel Bay, where I was lucky to get on the Baz Bus.
The Baz Bus is a great backpacking concept, which lets you travel from one city to another (say, Cape Town to Johannesburg, like I am doing) and you can get off at any place the Baz Bus stops at along the way, and then get back onto the bus in the direction you’re heading any time you like. The bus picks you up from the hostel you are staying at, and drops you directly to the hostel at the next place you’re staying at – so it is really safe, given South Africa’s reputation for crime. It means you can avoid all the hassle of having to go to ropey bus and train stations, and to-and-from them to hostels.
There is only one bus a day however, so you need to book your seat for every journey –
something I had forgotten to do this time. It is getting to low season however, so there was plenty of room on the bus.
Now I have slept on overnight on trains before
, but they were moving ones.
Santos Express Train Lodge in Mossel Bay, is a hostel on some old harbour train tracks on the beach, the rooms and dorms being inside old train carriages. It is a novel idea that got me to go there – but in truth it is probably a bit cramp, given the 16-bed dorm all shared one bathroom and toilet. Luckily, it is low season and I was only sharing with three others.
The place had excellent WiFi however, something that was lacking at my hostels in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. A good WiFi is hard to find.
And it was a good thing that it did – there isn’t a lot else to do in Mossel Bay, so I got to catch up on some writing and administration.
The reason I came to Mossel Bay, was to do something that I missed out on in Cape Town – shark-cage diving. A friend back home and so many others here had told me that
Spot The Shark
Disappointingly, one of only three photos that I managed to take.
it was something that just had to be done.
I was never scared at any point, but it was thrilling to be so close to a wild shark. There was one that was 2.5m long – so the length of the entire cage – and seeing it swim past just a foot away, thrashing its tail against the cage and then heading straight towards you was exhilarating.
Once out of the cage, we could see the shark jump out of the water several times to try and snare the tuna head bait on a line held by one of the crew, the shark having been lured to us by the “chum” thrown into the water.
Disappointingly, I was only able to take three photos as I was too busy being seasick. While everyone was cheering every time the shark jumped out of the water, I was sat at the bow of the boat, concentrating on the waves in an effort not to get sick – by seeing the waves come in, my body could then somehow anticipate the movement of the boat and brace myself accordingly, which got me through what became something of an ordeal.
Otherwise, Mossel Bay is
Santos Express Train Lodge
My accommodation in Mossel Bay – inside an old train carriage.
a little bit of a shithole. The Dias Museum was interesting – it chronicles the discovery and establishment of Mossel Bay and has a full size replica of the caravel that the Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias sailed here in.
As you keep travelling along the southern coast on the Baz Bus, you inevitably keep bumping into the same people and so it was that Lewis, who I met in Cape Town on my first night
, was to be in Knysna for the duration of my stay there.
As I had an entire 14-bed dorm to myself (again), I met up with Lewis on my first night in Knysna for a night out. Along with Megan, a worker at his hostel, I joined Lewis, Lou, Julia (both Dutch) and Lena (German) as we hit the local nights spot, Ingoma’s.
Now when I say local, I mean local
. I will admit to being a little intimidated as we, the only foreigners in the place, walked into a shabby nightclub of rather large, male African patrons. The drinks they were selling in the place for R17 a pop (£1!) were big
– only 660ml beers and 500ml ciders were available.
After a couple of drinks, some of the local ladies came
Looking over the lagoon back towards the town from the Western Head.
to dance with us to the African beats – they were loving it! And so were we after a while, even if we did have to politely turn down some flattering yet unwelcome advances. There were drunken guys hitting on our girls as well – they were swiftly lifted up and literally thrown out of the place by our Terry Crews-size bouncer. All in all though, it was an awesome, proper, South African night out.
The next day, I decided to explore the city by bicycle, conveniently rented out to me by my hostel.
Jembjo’s is basically an old house converted into a backpackers run by a South African-Australian couple – they took care of everything I needed and it really felt like I was a guest in their own home. Just a shame there weren’t more people staying, so it was a good thing that Lewis was here too, so I had someone to hang out with in the evening.
Knysna is set against a huge “lagoon” which meets the sea at the Heads, which is a beautiful sight. I cycled out to the Eastern Head, which was a harder cycle than I had anticipated, but it was
Eastern Head, Knysna
The flash, clifftop houses on the Eastern Head of the entrance to Knysna Lagoon.
worth the effort and subsequent hike up the hill, for the view over the heads and the lagoon.
