After leaving Knysna, we drove the short distance to Buffalo Bay (or as the Afrikans call it Buffells Baai), this was a much nicer place to camp and explore after the vastly over hyped seaside town of Knysna. Though it was seriously windy on the campsite as it is right out on the narrow peninsular and so is surrounded by the Indian Ocean on 3 sides. It really was a stunning location and the pristine sandy beach stretched for mile after mile.
But the thing that Buffalo Bay is most famous for is its surfing beaches and every day there was various surf dude’s and dudesse’s (is there such a word?) taking off on their boards, some to a very high standard. What I couldn’t understand was why Jac was always so reluctant to leave her vantage point!!!!
Shark attacks are a real danger here to surfers, and so provided on the beach is a metal box that contains a Shark Bite Kit. But this is South Africa and so the box has to remain locked, you are provided with a telephone number (probably a premium rate number) and provided there is someone to answer the call on the other end of the line (not a given), and you can give them the correct location of the box, then you will be given the combination for the lock, you just have to hope that the shark bite isn’t too bad, all this takes time eh. This kit is provided by a local private hospital, so a good cheap way of advertising.
As usual there were plenty of stunning sunsets.
As many of you know we lost our German Short Haired Pointer just before we left on this trip, and after having Dillon for 16 years he has been sorely missed by us, but at Buffalo Bay we spotted Dillon’s double (or is that his reincarnation), it really did look like him, right down to his markings and his movement and actions. Jac went all gaga……
Next stop was the small Garden Route town of Wilderness, a very upmarket place with the usual fine array of coffee shops and curios (mostly tat stuff) where we stocked up on food and booze and then headed for Wilderness National Park. After Tsitskamma National Park (see previous post) we really weren’t expecting much, especially as Wilderness NP is little more than half the price of the camping at Storms River camp. But we have come to expect the unexpected on this trip and Wilderness NP was indeed very very nice. The campsite was much smaller than the one at Tsitskamma, and is stretched out along the river bank, and its all lush grass, and not too regimented (we hate these campsites with lines or boundaries).
Whilst here we did a bit of hiking, rented a canoe, and of course did plenty of swimming in the river just in front of the truck.
On one particular walk we had a choice of route to reach a waterfall, one was across stepping stones and one was via a pontoon, so we went for the pontoon not really knowing what to expect. When we got to the crossing we had to use a very unsteady self propelled pontoon, using a series of ropes and pulleys, all very new to us Pommies.
The waterfall was a little disappointing but it was a lovely walk for about 3 hours. We had a family of Egyptian Geese for company in front of the truck, and of course the usual Guinea Fowl.
When walking back from our canoeing trip we came across the biggest tortoise that we have seen on this trip, he was massive, and seemed oblivious of our presence.
As we are planning to spend next christmas and new year here in South Africa, we thought we would enquire about camping here again this December. The very friendly woman at the park headquarters (and for once quite efficient), informed us that the christmas and new year camping (about 80-100 camp spots over the two campsites) were all booked within 40 minutes of them being released on line! This is like Glastonbury, and I’m truly amazed that their cranky old website managed to cope with all that.
We also met some lovely people at Wilderness, an English couple that have bought a house near Capetown that were staying in one of the chalets at the back of the campsite, and their neighbours, two woman that were camped next to us. We had a really nice evening with the four of them sharing travel stories, and tales of wine (they do live in the middle of the vast wine region).They introduced us to a wine sold in a plastic bottle and costs less that £2.00 for 750ml, Tangled Tree Butterscotch Chardonnay, its lovely. We have since found out that it is sold in Checkers Liquor and have of course stocked up accordingly. We also met a Dutch couple that we had previously met in Malawi, and it was great to catch up with them and share tales.
Mossel Bay, mmmmm we stayed at the camp from hell. It was awful, the town was ok but the campsite was akin to a prison camp, and it was completely packed with pensioners here for the reduced rate that is applicable to them on Municipal campsites. I never took any photos in the 24 hours of staying here, and I take a lot of photo’s, and this really sums this place up. We also met some very rude people here (though that definitely does not include the lovely couple from Scotland that were thankfully in a camper next to us) that seemed it was their given right to look inside our house, well I got news for you, it ain’t your given right, and you ain’t coming in!!!!
