A poort, a pass and a Prince

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March 5th 2015
Published: March 5th 2015
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A "poort" is a way through the mountains at the bottom of the valley. A "pass" is a way across the mountains over the top. Prince Albert is our destination.

It's Saturday. We plan to journey from Sedgefield after the Farmer's Market via Meiringspoort with a lunch stop at the quaint little town of De Rust, for an overnight stay at the old town of Prince Albert, returning on Sunday via the Swartberg pass with a lunch stop at Oudtshoorn in the ostrich region. This is the Karoo region, dry, barren, mountainous..There is the promise of hot dry days, nights filled with clear starry skies, and olive farms. What more could anyone ask?

The drive through the Meiringspoort was spectacular, endless mile after mile after mile of rugged, rocky overhangs that looked as if they would break loose at any moment and come crashing down.... And then I ask you, what could a driver do?! So, it looks a bit nerve wracking, but totally absorbing to see how ancient earth upheavals have lifted and twisted and shaken the layers of stone. In some places the sides of the mountains are so near and rise towering
Kinda close and kinda loose Kinda close and kinda loose Kinda close and kinda loose

rocky slopes overhanging at Meieringspoort
overhead so that one has to throw the head back and look sharply up to see its hostile face.

It is uncompromising and unforgiving. Everywhere is stone. Intimidating, overhanging ready to cut loose and slide. Red and grey and yellow and white. It is overwhelming. It feels as if there's nothing else beside rocks and boulders even though a river runs through the valley and the road sometimes follows the river course. Yes, there is foliage, struggling green, growing along its banks. But even the river's bed only nestles huge boulders, strewn all around.

Unsurprisingly we suddenly encountered a small troupe of baboons chilling by a patch of scrub on the river bank. It seemed like the most natural thing to find! As we stopped to observe them they scampered away in several directions! That seems to be their survival strategy. One youngster dashed across the road then swung effortlessly up a very vertical rock face, another youngster stayed put then an elder ambled out from the scrub to see what was going on. I decided against venturing out the car for a closer encounter. I heard that they snatch phones and cameras from people's hands and I couldn't climb the rock face to snatch mine back! So, not today baboons! Not my iPad!

Our lunch stop was in the small Victorian town of De Rust, at the start of the Klein Karoo "where sky and earth meet", at one of the seemingly numberless quaint little restaurants to be found throughout the Cape. Decorated with old home and garden furniture, old clothing, domestic implements etc including rusty pots and broken bits. The sort of things we would dump and throw away at home stood here proudly on display, these heritage items being prized, keep their beauty and value! They give each restaurant a highly distinctive decor and unique feeling of home comfort. We lunched in a little garden seated below a wall painting of Freda Khalo. I had ginger beer and a burger which was delicious.

Our drive continued now cross arid flat land, brown landscape stretching forever to the foot of a mountain range way off in the distance. Nothing much grows. But ostriches thrive! So we were in ostrich country and passed by many penned ostrich farms. In their heyday when ostrich plumes were in fashion the farms made a mint if money. After the world wars when fashions and wealth changed (but I dare say Trinidad carnival costumes persisted) the farms went bankrupt..... Until later when they began producing good from ostrich leather which is really soft and thick, and ostrich meat arrived at the table. I had some - it is a very red meat but very succulent.

Ostriches are funny creatures. Quite tall, very long thin scrawny necks above fluffy round feathery waists, and big meaty thighs which taper down to ungainly big hooves. They constantly bob their heads up and down with their mouths open. They behave a bit like chickens, waiting, looking, expecting feed to be tossed for them. Unphased by humans, that is until a gang of motorbikes roared past scaring them and they instantly fled daintily away as fast as they could go.

In this new landscape there were scattered cultivated patches of green to be seen, olive groves, and hops (I think) mainly. But not much grows here in the Karoo. It is stony, desert-like. Ostriches are known to swallow stones, and for burying their heads in the sand.

