Itinerary: Pretoria – Manyeleti Reserve – Kruger National Park – The Panorama Route – Swaziland – Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park – Drakensberg Mountains – Addo Elephant National Park – Graaff Reinet – Outeniqua Mountains – The Garden Route – Tsitsikamma National Park – Stellenbosch – Boulders Beach – Cape of Good Hope – Cape Town – Robben Island
While the Netherlands is preparing for the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander, we leave for Schiphol for a three-week tour in South Africa. We fly to Johannesburg, but continue straight to Pretoria. The eleven-hour flight – almost in a straight line to the southern hemisphere – goes well. I kill time with a movie and reading my travel guide. At Johannesburg airport we are picked up by a representative of the tour company and taken to our hotel. It will be the only contact with the tour company – the rest of the trip we will do on our own.
The next morning the weather is beautiful, the sky is a clear blue and it’s 27 degrees. Today we have plenty of time to look around in Pretoria. Everything is within walking distance of the hotel. However, occasionally we have to pay attention to where we are, because the city government is working to change all street names with references to the colonial past or the time of apartheid and to name them after prominent persons and fighters for the rights of blacks. For example, Edward Street has been renamed Nelson Mandela Drive and Beatrix Street is now Steve Biko Street. The Rough Guide still has the old street names, so that’s confusing at times.
Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa (the parliamentary capital is Cape Town and the judicial capitol is Bloemfontein). It’s not really a pretty city; the streets in the center are dominated by shops and offices in drab buildings and there’s a lot of traffic. Pretoria also has few real sights in the ‘must see’ category. But it’s a fine place to acclimatize for a day. We visit a few places of interest, such as the Paul Kruger House, where the former president of South Africa (from 1884 to 1903) lived. Opposite this historic building is a Dutch Reformed church. The main square of Pretoria is Church Square, a square with a green park in the middle, where there is a statue of Kruger. On the south side of the square is the Raadsaal, the old parliamentary building, and on the opposite side is the Palace of Justice, where in 1964 Nelson Mandela was convicted to a lifelong imprisonment.
A few blocks from Kerkplein is the Pretoria City Hall. On the square in front of the town hall are statues of Martinus Wessel Pretorius, who founded the city in 1855, and of his father Andries Pretorius, after whom he named the city. Another historic building is the Melrose House, a Victorian-style house where the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the second Anglo-Boer War, was signed. Melrose House is located on Burgers Park, like Church Square a place where Pretorians enjoy the sun on the grass. We conclude our city walk later this afternoon at the Union Buildings, the current parliament building, which is located on a hill not far from our hotel, with a park-like terrace garden in front and a view over the city. This is where in 1994 Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa.
All the sights, the street name changes, on this first day in South Africa we are immediately confronted with all kinds of aspects of the history of the country; the struggle between the Boers and the colonial rulers, the period of apartheid. We will be confronted with that history more often during this journey.
The next morning we are already having breakfast at 5:30 a.m.. Very early, but we have a long drive ahead of us today. At this early hour many residents of the city go to work. There are unbelievably long lines at the bus stops, I estimate at least eighty people at one stop. You wonder how long those people have to stand there before they finally get to work. After picking up the rental car we leave Pretoria. The signage is good, so soon we find the N4, the wide toll road that will take us from Gauteng province to Mpumalanga province. There isn’t much traffic on the road, so it goes smoothly and we stop on the way only for coffee (after all those cup holders in the car are there for a reason).
From the town of Belfast we take the R37 to Lidenburg and then the R36. All good roads, although occasionally you have to watch out for the potholes. The first part after Pretoria the landscape was slightly sloping, but as we drive further north the landscape becomes more mountainous. To the right are the mountains of the Blyde River Canyon (which we will be heading to in two days). After driving 430 kilometers, we arrive at the lodge just where we will spend the night in a so-called ‘rondavel’: a round house with a thatched roof.
We have some time to relax before we report to the reception at 3.30 p.m. for a four-hour game drive in the Manyeleti Reserve. A game drive is a ride in an open off-road vehicle, during which you go look for wild animals. Wild animals are most active in the first hours after sunrise and around sunset. Soon we encounter the first impalas and shortly afterwards we see the first elephant grazing along the side of the path. In the distance we briefly see a white rhinoceros and a little later we see two giraffes. All beautiful animals and it is very nice to see them in the wild.
