I love Cape Town but not the traffic. The solution is the hop-on, hop-off, City Sightseeing Red Bus, and we've got tickets for the family to explore for the day. “Welcome on board,” beams Eric the bus driver as we step on board. We've boarded the bus at Sea Point, close to where we are staying.
The bus makes its way along the Sea Point promenade. The sun is poking out after an evening of cold rain. It's fortunate, because this experience is best seated on the top level of the bus in the open air section. “Hey Josh,” says Hannah leaning over, “there's a kids' channel.” I plug my headphones in and see they have, besides English and a whole lot of languages, a dedicated kids' channel. It's actually very vibey and I'm listening to it enjoying the banjo and “Daar kom did Alibama oor die see”. I'm feeling young...I'm looking forward to this adventure.
We arrive at the Waterfront which is where all the adventures begin and end, although you can leap on and off at will. We've decided to do the blue Peninsula tour but with a stop to do the yellow downtown tour. We love inner city experiences especially in vibey Cape Town.
The kids have their headsets plugged in, tuned to the kid channel awaiting our departure. Maybe I should “grow up” and hear what the adult channel has to say.
We've driven thousands of kilometers on our travels this year around South Africa, so there is something particularly relaxing to just sit on an open air bus while around us cars hoot and jostle for position.
As we sit atop the bus I'm grateful for my warm jacket as the winter air is fresh but invigorating. As we weave through the city we are fed a constant stream of fascinating information from the audio feed. "Look up," the commentary says, "at about the same height as the bus you will see a balcony." Like obedient robots everyone turns and looks up. "It was from this balcony that Nelson Mandela first addressed the nation of South Africa after his release." Wow, it's so cool to drive past places which were momentous occasions in the birth of our new country.
“District 6 was the birth place of Cape Town's colorful carnival,” says the dude in my ear as once again the strains of “Daar kom die Alibama” play to make the point. There is no carnival on at the moment, but a colorful array of people, from tourists to locals, fill the streets around here. It's testimony to transformation where tourist and locals mingle together in the streets.
“This wine farm has the best views and the most modern wine tasting area,” says one of the bus operators as we arrive at the wine loop. Of course you have to do the wine loop - it's Cape Town. And so we hop off at Beau Constantia. It's a short stroll from the bus stop and soon we are seated in a glass enclosed tasting room perched high above the beautiful vineyards. The sun streams into our glass sanctuary warming us as we soak it and the ambiance in.
“This sushi is delicious!” Nicky exclaims. And it is delicious. We love sushi but this warm crispy sushi on a cold day blended with a glass of award-winning wine is just what we need to satiate our lunch needs. The only issue is that we won't be buying any because the prices seem to match the area...fancy!
After Beau Constantia we continue on to Hout Bay and decide to get off here for the requisite dose of fish smell and real harbor experience. Some locals have charmed a large seal out onto the pier with fish snacks. For a few rands tourists get to take photos and have a chat with the seal. Net in Suid Afrika (only in South Africa) #ilovesouthafrica
After strolling around for a while and eating some fish-tasting “slap tjips” the bus arrives, always like clockwork, on time. It's the homeward journey now and the bus turns around at Snoekies factory...there's no doubt what they sell here as all the kids - land lubbers they all are - cover their noses to mask the smell. It's our trip back now along the beautiful Atlantic seaboard towards our end point, Sea Point.
The sun is rapidly heading towards its seaward destination and is bathing the mountain in a warm light as we travel along the bottom of the magnificent Twelve Apostles range. It's truly beautiful, and I'm almost dizzy from deciding whether to look right at the majestic mountains or left at the sun-tinted sea.
Finally with the song, from the kids audio channel, “the tourists on the bus go click, click, click...” playing over and over in my head, we get off the bus. We certainly have gone “click, click, click” as we tried to capture some of the stunning and different scenes we saw on our trip. We're just in time to watch the majestic sunset back at our apartment, with a glass of wine in hand and some more...click, click, click.
“Welcome Mr and Mrs Blewett,” say both Nicole and another person in stereo as we sit in the plush chairs at the check-in of the Twelve Apostles hotel. They apologize for the stereo welcome, but I chuckle at their enthusiasm, it's a good sign for our timeout night of escape from the kids. Soon we are sitting sipping a welcome sparkling wine while Nicole checks us in.
