South Africa – Part II (Garden route & Kruger)

Kruger National Park was on our bucket list of destinations for a long time now. We were waiting for our little one to grow up a bit so that he could truly understand and enjoy the wildlife sightings there. Kruger was the highlight of our South African trip but once there, one cannot afford to miss Cape Town and Garden Route. Cape Town was a beautiful beginning to a memorable vacation and from there, off we started on the 2nd leg of our journey through the panoramic Garden Route.

Garden Route

Nope..don’t go by its name. This route is not associated with any gardens as such but it is a 300-km stretch along the south-western coast of South Africa, between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Along the Garden route

 

1) Mossel Bay

Our first destination on this route was Mossel Bay, some 400 kms from Cape Town. Driving was a breeze on the well-maintained roads and we reached our destination in under 6 hours. This is the very place where the first European, Bartolomeu Diaz landed his foot on the South African soil in 1488. There is a museum complex by his name which houses some interesting remnants of this past, including the life-size replica of the caravel which Diaz and his crew used for their voyage.

Mossel bay is also known for its prehistoric archaeological remains dated as far back as 164,000 years! There are caves here which have revealed evidence of it being the ‘birthplace of human culture’. The Point of Human Origins is an archaeological tour offered at these caves from near the Pinnacle point beach and is quite well reviewed.   We were supposed to go on this guided tour but unfortunately heavy rains and the slippery path cancelled our tour. Nevertheless, we did lunch at the restaurant there (@ the Pinnacle Point Beach & Golf Resort) and had our share of some super delicious fig pizzas. Gain some, lose some…, right?

Pinnacle point beach, Mossel Bay

Mossel bay was great fun inspite of the rains because of its AWESOME views. The vast expanse of the Indian ocean with waves dashing along the cliffs made for an unforgettable view from the beautifully manicured lawns of the resort. We spent about 2-3 hours in the resort and headed to George (city) for our overnight halt.

2) Oudtshoorn

We stayed for two nights at George which is an hour-long drive from Mossel Bay. Next day, early morning we started for Oudtshoorn to reach Cango caves, which are located in the Swatberg mountain ranges. After around 2 hours of circuitous driving, we reached the caves and were ready to be amazed.

Words will not do justice to the evocative dripstone formations inside this underground wonder world. All the chambers are illuminated and beautifully highlight the natural decor formed here. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites are more than millions of years old and resemble the modern works of art. Aptly, they have been named so too. Madonna, Child formation, Cleopatra’s needle which is 9m long formation, Leaning tower of Pisa and many such popular names have been attributed to those fantastic formations. We chose to do the standard tour over the adventurous one which requires one to crawl along the rocky terrain through claustrophobic holes! An hour-long trip inside leaves one dripstone-struck 🙂

Bushmen habitat @ Cango caves, Outdshoorn

Cango caves

The cango caves with its impressive stalagmites and stalactites

The next plan for the day was to visit an working Ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn and see these wonderful flightless birds. Riding on ostriches is now banned by the government there and I am quite glad about that. However, the ban left me wondering who would have anyways dared to ride on such huge, super fast birds! We took a guided tractor tour in the huge breeding farm and were amazed to know some interesting facts about them … like did you know that their eggs are so huge and strong that do not break even if a fully grown human stands on them? Wait! however, if you dash them around, they will crack!

No, you can’t break it!
The big and strong ostriches

The farm has a big curio shop selling candle stands made from ostrich eggs, ostrich-feather dusters, pens, leather bags made from their tough skins and so many more things. I purchased a beautiful ostrich egg candle stand which adorns a table in my living room today! The pics and such momentos make for some lovely memories over time.

3) Knysna

Next day we hopped over (not literally :P) to Knysna (pronounced as Nice..naa) stopping briefly at one Redberry Farm for some fun. We did strawberry picking there although it was a bit early in the season for it. But still, we managed to collect a lot of sweet, juicy strawberries for us to munch on.

Knysna is well known for its ‘Kynsna Heads’ which are a pair of sandstone cliffs dramatically rising from the sea and guarding the entrance of the lagoon from the vast ocean. We drove along the headlands adjoining the Heads and then walked gingerly on the Leisure Isle beach, avoiding the zillions of baby crabs playing there in the waters.

