The Little Karoo

The final leg of our tour of the South African Cape was a drive along the coastal Garden Route and across the Little Karoo, a 300-kilometre-long valley formed by two parallel mountain ranges, the Swartberg to the north, and the Langeberg and Outeniqua ranges to the south. From the Schotia game reserve we drove to Plettenberg Bay and stayed for a couple of nights. We then drove inland via Oudtshoorn, Calitzdorp, Swellendam, Bonnievale and, finally, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the winelands.

The scenery throughout the trip was sensational. Plettenberg Bay and nearby Knysna were touristy and Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) food poisoning, and my dodgy knee, prevented us from getting far off the beaten track. But the views of the gorges down to the sea along the coast road to Plettenberg Bay were dramatic, we saw dolphins in the bay, and the beach we overlooked from our hotel was clean, impressive and almost empty.

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Overlooking Plettenberg Bay

As we headed west via another gorgeous beach at Sedgefield and then inland, we stopped off at George to visit a ceramics shop called Wonki Ware. This is a brand that LSW has admired for a long time. Visiting the small factory, and seeing the hand crafting of the wonkiness of the pots, plates and cups, made a lovely connection to the Wonki Ware products we have acquired over the years. Inevitably, we came away with a couple more items.

The Wonky Ware Factory And Shop

The Wonki Ware Factory And Shop in George

Oudtshoorn is in the heart of ostrich farming country so we saw plenty of those. The highlight of the local area, though, was the Cango caves complex. We restricted ourselves to the standard tour rather than the longer ‘adventure tour’ which sounded scarily physically demanding. Nonetheless, we were astounded by the caves. The vast cave structure and its stalagmites, stalactites, pillars and limestone flow-forms, plus the bats, were wonderfully presented by a guide who clearly loved them all.

Cango Caves

The Cango Caves (Sorry About The Lack Of Indication Of Scale – They Were Huge)

From the caves we took an indirect route west through the Groenfontein Valley to Calitzdorp, Ladismith and Barrydale. Much of the route was on decent dirt tracks. The slow pace they enforced was ideal for taking in the wonderful mountain and desert landscape. The mountains had such a grand scale and variety. Some were bare rock, while some were covered with fragrant Fynbos vegetation and others, nearer the winelands, with grass. Some were grey and others were orange or red. Some were rounded but most were craggy and imposing. This drive, and the similar one using even more obscure dirt tracks the following day between Swellendam and Franschhoek, was a holiday highpoint.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere at Ronnie’s Sex Shop for (just) some chips.  (His mates apparently added the middle word, it stuck, the bar became adorned with old fashioned bras and tough looking bikers and the shop has become a tourist attraction).

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Ronnies Sex Shop In The Middle Of Nowhere

Our boutique accommodation in Swellendam was secluded and encapsulated the Dutch heritage that dominates much of the style of the up-market architecture. Our rooms in Swellendam provided LSW’s ‘ooh here’s a bath’ moment (akin to that she had had in Trentham during our Australia trip) and, since Swellendam was not under drought constraints, she loved using it. As usual the food was excellent. However, LSW’s continuing stomach issues prevented her from partaking and, in a rather poor attempt to show solidarity, I ate in our room not the restaurant. I’m not sure that the resultant aromas in our room helped her much.

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Our Swellendam Hotel: Old Dutch Architecture At De Kloof

It was only on our last day, on our route to the airport that LSW was able to have a full lunch. This was at one of the innumerable wineries (Chef’s Warehouse at Maison) in and around Franschhoek. Lunch was really special and memorable – not only for the quality and value of the service, food and wine (and the inevitable mountain backdrop) but also since it marked LSW’s long awaited recovery. I’m no wine connoisseur but the wine tasted terrific and we ended up buying a souvenir crate of it which will arrive at our house in a couple of weeks as a reminder of a wonderful holiday and final lunch.

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Chef’s Warehouse At Maison (Lovely)

The drought is a big challenge in the west of the Cape. We saw a lot of empty reservoirs as we approached Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.

Certainly  the part of South Africa we visited was marvellous and the weather was perfect throughout – very different from the cold and snow we just missed back in the UK as we left and the snow again this weekend. The physical geography is awesome – both the coast, especially south of Cape Town, and the mountains – but easy to get to. The wildlife – the bird song, the vegetation as well as the well-advertised game animals – was delightful; where else does one see road signs warning drivers to not feed the baboons, to look out for crossing tortoises or to avoid penguins in the roadway? The Dutch and French influence on architecture and the excellent food and wine (at 50% the cost of London) was a pleasure too.

 

The drought is a big challenge in the west of the Cape. We saw a lot of empty reservoirs as we approached Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.

Drought in West Cape

Evidence OF The West Cape Drought – An Empty Reservoir

Clearly too, security is an underlying issue. During the day almost everyone was smiling and friendly but we were constantly warned not to walk out at night and never to leave anything in our car. Inequality and the racial divide are also obvious. All the towns – except Franschhoek a Huguenot heritage town which seemed uniformly wealthy, stylish and classy – had precarious shanties as well as the gated estates and the contrasts were stark. Almost all the restaurants had clientele that were 95% white and staff that were 95% non-white. By the end of the holiday we were starting to feel a little uncomfortable with that and the way some clientele seemed to treat those who served them.

It will be interesting to see if things have changed by the time our plans to visit South Africa again in a few years’ time come to fruition. Meanwhile, I’m glad to be able to process the wonderful memories of our trip without the pressure of any work and to start thinking about our next excursion.

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