After Mossel Bay we had really had enough of the coast and the Garden Route with all its touristy things (its really lovely in places but can be busy and touristy in others), and so we headed for Bontebok National Park, just outside the historic town of Swellendam.
Bontebok NP is not about the wildlife, you really have to understand that, and reading the visitors book at the park reception shows that many people come here expecting a mini Kruger, and it definitely isn’t that. What you do get from South Africa’s smallest National Park, is stunning scenery, quite a few hiking trails, a super clear river to swim in, and of course the chance to view Bontebok.
We loved our few days in Bontebok, again the campsite is nice and compact but each site has lots of room, and most are surrounded by trees.
Around the campsite the birdlife was really prolific, and eventually I managed to get a photo of a Mousebird, these really do never seem to stop still for very long and are always deep in the bush, very frustrating to get shot with my trusty Lumix.
Then the cheeky bugger turned around and waved at me!
But we really do enjoy the company of these feathered friends, especially watching the Weaver birds.
Ok no more bird shots!
Awww maybe one more of this Grey Heron that we spotted when out walking then……
But a great way to cool off here is to have a dip in the mountain fresh water of the river, its perfect after a few hours hike, and surprisingly warm (ish).
The other thing that we will remember about Bontebok was the vast number of tortoises, we must have seen 20-30 of them in the few days that we were in the National Park, and they were mating too, a strange sight, and an even stranger noise.
After a few days exploring Bontebok, we had a quick trip back into the old town of Swellendam which is very nice (there really are two very different halves to the town), a bit of shopping and a top up of Colonel K’s finest tipple and we headed off into the winelands toward Worcester.
Swellendam is also the start of the Winelands, these vast areas of vineyards go from here right through to Stellenbosch and wine is produced here on a vast industrial scale. We stopped one day for a coffee at a farm shop (known here as a Padstal), it was of course owned by a vineyard, in this case Bonnievale, so two bottle’s were bought. Later that day we stopped for lunch at a very nice restaurant just before Worcester, again owned by another vineyard, this time Rooisberg Wines. They really are one after the other and each town produces its own maps showing all the local vineyard’s. Guess what? That night we camped at a wine farm…… and so it goes on.
After the hustle and bustle of the Garden Route and the Winelands, we decided to cross over the mountain range via one of the many steep passes, and up into the Highveld, or the Klein Karoo (Little Karoo) as its known here. This is a huge semi arid desert area and was much more to our liking, especially as we found a lovely place to camp on a farm about 40km from the main road, it was great to be back on the gravel tracks and of course seeing WILD wildlife.
It might seem strange to some people but we love these wild and remote places, and when you see things like a flock of Blue Cranes near the gravel track, it really is special.
The farm really was like an oasis in the desert, with a number of small dams (ponds to us Brits) that were a haven for birds such as weavers, herons and a few ducks.
It was a great place to relax for a couple of days, but once again there was the seemingly never ending threat of fire looming over us, this is a very very dry place and as evening drew in we realised that there was fire raging up in the hills and the smoke was coming towards us AGAIN! Thankfully the wind dropped overnight and by morning the smoke had almost disappeared, the owners of the farm didn’t seem too concerned, so we relaxed a bit.
From the Klein Karoo, we headed back to the main tarmac road and decided to head for the tiny town of Sutherland, slap bang in the centre of the Great Karoo. Off the main road we spotted a Union Jack, and a Scottish flag flying over to the right, and a huge sign painted on the tin roof of an old derelict building saying “The Lord Milner”, hopefully there might be fresh coffee at the end of this ‘rainbow’! What we found was a very pleasant shock. You have to remember that this is in the middle of nowhere, a semi-arid nowhere, and just 2 or 3 kilometres down this dusty scruffy track was an immaculate Scottish style country hotel! Even South Africa can still throw up surprises.
And there was a separate coffee shop and a Pub, The Milner’s Arms, a little transport Museum, and a Post Office (well sort of), this really is an incredible place. It was built by a Scot by the name of Jimmy Loga. After arriving in Capetown to work on the railways and somehow he managed to gain the sole rights to sell drinks on the train (there is also a train station here) that ran from Bulawayo (now in Zimbabwe) to Capetown when the railroad first started around the early 1900’s. After making a few Bob doing this he decided to build a health resort for the rich and famous of South Africa here at Matjiesfontein, and apparently he did very nicely out of it, and for many years it was the place to come to.
