“I could live here” was Rebecca’s comment after 30 mins in the lounge at Heathrow. I booked the lounge as a start of holiday treat and it was a hit. The kids played the Playstation games, drank the milkshakes and ate the crisps and Louise and I got 90 minutes of peace and quiet as we waited for the flight spoilt only by Louise’s lack of progress with crossword.
As we drove from the airport into the city we passed some of the wooden shanty towns of the Cape Flats an eye opener for Louise but familiar to me from my trips to Sao Paulo . The city itself was shrouded in brown smog as we passed the high buildings of the business district and the equally tall exploration rigs in the harbour. Protea Hotel North Wharf is our home for the next 6 days and we are impressed! The room is an apartment complete with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a spacious living area, at £56 per night it’s an Expedia bargain!
It’s a strange sensation riding the Table Mountain Cable Car ascending at 10m/s to the 1067m summit and rotating through 360° at the same time but then there are the spectacular views to take your mind off the strange movements. The day was now clear and bright and we gazed over the fantastic mountainous landscape to Cape Point, the Cape Town cityscape and across the Cape Flats to the mountain ranges beyond. Louise sure that the kids were ready to dive over the edge made sure everyone kept to the safety of the paths as we weaved our way amongst the weathered rock formations and flowering plants of the flat mountain top. The only disappointment was no sign of the Dassies, the relative of the elephant that looks like a rabbit sized rodent.
This morning Table Mountain had been replaced by a dark gray blanket of cloud and the rain poured. A day for indoor attractions and today it’s the Two Oceans aquarium at the V&A Waterfront. Louise didn’t like the giant Spider Crabs. Not surprising as they came from Japan , and anything Japanese is unlikely to endear its self to my wife! The Jellyfish were weird, the Moray Eels ugly and the Octopus entertaining until he took fright disappeared down his hole never to appear again.
In the main tank four large Ragged Tooth Sharks cruised amongst shoals of Sardines and Yellowfin. Even when divers descended into the tank and started to hand feed the rays and turtle they just continued with the slow cruise round the tank that strange emotionless look in their eyes.Today also saw the first significant batch of souvenir shopping. Wandering the craft markets of the Waterfront Rebecca picked some earrings fashioned from Ostrich egg shell and painted with an African design. Louise was surprised to find a number of things that she liked and is already mentioning there maybe a need to buy an extra suitcase for taking home the presents! The biggest surprise of the day was mine as I actually found a hat that fitted. Having for years worn uncomfortable hats that were all too small for my unusually large head (seems to run in the James genes), Louise dragged me into a shop selected a hat put it on my head and surprise, surprise a perfect fit. I can only assume that your average South African shares my ‘big head’ problem.
The best laid plans of mice and men come to naught. What do I mean? You ring early and book tickets for Robben Island (famous as the prison of Nelson Mandala and many other political prisoners), you stand in the queue to collect the pre booked tickets and feel very smug when the person in front is told that all are sold out for today. You collect your precious tickets and then with only 10 mins to departure the announcement all tours cancelled due to bad weather! Seeing as I’m sweating in the heat and the sun is burning from a bright sky it’s very hard to take. It eventually turned out that only one tour, ours, was cancelled, not my lucky day!
For dinner we booked a recommendation from the guide book The Africa Cafe. Sitting in the brightly coloured Egyptian Room with pharaohs and fisherman on the Nile painted on the wall. Our waiter brought round a jug and bowl and washed our hands at the table and then served a buffet of 15 African dishes. The food ranged from the familiar (deep fried squid rings), the delicious (chicken marinated in honey and rolled in sesame seeds) and the unusual (ostrich fillet curry). We all, including the kids, tried every dish and then ordered more of what we liked. Halfway through the meal the waitress’s came through the dining room banging drums and singing. Louise says she likes the way the African women are big and proud, says it makes her feel better, I don’t know what she means?
Fifteen pounds buys you the use of a tinny Indian built Ford Ikon for 24 hours and the chance to head south to fictional tip of Africa , Cape Point. At Fish Hoek we watched as a whale played out in the bay with the flipper, tail and mist from the blow hole clearly visible great sight.
At Boulders Chloe and Rebecca clambered over the large rocks, while the occasional penguin wandered by. Boulders was a beautiful spot, crystal clear water, beautiful sand, spectacular views to the mountains across the bay, it even has a great café with an elevated shaded terrace that provides the perfect setting for our coffee and cake. We made our way across the boardwalk and into the heart of the penguin colony although progress was slow with all the ahh’s from Louise and the kids at the baby penguins.Back in the car we drove through mile after mile of spectacular scenery stopping only to look at some baboons close to the entrance of the park. The road took us away from the coast and across the treeless central landscape of the National Park. At Cape Point we rode the small railway up to the lighthouse and gazed down on the dramatic landscape, strange to think heading south the next piece land is Antarctica . We made our way back along the Atlantic coast in the rapidly fading light. Large waves crashed against the rocks close to the road and the spray created a mist like haze which defused the rays of the setting sun.
This was this mornings Cape Times headline. Along the same coast we had paddled yesterday a young lifeguard had had his foot bitten off by a Great White Shark.
