Mountains, seaside, city and desert…

Time is marching on and so are we. Our South African visas are about to expire and we are crossing the border into Namibia tomorrow. There’s been so many places to visit, sights to see and things to do that I’ve fallen well behind on my writing. Our last blog post was about our time in Kwa Zulu Natal in the north east of the country and since then we have visited the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, travelled along the coast around the bottom of the continent with a side trip into the mountains of the southern Karoo, explored around Cape Town and finally driven north through increasingly dry country to the north west corner of South Africa. The post about our time in Lesotho has been almost finished for several weeks now and a couple of others are also in progress. In the meantime I’ll try to give a very brief summary of our travels and experiences.

Lesotho is a tiny country perched high in the mountains and is totally encircled by South Africa but has a very different culture and provided us with a very different set of experiences. We loved all of our time in the highest parts of the country which are in the east and centre. Most of the time we were above 2,500 metres above sea level (that’s about 8,000 feet) and some passes were well above 3,000 metres. Vegetation there is low and sparse, rainfall is low but they do get snow in winter and there is very little money to be made. There are few private motor vehicles and most travel is done on the hardy mountain ponies or more likely on foot with people thinking nothing of walking two or three hours up and down the hills to get to work, school or shops (although the latter are scarce). Sheep and mohair goats are tended by shepherds dressed in the ubiquitous brown blankets traditionally worn in the country although the ones worn in rural towns tend to be newer and brighter while they are rarely seen in the city. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went and our week and a half felt much longer but also nowhere near long enough.

Returning to South Africa We headed for the coast reaching it part way down the Wild Coast region near Coffee Bay. We spent a couple of overcast and rainy days there so no swimming unfortunately but we feasted on a dozen and a half large oysters collected from the rocks for the princely sum of 50 Rand (about $5) and had a pleasant walk around the rocks and along the beach. We continued on toward the Sunshine Coast next and on the way we spent a very windy night by the lagoon at Hamburg before reaching Cannon Rocks where we stayed for three nights. We had some hot sunny weather there and Paul managed to get a quick dip in the ocean but by then we were far enough south for the water temperature to have dropped considerably so we won’t be swimming in the ocean for quite a while as the water temperature along the south and west coast of Southern Africa is way too cold for us.

A long day’s drive from there took us through Port Elizabeth and onward to the Garden Route. This section of the coast is covered in Fynbos, fine leaf bush, which is lovely to drive thorough even in summer when it is dry and it would be very beautiful in spring when the bushes are covered in flowers. We had planned to stay in the Tsitsikamma National Park but we had problems with the car’s gearbox so we decided it was better to stay in a town where we could find a mechanic. We limped into the pretty seaside town of Plettenberg Bay and stayed in a very pleasant caravan park there until it was fixed. The gearbox problems had been niggling since December and became worse while we were driving up and down all the passes in Lesotho so we had planned to have it fixed while we were in Cape Town but when it got stuck in fourth gear we had no option. The work ended up being done at the Toyota service centre in the next town of Knysna and it took over a week including time waiting for parts but we hired a car so we were still able to see all the sights in the area.
When we finally got the car back we left our trailer at the caravan park and travelled inland to drive a loop through a small part of the Karoo. The Karoo is a vast semi-arid plateau which covers almost one third of South Africa’s total area. We didn’t have time to see most of it, even less than we hoped due to our longer than expected stay in Plettenberg Bay, so we spent most of our time in the mountain range at the southern border with just a short drive across flat plains with endless horizons. The mountains are rugged and rocky and very steep and twisted so there were many climbs up, down and through amazing passes with an endless number of fantastic views. We camped in private campgrounds, national park campsites and had one night on the side of the road to Die Hel so we really can say we’ve been to Hell and back.