Nowadays the place survives mostly by a twice weekly visit and an hours stop of “The Blue Train” a luxury train that slowly does that same journey (only now its only from Jo’Burg to Capetown), but this time its full of about 80 tourists, it must be a nightmare to be there when that lot arrives, and thankfully when we were there it was very quiet. There is even an old Routemaster double decker London bus to take them on a short trip………
Here we met John, there are a couple of things thats worth knowing about John. Firstly John was born here at The Lord Milner (allegedly), and his mother worked here as a maid. When we arrived John seemed extremely bored, and it was also his job ,it seemed, to encourage people into The Milners Arms, to spend money on drinks. But the main thing to know about John is that he was funny, in fact John was bloody hilariously funny. If this was really his job then he was extremely good at it.
John was convinced that we were a honeymoon couple (god knows why), and in the quarter of an hour that we spent with him we laughed so much, he really was one of life’s naturally funny guys. Mind you we still didn’t spend any money in the bar, it was only about 10.30 in the morning,but we had to sing along with him at the piano !
After all the bush fires that we had seen it was good to see that there was cutting edge firefighting equipment on hand!
We were pleasantly surprised that a new tarmac road had been built, or upgraded for the 100km drive north to Sutherland, and despite it being very hilly in places, we made time quite quickly.
We were told by Paul (the invisible man from Kloof) that Sutherland was worth a visit for the star gazing, and it didn’t disappoint. Sutherland town is a tiny town that is full of old Victorian, or slightly later buildings that seem to be incredibly preserved, and despite its remoteness it has a really nice friendly feel to it, oh and its full of guest houses and coffee shops/restaurants!!
So what makes Sutherland so popular with tourists? Well the remoteness (its hundreds of kilometres away from any towns), and its altitude of 1,550m (about 5,100 feet), mean extremely clear skies and zero light pollution. For this reason the international community decided that Sutherland was the ideal place to build the most powerful telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Along with this a whole mini industry has sprouted up for amateur astronomers.
We found our campsite just outside town, and booked Jurg the owner to have one of his private star gazing sessions that evening.
First thing we had to do was to meet our guard dog for the time we were to spend there, Jurg told us to camp at the last spot, number 7, and number 7 was also the home of Trompie the resident Jack Russell cross something or other. Trompie Van Sterland was adorable and was determined to look after us and Colonel K!
Sutherland is also known as the coldest place in South Africa and gets snow most winters, but this was the summer it was very hot during the day and still in the low 20’s C in the night.
That evening we had a really good couple of hours out in Jurg’s ‘Boma’ where he has four satellite controlled high power telescopes, he is quite passionate about his hobby, and despite having to buy all this amazing equipment only charges 100 rand (about £5.80) for two hours. There was about 8 or 9 of us with him that night (incredibly mostly English), and there were many gasps, and “wows” as eyes went to the telescopes, as we were shown the unbelievable colours of a nebula, dying stars, and new stars. The only issue was that it was almost a full moon and so this restricted some of the things that he wanted to show us, but it was an absolutely crystal clear night.
At the end of the evening Jurg asked if we would like to view the moon, but warned us that because of the brightness of the moon that night we would suffer from black spots in our vision for about 10 minutes afterwards, but assured us that it would pass and no lasting damage would be done!!!! Ok lets go for it….. WOW what a view, the craters were so clear it was incredible. After we had had our fill of “burnt retinas”, our host asked if we had a smart phone, and so he placed the camera lens of our crappy old iPhone 4 to the eyepiece and clicked……
We had a great evening, and learnt a lot about something that we previously knew nothing about, but it was back to our trusty camper to find Trompie still awake and in his guard house.
Next day we drove to SALT (Southern African Long Range Telescope), and spent a couple of hours being shown around the various telescopes. Access to SALT is via a very very steep road, and boy in the heat this made Colonel K grunt! Again it was very interesting, but some of the stuff was way over out heads, in the end we stuck to the kiddies displays, they explained things in a way that meant you didn’t need to be a quantum physicist to understand it!!!
