Road to the beach

This will be a long read, but if you stay with me I will tell you a tale of great adventure and show you pictures of exquisite beauty.

We arrived in Plettenberg Bay late in the afternoon. The wind was howling and the rain hit the windows in waves, driven sideways by the wind. There was no sign of the famous white sand of Plettenberg Beach.

The history bit…

During the fifteenth century, Portugal embarked upon a conquest of the trade route to India, via the fabled passage around the southern tip of Africa. So, in 1488 Bartolomeus Diaz and his two ships came flying around the Cabo das Tormentas, aka the Cape of Storms, in another howling gale. By the time the storm cleared thirteen days after it started, the sailors realised that they were on the other side of Africa. They have found the passage and the trade route was open for business.

What does this have to do with Plettenberg Bay, you ask? Well, the Portuguese used this route for many years, stopping at a number of the bays around this coastline and leaving ample evidence of their visits. A group was even shipwrecked nearby in 1630 and they stayed around the bay, calling it Bahia Formosa, Beautiful Bay. However, they never colonised it. They left that to the Dutch who, a few decades later, settled in the Cape with the intention of providing fresh produce and water to their own ships making the passage to India.

In the 1700s, the then Dutch governor visited Bahia Formosa and found it to be a most pleasant place. He promptly renamed it. His name: Baron Joachim van Plettenberg.

In the 1800s a beacon was erected on a small island in the bay, which became known as Beacon Island and gave the hotel on the island its famous name. By the way, the man who built the first hotel there also had an interesting name, Hugh Grant…

We settled at our inn and the women immediately started doing what women always do, take care of the family. Yes, it was laundry day. But even laundry get done and we went off looking for something to eat and to scout the environment for things to do the next day.

Plettenberg bay has a most remarkable 5km long peninsula jutting out into the ocean. The Robberg National Park is situated on the rocky hills on this piece of land and that’s where we headed the next morning.

A trail winds around the rocky hill, giving walkers a jolly good workout. The water was brilliant turquoise and the early morning light reflected a thousand stars on the surface, which was now calm under a nice clear blue sky.

And we were off! On the way walkers can take side trails leading down to the water’s edge and beautiful sandy beaches. This is a national park, so no-one is allowed to camp there or use the beaches for any other purpose than walking and admiring.

We eventually found ourselves on a track leading around a rather steep rocky hill that demanded caution and paying attention to where to place the next step. That led us to another beautiful sandy beach. I fear the word beautiful is going to be worn out in this blog…

Once we had passed this rocky part of the trail, we arrived at the big challenge of the day. I will call it the dune of doom here. Going straight up and filled with loose sand, this dune nearly did me in. But being the oldest in the group and from a generation that doesn’t give up, I decided that I will show everyone that there is still life in me.

Halfway up the dune of doom I wondered by myself whose brilliant idea this was and why I got myself talked into conquering this massive pile of sand. Some way further up I started to hear voices in my head. By the time I reached the top of the dune, I had changed my blood type. This is also where we found out that we were walking the trail the wrong way around…

What a view once you get to the top though! It is worth every step, every moment you think your heart is going to stop with the effort. Because when you see the expanse of the ocean before you, your heart will leap within your chest and you know that you will come back here again. Here where sea meets land.

Elephants on the road

It was Wednesday, our third day on the road. Michal suggested that we visit the elephant sanctuary on our way to Plettenberg Bay.

A bit of history…

The coastal forests between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay had for centuries sheltered the African forest elephant and it is estimated that up to a thousand elephants lived in the forests in the past. The indigenous San people, who are nomads, did not hunt any animal in the forest to extinction. They left that for the European settlers who arrived with their elephant guns, and their desire for hunting and for ivory. Deforestation for timber and agriculture further depleted the herds of animals that once roamed these forests. By the late twentieth century, only a small number of elephants, guessed at about 5, remained.

Then in 1986, South African author Daleen Matthee, wrote a book called ‘Circles in a forest’, and the plight of the Knysna elephants were brought to the attention of the public. Sadly all attempts at restocking the forest with elephants have been unsuccessful, for a number of reasons; too many to talk about today.