We arrived at Prince Albert, named for the royal consort himself. Yet another very quiet little town with a very European country air to it. As we have been seeing everywhere, the streets are wide, well paved and clean. Few people are to be seen walking in the streets unless you are near its shopping area, or near one of the poorer districts which I notice are everywhere, inevitably astride every town and village. That's where the bulk of the African population resides. I don't think I've seen a single town without one such poor district, but I could be wrong.

We found our rental home not far from the centre of the town and it was extremely well furnished for us, even though we would just overnight. Three bedrooms with fans and air conditioning, and mosquito nets! A full kitchen with a range of teas and coffee. A comfortable living room. And a small plunge pool in the tiny back garden. The homes here are built with outdoor open fronted verandahs facing the street. There's a very attractive tropical feeling to the style. But I never saw even one person using their verandah.

We had a drink at the Bush Bar pub where the handful of local villagers were engrossed in a rugby match on tv, then to dinner nearby at a restaurant serving local specialties but prepared by an odd collection of ex flight crew! A motley crowd. This was the only time I've not been impressed by the meal I had. All our Food experiences have been quite wonderful. Anyway, the old girl could have passed for a gypsy fortune teller in another context, and the old guy was very chatty but his conversation was un exciting.

The night sky in the Karoo is big and wide and awesomely filled with stars.... But the full moon was near so I did not have the opportunity to gaze up at the Milky Way.

Next morning our breakfast was at another little garden with more antiques and old things decorating the main building. This place was the Old Store. Then we headed in search of a nearby olive farm for a tasting experience. I'm beaming already! It was great.... if not what I'd imagined. There was no tour of olive groves. No introduction to olive trees. No picking of olives..... but there was a large airy showroom with a tasting table where we were introduced to varieties of olives and different Preservation methods. A lovely South African woman did the necessary introductions:

Olives are green when young, black when ripe and grayish when half ripe

The manzanilla variety is the most well known, and it's the one we mainly get in TT

The mission variety was the specialty of this farm. After tasting samples of each I could taste the subtle difference between the two and the different stages of ripeness. This farm produced a range of olive products, in brines, pickles, tapenades, pastes, plus olive oil and soaps. Their display shelves were filled with their products, and serving spoons and dishes. I was in olive heaven!

The three African ladies who were the only staff visible, were lovely, smiling and friendly. On the way out I asked about a small tree near the door.... Is this an olive tree? Yes, go ahead and pick one. I picked a juicy looking ripe black olive to taste. YUUUUCK!!!! ACID!!!! EEEEEWWWWWWWW!!! my lips had a weird blistery feeling for a long time after ward. So I wonder who figured out that they had to be preserved to become edible. Well, whoever it is, I was happily armed with my goodies as we continued the journey back to Wilderness.

The return route would take us across the top of the Swartberg mountain traveling the majestic Swartberg Pass on a gravel road often with sheer sides, rising to a point of 1585m above sea level. We would travel from Prince Albert in the Great Karoo descending to Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo. It would be one helluva ride with the motorist needing to pay full attention. But we could stop occasionally at the many well provided lay bys to enjoy the views. And we did. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular. One could easily take the same photo over and over again, like I did. But once again it is not welcoming territory, with very hard, unforgiving layers of rocky overhang that looked like loose cards. Ready to collapse. And the low scrub vegetation, scattered in between the stones and rocks. They looked like they could flare up just at the sight of a match!

When we stopped to enjoy the views of the valley below, the wind howled! I had to really hold on with a firm grip to the iPad to keep it from blowing away. The Buxton pouch strap hanging around my neck was twisted around many times and had to be unravelled. And I avoided standing near the verge. In the plains below the temperature was 35* but up there it was a lot cooler. Needless to say.... Baboons! We encountered a large group ambling down along the middle of the gravel road on our way down from the top of the pass. They wandered off into the bushes at the roadside as we approached.

Our final food stop.... Food again was for lunch at Oudtshoorn the town at the heart of the ostrich industries. Its Sunday and everywhere was closed, but Jemimas was open and we ate heartily then dashed off. I had one more visit on my list, the Cango Caves. But that's for another blog.

The poort, the pass and the Prince had been a wonderful experience.

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