When I fell into the sea at 2am

After the Plettenberg Bay hiking debacle, we moved on to Addo Elephant Park – the second largest national park in South Africa, and as the name suggests, home to hundreds of elephants.

We spent a night and a day game driving, and were treated to two male bulls fighting, and a heard of 15 elephants visiting a watering hole to drink and play.

Onwards from Addo, our next (slightly foolish) destination was a small seaside town – Coffee Bay. We had read rave reviews of this otherwise non-destination on the internet, so we thought it would be as good as any a place for a one night stop-over.

However, it took a lot longer to drive from Addo to Coffee Bay than we anticipated. The drive through the Eastern Cape was beautiful though, and so interesting. Unlike any other area of South Africa – the green rolling hills, littered with small settlements, mostly made of thatched grass in a traditional African round-house style. We even passed through Qunu, the village Nelson Mandela is from, and drove past his house. Incredible to think such a great man hailed from such rural beginnings.

Following a hair-raising drive in the dark along a potholed mountain road, we eventually arrived in Coffee Bay at around 7.

The small non-descript settlement only had mud roads, and we couldn’t find the hostel we had booked to stay at – until a friendly young guy shouted the directions to us. I proceeded in the direction he indicated, prompting him, and all the other people in the vicinity to jump after me shouting. Slamming on my brakes, he ran up and explained I was about to drive off a crack in the ground, into a six foot deep ditch. Thanking him, we made our way around the ditch safely, but were met with an almighty crash. In the commotion, the car behind me hadn’t been noticed, and had driven straight off the edge into the ditch – a scary sight… only made amusing by the fact that the car was branded to the department of roads.

We checked into our hostel, and were told the security guard would take us to our room.  However, the security guard objected – “the river has flooded, we can’t get to the room”.

Right, we were puzzled, how then would we get to our room? We’d have to drive there, he explained.  Not asking further questions, we set off following the guard’s car, taking a long route around the village to a bridge, and working our way back to our room on the other side of the river.

In the dark we could make out the room was approximately 100m from the reception and restaurant – across the river.

“If you don’t mind, you can turn up your trousers and take off your shoes, then you can walk across the river for your dinner,” the guard explained.

This sounded ridiculous, but what else was there to do? We set off to wade across the river.

In the dark this was a little difficult, and we wobbled around shin-deep in water, edging slowly across the river; until a local guy ran over to us pointing out some “stepping stones” a little further up the river. It was slightly easier like this, if slippery.

We made it across the restaurant area, and tucked into our plates of dinner feeling silly for having worried about the little matter of the river between us and our room.

Things spiralled. After dinner (and washing up our own plates – it was a community hostel!), we sat with a beer in the courtyard. Some guys approached, and asked if they could sit at our table. Sure, why not.

Before long, we were on our third beers with them – one turning out to be a semi-professional competition winning deep-sea tuna fisherman; the other a engineer; and the third an armed security professional.

We chatted and laughed late into the night, but at 2am we needed to call it a day, and we realised we’d be wading back across the river. This time we were less daunted – we knew where the stepping stones were this time.

Off we set, but halfway across the river, disaster struck – I slipped on the wet stones, and took a dramatic fall into the river, really smacking my leg on the rocks on the way down.

The security guard was running, Tom was trying to fish me out of the water – I was neck-deep in the freezing cold water, and my leg was throbbing. Managing to crawl up onto the rocks, I checked my leg fearing the worst. But I was lucky, apart from a couple of nasty scrapes, it seemed intact.

We made it back to the room and I wrapped into the blankets trying to warm up.

In the morning, my black and blue leg was in even more pain, as I emerged from our room into the morning light.

Getting my first view of the river in the light, I caught my breath. It wasn’t a river at all. It was the opening of an estuary into the open sea – a few feet further out, and I would have been in the – reasonably deep – waves. I called Tom, and his mouth dropped open too. I had been even luckier than I thought.

