Tuesday, December 14, 2010

10 days in South Africa

After a long 24 hours of traveling from Kilimanjaro to Cape Town on a total of three flights, I was relieved that we had pre-booked a transfer from the airport to our hostel and that we had already committed to spending five nights in Cape Town to have some downtime to rest after our East African safari.

I think that three days & nights would be sufficient to thoroughly explore the city, as you can easily visit multiple sights using the City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus. Plus many places are walking distance from Long Street, which is where you will find most of the backpacker-style accommodations. However, we opted to stay at The Backpack, a hostel located in the Tamboerskloof neighborhood below Table Mountain about a 10-minute walk above bustling Long Street. Tamboerskloof is a bit more quiet and residential but still centrally located with multiple groceries, laundromats, internet cafés and plenty of good restaurants. The day we walked down to the V&A Waterfront via the city center, it took us approximately one hour but we did stroll leisurely along pedestrian-only Government Road.
As you can intuit from my random notes listed below, I found Cape Town to be a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan city. However it is very easy to see that a large percentage of the population lives below poverty level as evidenced by the townships just outside the city center. Also, the crime rate is quite high and break-ins are regular occurrences despite almost every business & residence having sophisticated alarm systems, high fences or walls with barbed wire or glass shards on top and security bars on the windows & doors. It is not advised for women to go into certain areas alone at any time of day and to never go out alone at night.

After our five relaxing days in Cape Town, we decided to venture east to explore more of the province known as Western Cape. Although there is a backpacker bus service (Baz Bus) as well as luxury intercity coach service (Intercape, Greyhound, Translux) and tourist trains that are quite expensive, we opted to rent a car in order to have the most flexibility. We booked the cheapest vehicle class through our hostel and got a 4-door Tata Invicta Vista with A/C, comprehensive insurance & unlimited km’s for only 251ZAR or about US$36 per day. The only catch is that it was manual transmission, so for anyone not able to drive a stick left-handed (as everything is opposite what you’re accustomed to in the U.S.), then you’d have to upgrade several classes to a more expensive automatic. One other thing to note regarding the car: it felt like I was driving a lawn mower, the engine was so weak! Accelerating to pass a slower vehicle, even on a flat stretch of road, was nearly impossible. We even turned off the A/C when going uphill as downshifting wasn’t sufficient to keep the car at a reasonable speed.

Over the course of five days & nights, we drove 1515 kilometers (as a point of reference, Cape Town to Knysna one way direct on the N2 is 517km) and an average of four hours per day. Obviously this is a lot of time on the road, which is not exactly relaxing, but it was the only way to see as much as possible in a relatively short amount of time. Luckily, the roads are excellent here, even the unpaved ones, and the majority of people are good drivers. Based on our experience, I highly recommend a more leisurely tour of this part of South Africa as the scenery was quite diverse and beautiful and there are plenty of activities, especially for outdoor enthusiasts.

The link to all of my South Africa photos is embedded in this title of this post. Just click on the title to view my Picasa Web Album.

Here is the circular route we traveled:

