October 21-24, 2008
The Garden Route is a section of coastline that is very popular with tourists for all the beaches, forests, and random activities. You can tell it’s geared for tourism because there are hotels everywhere, people speak English, and there are tons of brochures listing various tourists traps. But it’s worth visiting because it’s really beautiful.
When we entered the garden route we noticed that the area resembled Seattle in terms of how much green vegetation we saw everywhere. I think that if we started our trip here we would not have been so impressed, but after spending more than a week in the much drier parts of South Africa up north, it was very refreshing and beautiful.
Tsitsikamma and Storms River
We started on the eastern edge. We dropped our stuff at the Tsitsikamma Backpackers in the small town of Storms River and went on an afternoon hike in nearby Tsitsikamma National Park. The hike we did is called simply the waterfall trail, and it’s actually the beginning section of a very long trail called the Otter Trail (which takes 5 days and 4 nights, but apparently is very well equipped with plumbing and mattresses along the way). At the entrance to the park, the ranger told us that it’s 3 km each way and it should take 3 hours total, which struck as as a really slow pace. But then we learned why – most of the trail involved climbing over rocks on the shore…
It was slow going, but it was a beautiful hike.
And eventually we did reach this waterfall, which was gorgeous…
(Video of waterfall to come if we can upload it – connections are slow here)
The only bad thing about the hike was a funky odor that appeared to emanate from some bushes at the start of the trail. When Pnina stopped at the bathroom she noticed a plaque explaining that there is indeed a bush called ‘oderourous’ somethingorother and that the rangers are trying to get rid of it. But they’re not trying to get rid of it for its odor. Why then? Local crocodiles like to lay their eggs where these bushes are, and apparently the amount of sun or shade that an crocodile egg gets determines the gender of the baby crocodile. More shade makes females and more sun makes males. There are already too many females and these darn smelly bushes are causing even more of them, so the rangers are whacking these bushes to make manly crocs.
Storms River is known as the center of extreme sports. There are lots of things to do in the area, but probably the most famous is the world’s highest bungy jump. We decided to skip the jump. Pnina’s reason is that she tried bungy once and she thought it was a waste of money – it was over too quickly (she prefers skydiving). My reason is that I mostly likely wouldn’t have the guts to make the leap (though I did go skydiving once too). Anyhow, we chose a different activity instead – ziplining (or as it’s locally called, foefie slide). There are a couple of zipline tours by Storms River, one in a forest canopy and another one by waterfalls. The folks at our hostel were trying hard to get us to sign up for the forest canopy tour because, as it turns out, they are owned by the same company. But we opted for the waterfall one instead – it was cheaper and it sounded like a better view. The tour was $30 each and it was no more than 45 minutes start to finish, perhaps partly because there weren’t any other people on our tour. We just geared up, walked 2 minutes from the office, and started sliding. It turned out to be a great time…
(video of pnina ziplining to come…)
The biggest slide was just over 200 meters. It wasn’t slow at all, but it wasn’t as fast as I expected. They had a breaking system on the slide itself, so that you could pull a lever to slow down if you wanted, and in fact in one of the slides the guides recommended making a full stop over the waterfall to get a view.
Outside of Storms River (actually everywhere along the garden route) you see lots of family attractions like elephant sanctuaries, wolf sanctuaries, places to pet cheetahs, snakes, etc. We kind of felt like we saw enough animals at Kruger so we didn’t need to bother.
Next stop on the drive was Plettenberg Bay. Beautiful resort town. Everywhere you look it’s hotels, condos, and restaurants. Outside the city there are a few golf courses and even one polo field. At the heart of the bay there’s a beautiful strip of sand that juts out in the water:
It’s definitely a town of wealthy white people. The black people in town mostly do construction or service work (e.g. taking tips to watch cars in parking lots). It reminds me of Mexican immigrant workers in Seattle. (I hope I’m not being too blunt here).
By the way, you can get gorgeous homes in Plett and elsewhere in South Africa for 1/10 the price you would expect, though we both agreed that there are enough issues in South Africa (e.g. safety) that we wouldn’t want to live here.
Knysna is another resort town. It’s similar to Plett except that instead of being on the ocean shore it surrounds a lagoon. In our opinion it’s nice but it’s not as pretty as Plett.
At Knysna we splurged on a fancy meal in a place called De Oude Fabriek. At $40 it was our most expensive meal yet, and we made up for it by having several other less interesting meals (canned corn, tuna, tomatos, etc.). This meal included several different game meats: crocodile, kudu, springbok, and ostrich. Of all these, Pnina and I agree that the crocodile was best, although she said she had a much better crocodile dish in Australia once. Ostrich was the worst, although we hear it’s the healthiest. It was a dark meat, and when I say dark I mean black (not black as in burned, just black). It also tasted like liver. Pnina is not really into meats anyways. The thing she liked best was the bread-and-veggie-dip that came at the start (it reminded her of the Israeli dish “matbucha”).
