I headed east out of Cape Town along the “Garden Route” with my companion for the next five days, Mr. Peter Joseph, a tour guide and historian of note and, as it turns out, an avid golfer. Since part of the reason I came here was to absorb as much information and history about South Africa as possible, I could not have had a better person with whom to discover this part of the country.
We were going back through wine country and decided to look for Ernie Els’ winery, which we found at the end of a long road that also led to other estates. The fields of dormant grapes went on as far as we could see. Unfortunately the winery was closed on Sunday, but we walked around the place and everything reeked of class, not surprising considering the wines that come out of here are considered of the highest quality. Well done, Ernie.
We had lunch that day at a golf course and resort called Arabella; it’s ranked the #4 course in all of South Africa. We saw a beautifully formed rainbow over the water beyond the putting green. In the afternoon we stopped at a seaside town called Hermanus to look for whales, but didn’t see any.
That afternoon we arrived in Cape Agulhus, the southernmost point in Africa. This is truly where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. We had a cup of tea at the local lighthouse, checked into our B&B right on the beach, and went to the southernmost restaurant in Africa to watch the men’s Wimbledon finals and grab some dinner. I love Roger Federer, one of sports’ classiest athletes, but I was pulling for Murray.
The next day we left the coast, went through a lovely mountain pass and headed into the Little Karoo, a more desert-like environment devoid of large trees, reminiscent of many areas of the American southwest. Our goal was Oudtshoorn, ostrich country.
We stopped for a bite at Ronnie’s Sex Shop. For years it was just Ronnie’s Shop and it struggled for business, but a truck driver with a bucket of red paint and a knack for marketing added “sex” to the name and now Ronnie is doing a booming business, including t-shirts, hats and other merchandise. Judging from the women’s underwear hanging from the bar ceiling, when the bikers show up on the weekends things get fairly interesting.
At the end of the day we went to Cango Caves, one of South Africa’s major attractions. I couldn’t handle all 1500 steps so cut the tour short but did see the two largest caverns, and they were huge and haunting. It’s pretty amazing to see an 800,000-year-old stalagmite. In the largest cavern they used to hold concerts for up to 1000 people until vandalism forced them to stop, and our guide sang for a minute to demonstrate the acoustics. He was a member of the Xhosa tribe, and their language incorporates clicking sounds. The pronunciation of Xhosa is “KO-sa” if you put a click before it. This guy had a wonderful voice, and the clicking integrated so perfectly with the words of his language. It was truly beautiful. For dinner that night I had a beef medley of ostrich and kudu, a large antelope, and both were lean and delicious.
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I mentioned that Peter is quite the historian, and I can’t begin to do justice to everything he told me in the course of five days, but here is a Cliff Notes version, some of which I might have remembered accurately.
Between 110 and 180 million years ago there was an enormous seismic event in Gondwanaland, in the big Karoo in central South Africa. The world had been one great landmass but this explosion caused South America, Australia, Antarctica and India to break off from Africa and go their separate ways. It’s fun to look at a map and see how everything used to fit together.
Then there were some dinosaurs.
Eventually, according to the locals, the first man evolved here. They make the same claim in Tanzania, but South Africa seems to have better evidentiary support. Either way, for all of you who believe in the theory of evolution, you originally came from Africa.
In the late 1400s some Portuguese guys (remember Vasco de Gama?) stopped by looking for India, which would have been easier to find if it had still been attached. They moved on without planting a flag, and no one else came along with the objective of colonization until the Dutch arrived in 1652.
All was copacetic until the Brits dropped by in 1790 and started the Frontier Wars, finally capturing the Cape area in 1806. Then they moved north and started a 35-year war with the Zulu. Meanwhile the Boers, the descendants of the Dutch, tired of British rule and started to move out of the Cape in a Great Trek, but they would end up fighting the Brits twice more, in the Boer War of 1876, which was about diamonds, and the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the century, which was about gold.
And the British also had their hands full with the two biggest tribes: the Zulu, as I mentioned, and the Xhosa. (Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa, as are many current members of the political hierarchy in South Africa). Both were formidable opponents, but in a truly bizarre twist of history a Xhosa witch doctor convinced the tribal leaders that they would be strong enough to defeat the British only if they burned all their crops and killed all their cattle. Which they did. And they all died. It’s called the National Suicide of the Xhosa.