Day 1: From Cape Town, take the N2 towards Somerset West then take the R44 along the coast then northeast past Kleinmond where you can then connect to the R43. Continue south and east to Die Dam. There you turn off onto a well-signed but unpaved (dirt) road which eventually connects to the R319. Turn right and follow the 319 to Struisbaai.
*There are many scenic overlooks along the R44 past Gordon’s Bay. In season, it’s possible to spot Southern Right whales from shore. There were also many tempting, colorful little towns with art galleries, pottery shops, etc. but we continued on to Hermanus where we walked along part of the coastal trail then ate freshly harvested mussels for lunch. After checking into our hostel in Struisbaai, we drove another 10 minutes to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa. There we enjoyed a beer while sitting on a bench facing the Indian & Atlantic oceans after having a look at the lighthouse and an old shipwreck.
Day 2: Take the R319 north to Swellendam where it essentially merges into the N2. Take the N2 to Mossel Bay, the unofficial start of the Garden Route. Continue east to Knysna.
*We stopped for gas in picturesque Swellendam where we encountered the first of several road construction delays. Sadly, we had to pass by scenic areas like Wilderness and skip activities like cruising on the Knysna estuary or touring the Judah Square Rastafarian Community due to our limited time in the area. We did find time for a beer tasting at Mitchells Brewery, drove up to the view point on Eastern Head then down to the beach, and ate fresh, local oysters and listened to live music at Quay Four on Thesen Island.
Day 3: Backtrack on the N2 west to George then take the N12 to Oudtshoorn.
*This was actually our shortest driving day, however we burned an extra hour driving east to Plettenberg Bay as we had hoped to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park but found the 750ZAR fee to be exorbitant. Then we thought it would be fun to watch the bungy jumpers at Bloukrans Bridge (the world’s highest at 216 meters) but we didn’t realize it was actually closer to Storms River and another 40km to the east. So we just decided to enjoy the drive over a mountain pass and through a hops-growing valley to Oudtshoorn. This part of the Klein Karoo is known for ostrich farms so we made sure to visit one after eating ostrich for lunch at a café in the city center. Unfortunately most attractions close by 4:30PM so we did not have time to visit the Cango Caves as well. Instead we drank beer in the hammocks at our hostel!
Day 4: Take the R62 (longest wine route in world) west towards Montagu and continue on the R60 in Ashton. When you reach Worcester, get on the N1 towards Cape Town, continue via Huguenot toll tunnel (25ZAR) past Paarl to the exit for R44/Stellenbosch. Drive approx 17km to the city center.
*We expected this drive to take us 4.5-5 hours, but pretty much had the road to ourselves until we got to Worcester, so we made good time. We stopped for a toilet break in Barrydale and did brief town drive-throughs of Montagu & Robertson, where we also stopped for a quick look around a small farmers market and bought some local goat cheese and snacked on a homemade samosa. We then ate lunch in Worcester before finishing the drive to Stellenbosch. We didn’t do too much for the remainder of the day other than picking up a few groceries, stopping by an internet café for a brief check of email and researching the wineries we want to visit tomorrow.
Day 5: Wine tasting! There are over 100 wineries open to the public in the Stellenbosch area, all within about 15 minutes drive from the city center, so it’s really up to you how many you want to visit in one day. As a general rule, most are open Mon-Sat 9AM-5PM but hours do vary and many wineries are closed on Sunday so it‘s best to get the free booklet “Stellenbosch and its Wine Routes“ for a handy map and hours of operation.
*We started just before 10AM at Lanzerac where you choose 3 wines for 20R. As we were the first tasters of the day and chatted it up with the congenial staff, we also got a taste of a rare & unique Lourensford honey liqueur as well as a private tour of the cellar and wine processing area. Next we drove to Hidden Valley, which actually has a beautiful view of the region. There we sat outside and tasted 7 wines for 30R per person. They also grow Calamata olives and make their own olive oil, so we sampled both for an additional 30R. By then we needed to eat some food to absorb some of the alcohol and our next stop was Tokara. Unfortunately we found their restaurant’s menu to be a bit above our budget (starters averaged 80R and mains 120+) but luckily they also operate a delicatessen just up the road that was offering a small buffet priced by weight (18R per 100g) so we both ate a nice meal of chicken, roast beef and a variety of vegetable salads for around 60R each. Even better, their wine tasting (of anything they make) was free! We did pay an extra 10R for a glass of their brandy. We had planned to stop at one or two more wineries but the main road to the ones we had chosen was blocked by a police officer so we ultimately decided to call it a day just a little early as it was already 3:30PM.