Around dusk we see a group of buffalo. After the sun has set, tracker Prince scans the area with a searchlight; apparently that doesn’t deter the wild animals. They are of course also used to human visitors. It is always a question of whether the animals will show themselves, there is no guarantee that you will actually see animals during game drives. But on our ride in the wilderness we are very lucky. Not far from the road we see a leopard. A little further on, a group of impalas is grazing unsuspectingly and the leopard is waiting until it is dark enough to attack (and until we have left probably). He doesn’t care about our presence, so we can watch him from less than ten meters. It is a beautiful animal and it is very special to see it in its natural environment. Of the ‘Big Five’ (elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard) on this evening we have already seen four! The way back is cold; it is a clear evening and quite cool. In the lodge we are served an excellent buffet, in the open air. After a long day we go to bed tired but very satisfied.
Kruger National Park
The next morning we get up early again. Not because we are going to drive as much as yesterday (today ‘only’ 150 kilometers), but today we ae going to drive in the Kruger National Park. The maximum speed there on the unpaved roads is forty kilometers per hour and because you also try to spot wild animals and want to stop now and then, the average speed does not exceed twenty kilometers per hour. Because we leave so early, we cannot have breakfast in the lodge, but we have been given breakfast packages. Very thoughtful.
At 7 a.m. we report to the Orpen Gate, one of the entrance gates to the park. The Kruger Park is by far the most famous game park in South Africa. The park covers a whopping 414 kilometers long area along the border with Mozambique. So you can’t see the whole park in one or two days. The park is named after former president Kruger, but that seems to have been done more because Kruger enjoyed great popularity than because he was such an animal or nature lover. At the Kruger Park you can drive many different routes. We follow the H7 from Orpen to Satara, a distance of 43 kilometers which takes about three hours. From Satara we take the H1-3 south to Tshokwane and from there the H10 to Lower Sabie Rest Camp where we will spend the night.
Along the way we sometimes take a side road or follow a ‘loop’. Early in the morning it is still a bit cloudy, but it opens up completely during the day, so beautiful weather. We drive at a leisurely pace, constantly scanning the landscape for wildlife. Sometimes you think you see something, you slowly drive back a little bit, only to see after one more look that it was a stump and not a lion. But in the course of the day we actually do see a lot of wild animals: giraffes, elephants, different antelope species (impala, nyala, springbok, bushbuck, I can’t tell them all apart…), wildebeest, monkeys, zebras, hippos and various birds. It’s fantastic to see these animals in their natural environment.
Some animals are really close to the road, others are a bit further away, but that’s what zoom lenses are for. Sometimes we don’t see a single animal for miles and then suddenly a whole herd of zebras. The impalas are very skittish and quickly run away at unexpected movements. The elephants continue to eat undisturbed, the giraffes look back with interest and the zebras are mainly occupied with each other. The hippos are in the water, with their beady eyes just above the surface, the rhinoceroses have a habit of walking exactly the opposite way when they see a car. The landscape changes a bit, sometimes it is more densely vegetated, elsewhere there are open areas of grassland with here and there a tree and some shrubs. The grass is golden yellow everywhere – after all, it’s autumn here, although you wouldn’t say that with this beautiful weather.
Under no circumstances are you allowed to leave your car on the road (a lion might consider you to be a tasty lunch), so it’s nice that occasionally you come across so-called ‘rest camps’, where you can get out of the car and drink coffee or can have lunch. Those lunches here are often things in the fast food category, in my case a ‘boerenwors’ sandwich and coffee. After checking in at Lower Sabie Rest Camp in the afternoon, we drive a little further south of Lower Sabie on the H4-2, the S28 and the S137. We hope to see lions and maybe cheetahs, but we mainly see elephants, giraffes, impalas and hippos. It is already dark when we arrive at the rest camp. This results in a warning from the guard at the gate: the gate closes at 5:30 p.m. and you are not allowed to drive in the prak independently in the dark. We try to look as innocent as possible, say sorry and luckily the guard leaves it at the admonition.
After waking up from the sounds of birds we leave Lower Sabie. We drive northwest on the H4-1, then take a stretch of H1-2 to the northeast, return the same way and then on the S83 to Skukuza. For much of the route, the vegetation is quite dense, so it is difficult to spot animals. Yet we see quite a few: impalas and other antelopes of course (they really are everywhere), monkeys (both next to the road and in the middle of it), hippos, birds of prey and other beautifully colored birds, I-don’t-know-exact-what-kind-of-goat-like-animals, crocodiles and a turtle. Around lunchtime we arrive at Skukuza, where we relax for a while and have lunch. It is the middle of the day and that’s when you usually see the fewest animals, so we don’t continue driving again until around 2:30 p.m..