The evening walk along the beach was a very lovely one, offering beautiful views of the Heads on one side and of picturesque, whitewashed villas on the other. Some experiences which seem simple and not so noteworthy, sometimes gives one the greatest joy. They cannot be easily described in words; only can one feel and live the experience. The fact that we ( I and my husband) were enjoying the walk without a care in the world, frolicking behind our son like  small children, clicking pictures all around us, and enjoying the magical moments of it all, made it a walk to remember for our life times.

Knysna heads

4) Plettenberg Bay

Well, the Garden route journey definitely warrants a mention of Plettenberg bay and the lovely hiking trails, sanctuaries and adventure activities it offers. We did visit the Elephant Sanctuary and were delighted to get really up close with the elephants. We could touch them, feed them and walk along with them. The guides were friendly and we felt quite safe throughout our adventure. The group matriach, Sally, commanded a lot of respect from me. The way she managed her herd and led them by example in each and every task, calls for a leadership class from her 😉

With Sally at the sanctuary

Many tourists to South Africa skip Garden route and directly go for Kruger from Cape Town. But if you have the luxury of time, then please do not skip this scenic route. It offers a lot to satisfy one’s travel lust. From beautiful views, adventure activities to wild forests and fauna, the route offers it all.

Fantastic Kruger

From Garden route, we flew to Johannesburg and then proceeded to Kruger. Kruger is a different world of its own and one has to experience its wilderness in person to enjoy it truly. The sightings of animals, the thrill of tracking at the wee hours of sunrise & sunset, the feeling of wild animals lurking around close, all has to be experienced by oneself.

However, I would definitely like to add one funny incident we had with the wild elephants. We were in our safari jeep in the midst of a herd of elephants. Old elephants, adult elephants, adolescents, babies, they were all there. It was a big herd of around 15-20 elephants scattered all over, enjoying their meal of bushes and leaves. We were in a open-air jeep with 8 tourists including us, a guide and a tracker with their guns. We were strictly warned to not make noise or get up from our seats no matter what happened as this act of ours supposedly scares the animals and they might attack us.

In the midst of the wild herd

So we were all seated in our seats surrounded by elephants and enjoying their joyful antics until it was time for us to make a move. Our jeep, was a sturdy Land Rover which could crush any small bush in our path and make way for us in that arid bushy area. When the tracker crushed a large bush under our Jeep, one of the adolescent elephants just 2 feet away from us, got irritated and trumpeted loudly, signalling us to leave. The tracker and the guide were calm but worry was writ large on our faces. Again, the elephant trumpeted so loudly that it made my little son jump up in his seat and clamber up on my lap. Later we were explained that adolescent elephants get easily irritated and trumpeting is the best way they can warn us. Most of the animals, except leopards and wild bulls, tend to warn their opponents before attacking. Glad that nature does have its way of warning the lesser (in terms of strength) animals.

It was funny the way my son panicked, jumped and got on my lap but it did teach us to respect nature and the might of these wild animals. When in jungle, obey the rules of the jungle or court trouble! The safaris and such kind of interactions with these animals taught us a lot in terms of their habitat, their behaviour, their getting adapted to the constant tourist incursions, and also made us realise the sad truth of poaching.

Kambaku safari lodge
The breakfast spread at Kambaku
Leopard staring at us after a good meal
Lion guarding his kill

These pictures tell much more than just words! 🙂 Most pics were taken from a distance of less than 5 feet from our open-air jeep. So do plan out this thrilling South Africa and Kruger trip soon. It is a must-do trip in your lifetime..Adios!

 

Tips:

  1. Stayed at Oobai Hotel, Golf & Spa at George to cover Mossel bay and Outdshoorn.
  2. Rented an Air BnB at Kynsna along the waterfront to cover Knysna and Plettenberg Bay
  3. Getting vegetarian food along the Garden Route was a bit difficult as compared to Cape Town. We tried Mexican, Thai, Italian and Portuguese food for vegetarian options in and around the place. Zomato app was a true life saver on these occasions. We did not find any Indian options as they were far and few and also closed on Sundays.
  4. Hot chocolate is one of the must-try drinks while in South Africa. The rich, chocolatey taste is sure raving about.
  5. At Kruger National Park, we stayed at Kambaku Safari Lodge in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Timbavati is contiguous with the larger Kruger area and so the animals are not restricted in any one area but free to move from one part of the reserve to another. Sighting is purely on chance and on the skills of the tracker and guide. We were lucky to see all the Big 5 (Leopard, Lion, Giraffe, Rhino, Elephants) up & close in under 3 safaris. Kambaku conducts 2 safaris and a bush walk daily. Food, obviously is taken care of at the Safari Lodge and they do customise it for us as well :).

