South Africa Travel: from Cape to Cape
On a South Africa Travel trip to the Western Cape, with a brief excursion into the Eastern Cape, Eileen Wise and Roger Hermiston dip their toes into this remarkably vast and diverse land.
In a trip replete with so many thrilling experiences, it was perhaps the moment that captured the very essence of modern-day South Africa. We were on the final leg of an exhilarating ride round Cape Town and its environs in a motorcycle and sidecar – not just any old motorbike either, but one of Chairman Mao’s military vehicles from the 1970s, now performing sterling service for the adventurous tourist. Our courteous and knowledgeable driver Bradley halted the vehicle just as we began the final descent of our spectacular and exhilarating five-mile trip along Chapman’s Peak Drive.
From our vantage point we could now see the fishing village of Hout Bay in all its glory, the water sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine as pleasure boats mingled with craft engaged in catching the finest yellowfin and longfin tuna. On a huge granite rock overlooking the bay, stood a bronze statue of a leopard, put there by a local artist in 1963 as a memorial to the proud animal that used to prowl the mountains of this peninsula.
Bradley directed us to a scene that told the story of the other side of the rainbow nation. Clinging to the side of Skoorsteenkop mountain we could see the sprawling informal settlement – shanty town – of Imizamo Yethu, where the town’s predominantly black community live. Then, quite separately across the valley, underneath the jagged slopes of Karbonkelberg mountain, we glimpsed the more substantial yet still basic structures of the coloured population.
One beautiful valley, embracing three divided communities within the folds of its looming peaks, each living in their isolated enclosures and still somewhat suspicious of each other. A microcosm of this great country. As a traveller in this land of such physical majesty and cultural diversity you can revel in the opportunities and adventures on offer, but as the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth approaches, it appears his vision of a harmonious, equal, multi-racial society still has some distance to travel.
It seemed propitious that our hire car on this trip should bear the number 466; Mandela was given the prison number 466/64 – he was the 466th prisoner locked up in 1964 – when he began his life sentence on Robben Island. We made the obligatory trip to this rocky, barren outpost of history on our second day in Cape Town, where 63-year-old former inmate Ntoza Talakumeni was our engaging guide.
This juxtaposition of accommodation for man and beast illustrates the warped nature of South Africa’s apartheid regime
The main attraction was Mandela’s sparse cell in the maximum-security B-section – just six-foot wide, so when he lay down on his straw mat bed he could feel the wall with his feet while his head grazed the other side. But equally compelling was the tiny cottage where another hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress, was kept in solitary confinement and under 24-hour guard for six years in the 1960s.
Just a few yards behind Sobukwe’s tiny dwelling is a row of the most luxurious-looking dog kennels you have ever seen, built for the German Shepherds who kept guard on the Robben Island prisoners. This juxtaposition of accommodation for man and beast illustrates the warped nature of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
While in Cape Town we made the pilgrimage to the top of Table Mountain, choosing the comfort of the cable car to an arduous, if no doubt invigorating, walk to the summit. There, despite the hordes of visitors, we found some time and space of our own to explore the fascinating variety of flora and fauna, including the broad-leafed proteas, the national flower and symbol of the nation’s cricket team – more of that later – while keeping an eye out for the dassie, the small furry animal similar to a guinea pig, which lurks among the rocks.
Situated alongside Table Mountain is the minor summit of Devil’s Peak, and on its lower slopes is the Rhodes Memorial, the magnificent Greek-like monument to the mining magnate and African colonialist. Here we mingled with wedding parties and fellow travellers and admired the stunning views over the city.
Our base in Cape Town was the five-star boutique hotel The Marly, right opposite the beach in the heart of the chic suburb of Camps Bay. Our room faced onto the Twelve Apostles, the stunning mountain range that extends from Table Mountain in the direction of Hout Bay, to the seaboard suburb of Llandudno. Booked in for three nights at the start of our stay, we enjoyed it so much that we returned a fortnight later for our final night before departure. Our rooms were light, stylish and spacious, and the cheerful staff immensely helpful. There’s a buzzy cocktail bar and four restaurants including the superb Umi, a modern Japanese restaurant where the fish for the sushi presumably came from the likes of those boats we saw in Hout Bay.
