Part 2 : Into the wilderness
We’ve set up camp in Wilderness for 10 days, and those 10 days were filled with mini road trips, as this is prime sight-seeing country, where mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and the ocean meet. This is where birds, rural coffeeshops, world-class restaurants, scenic dirt roads, mountain fynbos, Knysna Yellowwood forests all shout out for the traveller’s attention and where my daily ‘braaivleis vuur’ beckons to give flavour to those lamb chops Appie so lovingly packed.
As many of my Bonn based non-South African friends will probably confirm by now, having good quality meat and a decent ‘braai’ is very high on my list of quality time and soul finding activities. It’s not without good reason that the licking flames of a wood fire is often referred to as the bush television. As part of my initial trip planning I contacted Appie, a farmer and owner of Boeteka Padstal (32°30”08.83’S and 22°33”41.09’E) 18km outside of Beaufort West on the N12 towards Oudtshoorn and I ordered half a Karoo lamb, cut and prepared to my order, plus some prime T-bone steaks, boerewors and a Kudu fillet for a special planned dinner. ‘Baie dankie Appie, ons het soos konings ge-eet’. Check my next post which will include some time in Addo National Park, for feedback on Appie’s Kudu fillet recipe.
Ten days in Wilderness promised to be pure bliss, and yes it is such an incredible blissful place, it is actually spelt with a capital W. Wilderness or wildlands, according to Wikipedia are natural environments on earth that have not been significantly modified by human activity. This is not quite true. The Wilderness we were based at is the quaint anchor (pun intended) town in the Garden Route which nowadays provide abundant modernised human modifications such as restaurants and cafés. Wilderness is even more a prime destination for it’s natural splendour of forests, lakes, mountains, birdlife and ocean. Within an easy day’s travel, you have access to diverse environments, which includes the awesome Swartbergpas, Meiringspoort and Klein Karoo to the north and the Knysna forest, town and lagoon to the east, plus the lakes and Sedgefield with its weekly Farmer’s Market in between.
Please play the video
The Sedgefield market, though crowded and busy, is always a charming stop where I love to stroll, explore, smell, hear, see, taste and experience the variety of delights it has to offer. Here you can enjoy many wonderful products from fresh farm produce to samoosas, vetkoek, coffee, beer to biltong, (even) bratwurst, pannekoek and sweets while enjoying either the local Cape music, the new street children choir or the local hippy singing all the cool blues, rock and country from days gone by. The Sedgefield ‘markie’ does have one major disadvantage though. I tend to get stuck there enjoying the music sometimes to the annoyance of the rest of my travel party. It’s also an added pleasure when you bump into an old friend whom you’ve last seen in 2011, before moving abroad, ‘nè Lydia?’
Seventy kilometres north of Wilderness, in the heart of the Klein Karoo, is the town of Oudtshoorn, in the valley between The Swartberge (it means lack Mountains) to the north and the Outeniqua Mountains to the south. Oudtshoorn was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, an Utrecht (in the Nertherlands) born nobleman, and who came to South Africa as an employee of the Dutch East India Company. He was secunde (deputy Governor) of the Cape twice, and though appointed as Governor, died at sea en route from Europe to take up his post.
Oudtshoorn was also the home of CJ Langenhoven and his imaginary tamed elephant, Herrie. Langenhoven was a renowned Afrikaans writer and poet who wrote Die Stem, the Afrikaans poem which became South Africa’s national anthem under the apartheid government, and of which the Afrikaans verse of the current most beautiful national anthem in the world is still a verse from Langenhoven’s poem.
Oudtshoorn, the town, not the Baron, is also known as the ‘Ostrich capital of the world’ after the boom in the late 1800’s in ostrich feathers made it a household name across Europe. Every European lady simply had to have a feather in her cap, and tons and tons (that surely is a lot of feathers) were exported for this fashion statement. Well, one person’s vanity was another’s wealth, and some stunning ‘ostrich palaces’ as farm-houses were built because of the demand of, as Valiant Swart so accurately calls them, these ‘Volstruisveer Anties’. My interest, however, was more to traverse the majestic Swartberg Pass, that scenic splendour of a mountain pass built in 1888 by Thomas Bain. It is a 72 km dirt road which leads past the famous Cango Caves, and then over the world UNESCO site mountain providing breath taking scenery of Cape fynbos, steep rock face and rugged valleys deep down. Driving the pass, with frequent stops to make sure no coffee in the flask leaves the mountain and none of the fresh bread rolls, cheese and ham from the George Spar is wasted, was my plan for the day.
It is a slow drive because there is so much to see and photograph, but eventually we did get to the other side, and to the dusty arid Prince Albert with its hip and cool touristy restaurants, bars, art galleries and cafes. Prince Albert is fairly remote and is the first town over the Swartberg into the ‘Groot Karoo’, or Greater Karoo, but thanx to a good tourism industry, they have plenty of feet to ensure the healthy demand for modern day trendy Gin. So then, obviously we took some time out over a burger, local Gin and coffees on the Swartberg Hotel’s stoep which is sort of one with The Coffee Shop and Gin Bar.
