Sun 20 Nov: Madikwe-Knysna
We left Etali with a heavy heart for the next stage of our trip. The 5 hour drive back to Johannesburg was uneventful, except for how close we left it to making our flight…we arrived back at the airport barely 50 mins before our SAA flight only to be faced with a huge snaking queue for domestic departures. Fortunately my wife managed to sweet talk her way to the front and we checked in on time.
A quick flight later and we arrived in George where we picked up our hire car, this time with A/C I’m pleased to say. We drove the 1 hour journey to Knysna where we stayed at the Overmeer Guest House. It was of a high standard, above anything I expected from a guest house and equivalent to at least a 4 star hotel. We had a great balcony view of the lagoon and enjoyed the spa bath in our room! What we remember best though is the friendliness of Ludwig, the owner, and his black Labradors! Ludwig was incredibly helpful in giving us advice on where to visit and gave us detailed directions which made driving around a pleasure. Special mention also to the girl who served us breakfast each day, not only for her friendliness but also her likeness to Kirsten Dunst!
We spent the first day around Knysna, going to Noetzie beach and The Heads. Noetzie was a real find and one of the most beautiful beaches I have been to (one of many that we were to encounter on this trip). The emptiness of it made it all the more special and we spent ages just soaking in the setting, with steep cliffs on one side and crashing waves coming in from the other. The Heads, where the sea enters the lagoon was equally spectacular although we went on a calm day. The view looking back into Knysna was spectacular though and we could only admire enviously the houses that had that sort of view from up there. Also it made me glad we had bought a pair of binoculars, primarily for the safari but it was put to good use throughout our trip. It enabled us to appreciate a lot more the incredible views we came across and I will certainly make it a must-bring on any future sightseeing trips.
The next day we went further afield and drove east towards Tsitikamma. We took a detour to go to Nature’s Valley, a place one of the South Africans at Etali had raved about. We were not disappointed and again the setting was slightly unreal. You approach from a road that plunges down through the undergrowth towards the sea and emerge in a large clearing that looks like somewhere that has only just been discovered. The views back towards the mountains are awesome and again there is a white sand beach with dunes and this time with populated plenty of birds. We could have spent half a day there sunbathing and picnicking, but we had to push on.
Our next destination was the Treetop canopy tour in Storms River. This consists of sliding along ropes from tree to tree, up to 30m off the ground and for distances of over 100m on several jumps. It is very much like the action man moves you always wanted to replicate as a kid and now here was my chance! It is only the 2nd place in the world where you can do this sort of thing, the first being in Costa Rica. I had read about this and it sounded exciting but my wife was no so sure. However we had nothing to worry about as we were kitted up with plenty of harnesses and safety clips. For the next 2 hours we rode from tree to tree, getting up to pretty fast speeds on some. Even my wife enjoyed it immensely and she agreed it was a great way to experience the forest.
Following on from this we moved onto Storms River Mouth for more fantastic scenery and walks. The sight of the waves pounding against the rocks is a reminder of how powerful nature can be and it would have been great to stay one night here in the huts by the sea. This is also where the 5 day Otter Trail starts and my only regret is we did not have more time to fit that in. We were only able to get a taster of what we were missing by walking down to the suspension bridge which crosses the mouth of the river as it emerges into the sea. It was calm that day but I can imagine how impressive it could be when the weather is rougher and the water is gushing down through the narrow ravine.
On the drive back to Knysna we stopped off at the Bloukrans Bridge, the place of the highest bungy jump in the world at 216m. Words cannot describe how high it looks and even though we did not see anyone jumping it looked terrifying even from the viewpoint. It is so deep we could not even see the bottom so my hats off to anyone who has the courage to attempt this (or even to get to the middle of the bridge). It must be the longest 7 seconds I can think of whilst you are falling. I felt dizzy just looking at it and afterwards when we drove over it, even though we couldn’t see over the side I still wanted to get off it as soon as possible!
