After a busy half-day at work and a mad rush to pack all the clothes, food and assorted paraphernalia for a very short weekend away, it was an impressive logistic achievement that we managed to depart at 14h00.
Tuffy-Cat had draped herself over the still-warm bonnet of my car, resembling one of those happy-hugger bags that you heat up in the microwave and then arrange around your neck or lower back or wherever it hurts. I don’t think she fully realised that we would be gone for a few days.
And then – at last – we hit the road!
The Strand/Somerset West
As we crawled through one traffic light after another, dozens of Africans wandered past us, weaving between the cars, holding up for sale all manner of useful or useless items (depending on your point of view): bundles of cellphone car-chargers; caps, flags and umbrellas with the colours and logos of our local Stormers rugby team; clusters of sunglasses; colourful plastic soccer-balls; and my personal favourite, large inflated plastic Spidermen that you can just see bored and frustrated kids on backseats bopping their parents on the heads with, whining “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
Surrounded by all this deurmekaar, but choosing to tune it out, we polished off cheese-tomato-and-onion snackwiches left over from last night (cold, alas, but nonetheless deeee-lish!) and drank our first cup of thermos flask tea of the trip.
Across Sir Lowry’s Pass
Over Sir Lowry’s Pass across the Hottentots Holland Mountains, the traffic spread out. Trucks and slow exhaust-belching vehicles cluttered up the slow left lane, and showroom-polished 4x4s that hadn’t yet gone off-road and sleek luxury BMWs and Audis – and one VW Jetta (us) – roared past them in the fast right lane.
On the descent, the road narrowed into a single lane again, establishing a pattern that became familiar as we drove east: on the uphill, the road tended to widen into two lanes; shortly after the crest of a hill it narrowed into a single lane, unless it was a fairly steep descent, in which case the left slow lane remained available for trucks to down-shift through their gears and hydraulically hiss their brakes.
Most of the time, the road was fairly wide, even when it was just one lane going either way – there was usually space enough for slower cars and heavily laden trucks (of which there were many!) to move across the yellow line to let faster traffic pass amidst a flurry of flickering hazard lights and uplifted hands to signal “thank you” and flashing lights to reply “you’re welcome”.
All this overtaking at high speed is a bit hazardous too, though, as the yellow lane is not a ‘legal’ lane, and as there are usually people walking or cycling there. In fact insurances don’t pay out if you have an accident when you drive in the yellow lane, but few drivers seem concerned by that.
On the whole, we were impressed by the quality of the N2 – it was fairly smooth going most of the way, and with sensible road markings that warned of sudden curves, sharp bends, blind rises, speed limit changes, distances to nearest and biggest towns, etc.
As we drove past the turnoffs to the villages of Elgin and Grabouw (well known for their fruit farms) in the Hottentots Holland Mountains, where there are some very nice hiking trails, the cloud cover suddenly disappeared, and the day was transformed into a sunny, warm, blue-sky day! We regarded this as an excellent omen, and ‘cheersed’ the weather-gods with another steaming-hot cup of tea!
Snaking down the Houw Hoek Pass, we drove past the turn-offs to the popular coastal holiday resorts of Kleinmond and Hermanus, the latter of which is famous for being the best land-based whale watching venue in the world – the whales visit the area from roughly July to November.
In the Overberg
Then we left the mountains behind us and entered the rolling hill territory of the Overberg. Many of the fields on either side of the N2 and until the far horizon looked barren and dry, with the wheat or lucerne or whatever grain grows here having already been harvested. The big flocks of sheep were almost perfectly camouflaged against the pale-brown earth.
Just before we reached Caledon (the capital of this area, and known for its hot springs, wild flower show – and more recently for its casino), we got a huge fright that could have ended our weekend holiday then and there.
I was animatedly telling Richard about the Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster, and Stephen’s very funny recent trip to the Balmoral Show in south Belfast to meet the culchies (people from the country) and their cows. Suddenly, we crested a hill and saw something fairly big lying in the middle of the road near an intersection with a tiny gravel side road on our left, about 200m ahead. It was lying directly in our path.
A coloured couple with a cluster of bags around them was standing by the STOP sign on the side road, staring with a horrified look at both us and the thing in the road. What I had at first taken for a large blanket or a bag, was a man!