‘Over the pass and the through the ‘poort’, that’s how you visit Prince Albert. Meiringspoort is named as a ‘pass’, though it’s through the mountain gorge crossing the Grootrivier 25 times in the span of 25km. The ‘poort’ was built by the famous father and son team, Andrew Geddes Bain (Dad) and Thomas Bain and their friend Charles Pritchard and it was opened on 3 March 1858. The Grootrivier is not really a big river, but it does have a temper and the poort is well known for its frequent flooding when that Grootrivier makes itself big after decent rains further north in the arid Groot Karoo. This is actually harsh country with very little rain and has been subject to severe droughts for a number of years now, but it still remains fantastic rugged scenery of grandiose proportions. The 320km odd daytrip, which will take you roughly 8 hours with decent stops is one of my Garden Route highlights and I am happy like a first-time traveller every time I get the opportunity to do this.
From Wilderness and where we stayed on the heights, the Seven Passes route between George and Knysna was my obvious next daytrip. It’s not a difficult route, unless you ask the opinion of the multitude of mountain bikers who nowadays frequent this stretch of up and down scenery to build their fitness. I entered the route from Whites Road which means I missed the first two of the seven passes, namely Kaaimans River- and Silwer River Pass, but we meandered the other five with careful consideration of on-coming traffic around the tight corners. We may have missed two of the seven passes, but I did make sure that we did not miss the carrot cake and coffee of Skotteljons in Hoekwil. The other five passes are Touw River-, Hoogekraal-, Karatara- (practice the pronounciation and you’ll still have self-doubt), Homtini- and Phantom Pass, and it criss-crosses over splendid old bridges, between beautiful dairy farms and through pristine Knysna Forests, always with that feintest of chances that you may actually be the luckiest person in the world and be blessed with a glimpse of the last of the shy Knysna elephants. Though the chances are really slim to see this phantom forest inhabitant in these parts, there have been sightings this far west, I read. Many years ago, these magical beasts once roamed freely and in abundance in these forests. They were always being threatened. When settlers started the large-scale deforestation in pursuit of the valuable timber and hunting the elephants for their ivory, their future was doomed. In his book Blood Ivory: The Massacre of the African Elephant Robin Brown writes,
‘The Knysna elephant went the way of all flesh under British royal patronage. Knysna Forest was the favourite hunting ground at the beginning of 20th century for England’s King George V. He termed it the ‘most exciting hunt in all the world’ and the thunder of the guns was muted only when Knysna elephants became too difficult to find ….’
New Year’s Day in South Africa is one of the non-official official Braai Days, along with Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Heritage Day on 24 September. Though South Africans do braai on other days too, these days mentioned above will without doubt be spent with braai tongs in one hand while keeping an eye on the fire and whatever is on the fire, no matter where you actually are on that day. Buffelsbaai is one of those favourite braai spots where pavements and beaches are transformed into a wonderous mingle of family, friends and just anybody who is in need of some sun, fun, laughter and something meaty to chew. It’s a wonderful experience to be part of this.
Karatara is a small forest station which have become sort of a town. Though it’s a very photogenic little town, nothing happens there. I do, however, believe I must mention the town’s rugby field, (as well as the Oudtshoorn one – see photo) as these fields in these quiet towns are part of the network of South African rugby pitches where Rugby World Champions are raised. It’s on pitches like these where young kids first play the wonderful game, barefoot in the frost early on Saturday mornings, but where for so many a passion for the game is really born.
Knysna is the perfect end-destination for a daytrip in the dirt of the Seven Passes road. We chartered a cruise to the Knysna Heads to peacefully marvel at the beauty of nature and to sample some freshly harvested oysters and Sauvignon Blanc from one of the prime Cape winelands. The Knysna ‘harbour’ does not operate as a commercial harbour anymore though pleasure yachts and boats are aplenty. The sea lagoon entrance and exit through the heads are actually so dangerous with wind, currents and the underwater path which needs to be navigated, that, according to our skipper, Lloyds of London specifically excludes the entrance through The Heads from seafaring insurance policies.
Besides the old town of Knysna, both the Knysna Quays and Waterfront as well as Thesen Island provide a variety of restaurants and cafes of styles, menus and lekker feel to them in which to end the day with a sumptuous dinner. Though not cheap, most of these restaurants are well affordable for the variety on the menu and the upper scale image they portray. 34° South still remains one of my favourites as it has mutated into a trendy beach café, but also hosts a full sushi bar, a la carte menu and snacks, while part of the place still is a curio shop, part stylish clothing and part supermarket/delicatessen. It’s a delightful place to stroll through, grab something as a gift, grab something to eat before having an ice cream outside while listening to that local guy with his guitar and no teeth singing or just check out the local kids playing water polo in the marina.
We met up with a lot of the family, enjoyed oysters, enjoyed dinner, enjoyed chats and laughter and catch-up and just enjoyed each other. We also had a braai. It was good.