It was time to get out of Coffee Bay, this strange little place was eery, and we had no idea where it had got its rave reviews from. In any case, we were out of there, onwards to the Drakensbergs.

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The near death experience

Having moved to Plettenberg Bay, we had decided to spend one of our two days doing a full day hike at the Robberg Nature Reserve.

Weather wasn’t on our side. It was raining, gale force winds, we weren’t hopeful. But by midday the rain has stopped, and the sun was really making an effort, so we decided to brave the wind and head out for our hike – at the worst we’d cut it short.

We arrived at the nature reserve, signed in, and parked our car. Stepping out of the car, we were buffeted by the crisp wind – we’d have to really wrap up for this, so we donned our hoodies, coats, gloves, and set off on the trail.

We took heed of the big sign at the trail start, telling us under no circumstances to attempt to walk to the Point if we were setting off after 2pm. It was 2, so we noted our walk would be cut short – we didn’t want to tempt fate toying with this gale.

So we set off to walk the short 6km circuit, following the trail cut into the red rock of the cliffside, high above the sea where the waves were crashing into the shore.

The trail followed a winding path round the cliff, through tunnels carved in the rock, and before long, brought us out on a narrow little rock pass over the water, the rising tide lapping unnervingly close to the path. “Beware freak waves”, a sign warned.

We hurried on, thankful to successfully balance our way along the ridge above the water, and quickly making it to a big white sandy beach – sand flying in the wind, painfully whipping our faces.

This was where we needed to turn back on ourselves, finding the return path to the carpark. Following the map, we crossed the beach and identified a path snaking off to the other side of the mountain.

Off we set, scrambling over boulders, climbing higher onto the cliff, marvelling at the sea view below us and the beach view behind us.

Before long, the going was getting much tougher. Rope emerged on the cliffside, with which we were supposed to haul ourselves up sheer rock faces. Rock faces scaled, it was a steep path down to sea level – we nervously approached, the waves crashing much too close for comfort.

We double checked the map – we had been going for 5kms now, but there was no sign of the carpark, in fact, we were hundreds of metres below the cliff top where we started, scrabbling over rocks quickly being flooded by the rising tide.

But there were sign posts, clearly numbered. According to the numbers on the posts, and the numbers on the map, we were in the right place. We just needed to keep walking ahead, less than a km to go.

So, we ventured on, nervously walking along the wet rocks, the tide visibly rising. The waves angered by the galing winds, rising high and crashing frighteningly over the rocks only metres away from us.

Enough was enough, we took in the view ahead. There was clearly no path upwards, we were walking along the bottom of the cliff, and the tide was almost upon us. The 10 foot waves were crashing only metres away. But the map and markers said we were in the right place.

We took out our phones, waving them in the air, desperately trying to get a signal. Tom’s phone obliged, and showed us our GPS location.

We were at the Point. The very Point we had been warned to absolutely not attempt this late in the afternoon.  Sheer terror, as we realised the extent our precarious situation – we were on the rocks at the bottom of a cliff jutting 10kms out to see, in a gale, with the tide rising almost upon us.

With renewed strength we retraced our footsteps at an incredible pace, stumbling and falling, desperate to get to higher ground before the water caught us.

Having clambered up somewhat, we stopped next to a marker post and checked again – against the map, and with the GPS in front of us, the markers were simply wrong. We had been led in completely the wrong direction.

I felt helpless, as I considered our position. We were stuck out on the Point, the tide might already have separated us from the main land. Were we going to end up being those idiots, having to be emergency air rescued?

We had to get back, and we essentially fell-ran back to the point where we had turned off the beach, onto the wrong path.  Would the beach still be traversable? Could we get back to the main trail?

Luckily, yes. Running through the waves beginning to lap the beach – we had made it back in the nick of time. We ran back across the beach to the point where we had left the main track, and quickly set off on the route we had came.