The last part in the Kruger Park runs via the H11 and S1 to the west, where we leave the park via the Phabeni Gate. But not before we encountered zebras (in the middle of the road), white rhinoceroses (just along the road) and expressed our slight frustration that we still haven’t seen any lions. After we have left the Kruger Park, it is only a short distance to the town of Hazyview. Our lodge turns out to be sixteen kilometers south of it, in the middle of banana plantations, quietly situated at the end of a two-kilometer path that leads from the road into a valley. A nice place to relax. The couple who run the lodge also provide dinner in the evening. South African, delicious, but also a lot!
The Panorama Route
The Panorama Route is a scenic drive in the northern reaches of the Drakensberg Mountains, where the Blyde River has carved its way in the rocks. From Hazyview we first drive to Graskop, first along banana plantations, then through vast pine forests. It looks like these forests are used for wood production, because in some parts the trees have been felled and in others new young trees have been planted. From Graskop we first drive down the R532 in one go to the north side of the sixty kilometer long Panorama Route, and then drive back along the various viewpoints on the way back.
It is a beautiful area where you can enjoy fantastic views from various places (especially with this beautiful weather: it is 28 degrees and the sky is clear blue). Like the ‘Three Rondavels’, where the mountains have worn down in the shape of three of those traditional round huts with thatched roofs. Down below you can see the Blyde River meandering. Personally, I think this is the most beautiful point on the route. Very different is ‘Bourke’s Luck Potholes’, where the Blyde River and the Treur River (which names mean ‘happy river’ and ‘sad river’, a nice couple) meet and have carved unusual shapes into the rock. Closer to Graskop is the ‘God’s Window’, with a view over the endless pine forests. At the end of the afternoon we are back at our lodge in Hazyview and we sit down on the veranda in front of our room with a bottle of wine (and where one of the stray ponies also comes to have a look).
What is striking when you are on the road in South Africa is that there is a lot of (traffic) police. The country is also littered with speed cameras and speed limiting measures (such as vicious speed bumps). A necessity, because South Africa has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Yet South Africans drive very politely. For example, slower traffic will drive half (or completely) on the hard shoulder when faster traffic comes near and they will signal with their headlights as a thank you. They also have the ‘four way stop signs’ here that I know from the United States (everyone has to stop at the intersection and whoever arrives first at the intersection can go first, in the Netherlands that would never work…). The roads are good, although in some parts you have to watch out for the potholes, which can be disastrous for your tires and rims. There is hardly any traffic on some stretches of road, while on other streches freight traffic slows down the journey.
When we leave Hazyview and head south on the R40 and R538, it takes a while to find the right road, but eventually we come to the N4, which we follow a little to the east, before driving south again in the direction of the border with Swaziland. After putting the necessary stamps in our passports, we enter this small kingdom. Swaziland (population one million) is a former South African and British protectorate that became independent in 1968. The country has no multi-party democracy and is traditionally ruled by a king, who always comes from the Dlamini clan. The king marries several women (each year in August he chooses a new one in a traditional dance ceremony), who together have dozens of children, one of whom eventually becomes the next king.
The long drive goes over the green hills, with Piggs Peak as the highest point, past pine forests and grassland. The roads here are slightly narrower than in South Africa, but good and what is striking is that more people walk along the road here. After passing the capital Mbabane, we take the MR103, the eZulwini Valley Road. Soon we arrive at the entrance to the Mlilwane Wildlife Sancuary, a relatively small park, where we will spend the next night in the rest camp. We do this in a traditional ‘bee-hive’, a round hut of wood and grass (but with a modern bathroom behind it). The nyalas, kudus and boars just walk between the huts here. For us, Swaziland is just a stopover on the way to Bayala, another 300 kilometers away.
Mlilwane Wildlife Sancuary is located in the eZulwini Valley, where, surrounded by hills, zebras and nyalas roam the grassland. We don’t stay in the park for long, but drive back to the main road and take the Grand Valley Road south after the town of Manzini. This is a very scenic route, over the hills and mountains, with beautiful views and small houses and traditional bee-hive huts everywhere. Around noon we arrive at the border crossing at Mahamba. We have to queue for half an hour and then we are back in South Africa. Via the N2 we enter the province of KwaZulu Natal. Zulu culture emerged here in the early 1800s, led by Shaka Zulu, who extended his tribe’s influence into much of present-day South Africa. The Zulus were eventually defeated by the Boers and later by the British, but the Zulu identity is still there. The current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is a Zulu.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park
Our overnight stay in Bayala is beautifully situated: completely deserted at the end of a ten kilometer long dirt road. Unfortunately, the water in the pool is too cold to take a dip, but we can relax on one of the beds. The information leaflet in the room (which is also considered his home by a gecko) states that the water from the tap is not suitable for consumption. It’s a pity I only read that after having four glasses… (no adverse effects were experienced.)
