Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Back to the future on the Mzamba Fossils and Petrified Forest Trail

The Mzamba Fossils and Petrified Forest on the northern Wild Coast has been on my "To Do" list for a long time now.  I just never had chance to visit that part of the Wild Coast yet.  That was until a road trip to Durban had me spending a night at the Wild Coast Sun on the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal.  The first thing I did after checking in was to enquire about going to see the fossils and I was informed that the tour goes out at 9am every morning.   
Nine o'clock the next morning I was there (breakfast and an early morning meeting done already) and met Benny Mbotho who does the tours.  I was joined by a couple of other visitors as well as a school group.  After having a look at the exhibit in the hotel, he took us down to the beach and we headed south. 
After about a kilometer we got to the headland area where the petrified forest is located.  Luck was on my side today as it was low tide which meant that we could go out on the reef to see the fossilized wood in the rocks.
Although called a petrified forest, the trees that formed it didn't actually grow here.  They were washed down rivers and deposited here millions of years ago.  The wood then got waterlogged and was submerged where marine worms penetrated them.  The wood became silicified (converted into silica) and formed what you see there today.
At first I wasn't sure what I was looking for but after Benny pointed out a few I realized that they were all over. Literally. In closer inspection you can actually see the growth rings and other lines.  Again I thanked my lucky stars for the fact that the tide was low as most of these would be covered at high tide and we would have missed out big time. 

A short distance further we started seeing the fossils that also form part of the Mzamba Cretaceous Deposits.  Here you really kicked a fossil out from under every second rock, behind it, in front of it and between it.  Fossils are also found in an exposed 10-metre cliff band along the beach.  The deposits consist of greyish-brown sandstone and limestone that is extremely rich in fossil material dating back 80-million years.  The deposits include masses of marine shells which include beautiful examples of tightly coiled ammonites, echinoids (sea urchins) and bivalve shells.
Benny even pointed out a fossilized shark tooth in one of the rocks.  In actual fact, Benny isn't just a point out guide.  He is an absolute wealth of information and knowledge, has a permanent smile and will show you as much as possible.

The giant clam shells in the rocks were huge.

One of the fossils pointed out to us even looked like it could be a fossilized sea turtle. The shell is prominent while there is a head and eye socket to the right hand side. 

I have a couple of small ammonites in my own collection, but a few of those that we saw where huge.  I can only wish to be able to add a specimen like this to my collection.  I am able to add this photo to this collection of fossil photos though.
At the furthest end there are a series of cliffs and overhangs known as White Man's Cave.  The interesting part of these is that you can sit inside them and look up at fossils in the cave roof.  Benny even pointed out a fossilized Strelitzia and compared it with a modern day Strelitzia.  You won't believe it if you don't see it and posting this I realize that for some reason I excluded the pictures of that.  You will have to maar go and look for yourself.
As we got to the furthest point and turned back I had to leave he group behind and hurry back to the hotel as I still had to drive to Durban.  I did get one of my fellow fossil "hunters" to snap a photo of myself and this ammonite in the rocks.  I have so much to say about this tour yet find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe it further than I have already.  Visiting the Mzamba Fossils may be ticked off my "To Do" list but I really think it should be on everybody else's as it is a piece of natural history that is very rare and can't just be recreated elsewhere

Monday, October 26, 2015

The iconic Knysna Heads

What are the icons of the Garden Route? There are a few.  The adventure activities in the Tsitsikamma, Storms River Mouth, the view over the Beacon Isle Hotel with Robberg in the distance, the Knysna forest, the lakes around Sedgefield and Wilderness, Kaaimans Bridge outside Wilderness (especially when the Choo Tjoe still ran), Outeniqua Pass in George and the Dias Museum in Mossel Bay.  I left one out on purpose.  Probably (one of) the biggest icon on the Garden Route must be the Knysna Heads and, directly linked to it, the Knysna Lagoon - which is actually an estuary.

