In the midst of tourist crammed V& A Waterfront in downtown Cape Town, South Africa, we felt the first pulls of Africa calling. Swaying before us were fourteen men chanting and singing the most heartfelt music-in-your-veins songs. We sat mesmerized for almost an hour as the Thokozani Brothers harmonized to the beat of their own internal drums, occasionally snapping or kicking in unison to emphasize a certain chorus. It mattered little that we could not understand a word they sung, we emphatically thanked them and purchased a CD before moving along to a white table-cloth lunch overlooking the bay.
Having seen the bustling, but a little too plastic V&A Waterfront (McDonald’s was among the purveyors), we found ourselves amongst the city-dwellers in the expansive parks lining the waterfront. Families were out on afternoon strolls, dog owners were playing fetch, and young couples were wrapped in each others’ arms watching the tide roll in and out. Lee and I took advantage of an empty playground to see-saw and play on the merry-go-round. When challenged to climb the twisting, ascending monkey bars, Lee garnered a crowd consisting of myself and one very enthusiastic cheerleader of a homeless man who danced and sung, “Go Long Legs, You Can Do It, Go long Legs!”
The beauty of these stretches of parks was enhanced by the beaches that abutt them and the everpresent Table Mountain that creates a striking backdrop for the active city. With a nearly completely flat plateau on the top of the mounrain, at 3,558 feet, many claim the view from atop to be one of the best in all of Africa.
We waited patiently for a crystal clear day and ascended the mountain in a 360° rotating gondola. Once at the top of Table Mountain, we seperated from the crowds and were able to appreciate the stillness and overwhelming sense of nature that comes with viewing the human world humming minutely below all while clouds streaked the sky before our eyes.
In our small sack we carried with us a big bottle of water, trail mix, two apples, a bit of peanut butter, and our compass to aid in our four hour hike down the backside of the mountain. We planned to take the Skeleton Gorge trail but quickly realized we would need a map since no trails were marked clearly, and none were named Skeleton Gorge. After a quick stop in the mountaintop gift shop to purchase a map, we were back on track.
For the next four hours we hardly saw another soul. The semi-arid atmosphere produced a surprising amount of vibrant and various flaura. There were several underground springs that trickled water to a few very happy plants along the way, and two or three miniature ponds that sprung orchids in glowing shades of pink and purple from their banks.
After three hours of hiking with no sign of shade in the beating heat, we reached the legened Skeleton Gorge and its heavenly canopy of lush trees. Reinvigorated, we continued our march downwards across sheer rock cliffs and further into the maze of misted ferns. When our knees were just about to give out from the stress, we stopped for an apple picnic and enjoyed the trickling sound of water dripping from the rocks above. After a few more tricky passages down steep drops, aided by strategically placed ladders and exposed roots, we made it to flay ground.
We were so exhausted and our knees were protesting so loudly that somehow the only sensible option was to run, not walk, through the botanical gardens we landed inside. We then hopped on the local bus to make our eventual return to our hostel. Gleefully seated on the bus, a friendly Cape Towner took on the role of our private tour guide and pointed out all of his favorite spots, along with culturally and historically relevant ones along our route.
The next day we set out for the District Six Museum, which our friend on the bus recommended highly. It is dedicated to telling the history of more than 60,000 people who were forcibly removed from their homes for “city restructuring” because of their race, color, and/or beliefs. Their homes were bulldozed and they were shipped to outlying barren lands. Hundreds of photographs and newspaper articles bring to life the immense trouble and sorrows of this community. Many of these shanty towns can still be seen on the outskirts of cities throughout South Africa today, and while some people are working towards a more unified nation, there is clearly a lot more to do.
From Cape Town we set out in a rental car (that only set us back $20 a day) to drive the Garden Route along the most southern highway in Africa. Since we started in Cape Town, and the official Garden Route does not start until Mossel Bay, we saw an extra 215 miles of incredible countryside. Driving on the left side, the dramatic shrubbery-laden mountainsides morphed into the skies directly outside of the driver side window, while a thin strip of a lane seperated the passenger’s side from jagged cliffs dropping into the uproarious ocean below. Each twist in the road provided another magnificient landscape and it didn’t take long for us to wonder if this wasn’t the most naturally beautiful place we’d been yet.
At Betty’s Bay we turned off and drove along gravel roads until reaching a parking lot with two wooden penguins carved and painted welcoming us to their penguin colony. We put on several layers to face the damp cold outside and headed towards a wooden boardwalk that signified the protected area of the Betty’s Bay Penguin Colony. Just before reaching the crest of the hill we were greeted by a live African Jackass penguin, waddling towards us with the most jolly of expressions. Further down the boardwalk the colony blossomed and the two-foot-tall tuxedo-clad creatures were everywhere we looked. Some relished in the icy waters, while others took refuge in their underground houses, and a few industrious types collected branches and greenery to fortify their dwellings. One thing was unanimous, they all looked as comfortable as can be, happy to live next to the sounds of the ocean in their protected cove with food and shelter aplenty.