Feeling a little better, we strode around a corner, and I bumped into Tom’s back as he stopped suddenly, with a shout. “What is it?” I panicked.  And there, running into the distance was a lynx.

Edging closer to where it had been stood, we found the cat footprints leading off into the bushes on the mountainside.

Slightly nervous at the big cat nearby, we rushed onwards – at least we hadn’t had to confront it. We were too exhausted to even consider what we would have done had it stood its ground.

Edging along the water-lapped ridge on the cliff again, and back up the trail, before long we were at the carpark again. I have never been so pleased to get in a car, and drive off to a hot bath.

 

 

Oysters and hiking in Knysna

Knysna is a beautiful little town set on a wonderfully scenic lagoon surrounded by forested mountains, and is known as the home of oysters.

Having moved into our room in town, we spent our first afternoon walking around the town, taking in the sights and sounds, and winding up with a glass of sparkly watching sunset over the lagoon. For the first time ever, my FitBit informed me I’d walked more than 20,000 steps that day [achievement!].

Our real plans were for the next day – we had looked up a hike in a nearby nature reserve, so we woke early, worked until early afternoon, then set off to the Goukamma Nature Reserve.

Strolling from the car park to the start of the trail, we were met with an obstacle – the estuary mouth. How were we supposed to cross it? we asked a nearby attendant. “Use the boat”, he said, pointing to a small rowing boat. Inching closer, we realised it was attached to a rope, which was attached to a pole on the far side of the +/- 40 metre river. We had to pull ourselves – and the boat – to the other side.

Falling onto dry land on the other side, we were out of breath without even having started the hike. Nevertheless, we set off up the steep sandy steps to the top of the hill.

From the top we were treated to gorgeous views of the estuary, the surrounding mountains, and the sea on the other side. We walked on, and the trail took us through fynbos covered hills, and through dense forests, before we emerged into the light high above the coast.  The view was so stunning all we could do was sit down and watch the blue waves lapping the beach down below.

Time was getting on, so we needed to keep going. The route took us back into the forest, then we found ourselves climbing higher and higher to the peak of the trail – we felt on top of the world, spying the tiny boat we had to reach to get back, far far below.

The rest of the 8kms flew by, and before long we were hauling ourselves back over the river on the small boat – barely making it to the other side, it was such hard work.

The day had run away with us, and it was already darkening. So we rushed back to our room to shower – VERY necessary -, and dashed out for dinner. We had spied a little fish restaurant on a backstreet when passing, which, despite being mid-week, was completely packed-out with locals. We knew this was the place for dinner.

We weren’t mistaken. That night we feasted on oysters, prawns, calamari and sole, and the whole banquet came in cheap as chips. The staff were brilliantly friendly and down to earth (which is lucky, seeing as we turned up in jeans and trainers), and stayed finishing our wine till we were one of the last three tables. The restaurant, it goes to add, was once again packed out. If you ask me nicely when you’re next in Knysna, I might even tell you which restaurant it is 🙂

The Garden Route begins

After our Lambert’s Bay shenanigans, we took a brief stop-off to drink some wine in Franschhoek, and then we were on our way along the scenic Garden Route.

First stop, Wilderness – home to a sweeping white sand beach, and set against a forested mountain range.

We checked into a small guest house with sea views, and due to the blistering cold, stayed there working for much of our first day; venturing out only for a beach walk, and an evening meal, before retreating back to the heating.

Day two, we decided to brave the cold, and set off for an afternoon hike in the Wilderness National Park.  We had selected a 7km trail through a forested valley, up to a waterfall. The walk through the trees was lovely, although it did involve a river crossing on a raft which required us to haul ourselves across the water with a rope pulley.

The weather respected our tenacity, and warmed up nicely. The sun was fully out by the time we reached the waterfall, and we ended up trudging the last 3kms with coats, jumpers and scarves in our bags.