Road tripping to Cape Town and spending the night in Knysna was the perfect excuse for a drive up to the view site on top of the Knysna Heads.  Located on the Eastern Head, it has a breathtaking view of the Western Head and the opening into the Knysna Lagoon.

The Eastern Head is mostly a upmarket residential area where most of the houses have views we can only dream of.  The Western Head area is part of the Featherbed Nature Reserve so the area is protected and not developed.  Thank goodness.

Another view site just down the road gives one this magnificent view of the lagoon with Leisure Isle in the middle and the town in the distance.  It was a greyish day so I just slapped it with a bit of HDR for the effect. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A blooming nice display at Van Stadens

The West Coast and Namakwaland is famous for their spring flowers while a number of reserves in the southern Cape, one of these being the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites as it is where the Cape Floral Kingdom occurs.  Living in Port Elizabeth it's not always possible to do the trek west to go and view flowers but a few weeks ago I realized that it's not  necessary.

About 40 kilometers west of Port Elizabeth is the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve, a 500 hectare open space next to the Van Stadens River gorge.  The reserve covers the gorge's southern wooded slopes, a large plateau to the east and the northern river banks, each with its own vegetation types.  The reserve is covered in various hiking trails ranging from a short 500 meter trail to longer ones up to 11 kilometers.  Some of the trails are also suitable for mountain bikers while there are also gravel roads accessible to cars in the plateau section.  The flowers, especially the flowering proteas, in the reserve is stunning at the moment.  Enjoy the display. 

More information about the reserve can be found on their listing with Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism or with the Friends of Van Stadens.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shefetswe goes crawling for a cache

I love to road trip, doesn't matter if it is for work or pleasure, solo, with friends or family.  Road tripping takes me to places, allows me to sightsee, discover things, give me photo opportunities and... Geocache.  It's amazing how one can actually plan your whole road trip and all your stops around Geocaching.  It was no different on a recent Cape Town road trip with friends and fellow travel peeps and Geocachers Erenei and Shefetswe.  On the way back we stopped at a picnic spot next to a little waterfall outside Caledon in the Overberg to stretch our legs a bit and to allow Shefetswe to find a cache Erenei and I had done on a previous trip.

While I was having something to snack on and taking a few photos, Erenei and Shefetswe did a bit of mountain climbing towards ground zero. 

Size wasn't on the big guy's side as you have to get right down low to find this container and it was quite funny watching him crawl around.  Yeah, yeah, it's always funny if somebody other than yourself is doing it.  He did come up with the cache successfully shortly after I snapped this last pic. Log signed and it was time for us to hit the road again.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sunset on the Zuurberg Mountains

An afternoon trip to Addo for an early evening meeting had me arrive in the area an hour or so early.  Problem? Not at all.  Doesn't matter where you are, if you have a passion for travel and is a Geocacher to boot, there will always be something to see, do or find.  This day was no different.  I decided to take a leisurely drive up the Zuurberg Pass to pick up a Geocache I hadn't done before plus it's been a while since I've been up the pass and I was keen to see what the road is like these days.  For a start, the road is in excellent condition.  Secondly, I found the cache I was looking for.  Thirdly, and this was the special bonus of the day, I was greeted with this sight on my way back down.  A beautiful sunset over the Zuurberg Mountains.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Exploring the old Storms River Pass

I have a special connection with the Tsitsikamma forest.  It is where I go to plug in my soul for a bit of a recharge.  It doesn't even have to be an extended recharge.  Just a couple of minutes sitting in the forest next to a stream taking in the forest with all my senses is enough.  There are various ways to explore the forest with trails being the most effective way to leave everything behind.  One of these "trails", the biggest one actually, is the old Storms River Pass starting from Storms River Village.

The Tsitsikamma (then known as Zitzikama) area was first surveyed by the famous pass builder Thomas Bain in 1879.  He found impenetrable forests east of Plettenberg Bay with access made even tougher by deep gorges.  During the planning process of building a pass through the Storms River gorge, Bain followed the ancient elephant migratory routes down to the river and as elephants find the easiest way down, decided to build his pass along those routes.  Labour for this difficult task was provided by convicts and some of their graves can still be seen on the outskirts of the Village.  The pass itself was completed in 1884 and until the N2 and Storms River Bridge were built in 1955 was the only way to get through the gorge.  Today the road is closed for traffic and can only be access on foot, bicycle or on Storms River Adventures' Woodcutters Journey tour.  

