Penguins, Wine, and Mountains: Cape Town and Around

Our final stop on the continent was in Cape Town. Caitlyn’s brother, Greg, is attending the university there and kindly agreed to let us crash at his house. Cape Town is sort of the go-to tourist place in South Africa – the place everyone says you ‘have to see’. And it is pretty cool. Cape Town itself is nice, but the surrounding area is spectacular.

Greg picked us up from the airport and took us to his house – shared with three roommates who were away for winter vacation – and then we popped out for lunch before heading out to hit up Cape Town’s major landmark: Table Mountain.

Trapping the city against the water, Table Mountain looks just like it sounds – a giant table. In one of the largest online polls ever it was named one of the seven new natural wonders of the world. There are two ways up, walking or taking the cable car. We were a bit pinched for time and so we headed up on the cable car for a little wander. Although the city was pretty well obscured by clouds, the view was still beautiful.

From Table Mountain we headed over to Camp and Clifton Beaches. Clifton is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It was pretty overcast and sprinkly when we were there but they are definitely a pretty set of beaches with super fine sand. Our final stop for day one was the harbour area for a wander and dinner.

The next day was even more jam packed. We started with breakfast in Kalk Bay at an awesome little restaurant overlooking the harbour.

Sunrise for breakfast

Sunrise for breakfast.

But from there, things got even more awesome. We went to Boulders Beach and hung out with African Penguins! We must have been there for over and hour – there were so many of them all doing different things, babies, mothers defending their nests against seagulls…. so much to see.

The last half of the day was spent checking out Cape Point and then climbing Lion’s Head. Both were great little jaunts, although it would have been nice to spend a little more time exploring the park down around the Cape of Good Hope.

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The following morning, we dropped Greg off at the airport and then headed out to Stellenbosch to see Reg, another of our friends from Korea. Stellenbosch is wine country and is less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town. It’s one of the oldest European settlements in the country and many of the buildings are in the traditional Cape Dutch style. We had a great stroll around the town with Reg and then Blake and Reg went to Rust En Verde for a wine tasting (Tamara was stuck doing homework). Wines in this area are fantastic – there is no shortage of choices – and these were no exception. By the time the tasting was finished there was only time for a quick bite before we had to head back to Cape Town.

Our final day in South Africa was pouring rain for the most part, but we decided to head over to Hout Bay – one of the smaller fishing towns strung out to the south of Cape Town. Sadly, we only got a short walk on the beach before we headed back to the house and caught an Uber downtown for dinner.

A friend of Blake’s from previous travels lives in Cape Town and we had arranged to have dinner with him on our last evening. He had picked out a Japanese restaurant downtown that had some excellent food. We even got to try ostrich, which, by the way, is fantastic!

Always great to catch up with old friends!

Always great to catch up with old friends!

Unfortunately, our flight required us to get up at 3:00 AM and so our farewell to Africa and all the friends we have there took place in the middle of the night in a slightly sleep-deprived haze. South Africa was a spectacular part of our trip and, with any luck, we will see some of our friends in Canada in the near future.

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A Bird’s Eye View: Climbing with the McMinns

Following our game drives we headed back to Durban to have dinner with Caitlyn, Hendrik, Josh, and Elisti so that we could return Hendrik’s car, say thanks for all C&H had done, and get in a little bit of a last minute catch up. From there we headed to Josh and Elisti’s place for the weekend. They had moved to Durban last summer and had settled into their usual outdoorsy pursuits.

In keeping with that theme, our plan was for a Saturday climb out near Howick. However, before that we stopped by a market to collect the fixings for lunch. Perhaps it was just that we had not been anywhere near a non-Asia market in quite some time, but we don’t recall the farmers’ markets at home having such a wide variety of items available. We had breakfast, bought meat for dinner, cheese for lunch, crackers to supplement and even had a 9:00 AM beer tasting session before picking up a box of craft ales for the evening.

Once we got out to the game preserve where the climbs were located, it was a bit of a walk in and down to get to the climb points. Josh and Eliisti had kindly chosen easier routes so we actually had a hope of completing some of them. We had climbed with them before, but this time they taught us the basics of belaying as well. Climbing really is a great sport and it’s something we are thinking of getting into once we are settled on Vancouver Island. In the end, we both managed to climb two of the three that we attempted. We fell a bunch on each of them and had a lot of coaching from the ground, but we made it and the views from the top were amazing!

