South Africa Part 6: The Great Garden Route Road Trip

The allure of the road trip lie in its pendulumic states of wild abandon and stolen pauses. Inertia buckles our bodies in, elastic bands the difference between life and death at 100 kilometers an hour. Then: a makeshift parking lot in the form of a road shoulder, and feeling the weight of our insignificance next to mountains.

Alan and I covered more than 900 kilometers, primarily on the Garden Route — a slender stretch of coastal plain on the N2 highway. In five days, we travelled from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, but not before cutting through forested swaths in the day and meandering mountain roads at night.

Day 1: Cape Town to Oudtshoorn

Our first leg was probably the hardest, though. Alan drove more than 480km on this day (by himself!), leaving his hands and legs more than a little sore by the time we reached our guesthouse on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn, the largest town in the semi-desert region of Little Karoo.

But before we got there, we decided to grab a very late lunch — we had just been to Table Mountain in the morning — in wine town Franschhoek. We drove around in circles trying to find one particular restaurant. When we finally gave up, many others were closed — 4pm is way too late for lunch but still too early for dinner.

So it was sheer luck when we stumbled upon The Stall, a humble cafe with the Franschhoek Mountains for a view.

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And it wasn’t just because we were hungry. Their wood-fired pizzas (anything with parma ham and fresh tomatoes gets plus points) and burgers were so yummilicious Alan couldn’t believe it.

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My only problem with the restaurant was the sheer number of summer flies swarming around our heads and food. Pretty inevitable with the warm weather, but other than the annoyance, The Stall remains among our “Top 3 Accidental Finds” from our South African food adventures.

Poor navigation (my fault) and inaccurate directions (Rough Guides’ fault) led to Alan stepping on the accelerator after lunch because we just had so much ground to cover. Still, it didn’t stop us from pulling up at several road shoulders to stretch our legs and take the scenery. These are the wineries from a distance:

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This happened several times along the way:

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We also spotted Ron’s Sex Shop, a standalone one-storey building in the middle of the desert which does not sell things related to sex.

20140104-IMG_8154It supposedly serves coffee and tourist merchandise, but there are customers’ underwear hanging all over the place. Apparently someone painted the word “sex” on the wall and the owner decided to keep it. It’s a kitschy photo-op and you can give this place a miss if you’re in a rush, or are a hygiene freak.

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With all our photo-stops, I guess it isn’t any wonder we reached our destination late. Imagine trying to drive through a narrow, mountainous path illuminated only by our headlights — definitely one of the times I prayed the hardest. Thankfully, we reached Earthbound B&B in one piece.

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It was a small and quaint room, very cosy, but more importantly, it had a super-powerful air-con that is an absolute necessity in the sweltering desert heat. (Yes, I am a very heat-resistant person.)

Day 1 Essential Info

Laidback The Stall (~US$24 for 2 pax) was, at the time of our visit, a relatively hidden gem and is worth a visit. Time it go with your wine visits in the area — Franschhoek is supposedly Stellenbosch‘s upper-class sister.

Despite the narrow and winding roads, there are several areas where the road has been widened to make room for cars. Don’t forget to stop and snap pictures — one of the more amazing things is to see how the landscape in the Garden Route plays out as you go further east.

Earthbound B&B (US$35/night) is highly recommended, and the lovely host even prepares a breakfast-in-a-basket that comes straight to your door.

Day 2: Oudtshoorn to Knysna

The morning began with two picnic baskets at our front door, filled with warm, scrambled eggs, bread, yogurt, jams and all that other good breakfasty stuff.

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Maybe we overslept our hostess’ wake-up knock but we did not interact with her for the whole of breakfast — perfect for those of you who aren’t good with small talk. Personally, I liked that Alan and I maintained some semblance of autonomy as we set about toasting our hand-delivered bread. It’s essentially independence, without the work :p

The main draw in Oudtshoorn is the Cango Caves, an extensive system of limestone tunnels with breathtaking formations. The biggest “hall” was discovered by a local farmer in 1780 — its lovely acoustics made it the go-to venue for many choir and orchestra performances.

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Sadly, many concert-goers ended up breaking off bits of stalactites and stalagmites, putting an end to the performances by the mid 1930s and 40s. But our guide told us the hall still retained its amplifying abilities, and asked if anybody would like to give it a go and sing a line or two.

Suddenly, a strong, female voice cut through the murmurs: Shosoloza.

A pause, and then, a chorus: Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa.

