The Garden of Plenty

“It’s like we’re actually driving through someone’s garden,” said Tyson from the driver’s seat on our first day on the Garden Route. The scenery outside was a combination of natural, sometimes flowering shrubbery surrounded by lovely mowed grass – as if someone with great love and respect of the natural beauty of the land had decided to make it just that little bit more inviting by making it ‘neat.’

The Garden Route, arguably South Africa’s premier attraction after Kruger National Park, is a roughly 300km stretch of road from Storms River in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the west. Incredibly diverse in its topography, scenery and vegetation, you could easily spend weeks just driving from one small ocean hamlet to the next and from one national park to another.

For us, it turned out to be a garden full of surprises – a playground perhaps, full of things to discover and experience.

In Jeffreys Bay, the seaside town famous for being one of the world’s best surfing spots (and more recently famous for being the place where, as locals say, “that Aussie surfer of yours tried to bash up our shark”), we sat and watched wetsuit-clad wave addicts attempt to conquer the super tubes. Our B&B, run by an elderly couple with retirement dreams of Malaysia, had a view of the ocean. The town itself was sleepy and almost a bit dodgy, not helped by the fact that we were there on a dreary, grey public holiday and that many houses were up for sale.

That being said, we did have our first amazing seafood encounter in Jeffreys Bay – an $80 seafood platter for two including lobster, prawns, mussels, fish, calamari, rice, chips, salad and a bottle of wine. It was so much food that after eating all we could, we were happy to pass on our leftovers to the township boy who had been minding our car for us – Bokonya, a fifteen year old boy in grade six with dreams of becoming a pilot. I made a note to pray for him and his future. It’s not easy for these kids to break out of the economic status they’re born into, as even though they mostly all get a basic education, there are no public universities. The only way for someone from a township to get a tertiary education is to be awarded a lucrative scholarship, and these are usually only offered to those wanting to study science and become doctors.

Our next stop on the Garden Route was Tulani – an amazing eco house set amongst the Crags (a small area of indigenous forest 12km from popular beachside hub, Plettenberg Bay). An absolute stellar Air B&B find, this house had a fireplace, high wooden ceilings and a curved roof made out of grass. From the upstairs bedroom you could see the mountains, and in the mornings the sun streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows.

In Plettenberg Bay (nicknamed “Plett”) we took a guided township tour, visited a local market, hiked 9km to the spectacular Robberg Peninsula and ate dinner at Emily Moon – a creative restaurant decked out in rustic wooden candle holders, African animal furs and hunting-inspired decor. Needless to say, our time in Plett was a highlight of this week!

The morning we left Tulani was sad and exciting at the same time – sad because we didn’t want to leave, and exciting because we were about to undertake a full day South African cooking class! Run by Albin and Jenny Kilzer, an Austrian / Croatian-Scottish-South African couple famous in the area (Knysna) for their longtable and ‘cook and look’ dinners, this class was an absolute joy. Starting the morning with coffee and soon progressing to wine, five of us (Albin & Jenny, both qualified chefs and one a qualified butcher, a German lady named Erika and the two of us) prepared no less than 5 dishes in 6 hours and tried a few more. At the end of the day, we sat together around the dining table to enjoy our creations, until Jenny realised she’d forgotten her daughter at school (again) (quote: “I always lose track of time in the kitchen!”) and it was time to leave with full stomachs, a few more eye wrinkles from laughing, and a whole folder of recipes to re-try at home.

After the cooking class, Tyson and I discovered our next home – a tent among the treetops with a kitchen, balcony perfect for bird watching (amazing, the new hobbies you discover…!) and an outdoor hot tub big enough for two. What a perfect spot! Our tent, and a small handful more of them, were scattered throughout the treetops of a farm in the hinterland of Knysna, and soon became another key spot on our list of favourite accommodations.

Unfortunately, our last stop along the Garden Route, Botlierskop Private Game Reserve (our most expensive lodging) left us a little less enthused after we discovered that our luxury tented suite had no running water. Nevertheless, the attentive staff, good food, lovely spa treatments and a wonderful afternoon organised by Tyson meant that I enjoyed a great birthday here before we hit the road again to embark on the last week – the gourmet end! – of our trip. To the wine region we go…

More soon!

Advertisements

The Road and the Rhino

We’ve driven over 1800km in the last 6 days. Some of those kilometres were through timber plantations, many through mountains and a few along the beautiful Panorama Route in Mpumalanga Province, which boasts some of South Africa’s most breathtaking views of the Blyde River Canyon, one of the biggest canyons in the world.

The kilometres have taken us through villages – some small and poor, others busy and vibrant; past shops with funny names (“Flamboyant Supermarket” and “God is Able Hair Salon”); past ladies selling oranges, pineapples and wooden bowls in ramshackle stalls along the roadside and past mums carrying babies on their back and everything from firewood to souvenirs on their heads.

