The Garden Route

Day 664 – 24 December, 2016

The Garden Route, a popular holiday destination for all of the South Africa’s elite and plenty of others from around the world, was where I would be spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve this year. The holidays were fast approaching and I had been strongly encouraged to book ahead several weeks earlier. I had been given some suggestions for where to spend the season from a friend, but it was hard to guess how fast I would be willing to move from one spot to another. To complicate matters, the Baz Bus only traveled five days a week on that route so I would need to make sure I didn’t get “stuck” somewhere if their schedule didn’t match mine.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Chiang Mai and New Year’s Eve in Koh Samui. All of the ‘good’ places to stay had been booked, not to mention that my flight from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui in the mid-week certainly cost a pretty penny. By planning about a month in advance this year, I booked the highly desirable Garden Route locales of Wilderness and Plettenberg Bay, respectively. But another untimely hiccup threatened to derail not just the holidays, but also my entire journey.

I ran out of money. Besides, patience, open-mindedness, and wanderlust, money is kind of a key ingredient in long term travel and I was flat out. Both my credit card and debit card were due to expire in January. I was on it! I knew this was going to happen so a few weeks earlier I had called both banks and asked that they send my replacement cards to my hostel in Cape Town. Upon my arrival in Cape Town, neither of my cards had been delivered yet. It was surprising, but I would be there for a full week so there was plenty of time for the mail still to arrive. Toward the end of my stay in Cape Town, I finally talked to the hostel owner and explained what I was waiting for. He shook his head and nearly rolled his eyes that I would have been so foolish to send mail to South Africa. He said they typically send Christmas cards starting in July because the service is slow and corrupt. I extended my stay by a few extra days, but ultimately I had to cancel both cards and request that they were resent to a PO Box, which I now know is the most reliable way of receiving mail there. The principal problem with doing this was that now I was operating on dwindling resources. Before closing the debit card, I withdrew an arbitrary amount that seemed like enough to get by for a week or so, but not too much to carry around on me in a country known for armed robberies.

The Baz Bus dropped me off at my accommodation in Wilderness in the early evening. I was low on cash after already spending five days between Hermanus and Oudtshoorn, but I had prepaid for this dump before I left Cape Town so that was sorted for the next three days. More of a campsite than much of anything else, I had paid for a dorm room and was escorted down a poorly lit sidewalk to the bunk quarters. Several silhouettes were smoking cigarettes and pot and a pile of empty beer bottles clanked when someone tossed on a new addition. My room was built for two single beds, yet six people were crammed into three bunk beds. It reeked of mildew and dirty laundry thanks to the three 19 year old English boys who were getting back to their roots without mom around. None of this was unique to this particular place above anywhere else I stayed, but I was soon to be introduced to the little known hippie backpacker culture of the country and it was probably my first revelation that even though I sometimes fancy myself a hippie, I am a complete amateur.

Considering I was temporarily destitute, I spent Christmas Day on a free waterfall hike, paying only for entrance to the park and finding it was also free to dip my toes in the ice cold water and to admire the view. The campsite was offering an economical Christmas dinner so I signed up for a meal in the mid-afternoon and spent the remaining part of the day watching a movie on my tablet and drinking a bootleg bottle of wine in my bed that was slightly damp from humidity.

The next morning one of the young English boys came in to warn me to lock up my valuables, which in practice, was impossible because there were no lockers or locks on any of the doors. He said that a French girl who was staying in one of the tents had her bag stolen that contained her passport and camera. I later learned that an American girl who was currently working there also had a bag stolen the same night. In my opinion, it was inevitable. There were heaps of people crashed out on pretty much every plot of land on the property, some were known, some weren’t. Barefoot, spacy-eyed, dreadlock-laden youth (and others not so youthful) wandered around aimlessly after a blackout Christmas Night. The table surfaces were sticky and the soft sitting surfaces were moist. I still had a full day left and couldn’t bear to hang out around this swamp any longer.
I wanted to go paragliding, which isn’t expensive in South Africa, but my remaining cash wouldn’t cover it. I negotiated with the desk to use my credit card to pay for it, the one they had on file after I prepaid my accommodation. Great, let’s book it! Great, it will cost 400R for the taxi to get there, cash only. The wind went right out of my sails. I didn’t have enough. So with my chin up, I packed a bag and went to the beach instead (not an entirely terrible way to spend a day in December).

