Western Cape: Sweeping views and hidden gems
Jerome Cornelius finds odd contrasts and strange beauty on a road trip into the Western Cape
When it comes to road-tripping, I always go with the old adage, “east, west, south’s best”. Four grown men in a car is a recipe for a disaster movie — remember Deliverance? Or The Hangover?
Then we hit the Garden Route and Route 62 in the Little Karoo and any thoughts of shenanigans faded away.
While the winding roads of the Tradouw and Outeniqua passes might not be too kind to those who suffer from motion sickness, they do provide sweeping views — perfect for pensive stares and contemplation. The silence, occasionally broken by the swoosh of a truck, can be overwhelming.
But the landscape is dotted with farms of ostriches, scurrying creatures and vast acres of fynbos. And while the beauty is obvious, the real gems are found when you are not looking, or when you pull off the road and ask for directions.
In the unassuming Route 62 town of Zoar with its gravel roads is a yellow house with a small town inside. “Oom” Paul Wilson, a sprightly 80-year-old, has lived here for 40 years and has been making dollhouses for nearly as long. His highly sought-after creations — realistic waist-high miniatures — are from a time when, he says, craft and work ethic mattered.
“I sold 20 (dollhouses) to a guy from Joburg,” says Wilson, whose workshop repertoire also includes sprucing up Tuk-Tuks. “He called me soon after and said he sold them all and how soon can I make more.”
Contrasts abound on Route 62 with small settlements like the dry town of Suurbraak (no liquor stores allowed) to Calitzdorp, the port capital of South Africa. Here you can meet the Nel family, who, for six generations since 1880, have made the vines their lives, with every family member still involved.
“It’s hard to keep your head around all the bottles,” says Thea Meyer, our wine- and port-tasting guide. A dizzying array of bottles is laid out before her as we work our way through the tongue-numbing treats.
The road to the white shark hot spot of Gansbaai includes the Moravian outpost, Elim, where the church is the focal point, and is home to the country’s oldest water wheel. Constructed in 1828, and renovated in 1990, the mill is currently being renovated again.
Betty’s Bay is a picturesque beach town known for its penguins — and was recently in the news when a leopard helped himself to some for dinner. The chubby birds were so docile that we could almost touch them, only waddling away if we got too close.
We drove on, taking the magnificent coastal road to Gordon’s Bay and the flat-topped bulk of Table Mountain soon rose up in front of us.
Who says the tripping should stop once you enter the big city? The omnipresent red bus tour is the lazy man’s road trip. Better still, take the ferry to Robben Island to see one of our country’s most important attractions.
In the afternoon, drive to Cape Point where it feels as if Africa itself plunges into the Atlantic Ocean. Now that’s a dramatic way to end a road trip.
WHAT IS TOMSA?
TOMSA is the 1% tourism levy collected by tourism businesses with the aim of contributing to the promotion of South Africa as the preferred tourist destination locally and internationally. The levy is added to the consumer’s bill for their use of various travel and tourism services in South Africa such as accommodation, car hire, tour operators, travel agencies and tourism experiences. The levy is applicable for both local and international tourists.
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UP AND OVER (AND DOWN AGAIN)
The Western Cape offers some of the best mountain passes and most spectacular drives you will ever do, writes Paul Ash
When it comes to tackling mountain roads through the rocky barriers that separate the coastal plain from the interior, the TOMSA/Sunday Times Finders Keepers team surely got their money’s worth.
In their drive westwards down the Garden Route and into the Little Karoo, the explorers drove no fewer than four of the province’s great road passes — the Montagu and Outeniqua passes near George, the Huisrivier Pass west of Calitzdorp and the rugged Tradouw Pass between Barrydale and Swellendam.
The Tradouw and Montagu passes have rich stories behind them. The former was built by Thomas Bain — the talented engineer behind many of this country’s spectacular mountain roads — and was built between 1867 and 1873.
Many say it is Bain’s best pass. Much of the original stonework is still in place and there are many well-placed laybys where you can pull over to admire the engineering spectacle.
The Montagu Pass, which leads over the Outeniqua Moutains from George, follows the route of the railway for much of its distance. Although replaced by the new, tarred Outeniqua Pass in 1951, it remains an alternative route from George, much loved by mountain bikers for its hard-packed dirt and hairpin bends. From personal experience, I can say it might be one of the best, if scariest descents I have ever done.