In 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed with four provinces, and a Boer general, Louis Botha, was named president by the British. In 1948 the National Party came into power and soon implemented Apartheid, and for many years the world shunned South Africa. But in early 1990 President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from jail, and in 1994 Mandela and his African National Congress took power, which they have had ever since. And the world is doing business with South Africa once again.
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Out of the Karoo, back toward the coast through another pass, back toward golf country around George. We stopped by the Links at Fancourt, where the President’s Cup was played in 2003, and Fancourt itself, which has 36 holes. Impressive facilities, wish we could have played.
Peter told me the story about driving a bus full of Finnish kids in their 20s, and stopping for a 5-minute break. They all ran down to the public beach and immediately got completely naked and jumped in the surf, and some wouldn’t come out for 30 minutes. “That’s what the Scandinavians come here for, they are buying the sun. The Germans come for the scenery. The British come to focus on their history in South Africa, and they don’t want to know about anything else.”
“And the Americans,” I asked?
“I think I tend to get the highest-end Americans,” he said, kindly not pointing me out as an exception. “Professional people and teachers. But the Americans are very open and the most rounded, they want to know about everything. And they ask the best questions. Canadians are pretty good as well.”
At some point we stopped at a place called Storm’s River. If I recall correctly this is near where the first man originated, according to Peter. In any case there was a lot of beautiful coastline and the park was full of various smaller antelope and other animals. But the most interesting site was this strip mall – I can’t think of a her description – owned by a wealthy man who has an obsession with Elvis. Each year in September this place hosts an Elvis impersonator contest and pictures of participants cover one wall of this “museum.” There is a Marilyn Monroe cafe’, a bunch of vintage Cadillacs and Chevys, and it was an incongruous but extremely welcomed bit of Americana.
We continued to see lots of amazing coastal scenery as we headed to Knysna. We stopped at the Southern Hemisphere’s highest bungee jump and watched a couple of people go. Peter said about half his clients jump. I didn’t. Blamed it on the knee. When we got to our stop for the night we drove to the top of Knysna Head, where the Indian Ocean comes through an opening between two enormous head rocks. It was so rough this day that the South African Navy couldn’t come through for a scheduled appearance in town.
The next day we took a detour to Jeffrey’s Bay, where the biggest surfing tournament of the year in South Africa was underway. We easily found a parking place and watched for 30 minutes or so. I’ve seen events like this on TV but it was fun to be there in person and see the strategy for the waves play out.
We stopped in a town called Sedgefield to visit a friend of Peter’s, an artist named Stanley Grootboom. Stanley is a Bushman – descended from the true South African natives – and a very talented painter; he is going to New York for two months next year to paint the history of South African Bushmen. That’s Peter and Stanley in the photograph, in front my favorite painting in Stanley’s gallery.
We stayed our final night at a citrus farm with a very nice family, long-time friends of Peter’s, and had a braai (barbeque) with the proprietors, Greg and Julie; a father and his two kids from Northern Ireland; and another South African couple. A really pleasant, relaxed evening.
On our final day together Peter and I drove through Addo Elephant Park. He immediately got very excited by a meerkat sighting, very rare, apparently. We saw many elephants, a couple of families at first, and then a lone male that Peter was sure was the rejected import from Kruger National Park. Over the years the Addo elephants have been getting just a bit smaller so they brought in four big males to replenish the gene pool. Three had been accepted by the females but one had not, and he roams the park by himself.
Just beyond the northern edge of the park is Port Elizabeth, Peter’s home and a beautiful city 1.5 million known for its beaches and great weather. Peter had called (that morning!) to make me a doctor’s appointment. The guy was great and diagnosed my knee issue as a damaged MCL; he didn’t detect any loose cartilage, a plus. The amazing thing to me was that I got to the doctor’s office, had my appointment, went next door to a pharmacy, got a new prescription filled and one from home refilled, all in less than 45 minutes and all for less than $70. Almost as amazing as the elephants.
Less than a week to go in South Africa, with Victoria Falls, Kruger National Park and Johannesburg yet to come.