The Garden Route- Mossel Bay to Storms River

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“On the road again”, but this time with the Baz Bus…

12.03.12, and we woke up with the strange realisation that 1 month today we fly home. But today was also the start of our hop on hop off tour of South Africa’s coast line using the Baz Bas as the mode of transport. So there is just one backpacker bus in SA and its called the Baz Bus. As we were to discover it is an incredibly cheap way to travel (our 21 day ticket cost £164 and would take us 2,300 kms) and convenient and safe taking you door to door from/to your hostel. However it isn’t the quickest or most efficient (picking up and dropping off from multiple hostels in each town passed) and it isn’t the most comfortable either! But hey we were game and we got picked up at 8.45am from our Cape Town hostel and our first destination was Mossel Bay- the start of The Garden Route. The Garden Route stretches from Mossel Bay to the Tsitsikamma River Mouth is like a “necklace of bays, beaches, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line of pounding white surf”…well that’s what the free Coast to Coast backpacker guide said about it! We were just looking forward to having some beach time!

We were meant to arrive in Mossel Bay at 2pm but after 2 sets of roadworks which saw people get out of their cars for a stretch and a walk as we were waiting so long, we arrived after 3pm. Now Mossel Bay is not the prettiest town to say the least and our hostel (Mossel Bay Backpackers) left a lot to be desired. But this was the best place to come to for Shark Cage Diving which Hedd really wanted to do so here we were. As we wandered into the town centre to explore our feelings of disappointed about our first stop weren’t alleviated and to top it all we went to talk to the Shark Africa Diving Company and they said they hadn’t seen sharks all week as they are migrating around some island some where! The activity cost 1,300RAN and they told us if Hedd didn’t see sharks he could get a gift voucher which he could use anytime in the next year! Umm, thanks but no thanks! Hedd was really disappointed and our spirits took another knock as we got back to the hostel and got online. Zambezi Airways who we were flying with from Lusaka to Livingstone had gone bust meaning we had to buy new flights! Could this day get any worse! It was a laugh or cry moment and we shakily laughed it off, reflecting that so far we’d been pretty lucky with all our other flights and buses etc, something was bound to happen before the end of our trip. Now that Hedd wasn’t doing his shark cage dive, the next day we headed for Santos beach- said to be one of the best swimming beaches along the Garden Route. The sun was up, the beach was clean and sandy and the water inviting. Our spirits perked up. We sunbathed and swam and generally had a chilled out day. We had some food at the Santos Express Cafe which was an old train carriage by the beach which was fun and only decided to head back to the hostel at 5pm when the sun started to hide behind the clouds. Lovely day. Due to the Baz Bus route schedule we had to spend 3 nights in total at Mossel Bay which was far too long to lavish on such a place, but we were determined to make the most of it. So today we decided to hike part of the St Blaize Trail which starts at Mossel Bay and ends at Dana Bay. The whole thing is 13.5km long but we were only planning to do 4 km of it. So we made our way to the start point at Cape St Blaize Cave in the crazy heat and was already a sweaty mess before we even made it to the coastal path! But the trail was pretty cool. The coastline was rugged with jaggedy rocks protruding into the sea with great blue lagoons in between. The trail wasn’t too strenuous gently undulating up and down, but the heat made it more of an effort. Plus there was a load of these crazy little creatures all the way along the trail which looked a cross between a ferret and a guinea pig with big teeth which properly freaked me out. But we survived, if a little dehydrated!