It was only an hour to Knysna on the bus and I was off to my next earthy destination. My hostel was virtually empty except for some locals and some malnourished Australians who were more interested in drugs than food. Knysna is perhaps the largest city on the Garden Route and it was where I had requested my debit card be sent so I was eager to see if it had arrived. The woman at PostNet could not have been nicer. My package wasn’t there, although the tracking number indicated it would arrive soon. The woman took my number, called me, and when I didn’t answer because I was outside of wifi range, she delivered it to my hostel personally. What a relief to finally be back in business after nine days without access to funds!

In Knysna, I frequented the waterfront restaurants with the typical holiday crowd and was warned not to stray too far from the city center. Bad locals, I was told. I was keen for a hike, but grim faces warned me to not go alone. Thieving locals, I was told. I wanted to walk along the coast toward a popular viewpoint. Again, I was threatened with drunk and idle locals. 

Against my better judgement, I was unfortunately convinced to rent another bicycle to pedal uphill to a viewpoint. Why, you ask? To ride past the drunk and idle locals on my single speed rented cruiser. Ok, fine. The initial path was flat and scenic, meandering next to the coast and marshy inlets. Where I expected to see these erratic locals, there were only a few families with portable BBQ grills for a holiday picnic. The hill was insurmountable with this heavy piece of metal so I pushed it up for 30 minutes to the top of The Heads. All in, though, it was so worth it. Incredible views of the Knysna Lagoon and the weather was ideal so it was a peaceful place for a well-deserved break before plummeting back down the same hill firmly pressing the brakes.

Another day, I spontaneously decided to rent a kayak when the office for stand up paddle boards was too crowded. I thought I would paddle for an hour, two at the most. I wanted to get a little exercise while exploring the lagoon and the backwater canals. Several boys stood on the dock so they could get me packed in and sent off in my kayak. I left a small backpack and my shoes behind, while deciding to bring my water bottle and my phone wrapped in a waterproof bag and tucked into my life vest. I still marvel at how I kept my phone dry and above the water, but I just knew there would be lots of opportunity for photos. I was told it would take me about two hours to go around a small island in the lagoon, finishing in the canals before coming back to the dock. I propelled myself into the wind in the lagoon, with waves I felt sure would send me capsizing. I couldn’t rest even for a minute because I would lose ground more quickly than I could gain it. I paddled for nearly an hour before I looked over my shoulder to see I was still much closer to where I started than I should have been. On another day, I might have turned around, but on that day I was determined so I paddled faster and harder until my shoulders and triceps were screaming. Finding the inlet that would allow me to finally go around the island and have the wind at my back wasn’t any easier. I had to carefully pull out my phone a couple of times to examine the map until I realized there was a big plastic map taped to the front of the kayak. Might have been helpful to know…. 

 When I finally began to turn, the waves began pushing me into a shallow marsh so I had to get out and drag the kayak to the other side, fighting the wind and waves the whole time. Climbing back inside I expected to feel the wind gently guide me along, but it was perfectly still. I was now in an area that was completely protected from the current and swells and the wind. I had been at it for two hours. I was exhausted, yet I could now see the expensive homes that marked the entrance to the canals so I continued. The houses still remained distant so on two occasions, I stopped to ask some fishermen if I was going the right way, hoping they would tell me that it was closer than it appeared. More time passed and I entered the canals as if this was the homestretch….and it was except it also was a confusing labyrinth of waterways which had me constantly checking the map. Then it became a race against the clock – I was coming up on three hours and I had zero interest in paying for a fourth hour. When my poor wind-beaten kayak arrived back at the dock, the crew said they thought I was lost because it never takes anyone that long to go around. You can imagine my amusement when they said they usually send kayakers in the opposite direction so they can return with the current – they just forgot to tell me.

I left Knysna the next day with a couple of good workouts under my belt and some cash in my wallet. I wasn’t going to let the Garden Route beat me yet.

Baz the Cape

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… 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.