Hopping back in the car, we headed to Hermanus and ate lunch in a cave that opened onto the ocean. During whale season in November and December, the cave cafe is a famous lookout for Southern Right Whales, but since it was off season we just enjoyed watching the choppy waters and sea birds mingle on the horizon.
A few art galleries and a trip to a terrific old bookstore later and we were back in the car headed to our final stop of the day. We reached Onrus Camping Ground with enough light to pick a distant campsite under two sprawling trees with views to the ocean. We dug out the supper provisions we bought at the store, including two yogurts, a box of granola, a bottle of wine, and a chocolate bar, and skimmed through the South African Garden and Home magazine we purchased as a splurge entertainment item after not having read a magazine in over six months. Since we sent our tent home from India with my brother (to save precious backpack weight and space while not camping in Asia), we spent the night curled in the seats of our rental car under the sheets and blanket we always carry. We awoke to the same beautiful scene that had dusted our eyes with sleep, cleaned up in the communal bathrooms, and hit the road.
The landscape was now even more rugged and extreme. Boulders peppered the land for miles and cacti grew intermittenly amongst the hills. The small country highway was practically empty of other cars which allowed us to easily stop and observe the different groups of animals along the route. We saw elephants, gazelles, zebras, ostriches, cows, and sheep.
When we arrived to Mossel Bay we had just enough time to see the house-lined beach and make friends with several of our 75+ year old car park neighbors who were grilling on the grass “sidewalks” before settling into another night of car camping by the ocean.
In true road trip fashion, we had only very loose plans and stopped at any spot that looked interesting. Our next whimsy brought us to Dolphin Point Lookout in Wilderness. From high above, we watched paragliders make their descent to the beaches and decided to follow their lead, heading down the windy road to the smooth toasted sands below. We picknicked and soaked up the rays, only daring to dip a few toes in the bitingly cold waters.
After a few good tracks from the Thokozani Brothers played while we rolled down the road, we spotted a lot of antique cars for sale and had to turn off. We oggled over the shiny metallic bodies proudly displaying their rotund curves and dreamy pasts. The friendly dealership owner encouraged our day dreaming with reasonable Africa-to-U.S. shipping costs. Alas, we knew it wasn’t in the budget, but I’d already fallen for one that may be on my Christmas list for years to come!
Further on we stopped for coffee and crafts in Kynsna before moving on to a tiny town known as Nature’s Valley. Down a dirt path with pine trees leading us further into the forest, we passed through an arched stone entranceway and were greeted by three shining horses. Each was a caramel color with white fawn spots and a blonde mane thay lended them an ocean-tossed surfer’s look.
We had arrived to Wild Spirit, our resting spot for the next few days that was much more of a whimsical farm than a generic hostel. The grounds spread across several acres and besides the human and horse inhabitants, there were also dogs, cats, chickens, and baboons roaming around. Every artistically bent traveler seemed to have left their mark as hidden gems were scattered around the place. Teapots growing herbs hung from tree limbs, twisted wood was sculpted into intricate archways, carefully severed wine bottles hung from above in cascading patterns, and ancient candelabras were lit for al fresco supper each night.
We were there for a celebratory birthday dinner which included 20+ guests dressed up in outrageous costumes that we all selected from an entire costume room on the property. As we sat around one long table painted with scenes from Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are,” outfitted in a hodge podge of tiaras and furs, listening to the drum circle which played below, I wondered if Africa, even in its simplest moments, wasn’t more wild than the rest of the world.
We slept in a converted “Eco Love Barn” and awoke each morning to the sound of horses munching on grass outside of our windows before setting off on the day’s adventure.
Just beyond the thick of the forest was a charming farm stand in an old one-room house where we went each day for fresh picnic snacks and a peek at their homemade pies, cakes, and ice cream which we of course tested with the proper dedication of true sweets enthusiasts.
A short hike from Wild Spirit brought us to a tucked away waterfall, and an aimless drive brought us by happenstance to one of the most incredible places I’d ever seen. Down the undulating mountainside was a strip of land surrounded by water on either side that was neither singularly an ocean beach or a lakeside retreat, but rather both, one and the same. Standing in a single spot in the sand and looking left was a scene of picturesque mountains rising from from a tea stained lake and covered in the pleasing dense green one might expect of Swiss hillsides. Looking right from that very same spot transported you to the tropics with roaring waves curling into the beach and bringing with them the unmistakable sound of the ocean in motion. It was as if we were in two completely seperate places at once, the best of both worlds amplified by their intimate and yet disparate connectedness. Another Eden found.