The 15th marked our last day in Mossel Bay (hooray!) and we were due to be picked up by the Baz Bus at 2pm so we just chilled at the hostel for the morning and sorted out flights out for Zambia, booking with Proflight Zambia and costing £275 each- ouch! Our destination today was just a short way up the coast and inland to a place called Oudtshoorn. We got dropped off at George by the Baz bus, then Gavin picked us up in the hostel van to take us to Oudtshoorn and our hostel Paradise Backpackers. I really liked Gavin; an old black man with silver hair who bopped away to the tunes on the radio when he didn’t think we were looking! Cool guy! The drive from the coast to Oudtshoorn was stunning. We drove the Outenuqua Pass; mountains all around, beautiful clouds in the sky with sun beams cracking through, hop farms growing the fruit for the local brew. Yes, this was more our kind of place! The hostel was great too and they were so helpful with organising activities for us. We were sad to only be staying for 1 night. We went for tea at the restaurant across the road called Bella Cibo which Gavin recommended. We shared a Game Plate and got to taste Ostrich, Springbok, Kudu and Crocodile steaks. It was really fun and we both agreed Ostrich was our favourite- very lean and tender meat which melted in our mouths. Crocodile, however, was not very nice- a fattier version of pork/chicken! The next day we had a jam packed morning of activities. Starting at 8am our first stop was to Cango Caves- Africa’s largest show caves. We opted for the Adventure Tour (80 RAN) of the caves which would see us venture into the deepest sections of the Cango One route, through passages and narrow chimneys. Our guide was a local girl who was really comical and called us by our home countries. So for the duration of the tour I was Miss England and Hedd, Mr Wales! So a bit about the caves…their caverns began to form 20 million years ago when acidic ground water chemically eroded the 100 million year old limestone rock; although today’s dramatic stalactites and stalagmites only began growing 3 million years ago when water which once filled the caves drained away. Although SA’s earliest people found shelter here thousands of years ago, the caves were only ‘discovered’ in 1780 by Dutch colonialists. So there were 15 people in our group and as we descended the stairs from the caves entrance to the first cavern both Hedd and I were super excited. The first cavern was called Van Zyl’s Hall, named after the Dutch guy who discovered it, and had loads of stalagmites and stalactites in it which were called the Organ Pipes as that was what they looked like. Next up was Botha’s Hall where we saw a complete column, where a stalagmite and stalactite had joined together. This formation was called the Leaning Tower of Pieza! After the 2 chambers it was time for the adventurous stuff. After ducking and diving our way through ‘The Avenue’ and the ‘Lumbago Walk’, we got to ‘King Solomon’s Mine’. We climbed a metal ladder and squeezed our way through ‘The Tunnel of Love’ and crawl into the ‘Devils Workshop’. Next was our most challenging part- clambering up the ‘Devils Chimney’ and then cheetah crawling along a very low passage and then delivering ourselves through ‘The Letter Box’ head first! Incredible fun and such good value at 80 RAN. Oh if you were wondering how they found this route through the caves- it was discovered by a 6 year old boy for lived at the farm next door! Not great parenting their, but he did find an amazing route around the caves! Next up we were whisked to Cango Ostrich Farm by Gavin in the van, getting there at 11.45 in time for our tour. Our guide first took us through the history of Ostrich Farming- firstly for their feathers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and then for their meat, as feather fell out of fashion. Their skins are also now used for shoes, handbags etc. Their leather is the second toughest in the world after the Kangaroo- we’ve ate that animal as a steak too! He then took us through to the incubator room and told us about their development. And then it was to the main event- meeting the Ostrich’s. They are truly funny looking creatures. The smallest head but with the biggest eyes. Their brain apparently can fit on a teaspoon and their eyes are heavier than their brains…not the cleverest animals then! We then got the opportunity to ride the Ostrich’s. 2 farm workers held the Ostrich, who had their behinds covered with fabric, and they helped you on to it. We were told to sit right forward, hold onto its wings and then lean right back. The farm workers then let go and the bird ran hell for leather around the large pen and I just hung on for dear life! I fell off into the arms of the farm workers after 10 seconds but Hedd lasted a bit longer (but not by much!). We were then ‘treated’ to an ostrich neck massage, where 6 Ostrich’s fight to get to the bucket of feed that you are holding to your chest. It was a little scary and gross with Ostrich slobber thrown in for good measure! We arrived back to the hostel after our morning of activity at 12.55pm, just in time to pick up our shuttle back to George at 1pm. 1 hr 15 mins later we were back in George and awaiting the Baz Bus to take us to our next destination along the Garden Route- Plettenberg Bay.