Entering the Twelve Apostles hotel, named after the magnificent peaks that rise behind it, that border the majestic Table mountain range, is like being transported to another world. “It's a long story,” says Nicole in reply to our question as to how they got this spot. “The hotel began as a hunting lodge, was once an advertising agency, and various other twists and turns on its journey to what it is today.” This hotel really is one of a kind, and sitting on the side of one of the world's natural seven wonders on one side and the beautiful sea on the other is a story that is unlikely to ever be repeated.
After our check-in, Nicole chatting with us like long lost friends, shows us around this amazing boutique hotel on the way to our room. I'm already wishing we were staying here for longer. “I wonder if the kids would miss us if we stayed two nights?” I muse.
“Wow!” is the first word out my mouth as we are ushered into our room. A luxurious room filled with tranquil music, fresh orchids, chilled wine and a stunning view of the sea opens before us. Our bedroom draws in the sea through a large opening that looks across the inviting lounge...where the fresh fruit, snacks and chilled wine beckon...to the sea beyond.
After soaking up the ambiance for a while, we decide to go and check out the Leopard bar before dinner. We saw it on our guided tour en route to our room. A warm chatty vibe draws us in on this cold evening. Soon we are seated beside a roaring log fire and beneath slowly turning fans, reminiscent of a bygone colonial era, waving lazily above us.
“I'm part of the family,” Nsikelelo our waiter says as we engage him in conversation after he delivers our draft beers and a tasty snack selection of nuts and olives. We have asked him how long he has been here and we can see from his beaming face that he genuinely enjoys his job. There is something about a hotel where the staff are happy that transcends good service. It's seen in their natural and relaxed conversation and the obvious pride in where they work.
What particularly strikes me about this hotel is not just the friendliness and professionalism, but something else. I can't quite put my finger on it yet.
“We'd better go to dinner if we want to make our movie,” Nicky says. Wow, I can't believe it's already time for dinner. Time seems to compress here. We walk into the Azure restaurant and are seated at our corner table. Soft music, low light and happily chatting diners fill the ambiance.
We have booked in for their special three-course dinner and movie special. Jabu our waitress explains how the menu has two styles of food from two chefs. Bea Tollman’s dishes - the owner of this hotel, has designed some delicious traditional meals like chicken noodle soup and prawn stroganoff, which sound particularly tasty on a cold winter's evening, while executive chef Christo Pretorius does a range of European taste sensations. We choose one from both.
“Here is your goat cheese mousse with passion fruit,” says another beaming waiter who looks as proud as though he were the chef. Wow! If that's what they call the palette awakener then my taste buds are now certainly waiting in eager anticipation for the meal.
However, it's not just yet. A selection of corn bread, seed bread...even a Banting option with Salmon pate arrives. “It's all too tasty for words,” says Nicky as she reaches for more. I don't bother wasting time on commentary I'm trying convince my mouth to calm down and not gobble this taste sensation too quickly.
“For me food is about the experience,” we overhear a nearby diner saying to her friend who seem to be here for a birthday celebration. I couldn't agree more. And this meal is certainly becoming a sensual experience on so many levels. My taste buds are going crazy and our starters haven't even arrived!
“This is a crazy delicious,” taste I say as I try and make sense of the explosion of flavors in my Baby Calamari Risotto. The crispy tentacles balance the succulent roast calamari, while cauliflower, barley and sultana purée compete in a dance of precision for my attention. We should quit now while our taste buds are in heaven. But we can't. What's next?
“I'm bringing you 'Table mountain in the morning',” says Jabu as she delivers our palette cleanser. I stare confusedly at her. All of a sudden our berry sorbet palette cleansers are covered in a silky plume of soft smoke as a smoking table mountainesque scene, a magic combo of dry ice and water, creates a surreal effect on our table. Ok now I really should quit. This is not only a taste sensation but a visual splendor too.
Our main meal arrives. I'm almost nervous. Prawn Stroganoff. My poor tastebuds are already needing Ritalin to calm them down. They're behaving like ADHD kids in excited anticipation. The stroganoff is...I can't use words here. You are going to have to taste it because words will not capture this taste. All I can say is now my tastebuds are now really hyper!
“Wow Jabu you're busy tonight,” I say as I've watched her go from table to table with the same passion and enthusiasm. We chat briefly and she shares her story. Her rise from being unemployed to today working in this world-class restaurant and her vision to rise to the top. “Some of the regulars ask for me she says,” beaming with obvious pride, “and so sometimes I have to handle extra tables.” I can see why they ask for her. She loves what she does, and it shows.
