Three weeks around the coast in South Africa

The plan was simple. We wanted to see as much of the coastline of South Africa as possible, as we were emigrating to Europe. Having shipped our belongings, we closed the door of the house for the last time and handed over the keys to the new tenants. There was now no turning back and we had three weeks until our flight from Johannesburg International Airport. Armed with our trusty white VW Golf (no aircon), a handful of maps, a bag of clothes and some cash, we decided to head west. Firstly because we had never been that way to the coast before and also following our instinct to “Go west, young man”… Here follows our diary of the trip.

Day 1

We hit the road fairly late, heading towards Kimberley, about 400 km from Johannesburg. We passed by quite a few open mines and the townships supporting them. The road was not, as expected, a highway, so progress was sedate, but traffic was light and it felt good to leave the bustle of the city behind us. We soon settled into “holiday mode” and “what will be, will be”. Arriving in Kimberley after dark therefore didn’t phase us, although it was clearly not part of the ‘plan’. Doing a quick lap of the town we decided to book a room at the Protea hotel, and settled in for our first night ‘on-the-road’.

Day 2

Quick tour of the ‘Hole’, large open mine, now purely a tourist attraction but a huge operation in diamond mining in its day. Interesting museums depict life at the turn of the century (1900s). Not much else in town our opinion, and we had some mileage ahead of us. There was no plan as such, but a rough idea of how far we should be going each day. Passed through Upington (nice town on the river, greener than expected) and on into the Augrabies national park, unfenced and full of Quiver trees and an awesome waterfall. Decided to camp the night as we had carted our camping gear along and we wanted to get ahead on our budget, oblivious to the fact that it was mid-winter in South Africa. Little did we know that the temperature would drop to minus 1 that night … Our air mattress was the perfect conductor for the cold air and there seemed to be a mysterious lack of firewood. Didn’t sleep much that night…

Day 3

Woke early (couldn’t sleep anyway) and had some coffee overlooking the Augrabies falls. Lovely to watch the sun clear the mountains. Decide then and there that this was our last night in the tent for this trip! Destination: Springbok. What an awesome road. Truly felt as if we were the only people there. At each crest of a hill we could see the road snaking into the distance as far as the eye could see. Not even a tree, just miles of grass and dust, flat and featureless. Turning around the way we came, we saw the same, a ribbon of road and some telegraph poles… and that’s it! Truly awesome. We finally make it to the fabled town of Pofadder. Incredible! In the middle of nowhere, a few houses, a church, a petrol pump and a general store. Like the set of a western movie, and not a blade of grass in sight. The ‘gardens’ of each house were simply fenced-off, well swept, dust bowls … How do these people make a living? Springbok looms up suddenly, nestled in a rocky bowl, not ideal as this makes it uncomfortably hot and humid. Also surreal, cactuses and rocks, grass and some trees dotted around the place, seems very inhospitable. Found a B&B in an old house, felt very suburban. People are giving us strange looks, probably wondering why we’re here. So are we, there’s not even a view…

Day 4

Decided to head for Lambert’s Bay (from hearsay) and stick to the main road. We have a long way to go, so visiting each town on the way is impossible. A relaxing drive, the countryside changes from endless fields of grass into rocky cliffs with stunning views of the craggy cliffs. Once again there are few trees, but each corner brings a new Kodak moment, difficult to capture the great ‘nothingness’ and vast space on a photograph. We get to Lambert’s Bay with an afternoon to spare. Nice lunch on the ‘docks’, actually a couple of fishing boats supporting a fish factory, but quaint and a laid-back feel. Book an apartment right on the beach. Have the place to ourselves, sundowners on deck watching the sunset…

Day 5

We ain’t goin’ nowhere … decide to stay another day. Lovely and relaxed atmosphere. We visit the outdoor ‘dune’ restaurants, closed but interesting to see, and the local bird life, thousands of gannets on Bird Island. End of the day is the perfect time for a barbecue. Red wine, chicken and sunset round off a great day of soaking up the sunshine from the deck and watching the Atlantic doing its thing against the rocks.