 

 

Our South African adventure in Cape Town – I

Our 2-week visit to this southern country of the African continent, commenced with Cape town, then proceeded on to the  beautiful coasts along the Garden route, and ended with a thrilling safari in Kruger National Park.

Cape Town

Cape town is a beautiful coastal city at the tip of the African continent. The sights here are incredibly beautiful – a combination of sun & sand with cliffs & beaches is a win-win combination any day!  The city mesmerises the onlooker with its abundance of natural beauty. Not only does this place offer beautiful vistas but there are also ample of things to do in and around this vibrant town. Taking a peek into its rich but turbulent cultural history, engaging in various adventure activities like shark-cage diving, to savouring its local cuisine which is a melting pot of its multicultural delicacies  – this city offers it all.No! we did not do shark-cage diving at that time of the year.

The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) waterfront is one such happening place, which especially comes alive at night! Set against the Table mountain, this waterfront boasts of numerous shops and restaurants selling a variety of food options and local wares. A big Cape Wheel adds to the fun and character of the area. There is a food market right opposite the Cape Wheel which is quite popular with the locals and tourists alike. The market sells all kinds of food including ostrich and other exotic meats. Meats that I had never heard of before and I started wondering what can a vegetarian like me would eat in this part of the world 😉 Then we saw this little Samoserrie!  – a counter selling small samosas with various kinds of fillings, both of the veg and non-veg type. Our first evening in Cape town had indeed begun on a wonderful note.

@ V&A Waterfront

 

Samoserrie

The next day started early for us as we were going to trek the Table mountain. Wrapped in jackets to beat the 6 degrees celsius chill, we started driving towards this natural wonder. The mountain’s summit is flat like a table; however the climb was pretty steep.  It took us (not regular climbers) close to 3 hours before our guide, Steffi, could coax us to get up there. As the climb became more steep, she encouraged us all the more to put our best foot forward (pun definitely intended!)

Simon’s bay (village) as seen from the Table Mountain

Once atop the flat tablescape, the views surrounding us were superbly fascinating. Our jackets were long gone during the climb and we were trying to cool ourselves in the chill up there. We thanked heavens to find a small restaurant serving some good food which was badly needed. We had a ravenous appetite by the time we entered the restaurant. It is a great place for a leisurely breakfast after conquering the 1,085 m high Table mountain. We were, however, wise enough to take the cableway down the mountain. 😉

That afternoon, we had an amazing vegetarian lunch at a Eritrean (Ethiopian) restaurant in the City Bowl. A couple of beggars followed us down the street begging for alms which alarmed us a bit, but that was about it. We did not encounter any such incident during our entire stay in the country thereafter. The restaurant was bang in the middle of Greenmarket square, a local flea market. This market in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD is the place where local traders and artists flaunt their fabrics, sculptures, art and beadwork at reasonable prices. Bargaining, I was told, is accepted in South Africa but hardcore bargaining is something that one should refrain from so as to not offend the local sellers. Surrounded by beautiful wares, we could not resist our urge of shopping and ended up buying some local fabrics and wooden bowls as souvenirs of our stay there.

Eritrean lunch (vegetarian) – consisted of a injera (bread), with shiro(legumes) and alicha (legumes and vegetables); served in a communal plate

 

A local vendor at his stall in Greenmarket Square

 

Another stall @ Greenmarket Square

 

The Majestic Table Mountain from V&A waterfront

The evening took us to Kirstenboch Botanical Garden – a beautiful garden, beautifully located against the eastern slopes of Table mountain. In fact, the entire Cape Town is situated  along the Table mountain. No matter in which corner of the city you go, you will find the Table mountain towering tall above you 🙂 This garden is  must-visit in Cape Town with its majestic location at the foothills of the mountain.  

Another recommended activity while in Cape Town is to drive along the M6/Victoria Road. This road runs from Cape Town along the 12 Apostles mountain range all the way to Hout Bay. The drive on this road along the coast was a spectacular experience with fabulous views of palatial homes and pristine beaches along the coastline.

Vistas as seen from Victoria Road

We thoroughly enjoyed our morning drive to Hout Bay and decided to visit the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park, situated there. It is the largest bird park in Africa and an informative park to hang out with your little one. We had an amazing and also an ‘safe’ experience there – with little monkeys jumping over us in a caged area with a park official standing beside us. My little one too jumped around with the monkeys, feeding them. Never had such a close experience with monkeys, anywhere before. It was just about noon by the time we exited the park and decided that we have plenty of time to go down south and visit the Cape of Good Hope Reserve.