The reason we are in Bayala is because today we are going to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. This game reserve is only 1/23 of the Kruger Park in terms of area, but at least as beautiful and you can also find the ‘Big Five’ here. Before we arrive at the park, at a gas station I hit a curb with the front spoiler of the car. As a result, a piece of plastic on the bottom of the spoiler comes loose and the next kilometers it rubs against the road surface. We can’t go any further like this, so we stop at a gas station near the town of Hluhluwe. Immediately two boys come over to help solve the problem. I suggest cutting off the loose piece of plastic and one of the guys pulls out a knife from his bag which is so sharp it cuts through hard plastic like butter… (Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?) The rest of the loose plastic is skillfully secured with a tie rap and then we can continue. It’s super nice that those guys come to help so spontaneously. I give them a well-deserved tip.
The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park (do you already by how you pronounce it?) consists of two parts that were later fused into one park. We enter the park on the north side, in the Hluhluwe part. The mostly unpaved roads (with the necessary potholes) meander over the hills. The grass is still quite high here, so it is not easy to spot animals. Yet we encounter enough during the day: elephants, zebras, baboons, impalas, various birds, boars and rhinoceroses. We even see quite rare black rhinoceroses. The highlight is the black rhinoceros with baby, which grazes near the road, just a few meters from the car. Very impressive!
By the way, the distinction between white and black rhinoceroses says nothing about their color: they are both gray. However, black rhinoceroses have a round snout, white ones have a wide one that looks a bit like a vacuum cleaner. That wide mouth sounds like ‘white’ in English, hence white rhinoceros). Unfortunately no lion again today. Apart from the animals, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a beautiful park, with a landscape that is certainly not inferior to the much more famous Kruger Park. We spend all day there, at the end of which I am exhausted. Without noticing I have been behind the wheel for ten hours in a row.
Our rental car is suffering… Yesterday there was the loose piece of plastic, today the lady from the lodge tells us at breakfast that our left front tire is flat. We have a look and indeed: as flat as possible. Here too South Africans prove to be extremely helpful people: a man from the lodge comes to help to change the wheel. In fifteen minutes the spare wheel is on the car and we hit the road again. Today we drive the longest stretch of this journey: from Bayala to Bergville, almost five hunderd kilometers away.
The first part goes smoothly, on the N2 to Kwadukuza, with the radio on and a coffee-to-go in the cup holder. Then we take the R74 towards Greytown, a beautiful route over the hills of KwaZulu Natal. It is greener here than in the northeast of the country. Somewhere between Greytown and Mooirivier, along the R622, we stop for a sandwich and after Mooirivier we continue on the N3 until the Bergville exit. Our lodge is located just outside the village, beautifully situated with a view of the Drakensberg Mountains. It is well over thirty degrees and after this long drive we go to relax by the pool and on the veranda near our room with the above-mentioned view, a bottle of wine and the company of a gray striped cat. It’s a pity that it gets dark at about 6 p.m. and it gets too cool to sit outside any longer, but still, you won’t hear me complaining.
In the interior of KwaZulu Natal, and continuing into the independent state of Lesotho, are the Drakensberg Mountains. A large part of this mountain range is a national park: the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg National Park, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We are in the northern part of the Drakensberg. This part, the Royal Natal National Park, about 45 kilometers from Bergville, is said to be the most beautiful part of the Drakensberg. After a hearty breakfast we are ready to go hiking in the Royal Natal National Park. We first walk an easy (partly paved) path towards waterfalls. The setting is beautiful, you walk down a valley with the mountains all around you. You can walk to the falls and back in an hour.
The second hike is a bit tougher: we walk part of the Tugela Gorge Walk, along mountain slopes down the gorge where the Tugela River flows. Towering above us are the imposing rocks called the ‘amphitheatre’ because they run in a slight arc and rise almost perpendicular a thousand meters into the sky, with the Mont-aux-sources being the highest mountain. We walk for more than one and a half hours, partly in the sun (again the weather is beautiful), partly between the vegetation. The water of the Tugela River is low, it is more like a little brook, but the view over the mountains and the valley is beautiful. It was a bit of a detour, but well worth it.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the area that is now South Africa was the scene of three wars. First between the Boers and the Zulus, then between the British and the Zulus, and then between the British and the Boers. The British were out to conquer the then South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The bloodiest battle took place at Spioenkop. The mighty British army suffered its greatest losses in its history, against a small, ill-organized volunteer army of Boers. On the hill where the battle took place are the mass graves of the fallen British soldiers and monuments to the fallen on both sides.