The next day we set out for Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness and Rehabilitation Center. The center is home to cheetahs, leopards, servals, caracals, meerkats, cranes and storks, as well as the African wild cat. Over 300 injured and abandoned animals are admitted to Tenikwa each year and they work to rehabilitate and set free as many of their animals as possible.
As part of their awareness and conservation efforts, they also have captive-bred felines that live in large natural environments which are enclosed. We spent the day learning about the animals in the most enthralling, heart-pounding way possible: face-to-face.
We entered the cheetahs’ enclosure and watched as the two strong males were fed raw meat from metallic bowls that our guide barely placed on the ground before the feasting began. When the cheetahs were finished eating, the taller, younger, and more playful one began walking circles around Lee and I and the two other couples on our tour. We could tell this made the guide a little uneasy as he quickened his pace to stay between the cheetah and us guests. No sooner had the cheetah gotten ahead of our guide than he pounced on a woman in the group. She stiffened and the cheetah let go, assuming his position on the grass once again while the guide nonchalantly shook it off. The cheetah hadn’t intended to hurt the woman, he had just caused several tears in her shirt and leggings, but having his face in hers, claws in her legs, standing upright and looking into her eyes, put a good bit of fear in her and the day was only beginning. We had only gone in the enclosure for introductions, to get acquainted with the cheetahs, next we were going to walk with them in the open wild through the Tsitsikamma Indigenous Forest and Cape Floral Fynbos.
The cheetahs wore harnesses that had two clips where leashes were attached. We were instructed to walk them as you would a dog, with the leash completely slack between you and the animal, just there if need be. Next we were told that as long as we stayed colse to the cheetah’s body and next to their shoulder blades, there should be no problem. Just don’t move up next to their head as that would take away their peripheral vision, and don’t look into their eyes as they might see it as a challenge. We were also told it was okay to pet them as we walked along, but not too lightly or they may mistake your hand for a fly or some other pest. And of course, if the cheetah decided to run, their top speed being about 65 MPH, do NOT try to keep up, drop the leash immediately. Thus trained, we set out into the vast wilderness with a cheetah as our guide, Lee holding onto one leash and me the other.
Having witnessed what a possibly antsy attitude can do in the cheetah-pounce incident, I channeled Caesar Milan’s teachings and tried my best at being calm, comfortable, and ever-so-vaguely assertive. It worked. We walked for over an hour with the cheetah leading our way, stopping to sniff a tree here or take a break there.
At every downhill section we came to we were warned that the cheetahs like to run down hill and at one point I found myself jogging down an incline next to the cheetah who happily kept me in tow. Their fur was soft and warm and they behaved like ambivalent house cats receiving our devotion. It was a truly incredible experience with truly incredible animals.
Taking the advice of a South African friend abroad in San Francisco, we headed to Storms River Mouth and hiked to several suspension bridges from there. The views to the Indian Ocean were spectacular throughout the entire walk and standing on the swaying bridge as white caps bombarded the rocky shores and a team of kayakers passed beneath us, we once again thanked our lucky stars for the oportunity to see a small part of Africa.
On our way back to Cape Town we stopped in Outdshoorn where the world’s largest population of ostrich live. Interestingly, ostrich feathers were worth more than gold during the height of their boom from approximately 1902 – 1914. For this reason, thousands of crops were pulled up in the Outdshoorn area and replaced with lucerne which was used to feed the precious ostriches. Men struck it so rich through their ostrich farming that they built lavish houses furnished extravagantly on their farms. Some of these “feather palaces” are still running today, even though it is said that the widespread use of the car beginning in 1914 brought the downfall of ostrich feather use and worth because the fast speeds of the car blew off ladies large hats decorated in the plumes. Nonetheless, we wanted to see one of these feather palaces for ourselves.
Upon arriving to Cango Ostrich Farm we were greeted with a cup of hot tea and encouraged to enjoy the main hall while waiting for our tour to begin. We sipped and reveled in the framed photos of eras gone by that were punctuated by the crowned jewels of ostrich feathers. Afterwards we walked the farm grounds, saw eggs in incubation, and fed the ostriches by hand. Lee rode one for a brief few seconds and I got a “neck massage” as I held a bucket of feed and the ostriches swarmed behind me for the extra treats.
Just down the road awaited Cango Caves, a series of limestone creations over 20 million years old, where we walked through cavernous chambers as large as a football field and dripping with stalagtites and stalagmites.
A pit stop for a taste of the region’s heralded port in Calitzdorp saw us tasting five different wines before selecting the Boplass Tinta Chocolat, a deep red with strong hints of mocha and dark chocolate, which we brought back to Cape Town.
The remaining drive was just as strikingly beautiful as the rest of our road trip. Animals from usually far off places grazed outside our windows, mountains erupted from the pastures, rocks created scenes from distant planets, and the setting sun kissed all the land, making it blush with gratitude. This was a blessed place.