Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cape Crusaders

As we arrived in Cape Town on the overnight bus from Windhoek we were aware of two facts, the first is that Cape Town is commonly touted as being one of the worlds top cities and the second being that South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Should we be amazed or petrified?

The main centre of Cape Town, at least as far as backpackers are concerned, is around Long Street, which can be roughly described as 2 parts Khao Sanh Road, 1 part Camden Town and 1 part Laugarvegur (the main street in Reykjavik). From here it is possible to walk to the shiny, and very tacky, V+A Waterfront (where we lasted about 15 minutes!) as well as to the older parts of town including the castle, which is one of the oldest buildings in South Africa. We camped at a lodge in the Gardens suburb of Cape Town, situated right at the foot of Table mountain. The lodge has a bar terrace from which it feels as if you could almost reach out and touch the side of the mountain. Or at least it would had it not been so bloody windy during our entire stay that we were actually blown out of the campsite and into the safety of a room! The sky was absolutely clear and the weather perfect apart from the wind, which prevented us from climbing the mountain. It seems that clear days do not come by too often on the Cape of Good Hope and when they do it’s too windy to climb! Nevermind, we consoled ourselves with pints of Pilsner Urquell (on draft!) from a pub on Long Street. An Irish pub ironically, but I suppose Prague is closer to Dublin than to Cape Town!

After a few days soaking up the culture of Cape Town we hopped in a hire car and headed off to explore more of South Africa. Why another hire car? Sure, there is more public transport here than in Namibia but we have been put off public transport by about 600 South Africans who have warned us as we have come down through Africa that if we even set foot in a minibus here we will certainly be mugged, raped and murdered. Of course I am sure it is not as bad as that but then we found a car hire firm with rates lower than the costs of the buses we would take over the same amount of time. So, in the end it was cheap and best to take a car! What was the first thing we did with our car? Visited Canal Walk shopping centre, claimed as the biggest in Africa or something. Why? I still don’t know, I think to buy a road atlas and Monika needed a new pair of hiking trainers but inevitably we got stuck there for hours, mostly because it really is so huge that its easy to get lost the instant you walk through the revolving doors!

The Cape peninsular has been the site of so much history that it felt quite eerie to be standing there, under the lighthouse that has witnessed a thousand wrecks. Driving back through the Cape of Good Hope Reserve we experienced one of those amazing collisions of history and nature as we passed ostriches and kudu wandering around by the side of the road, stepping in between the beautiful flora of the peninsular, albeit without the protea flower that was yet to bloom. Cruising around the peninsular feels like a perpetual television advert for a sports car, winding around the bends that hug the sides of the cliffs with stunning views of the ocean under a clear sky. Heading back through the peninsular we passed the penguin colony at Seaforth, battled through the legions of Japanese tourists (who were all trying their hardest to get bitten by a penguin!) and gazed at the large groups of penguins hanging around. We were glad we hadn’t paid for the spectacle but that’s another story! At St. James we stopped so look at the famous, colourful beach huts, only to find that on the weekend they can barely be seen through the hordes of sun worshippers!

We headed off of the peninsular and along the coast to the town of Hermanus, famous for its whale watching. We had not even parked our car and we had spotted six whales just off shore. Needless-to-say, if you like whales but you don’t fancy stumping up the cash for a boat trip, this is the place to come. OK, not much of the whales is visible at any one time but the really impressive facet is the sheer proximity to the shore.

Heading further along the coast we came to Cape Agulhas, the southern-most point of Africa. It is a nice picnic spot but there is no real reason to come other than the “most southerly point” thing. This seemed enough for many people but in reality it is just a piece of strong marketing from the tourism board. It is in no way comparable with the Cape of Good Hope, being further south is not enough!

By this time we had developed a fair idea of the popular foods in South Africa. In a nutshell its meat, meat and more meat, but eaten in a variety of tasty ways. A great snack (forget the chewy sweets!) is biltong. Biltong is dried meat, usually beef but often kudu or some other type of game, which is chewy, tasty and ideal either for long car journeys or with a beer after a hard days sightseeing. If you like your meat warm however the steaks and various boerewors (sausages) available are top quality and relatively cheap. South Africa also produces a whole host of great cheeses, so basically the most popular food here is anything that goes well with beer or wine! And the wine is very good and very cheap also!

From Cape Agulhas we headed on towards the Garden Route. Most guidebooks and brochures would describe it as one of the highlights of a trip to South Africa, right up there with Cape Town, Kruger park and the Drakensburg. Unfortunately we were about 20 years too late I think! It is no longer the pristine wilderness from which it got its name. There are resorts, golf courses and shopping malls all along the length of the Garden Route from Mossel Bay to Storms River, it could be described as South Africas Costa Del Sol. Our first stop was Mossel Bay, which is the Benidorm of the Garden Route, all high-rises and concrete monstrosities looming over the beach. We only camped overnight and perhaps the best thing about Mossel Bay is its spacious and clean municipal campsite. The next day a mist descended so we passed through George and Wilderness without seeing a whole lot at all. We stopped in Knysna which is far more pleasant than Mossel Bay, a mixture of local streets and resort plazas. We were lucky enough to be the guests of some relatives of mine at Pezula Golf and Spa resort on the outskirts of Knysna, the kind of place that has its own TV channel advertising itself and that gets listed in ‘Worlds Greatest Spas’ and then leaves magazines around so the guests are constantly reminded of how lucky they are to be staying there. It is a fantastic place and deserves its accolades and we were very grateful to have been able to stay there. As guests of Ken and Marie we were shown the sights of Knysna and the rest of the Garden Route along to Plettenberg Bay, commonly referred to as ‘Plett’, where we ate at one of the best restaurants we have visited in Africa, The Lookout, which served up giant portions of seafood and other delicacies at very reasonable prices.