One of the worst sieges in British history was the siege of the nearby town of Ladysmith. The peasants held out here for 118 days against British attempts to capture the city. The small Ladysmith Siege Museum tells the story of the siege, including photos taken during the war. After Ladysmith we drive to Durban via the N3. Our flight to Port Elisabeth departs here at the end of the afternoon. We drop off the car, we have driven three thousand kilometers in a week and a half. The second part of our journey begins in Port Elisabeth, where we pick up a fresh rental car.
Addo Elephant National Park
It is raining in Port Elisabeth, which takes some getting used to after a week and a half of sun and 25-30 degrees. Well, there is nothing interesting to see or do in this industrial and port city, so we leave the city the next morning and drive to Addo Elephant National Park. When we drive inland, the weather soon gets better, the sun comes out, but it remains on the cool side with fifteen degrees. Addo is the third and last game park we will visit on this trip. We drive in the park ourselves again and of course see many elephants, but also zebras, kudus, birds of prey and this time also jackals and meerkats (and family of the meerkat: the yellow mongoose). But again no lions unfortunately… Apparently they are collectively on strike these weeks.
At one point we come across a group of elephants grazing on and along the dirt road. The large elephant in the middle of the road doesn’t really appreciate our presence and begins to show intimidating behavior. I put the car in reverse and drive back about ten meters. The elephant seems to be happy with that. Fortunately, because I was already starting to wonder how fast this car can go into reverse – after all, you don’t want an angry elephant on your hood. You are warned everywhere not to get too close to elephants, because if they get angry, they are able to turn your car on its side. But luckily the elephants walk into the bushes a little later and we can drive past them unhindered. All in all it’s a nice ride with lots of wild animals.
Graaff Reinet and the Outeniqua Mountains
One of the things that strikes me about South Africa is the American look & feel of the country. The country that has been modernizing at a rapid pace over the past two decades seems to have the United States as a great example. For example, since 1994 South Africa has a constitution that begins with “We, the people of South Africa” (analogous to the “We the people” in the US Constitution) and to that constitution, just like in the US, a ‘Bill of Rights’ with civil rights has been added. But you also see it: the rapid rise of large shopping malls on the outskirts of the city, the layout of small towns, with gas stations and fast food chains along the main road and the low bungalow-like architecture of the houses beyond, the green signage and the billboards along the road, the long straight roads in a barren landscape with only some mountains in the background – sometimes I alsmost feel like I’m driving in the United States. Until I realize that I am driving on the left and come across a sign that leads to a place with a Dutch name like Vergelegen…
This morning we drive from Addo to Graaff Reinet via a not too exciting route on the N10 and R63. There is little traffic on the road, the landscape is quite barren with a village here and there. We drive partly through small mountain ranges with names such as Suurbergen, Die Smaldeel and The Kamdeboo, where thick, gray clouds hang around the mountains. However, in Graaff Reinet, which lies in a valley of the latter mountain range, the weather is beautiful. Graaff Reinet is one of the oldest towns in South Africa. It was founded at the end of the eighteenth century by Dutch people who came from the Western Cape. It is a small town, built around the Dutch Reformed church, with several streets with white plastered houses in Dutch Cape style. Everything is within walking distance of each other and you really don’t need that much time to see everything (unless you want to marvel at the interior of the Reinet House for hours).
The next morning at our lodge breakfast is delivered to our room. We drive back to the coast, with Knysna as our destination. The first hour and a half go through the barren plains of the Eastern Cape province. A long, straight road, hardly any vegetation and little traffic. One of the things that stands out when traveling in South Africa is that you can see the colonial past of the country in the names of places. For example, towns and villages sometimes have Dutch place names such as Arnhem, Utrecht and Dordrecht. And those places are close to Abderdeen, Worcester or Somerset – a legacy from British times. You will also come across places with Dutch names such as Riebeeck, Rustenburg, Morgenzon and Mooirivier.
At Uniondale we head for the Outeniqua Mountains. You can go around it (via N9 and N12), or over it. We choose the second option. The R339 is a dirt road that crosses the Outeniqua Mountains via the Prince Edward Pass. There are some potholes in it and in addition to wider sections there are also a few worse and narrower sections (and no, there is no guard rail anywhere). The road starts at a hamlet called Adventure for a reason! The route is slower, but much shorter and much more beautiful: deep gorges, forests and views over green valleys. After an hour and a half we are over the mountains. Knysna is a medium-sized town on a lagoon. It is an excellent base for a visit to Tsitsikamma National Park (which is scheduled for the next day), but otherwise it is not very exciting: four shopping malls, seven churches and a Waterfront annex marina with tourist shops and restaurants (where you can have excellent fish dishes).
