Monday, February 01, 2010

January 21, 2010 - Route 62/ Little Karoo, South Africa

These past few days have been full of mountain passes, caves, big blue skies, vineyards, tissues and drugs. Yes, tissues and drugs. On Monday morning we reluctantly checked out of our little apartment at Storms River and hit the road. Our friends Kate and Amy would be flying over from the States at the end week, so we needed to start making tracks back towards Cape Town. Rather than heading back along the coast, we decided to divert inland to explore some of South Africa's vast interior.

We chose to make our cut north via the closest pass to Storms River, Prince Alfred's Pass through the Knysna Forest, which turned out to be mostly unpaved. As Sten navigated the dusty gravel road up through a dramatic mountain pass and up a narrow switchbacking approach to a lookout atop a mountain I worked on filling the door pockets, dash and glovebox with used tissues. The sinus congestion I had developed the day before had become a fullblown cold overnight.

As we drove out of the mountains and into the Little Karoo, we found ourselves driving west through a parched brown landscape, dotted with otherworldly vegetation, under a huge, deep blue sky. There was nowhere to stop for lunch, so as Sten drove, I dove into the chilli bin to pull out some humus, pita and cherry tomatoes for us to snack on (the tomatoes here are unreal; so sweet and juicy).

Midafternoon we rolled into the one horse town of De Rust where we refueled, threw out a mountain of used tissues, and bought some ice cream bars (as it was hot, hot, hot). Then we turned north towards the Meiringspoort, a (thankfully) tarred route through a narrow gorge in the Swartberg mountains. In the gorge, the road repeatedly crisscrossed a nearly dry stream as all around us folds and zigzags in the rocks of the canyon walls vividly depicted how the earth heaved as it formed these mountains. All too soon we emerged from the gorge into the green and fertile Prince Albert valley.

It had been a long day of driving, so we were relieved when the first lodging we tried had room for us. We checked into the Swartberg Hotel and immediately went in search of a pharmacy. I was even more relieved to discover that Advil Cold and Sinus (the real deal), was available off the shelf in South Africa. So I bought enough to brew a small batch of crystal meth back in our hotel room. But before firing up the bunsen burners, we went off in to find the local dairy, which we'd heard produced some award winning cheeses. Then we meandered back through town checking out the arts and crafts made out of the regions two main products: merino wool and ostrich. When I wandered into a shop and saw a bright orange and pink plaid merino wool blanket, it was love at first sight. Enraptured, I held it up for a very dubious Sten to see. He tactfully suggested that I should sleep on it (the purchase decision, not the blanket).

We went back to the hotel and had a swim to cool off and loosen up after a long day in the car. At this point I was so congested that mucus was running out of the corners of my eyes. So I headed back to our room to soak in the big white, clawfoot tub to try to drain my sinuses. Rather than venturing out into the heat again, we hid out in our airconditioned room and had a dinner of local olives, chewy ciabatta, and a nutty Gruyere from the dairy up the road.

The following morning, after a large breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I went back to the gift shop and bought the technicolor merino throw (a few days later, back at the boat, I would look at it and wonder if I hadn't been shopping under the influence of too much Advil CS). We packed up the car and headed towards the Swartberg Pass, a narrow untarred road that would take us up over the Swartberg Mountains.

The first half of the road was a series of hairpin turns, with vertigo inducing views from the passenger seat. For some reason, at the top, we assumed that it would be easy going from there down.

But the second half of the road was also dramatic. Every few kilometers we had to pull over to give ascending cars enough room to pass.

Since we were in the area, we decided to stop in at Cangoo Caves, one of the top ten tourist attractions in the country. I spent much of our tour through the dimly lit caves being entertained by a woman who kept trying to take pictures of distant stalactites and stalagmites and who became increasingly frustrated with her new camera's insufficient flash.

After the tour, we continued on down the road to Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital. We took a pass on the chance to ride an ostrich or camel, and decided instead to have ostrich and lamb burgers for lunch.

Do you think he knows that I'd like to turn him into a handbag?

Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to water, according to the local who pulled up, got out of his car, and carried the little fellow over to the embankment on the far side of the road.

Sharing the road with livestock reminded us of driving around New Zealand.

After lunch, we turned west. Along the way we passed miles and miles of fruit orchards. I don't know if it was the power of suggestion or a deep craving for vitamin C, but when we stopped at a farm stall, I couldn't resist a bottle of fresh squeezed pear juice. Early in the evening we checked into the backpacker's in Robertson. The owner showed us to the nicest backpacker room we've ever had. Unfortunately, that night neither of us slept as well we should have. We both had a rough night as my sinus congestion moved into my chest and my coughing kept us up.

Peach and apricot pits are a popular mulch in the Klein Karoo

Wednesday morning I woke up feeling much better, but was still coughing a lot. So before heading out to explore the area, we stopped at the local pharmacy where we were sold a cough suppressant with codeine. And then it was off to taste some wine.

South African wine is an incredibly good value. So we are planning to leave here with a bilge full of it. We came to Robertson specifically to buy wine, but due to my cold, I could barely taste a thing. So Sten became our chief taster for the day. By spitting a lot, we managed to visit ten different vineyards in one day. But we couldn't have pulled off that many vineyards in a more heavily traveled wine region. Robertson, which produces some great wines, is off the beaten path for wine tourism, so there aren't many punters crowding the tasting rooms. It is always preferable (for us) to be the only ones in a tasting room, that way we can move through wines at our own pace, quickly dismissing wines that don't suit our palates.

Codeine and wine (lots and lots of wine), a brilliant combination

The highlight of the day was the Weltevrede Wine Estate. The tasting room hostess was friendly and informative. And we really appreciated the displays on the terroir of their various single vineyard wines. It was one of the most fun tastings we've ever done.

We wound up at Bon Chance around lunchtime. So we joined a table of other travelers, including two Austrian winemakers, for a quick bite and ended up lingering for two hours talking about working overseas and life as an expat South African.

Our last stop of the day was Springfield Estate. We were already familiar with their wines, as we'd been served them in restaurants months before when we were based in KwaZulu-Natal. It was after a particularly good bottle of Springfield Sauvignon Blanc, Life From a Stone, that we first looked up Robertson on the map. We arrived at the vineyard knowing that we were going to buy at least a case of wine from them, which is lucky for them, because their tasting room attendant provided us with the worst service we'd had all day. She was uninformative, uninformed and clearly bored.

This morning we packed up the car and headed back to Cape Town. On our way out of Robertson we stopped at Graham Beck for one last tasting. This modern tasting room was the first we'd seen in South Africa where architecture and art are as big a part of the tasting experience as they are in so many vineyards in New Zealand and California.

We made it back to Cape Town by lunchtime and were back at the boat by midafternoon. We spent the rest of the day stowing the two cases of wine we'd purchased in Robertson and cleaning the boat in anticipation of our friend Kate's arrival tomorrow morning.

No comments: