Category Archives: Garden Route

WESTERN CAPE ROAD TRIP – PRINCE ALBERT

The chickens won’t stop chit chatting with, telling each other stories. The rooster sings his song incessantly, regardless of what time of day it is. These are happy chickens – they know nothing of coops where birds are stacked in cages, on top of each other, five tall. They go around all day pecking in this huge garden, among fruit trees, fiery lavender and rosemary bushes and vegetable patches. The aroma is intoxicating, from lavender and from trees I don’t know, whose smell is akin to honey. We are staying at an old Dutch farm-house, prettily restored and now rented to tourists. It’s tucked away near the school, a bit far from the main road, where other pretty Dutch farm houses can be seen. Not that anything is too far away from anything else in Prince Albert. Or Prins Albert, that Saxon Coburg offspring from whom this town takes its name. Originally it must have been a Dutch farming outpost in the Karoo Desert. It’s now been gentrified, some folks are retiring here, some farming is still done but it’s still far away from most conveniences of the modern world. A long car drive is required for groceries, hardware or whatever other necessities of daily life. On the other hand, at the antique store everything is priced for tourists, with not a bargain to be had.

Forget me Not Farmhouse

The Karoo is a vast desert, similar to the Californian one, just much bigger, its mountains higher, its earth redder. It’s our last stop on our road trip along the Garden Route and by now we are so unwound and unmotivated that, after exploring the town (which took the whole of 20 minutes) we spend the rest of the day in our farmhouse garden, with the chickens, the cats and the dogs. They all seem to get along famously well.

But the sleepiness and the tidiness of this tiny little place is deceptive. What the tourist doesn’t see, nor is he particularly encouraged to see, is the North End at the very edge of town – where the extremely impoverished blacks and coloreds live (“coloreds” here is the official term to describe citizens of mixed race). There is no possibility for a black middle class here, just menial jobs and probably not too many. The town is making some effort at integration although I didn’t see any dark faces strolling along the main street – just a couple of kids on the way to a softball game and an old, drunk woman. As in the old days, alcoholism is still a problem, thanks to the homemade brews that are made in the townships.

And as in most places, the unlikeliest people can be found to bridge a cultural or social gap. Or just to wake people up to a different reality. Look at me, I am different and I am here and what are you going to do about it? That is what Hennie Boshoff metaphorically screamed at us when he introduced himself. Villa Kruger is described by the pamphlet as an art house and sculpture garden and it offers tours twice a month, at sunset. Smart move because, being situated slightly higher than the center of town, right where North End begins, it affords a spectacular view of the desert and when the fading sun hits the slopes, it’s a riot of colours. Meanwhile, if taking the tour, you will be standing in a cacti and succulents garden, surrounded by sculptures that Hanni, an art dealer and artist himself, brought back from his previous lives around the world.

One of Rossetta's scultpures

With each tour, Hennie recounts a personal exploration of his life as a poor Afrikaner child in Durban, a child who made art and who escaped the regime at his first opportunity. I suspect the story being told is for the benefit of the listener but for Hennie’s as well, a man who might have found his place in this town and extravagant house, with Rosetta as a companion and a couple of dogs, but a man with demons still trying to find answers. He came back to South Africa and, with Rossetta, he makes art with a Zulu group and has created a counterpoint to the nature hikes and the fake antiques with his provocative art choices. It was only the three of us that night and what started with some apprehension on our part upon meeting our hosts, turned into 90 minutes that could have stretched into dinner and, who knows, if we all lived here even a friendship. The man with demon who prodded me to move to Venice, his enigmatic and pale friend and the three of us. A desert rose?

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WESTERN CAPE ROAD TRIP – THOUGHTS

Would it be possible to be here, in absolute solitude and be able to write a book? Could this solitude, this silence really do the trick? It was so quiet last night to be slightly eerie, a little bit intimidating. Monkeys and baboons had gone to sleep in the tree tops, the scorpion on the doorstep finally retreated to its apartments and the parrots stopped singing. I kept waking up every two hours, spooked by the silence.

If I open the door, though, the roar of the ocean comes growling in. This morning we embarked on a long hike to Hog’s head. Looking up from the desolate beach, a large rock juts out, with a round, flat nose, indentations marking the eyes and the ears – it does look like a pig. We miss the turn and end up all the way at the top of the mountain, commanding a 360 degrees view of the valley, the mountains, the beaches, the lagoon and the river. I realize that the cluster of houses where we are staying is much smaller than I thought from the ground. On the way back we take a trail in the forest, around the lagoon – again, no sounds but for the lapping of the water, our shoes on the cover of dead, crackling leaves. Branches intertwined above us, some dangling at eye level – the path is clear but, with not one of us blessed with a strong sense of direction, we are not quite sure where we are and we plow on, silent and a bit tired. I start thinking of the French woman kidnapped by guerrillas in Colombia and forced to long marches in the jungle for the seven years she was in captivity, moving from camp to camp. She must have gotten incredibly fit.

A river runs through it

The mind plays funny tricks in this silence. Disconnected from the outside world – nothing to let me know what is going on out there, a sense of peace first falls upon me. A welcome feeling of distance and carelessness. As I keep on walking, the chatter kept at bay by contentment bursts in announced as a stream of thoughts encompassing all that I left behind, all my insecurities and worries and  still lingering decisions. Shouldn’t I just enjoy this paradise at this very moment? I walk on, under the sun smiling through the treetops. As in meditation, eventually the thoughts fall away, leaving the door open to let nature’s sounds come in once again.

So, is it really necessary to seek this seclusion in order to write a book? Of course not, but it’s a nice starting point from which to observe one’s mind, unhindered by obligations and the pull to stay connected. When our mind hits the wall, it’s easier to find the door through to the other side.