We’ve learnt the art and etiquette of passing other motorists on single lane roads and discovered that the South African version of abiding by road rules is to not follow them at all (when in Africa…).

We’ve seen hundreds of people hitchhiking to work and slowed down for cows, goats, donkeys and people on the road.

Two nights each we spent at Ngama Tented Safari Lodge near Kruger National Park and Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, which were both exceptional in their own right.

Ngama is a honeymooners’ parardise – six luxury tents (think early 1900s colonial style decor with maps, canvas and beige/sage coloured fabrics) nestled around a small waterhole in the middle of a private reserve, joined by wooden walkways and secluded for absolute privacy. Dinner at Ngama is served in a boma, a traditional circular enclosure without a roof, made from thin sticks of wood and with a fire in the middle for cooking and warmth. Candles and lanterns lead the way to the boma along a sand path and hang on the walls of the boma to provide light for the tables.

Dinner at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s Hilltop Camp is a different story. The park’s most developed lodge, Hilltop, is situated – as the name may have given away – on top of  a mountain overlooking the rolling savannah hills below. This setting, spectacular as it is, is enjoyed by a vastly greater amount of tourists, many with children, meaning that dinner is a much less romantic occasion. Adding to this is the fact that the menu consists of a self-serve buffet and wine by the glass that tastes like it’s been watered down with bitter sparkling water. (Ironically, this is where we celebrated our first wedding anniversary dinner!)

That being said, Hilltop’s accommodation – our own rondavel cabin with a bedroom, bathroom, lounge room, kitchen and balcony visited occasionally by baboons – was clean and had everything we needed.

Though Kruger, South Africa’s biggest (it stretches 414km from top to bottom) and most famous national park was great, Tyson and I both agreed that the less visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pronounced Shooshlooweh-Imfolozi) was our new favourite – not least because we had the great privilege of seeing 51 (!) white rhinos – Tyson’s favourite animal and one which was once teetering on the verge of extinction due to illegal poaching.

Poaching for rhino horn remains a major problem in Africa, driven mainly by demand from Asian countries which believe that the horn contains healing properties for anything from headaches to cancer. The value of rhino horn is said to be higher than the value of gold, and despite stringent security checks of everyone entering the park, it is estimated that one rhino a day is killed for its horn in South Africa alone. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, known for its large rhino population, is famous for being the park that brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

On all of our (self-drive) safari game drives, we were lucky to see herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and antelope, as well as rhino, monkey, lion and warthog families, a leopard and amazing varieties of birds.

It has been a truly African experience, and we have absolutely loved being on the wide open road and surrounded by nature.

Now off we go to the Garden Route…!

Expect the Unexpected

Well, Johannesburg, I was not at all prepared for this. High electric fences around houses, yes. Carjackings, yes. Not being able to just walk around wherever you like because of petty crime, rape, shootings – sure.

But no one told me about this.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. They have seemingly started popping up everywhere you least expect them to. Even in Johannesburg.

Yes, lo and behold, there they were, unmissable in their felt hats and second-hand clothing, sipping lattes and ordering superfoods in the middle of downtown Johannesburg’s new ‘safe zone,’ Maboneng. Hipsters!

Set up in 2009, Maboneng started out as an initiative by property developer Jonathan Liebmann to bring professionals and creatives back into the city. After the end of apartheid in 1994 and the country’s first democratic elections (won by Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party), the city of Johannesburg had been plunged into uncertainty and transition, bringing with it a crime wave that swept through the city. Businesses relocated to the northern suburbs and left the downtown area to become a place of squatters, crime and violence – a no-go zone with a fearsome reputation.

Now permanently guarded by a host of private security guards, Maboneng is a thriving and fascinating oasis in which tourists and locals alike can shop, dine and drink coffee only streets away from the rough and crime-ridden streets of the downtown.

Effectively built around a large indoor international food market and a beer garden beneath trees, Maboneng is full of entrepreneurial pop ups (including ‘I was shot in Joburg‘, a photographic initiative giving former street kids professional photography training to get them out of poverty), quirky shops and alternative cafes.

Supportive locals hope that the zone will be broadened to make more of the city safe for the general population, and new apartments planned for the area are already for sale.

For us Maboneng, as well as the suburbs of Braamfontein and Melville, opened our eyes to a safe, creative and vibrant side of this city not commonly known and rarely mentioned.

From day one of our three-week wedding anniversary trip around South Africa, I have been forced to reevaluate my preconceptions. In a land so characterised by contrast, so moulded by history and so enriched by diversity, I can’t wait to see what other lessons I am yet to learn here.