It looks like one of those long thin perfect pools that you see at luxury resorts for the fitness fanatics to swim lengths in. But this is not designed for a swimmer but for the tongue. It's the most amazing creme brûlée severed in a long thin bowl and my tastebuds are now swimming hyperactive lengths.
Besides the beauty of this setting, what originally drew us to the hotel was the experience. There are many great restaurants. Great hotels. Yet for us we love an experience. That’s what our journey has always been about. And so when looking for a special place to spend the evening we were attracted by the “Overnight Dinner and a Movie” combo. I have a vision of sitting in an intimate movie theater after a lovely meal. And so with the meal done its now movie time. “Milkshake or hot chocolate for the movie?”Jabu asks. Before my overindulged tastebuds can respond by requesting both I order the hot chocolate.
We're seated in the conservatory sipping hot chocolate and snacking on a tub of popcorn which arrived, just in case we are still hungry, while enjoying an old Tom Hanks movie. I'm not sure how my body is taking all this in. But there's no stopping now. I'm sinking into the soft couch. My eyes are slowly closing. Thankfully my bed is close by. For now it's just Tom, hot chocolate and the prospect of pure bliss.
Finally as the soft sheets and feather pillows draw me back to our room I realize what the “something else” is about this hotel. “It's their stories!” Jabu's story, Nicole's story, Nsikelelo's story. Our fellow diner’s story. Even the hotel's own fascinating story. It's an intersecting of lives and stories, tastes and experiences that has made this such an authentic and special place. Maybe it is fitly named after the twelve apostles about whom such great stories were once written. One thing is certain, we’ve just written a single entry in our story here. I’ve heard about a dinner and star gazing…now that sounds like another experience waiting to become a story.
It's a chilly day in Franschhoek as we make our way towards the Franschhoek Wine Tram. It seems like we are in some European village, which adds to the atmosphere. The first world feel continues as we pick up our tickets at the office. It's efficient, friendly and full of helpful information. Spot on time our guide Pumzi appears and again in foreign style we follow his flag to a bus which will take us to the first stop. Viva la Franschhoek - why leave South Africa when first world Europe has come here and it's much cheaper.
After a short trip we arrive at the train where a recorded message plays giving us a safety briefing before given us interesting information about the history of the railroad. With a toot we begin our chug along the rail line.
The open sides of the tram provide beautiful views of the vineyards as we chug slowly past them. From the tram we board a rickety trailer pulled by a tractor that bounces us in fun style along the road to, appropriately - Rickety Bridge wine farm.
And so begins the taste and visual extravaganza. A warm log fire welcomes us in, which is much appreciated, and soon we are seated sipping world-class wine and snacking on a cheese platter. It's only 11:30 but somewhere in the world its past noon so I shrug away any guilt about sipping from the vine before noon.
As the lingering flavor of “blackcurrant and mulberry with subtle hints of chocolate” mingled with my blue cheese platter fades away I'm thinking “this wine tram tour is going to be amazing!”
Spot on time our bouncy tractor ride arrives. This is like clockwork. Efficient. And to celebrate the sun pokes out washing us in its warm glow. As we head to our next destination on the train a rainbow stretches out before us. There's certainly likely to be gold at the end of it - liquid gold.
We arrive at Grande Provence and are welcome by an impressive display of sculptures from a huge elephant to a garden full of artistic wonders. Soon we are sipping Angels Tears amongst other wines seated next to a roaring log fire. I certainly could get used to this.
Like synchronized swimming, we are picked up and dropped off. So efficient. From here the trip gives us options of which farms we will visit. We decide to stop in Franschhoek village for a lunch before catching the next bus, which of course is spot on time, and delivers us at La Couronne wine estate.
It's after lunch, so of course wine paired with chocolate is what we need and receive. Seated on comfy couches we sip and nip, relaxing in the ambiance and slowly succumbing to the magic of this experience.
Our final stop is Holden Manz where even though it's the end of the day they are super accommodating. The kitchen's closed but they manage to find us some snacks to accompany our red wine experience. As I sip my final glass for the day, a 2010 Good Sport (aka port) cape vintage I muse, as one does with the help of many good wines, “Wow. A visit to Europe. Tasting the world's best wines. Mingled with stunning vistas. Interspersed with scenic rides. Finished off by South Africa hospitality. And I never left town. Viva la Franschhoek. Viva South Africa. Who would ever want to leave this stunning place?"