Day 6

Head on to the road early. Decide to follow some less well-marked roads and see where we end up. Dirt tracks leading nowhere are explored and many miles racked up looking for that connecting road. Finally back on the highway and heading south again. Good fun tossing the map aside and winging it a little. Scenery changes as we enter the upper boundaries of the wine country. Valleys become greener and more farms with citrus trees line the road. Every few km’s a farm stall pops up proffering juice, jams and some curios. Disappointed by Saldanha bay, what was mentally a tranquil little bay with sailing ships anchored and a bistro and a family of whales, is actually just an industrial fishing community and an army base. Langebaan is totally different. Definitely for the poseurs, large cars and even larger boats are only dwarfed by the neighbour’s house and presumably the size of your wallet. Nice B&B though, the find of the trip – neat, clean, big and fresh rooms with a nautical theme and a great full spread at breakfast. If only this place was down the coast…

Day 7

Head inland again. Towards the vineyards. Lots of towns dotted about, with immense valleys covered in grapes… Land in a small town called Riebeek-West. Very arty feel and a great guesthouse, actually an antiques store doubling as a restaurant. You can buy the lampshades or the chair you’re sitting on. But settle the tab first… The wine is good… Really good. Creaky bed with no springs in the middle, ancient house and even an outhouse out back (not in use). Can feel the creative vibe in the town, art studios and wine making.

Day 8

Time to go. Take the long road, even though we are a stone’s throw from Cape Town. The road winds through immense valleys, towering cliffs on both sides. A thousand km’s ago it was flat and featureless, now the mountains are simply breathtaking. The Hex River Valley must rate as one of the most beautiful gorges. I call it a gorge because the road seems to carve through the mountains with steep cliffs on each side almost leaning in towards you. Finally we ease into Paarl. Famous for its wines and a rocky outcrop that shines like a pearl (paarl) when the sun catches it right. Seems to be a bustling little town after all the sleepy villages we’ve passed through. Book a room in a guesthouse (probably one of the worst on our trip, but cheap enough) and decide that today is laundry day… Take a drive to the ‘rock’, very misty and chilly, but quiet and peaceful.

Day 9

Keep the room for another night in order to explore the region. That way our laundry can get done and we won’t have to worry about finding another room if we are going to stay in the area anyway. We ‘do’ Cape Town and surrounds. Having been there before, its mystery has disappeared, but we do manage to find a sign for Atlantis next to what is basically a township set among the trees on some road. Not exactly inspiring… Lunch in Franschhoek. Must stand out from the rest as being the most picturesque. Nice main road with plenty of choice in lunchrooms. Come away from the day with the feeling that most of the towns here are modelled along the same lines, farming communities, wineries and little more besides guesthouses. Time to move back to the coast.

Day 10

Take the main road to Strand and Gordon’s bay. The little road from there to Hermanus along the coast is stunning. Sheer cliffs on one side and the crashing waves on the other. Hermanus appears out of nowhere and we need lunch again. Head for the Wimpy, definitely the way to go. Your order arrives almost before you order it and the breakfasts are perfect and reliably constant no matter where you go. Nice little museum on the old ‘docks’, or slipway. The whale watching capital of S.A. – but not today it seems. So we meander on towards Gansbaai, the shark-viewing capital. The roads are good and well signposted, and follow the coastline fairly well. Very laid back, makes you relaxed and content to just amble along. We find a guesthouse right on the beach. Seven rooms and communal kitchen. It must be low season for great white shark diving as we have the run of the entire house. Sleepy little town…

Day 11

Feeling rested, we continue along the coast. Each corner brings something new and the towns become smaller and further apart. Find it impossible to follow the coastline, as the road turns inland with branch roads leading to the sea. Time consuming. But Cape Agulhas beckons as the southern-most tip of Africa… Strange feeling to stand on the end of a continent, ahead there are thousands of miles of open sea and nothing until you hit Antarctica. Feel small, and somehow in awe of this great country. Pocket a pebble as a memory. Continue to Arniston, and rent a house. Strange place, literally miles from anywhere, with one shop and two very good restaurants. The rest are premium houses hugging the beach and a few fishing boats. A place to really get away from it all…

Day 12

Enjoying the trip so far… Nice that we have no idea what to expect. Decide to head straight inland to the highway. Rolling hills with only wind pumps dotted around the place. Farm workers herding sheep down the road, causing chaos. Can’t help but smile. Pass through Swellendam, nice old town set against the hills. Beautiful setting, but with the world’s highest concentration of guesthouses, surely. Mossel bay beckons… the road seems to stretch longer and longer, we pass mines, townships and huge cattle farms, the countryside flattening out, but finally we enter the main road without even realising it. The Cape has the best tourism office in the country in our opinion. Easy to find, friendly people and tons of brochures. The back seat of the car is filling up and I’m certain it’s affecting our fuel consumption… We settle on a quaint old guesthouse, really old and a great view of the huge bay. Take a walk through the hills and visit the cultural centre. Pizza for dinner, with sea spray in the background. Don’t you just love the sea?