And from then on, all the South Africans joined in the Cango Caves edition of “Shosoloza”, sometimes nicknamed South Africa’s second national anthem. Perhaps only 10 or 15 people were singing, but they sang their hearts out and the cave’s natural acoustics carried their voices. I did not know the words, but it was rousing.

Later I found out that it is a traditional miner’s song (how apt that I first heard this in a cave, then), and “Shosoloza” means “go forward” or “make way for the next man” in Ndebele, the language of a Zimbabwean tribe. It had its origins as a call-and-response tune; one man would sing with the rest of the group copying him; its sense of encouragement and hope let it become the song of choice for Mandela and fellow prisoners while on Robben Island too.

I was inexplicably touched after hearing the song, so when we moved over to the next hall and saw these beautiful formations I got a little weepy inside:

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The formation on the left is called “When Lovers Meet”, a completed column that took close to a bazillion years to reach what we see today. The name arises from the long wait calcium deposits on the cave floor endure to slowly meet those at the ceiling. And being the overly emotional romantic that I am, my heart broke a little.

Can’t remember the name of the middle formation but the one on the right is called “The Weeping Willow Tree” which also sounds equally tragic so I won’t go into detail.

Here’s something a bit more optimistic, a formation further in called “The Bridal Chamber”. THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE IN LOVE, KIDS.

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Oh wait, there’s a photo even better. We found this in the second hall, and we thought that one particular formation looked very much like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. Agree?

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After Cango Caves, we decided to visit the Cango Ostrich Farm — ostriches are the other thing the area is famous for. And this was where I found out that ostriches only have two toes (compared to most other birds’ four) on each leg! I was bamboozled by this little tidbit, since I have the worst balance in this part of Singapore but five toes to spread my weight out on.

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The farm’s guide seemed to go through the motions a little bit, like she was simply doling out memorized facts about ostriches. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and she certainly wasn’t aloof — just don’t expect to come out feeling inspired to be the world’s leading authority on African non-flying birds.

Anyhow, the guide showed us Shorty, a dwarf ostrich. In other farms, she would have most likely be killed, either by her fellow ostriches or the farmers, in an ironic bid to protect her. But because Cango Ostrich Farms is also a show farm, they can afford to keep her as a display — it’s quite a mercenary way of looking at the value of life, but at least it’s not at her expense.

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Shorty was adorable but our guide proceeded to show us this really demonic-looking bird.

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I also got to ride on an ostrich but looking back I’m not sure if I would have done it. And I say this not just because I was on the ostrich for all of two seconds before I flew off its back (ostriches can run at speeds of up to 70km/hr) and fell onto the hard, dusty, shit-strewn ground. I mean, if I were the ostrich and I had a freaking bag over my face and an extra load on my back, I would be throwing a temper tantrum too.

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We met more amicable ostriches towards the tail-end of our visit. But I think that’s mainly because Alan was feeding them.

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And this is Alan testing how strong ostrich eggs are: i.e. very.

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I don’t know if it’s messed up but our biggest takeaway from the visit is that we wanted desperately to try ostrich meat, so we drove into some chain and proceeded to get ostrich steak. It’s supposed to be leaner red meat, its low fat content a healthier alternative to beef. Alan liked his very much:

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After all this, we were on our way to Knysna, but not before making a number of small stops:

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Day 2 Essential Info

Cango Caves offers two tours that you should book in advance due to tourist demands. The “Heritage” tour (US$7.50) is a one-hour walking tour. This is a breeze, I think, compared to the “Adventure” tour (US$9.30), where we saw plenty of sweaty, huffing-and-puffing people. You’ve got to be fit for this one, since you climb about 200 steps down, squeeze through narrow postboxes, slide around crevices… and repeat this in the other direction to get back out. We regret not doing this, though.

There are many ostrich farms in the area and we picked the Cango Ostrich Farm (US$7.50). I don’t think the farm is a must-do, but the area is so synonymous with ostriches so if you think you might experience the Fear of Missing Out, then just pick one.

Alrighty, this post is too big for me to handle, so I’ll break it up into two. Next up: Knysna and Jeffreys Bay 🙂

Catch up on the rest of our South African adventures!

Part 1: Cape Town
Part 2: Stellenbosch
Part 3: Robben Island & Kirstenbosch Gardens
Part 4: Cape Peninsula
Part 5: Table Mountain
Part 6: Garden Route (Part 1)
Part 7: Garden Route (Part 2)
Part 8: Safari in the Kruger
Part 9: Johannesburg

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