In Knysna we also ate pretty well, as we found in South Africa that the food is so fresh that almost anywhere can produce tasty meals. 34 degrees South is a must for the best seafood and also a visit to the deli inside for picnic lunches. For the evening of the 21st it was my wife’s birthday so I took her to the Phantom Forest restaurant. This is just outside of Knysna and is perched up amid the hills, overlooking the lagoon and giving you a fabulous view of sunset. You are collected at the bottom and wind your way up into the dense undergrowth before being dropped off somewhere near the top. The lodge itself is a network of well hidden wooden buildings connected by walkways through the forest. Walking around it is easy to imagine you are in the middle of nowhere as the buildings merge seamlessly into the trees (in fact we did get lost leaving so had to return to the restaurant for a guide!) The feeling of isolation is total and it would have been interesting to stay a night here as well (so many places, so little time…)
We had drinks in the bar to watch the sunset and also warmed ourselves by the open fire, which was decorated in the traditional African style, before moving into the main restaurant. It was fully booked that night but they stagger the sittings so there is never a long wait to be served, a nice touch. We were in a small room off the main restaurant that seemed to be made entirely of wood and was very cosy. Nice touches like oil lamps and carved owls in the eaves. The food was good, particularly the lamb my wife had. We would love to return there to try out the Moroccan food next time. But overall I think my wife had a memorable birthday dinner and one that will be difficult to top next year!
Wed 23 Nov: Knysna-Swellendam
Today we headed inland into the Klein Karoo, a different landscape altogether from the fertile coastal scenery we had been living in. This lies between the Outeniqua, Langeberg and Swartberg Mountain ranges and is dryer environment. The R62 runs through here, which is often recommended as more scenic way of getting out into the Garden Route. The drive here from George involves going over the mountains, which provides for stunning views both looking back and into the large valley-like area we were heading for.
We made our way to the Cango Caves, a series of underground limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites formed over many millions of years. This is the 2nd most visited tourist site in the country and it is not hard to see why. It was discovered around 220 years ago by a local farmer but has been used for thousands of years by the Khoisan people as a place of shelter.
As soon as you enter into the first large chamber you are awed by the size and amazing formations. The first chamber is 98 m long, 49 m wide and 15 m high, big enough to hold a concert in, and indeed this is what used to take place. However they had to stop this when people started breaking off pieces to take home, a sad way to ruin such magnificent natural surroundings. The 2nd chamber is almost as big but even more spectacular, with numerous formations including columns and fine sheets of limestone arranged like a fan.
The fun part however was to come. As we had booked the Adventure tour, we made our way deeper inside. The accessible caves extend for 800m, with a further 2 set of caves that were discovered recently but are not open to the public, in order to preserve them. We went through a series of smaller chambers and up and down dimly lit passages, making it feel like we were in an Indiana Jones film. Eventually we reached Jacob’s ladder which is a set of narrow steps leading up to a small hole at the top that we had to crawl through. It was at this point that the more claustrophobic in our group stopped and turned around. However as progressed further, at many points it was lower than head height so we had to crawl. Eventually we reached Devil’s passage, a hole barely wide enough to squeeze through and where the other end was not visible from the bottom. The young kids shot up it but some others really struggled, it not being obvious where to place hands and feet. It felt very much like a 3D game of Twister! Quite a few called out they were stuck but after prompting managed to make it up there. Our guide was great at putting us at ease, saying at one stage “he’s not stuck, he’s just not moving”. After that it was plain sailing and we emerged after 2 hours of sweaty, exciting and enjoyable crawling around.
After a well earned club sandwich, we set off for our overnight destination of Swellendam. The drive there covered many miles of empty but straight road, reminiscent of the Australian Outback. However the constantly changing scenery kept up the interest levels and I never got bored of looking at the changing mountain landscape and numerous valleys we drove through. The most spectacular was left for last as we went through the Tradouws pass, which has sheer cliffs rising from both sides, made all the more atmospheric by the setting sun.
We arrived at Braeside guest house and again were pleasantly surprised at how quaint the setting was and the way the whole house was decorated. It is an Edwardian house backing onto the mountains behind the town and many original features remained. Our room had a four poster bed and it really felt like we were still in the early 1900s. Breakfast was served on the verandah and was wonderfully presented, matching the superb view of the mountains. Definitely one of the nicest places we stayed in despite it’s modest view from the outside. Again the owner’s (Ian) hospitality could not be faulted and he helped us to get to our next destination, De Hoop Nature Reserve.
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Sun 20 Nov: Madikwe-Knysna