The idea of elephant sanctuaries hail from the United States where one was established in the early nineties to assist with the rehabilitation of circus elephants. This concept came to South Africa and now we have a number of sanctuaries across the country that endeavour to provide a safe habitat for elephants. The elephants that we visited were orphaned and the three that we met cannot be returned to the wild due to problems that each one has with her tusks.

Below is a picture of Thandi and her handler. You will notice that she has no tusks. She was born that way and will not survive in the wild. This is her safe place. Her forever home.

We met three beautiful ladies, Thandi, Jabulani and Maroela. Jabulani and Maroela have shortened tusks which is also not ideal for elephants in the wild. The handlers take visitors to a space where they can meet the elephants and where they get a lesson on elephant anatomy. Michal, Raz and I had a wonderful time getting to know all about elephants. This is Jabulani, notice her tusks? Jabulani means ‘happiness’ in Zulu.

The three of us are now official elephant protectors.

Once the lesson is completed, visitors have the opportunity to walk with an elephant. You can also ride one, but I’m against that. If you want to ride something, ride your bicycle. (Queen has a wonderful song for the occasion, ‘Bicycle Race’. See, I even sorted out your soundtrack…)

My companions decided not to take the risk to have a few tons of elephant walking on their heels, so it came down to me to represent our party. I was only too happy to oblige.

When you walk with the elephant, she stays behind you and ‘holds’ your hand with her tusk. What an incredible feeling! It’s much softer than I imagined and she breaths lightly into your hand. Very elegantly. It’s also impossible to hear her walking behind you. Elephants have a way of making no noise when they walk. Unbelievable if you think how big and heavy this animal is. I walked with Maroela, the biggest one of the three.

It cannot be over emphasised that we are the custodians of these wonderful animals and that it is our responsibility to take care of them so that our children and our grandchildren can see a real elephant, not just a picture in National Geographic magazine.

I know that I will never forget this amazing adventure that I was so privileged to experience! It was an honour to have met these elephants.

Sunset on the road

After our early dinner at Storms River Mouth, we started looking for a place to stay overnight. One of the pleasures of travelling is the feeling of going where the wind takes you and staying where you like for as long as you wish.

We were very lucky that all the places that we booked online on our smart phones while on the road, were excellent. I would recommend each one in a New York minute.

By now the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and darkness was gathering fast around us. Out came the smart phones, and while the driver kept the car on the road with torrents of rain lashing down, Michal and I got down to the business of finding accommodation. We stopped in the village of Nature’s Valley and although the village looked charming even through the curtains of rain, there was no room at the inn. Any inn in town… But the people were very nice turning us away, even recommending we check with their competitors.

Finally we found space available on a farm not far away from the village and still in Nature’s Valley. The hostess was warm and friendly and came out to escort us personally to our accommodation. By this time night had fallen and everything was pitch black dark outside. The usually sophisticated young teenagers who don’t really need anyone’s help, suddenly regressed to toddler status. Mom and dad had to talk soothingly to allay any fears about the potential dangers of sleeping under dark African skies. Thankfully no lullabies were necessary…

When I opened my curtains the next morning, I was momentarily speechless with the view that I could not see the night before. The farm is surrounded by green hills and mountains which were lightly shrouded in mist this early in the morning. Everything was green and lush and beautiful.

The clouds were still around from the day before, but they didn’t seem too threatening.

Our hostess recommended a farm stall restaurant just out the gate from the farm and down the road, for breakfast. There we sat down for farm fresh food while having a great view of the cattle being taken to pasture for the day.

With some good food in our bellies we were ready for the road again. We were about to have a heart warming meeting with some very special individuals at our next stop…

Still on the road

Turning back on to the main road, we continued to the Storms River mouth, still in the Tsitsikamma. The blue skies above us would soon change, dark clouds were starting to stack up against the mountain. We have, after all, arrived at the famous Storms River.

Once we’ve paid our fees to enter the national park, the gate opened and the road ran along a winding track next to the ocean. Green mountains on our left and grey, rather stormy looking, waves on our right. By the time we reached the car park, the weather had turned decidedly bad. People could be seen bending forward into the wind holding on to wigs and hats.