Next stop Winetram Tour Red Route. Would tomorrow be too soon?
“Molo, it's Caine here. We will be there tomorrow. There are 16 people in the party. Yes. We will arrive just before sunset. Yebo. That's sounds good.” I put the phone down. Tomorrow the group arrives. I hope they enjoy this hike. It's important that they do because tourism is important to me and my family.
Day 1 - Port Edward to Mnyameni
What a way to celebrate my birthday - a five-day hike along the beautiful Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. We pack our rucksacks into the car and head off to meet Caine, our guide and the rest of the gang at the Wild Coast Sun for the start of our five day Wild Coast Hike to Mbotyi.
By 11am our family, the Brockwell Blues and Gender family are all loaded and ready to roll. Caine and three porters arrive at the Wild Coast Sun where our hike begins and gives us a short briefing. The weather is cool and we hope that it will not rain as the trail of 16 hikers head off along the beach towards whatever adventures lie ahead.
The hike is easy going as we go along the beach and soon the party is stretched out although Caine keeps and eye on everyone and posts a porter at the rear. We walk past beautiful cliff formations and stop several times to relax until finally at 1pm we stop for lunch.
Shortly after lunch we reach the Mnyameni River and from here the hike turns up towards the hills where our village is located. We cross stunning red sands and dunes that make us feel like we are in Namibia with the rich desert colours.
Soon we come to a halt outside three huts where a semi circle of plastic chairs has been set up to welcome us. We're glad to dump our packs and are warmly welcomed by the owner.
She shows us inside the hut where ten mattresses and blankets are neatly laid out on the floor, with another five in the adjoining hut. Tea and Milo are available with biscuits - a five star welcome.
As the sun begins to set we clamber onto a rocky outcrop behind the village and enjoy a beer we've bough at the local spaza shop toasting my birthday and an amazing setting. The village kids have setup a log fire that crackles below us calling us down from our perch to its inviting warmth as the night's darkness is drawn across the sky.
Chatting and laughter fill the evening air mingling with the woody smell of a camp fire and the distant flicker of lightening in the sky. “Dinner is ready,” says Caine and we enter the hut to see a huge selection of food - sweet potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, samp and beans, rice, chicken, gravy, and dumbees. Wow. We eat like kings and are treated to a dance show too as part of the live entertainment.
As the wind picks up and it gets cold we head to our hut and are soon drawn into sleep as outside the elements make us glad we're in our warm little hut. Just hoping the roof stays on.
Day 2 - Mnyameni to Mtentu
“Nicky, are you awake, Caine is looking for you?” I open my eyes and it still looks dark in our hut. “Ja…I'm coming,” Nicky replies as I hide my head under my sleeping bag. I've slept well on the thin mattress on the floor of the hut. The wind roared all night but seems to have calmed as the new day dawns.
As Nicky walks out to talk to Caine a fresh breeze rushes in chasing away the last fibers of sleep. Soon I'm clutching a filter coffee and watching a ball of fiery lava rise from the sea in the distance. What an amazing way to begin the day.
“The breakfast is ready,” Caine informs us and we head to the hut where eggs, mealie meal, tea, coffee and cereal are waiting. It's strange being out in the middle of nowhere and being treated to such delicious food. Soon we have eaten and all the packs are ready, including a packed lunch of an egg sandwich, juice and apple.
The hike winds down towards the coast and once more it passes through a stunning red desert. The contrast between the rusted earth and the deep blue sky is spectacular as we drop down towards the beach. The sea is silky smooth and whales are constantly spotted as they cause a huge splash as the breach the water.
We wander along the beach and take time out to swim at our teatime break before stopping at noon for a swim in the estuary. We are totally alone and it's incredible that this beauty is so unexplored. Up ahead the path leaves the beach as the next part of our journey beckons.
It's a brisk climb and once again the vista changes as we walk across the rolling hills of this beautiful area. We soon arrive at Mthenthu lodge. It's a little wooden lodge nestled near the edge of the cliff with rooms joined by a wooden walkway. This is our one "luxury" night, where we aren't staying in a rural village. However like the villages the lodge is OTG (Off The Grid) - it's water is heated by gas or solar and all power is from solar. It's bliss. We start with a cold beer.
