Saturday, July 08, 2006

ROAD TRIP

One of the unanticipated frustrations of this resource-gathering trip to Africa has been coordinating our visits to various countries with the World Vision offices that manage the ministry in those countries. For instance, the final three countries we were planning to visit (Zambia, Lesotho, and Swaziland) during our trip have all "fallen through" for one reason or another, usually related to schedule conflicts.

Because of this down-time near the end of our visit, we decided to fly home a week early, and are therefore leaving Johannesburg next Monday evening, July 10. Even so, we found ourselves with a week of time to kill, so we decided on a "road trip" through South Africa. Our plan was to make a huge circle, cutting through the northern part of the country, heading west/southwest from Johannesburg through Bloemfontein with Cape Town as our destination, then following the Atlantic coastline along southward to the very "bottom" point of Africa, then northeast as it follows the Indian Ocean, to somewhere in the Durban vicinity (possibly as far as Kruger National Park) before returning to Johannesburg. Ambitious.

We also held out hopes we might still be called upon to visit Lesotho or Swaziland, either of which should have been reachable (by car) from this route.

After a final day doing internet training in the office last Monday, we departed Johannesburg on Monday afternoon and headed west. The direct distance to Cape Town from Johannesburg is about the same as driving from Seattle to Southern California, and the terrain (at least in the center of South Africa) is also very similar. This time of year, nothing but rolling, grassy meadows. And lots of cattle!

But of course, the distance (and time required) for following the coastline is much greater.

On the journey westward, after about four hours on the road we spent our first night at a very informal B&B just off the highway near Bloemfontein (didn't even have clean sheets, but the price was right), then most of the next day (Tuesday) on the drive southwest, directly through the highlands. Near the end, our progress was substantially slowed by the uniquely African way of doing road construction. Every 10 miles or so, we would stop and wait in a long line of cars, about 15 minutes on average, for the passage of traffic bound the other direction, before being let onto a one-lane stretch of road under construction. This happened more times than we could count, and we found ourselves actually rolling into the large, posh city of Cape Town well after dark. But we had reserved a really nice B&B south of Cape Town, managed to find our way there without incident, and had a lovely (even swank) dinner at their restaurant before retiring.

During the night, a windstorm arose, but the temperature was still warmer than what we had become accustomed to here. I rose up early, before sunrise (which doesn't happen at these latitudes until almost 8 a.m. this time of year) and enjoyed sitting out in the breeze and reflecting on our trip.

After breakfast we headed west to the coast, then spent the day following the coastline northward around the rugged Cape. It was a breathtakingly spectacular drive. In some cases the highway itself is chiseled into sheer vertical cliffs that drop hundreds of feet straight down into the ocean. Imagine narrow roads with waves crashing far below you and a breathtaking view of the ocean. And lots of signs that say "Watch for falling rock" and "Use road at your own risk." (Not sure exactly what you are supposed to do if you see a huge rock crashing down on you?)

Once we had wound completely around the Cape, we visited the "downtown" area of Cape Town itself, did some shopping and had a late lunch, then headed south again to follow the coast and find another B&B.

Our next stop was in a coastal village called "Hermanus." Personally this was my favorite spot in all of South Africa. It is a lovely, cozy little resort town nestled betwixt ocean and mountains. The coastal scenery was gorgeous, even spectacular. If we had such beaches at home they would be an amazing hit with the crowds, even in winter. Right below our hotel was a shielded cove containing "Mermaid's Pool," which anywhere on the coast of the U.S. would have been packed with swimmers, at any time of year. Here we were completely alone.

Whale watching is also popular off this coast, and this time of year we were told "Right Whales" are often cavorting and breeding in the bay, but unfortunately they didn't make an appearance for us.

Thursday morning we left Hermanus and again headed east, following the coast and nearing the very southernmost tip of Africa. Unexpectedly, the nice highways turned to meandering dirt roads -- although not bad dirt roads, they were more driveable than many of the paved roads we had experienced in the Congo or Zimbabwe. Fortunately road signs were in abundance and there was no serious risk of becoming lost in the jungle. After about 50 or 60 kilometers we reacquired a paved highway, and this time turned due south toward Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of land for the continent.

A handsome lighthouse sits at this landmark point, but you can actually drive around it to the beachward side and park your car directly on the beach. The coast itself is rugged and rocky, and there are two small promontories stretching out and pointing toward the Antarctic continent hundreds of miles due south. We chose the one which looked like it might stretch furthest to the south, and clambored out among crashing waves onto the rocks for photos and souvenir hunting. We picked up several interesting small rocks and shells. We were completely alone at this southernmost point (though there were apparently other visitors to the lighthouse). I wondered whether, if everyone who visited this landmark spot took a pebble or shell as we did, whether the continent might actually be getting a little shorter each year!

As we sat on these rocks in the breeze (dodging on-again, off-again rainfall throughout the entire day), with the Indian Ocean at our left hand and the Atlantic Ocean at our right, we also enjoyed a beautiful double rainbow which appeared, due south, the sun shining behind us to the north ... something that never happens where we're from (all our rainbows are to the north or east). It made faraway Antarctica seem like the Promised Land!

When next we jumped into the car, this time we began heading northeast, still following the coast. After a short time we veered directly to the north, inland, and spent the rest of the day cruising through rolling farmlands and then following a range of spectacular mountains, a hundred or so kilometers inland, which stretch west to east throughout this southernmost portion of South Africa. Some of the immense, starkly vertical crags looked like a rockclimber's dream-come-true, and beautiful green valleys rolled downward from these peaks.