Also out on the Eastern Heads are some really pimped out holiday homes – this is where all the white folk live. There are also flash houses galore on Thesen Island, where the mill that established Knysna used to be. It is now a gated community of holiday homes, all with their own jetty for private boats. Leisure Isle, is another enclave of holiday homes, although more accessible than Thesen Island. There were actually black and coloured people on this island, enjoying the public braai
and picnic spaces available here.
It was back to Thesen Island however, for dinner and drinks with Lewis, Lou and Julia, where they tried oysters for the first time. I love them and Julia did too – Lewis and Lou, not so much. Snails were also on the menu which again, Julia and I went for but Lewis and Lou didn’t.
The next day, I went on a tour by boat across the lagoon to the Western Head. It was on the expensive side for what it was and having seen the heads from the eastern
Knysna Lagoon & Yacht
From the Western Head.
side, I was wondering if I needed to be doing this. Thankfully, I was rewarded with more amazing views as wells as some awesome rock formations which made for some great photos. There was a decent buffet lunch thrown in too. The trip was topped off by meeting Steven and Lara, a local couple from Durban. I now have more friends to call on when I get there! I was glad in the end, that I did the tour.
That afternoon, I decided visit Mitchell’s microbrewery for some tastings. You get a small glass of six different beers and a full glass of your favourite for just R75 (£4!). The staff there were really friendly and talkative too, which meant my visit stretched out for another couple of beers.
Unknowingly, my favourite beer was the 7%!O(MISSING)ld Wobbly – when I stood up, I immediately understood why the beer was named as such.
That evening, I went over to Lewis’s hostel for a braai
, where we met Byron, a South African-New Zealander who was keen on deeply philosophical conversations. This keenness was presented during our game of Would You Rather / Most Likely To / Never Ever Have
I. For example; “would you rather give up your baby or your wife?”
Slowly but surely, the braai group dwindled as the conversation between myself, Byron and Lewis became more philosophical/scientific. Exactly right, you can’t mix the two? And so the debate raged for a couple of hours on existentialism (“if I haven’t seen you, then you don’t exist”…errr, no), time (“the past and the future don’t exist, there is only the present”), planning (“animals never plan anything”) and science. I could understand Byron’s hippy perspective on life, but you can’t apply such beliefs and philosophy to science (unless you’re Dan Brown) and he was just factually wrong – his insistence to the contrary was just annoying.
Having seen all the flash parts of Knysna, I went on a township tour the next day, up in the hills above Knysna, which was a bit strange. For a start, I was touring with a family of four with two young kids who were playing up all the time while I was trying to concentrate on what Ella, the guide was saying. It was also rather informal – for example, we visited a pre-school where we were swamped by cute little
The poor part of town, up in the hills.
African children and were pretty much left to our own devices as to what we were supposed to do.
We also visited a salon and a general store – both of which were housed in old shipping containers – and the township library.
The tour ends at Ella’s house in the township where we are treated to tea and fried bread. We are then given a short lesson in the local Xhosa language – I couldn’t believe that they actually speak with clucking noises – I had always thought it was just a racist joke. We also got to play bongos and sing Xhosa songs – though in truth, it felt a bit like things were just going through the motions rather than Ella really guiding and teaching us with any real enthusiasm.
I can’t criticise Ella too much however – her and business partner Penny jointly run a network of safe houses in the townships for children in abusive households, all funded from proceeds from the tours. There are problems in the township – social problems, gangs, drugs, kids out of school – Ella and Penny are trying to make difference to improve things in this respect. It isn’t
The street Ella lives on in Knysna Township.
recommended to walk around by yourself up here. On Nelson Mandela’s election to the presidency came free healthcare, housing and education for those who can’t afford it – but does this create an attitude of laziness and dependency on the government? It is a really difficult problem to solve.
The tour was really good however, to gain a sense of perspective – to see the ramshackle houses hidden away in the hills, in contrast to the unbelievably fancy houses on Thesen Island and Leisure Isle.
In between these rich and poor areas is the empty hole that is the town centre – a town centre that is quite typical of many of the towns I have been to. It is empty, run-down, and semi-industrial – it is deserted at night, which makes a night walk through it alone really scary! There are dogs everywhere (there is no legal requirement to have them registered so they run amok with no collars or owners) and every house has high fences, some of the electric, almost all of them spiked. Security is big business here in South Africa.
My last stop on the Garden Route was Plettenberg Bay, colloquially known as “Plett”.
Central Beach, Plettenberg Bay
Plett is a resort town, through and through.
It has a nice, long beach and is pretty much a resort town full of pimped-out houses but is otherwise fairly unremarkable.
I had been misled a little with Plett – there are things to do here but they are miles away from Plett itself. With no car, that means a very expensive taxi.
In general, it has been super-cheap to eat, drink and sleep in South Africa – but the majority of my money is being blown on excursions. So the wine tours, shark diving, lagoon cruises and now, cheetah walking!
The first stop for my R600 taxi for the day was Monkeyland. The place is a sanctuary for the rehabilitation of vulnerable monkeys and they are free to run amok here at Monkeyland – like everywhere
. I happened to be touring the place with a large troupe of contestants for Mr Gay World which is being held back in Knysna as part of a gay pride festivals. It was an amusing experience – lots of screaming from avoiding monkeys and selfies galore. They even had official photographers capturing all of their various poses.
And it was here that my badly planned stay in Plett got much worse
Just casually walking a cheetah, like you would your dog. It was amazing!
– my pride and joy, my DSLR camera, decided to suddenly die and refuse to turn back on despite a half-full battery. Gutted.
Not to worry, I still have my iPhone 6 which for what it is, has a decent camera. It was to be this that I would use to capture my walk with the cheetahs!
Before the walk, we take a tour of the various enclosures here at Tenikwa Wildlife Centre that housed lion cubs, caracals, servals, African wild cats and leopards. And then it was the main event.
There was something simply awesome about touching and being so close to what are essentially wild animals – majestic creatures that could at any minute decide to eat you. These cheetahs were bred at the centre and will never be released – so they are used to human contact – and are pretty docile, although if it decided to run after something on the walk, there was no holding it back. I’m not really an animal person, but it was fantastic experience and one of the highlights of the trip so far.
On the tour, I met a Japanese lady called Junko. Now I like to think that
You don’t walk these things.
I am fairly well travelled, but I’ve got nothing on Junko who has been to 94 countries! We share the same amibition – to make to 100 – although I’ve got a bit of catching up to do with my 52. It was great to meet someone who has pretty much done what I am going to do – she has some pretty hairy stories – because they are not common. I will certainly be hitting her up for advice at some stage.
I was dropped off back in Plett by my talkative cab driver Reggie. He was nice to talk to and was also very open about his personal life – in particular his struggles with employment and trying to make ends meet. He dreams of travelling but with little income and a weak rand
it is an impossible dream. I was shocked to learn that he was to only receive R30 for this R600 job – now I’m not sure the truth of this, but I tipped him generously anyway, as he was good company. He also revealed how he and many other coloured South Africans actually support the All Blacks over the Springboks – a nod back
Stellenbosch Town Hall
Good example of how well maintained the town is.
to the apartheid era and the fact they feel the relate to the All Blacks more than their own predominantly white team. Jonah Lomu was his hero.
I rounded off my stay in the Garden Route with probably the best meal I had on this section, which was a Mozambican meal. The chicken and prawn curry was one of the best I have had (coincidentally, a sandwich at 34 South in Knysna was also one of the best I have had) – sweet, spicy and not too hot. The “LM” restaurant also had a very inventive dessert ‘menu’ which was basically a platter of all the desserts they serve presented to you on a platter. Seeing and smelling the actual product convinced me to order a coconut sorbet, which didn’t quite match the curry.
Sharing this Mozambican experience with me was finally some dorm-mates, in Dutch siblings Josper and Maartje.
Overall, it was an enjoyable amble across the Garden Route – it’s a shame that I’m just starting to hit low season and that everywhere I have been has been so quiet. The weather is also starting to get cold and I’m not really best prepared for it
The show now moves on the Port Elizabeth for a transit stop and a chance to fix my camera and catch up on more admin and writing – and then I will be heading along a beautiful stretch of coast that used to be known as the Transkei
, now known as the Wild Coast.
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