First it's time for a warm solar shower. The shower has beautiful views of the sea and it feels good to be clean again. Next it's time to explore the river by canoe. The kids decide this is a great opportunity to leap off a high rock into the river below. Crazy. Canoeing up the river we arrive at a cove where a waterfall is spitting a few drops - testimony to the drought in the area. It feels like a scene from Lost World.
Back home we enjoy a glass or two of wine sitting on our deck, which of course is the perfect segue to a snooze. It must have been two! As the sun melts away we go and sit near the log fire they've set up and enjoy some time playing games and chatting. Dinner is Vetkoek and curried mince and the owner is a bit blown away as our gang wipes out all the food. The hunger of a hiker. A good snooze beckons on a real bed. This should be good.
Day 3 - Mtentu to Port Grosvenor
What a blissful place to wake up in. The sun is not yet up but we rise to get ready for a long day. The sun breaks the horizon in a beautiful fiery orb and it's a great way to start the day. With bacon and egg in the belly we are ready for the trail at 8am.
The first challenge is crossing the river which requires a combo of ferrying some on the canoe while others wade. The route leaves the area and enters a stunning nature reserve. It's first stop is a beautiful waterfall that drops down into the sea. It's rather dry so the water is trickling more than plummeting. We venture upstream where a huge jutting rock provides a perfect spot for the crazy kids to leap into the water. We all swim knowing this is most likely our bath.
The route continues on through forest areas, canyons and along the coastline. Words and photos just cannot capture the stunning vista of the area. It's constantly changing and incredibly beautiful. We finally stop for lunch at a lovely beach at Msikaba.The party is looking tired and this is the 12km mark - halfway! A huge dune rises up behind the beach and the kids have lots of fun racing down it and face planting. I hope they are keeping some energy for the second part of our hike today.
Eventually we must carry on however now the group is getting tired and soon spreads out. We finally stop at Port Nolloth where everyone collapses on the heather asking, “how much longer?” Caine has been setting a fast pace and the group is feeling it. It's getting near to 4pm and we still have a way to go.
It's a final push of another hour before we finally arrive at the huts we are staying at. The sun has already dipped below the horizon when we arrive in the village. Our hut is prepared and ready. A large rondavel has been set up with beds all around it and a table in the middle and even a small lounge area. We are welcomed with a delicious huge fresh loaf of hot bread. Smeared with peanut butter this is a delicious way to end the day. Next door the shebeen is already partying and we go there to pick up some huge beers. Why not?
We sit enjoying our beer and bread as the wind which has been increasing in fury has turned things cold. We are glad we are indoors. Dinner is another feast of veggies accompanied by fresh shad. It's delicious.
Our bath is hot water in buckets and we are soon clean and in bed by 8:30. Outside the weather is sounding wild and cold but the shebeen party is sounding wilder. It should be an interesting night.
Day 4 - Port Grosvenor to Mbotyi
Despite having an industrial saw mill blasting out an unequal cadence of snoring sounds, the night was perfect. I did literally sleep like a log - on the floor dreaming about when the saw cutting machines would get me.
“What's that sound?” Nicky says in the early morning pitch dark. I listen for a moment and it's obvious. “It's rain!” Eish! Soon it hits with force and the sound of dripping water leaking through our thatch roof welcomes us to the new day. The prospect looks intimidating.
The door opens ushering in a blast of cold wind and a lady enters with a bowl of warm water to wash our faces. Soon it's followed by an endless stream of food. Pink coconut balls with coffee, then chips, sausage, eggs and more. Finally vetkoeks arrive with tinfoil for our lunch pack. One thing is certain we will not starve.
The weather is still ominous but at least the rain has eased to a spittle. We set off all in rain gear wending our way down the hill towards the coast. Huge waves smash into the rock landscape sending a spray meters up into the sky in dramatic displays.
Our first stop is at a beach where we settle down for our tea break. The hike today is a little shorter so hopefully the pace won't be as hectic.
The climb up the cliffs is steep but we stop at the top to let the party get back together. Sitting atop a rock jutting out over the sea below we watch the real iMax show, “Whales” as they put on a spectacular display.
“As spectacular as last time.” That's what I think as we round the corner and see Waterfall Bluff. The waves roar up towards the cliff and smash into it meeting the water plummeting from up high. We stop and enjoy this unbeatable lunch venue and eat yet again. Wow.