If that thought doesn’t appeal, you can always tackle Montagu aboard the Power Van, a motorised “inspection car” which travels up the rail pass from George. The trip shows the best of both passes — the Outeniqua Pass on the mountain on the other side of the valley and the Montagu road pass below your feet — as it makes stops on the way for passengers to admire the view and enjoy the crisp mountain air.
Either way, some fine mountain passes are waiting for you. You should try them.
DETAILS: Outeniqua Power Van, phone 082-490-5627 or e-mail email@example.com.
THE ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
TSITSIKAMMA FOREST CANOPY TOUR
The Tsitsikamma Forest seems docile beneath the towering Outeniqua Yellowwoods and Hard Pear trees which throw spots of sunlight on the roaming bushbuck that graze beneath the thickets.
But it’s in the canopy 20m above where the action takes place.
The ziplines — which are strung between platforms on the trees — take you swinging through the treetops along a highway of criss-crossing cables and opens up a world where brightly coloured Knysna Turacos (Loeries) and a boomslang could be seen.
Storms River Adventures’ canopy tour was the first of its kind in South Africa and their impressive community support and focus on nature conservation make them a tourism business worth visiting. Aron Hyman
HANG OUT WITH SOME OSTRICHES
This could be the funniest experience of your life or the most frightening, depending on how you respond to an ostrich neck massage.
Ostriches are arguably the strangest creatures on Earth. Their brains are smaller than their eyes and they have the strength and stamina to be able to run at 30km/h with an adult human on their backs. It’s worth stopping by the Cango Ostrich Show Farm to see for yourself.
Oudtshoorn was practically built on the riches made from the ostrich feather trade a century ago — check out the magnificent “ostrich palaces” that have now become national landmarks — and then head to the farm. The tour includes an ostrich ride and a “neck massage” from the world’s largest bird. - Aron Hyman
DETAILS: Cango Valley, Schoemanshoek, 14km outside Oudtshoorn. Phone 044-272-4623 or see www.cangoostrich.co.za. Rates are R90 adults, R55 children.
MEET SOME SNAKES AND OTHER REPTILES
Welcome to the place to overcome your fear of the slithery evil doers. Ok, so getting to grips with a snake may not have been as easy or successful for some of us, but the enthusiastic guides and the farm-like setting made the experience more welcoming than expected.
Although if you don't want to know how a black mamba kills its prey (it involves the face, puffiness and lots of pain), take a bathroom break. There were also crocodiles, monkeys and even rabbits – all kept apart, of course. Jerome Cornelius
DETAILS: Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary, The Crags, Plettenberg Bay, phone 044-534-8056 or see www.lawnwoodsnakesanctuary.co.za. Rates from R160 per person.
RAFTING ON THE BREEDE RIVER
We took the beaten track out of Swellendam to the Breede River to go rafting with Felix Unite River Adventures, driving through fields of buffalo and antelope. After a thorough safety briefing, we set off downstream.
Although the rafting was less rocky than I expected it to be, it quickly humbled first-timers like me who thought it would be a simple paddle. A halfway stop for hot chocolate — or other drink of your choice — was the reprieve I needed to stretch muscles I never knew I had to steer a raft.
The boats used are inflatable “Crocs”, the staple — and very stable and safe — craft used on rivers all over Southern Africa. Jerome Cornelius
DETAILS: Breede River trips start near Swellendam. Phone 087-354-0578, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see http://felixunite.com/breede-river-trips. Rates vary but expect to pay from R595 to R2,495.
GET IN THE WATER WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS
White Shark Projects operates a custom-built 36-foot vessel from Gansbaai, near Hermanus, on trips to Shark Alley, the stretch of water between the mainland and Dassen Island, where great white sharks prey on the thousands of seals that live there. After a thorough safety briefing, the clients are lowered into the sturdy, customised cage attached to the side of the boat from which they can see one of the ocean’s great predators up close in its natural habitat.
You don’t have to be in the cage to get the thrill — you can also watch the sharks, who are active close to the water surface, from the safety of the vessel’s deck. If you are lucky, you will get to see them breach the surface in pursuit of a seal.
It’s an epic adventure all round and one that goes a long way to educating people about these misunderstood creatures.