So off we set towards Simon’s town where we had a quick halt to grab some lunch. The town is a charming little place set on the coasts of Indian ocean and offers some good food options. Further on, along the way we decided to visit Boulder’s beach which is a haven for the endangered South African penguins. The beach is a protected area,and rightly so. We purchased tickets to enter the reserve and had a gala time watching the penguins playing with the waves and amongst themselves. Seeing the penguins waddle along the wet sands lifted our spirits no end!

South African penguins @ Boulder’s beach

Our next destination for the day was the famous Cape of Good Hope Reserve. We reached there at 3:30 pm and were supposed to exit the reserve by 6pm before the gates shut close. Happy to make it on time inspite of so many stops on the way, we hurried to take the funicular tram which took us all the way upto the lighthouse. The lighthouse is situated at the highest point on the reserve and offered spectacular views of both the oceans together in sight! A little down along the steps of the lighthouse, goes a trekking path around the lighthouse which again is an experience to be enjoyed. A narrow path cut out on the cliff around the lighthouse is surely not to be missed 🙂 However, short on time, we walked around the lighthouse for only a little while before descending down to see the actual spot known as the Cape of Good Hope. This is the same spot along the Atlantic coast where Bartolomew Diaz, the Portuguese explorer, first set his foot on the African soil in 1488.

I wonder whether this serendipitous discovery by Mr. Diaz really bode well for the local settlers here! Well, time and deeds cannot be reversed. Colonisation, first by the Dutch and then by the Brits is the bitter truth of this African nation.

Cape of Good Hope Reserve – with Atlantic Ocean on the left and Indian Ocean on the right

 

As seen from the lighthouse @ Cape of Good Hope Reserve

The next day’s itinerary included a visit to the District 6 museum. We knew little about South Africa’s apartheid history before visiting the museum. However, the visit left us shocked and disturbed to know the inhuman atrocities meted out to the black and coloured citizens there. District 6 is actually a church converted to a museum in the inner-city residential area of District 6 in Cape town. It is a memorial dedicated to the forced eviction of close to 60,000 inhabitants from District 6 in the 1970s. The handwritten notes of the evictees, various exhibits and pictures of the District 6 colony tells a dark tale enacted in the recent South African past.

Initially, we were surprised to see only Whites frequenting expensive restaurants and places of entertainment & recreation. It made us wonder where all the native blacks of this country are, especially so in Cape Town! There is still a clear segregation between the Blacks and Whites, who constitute only around 8% of the entire South African population. The decades of economic and social repression have crushed an entire generation of the non-white population here.

This and our visit to Robben island deeply impacted us. Robben island was a political, high-security prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of his 27 years of imprisonment before the fall of the apartheid regime. It is now declared as a World Heritage Site. The tours to Robben island start from the V&A waterfront and lasts for around 3.5 hours.

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell for 18 years

We spent 6 days in Cape Town and had a wonderful time knowing a different city and a different culture. The locals were genuinely friendly and considerate and went out of their way to help us at times 🙂 Food options too were diverse for vegetarians like us. There were quite a few Indian restaurants too which dished out quite authentic Indian fare. I am listing out a few eating tips for you all:

  1. Stayed in the City Bowl Area of Cape Town through air bnb (airbnb.com) Many apartments are available right in CBD which is quite close to V&A waterfront. Alternatively, one can choose to stay near Seapoint or Greenpoint as well.
  2. Do visit Market on the Wharf near the V&A waterfront for a variety of food options
  3. El Burro Mexican restaurant, again near the waterfront (reservation mandatory; Sunday closed)
  4. Salathai Thai restaurant, near the waterfront. Food quality was decent, not great.
  5. Sawaddee Thai restaurant, Rheede Street, Gardens. Food was great here! (reservation mandatory, Sunday closed)
  6. Jewel of India, near the waterfront. (reservation mandatory, Sunday closed)
  7. Jarryds, a good breakfast place in Seapoint. Recommended on the way to Victoria Road
  8. Jiji’s juice bar in CBD of Cape Town
  9. Punjab Wok, near Canal walk mall, Century City. One of the better Indian restaurants there with excellent service
  10. Shopping  recommended at Greenmarket square (can bargain), along the V&A waterfront (expensive) and at Canal Walk mall

Well, my South African travelogue is not done yet. Stay tuned for more on Garden Route to come 🙂