It was time to hit the road – and in the Western Cape they are a motorist’s dream, long, straight, and relatively free of traffic – in our steady Mandela-number plated Hyundai.
First stop on our South Africa travel adventure, was the pretty town of Franschhoek in the heart of the Cape Winelands, the area where the fleeing French Huguenots first settled over 300 years ago and brought with them their knowledge in viticulture. We hopped on board a tram which took us to three estates – Rickety Bridge, Grande Provence and La Bri – where our knowledgeable guide Ray-Dawn Fortuin schooled us in the arts of smelling, tasting and drinking an assortment of red and white wines, with the national favourite Pinotage – the cross pollination of pinot noir and hermitage grapes – earning top marks.
We stayed on another wine estate, at the Holden Manz Country House. Our immaculate room was named Stony Brook, after one of the two rivers between which this beautiful Cape Dutch style house, with its open-thatched roof, is situated. In the evening, armed with a torch, we strolled through the vineyards to the Franschhoek Kitchen, where we enjoyed some fine Asian cuisine. Owners Migo and Gerard utilised Feng Shui in their design for the house’s restful rooms and inner courtyard with pond, and examples of their exciting African contemporary art fill the walls and their gallery in town.
Replete with good food and wine, we began to explore the great South African outdoors to burn off the calories. Eileen headed over, slightly nervously, to the Paradise Stables for a rendezvous with an Arabian horse – a breed that is famously strong and high-spirited. She needn’t have worried, because, accompanied by her expert riding companion Jonathan Kriel she enjoyed a gentle hack through sweetly scented plum orchards and vineyards in beautiful countryside.
In the afternoon, we set off on a hike into the Franschhoek Mountains on the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve trail with our guide Robyn Kadis, enjoying spectacular views of the valley, spotting the odd exotic bird and learning about the great variety of ‘fynbos’ or shrubland vegetation.
The most bracing activity was to come the next day, once we had made our way along the coast to the whale town of Hermanus. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right time of year to see the Southern Right Whale – they mate and breed in these waters between June and November – but there were still the remaining four of the marine Big Five – sharks, dolphins, penguins and seals.
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On an overcast, windy day we boarded Dyson Island Cruises’ Whale Whisperer boat along with about a dozen other hardy souls and a young and enthusiastic crew of four, and headed out into the Atlantic Ocean. For a time all was calm – and fruitful – with some great sightings of the endangered Humpback dolphin, and soon afterwards, a brief one of a very large Great White shark which had been lured to the surface by some tasty bait. Then we passed Geyser Rock and had a close look at the thousands of bawling grey seals who make this little island their home.
The real fun began on the way home. As the boat picked up speed in the foaming, rolling waves, those of us on the upper deck had to cling on tight to the rails as we were buffeted left and right, rocking and rolling, with our feet leaving the deck on a few occasions as if on a fairground rollercoaster. With the spray lashing into our faces and the wind whistling through our hair, battling the elements was physically hard work but utterly absorbing and exhilarating.
We spotted only a couple of the region’s famed African penguins on that trip, but made up for it with a visit to the nearby Stony Point Nature Reserve in Betty’s Bay, where we saw hundreds of these most engaging yet sadly endangered creatures very close up and personal. We were happy to plough just a little of our holiday money into sponsoring one of the artificial fibreglass burrows that help them to give birth in safe surrounds.
We were lucky to unearth a gem of a hotel on the outskirts of Hermanus for some downtime after the hurly burly at sea. Perched on a protected cove, Schulphoek House is a stylish boutique hotel priding itself on its South African heritage, and environmental friendliness, using solar heating, water harvesting and green building materials. Our spacious ocean-facing room had the most marvelous vista at sunset.
Hitting the fabled Garden Route that runs parallel to the Indian Ocean coastline, we passed through a varied topography of lakes, mountains, tall indigenous forests, ochre-coloured rivers and secluded beaches, before pausing briefly in Plettenberg Bay to restock our reading material at the wonderful The Village Bookshop on Main Street. Roger was delighted to find a copy of Amanda Craig’s brilliant novel Hearts and Minds as he had carelessly left his on the plane at Cape Town.