Random notes
Cape Town: beer & wine, slow & not free internet - hung out at Rick‘s American Café drinking beer b/c they had free wifi, walkable but many obstacles in sidewalk, Christmas music & decorations, security bars, potable water, outdoor cafes, OTC drugs, downtime after safari, planning, haircut by Carmine Mosca of Salon Capri 40 years on Long Street men’s or women’s (short) cut 65R, Rough Guide to SE Asia publish price $29.95 but 255R at bookstore
Braai (Afrikaans for grilling meat over charcoal) is a social event; most hostels have one at least one night per week; we were lucky to be invited to a friend of a friend’s house in Green Point for a more local experience - had beef sausage, lamb & salad plus wine & beer
Driving - good roads, everything opposite, slower vehicles drive on shoulder to let others pass, flash caution lights as thank you; construction on N2 resulting in lane closures that could mean up to 20min waits while traffic from opposite direction passes
A few ostriches, blue cranes
Agriculture - cattle, sheep, wheat
Beautiful drive along coast on 43, sadly whales are gone for season
Dirt road between 43 & 319
Cape Agulhas - based on what we were told by hostel in CT, expected nothing, but there are actually 2 towns with all the necessities; hostel was decent but definitely catered to a younger crowd, 2+ dogs, braai that we didn’t eat b/c they said it would be ready in 30min and over 1hr later they still hadn’t started cooking our meat
Beers: Mitchell’s (small brewery & tasting room in Knysna) 90 Shilling, Milk & Honey, Raven Stout, Forester's; Castle, Windhoek (Namibia), Hansa Pilsener, Carling Black Label; Savanna cider, Anker (Belgium), Augustijn (Belgium)
Condoms 10pk free in public restrooms
Mussels in Hermanus
Local oysters R65/dozen in Knysna Quay Four
Greg won a Collins Street band CD
The Heads (upper & lower/beach) are worth a stop but there are unofficial parking attendants everywhere and we were always weary of when to tip just to be sure the car doesn’t get broken into
Wanted to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park (which is actually closer to Plettenberg Bay than to Knysna) but prices were not listed on the brochure and when we got there it was 750ZAR! However you could just take the tour which does include interacting with some elephants for 175ZAR
“Ostrich extravaganza” (pasta with mushrooms, bacon, mussels, ostrich, sherry & cream - very rich!) at La Dolce Vita in Oudtshoorn
Safari Ostrich Farm - our hostel had 2-for-1 voucher that saved us R66; didn’t get to sit on or ride an ostrich because it had been too hot that day (over 30C which apparently makes the animals more aggressive) even though it was much cooler when we took our approx 1 hour tour at 3pm
Did not have time to visit both Cango Caves (famous for stalactite & stalagmite formations) and an ostrich farm as everything closes by 4:30pm
Bought groceries to cook dinner at the hostel
Have been eating pb&j again to save money although food at restaurants is much less expensive than you’d expect with the average entrée costing R55 at more budget (but not fast food) places and closer to R100 for fancier dishes like steak & seafood
Townships (ie, shanty towns) are primarily located on the outskirts of city centers but are found everywhere we traveled and are often quite large comprising thousands of residences; it appears these are “sanctioned” by the government as there are paved walkways along the main road near the townships and often signs indicating heavy pedestrian traffic; in fact, we did encounter tons of hitchhikers, often standing practically in the road (on an 80+kph highway!) and waving either 10 or 20 Rand bills to entice cars to stop which seemed to be a fairly common practice amongst the locals
Grocery stores sell zebra, ostrich, crocodile & springbok pate; you can also buy eland, kudu, springbok, ostrich biltong (jerky)
Extremely windy in Stellenbosch; brush fire near our lodging started while we were in grocery store and blew smoke & ash particles into our room; no store can sell any type of alcohol after 8pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays, none on Sunday
Surprisingly, many wineries closed on Sundays (I would have thought they’d get more business on weekends so would be open)
Saw springboks in field; baboons outside of Huguenot tunnel
Lunch at Drog in Worchester - large, filled to rim glass of house wine was only 17ZAR

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