If I look up at the night sky, the backdrop is the fiercest black against which the stars seem even brighter and the Milky Way is clearer, luminous. And so is the Southern Cross, beckoning and shining like a lantern showing the way to anyone caring to find it.

At the very top

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WESTERN CAPE ROAD TRIP – TSITSIKAMA STATE PARK

If I wanted to escape for a while and lay low confident I would not be found, Tsitsikama State Park might be one of my first choices –  a gigantic natural park by the ocean with some houses and cabins nested within its rain forest. The sky is grey, menacing rain, nobody is around and you half expect elves to pop out of the thick vegetation.

Nobody but me..

A long walk on a deserted and pristine beach yielded gigantic jelly fish stranded on the sand, looking like lost space ships, pink shells and  a sense of emptiness and solitude I hadn’t experienced in a while. It’s good to feel small and alone sometimes, to be completely disconnected from the outside world. No tv, radio, internet or newspapers. Well, my cell phone works but I don’t have the heart to switch it on. It looks so incongruous here, among the wild plants and the baboons lurking everywhere, looking for food.

I examined one today from the car window – he was sitting lazily on the side of the road, grooming himself while his friend was carting a bag of chips behind some trees to enjoy lunch. The monkey looked up at me, with an air of disinterest, and I saw a human consciousness in his gaze. Not the same consciousness that Ottie has – in his gaze I see affection, devotion, curiosity for the world around him. The baboon had the gaze of a disinterested stranger I might lock eyes with at the bus stop – it was quite disconcerting to see such human light in his eyes.

Sitting at the table of our simple cabin where we are heating the beds with hot water bottles and stacking blankets on the beds in an effort to survive the cold night, I hear no sounds whatsoever coming from the outside. Not a soul, besides the two people who are with me, has any idea of where I am nor can I be contacted and it feels absolutely wonderful. I finally got to the place where I can put on hold work problems, heartaches, worries, thoughts of the future. Shouldn’t we be able to do this at home, in our rooms, by shutting out the noise and the intrusion and huddle with our families or whatever anchors us? Somehow, technology has made it impossible. All these fictitious problems we invent for ourselves, all the pressing matters we feel the need to respond to immediately  because we can.

In the thick of it

One of our car tires exploded today on the way here – we were in Plattensberg, stocking up on food before going into the wilderness. We stopped and two guys ran over, offering help. “Two ladies cannot change a tire, it’s not a job for women” and they got down to work, no questions asked, hoping they would be somehow rewarded. Had I been in the States, I would have probably taken objection at the remark (sort of true in my case) and promptly called AAA instead of letting a complete stranger help me out. One of our saviours  was wearing the yellow vest of the improvised parking attendants who sprout at every corner whenever you park your car – the other was just hanging around. It was his shoes that caught my attention, as he was lying on the ground lifting our vehicle. His trainers were so full of holes I actually wondered why he was bothering to wear them at all. Somehow I couldn’t walk away from those shoes, every single detail of them still in my eyes – the bright red and black socks underneath to make the shoes look more legitimate. He was smiling, happy to help,  courteous and knew what he was doing because “I help the taxi drivers all the time” and in 10 minutes he was out of our life, waving furiously at us, grinning from ear to ear. It didn’t feel so bad after all to have lost a tire in return for feeding someone who might not have otherwise eaten.

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WESTERN CAPE ROAD TRIP – KNYSNA

The only way I have to describe Knysna is to imagine the Alps suddenly deposited on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Not as high as the Alps, these densely forested mountains run along an immense lagoon fed by the Ocean. Pines and poplars crowd the slopes like sentinels self arranged in endless rows. The sight is as beautiful as it is unexpected.

Rocky CoastWe are now on the Garden Route after having traversed mountains passes and miles of flat, agricultural land. Rather than people, it was sheep, cows and ostriches we encountered. I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting ostrich meat just yet (am not too sure I will get around to it) but I am told it is similar to beef, just a bit more gamey. Beautiful ostrich purses in pastel colours can be found everywhere but after seeing so many of the thin legged birds I am not so sure I could sport one on my arm (the purse, not the bird…).

A walk into the thick forest once again reminds me how far I am – if pines and poplars are familiar, ironwood and stinky wood not so much (the stinky wood tree apparently emanates a foul odour when cut). I tried hard to spot wild elephants between the thick branches but none was kind enough to come have breakfast in my vicinity. As the sun was setting, though, egrets were walking so lightly on the lagoon they looked  as if they were treading water.

Elephants' walk - with no elephants

Despite the crystalline blue sky, it is still winter and there is something a bit forlorn and melancholic about visiting a seaside resort in winter. The ocean looks angry, slamming its waves against the rock, reminding us of the power we sometimes forget when placidly dipping in Summer. I like being here now, with no crowds, just the locals and the wealthy retirees who bought homes in this paradise. Inside the lagoon there are a few islands where beautiful waterfront homes have been built – manicured gardens, shuttered windows, no children at play, it’s idyllic and, like many times before during my travels, I find myself scouring real estate placards and ads for the perfect home of a hypothetical future. At the equivalent of $200,000 for a 3 bedroom, it’s no wonder that some Europeans and wealthy South Africans purchase  second homes  here.

View from our flat

Last week, I had never heard of Knysna, it wasn’t even a name on a map or in a guide-book (all the travel arrangements were left to Sue, the only person on earth I could ever trust with such a task). And now, it’s the center of my universe, if only for a couple of days. It’s this full immersion that travel mentally and emotionally requires I am so attached to. The focus of my day is finding the perfect bakery, how to get from A to B and what the weather will be like. If only…

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