Happy Christmas from the Wilderness!
Trip Start Oct 01, 2007
33Trip End Mar 05, 2008
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Here at long last is the latest installment of the blog. I'm writing this from a place called Wilderness on the South African coast about 450km east of Cape Town on the famous Garden Route. Firstly I want to apologise for not updating the blog for a long time. I've had a kind of blog fatigue lately - it takes such a long time to write the blog and upload the photos - from 2 to 6 hours to complete an entry like this and edit it and get the photos resized and uploaded - and so I've been putting it off. If you think about it, I've done 30 or so entries and taking a conservative average of 2 hours for each entry that's seven and a half full working days that I've spent sitting in front of a computer - and although it's worth it because it means that I get to capture all these wonderful experiences and images it can sometimes be a pain.
Also, I know a couple of my friends were a bit worried about the lack of news - especially seeing as I've been in South Africa and it's not entirely known to be the safest place on the planet - but let me assure you that both Kaska and me are fine and well! We've been having a lovely time exploring Cape Town and the Cape coastline - known as the "Garden Route" - eating and drinking, relaxing by various swimming pools, swimming in the sea, sunning ourselves and generally have a great time in one of the loveliest parts of South Africa.
Before I get into what I've been doing I really wanted to say what a wonderful country South Africa is. It really is a slice of heaven and it seems to have everything - great landscapes, great weather, a natural abundance of wildlife and a people who are so friendly and so open - perhaps more so than any other country I've visited. It's true that there is a huge problem here that is the hangover of apartheid and there are terrible social injustices that you see every day and they are like an open wound that is not healing. But despite that the people are the country are so warm and open - it's refreshing. As for safety - if you take sensible precautions - avoid certain areas, especially at night - then (touch wood) you are pretty much as safe here as you would be in any city you care to think of.
Well today is Christmas Eve and it's raining outside! I think this is only the second time since I started travelling in October that it's rained during the day time! So this is the perfect opportunity to send you this update and wish you a Happy Christmas and New Year.
We've been so lucky with the weather during our time here - it's been sunny more or less every day. However we did experience the ferocious winds that plague Cape Town during the summer months. This wind is known as the "Cape Doctor", a powerful south-easterly wind which clears the Cape air of pollution (hence the name "Cape Doctor"). Apparently it's well known, but it was a shock to me - when it's windy in Cape Town, you can't escape it. It is constant and howling and it never lets up. We had about two days of this and by the end of the second day we were both going a bit mad - they say the wind in Cape Town will make you go crazy! The Mercedes Benz that I was going to hire for a couple of days has become something of a more permanent fixture! Given the fact that she (I don't know why but this car is a girl!) is so cheap to hire and so much fun to drive we decided to hire her out for the whole time we've been here in South Africa (I'll be taking her back on the 27th of December). We were a bit worried about drawing attention to ourselves driving around in this beautiful machine, but after chatting to a number of different people we were given the view that we'd be just as likely to get carjacked in a smaller car as in this one and in some ways this was a safer car to drive because she's big and she's fast and therefore more likely to be able to get us out of trouble if anything untoward happened. But thankfully we haven't had any problems and the car has been an absolute joy to drive as you can see in the photos.
I did actually have a bit of a special treat on one of the days when the owner of the car lent me his Porsche Speedster to drive around in for a couple of hours while the guys gave the Merc an oil change and wash. It was absolutely fantastic to drive around in this dream car although Kaska wasn't too keen on it - she said it sounded like a tractor!
One of the things about being in South Africa that is advantageous for European holiday makers is the strength of the Euro and the pound against the Rand. Basically your money goes a very, very long way - from hotels, to car hire, to eating and drinking out - living life here is very cheap. We stayed the first week in a lovely hotel called the Ritz which is in a part of town called Sea Point. It was a lovely starting point and close to both the centre of Cape Town (i.e. places like the V&A docks) and also to the road around Chapman's Peak which then takes you on to to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. It was here that we picked up the Merc. We spent a day driving Chapman's Peak (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapman%27s_Peak) and the roads to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope and it was stunning. Perhaps one of the most beautiful drives I've ever done in my life and it was certainly helped by the lovely weather and the beautiful car! There is something spectacular about Cape Point (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Point) and the Cape of Good Hope (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_of_Good_Hope) - the seas here are treacherous looking even on the calm day that we were there and you can easily imagine how terrifying these places must have been to the poor souls whose ships have been swallowed up by the swell over the years.
It was also great to see some of the indigenous animals which we hadn't expected to see! We were surprised to see ostriches and baboons as we drove from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope!
Another day we visited a place called Muizenberg on the east side of the Cape peninsula. We wanted to get away from Capetown to try and escape the ferocious wind that had been driving us crazy. The only problem was that it was actually worse in Muizenberg and it was a struggle to even be able to sit down on the beach!