The Garden Route and Tsitsikamma National Park
Opinions differ as to where exactly the Garden Route runs along the South African south coast. It is clear that the Tsitsikamma National Park is the heart of what is called South Africa’s paradise. The coastal strip here is covered with extensive forests, which extend to the rugged coast, where the waves crash against the rocks. The area was colonized in the eighteenth century by the Dutch who came from the Western Cape.
The Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route is 68 kilometers long, including the Storms River and the Groot River, which flow into the Indian Ocean here. At the Storms River you can walk via a suspension bridge across the mouth of the river, which flows into the ocean down a deep gorge. Cliff dasies (a kind of oversized marmots) walk on the rocks. Very different is Nature Valley, which is part of the same national park, but which is a quiet, green valley, where a scenic drive winds through forests and past rivers and quiet lagoons. The famous Garden Route is often praised. It is certainly a beautiful area, but personally I do not find it very special. I like the coastal roads on the Cape Peninsula better, more about that later.
We drive parallel to the coast for a while and take the N12 to the north at the town of George. We drive straight back into the Outeniqua Mountains, over the beautiful Outeniqua Pass. Once over the mountains you dive into a green valley and from there it is not far to Oudtshoorn. This compact Karoo town is known as the ‘ostrich capital of the world’, due to the many ostrich farms in the area. Some host ostrich shows and offer an ostrich ride. I don’t think that’s something that the birds will enjoy much, so we don’t like that kind of show farms. The ostriches are nowadays mainly bred for meat. In the past, the feathers were also very popular.
Ostriches can grow up to 2.5 meters in length and weigh up to 150 kilograms. They have an apparently clumsy physique, with wings that do not allow them to fly, but they are the fastest flightless birds in the world, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. When we stop along the road at a field where there are several dozen ostriches, they come running towards us with their characteristic big-eyed heads. I think they are vey funny-looking and photogenic animals.
We also visit Oudtshoorn itself. The many Dutch street names betray the history of the town. Our B&B is located a little outside of Oudtshoorn, on top of a hill with a beautiful view over the valley. And of course we can’t leave here until we’ve eaten ostrich steak. For those who want to go to Oudtshoorn: restaurant Paljas is a great location to do that.
The next day we leave Oudtshoorn and cover a great distance: four hundred kilometers with Stellenbosch as final destination. The route takes the scenic drive R62, through a varied landscape of mountains, barren plains, small towns and – as we drive further west – more and more vineyards. It is clear that we are entering the South African wine region. Via the R43 and the R45 we drive over the Franschhoek Pass. The grapes have already been harvested in February/March and because of the autumn the grape vines are already turning yellow and brown here and there.
In the course of the afternoon we arrive in Stellenbosch, the heart of the winelands. This lively university town was founded in the seventeenth century by the Dutch governor of Cape Town: Simon van der Stel. Stellenbosch is also called the Oak City, because of the many oak trees that line the streets. Dutch history is everywhere here: in the street names (the main street is called Dorpstraat, Dutch for ‘village street’), in the white Dutch-Cape houses, the Dutch Reformed church, the gunpowder house of the VOC and of course ‘Oom Samie se shop’ (‘Uncle Sam’s store’) in the Dorpstraat. There are also many cafes and restaurants and everything is within walking distance of each other. All in all a very nice town.
It’s a sunny day when we visit some of the hundreds of wineries in the Stellenbosch area. We first visit Neethlingshof, located in a beautiful white Dutch-Cape country house, where the first grapes were planted as early as 1692. A little further is Morgenzon, also beautiful, and slightly south of Stellenbosch is Uva Mira, beautifully situated on a hill between the (discoloring and here and there already bare) vineyards. In spring and summer the vineyards are green as far as the eye can see. The autumn colors give the area a completely different picture at this time of year. And the architecture of the country houses and the beautiful surroundings make it worthwhile. At most wineries you can also participate in a wine tasting, but we will save that for this afternoon.
First we drive back to Stellenbosch for lunch. After a rain shower, we drive to winery Vergelegen in Somerset West, fourteen kilometers south of Stellenbosch. The winery was founded in 1699 by Willem Adriaan van der Stel (Simon’s son), who allegedly acquired the land that now forms the vineyards illegally and used slaves from the VOC to work the land. The main winery building is a beautiful Dutch-Cape building, albeit yellow instead of white. The building faces a row of huge old oak trees. The vineyards cover 160 hectares and are located on the slopes of the Helderberg. The grapes for the red wines (Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz) grow on the (warmer) northern slopes, the grapes for the white wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) on the (cooler) southern slopes.