That evening Josh was ill so it fell to Blake to try to cook the wildebeast boerewors. Uncertain how to go about it, he made the distinctly non-Afrikaans mistake of unrolling the sausage before cooking it. Still worked out OK, but not exactly traditional Afrikaans style! Sunday was a bit of rest and recovery time from the pace of the previous week. Josh was not feeling well so Elisti took us around to a farmers’ market and a stroll along the north end of the Durban promenade before taking us to an awesome little restaurant called Freedom Cafe tucked away in a modified shipping container. By the time we got back to check on Josh we were just in time to throw together dinner, play a few games and enjoy the sunset before crashing in preparation for an early morning flight.

Not a bad view out over Durban.

Not a bad view out over Durban.

We had booked a shuttle service to the airport from one of the nearby hotels. Elisti dropped us off at 6:00 AM and we were off to Cape Town. It was a great weekend and with any luck we will be showing them around BC in the next couple of years.

Safari Time!: St. Lucia and Hluhluwe

That’s right, we got to go on game drives. And they were awesome! Although we were excited about the prospect of seeing animals we had only seen in movies, we were a little skeptical about the idea of simply driving around for much of the day. In the end it was excellent.

Hendrik and Caitlyn lent us their car and we made the journey north – on the wrong side of the road – without any complications. When we checked into our hotel in St. Lucia proper we were quickly warned that we needed to be careful wandering around town at night as the hippos come out of the nearby estuary to feed and are extremely dangerous. In the event that there was one in the hotel driveway we were to either go back to our room and wait or relax in the cafe across the road until it left. Apparently they kill about 3,000 people every year and get especially upset if a person gets between them and the water.

With that charming little warning in mind we got settled in and explored the immediate area before being picked up for our first game drive. The guide arrived in a safari vehicle meant for nine people, but we were the only ones who had signed up for that day so we got a private tour. It was a sunset tour up the eastern side of the St. Lucia estuary and turned out to be a fantastic introduction to game drives. We did a bunch of game-spotting and saw a lot of cool animals before the sun really settled down.

We stopped for sunset snacks and drinks before continuing on a night drive. This part of the drive was especially cool. After sundowners, the guide handed Blake a spotlight while he held a second one and headed further into the park. We spotted a few sets of eyes along the way, mostly bushbabies, but then there was a leopard on the road! The best part was that it never did run: just continued slowly along and allowed us to have a great look and get a few mediocre photos in the mix. Having crowned the night off with that sighting, we headed back down the road to look for chameleons, one of which our guide brought back to the truck for us to hold. They are pretty entertaining. Super lethargic and always looking to get to the highest point they can reach. Our final sighting was right back in town when we ran into some hippos wandering through the streets. Heed those warnings!

The following morning we were up and out to meet a different truck for a 5 AM start before driving an hour out to Hluhluwe (pronounced shushlooee) for our all day drive. There were two other people on this drive with us and we had some great sightings. For us, some of the most interesting were the giraffes and elephants, but we also saw wild dogs, which are apparently really rare and quite pretty. This tour included  a simple breakfast along with a great lunch braai with sausages and steaks grilled up by our guide.

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Our final event was a two hour boat cruise on the estuary looking for hippos and crocs. This took place our last morning in the area before our drive back to Durban and was pretty cool. For those who are interested, hippos are really ugly. We originally assumed that rhinos would be ugly and hippos would be comparatively cute. Quite the opposite. We found several different pods and even got to listen to them making a series of calls. We did see a few crocs as well, but they were a lot smaller than expected. Apparently they get bigger up river.

Once we got off the boat we had just enough time to grab a coffee and then head for Durban. We had decided to stop at one of the various farm stalls on the way out for a late lunch and we would highly recommend it. The food, at least at the one we stopped at, was decent and some of the homemade products are amazing!

A Few Thoughts

St. Lucia is an area that is definitely worth visiting and spending several days in. There are several different parks within striking distance and you can see all of the big five in the area – although we never did spot lions.

Game drives are quite reasonably priced, especially if you are working in a foreign currency. An all day drive was only 800 R. each (about 80 CAD) and included pickup and two meals.