Eventually we had to leave Muizenberg because it was just too windy so we decided to check out two special beaches - Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach. They are special because of the thousands of penguins who live there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulders_Beach. It was amazing to walk down the boardwalk on the beach and be surrounded by thousands of little penguins! They aren't afraid of people so they just stand and look at you as you walk past them and they are literally everywhere!
During the week we stayed in Cape Town we'd hoped to take the cable car to the top of the Table Mountain. Unfortunately due to the high winds it was closed right up to the last day but we were lucky when on our last day the wind died down, the sun came out and on a gloriously hot day we managed to ride to the top enjoy the magnificent views from the summit.
One of the things that really hits you when you first arrive in Cape Town is Table Mountain. It's huge and it dominates every vista of the city. It's a beautiful, ever changeable and sometimes sinister looking mountain. The trademark tablecloth of clouds is a joy to see as it hangs over the mountain - it was there the whole of our stay until the last day when it cleared and we managed to take a ride to the summit on the cable car. For the rest of the time it is a living, swirling, breathing mass of clouds that pours off the mountain, evaporating as it does so. It's a sight to behold and it's quite captivating to watch. One of the better views of it is from the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) waterfront which is a chic downtown area of converted docklands crammed with posh restaurants and a nice shopping centre - it's a very popular part of Cape Town and is busy day and night. We had some lovely meals there during our stopover.
Eventually we decided to explore the coast to the south and east of Cape Town. Our first stop - Hermanus. Hermanus is on the famous Garden Route that leads east out of Cape Town. It's only about 100 km from Cape Town and this area is famous for the Southern Right Whales that mate and give birth in the bay between July and November. Unfortunately for us most of the calves and mothers have already left by December to make the voyage to Antarctic Waters for the summer. We were told that if we were lucky we might see some stragglers, but in any case we wanted to explore this part of the world and if we saw whales that would be a bonus. We weren't disappointed. We had heard from the owner of the guesthouse we were staying at in Hermanus that there were still some whales and their calves in a place called Die Kelders a few miles down the coast. So we decided to pass by this spot as we carried on along the Garden Route. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw when we arrived there. Basically Die Kelders is a small village overlooking the ocean. It's famous only for the whales and as we drove along the small headland we saw them. Not one or two, but around 6 or 7 pairs - mothers and calves lolling around in the blue waters. They were so close to the shore that you felt as if you could almost touch them. It was incredible! We could hear them breathing through their blowholes when they surfaced for air and they were just swimming around very slowly and really they seemed to be just lounging around in the bay and getting ready for the long swim south. The calves swim around their mothers, sometimes raising their tail fins in the air, sometimes slapping the water with their flippers and generally they seemed to be having a great time! It was amazing to see. There was even an albino calf who seemed to be a bit of a show off. He was slapping his tail fin in the water vigorously and making lots of splashing and noises. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, one of the calves started breaching - that is swimming rapidly upwards so that his body came partially out of the water and then splashed back down again (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaching). This energetic teenager was doing it over and over again - maybe 10 or 15 times and it was simply stunning to watch. Because he was doing it so much, it was very easy to get the fantastic photos you see below. It was simply jaw dropping to watch and it makes my hairs stand on end just writing this now - that's how good it was! And then as we were sitting on the rocks watching this - we actually heard the mother calling to the calf - we were actually hearing real whale song and it was incredible. And so our little guy stopped his splashing around and made his way back to his mum. We wondered if she'd told him to stop messing around and behave himself! How lucky were we to have seen all this - because any day now, probably even as I'm writing this, they will have left the bay and started their journey southwards.
