South Africa Journal
by Jim and Doris Wolfe
August 1. Arrival
The last two hours of the flight into Cape Town were very turbulent. Elderly Chicago lady sitting with us assured us that we were dead meat if we did not take antimalarial drugs. Landing approach quite harrowing. Huge 747 fell several meters a couple of times just before touchdown. Sixty knot winds off Cape Point.
Land at approximately 1 PM.. No problems with customs, immigration or baggage. I think the Budget car rental people are charging more than the rate I was quoted, but there is a long line of impatient people behind me. I’ll work it out later. Toyota Corolla has an anti-theft system designed to freak the operator out. Warning system goes off at random, no matter what you do. Put the key in the ignition and try to start without pushing the button on the key ring- nothing happens. Press the button, the alarm goes off. Press the button, the alarm stops. The key still will not turn in the ignition. Press the button again, nothing happens. Cautiously turn key and get ignition.
Relatively uneventful drive to Toad Hall in Simon’s Town. We have good directions and Doris gets me there with no problems. Meet Sandra van Osch and are shown to our very nice quarters. I go out to get our bags. Put key in trunk and unlock. Alarm goes off.
It is about two-thirty, so we decide to drive to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (1 km west of Cape Point). Cape National Park is nice, but we see only ostrich and one baboon. Howling 60 knot winds and 30 ft breakers off the point. Doris clings to the Cape of Good Hope sign while I snap a picture, then we both rush to the car. Spot another group of ostrich by the road and pull over for some pictures. Inadvertently park between flock and German tourists with cameras. Loud words that end with ...heit. Back up and wave. They scratch gravel and roar away. We take some pictures.
Have dinner in Simon’s Town at Pescado Restaurant. I have Mediterranean soup which is good and broiled linefish (later learned this means catch of the day), which is fair. Doris has a beautiful seafood salad with vegetables, prawns, smaller shrimp, mussels on the half shell and calamari. She is happy. Castle lager and white wine (only one of each).
Wondering if we have jet lag, we retire early, fall sound asleep and are stone awake at 11:30. Go back to sleep at 3, and...
August 2. Garden Route to Knysna
Have to drag ourselves out at seven to get ready for breakfast at eight. Beautiful garden tub Jacuzzi, but the trickle from the faucet is so slow I realize that it will not fill until noon. I take a shower and shave.
Breakfast by Sandra is very nice. Orange juice, sliced papaya, guava and passion fruit. We pass on the cold cereal and have eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, muffins and coffee.
It is an easy 20 minute drive up to the N2 highway which will take us up the Indian Ocean coast via the Garden Route. I get lost twice and it takes an hour and a half. The drive up the coast to Knysna, where we will spend our second night is supposed to take four hours so, predictably, it takes me seven. I think I do well driving on the left, but Doris yells at me a lot. I do seem to have a poor perspective, sitting on the wrong side of the car, about how close are drop offs, parked cars and other things on the left. I do lightly scrape a few things, but soon get it straightened out.
At lunchtime we discover something which we will enjoy throughout the trip. About every 100-200 km along the national highways there is a Shell Ultra City. Beautiful, clean 12-island service stations, nattily-attired attendants without a spot of grease on their uniforms (full service only). Also present are spotless rest rooms (always in the process of being cleaned- often by women in the mens, but nobody seemed to mind). In addition, there is a well-stocked convenience store and a Whistle Stop Café with American memorabilia (pictures of Elvis, big Harleys, etc.). Pretty much a McDonald’s menu, except they had a nice assortment of meat pies which were good.
At about 4 we arrive at our B&B, Narnia, at Knysna. It is a rustic place, built in "Out of Africa" style on a 100 ha protea (the national flower) farm. Stella Sohn greets us and takes us to our rooms. One interesting feature is that the toilet is enclosed in a tight fitting wooden box with a lid. Doris figures that, since she can see the ground around the pipes at the bottom, the lid is to keep snakes from climbing into the room.
