July 14 - 16
As we left the Wild Coast behind, we traveled inland into the Karoo. This is a large semi-desert area on the South African plateau. The Karoo is so sparsely populated, we found we could drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. The scenery however, was really beautiful in its starkness.
Late in the afternoon we arrived in the town of Graaff-Reinet. This is the fourth-oldest European town in S. Africa. In fact, over 200 buildings have been declared national monuments, including the cottage that we stayed in.
The next morning we explored the town. We wandered through restored homes, some built as long ago as 1806, and peered through the windows of an old victorian pharmacy which still operates as a pharmacy/drug store.
The town museum had a variety of collections that allowed us to travel back in time. There was a collection of fossils which were found in the area, some 200 million years old. There was the collection of bushman/Khoisan rock art painting reproductions and finally we viewed actual photographs taken in the town over 100 years earlier.
Our main reasons to visit Oudtshoorn were to explore the Cango Caves and drive over the incredible Swartberg Pass. The Cango Caves tour included an option for an adventure tour crawling through small tunnels and squeezing through even smaller passages. The rock formations seemed almost magical and the video we watched of the areas of the cave that are not open to the public was absolutely breathtaking (see photos.)
The Swartberg Pass is likely the most spectacular mountain road in S. Africa. The road took nearly seven years to carve out of the mountains and opened in 1888. It has been maintained ever since to reflect its original character: dirt. But really, the road climbs the mountain in steep switchbacks which provide great views overlooking the valleys of the Little Karoo. The fauna was dominated by the weird, yet beautiful proteas, watsonias, and other fynbos.
Driving over the Pass, we made our way to the main road and entered the Western Cape Region. In this area we are planning to visit the major wine-making areas of S. Africa as well as hopefully see the Southern Right whales off the coast, the African penguins in the south, explore the Cape of Good Hope and see the prison and now UNESCO World Heritage site on Robben Island.
July 17 - 20
Our visit to the Stellenbosch area north of Cape Town was a lesson in Cape Dutch architecture and winemaking. Over 36 wineries can be found near the Eerste River and along the rolling hills dotted with gorgeous oak trees. We spent a leisurely day exploring the country roads and farm stalls, and picnicking beside the vineyards.
Arriving early the next morning in Hermanus on the coast of southern S. Africa, we were treated almost immediately to the sight of Southern Right whales playing in the large bay. We had been told that you could see whales right from the shore as this is where they come to calve. But being skeptical, we had looked into whale watching boats just in case. A boat trip was not to be necessary. There were whales swimming directly below the cliffs of this old fishing village. A 12km long trail along the top of the cliff surrounding Walker Bay provides the best land-based whale watching experience in the world.
The Southern Right whale got its name from being the "right" whale to catch. Because it was rich in oil and floated when killed, it became one of the most hunted species of whale. This contributed to its near extinction before receiving international protection in 1935. Some 4,000-6,000 whales now live in the southern hemisphere and a large number of these visit the coasts of S. Africa every year. The whales begin arriving in Walker Bay in June. Calving begins in August and the population peaks in October. By December the whales have headed north again.
We spent several hours watching the whales from different vantage points around the bay. Our best viewing was done from the car right in town! There were whales further out that were breaching (jumping completely out of the water, see photos) and displaying their tails. With the help of our Bushnell PermaFocus binoculars, we were able to get great views.
After watching the whales, it was time to head south where the African penguins awaited us. Unfortunately some nasty weather also awaited us along the way. It had been raining off and on for the past couple of days, but nothing like what we hit crossing over some mountains towards Simon's Town. The fog and heavy downpour were pretty scary, especially when you are driving on the left side of the road and people are passing you like they can actually see where they're going. Whew, were we glad to come back down to the coast where the rain and fog lifted.
We chose a B&B on the famed Boulders Beach for our one night in Simon's Town so we could be close to where the African penguins live. Nestled in a sheltered cove between Simon's Town and Cape Point, Boulders Beach has become famous for its colony of African penguins and its beautiful beach. Part of the Cape Peninsula National Park, it is one of the few sites where this bird can be viewed up close in its natural setting. We didn't realize just how close! There were penguins on the beach, in the parking lot, in the bushes outside our room, penguins everywhere!
Click here to read the penguin facts.
While birds can be viewed directly from the beach, the penguins can be seen also from newly-constructed boardwalks. These walkways ensure that the nesting areas among the indigenous coastal thicket aren't disturbed by visitors. Uncontrolled egg harvesting as a source of food in the early 1900's nearly drove the species to extinction. The African penguin is currently listed as a vulnerable species and of the 1.5 million estimated in 1910, only some 10% remained at the end of the 20th century. This penguin colony, begun with just two breeding pairs in 1982 has grown to about 3,000 in recent years. In June 2000 70,000 of the penguins were threatened when they were injured in as a result of the sinking of the ship "Treasure" and its oil spill.
These birds, originally called Jackass Penguins because of their braying sound, eat mainly squid and shoal fish such as pilchards and anchovy. They can swim at an average speed of seven km/hr and can stay submerged for up to two minutes. The pairs mate for life and take turns incubating their eggs and feeding the young.
Walking along the boardwalks and the beach allowed us close encounters with these charming birds. Whether we were watching their antics in the water, or their compassion toward their nesting mates, the penguins proved to be fascinating and fun to watch and we thoroughly enjoyed our visits among them.
Next on our agenda was a drive along the bottom of the continent to the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape has been alternately described as the "Cape of Storms" and the "Fairest Cape of All". No matter how you describe it, the Cape is a wild and beautiful place. Habitation there dates back to the early Stone Age and both the San and Khoi people lived here.
Our drive took us south from Simon's Town and then north again towards Cape Town. Along the way we viewed gorgeous sheer cliffs going straight down to crashing waves and beautiful stretches of sandy beaches. Wrecks of ships were also visible. When the winds are blowing one way and the currents running another, shipwrecks are common along the Cape. The story of the Flying Dutchman seemed all too possible the day we drove through with its blustery wind and rain. The story says that a ghost ship haunts the Cape because the captain bet his soul he could round the Cape in a storm, and failed. It is said that his square rigged ship appears frequently out of the mist with its doomed crew to frighten other sailors. But though we kept our eyes open, we saw nothing but dramatic scenery all the way to Cape Town.
Once in Cape Town the weather did not improve. Unfortunately we had finally run into the only bad weather of our entire expedition! We were able to visit Signal Hill but our view was pretty much obscured by fog and mist. Periodically we could see the formation called the Twelve Apostles, but Table Mountain never appeared out of the clouds. Because of the wind and rain we were unable to take the boat out to Robben Island. We were really disappointed because this was one of our main destinations in Cape Town.