Following another beach walk and a quick paddle, which revealed much warmer waters than in Cape Town, it was time to rush off to find a pub willing to switch on the big Burnley match. Burnley reigning victorious, a quick bit of seafood tapas and a glass of wine later, the excitement and exhaustion was all too much, and it was time to make the short dash back to the guest house.

The next morning, we had to up sticks and move along the coast to our next stop – a guest farm on the outskirts of Knysna.

Here, part of the stay involved a canoeing session and a round of golf, so after rushing a few hours of work in our room, late afternoon we decided to try our skills at canoeing.

We set off up river, and all seemed to be going well (after I had taught Tom how to use the paddle!) However, before long we encountered a set of small rapids flowing against us. Very well, we thought we would give it a go.

Unfortunately, the rapids were too strong, and following a couple of near capsizes, lots of splashing, hanging onto tree branches, and general panic, we allowed ourselves to be propelled backwards, back down the river.

Never mind, we thought, we’d set off in the other direction. Here we managed a longer stretch and had already set our ambitions on qualifying for the Olympics, before we were faced with a descending set of rapids.

Floating closer, we realised while we may get down the rushing water, we would have no chance of getting back up. Queue another session of manic manouvering, to avoid at all costs being caught in the current and whisked into the rushing water.

Turning back on ourselves, we paddled back up river, and were gliding magnificently through the water when we realised we had taken a wrong turn, and were ploughing along a dead-end, directly into thick reeds and bushes.

Yet another eventful – and wet – episode later, we were back on the river, pulling leaves out of our hair, and with much hilarity we paddled back into the farm grounds… and squelched back to our room.

To my joy, electric blankets were provided, which I was only forced to vacate for a quick plate of dinner served up in the farm’s log cabin restaurant.

The next morning we made the most of our round of golf, with the sun returning to its full glory and beating down on us as we made an absolute hash of our round. Balls all lost, as well as our sporting dignity, it was back into the car, to move along to our next destination – Knysna.

Lambert’s Bay… Crayfish Festival

The past few months have flown past, and here we are, before we even knew it, it’s time to leave our home-away-from-home, Hout Bay, and start the meander back up to Tanzania.  We have two months to get there, so this time we will be following the East Coast of Africa, from Cape Town through Mozambique and back to Dar es Salaam. Accordingly, the blog is back…

Before we could truly get started on our journey, however, there was one last thing we wanted to do. We had heard stories of Lambert’s Bay, and of the Lambert’s Bay Crayfish Festival in particular. So we decided to start our trip with a detour – in the opposite direction – up the West Cost to the fishing town of Lambert’s Bay.

Arriving at around 4pm, we immediately felt dubious about our decision to come here. A ramshackle small town on the seafront, Lambert’s Bay seemed dirty and desolate. The howling wind and rain didn’t do much to improve our first impressions. Neither did the sheer number of drunks stumbling around, being dodged by angry-looking teen gangs.

We decided to check into our hotel, everything would seem brighter knowing we had a comfy room for the night.

Only that the Lambert’s Bay Hotel, a big brick building on the waterfront, hadn’t been updated since being built sometime in the 50s, it seemed. We lugged our bags up creaking stairs and down narrow corridors to our room, so stark, and with a bathroom so utilitarian, that we promptly turned around and decided it might be best not to dwell on the room until we come back to sleep in the evening. Thank goodness we were only staying the one night.

Well, we were here for the crayfish festival, so let’s set out to find it, we thought – not to be deterred by the very British weather. We had been promised craft stalls, food and drink, live music, live crayfish diving, and all sorts of shenanigans – this could only be fun, we were sure.

Walking a few metres down the street, we found the “festival” – a large marquee with plastic chairs, and around 10 stalls clustered outside in the ever-deepening mud. The overall atmosphere was of a washed-out village fete.

We wandered around the stalls, selling the usual mix of jams and home-knitted gloves; and scoped out the food stalls – slightly more positive news there, crayfish in all forms.