Day 13

Oudtshoorn is the destination. Leave quite early in the morning and cruise slowly, it’s not far. Seems to be getting drier and more arid. Amazing how a narrow strip along the coast is green and suddenly it changes… Head for the tourist board to find a room. Pick one out according to price and head for the other side of town. Turns out to be an old couple’s garage that they have transformed into a room en-suite. Flowery blue tiles line the shower and an eiderdown with frilly bits hangs over the bed. A white mirrored dresser stands at the end of the bed and bright green carpets on the floor. Like stepping back in time, to somewhere in the 70’s. We pay the man; feeling slightly sorry for them, and armed with a little knowledge, head out on a circular route to try and get back for a late dinner in town. We explore the caves, awesome! Head for the Swartberg pass. Heard about it, but nothing prepares you for it. Gravel road winds through the pass, incredibly steep, and with drop-offs right next to the car. A real experience… At the other end in a valley is Prince Albert, small town next to a river. Old houses and a laid back atmosphere. Take the other road back to Oudtshoorn, it’s getting late as we cross through the gorge, awesomely huge again, but after the pass we fail to take it in. Nice little road leading back to town, farmhouses, and streams…

Day 14

Set out for the coast and George/Knysna. Garden route is stunning. Check in to a tiny room in the ‘Caboose’ hotel, like a railway cabin. Find the railway station and board the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, an old steam train running between Knysna and George. Awesome! Cutting right through the forests of Knysna and along the sea. Lovely to see an old engine at work, how they build steam and take a run-up in order to crest a hill, almost slowing to a crawl at the top and then…made it, and free-wheel down the other side. Great stuff, what fun they must have had a hundred years ago. A bus delivers us back to Knysna and we stop at an oyster farm for a bite to eat. The most delicious, fresh oysters are grown right there and the deck of the restaurant provides a beautiful view of the lagoon. The restaurant at the ‘Knysna heads’ also deserves a mention for an excellent setting and great food.

Day 15

From Knysna we follow the main road to Port Elizabeth, making excursions en route to explore a dirt track or some minor road leading into the trees. It’s raining, or rather drizzling and it’s perfect mood and setting as the mist hangs in the trees, giving the forests a sense of mystery. Once again, off the beaten track, we are alone, sliding our little car down the tracks, through the streams at the bottom of the valley and up the other side. Thanks to some nifty navigation we always find the road again and head off in search of the next side road. We pass through Plettenberg bay, and head towards St. Francis bay. Somehow everyone raves about this place, with it’s canals and Cape Dutch style thatch roofed houses, but the drive there is flat and barren and the place seems to have an artificial feel. Once you get to the sea though everything is cool, and you quickly forgive anything. Get to P.E. latish, find another tiny room and have a steak before catching some shuteye.

Day 16

Getting to like this nomadic existence. Just point the car in the right direction and see where you end up… Always new, always different. Better not to have a plan, just a rough idea of the mileage we need to cover that day. Today it’s East London. Not too far, so we find the alternative route again. Can’t believe the beauty of this country and the diversity. Never stops changing… Grahamstown is quite interesting, old town, lot of history and older buildings. King Williamstown less so, masses of people and not much in the way of tourist amenities it seems. So many of these places deserve a second visit as we have little time and a lot of miles to do. Hogsback is lying in the snow, lovely little place, hardly a town, with houses scattered amongst the pine trees, and a beautiful view of the outstretched valley at the other side. East London has a nice vibe to it, very laid back, although the size of a city. Seem to do their own thing in relation to the rest of the country, like the land that time forgot. It’s there, but nobody’s noticed. Relaxing evening at the pizzeria right over the rocks, and the sound of waves crashing coming through the window of the hotel room.

Day 17 D-Day

Heard a lot of stories about the Transkei. Robberies and stuff, not very safe, don’t stray from the main road, etc. Find it very rural. Seems obvious, but you never really think about it. People walking in the road, heading who knows where, permanent road works all over the place, thatch huts all over the hillsides and cows grazing right next to the road. On a whim we turn off towards Coffee bay, a road stretching 80 km straight to the sea. Will have to return along this to get back to the main road. But we’ve never been here before… Feel very uncomfortable because of all the stares from the locals, like we don’t belong here. The car even gets hit by a stone, thrown by a child in school uniform … But Coffee Bay is simply unbelievable, probably due to the seclusion, but untouched and awesome rough crags overlooking the sea. Stay a little longer than planned and urge the car to the highway and on towards Margate, where we find the first place with rates posted and call it a night. What a day… it seemed like the ‘wild Africa’ of old, where explorers first found a country pristine and wild and untouched. Stunning to see.