We make a serious assault on the "honesty bar" and retire early after Knysna oysters on the half shell, Cajun calamari, paella, and a bottle of cape reisling at the Drydock café.
We could tell our jet lag was wearing off because we slept soundly until two, went back to sleep at four and were not too droggy when we got up at 6:30.
August 3. To East London
We were dressed, packed and ready for the road before eight. The jungle telegraph then began to speak just outside our verandah. We walked out to see a black man dressed in full Xhosa regalia pounding on a drum. Breakfast call. I asked permission for a photograph, and as I was lining him up, a farm worker from across the yard, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt jumped into the picture. Oh, well.
Another sumptuous breakfast with exotic juices and fruits, yogurt with a nice fruit sauce, then turning serious with a ham and cheese omelet.
Our destination today is East London, and it is a long drive. The route from Knysna to Port Elizabeth was gorgeous. Mountain and ocean views, occasionally marred by pine plantations. Got off the N2 briefly at Port Elizabeth and found the SA equivalent of Sam’s. They let us shop without paying a membership fee because we were tourists. It differed from Sam’s in that it had a humongous liquor mart. Prices were great and we stocked up on staples for the trip.
The afternoon drive was hell! Potholes, goats, natives, insane drivers, and then we couldn’t find our B&B for an hour after arriving in town at five. Finally found the Loerie (a bird) Hide after asking directions three times and backing up the street to it because it was one-way the wrong way. Dene Shaw was our gracious hostess (do none of these women have husbands?). We were in a separate unit built along the lines of a rondavel (photo taken).
Found a nice French café within walking distance. Very nice salad, shrimp remoulade, fried Camembert with fig preserves, snails in garlic butter, fried crocodile and a bottle of wine for under $30.
August 4. Across the Transkei
Dene fed us another fine breakfast, maybe our best yet. Juice, fruit, toast, eggs, potatoes, sauteed onions and mushrooms, stewed tomato topped with melted cheese.
An hour west on the N2, we crossed the Great kei River, thus entering the Transkei. Magnificent gorge, wide riverbed, but I did not see any water. During the heyday of apartheid Transkei was one of the native homelands. Quite depressing wide expanses of semi-arid mountainous country with shanties (mainly rondavels) dotting the hillsides. Highway crowded with livestock and people. The streets of the small towns were so crowded that it was difficult to get through.
One encouraging sign- decent looking schools even in the desolate countryside. Students invariably dressed in smart uniforms.
Thankfully, a Shell Ultra City appeared just in time for lunch.
Crossing from the Transkei into Kwazulu-Natal was like crossing the River Styx backward from hell to paradise. Nice forests, farms, police actually arresting speeders. Traffic fatalities in SA among the highest in the world. The speed limit on most good roads is 120km/hr (70 mph). It is largely ignored. When you are overtaken you are expected to pull as far to the left as you can on the apron. If you do and the approaching cars do the same (and they do) there is always plenty of room to pass. Forget the no passing lines on the road. Go for it! The worst offenders are the notorious black taxis. These are minivans designed for 9 passengers, but modified to hold at least 12. The drivers are not trained or required to have any kind of commercial license. We heard stories about the drivers removing the steering wheel and clamping a wrench on the steering rod to steer with- so he could squeeze in one more passenger. Carnage.
We drove through miles of carefully managed forestry. Unfortunately mostly imported pine and eucalyptus.
Spent the night at the Ingili Forest Lodge near Harding. Rustic but comfortable. Took a short uneventful walk through the woods. Decided to take a break from seafood and had steaks topped with onions and mushrooms. Very good but we could only eat half. Fried potato nests filled with English peas. Baked Irish and sweet potatoes. With a bottle of Shiraz- total bill $15.