The Woodcutters Journey takes one down the pass in a small truck with a guide telling you more about the history of the area as well as the ecology of the forest.  The tour tops quite often for the guide to point our specific trees or plants and explains the role it plays in the forest and those who have lived in it in the past.  The tour also allows for you to hop off if you want and walk a section of it.  

I had been down the old pass a number of times, but on this specific trip the guide showed us something I have never seen.  He took us along a path next to the road and showed us some of the original stonework done by Bain and his workers.  In this case a small tunnel under the road to channel water away.

At the bottom of the pass the forest opens up and while the guide unpacked a picnic lunch, we took a walk to the low water bridge over the Storms River.  I'm sure I was told at some stage that the bridge were built by soldiers after the first World War, but please don't quote me on that.  I can't seem to find any info on it on the internet.

The trip down the Storms River Pass really is an alternative way to explore the forest and learn a bit more in the process.  I need to be alone to recharge though and the batteries are starting to run low.  I think a return visit is just about in order.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Clinking glasses and eating cheese at Packwood

Having a food and wine lover on a road trip means the trip is likely to be interrupted at some stage or another to indulge, or at least enjoy in moderation, either or both of these.  This is what happened on a recent road trip to Cape Town with fellow tourism peeps and Geocachers Shefetswe and Erenei.  We just left Storms River Village when Shefetswe got a phone call and announced that we were invited for a wine tasting at Packwood Wine Estate between Plettenberg Bay and Knysna.  Wine on the Garden Route? Yes, the Plett Winelands consist of 16 wine estates and is the most easterly wine route in South Africa.  I've had a chance to visit the biggest one in the area, Bramon, before so it was great to be able to experience what one of the others in the area had to offer.
We were met at Packwood Estate by owner Vicky Gent and Patty Butterworth of Plett Tourism.  Packwood started in 1998 as a dairy farm and today has about 950 Jersey cows who happily travers the rolling green hills of the estate.  In 2006 they decided to start a vineyard and produced their first wine, the Packwood Sauvignon Blanc, in 2009.  They also produce a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Noir MCC, with all three wines on the list for us to taste.
While we enjoyed the beautiful scenic view from the tasting area, Vicky was telling us about the farm and how they only use organic produce in their lunches. Lunch? Did somebody mention lunch?  Lunch came in the form of  a selection of cheeses made with milk from Packwood's Jersey cows, a crisp garden salads, delectable home wine estate baked bread, homemade chutneys and preserves.  Although Packwood doesn't produce it's own cheese commercially (they supply their milk to a commercial cheese producer though), they do produce cheese for the lunches they serve.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a big wine drinker, but cheese... I love cheese.  The one thing to keep in mind if you want to consider Packwood is that it's not one of those commercial wine tasting and lunch venues.  I would rather call it a boutique stop for the discerning wine and cheese lover.  Something a bit more exclusive and expensive so don't go there if you just want to stuff your face and get your tummy full while quaffing a few glasses of wine. 

One of the things to remember when serving food while hosting bloggers, photographers and social media people is that, come hell or high water, photos will be taken when food get served.  So don't grab anything before the cameras and phones didn't come out.  Here Shefetswe is doing his thing and, while I wait my turn to rearrange, I maar sommer took one of him.  And yes, that is an amused Vicky watching the whole process.

The wine and table with a bit of HDR added made for another great photograph. Something Erenei spotted.