With nothing else for it, we made our way to the tent, in the full knowledge we had a cold evening of standing in a leaking tent ahead of us. We acquired a beer, and perched on a bench at the back of the tent, feeling a bit miserable.

Looking around, we were surrounded by locals in their wellies and rain coats, all squeezed 5-a-side on garden benches around tables, all tucking into their steaming paper plates of food, clutching whole bottles of wine, and … appearing to be having a whale of a time. Now this, was bizarre. All these people were honestly, truly, having a brilliant evening. What were we missing?

In the meantime, the live music had started. A man who appeared to be the local vet had appeared on stage, and was belting out karaoke versions of Afrikaans hits. This was going to be a long evening.

We decided to warm up by trying a couple of snacks, so we wandered over to the food stalls selling dishes we couldn’t understand – it turns out no one in Lambert’s Bay readily speaks English. Tom pointed to a big cauldron of soup, and found out he was ordering a cup of faintly green mussel broth.  I went for a creamy looking lobster stew bubbling away in a nearby pan. Retreating to our bench with our goodies, we tucked in as the vet-singer extraordinaire was peaking, and the first sets of merry dancers began discoing between the tables and chairs.

I suppose we began to see, that for this small fishing town, village fete-esque or not, muddy, rainy and freezing or not, this really was a party. The opportunity to eat, drink and dance the night away with their friends. Regardless of how strange the whole event appeared to us as outsiders, we had to respect their tenacity, their joy, their party.

We decided to copy the crowd. We found ourselves a table and bench in the middle of the room, and Tom went off in search of these bottles of local red wine everyone was glugging. Soon he was back with a bottle, and two beautiful glasses – the stall owner had given them as gifts, so pleased was he to see outsiders at the party.

By now, the equivalent of fat aunt Ethel was up on stage clutching a stack of papers from which she was giving glass-shattering renditions of Afrikaans ballads. We still had a vague sense of the lunacy of the whole occasion, but we dutifully downed our wine and swayed along to Ethel’s “great” singing.

It was time for the next bottle of red, as a country-playing band of three old blokes in baseball caps got on stage, and began their up-beat programme of thigh-slapping line-dancing music (in Afrikaans). The crowd was going wild, dancing – the merriment was intense. By this point there was nothing to do but enjoy the spectacle, and procure some lobsters to gobble with our fingers, sucking on every last leg, just as the table next to us was doing.

It was freezing, it was wet, but we began to feel the crayfish, wine and odd country-music combo was enough to heat us up.

The evening passed quicker than we had expected in that leaky old marquee, surrounded by wined-up, lobster-gobbling, dancing Afrikaaners in welly boots and gilets.

We retreated back to our hotel – stopping to chat to the parrot flying around the reception – and fell asleep thinking, all in all, it really hadn’t been a bad party at all…

 

 

Race back to Cape Town

In all the fun, we had left ourselves only two days to get back to Cape Town, in order to arrive in time to meet Tom’s dad who was visiting on holiday.

After an early breakfast with the elephants, we hopped into the car – destination South Africa.

All was going well for about half an hour, when Tom’s infamous bad shoulder decided to call time on his driving. Arm numb and limp at his side, I took over the driving, both of us with a rising sense of dread – would I have to drive the thousands of kilometres back to Cape Town alone?

The answer for day one was yes – Tom couldn’t take back over, and I drove 12 hours straight. Through the length of Botswana, a quick border crossing, then down through northern South Africa.

South Africa’s Limpopo province, as a side-note, is like nothing else we’d seen in the country. For the first time, we felt like there was a corner of the country where it really is Africa.  Much of the country feels like a displaced Europe.

We made it as far as Pretoria, catatonically tired.

The next morning it was early to rise for another equally long day of driving. Tom decided to try driving, and we started off by pulling into a service station to have Beast filled up and checked over – oil, water and tyre pressure please.  The attendant got to work while we drank a coffee.

