Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 17, 2010 - Garden Route, South Africa

We spent one night on Mata'irea after returning from our trip up the West Coast. In the morning we were off again, this time to head east along the Garden Route to visit friends anchored in the Knysna lagoon and in St. Francis, which also happened to be the home of a few world class surf breaks.

On Wednesday morning, after Sten added some additional chaffing gear to the docklines, we got back in the rental car. Unfortunately, the replacement vehicle we had picked up the night before at First Car Rental in Cape Town had a serious transmission problem. So we called the airport branch and asked if we could swap our defective vehicle there. Looking at a map in the back of a tourist brochure I picked the most direct looking route to the airport. What I hadn't realized was that once we had driven north of Mitchell's Plain, a colored area along the False Bay coast, the route would take us through the sprawling African townships (read: slums) of the Cape Flats. It was an unintentional but interesting trip through rows of colorful, flat-roofed buildings, knocked together from any available material, including, but not limited to, concrete block, old packing crates, corrugated iron, aluminum, cardboard and plastic sheeting. Many roofs seemed to be held down with rocks. We saw several shipping containers repurposed to house businesses, like a barbershop with room for only two stools. The local papers regularly feature stories about the shortage of water and toilet facilities in the townships and the crime and poverty that are a constant feature of township life. Life must be incredibly hard for the residents.

At the airport we exchanged the troubled Mazda for a very basic Renault. Then we hit the road and headed east. We hadn't gotten very far when I spotted a sign for a winery in Elgin, right off the highway. So we made a quick detour. We tasted a few wines and picked up a bottle of Gewurtztraminer to take with us.

As we drove east, the scenery changed and soon we were surrounded by fields of wheat. But for the knowledge that the ocean was just over the horizon, we could have been in the Iowa. Around lunchtime we found ourselves near the town of Swellendam, which is filled with historic white limewashed, grey thatched and black shuttered Cape Dutch buildings. We had tasty lunch at a museum cafe and headed back out onto the highway. We reached Knysna, a holiday town surrounding a lagoon, just in time to join some friends for a beer at the yacht club. Knysna is one of only two all weather anchorages on the entire SA coast so it is no surprise that many cruisers end up spending weeks and even months there at anchor before heading around to the Cape Town marinas. After catching up with the crews of Nero, Tantrum, Vixen and Millennium, we bedded down at the very clean and quiet backpackers.

On Thursday morning we bypassed the breakfast offerings at the backpackers and hustled on down to Ile de Pain, a Knysna bakery that is considered one of the best restaurants in South Africa. Sten's poached egg como was perfectly done and my french toast was a decadent dessert-like concoction piled high with marscapone cream and berry compote. Even before we got the check, we were trying to figure out how we could fit in another meal there on our way back to Simonstown.

After breakfast we drove east towards Cape St. Francis, where our friends Karin and Russell on Moonwalker have decided to spend the year when Russell was offered a job at a resort there. Along the way, we passed the world's highest bungy jump at the Storms River and stopped in at Jeffrey's Bay to check out the surf. Nothing much was happening, but the forecasts called for the swell to build over the next few days. On our way down the coast to Cape St. Francis, we pulled off to check out a few more breaks, including Bruce's Beauties, made famous by the classic surf movie Endless Summer.

Once we were checked into the backpackers at the St. Francis Resort, Sten whipped up a pair of fried egg sandwiches for our lunch. I always tease him because he's the only one I know who puts mayo on a fried egg sandwich. I tease, but then I eat because it is darned good.

When Russell got off work for the night, we put together a dinner plan. We had the makings for steak tacos in the chili bin, so we decided to grill. Our kitchen was bigger than the one in Russell and Karin's bungalow, so we moved the feast over there. Just as we were sitting down to eat, the only other guests in the backpackers, a German couple, arrived back from eating dinner at the resort's restaurant. We cajoled them into joining us at the table with the warning that they weren't likely to get much sleep with us gabbing away in the kitchen.

The next morning Sten and I were completely krook. Thank god our room was an en suite. We were so relieved when we found out that we were the only ones sick and that we hadn't poisoned everyone else with questionable food that had been traveling around in our chilli bin for too long. So we started to suspect the mayo we used on the sandwiches the day before.

Sten recovered quickly and got in a noontime surf; but, I was still in my pjs at sunset when he headed off to the local pub with Russell and Fazie, the owner of the resort and Russell's new boss. The boys were gone for quite a while and eventually Karin got too hungry to wait any longer to serve dinner. She and I were having a very romantic meal for two when the boys came back. We all shifted over to the couches and spent a cozy and entertaining evening dining on Karin's roast chicken and listening to Fazie's wild stories.

By Saturday morning I'd recovered enough to venture more than 50 yards from the bathroom. So we checked out and headed up to to J'Bay to watch the crowd at SuperTubes. While not epic, seeing one of the best right handers in the world peel down the point was pretty cool. After an hour or so we turned the car west and headed east to Tsitsikama and the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp.

One of the best things we've done in South Africa has been to purchase a Wild Card, which grants the holder free entrance to national parks and discounts on accommodation [note to future visitors: if you are planning extensive SA land travel figure out a way to purchase the card before visiting Hluhluwe, instead of after as we did; you can use the Wild Card at KZN parks (such as Hluhluwe), but you can't buy it at them]. It paid for itself during our time at Kruger. Since then, we've used it to receive free entrance to numerous other national parks, including Tsitsikama, which is now part of the new Garden Route National Park.

After checking in we found our way down to our accommodation, an apartment right on the ocean's edge. When we arrived there was serious storm surf pounding right in front of our patio. We eventually tore ourselves away from the sight of the 4+ meter swell hurling itself against the rugged coast to take a walk out to the suspension bridge strung across the mouth of the Storms River. This past year, the park upgraded its trails and installed two new suspension bridges at the mouth, so there are now three bridges to cross. The views from the path down across the bridges were just breathtaking. The bridges themselves are just beautiful. They almost seem more like works of sculpture than civil engineering.

Back at our apartment, Sten, along with nearly every other man in the rest camp, fired up the braii for dinner. Grilling meat outdoors is a South African passion. That night we fell asleep to the sound of the thundering surf right outside the door.

On Sunday morning we donned our best footwear (flip flops) and headed off for a hike. We both seemed to be fully recovered from our gastrointestinal distress. But I was starting to get stuffy. The going was easy at first, and I had long since dismissed the warning on the trailhead sign that had rated the trail "difficult." Then, while ducking under a tree branch and standing up too fast on the other side, I slammed my head into a thick tree branch. That hurt. But not as much as when Sten suggested that perhaps we should be getting more consistent exercise as I struggled to pick my way along the trail blazed along the rocky shore.

One of these days I'm going to learn to pay attention to signs like these

We made it back to our apartment with just enough time to scarf down some lunch before getting back into the car to drive up to Storms River Village to join in the 3:30 Canopy Tour, which I had basically insisted we do. We donned our harnesses and helmets and joined two German travelers for a safety instruction. It was Sten's first time doing a zip line, and he seemed to enjoy it. As we glided down steel cables rigged between the tallest trees in the forest we saw two specimens of the very rare Knysna lourie. The canopy tour was a lot of fun, but by the time we had reached the end of the wire course through the forest and hiked up a short trail to meet the truck that would take us back to our cars I was a mess. My sinuses had completely closed up and my neck and shoulders were all out of alignment from headbutting that tree branch earlier in the day. I haven't been sick in a year and a half, and somehow I'd forgotten how miserable an experience it is.

Our canopy tour guides: funnier than George and Gracie

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