August 5. To Umhlanga Rocks
I will not continue to describe our hog breakfasts. On the road early passing through miles and miles of forests and sugar cane plantations. Arrived at port Shepstone, just south of Durban to find new toll road. Beautiful new road with no traffic, so Doris decided to try driving. She scared the shit out of me a few times, but only after we got into relatively heavy traffic around Durban. Overall she did better than I did in the beginning.
Mary Ann Lobban had sent excellent directions to Sylvan Grove and we found it easily. It is before lunch, so we head for the beach. Walked a bit, waded in the ocean, took pictures. Found a 1-hour photo shop and had a couple of rolls developed. Somewhat disappointing. The shot of Doris at the Cape of Good Hope was not there. Had lunch at the George and Dragon, a pub in a row of shops a couple of streets up from the beach. Greek salad, fish and chips, Amstel lager, Chardonnay- $9. Noted an elderly British looking couple having their lunch and a couple of pints. Occasionally the lady would drift off with a piece of chicken from her salad hanging from her mouth. The gentleman stared straight ahead as if in a trance, except for a swallow of beer now and then. But when I asked the server for tomato sauce, he quickly handed me their bottle.
Check in at the B&B and take a two-hour nap. Now doing sundowners in a cabana by the pool waiting for dinnertime. Huge, fat ibis on roof next door making loud raucous noise.
Decide to try a hotel restaurant which is supposed to have game on the menu (the "Razmatazz"). I had braised impala in a sour cream-blueberry sauce which it would been much better without. Doris had ostrich in a fruity cream sauce. Not one of our better meals.
August 6. To Hilltop Camp.
Guilt drove us to the continental breakfast route this morning. Juice, fruit, bread and butter, marmalade.
We left Umhlanga early and headed north, still on the excellent toll road.. More pine and sugar cane plantations. Arrived at Hluhluwe-umfolozi park at about 11, after 17 miles of teeth-rattling potholes from Mtubatuba. Saw impala, giraffe and zebra on the way to our camp- about 27 miles from entrance. Hilltop camp is very nice with all the necessities, including a good restaurant from which you can see Cape buffalo grazing on the nearby hillsides while you lunch on prawn and crocodile salad and venison (impala) pie.
Took a short nap and a 21/2 hr drive around the park. Our most exciting encounter was with a huge white rhino grazing in the bush about 100 ft from the road. We stopped for pictures. After a couple of minutes he came lumbering toward us. Doris did the only sensible thing. She rolled up her window.
For dinner we experienced a brai (barbecue). Steaks, sausage, chicken, stew, rice, grits, sweet potatoes, several salads and desserts.
We then did a three-hour night drive with a ranger in a land rover. We saw less game than Doris and I had found alone in our little Toyota, and saw no predators except for spotted hyena and a civet cat. All told today we saw zebra, giraffe, cape buffalo, white rhino, impala, kudu, mountain nyala, gray duiker, waterbuck, blue gnu, galago, vervet monkey, spotted hyena, civet cat, baboon, and wart hogs.
Tomorrow we will spend half a day here and return to Umhlanga Rocks for the night.
August 7. The day of the elephant
After having breakfast and checking out we ran into the park ranger who had conducted our night drive the previous evening. We asked where we might see elephants, and he suggested an area which was on the way to an alternate exit to the park. We decided to try it. Saw a couple of baboons soon after leaving camp. Couldn’t get a picture. Did get more pictures of wart hog and impala. We were relaxed, driving slowly down a narrow gravel road looking for game. Suddenly Doris yelled and the biggest bull elephant I have ever seen came thundering down upon us from the woods beside the car. Ears flaring, trunk and tail up, coming wide open. There was noting to do but floorboard the Toyota and hope for the best. We got past by a gnat’s ass and he swung right in behind us. All I could see in the rear view mirror was his knees pounding after us. He was dead on our tail for a good hundred yards before we could pull away. I am anything but objective, but he was huge. Tusks 70 lb. each at least.