It wasn't long and our visit to Packwood was over.  It does have me a bit more curious about the Plett
Winelands and at some stage I need to come and spend a couple of days in the area and explore a few more of the estates before the world discovers this special little wine route and descend on it en-mass.  Because it's going to happen at some stage.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ganora Fossil Museum

When I grew up I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Somebody like Indiana Jones who discover lost cities and artifacts, dig up dinosaurs and made remarkable finds that would wow the world.  That dream kinda shattered when I found it it wasn't all quite as adventurous and glamorous.  Instead I went into tourism although the interest for archaeology is still there.  This interest truly got fed when I spent a night at Ganora Guestfarm out Nieu-Bethesda recently. 
In prehistoric times the Karoo was a huge inland swamp (and not a sea as some people claim) and 253 million years ago, during the Permian Period, the area around the present day Nieu-Bethesda was covered by big meandering rivers which flowed in a northerly direction.  The floodplains around these rivers teemed with prehistoric animals which died along the banks of the rivers, was covered with mud and got preserved as fossils.  This period was 50 million years before the first dinosaurs so the fossils in the Karoo pre-dates things like the famous T-Rex, Triceratops and Brachiosaurus.  One of the best places to go and see and learn about these fossils is Ganora Guestfarm and there is no better person to show you around than owner JP Steynberg.

When the Steybergs bought the farm in the 1990's they had no idea it contained a treasure trove of fossils and San (Bushmen) artifacts.  This they only discovered on a picnic in a riverbed on the farm a few months later.  That was the start of it and the rest, as they say, is history.  In 1998 they registered their private museum and today has one of the biggest private fossil and artifact collections in South Africa.  JP showed me around the museum and I literally didn't know where to look.  The collection truly is magnificent.  The fossils in the exhibit are on average about 280 million years old and comes from a time when mammal-like-reptiles roamed the earth.  As I said, from a pre-dinosaur time.  The collection also includes small models to give an indication of what these animals looked like, fossilised leaves from the Glossopteris trees and the Compasia dela Harpi fish fossil  of which they have the only complete example of in the world.  JP's passion for and knowledge of fossils comes through as soon as he starts talking and I was immediately sorry that I wouldn't have time to go out onto the farm with him to see fossils in their "natural" environment.
Next JP took me into the next room where the Bushman artifacts are on display.  Like the fossil museum this part of the museum is a registered museum as well and they keep careful record of where the artifacts were found and have cataloged them according to the law.  JP pointed out tools to grind seed and grain, arrow heads used to hunt and sharpened rock used to cut.  Also of interest is the ostrich egg shell beads.  Most of these came from caves and areas used as "workshops" on the farm and surrounding areas.  Again I cursed the fact that I had no extra time to go on a tour of the farm as I would have loved to see some of the rock paintings and natural shelters the San would have lived in.
It does mean that I have an excuse to return to Ganora for a weekend and give myself enough time to see all of it for myself.  Something I will seriously make work of.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Unusual monuments

At the end of August I took a road trip to Johannesburg and on my travels discovered two slightly unusual monuments.  Discovered by the way, as there were Geocaches hidden close to both.
The first one was a monument just outside of Middelburg in the Eastern Cape.  The stone monument has a picture of a chair on it and the sign says "Stoel Monument" (Chair Monument).  So what is the story behind the Stoel Monument?  There's a long and a short so I will keep to the short.  During the Anglo Boer War Commandant J. C. Lotter was well known for his daring hit and run tactics employed against the British forces.  Lotter and most of his commando were caught near Graaff-Reinet.  Lotter stood accused of "murder, marauding and disgraceful conduct of a cruel nature" and was charged with human rights violations and war crimes.  He was found guilty and sent to Middleburg where he was sentenced to death.  At the spot where the monument stands is where he was tied to a chair and shot.  Get it? Tied to a chair and shot = chair monument to remember him.   