Back on the road, we were off down the motorway when a loud bang was followed by the car jerking madly, and bits of tyre were flying madly all around us. Tom managed to pull us over into safety, and we got out to find our front tyre had burst and blown to smithereens.

Now, Beast is no small car, and Tom wasn’t going to be able to help with the tyre. I opted to call roadside assistance. Only, it was a Sunday, and none of the eight numbers provided would answer the phone.

There was nothing else for it, I would have to change the monster truck’s tyre on my own.

I got to work, Tom casually watching and smoking from the roadside.

I had the screws off and the car jacked up when suddenly an even bigger monster truck stopped alongside. Out jumped a veritable rambo, and wandered over.

“I was driving up the other side of the road and saw you. South Africa’s dangerous. This is a dangerous spot. Do you mind if I help you?”

YES PLEEEEEEEEASE!!!!!!

Tucking his gun into his wasteband, our new friend got to work, and five minutes later our new tyre was back on; and we were waving goodbye to our gun-toting friend.

Pulling in at the next service station, it turned out the previous guy had put completely the wrong pressure in all four tyres. Thanks for that, Shell employee.

Thereafter the day of driving was uneventful, and we ploughed through hours and hours of gold and diamond mining land, followed by sparse empty bush stretching forever.

By nightfall we were pulling into Beaufort West, a small town already in the Western Cape.

We had booked a room at an 17th century inn but were arriving late, and we ran in begging the staff to take pity and let us have some dinner – any dinner.

The restaurant was closed, but the lovely people improvised – bringing a bench and table outside our room, and before long we were indulging in an al fresco meal of cold beers, a slice of home-made chicken pie (delectable!) and chips.  Happy Valentines Day!

For the morning we only had five hours of driving left. We checked into our new, very quirky and blue apartment (more on that another time), and by evening were with Tom’s dad.

And with that it was over. A month’s worth of travelling covering 10,380 kilometres. A lifetime’s worth of memories.

Elephant sands

The time had come to begin our descent back to Cape Town – but before we set off in proper, we had just one more stop to add to our trip, Elephant Sands.

We had never heard of Elephant Sands before, and hadn’t had any intention of adding an extra stop. However, Tom had befriended a fellow camper a week before, who raved of a place where hundreds of elephants roam freely among the tents. We couldn’t resist.

Arriving at Elephant Sands mid-afternoon and checking into our pre-erected tent, it wasn’t five minutes before two elephants came trundling over to the watering hole just meters from the restaurant.

We grabbed our cameras and beers, and sat literally 3-4 meters away from the giants drinking, washing, giving us the odd going over with their intelligent eyes.

It’s so fascinating to watch elephants, they have such distinct individual personalities. One of the elephants – not the biggest at all – was a total bully, and chased off anyone trying to drink from his little patch. We were entertained by the moody so-and-so trying to chase off the others, who resorted to staging distractions in order for the others to sneak behind bully’s back and get a sip or two before he noticed, and went charging after a new target.

Water is turned off after dark at Elephant Sands, because otherwise the elephants dig up and burst the water pipes, so we had to hurry back to our tent for a solar-heated shower before the sun went down.  Only, to do so involved a 5 minute jog across the elephants’ watering hole, and new arrivals were constantly pitching up to drink.

We didn’t get flattened, and soon we were back at the restaurant, in time for a few last pictures before darkness fell.

For whatever unknown reason, the owners of Elephant Sands decided it would be unlimited free wine for everyone for the night, uh-oh. We settled in for dinner with the other 10 or so people staying, and dug into the stew and maize-meal served up.

After dinner we all sat back out in the darkness, and watched the troop of elephants who had since arrived at the watering hole, bringing their babies too. We just sat up like that under the stars, with the elephants and free wine, way too late into the night.

Getting to bed involved yet another – slightly more exciting – race across the watering hole in the pitch darkness. “Well, good luck, hope you make it!” the jolly owner and other guests giggled, as we bolted off into the dark.

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