Regaining our Balance on the Western Coast

Regaining our Balance on the Western Coast

We are now 2 weeks into our South African journey and the country is certainly not disappointing us. In fact, given my long-held view that South Africa is too like Europe rather than Africa-proper it is exceeding my expectations in a big way. The fact that this country is both beautiful, wild and remote and yet somehow strangely familiar is it’s strength not it’s weakness.

We spent our last day in Cape Town being full-on unashamed tourists….we took the open top tourist bus!! And I have to admit it was a great day.

Before even getting on the bus we found ourselves in the middle of a carnival for the Human Rights Day celebrations.

Then, once we´d boarded, we discovered that these buses are really very interesting. The on-board commentary was fascinating, learning all about the areas we were driving through and we got to visit some of the places on my city itinerary that had been too far to walk.

We started with some great views of Table Mountain.

Our first main stop was the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We only spent a couple of hours there but it was beautiful. Spread out over acres and acres of the mountainside with forests, flowers, pools and cultivated gardens.

There was even a tree top walkway where we could admire the views over the mountain.

The bus then took us through the wine region – tantalising us with what we had in store when Henry finally arrives and we get going properly – and on to the coast and the bays Cape Town is so famous for.

Camp Bay and Clifton Beaches are the posh parts of town and on a Sunday were packed with sun worshippers even in the off-season (it’s only in the mid 20s and the locals regularly complain of the cold…).

But finally it was time to leave the hustle and bustle of the city, claim our hire car and head north into quieter realms.

We had booked a Toyota Corolla, not exactly a Landrover but a comfortable car which we hoped would give us what we needed for a relatively gentle 2 week road trip up the west coast and looping back to the city.

We headed north up the coast through some stunning scenery. From the first bay we came to we had a postcard view back to Cape Town and Table Mountain itself.

Our first stop was the West Coast National Park which sits around the beautiful Langebaan Lagoon.

It’s peaceful and packed full of birds. We hopped from hide to hide watching the various birds that my Mum would no doubt be able to name but I can’t!

But even I recognised the flamingoes! And they gave me a great opportunity to practice with my new zoom lens.

And the burst shots even meant I got a photo of the jumping fish! It is a fish, honestly!

From there it was a short drive to the West Coast Fossil Park where we spent the afternoon wandering around hundreds of fossils of giraffe ancestors and extinct African bears.

As well as our first siting of some of the more beautiful flowers in this area.

And the exhibition centre was great fun!

So far all was going well. I had spent days putting these plans together before we left the UK and my work seemed to be paying off. It’s a different world being reliant on pre-booked Airbnbs – the freedom and flexibility of travelling in your own home which you can park anywhere, anytime to eat and sleep is gone. Being locked into a rigid timetable definitely lacks something.

And that something started to show the next day. We headed up to St Helena’s Bay, supposedly a pretty fishing town with beautiful beaches. But when we got there it had been turned into a big housing estate – new, little white houses everywhere blocking all views of the bay and with no obvious way to get to the beach without going through private, barriered estates. We were very disappointed but we were stuck there. So we arrived at our Airbnb far earlier than planned through lack of any other options.

The place was lovely and the host very warm and friendly. We had a balcony from which we had a birds eye view of the bay along with the storm that raged all night.

And it made for a fabulous sunset…..

Our host also showed us the one remaining route to the beach through all the housing. The next morning we headed down there and could see just how pretty the bay actually is. We also saw dolphins in the distance – it was called Dolphin Beach after all!

As you can see, my zoom lens can even spot dolphins when they´re frolicking on the horizon…but only just!

The perfect moon over the bay was easier to photograph!

Keen to get on and find our way back to more interesting and less developed parts we headed up to our next stop in Elands Bay. Our hearts sank a little further when we arrived. Again, not a pretty fishing town, in fact not much at all! We struggled to find anywhere to buy food or even have lunch. It all seemed a bit desolate. We pressed on to the Elands Bay cave and rock art.

For something so historically important there were no signs, no information, no nothing. In fact we had to guess where it was and hope the dark splodge on the cliffs above was indeed a cave before climbing up to find we had guessed right. It all seemed a bit strange. But once there the rock art was quite something.

Climbing over the rocks below the cave, watching the waves splashing up and peering into rock pools, reminded me of many happy childhood holidays in Devon every Easter – just maybe a bit warmer! Yet another reason why I am feeling so at home here, that and the incredible beauty of this country.

From here we had planned to do a ´game drive´ around the Verlorenvlai estuary, one of the most important RAMSAR wetlands in South Africa. But we were disappointed again as there was no way to actually get into the wetlands and we were left driving round it on the main road, seeing very little.