Today was another where everything we touched turned to lead! First we had tickets for Robben Island and once again all the tours where cancelled so we rebooked for tomorrow. We then went back into Victoria Quay to the bookshop for Rebecca only to find it was closed for stock taking. Then we set off the MTN Science Centre at Canal Walk we arrived at 14:20 only to find it had closed at 14:00 for a special event. With everything going so badly all that was left was to shop. Louise having decided that she shares a body shape with your average African women she hoped and succeeded in getting a pair of jeans that were a perfect fit.
The road snaked its way down the face of Table Mountain towards the wide beach and stormy surf of Camps Bay. We parked up and from the rocks above beach watched the large surf erupted in a sheet of spray as it crashed into the rocks. The air was filled with a fine mist from the surf which obscured the 12 apostles the name given to the 12 outcrops of rock across the face of Table Mountain.
It was third time lucky for Robben Island as the ferry pulled away and we headed out into the rough Atlantic surf for the 13km roller coaster ride to the island. We walked through corridors of fading and peeling paintwork as we entered the Robben Island prison. We entered into the open areas were a shell lay entwined in barbed wire and rabbits ran about. In the dormitory we learnt how prisoners were segregated into Coloureds/Asians and Bantu with the different groups being allowed different clothing (Bantus were allowed no underwear) and different amounts of food (Bantus received less meat than other groups). Our tour guide a former political prisoner who spent 7 years imprisoned at Robben Island gave a passionate and interesting dialogue on prison life. We viewed the cell that held Nelson Mandela for so many years. Inside the small bleak concrete room lay the thin mat, blanket and a small collection of other items, not much to support a man through 17 years.We made a quick tour of the island spotting Ostrich and Springbok and magnificent views across to Cape Town and the ever imposing Table Mountain before returning to the harbour for the return installment of the roller coaster!
Our time in Cape Town is over, ahead 430km of tarmac across the Overburg to George. We drove out of Cape Town on the N2 across the Cape Flats with large townships on both sides of the road before reaching the other side and slowing climbing up to the pass. The drive was monotonous but easy long, straight, empty roads punctuated with the occasional set of road works to give the right foot a rest. The scenery was spectacular. Large fields of emerald green on gentle rolling hills with the backdrop mountain range stretching out in front and behind. Past herds of cows, flocks of sheep, fields of ostrich and small groups of antelope. On and on with the signposts slowing counting down the km to George.At the halfway point we stopped off at a brightly painted shack call Xairu. The word means paradise and sitting with our coffee and sandwich looking over the manicured gardens to the scenery beyond the name seemed very apt. After 5 hours we finally arrived just as the sun was low in the sky and the mountains behind the Fancourt Estate where taking on the red hues of sunset.
Take one canoe, two parents and two kids (who want to do all the paddling) and what do you get? The answer slow progress up the Touw River. With the sound of native drums in our ears and the heads of hippos and crocs poking out of the water our intrepid explorers slowly paddled into the gorge and the uncharted waters of the river (not really!).
What really happened was we zigzagged our way in our yellow canoe, water dripping off the double paddles and soaking our trousers. In bright sunshine we followed the other canoes into the gorge. Soon the others were far ahead and we were on our own with only the sounds of the birds for company. We paused to watch a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher diving into the clear water the sun glinting off its silver blue back. Later there was the red flash and silver green plumage of the Knysna Turaco crossing from one side of the river to the other followed by the large Giant Kingsfisher traveling the same route. The river became too shallow and rocky and we could travel no further and it was time to turn round and head back. After 2 hours we arrived back at the canoe rental exploration complete.
One of the reasons we came to South Africa was for the animal experiences and today the plan was monkeys. Our guide Joseph led us into the forest, an area the size of 26 football pitches home to 300 monkeys all from zoos or rescued from labs or unwanted pets. We wandered the paths with no barriers between us and the primates. The monkeys swung through the trees above us, ran between us and foraged as we stood only a few feet away. To a chorus of ahhhs from Louise and the kids we came across a group of Ring Tailed Lemurs all tangled together basking in a small patch of sunshine, some up on their hind legs, chins up and arms wide open soaking up the rays. Behind us he lemurs started barking and hooting as another monkey tried to cross their piece of the forest. Joseph in his slow monotone drawl described each species spectacled, spider, cappuccino, gibbon and black lemur. He kept on saying “we have to move on before it gets dark” which seemed very strange as it was only 2pm! At the end of the tour we ate our picnic on the wooden terrace using water pistols (supplied by the park) to keep the spider monkeys from stealing what was on the table.Adjacent to Monkeyland is the Birds of Eden. This is the biggest free flight aviary in the world, bigger than the Millennium Dome, home to the 2000 birds and is a world class attraction! We made our way along a winding boardwalk through dense forest filled with birds from bland browns to brilliant blues and reds. We passed waterfalls and crossed suspension ridges all the time the noise and excitement as the birds flew around us. At the top the forest thinned out and in this open area large flocks of parrots and other birds swooped through the air. Birds like large budgies perched on our shoulders and pulled at the girls’ beaded hair, and a grey parrot landed on top of my rucksack and tried to undo the zip. We wandered the paths until the sun was so low in the sky it was getting dark and it was time to head back after a great day.