The car park leads down to a sandy beach where the adventurous traveller can hire a kayak and attempt to tame the river. We prudently decided to avoid such activities given the state of the weather. Instead we decided to walk along the very well laid out path, 900 metres long, to the suspension bridge over the river. This bridge was first slung over the river in 1969, but thankfully the parks board upgraded it since then and it’s a very safe, if slightly unnerving walk, crossing the river to the other side.

The weather was now turning rapidly for the worse and we attempted the path in the rain. The way meanders through the coastal forest, hugging the side of the mountain, sometimes climbing steeply, and sometimes gently unfolding in front of the walker. Just as I was about to complain about the next up climb, an old gentleman, probably in his eighties, was assisted by his family on the way back. If he could do it, so can I! But this just goes to show that the parks board had done an excellent job in making this pathway safe and accessible to people of all ages.

As we got to the top of another climb, we spotted the suspension bridge way down in the mouth of the river. Paddling underneath the bridge was a group of kayakers who were just returning from their trip up the river. They were now passing under the bridge and then out towards the sandy beach I mentioned earlier on, to return their kayaks and possibly run for the first dry, warm spot they could find…

This part of the coast, the Garden Route, offers so many options for the active traveller. Hiking, cycling, climbing, surfing, you name the activity and you will probably find it. The most daring of those is of course the bungee jump from the bridge over the Bloukrans River, not too far away from Storms River. This bungee is reputed to be the highest bridge jump in the world, coming in at a world record breaking 216 metres. Luckily I have no shame in confessing my cowardice in the face of flinging myself off a bridge with a flimsy rope tied to my ankles. And my fellow travellers were very kind not the insist that we paid the bungee a visit. However, the South African tourist council is no doubt eternally grateful for all those brave jumpers who are prepared to travel there for this excruciating joy. But I digress…

If you can, do walk over the suspension bridge to the opposite side of the river and then back again. The view from the bridge into the river gorge is something that you should not miss.

Our walk back was cold and wet, but it was worth every slippery step!

We returned to our car, cold, damp and hungry, looking for a restaurant. Sadly the restaurant at the camp in the Storms River national park burned down a while ago and they have an interim solution. A large white tent is pitched right on the water’s edge and has been turned into a restaurant. We moved on over without expecting too much, and as is so often the case, we were very pleasantly surprised. Sitting on wooden benches and eating off rough wooden tables, we were served a heavenly meal. And while we were eating, a pod of dolphins visited the area and splashed in the waves just outside the tent. Can a day get any better?

Back on the road

Once the adrenalin had settled a bit, we were back on the road. Our next planned stop was not far away. However, I think it is important that I point out that something is missing from my account of the journey so far. If you’ve paid attention, you will agree that I have not mentioned lunch at all. This was now the second day that we missed lunch and my stomach was gnawing on my backbone. I therefor included a picture of a meal that we had somewhere on the trip here, just to illustrate that we did eat, occasionally.

Captain Fantastic Burger

Right, now that I got that little matter off my heart, let’s go and visit a very old tree.

In this coastal forest lives a tree that is over 800 years old. This is an indigenous yellow wood tree, about 36 metres tall with a trunk circumference of 9 metres. The yellow wood tree is the national tree of South Africa and now protected after it almost completely disappeared due to the demands of the timber industry.

The walk from the car park to the tree takes the visitor through the beautiful natural forest on specially constructed wooden walk ways. It is quiet and cool under the trees and makes for a pretty good stroll after lunch.

With the sky still blue above the canopy of trees, this was a good stop. There was time for taking pictures and general fooling around. The lack of food probably escalated the level of crazy behaviour. See evidence below…

But there were more activities planned for this day. One more stop awaited us and sadly we had to say goodbye to this magical place and return to the road.