In mid-afternoon we passed through Mosselbaai, which I had originally intended as as destination for my 320-kilometer bike ride. The actual distance ended up being much farther due to our zigging and zagging throughout coastal communities and inland areas. I now know there would have been no possible way to do this ride in two days, especially with the days as short as they are. It probably would have taken two or three times that long, in reality, and the rain which fell on Thursday would have further slowed things down (had it occured when I was riding).

At this point the return trip began to get a little gritty. Mosselbaii itself is not what I expected, at all ... not a beautiful coastal town, like Hermanus, but a ghetto town filled with thousands of shanties. Many of these towns were originally created as fairly lush resort towns but have grown into shantytowns due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Africans who have immigrated from God only knows where throughout Southern Africa. We tried to find the actual waterfront in Mosselbaii but were unsuccessful, just wandering around in various decrepit townships. Ultimately we wound our way back onto the highway and continued northeast.

Our backup plan was to find a place to stay and dinner in Nysna, a resort town recommended to us by an earlier B&B manager. However, Nysna had an Oyster Festival going. The town was packed with traffic and the inns were all full. (I had also been warned that this week is a school holiday.) So we continued northeast and finally wound up in the Bayview Hotel in Plettenberg Bay. As I am writing this on Friday morning I have a very pleasant third-story window view of the Bay, and the fog is clearing to reveal intermittent sunshine.

One other interesting incident, and here's something that would never happen to you on a Seattle freeway: We were cruising through an area of lush pine forests and noticed numerous signs commanding, "Don't feed the baboons!" Such signs are all over South Africa. When we first started seeing them, naturally we craned our necks into the trees, looking to catch sight of a wild baboon. But this was fruitless craning for so long that we finally became cynical about whether there really were wild baboons here, or whether they just put those signs there for the tourists.

Anyway, this forested stretch was pocked with baboon warning signs, and we had passed the very last one and were almost out of the area when we rounded a corner, doing at least 120 kilometers per hour (what's that ... 80 mph?) when there were two enormous baboons suddenly right in the center of our lane, directly in front. They were huge and hairy and black and ominous looking. I hit the brakes but was too close. I also hit the horn simultaneously, and they were smart enough to flee -- in opposite directions. I skidded right between them.

If I had hit one of those large animals no telling what it would have done to the car ... and I'm sure the baboon wouldn't have fared well either.

Actually it was just one of many close encounters with various road animals over the last few days ... horses, cows, goats, sheep, you name it. But this near miss was our only baboon sighting.

With all the animals on the road you would think there would be a lot of animal vs. car accidents. Today we actually saw a horse ... or rather, half a horse, as the rear half was completely splattered over an area about 50 feet in diameter ... laying to one side of the road. Almost as sad as it was gross. I'm trying to imagine what that must have been like for whoever was driving the truck or car that struck it. The horse was literally cut in half.

OK, I ended on that happy note on Friday, but now I'm finishing this blog entry up on Saturday evening. We left Plettenberg Bay about 11 (I decided to let Mandy sleep in a bit) and drove northeast. We didn't really have a target, were just hoping to get as far as we could get, that would put us in a position to stay in Bergville at Anthony's again (our overall favorite B&B since we've been here). Darkness overtook us when we were in the East Cape Province, inland in a fairly mountainous area, and driving there was extremely hazardous, with various road obstacles, animals, and even trucks (creeping along with their lights off ... unbelievable). We narrowly missed plowing into one from behind.

It was such slow going and so frustrating and hazardous that we decided to pull into the first hotel we found, in the town of Mthatha. We were willing to pay basically whatever they charged just to get off the road. Which was fortunate, since they were charging way too much for what the hotel was worth. It was clean, and comfortable, but the rooms were small and the walls exceedingly thin. The din of music and partying around us continued until after midnight, then the cleaning crew began their work before 7 a.m., chattering and hollering and banging. It was one of the least restful places I have ever been.

But we got a decent dinner (a pizza) and breakfast there, and hit the road once more by 10 a.m., headed for Anthony's. We achieved our objective about 4 p.m. and it was like coming home.

I don't think I've ever driven so much in a single week in my life. And in such a difficult and challenging place to drive. Enough to last for quite awhile. I'm exhausted. We are simply going to camp here at Anthony's until it's time for us to leave for the airport Monday afternoon. Mandy wants to do some hiking tomorrow, which would be fine with me, as long as we don't have to drive too far. I've had enough.

I would also like to go with Carol to her Anglican church tomorrow. And tonight, we are waiting for some friends we met (the first time we were here) so we can go out for a bite to eat. Saturday night is the one night Carol doesn't cook for her guests.

Well, I probably won't blog again on ShBlog until we get home. On the plane, I will work on something to summarize our general impressions of Africa and thoughts as we are leaving. But with the anticipated jetlag, that may not get posted for a week. But check back, you never know!

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

Top, left: Father and daughter perched on the edge of the precipice, hundreds of feet above the ocean, during the drive along the Cape, overlooking one of many small coastal villages, with a winter storm playing light upon the waters of the bay below.

Next, right: Mandy walking along a seawall near one of the beautiful beaches on the Cape. Fishermen were fishing on the rocks and we found seashells aplenty.

Third, left: The rocky coastline at Hermanus Beach, looking down toward Mermaid Lagoon.

Fourth, left: This rainbow framed Cape Agulhas, the southernmost promontory of land for the African continent, as we approached.

Fourth, right: This is the southernmost seagull in Africa. The rocks below stretch out toward Antarctica in the unseen distance. The Indian Ocean (left) meets the Atlantic ocean (right).

Bottom, left: The view of Plettenberg Bay out the window of the Bayview Hotel.

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