We are the only guests this afternoon and so we get a private tour. Vergelegen prides itself on making quality wines and therefore selects – in their own words – only the best grapes (as opposed to the wineries that do mass production and where every grape ends up in the wine). All grapes are picked and selected by hand. We also visit the modern wine cellar, with large stainless steel boilers that can hold 220 liters of wine. The Sauvignon Blanc matures in these stainless steel boilers, but the Chardonnay and the red wines are kept one floor down in wooden barrels. At the end of the tour, we will have the opportunity to taste four Vergelegen wines. They are very tasty and somewhat different from the (also tasty) wines that I usually have at home. A lot of fun to do.
Cape Peninsula, Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope
With the sun again high in a clear blue sky, we drive from Stellenbosch via the R310 to the coast. At the intersection with the N2 highway lies a sprawling township. Small shelters of corrugated iron and wood, cramped together, without plumbing and electricity, where thousands, if not tens of thousands of people live. This is also South Africa. Decades of apartheid have left their mark and the differences between rich and poor, between those with and those without opportunities, are still very large. We have also seen slums in other places. Sometimes with a housing project right next to it, with new, slightly larger and in any case wind and watertight houses. Since the abolition of apartheid, such projects have been actively trying to improve the situation of the poorest in South Africa. But the townships still present a desolate sight.
We continue to follow the R310 along the east coast of the Cape Peninsula. Along coastal towns, where retirees play golf and jog and young people come to surf. Once you’re past those places, a beautiful coastal road follows with a view over False Bay. We stop just after Simonstown, at Boulders Beach. A large colony of African penguins lives here. These animals are normally only found on islands, this is one of only two colonies that live on the mainland. You can get quite close to the penguins via a boardwalk. Some sit in the dunes with a nest, others are on the beach with their fluffy young chicks, jumping on the rocks or swimming in the sea. They are very funny to watch, I can keep looking at them for hours.
Much of the peninsula is part of Table Mountain National Park. As you drive south, the area becomes more desolate and barren, and eventually you’ll arrive at what this peninsula drive started at: Cape of Good Hope (or Kaap die Goeie Hoop, as the sign says in proper Afrikaans). Let’s clear up a misunderstanding: the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa. That’s Cape Agulhas, about 200 miles to the east. The impressive rock is the place where the Portuguese in the fifteenth century were the first to think of sailing around the southern tip of Africa and thus found the much dreamed of passage to ‘the east’. Hence they called it the Cape of Good Hope. That they weren’t there yet, turned out later (that’s why the bay on the other side is called False Bay).
Many ships have been wrecked off the coast of the Cape over the centuries. Many Dutch ships of the VOC have also sailed here, on their way to the Dutch East Indies (or vice versa). Due to the low season it is not crowded. The wind is blowing hard and the water of the ocean turns to rocks. Of course we take pictures at the well-known sign and then we walk up, onto the rocks. Still a special place to be, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. It may not be the most southern point of Africa, but it is still the most southern place I’ve been to so far.
After our visit to the Cape we drive back to the north via the west side of the peninsula. From the village of Noordhoek leads a beautiful coastal road with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, with stunning views over Hout Bay. Chapman’s Peak Drive is only nine kilometers long, but it is said to have 114 turns (I didn’t count them). After this it is not far to the last destination of this trip: Cape Town.
Although we first end up on the wrong side of Signals Hill, we quickly find our hotel, which is located between the center and Table Mountain. After relaxing for a while, we walk into town for a stroll down the center. Cape Town was founded in 1652, when the VOC was the first to settle here permanently under the leadership of Jan van Riebeeck. First, that is to say that first the original inhabitants, the Khoikhoi, had to be chased off. The colony mainly served to supply the ships of the VOC that sailed between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. By 1700 the colony had grown into a city and was given the name Cape Town. In the nineteenth century, the British took over Cape Town and abolished slavery. The city flourished and in 1910 Cape Town became the administrative capital of the newly united South Africa.
Today Cape Town has 3.5 million inhabitants and that number is expected to grow to five to seven million. The city has been modernized at a rapid pace in recent years, as witnessed by the many high-rise buildings, the new international convention center and the football stadium that was built for the 2010 World Cup. We walk through the City Park Company’s Garden, started in 1652 as a garden to provide the ships of the VOC with fresh fruit and vegetables, past the Tuynhuis (the president’s office) and the Houses of Parliament.
