A welcome escape into Big Sky country
Safe from the city’s oppression where endless space is the only medicine.
GREEN HEIGHTS. Located in the heart of the Karoo, Camdeboo National Park virtually surrounds the quaint town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. Pictures: Brendan Seery
It’s not even 9am yet, but the Camdeboo furnace is already ratcheting up a few notches and the short hike to a high point has the sweat prickling our necks and trickling down our backs.
We need to sit. To relax. To breathe. To drink in the austere beauty of this Big Sky country… and be reminded again that endless space is the only medicine for the concrete oppression of the city.
And we are here – at the Shepherd’s Tree game farm outside Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape – because we know, from years of experience, that there is no point in rushing away on the end-of-year holiday to relax.
Hurry up and chill! I don’t think so… So we added in an extra day here, rather than using it as a stopover on the way to Knysna.
We’ve done the 1 200km-plus journey to Knysna (where we have family) on a few occasions in one day.
But whatever route you choose – via Port Elizabeth, Graaff-Reinet or Beaufort West – the last three hours (after 10 already on the road from Joburg, including stops) are a joyless grind.
Hot, battered by glare and trying to stay awake are not conducive to relaxation or enjoying the scenery… Never mind that I am usually shattered at the end of the marathon trip.
The Wild Olive Cottage stop
In the spirit of enjoying the ride on this brief journey we call life, we decide to also stop off at another place – the Wild Olive Cottage – on the other side of Graaff-Reinet, on the way back. Both places prove to be charming book-ends to an “alternative” visit to our normal Garden Route haunts.
The two-bedroom Shepherd’s Tree Cottage is the bigger of the two, fully equipped (including aircon – a must in summer here) and has plenty of walking, hiking, biking and even 4×4-ing, if any of these takes your fancy.
Wild Olive Cottage is smaller but equally well-equipped, albeit only with a single bedroom. Aircon and Wi-Fi are present and correct, as is a small plunge pool.
That’s where I lie one night, glass of wine at hand, gazing up at the magical starry canopy as it gets slowly consumed by incoming clouds which herald rain after dawn.
A moment to savour and one which would have passed me by in the city. At Shepherd’s Tree, we don’t even discuss the route we will take to the coast when we leave.
It would be quicker (by about 45 minutes, Google Maps reckons) by going back into Graaff-Reinet and getting back onto the N9. But years ago, we travelled in this area and I remember thinking: This is the empty heart of South Africa. And I’ve always wanted to go back.
My wife likes the idea of a meander through Jansenville, towards the town of Steytlerville (which nestles between the Grootrivierberge and Baviaanskloof mountain ranges). And it doesn’t disappoint – the road is good, the scenery, especially as we wind through the mountains, is spectacular.
There is so little traffic that at times, you feel you’re alone on the planet… and that’s special.
Even though a trip like this is about almost travelling the “road less taken”, one cannot always be spontaneous and some planning is required.
Google to the rescue again as I use its satellite function to check out which of the roads are not tarred because we are travelling in a VW Polo sedan, which is not a bundu basher.
More than 20 years ago when we first travelled this area, it was in a Subaru Forester all-wheeldrive.
The gravel roads we travelled on were much better then so the Forester wasn’t taxed. But these days, infrastructure is crumbling everywhere across the Eastern Cape, so I check out the gravel roads from the bird-in-the sky’s perspective.
And sadly, the corrugations are bad enough that they can be picked up from space. So we stick to the tar.
Taking our time and ambling along at 100km/h, we relax and benefit from the VW’s abstemious fuel consumption.
A quick stop for a toasted sarmie lunch in Uniondale (no, we don’t see the town’s famous ghost) shows the dichotomy of life in a platteland town these days.
While the visitors’ big, expensive SUVs hunch in the midday heat, the menu in the restaurant warns against giving the pestering children any money… they’ll only spend it on drugs and this will only encourage them.
There are shelters in the town they can go to for food. We see the same in Aberdeen when we stop for lunch on the way back from the coast.
The treat of rolling through the Outeniqua Pass into George is something which never gets old. Stopping there to stretch the legs and take in the faint sea breezes is also the confirmation that you’re almost at the seaside.
That casual approach to the journey is something we continue into the whole Knysna holiday. We’re staying with family, so relaxing with books is a top priority (second only to shopping, which has to be done in the morning because Knysna becomes a hectic traffic jam any time after 10 in the morning over Christmas).
But we also avoid the areas where the visitors will be flocking. And that is easy in Knysna because there is so much variety outside of just beaches, on offer in the vicinity.
We do a picnic at Jubilee Creek in the national park forest just outside the town. It feels a world way from the packed beaches and parking of nearby Plettenberg Bay which frankly, is Sandton with sand and waves.
Then we amble around the edge of the Knysna Lagoon from Brenton-on-Lake, a charming residential area set in the indigenous forest and home to tame bushbuck which wander the streets.
We walk around the estuary across the “Red Bridge” and only have to look out for the mountain bikers who are the only ones to disturb the tranquillity, even if only momentarily. But we also do the tourist thing – lunch and coffee.
And while I’ve always rated Knysna and its restaurants for quality and value for money, I think a bit of Cape Town’s let’s-soak-the-visitors attitude is creeping in.
How else to explain a “cheese and charcuterie” (cheese and cold meats to you plebs) platter for two at R385, with wine at R60 a glass, at a popular wine estate outside Plett.
It’s interesting to see the expensive vehicles in the car park. Our R375 000 Polo (list price) was the second-cheapest after a 10-year-old Ford Fiesta.
Would be a great place to have that discussion about white genocide, wouldn’t it? Then, watching energetic people zip-lining across the cliffs of the dramatic Kranshoek Valley on the edge of the sea takes away the wallet pain and, with very few people around, is more salve for the soul.
The Garden Route being home to some amazing drives, we head for the Robinson Pass which is on the main road between the increasing sprawl of Mossel Bay, Groot and Klein Brak and Hartenbos.
And just at the foot of the pass, another serendipitous find – the Western Cape Butterfly Sanctuary where you get a guided tour for R75 a person (well worth it) and the chance to learn about these enchanting creatures and see them up close in a hot-house breeding sanctuary.
The pass itself is spectacular and the views at the top make you wonder why the hell you’re still living in Gauteng.
From there, a short journey into Oudtshoorn takes us into another serendipitous find – Jemima’s restaurant… a cut above the normal road trip grub.
Fine dining in the Karoo for lunch? Count me in… The Garden Route and surrounds are truly South Africa’s top tourist destination in my opinion.
Cape Town fans might scream but along the Garden Route, you get the variety and beauty which the Mother City offers, but without the sky-high prices and, if you’re clever, without the crowds. And of course, take your time getting there and say hello to the Camdeboo and the Eastern Cape.