After a tasty lunch stop we resume our walk up the side of the cliff and off along the rolling hills. Before long we reach D-point. This is decision point for those who want to go straight to the hut or those who want to visit the other sights. Most of the adults decide to do the extended full package while the kids opt for the direct route to camp. Not much further and we are rewarded with the beauty of Cathedral - an amazing rock structure jutting up from the sea. From there we continue until we arrive at Secret Falls. Despite the water being less than when we saw it last time, it is still an amazing sight seeing the water plunge so far into the sea below.
Now it's the final push. “Do you see that tower up on the hill?” Caine says pointing at a tower miles away. Eish! “Over that hill is the village.” Before us a huge hill rises and we can see the other party at the top. They must be happy to be there. For us resting at the bottom of the hill at a stream we have the prospect of the climb and final push before us. What will the village be like for our final night?
The climb up the hill is not too bad and after about another thirty minutes we arrive at the village. As usual the welcome is friendly and we are treated to tea and coffee as we arrive. A little later after we've enjoyed some sundowners seated in a garage area we are treated to another veggie laden dinner. It's really chilly and the prospect of leaping into bed in the hut seems inviting.
One thing we have had to get used to is the lack of water. This means long drop toilets and no showers. Typically you get invited to use a bucket with some warm water in which is enough water to splash wash yourself. Tonight is no different. Standing in a little room with a flickering candle for light I stoop and splash warm water on my legs and arms to wash away as much of the trail sweat and dust as I can. Brrr…it's cold...but what a unique experience that I will never forget. I make a mad dash back to the room and am soon ensconced within my sleeping bag. It's 6:30pm. A crazy time to sleep. But soon all games have ended and our hut full of 13 people is happily snoring by 7pm. Life in a rural village.
Day 5 - The final stretch
Creeeeakkk….goes the door for the hundredth time. It's 6am, pitch dark and yet another person is opening the hut door to go out to the toilet, waking me up. Oh well, we were in bed early so getting up now is OK.
Soon we are packed and sitting on plastic chairs while Mike, our host, and his family serve us breakfast - coffee, eggs, sausage, mealie meal. There is no end to the food. We sit and watch the sun rise over the village while a clutch of small chickens pecks the ground in front of us. Our view stretches over the long drop toilet across the dry forlorn mealies to the distant hills. The smell of smoke mixes with cooking and I know now what village life is like. So different from what we have in our privileged life - yet everyone is so content and so sharing.
Soon we are off on the final stretch. We bid farewell to our host and set off along the road towards the beach. We dip down the hill passing through amazing thick forests. Yet even now there are continual surprises. A lone trees stands on the edge of a cliff that in America would be named and commercialized. Waterfalls and spectacular swimming spots surrounded by tropical jungles that should be out of movie sets - yet all are just part of the continual wonder of the Wild Coast.
The last part of the hike is an easy stroll along the beach. The sea is perfect and we soon see dolphins dancing in the waves like a welcome party especially prepared for us. It's sad to finally arrive at Mbotyi beach and we sit there for a while enjoying the last vestiges of our hike.
Our taxi is booked for 10:30 so we eventually need to get going. We head off the beach and up towards Mboyti. It feels strange being back here again. We all decide to have a shower in the Community Village - Aah, hot running water, what a treat.
Ace, the taxi driver is there and we have to somehow get all our luggage and 16 people plus the driver in a taxi that really seats 12. Eish! But this is Africa and we all squeeze in. And so begins the long three hour drive back. Ace drives carefully and we arrive back, if somewhat squished, in one piece. We pass thousands of Pondo huts on the way back and looking at them I now have a sense of how they live. No electricity. No running water. One large room for everyone to live and cook in. A long drop toilet. Lots of mealie meal, samp and beans. Lots of family time.
It's been an incredible experience. Incredibly beautiful. Incredibly Wild. Incredibly Wild Coast.
This hike was organised by local guide Bheki Caine. If you would like to find out more go here.
Eish, it's cold. I must get these goats under cover. I know they are strong, but they will not survive outdoors in this snow. I pick up my stick to try and stop one of the stupid ones running into the road, luckily it jumps back because just at the moment a car comes around the corner. Everything is white, even the dirty goats.