It was just a 1 1/2 hour drive to Plett’, stopping off at Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna on the way. We were staying at Northando Backpackers in Plett’- a 5 star hostel- as a treat for Hedd’s birthday on the 17th, and indeed our room was lovely. We had a little planning session on what activities Hedd wanted to do for his birthday the next day but we didn’t have a car which was turning out to be a big issue with all the things he wanted to do being out of town! Not a good start but we kept up beat and grabbed a pizza for tea. Next morning, the 17th, and Happy Birthday Hedd! I made him breakfast in bed which consisted of a coffee and a big chocolate birthday cake complete with 6 ‘none blow out’ candles. I sang him Happy Birthday in my best Welsh and English as Hedd attempted to not catch fire from the novelty candles which were now acting like sparklers! They did burn out in the end but we did have visions of starting his birthday with a call to the fire brigade! He opened his card and pressie and was upbeat until he looked outside and saw it was tipping it down with rain…oh dear. I was remaining as positive as I could for the both of us and we walked into town in the rain to organise some calls/skypes from home to wish him happy birthday. He felt a lot happier after speaking to his mum on the phone and having the traditional Burkhalter out of tune Happy Birthday song shouted/sang at him through skype’s videophone! It was the first time I’d seen/spoken to my brother, Marc, and sister in law, Sarah, since I’d come travelling and it was really lovely to see and hear them. Deciding it wasn’t worth forking out on activities in this rain, we went for brunch at a local cafe and as the rain started to ease, had a wander around the shops and then down to the beach for a drink at the Lookout Deck Restaurant. Hedd had his favourite cocktail- a Mojito! We walked a little up the coastal path and then as the sky threatened to rain again, made a quick dash back up to the hostel. The hostel had a resident masseuse so Hedd got a 40 minute neck and back massage complete with a Happy Birthday sang to him in her native language- Xhosa. She was urging me to join in with her but I had no idea what I was doing with all the clicks that they use in the language and ended up huming along! But that was pretty cool for his birthday. It was Wales v France in the Rugby 6 Nations and we had found a bar that was playing it so it was a quick change and fast walk to catch the start. As we settled down with drink at Flashpackers Sports Bar we soon got chatting to the only other Welsh supporters there- a man called David and his South African friend called Lorna. David was from Denbigh- a town under 10 miles away from Gellifor where Hedd grew up! Another crazy small world moment for the trip, and soon us 2 couple were joking around like old friends. It was a good game, and I enjoyed supporting Wales especially as they won 16-9 and therefore won the entire 6 Nations competition! Always back the winners! We had a lovely meal at a restaurant close by called Nguni’s and Hedd got to try another bit of game- a big Springbok steak. And then it was back to Flashpackers in time to see the second half of the England v Ireland game and yet more drinks! It was St Paddy’s Day and a group of FNB Bank workers were on a team bonding fancy dress night out and had various challenges to complete. This involved Lorna getting her face licked and Hedd putting on one of the girls dress! Very funny. I managed to get a stumbling Hedd back to the hostel. He had a really good Birthday night out and that’s all that mattered. So the next day and another ‘morning after the night before’ for Hedd! He didn’t move from the room all day apart from when I made him a bacon butty and only allowed him to have it if he ate it with me at the table outside! Good night then! As Hedd spent the day recovering, I headed for the beach as it was now sunny (hoorah!) and there bumped into Lorna and David again from last night. She was just at the beach picking up her 2 girls from Lifesaving and Surf School which most of the towns kids go to on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It made me think that Plett’ must be a great place for children to grow up in, being in the sea every weekend. After getting my fill of vitamin D I headed back to the hostel after buying hangover food for Hedd and there we stayed, watching Spider Man 3 on the telly in the evening. The 19th and our last day in Plett’, and guess what Hedd’s back in the land of the living! It was sunny still and Hedd decided he wanted to see the beach I’d been to the day before so off we went. As we walked through town we past an all black protest against a local MP and his policies. It was the nicest sounding protest I’d ever seen- whistles and shouting still but also the unique, rhythmic and soul touching sound of African ladies singing. It was fantastic, and we watched the protest (at a safe distance mind!) before continuing down to the beach. We walked up and down both Central Beach and Robberg Beach, with the massive Beacon Island Hotel separating the 2. Robberg Beach was pretty much deserted and we messed around playing our own version of French Bowles using our flip flops and a water bottle as the marker. The lifeguard down the beach must have thought we were mad! Grabbing a cold drink at a bar on Central beach we bumped into Lorna and David again and Hedd got the necessary ribbing on getting so tipsy on his birthday…all good fun! Making our way back to the hostel we chilled we cups of tea and waited for our Baz Bus pick up at 6pm. Next stop…Storms River.