Although we had lost most of our enthusiasm for game viewing, we did stop for a few more photos, but only in open country where visibility was good. Within an hour we were again on the N2 highway, this time headed south back to Umhlanga where the Sohns had booked us a place to stay at Flamingo Lodge (Sylvan Grove was full). More eucalypt, pineapple and cane plantations.
Upon arrival we returned to the George and Dragon for lunch. The old couple are still sitting in the same spot. We did a little shopping and found our lodging. Very nice with a view of the ocean.
Had reservations at the King Prawn for dinner. Walked down a little early and had a glass of wine at an outdoor sports bar. The Springboks were on the telly, playing a crucial rugby match against the hated New Zealand All Blacks (uniforms, not skin). The crowd was very excited. After dinner we learned that SA had gone down to defeat and there was a general sense of depression.
August 8. I think it’s Sunday
Departed Flamingo lodge about 8 AM. Umhalanga is, by far, Doris’ favorite spot so far. We take the N2 back down to Durban, then up the N3 along the east side of the Drakensberg Mountains to the Orange Free State. Interesting scenery with huge monoliths, but never a spot to pull off for a picture. Took a left on the N5 at Harrismith to catch the N1 at Winberg and head back to Cape Town. Saw a couple of herds of roan antelope just before Winberg. Got some distant pictures. Also saw a ferret-sized animal, tan, long bushy, white-tipped tail.
Overnight in Bloemfontein. We had directions to the Holiday Inn but couldn’t find it so we gave up and checked into a fleabag . When we drove toward town to find a restaurant, we spotted the HI a couple of blocks away. Had bad steaks at a Spur restaurant (chain here) and went to bed.
August 9. Across the Great Karoo
Desolation. Found a Whistle Stop for lunch and it felt like an oasis. Bought more bottled water than we needed. I ate a chicken and mushroom pie. Doris had a salad and a chocolate sundae.
Arrived at Beaufort Manor in the town of Beaufort West about 3PM. Roomy, comfortable, almost elegant. Run by a physician, who has a clinic right in the place, his wife and several bushmen and bushwomen (Khoisan, to be PC). A scotty and daschund had the run of the place and demanded attention. There was a parrot in the courtyard.
Beaufort West was a nice, clean little desert town. We had a few hours to kill, noticed Karoo National Park began just outside of town, and decided to have a look. One of the best decisions we made all trip. Beautiful little springbok were everywhere. Also saw mountain zebra, eland, red hartebeest and ostrich.
Walked two blocks from the B&B and had dinner at the Royal Hotel. Kudu steak for me, saddle of mutton for Doris. She really gets into the lifestyle of a place.
Had cognac and cigars with Doc, who apologized for the growling of his colostomy. Real nice guy. Planned a scenic route around a detour which we will encounter tomorrow. Classiest place we stayed the whole trip, and it is in the middle of the desert!
August 10. To Stellenbosch
Doris has a stomach bug and has only tea for breakfast. At 8:30 we headed south on the N1. Pretty dull drive. Looks like the Great basin of the U.S. Lots of sheep and cactus; a few springbok. A little snow on the mountains to the south.
Our detour around the road construction provided nice mountain scenery with pretty, clear streams and rivers. Bring trout (which have been introduced) to mind. Stopped for lunch at a little mountain inn. I had a beef and Guinness pie. Mom tried a cheese and tomato sandwich but her stomach was still off and the smell of my pie caused her to have to leave the table.
Began seeing many vineyards as we approached Paarl. Our destination is Stellenbosch, a town of great historic significance, founded in the 17th century by a Dutchman named van der Stehl. Touted to be one of the most desirable tourist destinations in SA. Unfortunately there are no street signs and we did not have good directions, so we got to know it well before finally finding our B&B. When we did we were in too foul a mood to enjoy anything. The accommodations were far inferior to those experienced previously. The owner, an insurance broker and real estate developer with an attorney wife, looked and spoke like Dan Ackroyd.