Trying to understand South African society is an exercise in getting a headache however. No matter how hard everyone tries race seems to permeate every aspect of society, from where people live, where t hey shop (even which supermarket they visit), which beaches, hotels, restaurants and bars they frequent and even which sports they follow. Whilst almost all South Africans we have met, regardless of their colour, have been liberal and open-minded it does seem as if they prefer to live in their own groups, almost like a natural apartheid. I know that sounds strange and I may be wide of the mark but that’s the impression we have received.

Heading on from the Garden Route we stopped at Tsitsikamma National Park close to Storms River. A small park with some nice, well-marked trails and an abundance of monkeys, it reminded us of many of the national parks in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We stopped for a half-day trek through the jungle to a viewpoint with stunning views over the coastline. Our next stop was at Jeffreys Bay, one of the surfing capitals of the world. There were lots of surfers there (blond hair, bare chests, board shorts) but no-one was surfing, apart from the streetkids that show up on Wednesdays for free lessons! Perhaps the wind was wrong or something or perhaps these days its enough to simply laze around watching surfing DVD’s and talking about surfing that you don’t need to actually bother getting wet!

Jeffreys Bay is close to Port Elizabeth, or PE as it is almost always known as. A large, yet non-descript, city we stopped only to visit the excellent Red Location, an apartheid museum in the New Brighton township. Built in an old factory with the exhibits housed in up-ended red shipping containers inside it is visually stunning and emotionally shocking, everyone should be made to visit. A slightly more pleasurable experience was Addo National Park, just inland from PE. Whilst we did not see any cats we did see quite a lot of wildlife (herds of buffalo and elephants, some warthogs, many tortoises, hundreds of dung beetles and several zebra, kudu and other antelope species), which was quite satisfying considering it was the first time we had driven ‘on safari’ by ourselves and that Addo consists of large areas of thick scrub and bush.

The coastal areas of the Western Cape are covered with shiny buildings, immaculate harbour developments and modern industrial and retail parks, all linked by good roads which are being improved all the time in readiness for 2010. As you enter the Eastern Cape however things deteriorate rapidly. At the same time you see more black South Africans whereas in the Western Cape many people are ‘Cape coloured’, descendants of slaves imported by the Dutch from Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Mozambique. They speak a strange dialect of Afrikaans and most have lost their specific ancestry due to generations of racial mixture. Travelling up the coast into the Eastern Cape is a reminder that this is Africa. In a small town called Butterworth that we passed through we suddenly realised this. There was more life on the streets but at the same time the roads deteriorated and there was more trash strewn around. One of the sad facets of South Africa is that even now, after years of an ANC government, the people in the old ‘homeland’ areas are still living in tumble down huts with no water or electricity supplies, the potholed streets littered with rubbish and with stray animals roaming around looking for food. The sides of the roads are covered with carcasses of animals that have been attracted to the road by the discarded fast food containers, whilst they were rooting through the remnants of someone’s Bargain Bucket, they looked out to see the headlights just a moment too late. A very real and depressing effect of littering.

Driving in the Eastern Cape involves not only conquering the potholes and dogs but also herds of cows and goats that have been left to graze freely, making night driving especially daunting, especially considering the amount of wrecked vehicles lying up-turned on the small roads of the Eastern Cape, along the worst stretches three or four can be counted every kilometre! During the journey from Addo to East London we had an overnight stop in Port Alfred, a nice little town along the way, before heading on the next day. Our first stop along the Wild Coast was at Chintsa, a nice secluded place with a stunning setting on the beach and an excellent backpackers lodge, Bucaneers, perched in the cliffs. It would have been perfect but it started to rain. It rained all night and all the next day as we searched for Dwesa Nature Reserve. This was probably the worst day of our whole trip. We got lost on dirt roads that were rapidly turning into mud-baths and we got a puncture during the worst of the rain storms. Actually we didn’t just get a puncture, we destroyed a whole tyre. And we never found Dwesa. We limped into Coffee Bay, touted as a ‘backpackers mecca’ by everyone who has ever been there. I thought it was over-rated. Maybe if you like the smell of marijuana (personally the smell makes me nauseous) you might enjoy it. It seemed to be one of those ‘cool’ places to hangout for weeks, full of dreadlocked tourists in fishermans pants. But, the weather was still terrible so maybe if it had been sunny I would have had a better impression.

In the end we missed Port St. Johns, our planned last stop on the Wild Coast. Why? The reasons are three-fold; firstly we were a bit fed-up of ‘backpackers hotspots’ and all that they entail, secondly the weather showed no signs of improvement and we did not fancy another night at the beach in the rain with nothing to do and thirdly, and most importantly, we did not fancy the 180km round trip from Mthatha on potholed roads with no spare tyre. Why no spare tyre? Because in South Africa nobody is allowed to make Baby Jesus cry by opening on a Sunday! The only option was to overnight in Mthatha, which was not the most interesting of places but in hindsight it was probably better than Port St. Johns would have been, although there was nothing in the way of budget accommodation. We consoled ourselves with pizza and trashy TV in our swanky B+B and as soon as we had the tyre fixed the next morning, (and found a wheel stud to replace then one I managed to snap) we fled towards Kwa-Zulu Natal!

No comments:

Post a Comment