Day 18

Spend the morning meandering along the South Coast, on the old road. Scenery changes again, with banana leaves making way for sugar cane. We pass Durban by and continue, trying to follow the old roads that pass through the towns. More sugar cane fields, and rolling hills. We break our unwritten rule and head to St. Lucia, despite having been there before. On our balcony overlooking the estuary, we light the barbecue and relax to the peaceful sounds of the evening. Truly an amazing place, can understand why it’s the fisherman’s best-kept secret….

Day 19

The Kruger Park beckons… We amble along though, enjoying the scenery and the freedom of the open road. We come up (on the map, it’s up) through Nelspruit, on a lovely little road. Beautiful vistas and valleys, hills and mountains in the distance. Seems like it was put here for us alone (and the locals) as there is hardly any traffic, bar a group of cyclists from Holland on tour. A thought sneaks in, that we have to leave soon … After buying some oranges at the roadside we head to the Kruger gate. At Skukuza we pitch our tent on fairly level ground and make fire. When in Africa, do as the… Looking around the rest of the campers who are also doing their best to provide themselves with sustenance after a long hard day in the African bush. We have to smother a laugh when we spot a satellite dish on top of a caravan. Some people can’t rough it… but later a crowd gathers and the volume is turned up, proving the adage that – Rugby rules… Ah sweet dreams…

Day 20

Wake early to try and catch the dawn. Gates open at six a.m. but we’re too late, everyone is up and a queue has formed at the gate. Patience prevails as we take another cup of tea and wait for the rush to subside. Finally we clear the gate into ‘Lion Country’! There’s nothing like the ‘Park’ to make you appreciate the earth we live on. Here all the rules we know are out the window and we march to a different drum. A charging elephant just inches from the car. Face to face with a lion sitting right next to the road, knowing that if you got out of the car… A fish eagle calls in the distance, a hippo grunts and a cheetah slinks off as we approach… Spotting a little Duiker on a hill, tiny animal. The Impala’s everywhere… Birds chirping away with long excited stories to tell. A lone vulture sits atop a dead tree… We head to camp at day’s end, careful to be inside before the gates close. Dinner at the restaurant buffet and an early night, the stars bright on a clear black night. At least it’s warmer than our first night in the tent three weeks ago… During the night a hyena enters the camp through the damaged (by floods) fence. It sniffs around the tent and I have visions of being dragged into the dark. We take refuge in the car. Trashcans are thrown over by the scavenger, the disturbance lasting a few hours… Everyone seems oblivious. Finally drift into slumber, crickets chirping…

Day 21

Last day in the ‘Park’. Head north on a circular route. Don’t even need to see game. Being here is somehow enough. Awed by the splendour of the bush. Feeling saddened that we are leaving this beautiful place. Spot birds in the morning mist whilst having coffee in the riverbed, a honey badger storms past us, on some or other mission. That fish eagle calls again, a crocodile sits motionless at a waterhole, prey in its mouth… Driving down a lonely dirt road we spot a rhino a hundred metres into the scrub bush. It turns toward us and walks in our direction. I frantically engage reverse and give it some room, the lumpy idling of the car a slight worry as the huge animal stands in the road facing us. Time for a few photo’s and then it’s off again into the thorny trees. We feel somehow honoured that this powerful beast would give us a Kodak moment and then disappear once again. We are silent as we move on again. We have a good day ‘spotting’, as they say, but unlike some, seeing an animal is a bonus, just to be here is enough… We end the day parked on the weir outside the camp to watch the sunset. Incredible…

Day 22

Time to go… We spot a leopard hidden in the foliage of a tree as we head for the southernmost gate. First time to spot a leopard, very shy animals, and feel that warm glow again. An eagle in the treetops, just in binocular range rounds off a great couple of days. It never seems long enough… feel a strong urge to stay. Driving along we rethink our trip. It seemed really quick in retrospect.

There were so many towns to explore, hills to climb, roads disappearing into the distance. The sound of crashing waves…. The smell of dry earth and long grass…. The setting sun framing a thorn tree…. The energy that is Africa! Hard to describe. Incredible. Feel honoured to have been able to see this much of the country. Somehow saddened by the fact that there is so much more to see. Want to see it all, experience everything. Want to know all there is about this beautiful land…

Somehow it dawns on me that we will leave Africa, but Africa will never leave us…

We arrive in Johannesburg in the afternoon after another slow drive, trying to prolong the moments… Head to the car dealer and hand over the car. Give it a pat on the roof in parting. It served us well. Many miles of tarmac and many experiences under it wheels….

Our lift arrives to take us to the airport, and it seems so final. We’re unable to drive there ourselves any more… Like our freedom has been snatched from us. After a long wait at the airport, we are finally allowed to board the ‘plane. I turn and take one last breath… I’m going to miss that smell.