Day 659 – 19 December, 2016
A backpacker bus veteran at this point, it was not my first rodeo. A backpacker bus is intended to be cheap, convenient, and safe. It is meant to cater to like-minded international travelers. It can be a one-way hop on/hop off itinerary or it can be a circular itinerary that starts and finishes in the same place or it can even be an out and back to shuttle passengers between two points. About 10 years ago, I bought a ticket with Kiwi Experience in New Zealand. My ride was from Christchurch to Christchurch, circling the South Island. I could hop off and stay to spend extra days at any of our stops and then hop on when the next bus came around. As a group, we stopped at a few places along the way for short hikes and sightseeing, which was great because on that vacation, I didn’t have time to stay longer. You had the freedom where you wanted to stay at night since it was not included, but because you were with the same people all day every day, we made friendships that tended to influence our choice of accommodation and other activities.
It was a no-brainer when I chose the Baz Bus in South Africa. Constant stories of how it would be unsafe to travel alone as a woman had me committed to this ‘safer’ choice. I had assumed it would be a similar experience to my time in New Zealand, but it was mostly a glorified tourist bus. Passengers were rarely on the bus long enough to establish friendships and in fact, many locals would buy individual segment tickets so the crowd was always very mixed. In hindsight, I might have chosen to rent a car and drive myself, although an expired drivers’ license doesn’t get you very far with a rental car company. The bus was generally clean and comfortable and on time; the drivers were always professional. I was only disappointed in the fact that it didn’t meet my definition of a backpacker bus and left me unfulfilled as a solo traveler.
Hermanus was a coastal town about 30 mins off the bus route so I had to book a taxi to get there. It’s best known for the Fernkloof Nature Reserve and the Cliff Path where you can see whales from shore in their annual migration…..in season. Of course, I missed the season by a few weeks so no matter how much I strained to see in the distance, not a single blow of vapor could be seen on the horizon. The path itself stretched for 12km one way and was covered in fynbos, evergreen shrub-like plants. In spite of my off-season visit, I walked the entire path both ways, stopping only for lunch at Grotto Beach. The weather was ideal, if not superbly windy, and the Cliff Path offered stunning views in both directions. Little did I know it would be the last time I was encouraged to go anywhere in South Africa alone without a strong recommendation against it.
Back in town, I rested on the Hermanus Esplanade and pulled out my book. Children were throwing bread crumbs to the rock dassie family that lived in the cliffs. To my surprise, a dassie that must have been confused as to who was feeding him bravely climbed my leg and stood on my thigh. They don’t have claws; in fact, their feet have soft little foot pads. Strangely, even though they superficially resemble a guinea pig, their closest living relative in the animal kingdom is the elephant because of their tusk-like incisors. They are harmless and it was kind of fun that one climbed in my lap! But sadly, these are wild animals behaving as pests because people feed them and encourage them to come closer. Their natural food would be plants and insects so bread doesn’t really fall into that category.
When it came time to leave Hermanus, I was determined to find a cheaper alternative to get back to the Baz Bus than taking a taxi. The taxi had cost me $14USD when I arrived and a traditional backpacker would never be willing to pay that much so I knew I could find another way. My hostel was pretty empty, but I tried putting my name up on a bulletin board to see if anyone wanted to split it or if anyone would be driving past that way and could drop me off. I was told the local bus would be unreliable because it would only leave when it was full so I might not arrive in time for my transfer. Ultimately, the daughter of the owner and her husband and brother offered to give me a ride as they would be driving to Cape Town for the day. What they didn’t mention is that the brother would be moving so I was sandwiched into the back between his guitar and a bag of smelly laundry. He had just had a bad break up (if telling your girlfriend that she’s a bitch constitutes a bad break up). So I silently passed the time listening to him moan about his former girlfriend and his sister telling him that he deserved it. Cheers to that, sister, and thanks for the ride!
The Baz Bus took me as far as George, where I caught another shuttle to Oudtshoorn, 47km further inland. The landscape completely shifted to rolling painted hills and scrub bush as our elevation increased and the population waned. I had chosen a boutique hotel with a dorm room as my accommodation because nearly every other place was booked out. My dorm room at Karoo Soul was small and crammed with 3 German boys who had seemingly not showered in ages. As my host ushered me to the room and realized this was not ideal (although also not even a little bit uncommon), she offered me a private room with a private bath that was decorated with flowers and a handmade quilt covered the bed for the same price. Candles, lavender-scented linens, and my own private porch were some of the perks. While this was not the first time I had been offered an upgrade for no apparent reason other than the kindness of the owner, it made my stay so much more enjoyable. The temperature was mild (too mild to make use of the pool), but I enjoyed sitting in the garden with a cup of coffee in the mountain breeze.