Just 2 of the interesting facts I learnt about Ostriches from our visit to the Highgate Show Farm in Oudtshoorn. One that they have 1.5kg of peddles in their stomachs, if there are no pebbles then they will pick up anything including spark plugs, second they have 3 eyelids, one top, one bottom and one that goes from side to side! Louise also learnt that she has been dusting the wrong way (the guide demonstrated how to use an Ostrich feather duster) and we all learnt how the shins of the male go red in mating season (this time of the year) and how no part of the Ostrich is wasted including the beak (feed to crocs) and the legs (turned into table lamp stands). We hand fed the ostriches, stood on the eggs, sat on one and then watched them race.
The whole day was topped off by the best toasted sandwish I have ever had, accompanied by a delious salad. Food and drinks for us all less than 7 quid, bargin!
Driving north from George you climb into the mountains and into the Outeniqua Pass and on through to the Little Karoo region. This is place of wide open spaces with vast views across nothing but scrub, bush and cactus. The earth is red oxide in colour and on the roadside bright orange daisy like flowers growing by the roadside it is a magical place.
Destination was the Cango Wildlife Ranch and the chance for some close encounters. Having passed the chance to get in a steel cage and be lowered into a lake with large crocodiles we headed for the big cats. Louise and Rebecca signed the forms, received the safety briefing and headed for the White Lion enclosure. With three keepers standing close by they both got the chance to stroke Tribe a 16 week old White Lion Cub. Both had huge smiles but there was a stressed tinge being so close to such a powerful animal, in fact in one weeks time Tribe would stop being used for encounters deemed to be too dangerous. The power of these big cats was bought home later when we visited the White Tigers who were being fed, not nice chopped up bits of meat but whole calves. From our vantage point on the walkway above we could hear the crunching of bones as the Tigers tore them apart.
Chloe had been too young for the big cat encounter so for her a chance to handle a python which she enjoyed even when the snake tried to make a break for it.
A week before we arrived in South Africa there had been very heavy rains and wide scale floods along the Garden Route. There had been extensive damage and several people had drowned. We had seen the after effects in our travels but until today had not been affected ourselves. We arrived at the Wilderness National Park planning to walk a trail only to be told that the trials were all still closed due to the floods so we settled for a short walk and picnic on the beach.
The wide expanse of fine sand was covered in pieces of wood large and small all washed down in the flood and then thrown up on the beach by the large breakers.
The mountains and hills have disappeared behind a curtain of cloud and the rain is falling, it's the Garden Route in the winter. With the weather so bad a day staying on the Fancourt complex seemed the best option, so in the golf buggy and off to the swimming pool.
Fancourt is a huge complex of houses, appartments, golf courses and hotels. We were staying in my uncle's 3 bedroom house out on the far edge alongside the fairway of the 8th. The house is large and is built in the traditional Cape style with whitewashed walls and a thatched roof. We have Merirum the maid, to keep the house, and us, clean and tidy and at a cost of 90 Rand (6 GBP) per day she is worth every penny. Sitting out on the terrace on a sunny morning (not today) looking across the manicured garden, the rolling fairway and the rsing mounatins beyond it seems like our own little corner of paradise.
Did you know that White Rhinos on rainy days like to run down slippery hillsides and come to abrupt halt and then slide in the mud ! These are the sort of things you can discover on a Game Drive at the Garden Route Game Lodge.
The weather had not improved much and the rain threatened as we climbed aboard the modified Land Rover with 3 bench seats perched high above the guide and simple roof to shelter us from the worst of the rain. We passed through the electric fence and into the 1000 hectares of the reserve making our way along bumpy dirt tracks and crossing the flooded rivers and streams. We passed small herds of buffalo, bontebok, zebra,springbok, wilderbeast and impala. As we came across a new animal Andrew our guide stopped the vehicle and told us about the beast slowly making its way past us.
Being on the Game Drive was different to visiting a zoo. Yes there are still fences to keep the animals in but they are so far apart and if the animal want to run away then they can run and run. We stopped next to a pair of White Rhino the fact there was nothing between us and them making it an exciting adventure. Andrew explained that the Rhinos will be lying on the ground doing nothing and then the Elephants will cover over and start to slap them with their trunks, so the Rhinos get up and move away only to be followed by the Elephants who slap them again, just to be annoying!
On a far edge of the reserve we followed a fence behind which the Lions where enclosed. The adults were seperated from the younger Lions but as we stood and watched they started to roar a conversation between father and son, very impressive.
Back at the lodge a glass of sherry and a blazing fire drove off the chill from 2 hours out in the bush. Dinner was a buffet held in a large round thatched hut called a Boma. The food was excellent from the Bean Soup, through the Butterfish and Springbok Shank and finishing with the homemade Apple Cumble and Custard, delicious.
In the relaxed atmosphere of the lounge we drank wine, played Uno and soaked up the warmth from the open fire, all under the gaze of the large Buffalo head mounted above the the mantle.