We left Knysna and drove through yet another beautiful sunset:
What’s up with the sunsets in South Africa? Does this country just get more awesome sunsets or are we getting lucky? Maybe it’s just that on a trip like this we’re getting more opportunity to pay attention to sunsets. Not sure.
We then drove to Oudtshoorn and checked into the Oasis Shanti Backpackers for the night. Technically it’s not part of the Garden Route, it’s several kilometers inland along “Route 62”, but close enough.
That night we met two German couples. Steffen and Sabrina are on the tail end of their own round-the-world trip. Their friend Nicole and Tobias came down to South Africa to hang out with them for just a couple of weeks. It turned out that they also know our dice game (10,000) and they said they’re pretty sure it’s a German game, though they’re not sure what it’s called. Anyhow, a game soon started and it was a good time:
Conversation with them went something like this:
- Us: in America when you go to the movies, there is no intermission – they show the movie straight through
- Them: then when do you get a chance to purchase beer?
- Us: you can’t buy beer in movie theaters
- Them: (blank stares)
Next day – we went off to experience Oudtshoorn. The thing that made Oudtshoorn famous is ostrich farming. We went to the Cango Ostrich Farm to learn about this and to try riding ostriches. Skip to the funny part, here’s Pnina riding an ostrich:
(video to come…that’s the really funny part)
Back to history. Before WWI ostrich feathers commanded a huge price (up to 20 pounds per feather) and made several ostrich farmers in Oudtshoorn extremely wealthy. Then the automobile arrived. Ladies riding in open-top vehicles noticed that their feathers kept blowing off. Also WWI happened and people didn’t have money for feathers. So the price of ostrich feathers tanked and the farmers had to look for other reasons to raise their ostriches: meat and leather. They still use the feathers for simple things like dusters.
The Cango farm has a few ostriches they use as breeders. These ostriches generally live 45 years and have 15 offspring at a time. The rest of the ostriches are killed after 14-16 months. Why so soon? Because after that their meat becomes too tough and their skin may have sunburns (ostriches naturally shed their features periodically).
A single ostrich egg is like 24 chicken eggs – it’s huge. I had some ostrich egg for breakfast. It tasted the same as chicken eggs but it was a little more yellow. The eggs are also super tough. They won’t crack under the weight of a human:
Ostriches don’t have teeth. In order to help break down their food they eat a bunch of random hard stuff, mostly rocks.
Riding the ostrich was very strange. First the ostrich jockeys chased down one of the ostriches and placed a a sock over its head. Blinded, the ostrich was sedate and he allowed the jockeys to guide it into position for us to mount it. When you’re sitting on the ostrich you have your legs wrapped over the ostriches knees (which are actually way up in its body – the things below that look like knees are actually ankles). You grip its feathers and you lean back. It feels like you’re going to fall off any minute. After 20 seconds you do, but the jockeys are there to catch you (except Pnina – she was ready to ride her ostrich all day long). They had a 75 kilo limit for ostrich riding and I barely made the cut. My ostrich definitely wasn’t moving super fast 🙂
By the way the ostriches were way stronger and tougher than I assumed they would be. They say that a kick from an ostrich can easily pierce your rib cage. Also they can run 90 km/hr. I guess the ostriches we saw at Kruger were not the walking lunches we imagined them to be.
Before we left the farm we had an option to get a “neck massage” from the ostriches. It sounded good to me, but it turned out to be messy – a bunch of beaks pecking down all around me and dust everywhere…
There was also an option to get a kiss from an ostrich…
From the Cango Ostrich farm we moved onto the Cango Caves – the biggest stelagmite caves in the world. I’m not sure exactly what metric they use to make this claim. Maybe it’s the volume or length of the caves. Pnina and I have both seen caves that were equally impressive, perhaps more so, but these caves were definitely nice too:
At the Cango Caves they offer two tours. The standard tour takes you just into the first couple of rooms. These rooms are large and they are easy to access. They also include some of the best stelagmite formations (the video above is of the second room). Then you have the “adventure” tour, which takes you a full 1.7 km into the cave. That’s the tour we took. I didn’t expect too much adventure, but I was wrong. The tour included a whole bunch of crawling and climbing through steep slippery channels. This is one situation where height is not an advantage and I struggled through it (but Pnina had an easy time).
From there were went to the Wilgewande Family Fun Center. Why? Because the guy who managed our backpacker hostel, Hennie, said that his family runs this place and even gave us some coupons. This place was totally made for kids – putt putt, petting zoo, trampolines, etc. We got some food and then we took our free foefie slide and camel rides. Thanks Hennie!
Currency Exchange Getting Better
When we started this trip, the US economy was heading down the shitter. Then other world economies followed suit. When we arrived in South Africa, the exchange rate was about 8 rand for 1 US dollar (the dollar was weak). Now we’re getting more than 11 rands for one dollar. I guess it paid to not exchange too much money up front.