We shopped in town and bought a few curios. Haggled the natives down to a ridiculously low price which was twice what we found the same items for later in Cape Town markets. Had a nice Italian dinner, but Doris is still gray around the gills.
August 11. Capetown
Left early and did the Cape Peninsula again because we had to have a picture of Doris at the Cape of Good Hope sign. Stopped by Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town to see if the penguins were there. Nope. At the cape we got our pictures and had lunch at the Two Oceans Café at Cape Point. I should note that neither Cape Point nor the Cape of Good Hope (1 km W) is the southernmost tip of the continent where the oceans meet. It is actually 200 km east at desolate Cape Aghulas, but nobody seems to mind. I had mussels and calamari tubes in peri-peri sauce over saffron rice which was fair. Doris tried fish and mussel chowder but did not like it much, although her stomach is much better.
On the way out of the park we got a good look and fair photo of a bontebok. We drove up the west side of the peninsula on the return trip. Spectacular vistas; high mountain pass at Chapman’s Peak. Scared to look down while driving. It was beautiful until we got to the Cape Town suburbs. From there through town was absolute hell. I was convinced that we were hopelessly lost the whole time, but Doris delivered the perfect combinations of soothing reassurances, accurate instructions, and blistering insults when needed to get us through.
Our B&B here is on the Atlantic beach at Bloubergsrand, 20 km north of Cape Town. Sunset Lodge is beautiful with an outside patio off our upstairs rooms which has a great ocean view- Table Mountain with its top shrouded in fog for the next two days so we do not go up it, and large vessels lined up for the harbor. Click. I just photographed a drop dead beautiful sunset.
Off to supper at an old farmhouse on the national register of historic places. Had fresh kingklip with a garlic and butter sauce. Washed it down with a nice fume blanc.
August 12. More Cape Town
Faux pas of the trip. Doris pointed out framed certificates and credentials for a mining engineer on the wall. I asked Shirley, our hostess, if they belonged to her husband. Nope, they were hers. She had worked in the gold mines in the Witwatersrand for ten years before they decided to have children. She is still young and her two kids are toddler and toddler+. Her husband sells fruit.
I drove to the waterfront in CT without mishap. If I was in heaven in the gameparks, it was now Doris’ turn. Acres of malls and shops of all kinds. We visited them all at least twice. I carried packages and paid the bills. Ate sandwiches and salads in a mall stall. Still too cloudy to mount the mountain. Maybe tomorrow.
Returned to Sunset Lodge in mid-afternoon for a nap and sundowners on the patio. Had dinner at a nice waterfront restaurant. Raw oysters and grilled linefish.
August 13. The last day
After breakfast we said goodbye to Shirley and headed up the coast northward to West Coast National Park. Lots of pretty birds and flowers, but red duiker were the only mammals we saw. I was hoping for gemsbok- they were listed as being there, but no luck.
We were back in CT for a late lunch at a restaurant we were thrown out of the previous day (actually we couldn’t get a table. Everything had been booked in advance by a busload of senior citizens on a guided tour). Had good fish and chips, Doris had a nice seafood salad. She ate the bodies (they call them tubes there), but would not eat the heads and tentacles so I got them. We bought 12 bottles of wine at a shop and they packed six to a box in boxes they guaranteed would withstand being checked through on the airlines.
Got to the airport early, of course. A bit of a hassle getting rid of the rental car. Then there was confusion about our flight, computer problem I think, and we were delayed for a long time in getting our baggage checked and seat assignments. The flight was delayed an hour, but we had a three-hour layover in Miami so I figured we’d be okay.
Although it was raining and windy, the flight out was much smoother than the flight in. Pretty good food and drinks on the plane, but too cramped to enjoy it. Something bit Doris on the neck, and I think I hear mosquitos buzzing occasionally. The flight originated in Jo’Berg- malaria country. The excitement may not be over yet.