Richard braked and swerved left, thankfully missing the man AND the couple at the STOP sign. Was the man dead? Had he been hit by a previous car? Was he drunk and had he fallen over? Our hearts were pounding. We continued on slowly, digesting what had almost happened. After some debate, we decided not to stop and do a u-turn. There were enough people nearby already, the town of Caledon with its hospital was less than a kilometre away, neither of us would have been able to give first aid, our car was loaded up with luggage and we did not want to transport anyone bleeding and/or drunk, and as we did not know the circumstances of what had happened, we took the sensible (chicken’s?) route.
We cruised through the small farming village of Swellendam, a fairly large town with industry on its outskirts. At about 16h45, we passed the turn-off to the small pretty town of Heidelberg. We often encountered petrol tankers, multi-car-transporters, horse-and-trailers (and literally horses-in-trailers), trucks tightly packed with livestock, or farm tractors idling along, followed by a long column of cars, impatiently weaving in and around each other. I found these times quite stressful, but I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t be a whining passenger-seat driver going,
“Slow down, dear, you’re going too fast, mind the sheep, watch out for the cyclist, there’s a truck turning into your lane, oh my goodness, that’s a cow on the road! …”.
At least not this time! 🙂
An almost full moon had risen on the eastern horizon, straight ahead. The sky behind us was changing colours with the descending sun. My friend Kim called on the cellphone to say that she was flying to Italy today, so she would be spending HER weekend in Venice! Lucky girl!
We left Riversdale behind us, passed the quaint little town of Albertinia with its aloe factory. The scenery had changed a bit. The rolling hills with their sheep were left behind, as we approached the coast. Shortly beyond Albertinia, we crossed the Gouritz River Bridge, where suicidal thrill-seekers can bungee-jump into the abyss. The (marginally) less brave can get an adrenaline surge from bridge swinging, clambering up a vertical climbing wall or abseiling, while those who prefer a solid railing to clutch onto, a walking tour on the bridge is offered. That one sounds do-able, dontcha think?
The koala bear and the lizard
By now, the long drive without a break was starting to take its toll. We’d just had another cup of tea so we were “tea’d out”. We couldn’t get reliable reception on the radio, and in this morning’s rush I had completely forgotten to take along some cassettes. So we talked instead. Richard told me a joke about a lizard and a koala bear, which had me in stitches every time I thought of it, so here it is:
A lizard is wandering along through a forest, when it sees a koala bear sitting in the top of a gum tree, smoking a joint. So the lizard calls up, “Hey, Koala! What’re you doing?”
The koala looks down and says, “I’m smoking a joint, come up and have some.”
So the little lizard climbs up the tree, and sits next to the koala, and they puff away on the joint, getting all happy and laid-back. After a while, the little lizard says that he’s thirsty, what with the heat of the sun and the smoke in his mouth and lungs – he’s not used to this stuff – and that he’s going to go down to the river for a drink.
He manages to climb down the tree okay, but when he gets to the side of the river, he’s so stoned that the moving water makes his head spin, so he loses his balance and falls – ker-splash! – into the river.
A friendly crocodile sees this and swims over to the little lizard. As he helps the little chap back onto the shore, the crocodile asks him, “What’s the matter with you?”
The little lizard explains to the crocodile that he’s been sharing a joint with a koala bear in the gum tree up there, and that he’d gotten thirsty, and that he’d fallen into the river while trying to get a drink. The crocodile thinks the lizard is making up a story, so he walks off into the forest to check things out.
After a bit, he finds the tree where the koala bear is sitting finishing a joint. He looks up and shouts, “Hey, you!”
The koala looks down at him and says: “Fuuuu – k dude…….how much water did you drink?!!”
From Mossel Bay to Knsyna
As we approached the coastal city of Mossel Bay, the strange metallic spires and gleaming domes of Mossgas – now known as PetroSA – which produces synthetic fuels from off-shore gas fields (as far as I know) appeared on our left hand side. Apparently there is an information centre somewhere near the beach of Mossel Bay that explains the history of the Mossgas project and how it actually works. But as we were under time pressure to reach our accommodation in the Knysna forests before it became too dark, we took the off-ramp in the direction of George instead, and passed through the outskirts of Mossel Bay.
Not having been here for a number of years, I was appalled to see the sprawling townships that had sprung up along the N2. Although many of the houses at least looked like proper houses – neat, box-shaped, identical – the sheer vast number of them and the complete absence of any greenery was quite a depressing sight.
As the road descended down a hill, we saw the town of Mossel Bay spread out below. At first, we did not recognise the grey sea beyond it – we thought it was a blanket of smog across the valley. Then we saw huge ugly apartment blocks clustered along the seashore – a similar style to those awful high-rises you get in the Strand and along the Sea Point promenade – and as the road curved slightly to the left, it revealed big round domes with smoke stacks belonging to some sort of industry.