Outside the front gates, it was a different story entirely. The property was surrounded by tall metal gates so as keep out would-be miscreants. A short walk to the supermarket, I was quickly marked as “not from here.” It was only a day before Christmas and the supermarket was packed. People waited in lines that extended through every aisle, settling in for what might be a full day’s excursion for groceries. One thing I noticed while traveling the world is that impatience, while not uniquely an American trait, seems to be minimized in places where instant gratification is rare. None of these market dwellers demonstrated impatience; they had mostly succumbed to their fate of waiting. I, on the other hand, had no desperate need for groceries and I had enough stares pointed my direction that I slipped out the back door. In trying to find a place for breakfast, I passed over several “local” places that were also crowded, people spilling out to the sidewalk. This normally wouldn’t deter me, yet I felt intimidated by the boisterous nature of the patrons. I asked someone for advice on where I could go that was quiet and had good food. I was directed to a cafe that was packed full of other diners, although it was indeed quiet. Their menu offered avocado toast (yes, even in South Africa) and champagne cocktails. It wasn’t until I really started thinking about it that I realized every single person in this cafe was white. It got me thinking about the prevalence of racism in South Africa and how it is not entirely dissimilar to race relations in my own country. I’m not saying that the cafe did not have good food, which is the recommendation I asked for after all, but I was curious if I would have been sent elsewhere if the color of my skin had been different….?
The next day I rented a bicycle (honestly, the only time I ever think this is a good idea is if I’m riding downhill or if I am tempted by the scenery.) The intention was to drive myself and two other passengers to the top of Swartberg Pass so we could coast downhill the 54km back to town. There would be a few stops on the way so as to break up the ride and a van would stay with us at least until the road was paved. From the top of the pass, the views were jaw dropping. Baseball-sized stones were strewn about the dusty gravel road with random lethal implications. Fitted with helmets and hybrid bikes, I began the downhill cycle with Marty and Jen, a British/Canadian couple who were on their own world tour. We marveled at the changing landscape from one hairpin turn to another. Some cyclists were pushing through the uphill and applauded us for having already made it up and on our way back down. We sheepishly admitted that we had been driven to the top as they admitted their jealousy at our genius. Marty took a spill over one rather dangerous dip in the gravel, but he was ok and we all made it to our first stop uninjured, albeit with burning forearms and sore saddles from gripping the brakes on the bouncy terrain.
We stopped at the Cango Caves, which offered both a regular tour and an adventure tour. The adventure tour involved squeezing through tiny crevasses and narrow passes. To make sure no one would get stuck, there were plexiglass demos in the lobby so that larger individuals could tuck through and “practice.” I skipped it as claustrophobia is not my strong suit. The regular cave tour was enough for me with towering stalagmites and dripping stalactites. It did make a perfect stop about halfway back to Oudtshoorn and was a chance to prepare for the “flat” return journey. Marty and Jen had purchased tickets for the adventure tour so I wished them goodbye and continued alone.
My next stop was at an ostrich farm, where they do goofy things like make you hug an ostrich. I’ve always thought these were interesting and misunderstood creatures. We got to stand on an ostrich egg, which can take up to 250 lbs of weight without breaking it. We got to feed the ostriches. And there was an option of riding an ostrich….of course, there was. I couldn’t expect to go to an animal-centric establishment without expecting cruelty to animals now could I? The farm restricted the “riders” to people weighing less than 150 lbs, which included a couple of teenagers and two other women, in addition to myself. When I checked in for my tour, I didn’t realize this was an option and when I was told of it, I asked if the ostriches like being ridden. My inquiry was met with a shrug and an awkward chuckle. “They haven’t told us they don’t like it,” the receptionist told me. Sight unseen, I declined the ride. When we reached the paddock with the riding ostriches, it was kind of horrible. Many of their feathers had fallen out of their rump side where the saddle would irritate from the behind. An ostrich would be led to a mounting station by its handlers, a burlap sack placed over its head, before a tourist would climb aboard. While it was blinded underneath the sack, the ostrich remained perfectly still, but as soon as the sack was removed, it would dart away in a terrified sprint with a clumsy participant flopping around before finally falling on their head. The whole spectacle looked incredibly cruel and dangerous and I found it disgusting that this kind of activity is considered a tourist attraction. One of the bigger guys was disappointed he was too heavy to ride so the handlers said he could sit on the ostrich in the paddock for a photo. In case you were wondering, I was heavily rolling my eyes.
The cycle back to Oudtshoorn was intense. The wind kicked up and was blowing me backwards if I wasn’t keyed in to the pedals. The road was a wide flat highway, but I might as well have been riding uphill for my effort. I had to stop several times to curse and kick my bike a few times so I received it as a welcome break to save the life of a leopard turtle (one of South Africa’s little five) that was suicidally crossing the road. Oudtshoorn was not at all what I had expected and I had a wonderful time there. Both my accommodation in Hermanus and in Oudtshoorn had been mostly empty, even though I was coming up on Christmas Eve and had been warned about booking early. It was time for me to find the holiday crowd back on the coast.