HIKE THE OTTER TRAIL
The “Otter” is probably South Africa’s best-loved trail and for good reason — it is simply spectacular. There is a long waiting list to get on — expect to wait a year or more to get a booking — but fear not: you can hike 3km of the first day for free any time you like. The Waterfall Trail starts at the nature conservation offices at Storms River Mouth and heads west along the coast to a cave and a waterfall. The overnight huts are only for the use of hikers who have booked on the 42km trail so if you want to join them, you’ll have to join the queue.
Storms River Mouth is a wild and beautiful spot in its own right. The sea pounds onto the crags and sea spray settles on the natural forest that covers the hills behind.
There are a couple of trails leading from the rest camp. One picks its way over the rocks and leads you — via a fantastic suspension bridge — across the mouth of the Storms River itself.
DETAILS: Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikamma National Park, Stormsriver, phone 042-281-1607 or see www.sanparks.org. For Otter Trail bookings, phone 012-426-5111 or see www.sanparks.org. The trail costs around R1,000 per person. There are often cancellations at short notice.
Where to eat
You have to eat well on a road trip. We certainly did.
The best experience was the last — dinner at the Stella Café & Bar at Southern Sun The Cullinan Hotel in Cape Town. Tucked away in the palatial hotel with its massive ivory-coloured foyer, the café mixes chic with local flair. The décor has white and gold accents and the waiters wear white hats.
We were greeted with an elderflower gin and tonic, an exotic and refreshing cocktail made with Inverroche Verdant and elderflower.
The establishment’s trump card is its commitment to local flavours. Collaborating with local spiceries, the tapas menu is unique and included such delights as Bo Kaap bobotie spring rolls with lime pickle sauce, Malay braised sausage with roti and sambals, and dahl curry with atchar sweet potatoes.
In Knysna we were treated to a fine dinner at The Island Café at the Turbine Hotel where the offerings included poached Namibian crab claws, springbok carpaccio and brodetto di pesce — a Mediterranean linefish and mussel stew in a red wine and tomato sauce.
The next night found us eating more excellent seafood at 34 South, a popular family eatery that described itself as not quite diner, restaurant or bar, but combines elements of all of the above.
DETAILS: Stella Café & Bar, 1 Cullinan Street, Cape Town, phone 021-415-4000 or see www.tsogosun.com
34 South, Shop 19, Knysna Waterfront, Knysna, phone 044-382-7331 or see www.34south.biz
WHERE WE STAYED
ROSENHOF COUNTRY HOUSE
A five-star lodge (the only in the area) in the middle of the place known for ostriches? You only believe it when you experience it. Individual rooms the size of small homes in Victorian colonial style, the dining area boasts the original yellowwood roof and floor from 1852. Locals flock to Rosenhof for the country-house-style food, infused with Karoo flavours. 12 luxury suites and two executive suites, surrounded by a lush garden, with yellowwood trees and a thick hedge, to preserve the peace.
RATES: R1,600 per person including breakfast, R2,600 for two people. Rate valid until September 30.
This boutique hotel on Knysna’s Thesen Island was built around a salvaged power plant and beautifully restored remnants of machinery adorn the large halls. Each room has its own artworks and bits of old industrial equipment.
The criss-crossing canals offer easy access to the estuary and the “Turbine village” includes a bar and two restaurants. The Amani Spa in the hotel offers must-have massages, manicures and hydrotherapy treatments.
RATES: From R1,570 per person sharing in a standard room to R2,095 per person in the honeymoon suite. The self-catering Water Club apartment costs R2,095 per person.
Near Swellendam, on the banks of the meandering Breede River, a resort-style scattering of cottages caters for the adventurous traveller. Each huge, beautifully furnished cottage has a swimming pool, a braai area, a kitchen and even an outside shower.
With many water-related activities and plenty of space for revelling with friends and family, Aloe Ridge is perfect for weekend getaways or a stopover.
RATES: From R1,150 per night for the house on low season weekends (R995 mid-week) to R2,150 per weekend night in high season (mid-week R1,850).
CITY LODGE HOTEL GRANDWEST
Situated in the heart of one of Cape Town’s centres of entertainment, the City Lodge Hotel GrandWest offers comfortable accommodation at a decent price. Its location means quick and easy access to the bustle of the CBD as well as a fast route to Cape Town International Airport.
The wine farms of Stellenbosch, the beaches and Table Mountain are within close proximity. And when you’ve fulfilled those wishes, then head to the casino next door for a spot of roulette.
RATES: Internet rates R1,183 (single) and R1.392 double; walk-in rates R1,245 (single) and R1,465 (double).
This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.