Apologies to Mossel Bayers, but this makes your city look really unappealing and unattractive.
We continued on and passed the picturesque holiday resorts of Hartenbos (which lies on a lagoon), Little Brak River and Great Brak River. Although all of these have increased in size since our last visit to the area, it is still very pretty and scenic.
The next town was George, the capital of the so-called ‘Garden Route’, and a big, spread-out city with its own airport. The sun had set far behind us, and it was already getting dark up ahead. We drove through the beautiful area of Wilderness – appropriately named, despite the plethora of houses that have materialised here on the banks of the Touws River Estuary. The hills and mountain ridges here are covered with lush vegetation. It was also quite beautiful to see the lights of the houses and the street lamps reflected in the water of the lakes and lagoons.
Next up was the small town of Sedgefield on the banks of the Swartvlei estuary (which is the largest natural inland saltwater lake in South Africa). Here we had to slow down because the N2 goes straight through the centre of the small village.
And finally the sign we’d been waiting for appeared up ahead – and we slowed down not to miss the sharp bend off onto a narrow side road marked “Rheenendal”.
The Rheenendal Road
Thank the heavens, it was a tarred road. I’d already imagined us clunketing and bumpeting along a bad gravel road in the pitch dark through the depths of a forest. But although the road was narrow and did not have a margin, it was in good condition and well tarred. We knew from the map I’d printed from the internet that our turn-off was 6.5 km down this road. About 5 km on, we passed the intriguingly named turn-off “Phantom Pass – to Knysna”:
“We’re going down there tomorrow morning, right?!”
Exactly at the 6.5 km mark on our odometer, we spotted the turn-off to the Lazy Leopard Forest Retreat. We drove slowly through the entrance, and followed the signs left in the direction of “Reception” and “Forest Moon”, which was the name of our hideaway for the weekend.
The Lazy Leopard Forest Retreat
It was 19h15 by the time we parked our car in a snug grass-covered, bush-and-tree-encircled parking bay. Corlia, our friendly hostess with whom we had only spoken on the telephone, had left the outside lights on along the little path leading down between the trees to our cottage.
The cottage turned out to be a largish Wendy house, which was suspended about half a metre above the forest floor. I did a quick survey of the amenities, specifically double-checking for any ‘wildlife’ lurking under the bed and in nooks and crannies.
Then we shlepped our piles of luggage down into what was going to be our home-from-home for the next two nights! Outside, there was a neat fire-place on the right, two metres away from the front door. In the end, we did not get around to making a braai.
It was really pretty and cosy inside. Quite rustic, but everything was there: a TV without reception but with a DVD player (and instructions that one could hire DVDs from the ‘Portland Mini Mark’ further up the road); a hairdryer (very sensible); a little stove for warmth (we snuggled under the blanket instead); a very comfortable double bed; a small cupboard if you didn’t want to live out of your suitcase; two folding wooden chairs for sitting outside on a small balcony that was encircled all around by trees and climbers; and a small table with two chairs in the ‘kitchen’ area, which also had a one-plate gas stove, toaster, microwave, fridge, kettle, and all the cutlery and crockery one might need.
There was only one other room: an incredible bathroom, with a wooden floor, and one big floor-to-ceiling glass window looking out to the side straight into a small forest area that had been enclosed with palisade fencing… and the big shower itself was surrounded by glass, so you felt as though you were showering out in nature.
After we had finished unpacking all our stuff, and stood outside in the moonlight enjoying the clean air, we realised that the night sky out here in the wilds was full of stars. So we grabbed our laptop and opened up Stellarium, an open source astronomy software package that we’d downloaded from the internet last year. It allows you to input your location, and then shows you what stars and galaxies etc. can be seen all across your night sky at the moment.
It was quite tricky to orient it correctly, as I’d lost my bearings a bit with all the curves and bends. But I knew that the moon had been fairly high up in the north-eastern sky, and then Richard managed to locate the Southern Cross. From there we found Canopus, Sirius, Mars (definitely a reddish planet that wasn’t sparkling), above it Saturn (wow!) and Regulus who were right next to each other, and then down from the Moon we saw Arcturus above the treeline.
What an awesome day!
For tomorrow, we were planning to drive over Phantom Pass, and perhaps to have breakfast at the Knysna Heads. We were hoping to do the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours, before visiting the Elephant Sanctuary at The Crags near Plettenberg Bay.