Southern Africa - South Africa

A few days in Durban, a bit of last minute shopping, and we were on the road again. This was very different travel indeed. My sister, Carmel, took seven weeks off work and volunteered to drive us around. We mapped out a very rough itinerary, the timing mainly determined by our booking at the Fish River in Namibia, and set off down the coast. The general look and feel of the countryside around Durban is tropical, but as we went south it didn't take too long to dry out, and soon we were passing savage thorns bushes and flowering aloes, more adapted for the desert regions of the country.

Roadside vegetation
The road south goes through the Transkei, once a black homeland, and now notorious for violence against people driving through. The area is noticeably different from adjacent provinces, being more rural. Settlements of little prefabricated fibro houses are grouped on the hillsides, many with no obvious road or track to most of the buildings - they are just perched out on the grassy fields. It was difficult to see how people made a living here, with little local agriculture and no major towns or industries.

Surprise, surprise. We drove through the Transkei and no-one mugged us. Its interesting how South Africans will go out of their way to emphasize the dangers of traveling in their own country.

We stopped overnight in East London. Choosing a place to stay was different now too, with secure parking a major determinant, but we found a slightly up-market B&B that had a backpackers dorm attached, complete with kitchen, and started to establish the routine of shopping and cooking for ourselves again. We had done this all through our earlier months in South America, but had grown out of the habit here in Africa. Nothing much to see here, so we kept driving south, past Grahamstown, where Carmel had lived for some years, and on to Port Elizabeth, where we found a good backpackers place just up the beach from the town.

PE had a much-vaunted toy train, running tourist trips out into the countryside. We picked a lousy day for it, in more ways than one. It was a rainy Mothers' Day Sunday, lots of dear oldies and little kids having a fun day out. Geoff, Carmel and I shared a carriage with a couple of clowns (literally). The grey day did little to enhance the less than stimulating countryside, and when we stopped to allow the passengers to walk over a railway bridge over a magnificent gorge the rain came down even heavier, spoiling what would, on a clear day, have been a lovely view. We terminated at a rather uninteresting restaurant, then the train headed back to PE. The best part of the day was when we were stopped by a tree that had fallen across the rails, and we had to wait for men with chainsaws to come and remove it.

The drive down the garden route was pretty, but a recent bushfire had devastated some parts of the country, particularly the area around Tsitsikamma. We called in to Knysna just for a quick look and a cup of coffee, then left the coast and went through some impressive passes into Oudshoorn in the Little Karoo. The area abounds with ostrich farms, and is close to the Cango Caves. We went out to the caves (OK, but nothing too special - it would be best to do the extended tour, not the touristy medium tour that we opted for) then got ourselves very lost looking for a cheetah park. I mis-read the map, and we were soon far from Oudshoorn, heading in the wrong direction, and running out of petrol. Asking directions was a sign-language job from a farmer who spoke only Africaans, then we drove on, along a less and less well-defined track, past troops of baboons, ostrich farms, and some lovely countryside, until we came out onto a more major road and were able to find a petrol station before disaster struck.

Capetown from Table Mountain
Our last stop before Capetown was to be Montagu. Again, the road passed through very pleasant countryside and high, dramatic passes through the bergs. It took as quite a while to find the lodge once we reached town, but once found it proved to be a great place to stay; it was a small farm property and looked as though it had been a winery at some stage, but now the huge barn was a dorm - a bit stark and cold, so we took a slightly more expensive cabin. They had a good kitchen, somewhere to sit in the sun, and friendly cats and dogs to make you feel at home. We spent a couple of nights there, and used the intervening day to visit some of the nearby wineries. Montagu is the only place I have ever seen a road sign indicating that there are cats (just plain moggies) crossing the road.

The road to Capetown passed through one last magnificent pass, then we down on the tollway, speeding into the city. At first glance the city didn't capture our imaginations in the way that it is promoted internationally, but Table Mountain looked fairly impressive behind us as we did a quick sorting out of money and minor shopping before driving off to find the Youth Hostel. We decided to try Stan's Halt, a hostel outside the main district, overlooking Clifton Beach. It is a great place to stay, tucked into a park on the hillside, with a million dollar view down the coast. Karen, the hostel manager, made us feel very welcome; it is hard to define what makes one place feel good and another just 'somewhere to sleep', but whatever it is, this hostel had a big share, and really felt like home.

Capetown is a tourist destination, so we did tourist things. We took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain, walked around in the freezing cold, biting wind whipping the low clouds around, admired the dassies, then walked down the scrambly trail, seeing sun birds and proteas on the way. We had a picnic lunch on Signal Hill, feeding the ubiquitous guinea fowl on the scraps. We walked through the park just outside our lodge and explored the neighbourhood. We drove down the coast, the wonderful coast, to the Cape of Good Hope, and had great day sightseeing. We also met Howard, a lovely man and a friend of Carmel's, who took time off work to ferry us out to the winelands of Paarl and Stellenbosch, take us to wine tastings, lunch at a fabulous restaurant overlooking the beautiful valley, and who gave us the perfect day out, capped off with dinner back at the Waterfront. The area is very appealing - if I was ever going to live in South Africa that would be the the place for me! Sadly, we didn't have any memorable wines, but we did get to go to a winery with a fantastic goat tower - multistory goat apartments with an external spiral staircase winding up the side.

The Baths
Tearing ourselves away from the comfort of Stan's Halt, we set off for Namibia. We had one last look back at Capetown, then went up the coast. We had planned to stop at Saldanha, on the coast, but the wind was dry and hot, and half of Africa was being picked up and hurled through the air in great hazy dust-storms, so we turned inland and made a long day of it, going to Citrusdal in the Cedarberg Mountain area. This was an interesting place to stop a couple of nights; we took rooms at The Baths, an old spa resort, and luxuriated in hot mineral water baths so big you could almost swim in them. The verandah fronted onto a heavily wooded hillside, and there were lots of birds to watch. The manager also took us out to see some bushman paintings on the rocks at a nearby farm.

North from the Cedarbergs the country started to dry out and look more like desert. There were lots of ostrich farms in this area too, and the rivers we crossed had flamingos blazing in bright pink flocks. We took a side trip into Lamberts Bay, where the rough seas prevented us from going out to the island where penguins could be seen, but there were hundreds of flamingos in the estuary. Back onto the main road north and into the dry desert. There were a surprising number of tortoises on the roads, and we had to keep our eyes open to avoid running over them. There were also lots of large raptors out here, and we came across a magnificent giant eagle owl, quite the biggest flying bird I have ever seen, just perched out on a telegraph post in the middle of the day.

Springbok was just a place to stay - a chalet in the caravan park overnight. Then it was a fairly short trip up to the Namibian border, a patch of green on the Orange River.

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