But For the Sky
1Nov/11Off

Western Cape: From False Bay to Oudtshoorn

One regret we have about the start of the African leg of our journey is not renting our car sooner. Cape Town is a wonderful city, but many of its best attractions lie outside it and are only accessible by car (or expensive taxi). We spent our first two days with the car not more than a few hours from Cape Town, and could easily have spent two more.

Our first driving day, after a dicey few hours of getting used to driving on the left side of the road, was spent to Cape Town's south and east, around False Bay and Cape Peninsula. We first headed southeast along the coast, stopping a few times on the high bluffs to survey the bay for whales and surfers, unfortunately only seeing the latter. Then we turned around and headed to Cape Town's southern suburbs on the bay's western side: Kalk Bay and Simon's Town.

In Kalk Bay, we strolled around the functional fishing village's streets and admired the local crafts. We saw everything from decorative fish and giraffes to cars, boats, and (working!) model radios made from scrap metal and colored telephone wire. One thing that has come to be a theme in South Africa is the extreme recycling ethos; it seems that anything that can be reused or repurposed is, bringing a refreshing and inspiring feel to everything from crafts and toys to living spaces. We settled on a bustling outdoor seafood restaurant right on the pier for a late lunch of fish and chips. As you'd expect from a former British colony, the fish was fresh, flavorful, and fried to perfection, and every table had a big bottle of malt vinegar on it.

Fishing Boats in Kalk Bay

Fishing Boats in Kalk Bay

We next moved on to Simon's Town to visit with the famous colony of African penguins living there. These were bigger than the Galapagos penguins we saw in July, and we were able to get closer to them, but they shared the same adorable awkwardness. After watching them frolic, cuddle, and worship the sun for warmth, we moved on towards Cape Point.

Penguin in Simon's Town

Penguin in Simon's Town

Cape Point, also known as the Cape of Good Hope, is an outcropping of rock made famous by centuries of European sailors headed from the Old World to the Indies for tea, spices, whales, and other commodities. Interestingly, it is neither the southernmost point in Africa, nor the division between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, distinctions held by Cape Agulhas, about 200 km east. Unfortunately we got there too late to enter the National Park which protects the Point, but we were rewarded with a spectacular drive up the peninsula's Atlantic coast, known as Chapman's Peak drive. We spent our final night in Cape Town having dinner with a good family friend who was in town for a conference. This was the first time we'd seen any of our friends on this trip and it was so wonderful to spend time with her; it felt a little bit like being home.

Armed with a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats for the rest of our South Africa trip, we bid farewell to Cape Town and started driving north to the West Coast National Park. The park is best known for colorful wildflowers that drape its hills in Spring. We were a bit late for the traditional blooming season, but due to an abnormally long and wet winter, we had hopes that the flowers would still be around. Unfortunately that was not the case, but we were rewarded nonetheless with some spectacular scenery which we had nearly to ourselves, as well as our first taste of wildlife viewing: Claudia is learning to drive on a manual transmission, and soon after entering the park I stopped to demonstrate some point about shifting into first gear, when I turned to the side and was surprised to see three ostrich poking their inquisitive heads up mere feet from our car! We wrapped up our visit with a beach picnic and a wade in a crystal-clear lagoon of a color we thought was reserved only for the Caribbean.

Peeking Ostriches in West Coast National Park

Peeking Ostriches in West Coast National Park

Then it was on to Stellenbosch, in South Africa's famous wine region. We stopped in for tastings at two vineyards near Paarl that afternoon: Seidelberg and Fairview (the latter also had goats and delicious cheeses). The next morning we visited two more near Stellenbosch: The House of JC LeRoux, a fancy and modern sparkling wine producer, and Muratie, an old and traditional winery which also had delicious port. Being familiar with wine culture and customs from our many trips to Virginia's nascent wine region as well as California's and Oregon's, not to mention our forays into Argentinian wine in Cafayate and Mendoza, we were excited to check a third continent off our wine-production checklist. Like the rest of South Africa, we found the wineries and their employees outgoing, friendly, and refreshingly laid-back (as compared, at least, to the snooty atmosphere in California's Napa Valley).

Valley Near Stellenbosch

Valley Near Stellenbosch

Wine Bottles & 40-Year Old Cobwebs at Muratie

Wine Bottles & 40-Year Old Cobwebs at Muratie

Our next stop brought us to Montagu, a small town in a picturesque valley dotted with historic buildings. It being one of Southern Africa's premier climbing spots, we stayed at a climber-friendly backpackers' called De Bos Farm, where we pitched our tent and shared the grass with multiple dogs, horses, peacocks, and guinea hens. We were hoping to tick off some ascents, but rain changed our plans (although flipping through the guide book and not finding much in our beginner-to-intermediate range softened the blow a bit). As it is, Montagu will best be remembered for providing us with our introduction to South African cooking in a dish called bobotjie, and for its dried fruit factory furnishing us with plenty of road-snacks.

Historic Building in Montagu

Historic Building in Montagu

On the way to our last stop before reaching the Garden Route, we stopped by the famous Ronnie's Sex Shop, which our couchsurfing host in Cape Town had told us about. Apparently Ronnie's Shop was just a small store with basic goods on an empty stretch of Route 62, but one night his friends painted the word "sex" into his shop sign, and the rest is history: the place became famous and is now a divey bar decorated in panties and bras women have left there. The walls are also plastered in business cards and photos.

Ronnie's Sex Shop

Ronnie's Sex Shop

After taking a few photos, we made our way to Oudtshoorn, famous for an intricate set of caves, and for a collection of ostrich farms, of which we only had time to visit the ostriches. In the 1920s the popularity of ostrich feathers in European and American fashion created a boom in their farming in this region with the perfect climate, and made a few men, known as feather barons, very rich. Interest has waned somewhat, but the farms remain active as one of the world's biggest sources of ostrich feathers, meat, and tourism. First we learned more than we ever hoped to know about the world's largest flightless bird: for example that the eggs' shells are thick enough to support a grown man's weight, that mothers break and eat their own eggs for calcium (a revolting spectacle that we had the dubious luck to witness), that there used to be a bigger flightless bird in Madagascar, that is now extinct, and that its tiny brain weighs only 40 grams, while one of its eyes weighs 60 grams, making it a pretty stupid bird with pretty great eyesight. We then moved on to the main attraction: riding the huge beasts. Sitting atop such an enormous bird was an incredible (and incredibly strange) experience, and, well, I'll let Claudia's squeals tell the rest of the story:

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Posted by Nick