There are about a dozen telescopes here on the site, not just the main SALT telescope, and many countries have built their own smaller (but still very powerful) telescopes and rent the land but they are operated remotely from their own country (UK, Germany, South Korea, USA, Poland and many others have their own scopes here). SALT is also part owned and funded by many countries with South Africa only owning 30% of it, its a truly international place.
After all this high tech stuff we badly needed a coffee so headed back to Sutherland, and was told by a local to try the Blue Moon guest house, we had a lovely lunch here in this very Engish tea rooms type place. We also met a large group of Afrikaans here and after one old guy insisting to talk to us flat out for ten minutes solely in Afrikaans, and us not understanding a word of what he said, his daughter came over and roughly translated that he was telling us that they are farmers that leave out in the remote areas of the karoo, and every so often they all get together and visit the “Big City” (Sutherland, obviously) for the day to do shopping and have lunch……… Characters eh….
The other thing that Sutherland is famous for is the graves of a young British soldier. Trooper Davey Burnett was unlucky enough to be in this extremely dry place and in 1901, during a rare down pour he drowned in a flash flood. He was buried in the graveyard (a rough scruffy patch of land on the edge of town) with a full gravestone.
Then when the army heard about this (in the same year), they decided that he should have a proper military grave, so only a couple of yards to the left is his second grave ,its not just a metal cross. Though which one has his body in is anyones guess.
When we heard this story from Jurg, we were intrigued to see these two graves, so with Colonel K parked on the street we started up the track to the graveyard, and as we were going up, a car was pulling out, they stopped and the four occupants (2 British, and 2 South Africans) told us that the graves of Davey Burnett were not here, and they had looked for ages and couldn’t find them and were off to find another graveyard…… After two minutes of looking around the graves Jac spotted the metal cross, and within another few minutes we had found the grave stone, its a tiny place, and I’m not sure how they missed both of them.
Leaving Sutherland and heading north again theres only dusty gravel tracks to drive on, and its about 150km to the main road, but wow what stunning scenery.
After about 350km we arrived at another remote town called Brandvlei, and found that our first choice of camping about 15km out of town was full (it only has two campspots), so she kindly recommended The Casablance Guest House and Camping on the edge of town. Our hopes of Brandvlei being another “Sutherland” were quickly dashed as we realised that it is quite a poor town, and very scruffy, I guess it’s got a population of about 4,000, so still quite small.
The Casablance Guest House and Camping is neither really, there is absolutely zero facilities for campers, with no toilets or showers, we just parked in the back yard on the dusty gravel. The Lady owner appeared, and when we asked about a WC or shower she said she would give us a key to the house and we could use the bathroom in there. After a brief chat with this very friendly but slightly “away with the fairy folk” woman, we settled down and made a coffee in the truck. After a hour I decided to use the bathroom in the house, oh my god that place was weird…… It was like a shrine to the forties and fifties, there was old vintage clothes hanging in random places around the house, and despite it being afternoon it was dark in there, all the curtains were closed, and of course there was no electricity!!!! Then I eventually found the bathroom (which also opened into a bedroom), it was like a set from a Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock film, over the bath was an old dress, almost like an old lacy wedding dress, then above the toilet was an old white corset, but worst of all was the pink girdle that was on a cut down mannequin next to the wash hand basin, and all that was in there to provide light was a tiny rechargeable solar lamp, very very creepy!!! All the place needed was a few nasty looking dolls, and it would have been like a cross between the Bates Hotel and The Bride of Chuckie.
Next morning the lovely owner told us that she doesn’t get any trouble with the locals because of the four massive dogs that she has, and of course she has a snake in the house! Luckily we didn’t meet the snake.
We are currently camped just north of the large town of Uppington, and have booked 5 nights camping in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we are really looking forward to visiting this vast desert area, but were surprised that some of the campsites are fully booked, so we have about 4 days before we drive to the park.
On the way to Uppington, and afterwards we saw this massive structure in the distance, its truly impressive, and can still see it from our campsite just on the horizon, its called Khi Solar One and its a solar tower, I don’t fully understand it but if your interested you can google it.
Thanks for reading, sorry its a bit long, but I needed to catch up