It is possible to go on a self-guided drive staying on the main roads within the parks. However, there are roads/trails that seem to be restricted to vehicles driven by certified guides.

Don’t ever put an arm/camera lens outside of the vehicle if you are close to an animal. That is how people get bitten.

Beaches, Mountains, and Old Friends

Our route to South Africa was a slightly roundabout one involving more time sleeping in the Dubai airport, but eventually we arrived in Durban and were greeted by Hendrik and Caitlyn, last seen over a year previously in Korea! Although it was pretty late and we were exhausted after a long 24 hours of airplanes and airports we spent the remainder of the evening catching up and getting up to speed on what the plans were for our three weeks in South Africa. We had arrived with nothing but some vague notions of what we wanted to get up to and Caitlyn had a fantastic itinerary laid out for us. Our first full day in Durban was pretty chilled as we got our feet under us and got settled in. That evening we had our first braai – a culinary tradition we sincerely hope will be adopted by the rest of the world very soon. It’s closest cousin would be the North American BBQ, but done properly with briquettes or charcoal with various spices and marinades. Also, meat is the centerpiece of the meal and the portions are HUGE. We met a couple of Caitlyn and Hendrik’s friends that evening who had just had a little one and all-in-all it was a cozy evening. One thing you don’t realize until you have it again is that constantly travelling means you are often lacking proximity to a friend group with whom you have a shared history. Re-encountering that for the first time in months was fantastic. A couple of days, a stroll on the promenade, and a few more family dinners in which we were graciously included, and it was beach time.

We headed down to Caitlyn’s parents’ cottage in Southbroom – one of a cluster of smaller settlements strung out along the coast south of Durban. This was our decompress time after running around in Ethiopia as well as a chance to refresh our tans as much of our skin had not seen the sun since Agonda beach over a month previously. Southbroom is a quiet little area that has relatively limited crime and was a great place to relax. The Waffle House provided a great little diversion in the form of super decadent waffle-ice cream combos. There was beach time, fantastic food, and general laziness.

However, always advocates of finding fun activities, Caitlyn and Hendrik had two surprises for us. The first was a fantastic flight along the coast to the south into the Eastern Cape. Hendrik had to spend a night in one of the smaller town in the Eastern Cape for work and we got to go on the flight that went to pick him up. Such amazing scenery!

Second, they had arranged for us to visit the highest zipline in Africa. It’s located within the Eland Lake Game Reserve and so it was coupled with our first opportunity to see a bit of South Africa’s safari wildlife. The zipline itself is made up of 21 platforms and about 18 different ziplines, including one over a lake, through a tunnel, and a 600 metre line suspended 300 meters above a gorge! You get going 80-100 KM/hour on that one!

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From there we had one night in Durban before heading west and slightly south to the Drakensberg, the mountains around Lesotho. Once again we were staying at a cabin, this one a time-share with other families. Because of the proximity to the Drakensberg Gardens resort, we had access to all the facilities of the resort as well as all the fantastic hiking the mountains could offer. We were joined by two other couples as well and had a pretty fantastic long weekend. The Drakensberg is definitely a place we would recommend people visit if they have the chance. There are several different areas where the mountains can be accessed and none of them are all that far from Durban.

A little lawn bowling to start things off well.

A little lawn bowling to start things off well.

While we were there, we did three hikes. First was a little loop from behind the cottage and into the resort. Since we had not done much in the way of exercise for the better part of four months it was nice to stretch our legs on a relatively flat walk. Across the valley we could see the mountains forming the border with Lesotho. Rhino Horn Peak was especially prevalent in the skyline.

Our second day was a trek through The Three Pools. Because it was winter and the dry season, the river was relatively low and the grasslands were pretty dry. However, there was enough water for two pools, upper and lower – and they were freezing! We were the only ones that managed to get in, but man were they cold.

Our final trek was up towards the Rhino Horn – also hikeable but a very long, hard day – to a place called Pillar Cave. It was just us and Hendrik as Caitlyn was a bit tired. On the way up we spotted a group of Eland that were super tame and stayed right by the trail as we went by.

We wrapped up our time with a little mini-golf at the Gardens before heading back to Durban to reset for our next day trip.

Onward to St. Lucia and three days of game drives.