The center of Cape Town is a modern, busy city, with heavy traffic and ugly high-rises next to old Victorian houses. One moment you’re standing in front of the classic City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after he was released from prison, the next you’re standing at an ugly shopping center. Green Market Square (or Groentemark, as it says on the street sign) is more pleasant with cafes and terraces. Long Street is mainly a succession of entertainment venues. One of the positive things about Cape Town is the choice of good restaurants. Our choice falls on Miller’s Thumb, a good seafood restaurant, which serves the kingklip, which is only found on the east coast of South Africa.
Even the inhabitants of Cape Town are amazed: it is almost winter, but it is 26 degrees and the sky is a clear blue. So no ‘tablecloth’ on Table Mountain (the clouds that often obscure the view of the characteristic mountain). We get up on time, because at 9 a.m. we have to be on the boat for our visit to Robben Island. It is about a ten-minute drive from our hotel to The Waterfront, the modern shopping and restaurant complex on the harbor. This is where the boats carrying prisoners used to leave for South Africa’s most famous prison – nowadays the boats are carrying tourists. To get to the island takes a fifty minute boat ride (mainly because the old boat is not that fast). Along the way, a few dolphins swim alongside, but they quickly disappear again.
Robben Island, which lies on the north side of Cape Town in Table Bay, was used to exile convicts as early as the 17th century. The Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck, who has a street named after him in just about every town and village here in South Africa, sent the first prisoner to Robben Island, because of murdering a Dutch shepherd and stealing his cattle. This was followed by many more (political) prisoners sentenced under the VOC. Then the English sent criminals, deserters and later also prostitutes, leprosy patients and madmen there. From 1961, Robben Island was the infamous ‘maximum security prison’ where in 1964 Nelson Mandela was transferred to after being sentenced to life imprisonment.
Prison conditions were harsh at Robben Island. Detainees were only allowed to receive visits and send letters once every six months, they were forced into hard labour, including in a sandstone quarry, and were regularly beaten and intimidated. However, conditions improved somewhat over the years. Partly due to a visit from the Red Cross, beds were made and prisoners no longer had to sleep on the floor. At one point, the prisoners were also given shoes. The last political prisoner left Robben Island in 1991, the last prisoner in 1996.
Visitors are given a tour of the island and visit the cell complex. There you can take a look at the small, sober cell where Mandela spent many years. In the courtyard you can feel the scorching sun that the prisoners had to withstand during the forced labor and despite the presence of other tourists, in the narrow corridors the prison feels cramped. The ex-prisoner who shows us around tells us about life in captivity, but he also conveys a message – in a theatrical way – about the struggle of the black population for equal rights, the injustice of the apartheid regime, the contribution that the boycott and sanctions from the west and the enormous achievements of democratic South Africa.
We don’t always realize it, but the transition from apartheid to a democratic South Africa is really seen as enormous progress here and many black people are very proud of it, despite the great inequality that still exists. That forgiveness and reconciliation have subsequently become leading – thanks to Nelson Mandela – and not revenge and retribution, can be called a miracle. There are few places where you can feel the history of South Africa as you do here. Very impressive!
The end of the trip
Back on the mainland, we walk around the Waterfront for a while. This was already the port of the first Cape Colony and in 1990 the area was completely modernized. It is pleasantly busy on the terraces and in the shopping centers. This afternoon we enjoy the good life on one of the terraces with a glass of wine and tapas.
Our last day in South Africa. If you want to, you can take a cable car up Table Mountain for eighteen euros to enjoy the view. We don’t. We stroll trhough Victoria Wharf for a while, a large shopping center at the Waterfront, drink iced coffee on a terrace, walk along the Beach Road to the Green Point Lighthouse and have fish for dinner one last time at Wang Thai, a good restaurant overlooking the port. In the afternoon we drive to the Cape Town International Airport. The only gas station we still encounter is on the wrong side of the road, but after an illegal U-turn and driving in the wrong direction for a short while, we can still have the tank filled up.
During the second part of the trip we drove almost two thousand kilometers (five thousand in total this trip). After we have dropped of the car, the long wait in the uninviting airport and the eleven-hour flight back to the Netherlands begins. But it’s worth it. It was a beautiful journey. I think the wildlife in the national parks made the most impression, Cape of Good Hope and Robben Island were also very worthwhile. It has also been a varied journey: cities (Pretoria and Cape Town), mountains (including the Panorama Route and the Drakensberg Mountains), coast (Garden Route and the Cape Peninsula) and so many wild animals. In a country that is easy to travel to and where you are far from home, but then again, because of the ubiquitous Dutch (sorry: Afrikaans), you are not.