So it was only an hour ride to Storms River Village and our hostel, Tsitsikamma Backpackers. It was super dark by the time we got there though and the village had no street lamps. Proper rural! The hostels receptionist, Mitchel, was super welcoming and we had our Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour booked for the next morning before we knew it. We went for dinner with a guy called Christophe- a Belguim guy travelling on his own who we met on the Baz Bus. As we ventured out to find the village main street in the pitch dark we began to regret not remembering our head torches! But we found the street okay without any trips or falls and decided that this place was more of a Hamlet not a Village! We had dinner at Tsitsikamma Village Inn- a lovely pub type restaurant where the food and service was great, before strolling back to our hostel. We met an English couple in the kitchen who were from Wiltshire called Mary and Andy, and I made us all a cuppa as we chatted before heading to bed. We were all doing the Canopy Tour the next morning together and arranged to meet the next morning to walk down together. And that’s what we did at 9am the next day, meeting Stein our other friend from the Baz Bus at the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour Office. We got a better view of actually where we were on the way to now it was light; surrounded by the Tsitsikamma Forest and Mountains. It was gorgeous and so green. We could see why the locals called it the garden of the Garden Route. After a quick safety briefing and the usual signing of the indemnity form, we all got harnessed up and furnished with gloves, helmet and our individual pulleys. Then it was all aboard a big 4×4 truck and we bumped our way to the start of the canopy tour 10 mins away. The tour involved a course of 10 ziplines and 1 rope bridge, which we were to go along, 30 meters above the Tsitsikamma Forest. The platforms in the sky were built around the giant yellow wood trees that made up the forest and the longest zipline was 91 meters long. Hedd and I were both game and threw ourselves into it after the lady guide showed us the technique; your strong hand behind acting as a brake, the other holding onto the ropes, legs up on landing. Pretty easy and a lot of fun, especially being amongst the friends we’d made the day previously! After 2 1/2 hours we had completed the course and we all got given lunch of ham and cheese toasties back at the office. We discovered that the canopy tour company was a part of a wider company called Storms River Adventures who run all sorts of sub companies and social projects, including the restaurant we were eating in and our backpackers. Their goal- Community Upliftment, with the profits of each venture going into social responsibility projects, school feeding projects, HIV/Aids awareness and environmental conservation. Really worthwhile and I was pleased our money was going into such a cause. That evening we were being picked up by the Baz Bus again to take us on our next leg, but we used the afternoon the best we could heading off on ‘The Big Tree’ walk in the Garden Route National Park. So this tree is a Yellow wood, 1000 years old, 36.6 meters tall and 8.5 meters wide and was raved about in the village. So we went and saw it, paying 10RAN for the privilege. And indeed it was big, towering over the other trees in the canopy. We walked the Ratel Trail around the forest which was nice enough, but forest walks aren’t Hedd and I’s favourite. But Hedd was constantly on the look out for snakes and bugs which apparently covered the whole of Africa in his mind, which I found highly amusing! We made it back to the hostel at 5pm and after freshening up went and found Stein, our Dutch friend, sitting at Marilyn’s Diner where we all had dinner together. He was catching the Baz Bus that evening too. Now Marilyn’s Diner was a bright and boisterous Elvis themed diner and inside had 3 really old but beautifully restored Chevrolet’s and was covered with Elvis pictures. Now this would have been perfectly normal in a town in America maybe, but we were in a tiny hamlet in South Africa within a National Park! It all felt very random! But there you go, always expect the unexpected. We all enjoyed American style burgers and caught the Baz Bus together at 7pm. Goodbye Garden Route, hello Port Elizabeth…

The Garden Route in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of warm sun and showers
  • Food=Game, Ostrich and Springbok our particular favourites!
  • Drink= Hedd doesn’t want to see Savannah Dry for a while, lets put it that way!
  • Don’t bother with= Mossel Bay
  • Instead go to= Sedgefield (looked beautiful)
  • A term I want to introduce to the UK= ‘Community Upliftment’

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

There comes a time in every traveler’s journey when you realise you don’t have enough money to finish the trip and you’ve already used up the “backup” credit card on activities you didn’t know about, but didn’t want to miss out on. For us, this realisation dawned on us in Mossel Bay, at the same time that we found out that Zambezi Airlines who we were flying with in Zambia had gone bust months ago, but hadn’t told us! An absolute nightmare, it was looking like we might have to cut our trip short!! However, we were saved by the generosity of our parents who agreed to bail us out and would do so again in Port Elizabeth when we realised we had gotten our sums wrong! So a massive thank you to Paul & Diane and to my mum and dad, Ian & Bethan, for loaning us the money we needed. And as Helen keeps telling the whole world about my hangover days, I will point out that I’ve only had 3 (1 in Peru, 1 in Australia and 1 in South Africa) during the whole duration of this trip and in my mind that’s pretty good going and a whole lot better than if I’d been at home for the same time period!

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