A final stroll

Road trip: continued…

Leaving the lovely town of Jeffreys Bay behind us, we turned left onto the main road in the direction of Cape Town. The road was quiet, we shared it with few cars on this Tuesday morning. The VW engine was purring along nicely in front of us, behind us, underneath us? Well wherever they put the engine on this vehicle. But I digress…

We had the Indian Ocean on our left hand side and soon the Tsitsikamma mountains on our right. Tsitsikamma means, roughly translated from the Khoisan word, ‘place of much water’. At this point we did not see too much of it. The day was clear with blue skies and and the sun shining brightly on our backs, or rather, the roof of the combi. Don’t get too excited folks, there was, unbeknownst to us, stormy weather ahead…

The Tsitsikamma mountains run along the coast for about 80km and shelters the coastal region here, causing a high rainfall of around 1000mm per year. This fills up rivers, and gorges, and waterfalls, which we were about to sail over. Yip, we were on our way to the Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures for a spot of zip lining before lunch. Which is a good idea if you don’t want to upset the person standing behind you having to deflect your meal coming at him.

For those amongst us who have not had the joy of traveling at breakneck speed holding on to a wire strung across an abyss, this is great fun! Michal and I tried it out in the Drakensberg a few years ago when she visited us and both agreed that the children had to experience this for themselves. The Falls Adventures provide eight slides over the Kruis River with the longest slide coming in at a whopping 211 metres.

The company provides all the necessary equipment, you just end up looking like a miner ready to go underground…. The guides are knowledgeable, very capable and in possession of an excellent sense of humour. However, I’m sure they have wanted to throttle a few people in their line of work. The sliding is the easy part, there is also some climbing up and down the mountain to do. Calories burned people, think calories burned.

The river was sending a torrent of water down the slope beneath us as we were zipping over it. Halfway through the adventure the guide asked Shiri if she was still alright to continue with the slides, to the horror of her mother who was standing behind her daughter with hands waiving… not the right question right now dude! We are going forward! All of us!

It’s extraordinary how well suited this activity is for both young and old. We ranged in ages from 13 year olds to me, and no, that information is still confidential.

The weather was also perfect, not too hot or cold.

Look, we all made it!

Just in case you forgot that we are living in the age of Instagram, the company very thoughtfully sends a photographer along who takes pictures and videos which you can purchase at the finishing line. Very thoughtful indeed, imagine the iPhone plunging out of your pocket into the ravine below. No stress that there won’t be any evidence into perpetuity.

Right said Fred, no need to stop now, on to the next adventure…

Ahhhh, ain’t they cute, posing with mom and dad…

Road Trip

When last did you pile the family in the car and took a road trip? Yes, the one with the pleas from the back, ‘Are we there yet?’ If you stay with me, I’ll take you on such a trip with all the wonders it will offer and none of the pains. Leave your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, dogs and the kitchen sink at home, and come travel with me.

On a bright Monday morning, my sister-in-law and her family joined me on, what turned out to be, a magical trip down the south east coast of South Africa. Known to locals as the ‘Garden Route’. For those who have never seen this coast, it truly is mother nature’s garden. Mountains, misty forests, white beaches and adventures galore to be found on a route that is easy to navigate and easy to drive.

Let me quickly explain who made up this group: mom and dad, three teenagers, and me, the aunt… plus of course an assortment of luggage and electronic devices.

We flew down from Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province. There we picked up a VW Combi and got everyone inside for our first stop at Jeffreys Bay.

Attention required, for here comes the lesson: Jeffreys Bay is famous as a surfing destination for the young and the brave. The young men and women braving the waves on their surf boards and the young women braving the beach in their bikinis. The town hosts a World Surf League event every July and is further known as one of the best right hand point breaks in the world, both for consistency and quality during season. Great place to be if you like falling off a piece of fibre board… but I digress. Also a Blue Flag beach, incidentally.

We spent a comfortable night at a self catering establishment of which there are many, just go to bookings.com or use Air BnB. Friendly, efficient and very affordable places for any budget.

If you are in the mood for a bit of shopping, and stop me here if you know of no one that way inclined, then J Bay is a good place to stock up on Billabong, Quicksilver and all the other surfing brands that you may need in your closet. There are both normal outlets charging the usual prices for these brands, as well as factory shops where you can score some good bargains. And we scored.

We also found some other very interesting shops with funky clothing items and from what I could gather, local designers. Always a good idea to support them wherever we travel.

Sadly, we had to leave this wonderful town during the late morning for an adventure, the first of many, but more of that later!

Adventure awaits!