We returned to Plettenberg Bay to collect our trailer expecting to stay a night or two. We managed to score a fantastic site right on the edge of the lagoon with beautiful views and with lovely balmy weather we just had to stay a bit longer. We finally left after another three nights to continue our journey toward Cape Town. Bontebok National Park made a very pleasant stopover for one night and the next day we reached Kleinmond on the eastern side of False Bay where we stopped for a few nights to give us time to explore the area. A loop drive took us across and over the ranges to Sir Lowry’s Pass where Paul hoped I would get my first sight of Table Mountain however smoke from bushfires and distant cloud spoiled that idea but it was still a wonderful drive particularly around the edge of the mountain beside the ocean on our return to camp. We had traveled through Hermanus on our way to Kleinmond and stopped there briefly to visit a couple of galleries but we decided the town deserved a longer visit so we returned and easily filled in a long morning visiting another ten or so galleries and following up with a delicious lunch.

Moving further on we started our time in the Cape Town area with a few days near Stellenbosch, a prime wine region. Our camp was part way between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek on a lawn under some oak trees in the garden of a guesthouse, a delightful place to stay. We preferred quiet Franschhoek to the busier Stellenbosch but some magnificent wines and a delightful lunch at Lanzerac winery in Stellenbosch certainly justified our time spent there.

Rather than stay in or very near the centre of Cape Town we moved to Kommetjie on the west coast of the peninsula south of the city on the way to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Naturally one day was spent visiting those places and several other days visiting places in and around the city including the top of Table Mountain, the Botanical Gardens, and several drives and visits to areas along the waterfront. We met up with Paul’s niece, Kate, and her partner Dean several times and enjoyed some good company and delicious meals with them. The drives between Kommetjie and the city were always scenic as we had a choice of travelling along the edge of the coast on a road carved out of the mountain or crossing the range between rock strewn hills. The whole area is very beautiful and the weather was kind to us but the traffic was often heavy.

We didn’t need to travel too far north of Cape Town to leave the traffic congestion behind, especially after we left the fray to follow a scenic route through several mountain passes to our first overnight stop at Ceres. The following day was well away from any highway and traffic with dirt roads beneath us and lots of mountains and amazing views all around us on our way to Clanwilliam. From there we had planned to head for the coast and a 4wd track to take us north but strong winds and the forecast of more to come convinced us to check the maps again. Our alternate plan was to take the highway north most of the way to the border, stop overnight in a Nature Reserve near the town of Springbok, and then spend the rest of the time we had available visiting the remote and rugged Richtersveld National Park. It almost went to plan except for a wrong turn on our way out of Clanwilliam which meant the first part of our trip was along a very scenic dirt road instead of the highway, and when we arrived at our planned destination for the night we found the office and gate had closed fifteen minutes earlier at 4.00pm. The caravan park in town was less than inviting but a Guest Farm not far out of town offered camping. We rang to check the camping was still available and were offered a room for the same price. What a bonus and, as it turned out, what a lovely place to stay.

We enjoyed our drive out to the Richtersveld coast and up to Alexander Bay on the border with Namibia before turning inland and driving an hour and a half into the Richtersveld National Park, still within South Africa. We spent our first two nights at Pootjiespram camp on the Orange River and spent a lovely day relaxing at a real bush camp with plenty of shade and firewood for a camp fire meal. What a contrast to our drive the next day. We headed into the centre of the park which is a mountainous desert region where rain rarely falls, less than 500mm each year, and life sustaining moisture comes from early morning fogs. Here the plants were tough and hardy but an amazing variety including the bizarre Quiver Trees and Halfmens Trees. The hills and mountains were also incredibly varied with colours including greys, browns, pinks, oranges, blues and blacks and even greens although the green came from the color of the rocks and sand, not from plants. We spent the night surrounded by amazing boulders which were great for Paul to take photos in the evening and morning. We’re spending our final night in the park, and South Africa, at the Sendelingsdrift camp near the main gate. It’s on the Orange River and usually a Pont takes you across the river into Namibia. This was how we planned to cross the border but it’s out of action for three months so we have to backtrack to Alexander Bay for our border crossing.

So tomorrow we’re entering Namibia, the fifth country of our African odyssey and we will spend about three months in the country. Time for lots of adventures!