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april 30th, 2004 -> Hluhluwe or Bust : south africa

We had spent too much time in the Cape area. We did not regret the decision at all; our time in Cape Town and around Paarl had been too relaxing and enjoyable. But we had to get moving. We were leaving Africa in less than a month, had already planned a six-day luxury safari in northeastern South Africa, and hoped to spend 4-5 days diving in Mozambique. That did not leave a lot of time for the huge stretch of country between Cape Town and Durban. But we had been similarly pressed for time in Turkey, and had a wonderful journey, despite the long driving days. So we loaded up the rented Corolla, said goodbye to the Harts, and headed to the northeast.

Most tourists would have headed along the coast from Cape Town. But we had already visited Hermanus, so Pat encouraged us to cut inland instead. Not far from Paarl, we entered a very long tunnel that bore through the very heart of a range of mountains. The landscape on the other side was dramatically different: dry, dusty, flat – the beginnings of the Great Karoo, a massive semi-desert that stretches for much of the length between Cape Town and Johannesburg. We paid a brief visit to Mitjiesfontein (pronounced Mikeysfontein), an old whistle-stop town with a whitewashed hotel made to look like a castle. After a coffee in the adjacent restaurant (filled with antique fruit and vegetable tins), we continued on. We pulled into Prince Albert at nightfall, after eight hours driving.

The next morning, I woke early and had a jog through the town: a neat grid of streets running past many fine examples of Cape Dutch homes. Cape Dutch architecture is unique and beautiful. Its most striking features are the gables, which rise above the roofline in elegant curves, adding both size and stateliness to the façade. The homes are often painted in bright colors, which contrast delightfully with the wooden shutters and white trim. (Many of the wineries/manors in the Cape area are constructed in the Cape Dutch style. I cannot imagine a more romantic backdrop to the serried rows of vines than a white Cape Dutch manor house tucked into a copse of sheltering trees.)

We were heading back to the south now, towards the ocean and the start of the famous Garden Route – that is, if we made it over the Swartberg ( Black Mountain) Pass. Afrikaaners seem to have a thing for sorrowful place names. All over Namibia and South Africa, we saw signs for places like Doubtful Springs, Bitter Springs, Desolate Mountain and the like. But at the top of the Swartberg Pass was the access road to Die Hell – pronounced Dee Hell, you know, the place everyone tells you to go (ha ha.)

The Pass was breathtaking. The rough road climbed up through the mist by way of tight switchbacks. I am pretty sure the rental company would not have been happy to find out I drove the Corolla there. The surrounding mountains were astounding. Layer upon layer of different colored strata, twisted and folded as easy as saltwater taffy. Glad we had made the long side-trip, we descended the other side of the Pass and headed for Oudtshoorn, home of the Show Ostrich Farms. You read that correctly. Oudtshoorn is a complete tourist trap, but at least it is interesting. I would spend no more than an hour there, which is how much time it took us to: 1) get the everything-you-need-to-know-about-ostriches-tour, 2) stand on an ostrich egg, and 3) actually ride an ostrich around a little corral.

After Cape Town and the Kruger National Park, the Garden Route is probably South Africa’s most popular tourist hangout. The Route is a highway that links a series of attractive coastal towns. There are deep forests with excellent hiking trails (like the famous Otter Trail) in the Tsitsikamma Reserve, and plenty of extreme sports activities (at least in the summer). Nori rode the Outeniqua Choo Choo train from George to Knysna, and loved the views as the train curved around the coast and crossed old-style trestles. But the Garden Route really did not grab us. We had had enough of extreme sports and trendy cafes. The Route also reminded us an awful lot of the Great Ocean Road between Adelaide and Melbourne. We tried to do a nice day hike in Tsitsikamma, but were rained out. We took that as an omen and headed further up the coast.

Not far from Tsitsikamma, the muffler began dragging on the ground. The speed bumps in South Africa could qualify as hills in other countries; I had scraped the exhaust system over the bumps a few too many times and had broken the muffler bracket. I tied the muffler to the undercarriage with a wire bike lock and we were off! In the bizarrely named city of Humansdorp (Little Village for Humans?) we had the muffler fixed, and drove on to Jeffrey’s Bay, happy that we had surmounted our car problems.

Jeffrey’s Bay has the best surfing in South Africa. Like Bell’s Beach in Australia or the North Shore of Oahu, hundreds of ‘surfies’ come to J-Bay and never leave. Most of the town’s residents appeared to be employed in surf shops or coffee shops. I wanted to get in a few surfing lessons, but the wind and waves were not accommodating. Instead, I had a horrible incident with a large stick of biltong (the rock-hard dried meat that South Africa loves); one-half of my left incisor broke off. This convinced me that the most dangerous animal in South Africa is neither the hippo nor the lion but the biltong.

From Jeffrey’s Bay it was another long drive to Cintsa, the first little hamlet on the evocatively named Wild Coast. We drove right by Port Elizabeth – the “Ghost on the Coast” as Rob Hart once told me it was known as – and rushed past industrial East London. Cintsa was an incredible place. We stayed at a hostel that sat above a lovely estuary. The ocean was just a short walk away. At sunset, we walked along the beach and watched thousands of tiny mollusks dragging their shells out of the sea. Further up the coast, high dunes dropped straight into the ocean. We decided that we had to come back and visit the rest of the Wild Coast.

Our next stop was Underberg, the gateway to the Sani Pass, and the mountainous country/enclave of Lesotho. We drove through a long series of medium to large cities that were almost completely black. The cities were ugly, shambolic places. I suddenly felt like we were back in the Africa of Ethiopia and Malawi. It was funny, but we were nervous. We had spent almost six months completely surrounded by blacks – without any real issues. But for the last two weeks, we had been mostly in the company of whites. The fear and paranoia had rubbed off on us.

After visiting Lesotho (please see later story) we were lucky to call on the aid of the Harts once again. In Pietermaritzburg, a large university town west of Durban, we stayed several nights with Pat Hart’s brother, Mike, and his wife, Juliet. Mike helps the university shape its policy with regards to language instruction (a complex topic in a nation with 11 official languages) and is an avid spear-fisher. Juliet is an art professor and a creator of delicate, almost organic, pieces of china. They were as liberal as Pat and Marg were conservative. It was very interesting to hear their views on South Africa’s progress since the end of Apartheid in 1994