One of our favourite places in South Africa is Franschhoek. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the best coffee - and we're fussy on this front, to some of the best restaurants, to the fun European vibe, to the little town, to lots of places to enjoy a great glass of wine in a beautiful setting.
“Hey, but are you doing going on about Franschhoek…isn’t this blog about Clarens?”
It is indeed…and to me Clarens is the Franschhoek of the Free State, and possibly even Franschhoek on steroids!
After completing the crazy 90km Comrades marathon body alignment exercise, we are on the move again...black toenails and all, and our destination is Clarens. We're staying at Kiara Lodge, a timeshare resort about 10 minutes outside of Clarens. Our first shock is the weather. Brr! The sun is shining down boldly from above, casting a rich orange and red hue on everything, yet somehow it's more form than function. It's just not warm.
“This is the Free State in winter…sunny, fresh, but stunning,” I think to myself as Nicky and I float on the little dam at Kiara Lodge atop a paddle boat sipping our sundowners, soaking every sunray we can get like beleaguered lizards.
Yet what is amazing about this area is the Golden Gate Park. It's truly a stunning destination to visit. We set off on the Holkrans walk. It wends along the valley floor as it heads between towering rock structures on either side. At its end it curves around a large rock to reveal a massive cave. We scramble up into the cave and look out at the spectacular vista, framed by the cave, that our vantage point affords. Thick moss that must be centuries old grows on parts of the cave walls and is soft like some natural mattress.
A long set of wooden stairs leads up next to the cave. We clamber up them and the circular walk continues back along the ridge towards the hotel. It's surprises are not finished as the walk stops at more beautiful caves and amazing views of the valley below, framed by the endless blue sky above. It’s another world, and we are enjoying it all to ourselves.
A couple of days later we move to stay in a little cottage just 200m from Clarens town. Staying this close to Clarens means no need to drive anywhere because within walking distance are the best coffee places, incredible restaurants, walks, shops…everything. However there is one reason to drive - SKIING! Yes, you read right, skiing in Africa, it sounds like an oxymoron, but Clarens is the gateway to reaching Lesotho’s AfriSki resort.
It's early, in fact it's dark and we are up and today we are heading to AfriSki. After putting on our ski gear, which feels strange considering the brown hills around us, we clamber into Pajey and are on our way. It takes three hours to get to AfriSki, through border posts, along winding roads, over long winding narrow passes and past frozen waterfalls.
When we finally arrive at Afriski all the hills are brown and barren but AfriSki sports a single white strip like a line of Tippex fixing a mistake on the hills. The resort is empty - so we have chosen our day well and some clouds hang in the air with the promise of snow. The costs ramp up quickly for a day like today. There's the fuel…six hours worth, then entrance of R50 p.p. then ski hire and ski pass. We discover that half day prices start at 12 noon so we go for that. The end cost is about R500 p.p. which when I think about it is way cheaper than Europe!
We've brought the bum boards so spend some time sliding down a slope having find careening into the barrier at the bottom. We have about an hour before half day starts so we go to the pub. A warm log fire is crackling and we add a round of cappuccinos to complete the alpine experience. It feels surreal sitting in this snowy world with people clumping around in ski boots just hours from Clarens.
It's time to go get out gear and soon we are kitted and ready to hit the slopes. As we emerge out of the ski hire shop the snow begins to fall. It's the first snow they've seen in months. Huge soft flakes float gently down and soon everything begins to turn into a magical winter wonderland. We can't believe God's gift to us. It's stunning. It’s time to hit the slope….OK “slopette”. Only one slope is open, the bottom one, which provides a 10-second ride. Hey it’s Africa and we’re skiing…even 10 seconds is epic. We fly down it, we meander it, we try parallel skiing it, we try backwards, we even try doing circles. We just do fun.
By 3:30 we do our final run, savouring every moment. We have to head back now. I don't relish driving in snow on these mountain passes. As we descend the pass the snow starts to come down heavily blanketing the road in complete white and making driving much more challenging. “Watch out!” Nicky calls as I veer to the right to avoid a stray goat being chased by a blanket wrapped Basotho herder. His muddy goats are quickly turning white as the snow begins to blanket everything white.
Slowly the snow is left behind as we descend heading towards the border and Clarens beyond that. The sun dips in the horizon exploding the dramatic clouds into a pyrotechnic display. It’s as though the beauty cannot end, but then this the wonder of this beautiful part of Southern Africa…sip, shop, ski…sensational!