A hundred miles on, we crossed over into the Eastern Cape and St Francis Bay, a charming town created as recently as 1954 by Leighton Hulett, a larger than life South African who hailed from what was then Zululand. Initially, a small fishing camp on land Hulett had acquired through an advert in Farmer’s Weekly, and where he and his family would enjoy bathing and fishing in their isolated paradise, it’s now a busy seaside town with distinctive black-roofed houses, shops, hotels and a marina. It also has the most expansive canal system, built in 1967. We took a gentle tour along it with ‘Captain Kev’ MacInnes, a vivid raconteur who regaled us with stories of the area and portraits of the – largely rich, and sometimes famous – residents who have acquired magnificent waterside homes.
Once more we were lucky with our accommodation, staying at the Dune Ridge Country House, hidden away behind St Francis Links Golf Estate – voted one of the six best courses in South Africa. The family-run place combines the peace and tranquility of a remote farmhouse with all the accoutrements of a modern hotel. We loved our room with its ultra-comfortable double bed, huge bathroom with under-floor heating and private patio where we read and enjoyed a cup of tea.
Dune Ridge has some lovely walks with abundant wildlife and small game – francolins and guinea fowl. In the evening we took a candle-lit table in the warm and cosy dining room and enjoyed a magnificent meal of lightly curried pumpkin soup, grilled line fish and dark chocolate pudding, washed down with a bottle of Chenin Blanc.
Further east we passed the city of Port Elizabeth and the town of Colchester – the colonial place names have survived the demise of Apartheid – and on to the seaside village of Kenton-on-Sea, the stepping-off point for our last major adventure – a visit to the privately-owned game reserve of Sibuya in the glorious Kariega Estuary.
A 40-minute boat cruise gave us the opportunity to spot the Goliath heron ‘Gary’ – a long-time resident of these parts – together with a Sacred Ibis and assorted egrets and cormorants. We spent one night in a stylish thatched cottage suite in Sibuya’s Bush Lodge, and another in a tent in Forest Camp, on the opposite bank of the river. However, this was no tent like we were accustomed to in our school camping days. Reached at the end of a long, meandering walkway into the forest, it was a superb room, equipped with luxury linen and furnishings and a characterful bathroom with two showers, one inside and one outside – we had discovered glamping.
Our quest for the land Big Five extended over four drives, two in the early morning and two in the afternoon. The morning trips were especially magical, with the animals particularly active in the glorious, translucent light. We were lucky enough to see a pride of lions, the cubs cuffing each other playfully while the father looked on benignly, a couple of elephants making short work of prickly pear trees just yards from our land cruiser, and elegant giraffes fixing us with their unflustered stare.
Kenton-on-Sea, five hundred and seventy-four miles from Cape Town, was as far as the outward journey on our South Africa travel voyage would take us. For the return trip we took Route 62, voted by CNN Travel last year as the Best Road Trip in the World, driving through a varied landscape of rivers, valleys, plains and mountains. One memorable pit stop was at the Rose of the Karoo café and shop in Calitzdorp, a little oasis of homeliness created by its friendly owner Sandy.
Back at The Marly hotel, we had one final excursion to make on our South Africa travel trip. South Africa were playing Australia at Newlands cricket ground, on the first day of the third test match. With Table Mountain as its backdrop, this has to be among the most spectacular sporting venues in the world. On a gloriously warm afternoon we watched South Africa’s opening batsman Dean Elgar reach a century, and the Australian team start to fret. We were, as it transpired, on the edge of cricketing history; two days later, back in the damp of an extended English winter, we watched startled as the ball tampering row exploded on our TV screen, as the Australian captain Smith, vice-captain Warner and inept sandpaperer Bancroft were banished from sight.
South Africa might have deep-seated social and political problems to solve, but we came away feeling there is nothing this young, vibrant democracy which its big-hearted people cannot ultimately solve. We will certainly be back, even though Messrs. Smith, Warner and Bancroft might not.
For further information on South Africa travel www.southafrica.net
Premier Holidays offer a 12-night South Africa travel trip around Cape Town and Garden Route for £2,599pp, following Roger and Eileen’s route. It includes flights with BA from Heathrow and car hire, for travel on selected dates from July 1 – August 20. For further information or to book, visit:www.premierholidays.co.uk or call +44 (0)8444 937 531.
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