The day seeing the whales at Die Kelders I'd taken a boat ride out from a place called Klein Baai to go whale watching and to find Great White Sharks and seals in a place called Shark Alley. Shark Alley is home to the densest known population of Great White Sharks in the world, attracted by the abundance the Cape fur seals - there's a breeding colony of 60,000 South African fur seals on nearby Geyser Rock. They say that if you've ever seen a documentary about Great White Sharks it was more than likely filmed here or at least very close by. On the day we took the boat it was very windy which was making the sea quite choppy. We were on an inflatable type boat (a big one mind you) and we left the harbour with a dozen or so of us on board. The sea was very rough and some of the children on board started crying because they were scared - mind you the captain had warned us before we left that it would be. As their kids became increasingly distressed so did the parents and then a few other people started to feel sick. It wasn't looking good. It soon became clear that we couldn't go on like this so the captain offered to return to the harbour and drop off anyone that didn't want to go through with it. When we touched down, everyone got off apart from me, another english bloke and a russian fellow who had actually got on our boat by mistake (he was supposed to go shark cage diving). The captain and crew were disappointed because they said they needed at least 5 passengers to cover the petrol costs so he got on the phone to his boss to see what we should do. Myself and my seamates were also disappointed because we wanted to see sharks and whales. So we were very relieved when the captain came back a few minutes later and told us that his boss had said it would be OK to sail out with the three of us. We'd head out to sea, locate the Great White shark diving boat that the Russian guy was supposed to be on and drop him on that boat before we would sail on to find any whales that might be in the area. This all started to sound alot better - the russian guy was particularly keen to jump from one boat to another in 6 foot swell in shark infested water! The captain said it was actually illegal to do this (for obvious reasons), but there was no other way to get the russian guy onto the Great White Shark boat and so this should be our secret. It was all very exciting, clandestine and probably unbelievably stupid! So off we went into open water, being thrown around all over the place on the incredibly choppy ocean. And because the boat was lighter now minus the ten other passenger we were like a cork bobbing in the waves - every once in a while our feet would leave the floor as we were floored by a series of waves. It was great! After fifteen minutes of this punishment we arrived at the Great White Shark boat. Our russian comrade wasted no time to get to the front of our boat and leap across! A great cheer went up from both boats as he was hauled safely aboard! We decided to hang around for a few minutes to see if a Great White would come along. By the way, I was planning to do a shark cage dive but after hearing about how it works I changed my mind. Basically the shark cages fit up to 10 people at a time, you only get about 10 minutes in the cage and there's no guarantee that you'll actually get to see a Great White - especially not at this time of the year because they are more interested in eating the young seal pups on Dyer Island rather than hanging around a tourist boat that's dropping bits of dead fish into the sea. And all this at a very high price - even for South Africa. The whole thing seemed to be a tacky and expensive affair and about as far away from the natural beauty and power that Great White Sharks are as you can get. We did get a brief glimpse of a Great White, but it wasn't particularly impressive from this distance so we soon headed off towards the kelp beds to see if we could find some whales. We saw two or three whales and their calves and it was lovely. In retrospect it was better seeing them from the cliffs at Die Kelders but nevertheless it was amazing to be so close to these graceful and beautiful animals. We soon headed off to Dyer Island and Shark Alley to have a look at the seals. I've never seen so many seals in my whole life and even from a distance the island was an assualt on your sense of smell!! All that seal poo and I suppose dead seals hanging around makes quite an interesting smell. Also, the sound of 60,000 seals grunting and fighting and barking at each other was pretty impressive! It was a lovely end to our journey on the boat with all these seals chattering on the rocks or swimming around us.
And so on from Die Kelders we continued east towards Mossel Bay. We were getting very close to Christmas by this point and Mossel Bay was very busy which we didn't like so much. So we spent a night there and headed out the next day. We passed lovely places like Wilderness (it's the name of a town) and Knysna and finally on to Plettenberg Bay where we'd been warned there'd be no chance of getting accommodation over the Christmas period. Basically all these places are the destination for everyone coming from Jo'burg to spend Christmas and New Year. Plettenberg seemed to be a brash, loud and overcrowded place and we couldn't get any place to stay there - not that we even really wanted to. So we decided to head back towards Wilderness because it had looked alot more quiet and peaceful.
And so now here we are staying in a lovely hotel overlooking the ocean. It has a great pool, gardens, it's own irish pub and great food. It's the perfect location to spend Christmas and we're feeling very at home here.
We went horse riding in the mountains yesterday and now we're feeling very sore but happy.
I'll be taking Kaska back to Cape Town on the 26th December and she'll fly back to Belgium - she says the holidays have gone too quickly - I think I know what she means. Hopefully before she goes we'll have a chance to paraglide from the sea cliffs here - I said I'd get her that as a Christmas present, but it all depends if this rain clears. In any case, we'll have a nice, quiet celebration of Christmas here in Wilderness - a long way from home, but it will be nice in a different way. It does feel a little strange to be in a hot place, far away from home for Christmas - but not in a bad way - just different. And then after Kaska is gone I'll be staying on the coast near Cape Town until the end of January. I've decided to fulfil a little dream of mine - I'm going to learn to paraglide. I can learn here for a about half the price that it would cost if I were to do it in Europe. These are the people I'll be doing it with - http://www.birdmen.co.za/. So that will take me to the end of January and in between paragliding I'm going to learn to kitesurf again (I've never done it enough to get good at it). So when I get back in February, I should be tanned and fit and have two new hobbies for next summer in Europe - god knows I need something to keep me busy! Finally I'll be looking to start back at work at the start of February - these once in a lifetime travelling experiences don't come cheap, so I need to restock the old coffers at some point. There is an opportunity in Melbourne, Australia that sounds interesting or perhaps back in Brussels, or maybe a short term piece of work in the UK.
So that just leaves me to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I will do a few more updates of the blog here and there but it'll be more or less idling along until the end of Jan beginning of February when I'll probably put the blog to bed. But who knows, maybe this is something that will continue...