We were getting a little frustrated by the lack of anything much around and feeling as though we were missing something. And I think we probably were. Maybe 7 weeks in the UK followed by a week in Cape Town had got us back into the rhythm of the western world – rushing about, buying stuff, doing stuff, forgetting to soak up the moment and enjoy the little things. Perhaps we were too eager to ´do the sites´ and not eager enough to just enjoy the experience.

Fortunately for us and our souls, we had booked two nights at Elands Bay in a wooden cabin on stilts. By the end of the two days the quiet little town had grown on me and I was genuinely sorry to be leaving.

We had found a small grocers and a liquor store in the town. There was a run down old hotel if you wanted a meal out and the people everywhere were happy and friendly. The couple living below the cabin looked after the place for the host and were warm and genuine people who had very little in terms of material possessions but had worked hard and given up a lot to get where they were – and they were happy and proud of what they had achieved. Talking to them reminded us of the value of appreciating what you have and not always chasing the next thing.

We spent time just relaxing in the cabin, enjoying the views and watching the local wildlife doing their thing.

Looking back, I think Elands Bay reset us a bit and put us back into Africa mode. We won’t fully get back there until Henry arrives and we can be truly nomadic and self-sufficient again but it’s a welcome start.

We pressed on up to Lamberts Bay and wandered around Bird Island, home to the worlds largest gannet colony.

Not just gannets, the whole place was full of various types of birds.

I was amused to capture this one landing in its nest.

As for the gannets, we were very lucky, we were here just at the right time of year – the babies were almost fully grown and there were thousands upon thousands of birds. It was noisy and smelly, and a bit misty, but they were incredibly cute.

Apparently they can fly up to 480km in a day in search of food for the chicks and as we watched it was like Heathrow with multiple take-offs and landings every minute.

From there we had an afternoon driving through the mountains on one of the most beautiful passes on the west coast.

And we finally arrived at our next home, a wonderful farm in Nieuwoudtville. This farm is pretty much what we would like to have in our forever home – lots of land, stone cottages, warm sun and endless peace and quiet.

Nieuwoudtville had plenty of things to do and see. A beautiful waterfall….with no water at this time of year, but friendly wildlife and more of the unusual flowers.

A 300 million year old glacial plain….

Sand stone ruins….

The botanical gardens were closed. But the Quiver Tree Forest (Kokerboom) was as fascinating as it was eery.

We drove 40km further on to find the windmill museum but never found it. Apparently we stopped 5km short! But when we went to the local garage to fill up with fuel we found gold….James was in his element and wanted to move in!

This area is known as the Bulb Capital of the World. We knew we were here at the wrong time of year to see it in its full glory but were thrilled to find we were in the ‘secret season’ where some of the most interesting flowers were in full bloom.

By now we had got used to sites not being what you might expect elsewhere in the world. Low key, no frills and certainly no tourist marketing, just a whole lot of beautiful emptiness with some weird and wonderful things randomly scattered around. I was starting to really enjoy South Africa.

It was clear that out here, away from the big cities, things are very different. Doors are rarely locked, everyone has a smile to greet you and there is nature blooming wherever you look.

We chatted to our hosts just before we left the farm and discovered that they were jealous of our lives and we of theirs!

Our next stop was the Tankwa Karoo National Park. The west coast generally is not famed for having masses of wildlife as is the east so all we expected was birds and antelope. We had heard there were cats but the warden at the gate took those expectations away right from the start! There were baboons around the office buildings but aside from that the park is a vast wilderness with birds, the occasional Oryx and Springbok and lots of lizards!

And here we are now. Our home for two nights is a rustic cabin set in the heart of the wilderness. There is no-one else around for miles apart from the daily drive-by from the wardens to check we’re doing ok.

There is no electricity so lighting is by gas lanterns. No internet and no way to charge anything.

We also can’t explore the park as we almost ripped the underside of the hire car off getting here, we’re not risking driving these mud and gravel roads in our ground-skimming Corolla again until we absolutely have to!

So we have two days of absolute stillness and quiet. We had most things charged up before we got here so I’m able to draft this blog ready to post once we’re back in internet-land, we have music playing on the MP3 player and we watched a couple of movies last night.

But apart from that we’re spending our time getting to know the locals who pop in now and again for breakfast.

Or maybe just a drink of water.

I’ve been eyed up by a large spider wondering what I’m doing at his table. James has been dive-bombed by a falcon and the resident swifts who live in the porch roof swoop in and out inches from your face if you sit still enough.

And it’s amazing….

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