The second unusual monument I got to visit on the trip was the Bles Bridges Monument outside Bloemhof in North West Province.  Bles Bridges was a much beloved and very popular Afrikaans singer who died in 2000 in a car accident on this spot just outside Bloemhof.  The local business chamber decided to put up a monument to remember him by and there you have it, a monument that looks like a grave stone with a guitar on it. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Going on an Adventure Drive in the Gamtoos Valley

Beautiful scenery, rolling hills covered in fynbos, citrus orchids, farmlands, white frothing streams, mountains on the horizon, forested valleys, interesting back roads, friendly people and countryside hospitality.  These are all things you will find in the Gamtoos Valley.  The best way to explore and get to know the Gamtoos Valley is to spend a weekend and see for yourself what this valley on the eastern doorstep of the Baviaanskloof has to offer.  One of the quick fire ways to do this is the annual Gamtoos Tourism Adventure Drive.  On Saturday morning we headed out to Loerie for our fourth Adventure Drive and we were joined by our friends Mr and Mrs Smith with their two littlies.  For the second year now the Adventure Drive started at Loerie Ruskamp and included the area around Loerie and Hankey.  We covered a distance of about 60 km with eight fun challenge stops along the way.

Our first stop for the day was in a wooded valley outside Hankey at InnieKloof.  The challenge were to throw naartjies into containers to see how many points we scored.  Each stop had a possible 100 points up for grabs and hitting that yellow crate in the middle would give you an automatic 50 points.  

The route is set out very nicely so it's very hard to get lost.  Unless you have a deaf and dumb navigator and you miss a turnoff. Luckily for us I'm not and we didn't.  The valley is so beautiful though that I really don't think anybody would mind getting lost around here.

Stop number two was at the Hankey Golf Club.  This 9 hole golf club apparently is one of the best local courses in this part of the Eastern Cape.  We didn't have time to go a driving so ended up chipping for points awarded closest to the hole.

Our next stop was just outside of town below Vergaderingskop.  This little koppie is where Sarah Baartman was buried in 2002 after her remains were repatriated from France.  Across the road they are busy building a big cultural centre which I really hope will become a worthy attraction in the valley.  The point was manned by the guys from SANCCOB in Cape St Francis and a steady hand was needed to get a high score over here.

The route then hit one of the back roads.  This is truly what the Adventure Drive is about. Discovering and exploring.  We didn't need an excuse to stop and enjoy the scenery though.  The next challenge was on hand.  I did grab the camera for a pic of the rolling hills with the Cockscomb Mountains in the distance before it was jukskei time.

Jukskei you ask?  Yes, jukskei.  Jukskei is a 270 year old Afrikaner folk sport and said to be the forerunner of American Horseshoe Pitching.  The sport is believed to have started around 1743 in the Cape and was developed by transport riders traveling with ox-wagons.  They used the wooden pins of the yokes - Skei in Afrikaans - of the oxen to throw at a stick that was planted into the ground.  The game was also played during the Great Trek and became an organized sport around 1939.  Let's just say I came close to hitting the stick a few times and only scored with the last throw.  Needless to say, I suck at Jukskei.

The next stop on the route brought us to Spekboom Lapa.  Last year we stopped here as well and we had to fish Smarties out of a bowl of flower with our mouths.  This year the challenege was a little less hardcore and... No, we didn't have to do break dancing. I'm just glad there are no photographic evidence of me trying to pop balloons between my legs.

From Spekboom Lapa we followed the road via Melon and along the Gamtoos River to the Gamtoos Ferry Hotel were another "traditional" sport was awaiting us.  A bit of egg and spoon racing.  Humpty Dumpty sat on a spoon...

The route took us back towards Loerie and up to the Loerie Dam.  Here it was time for... the one activity that comes up each and every year.  The obligatory and compulsory, Kududrolspoeg.  And for those who doesn't understand Afrikaans or who have never heard of it.  Spitting kudu dung pellets as far as you can.

I've gotten used to it over the years and stick those pellets in my mouth with no hesitation.  This year was the first time Drama Princess did it though and it was an Oscar winning performance.

Actually, she wasn't quite the only one in the running.  There were also great nominations for Chaos Boy, the Damselfly and Mrs Smith.

The last stop of the day was at the Koekepanne Farmstall on the road between Loerie and Hankey.  By now we were on a roll and could smell the end.  The activities got completed and we bundled back in the car for the last drive up the road to Loerie Ruskamp.

After the race everybody got together for lunch while the calculations were done to determine the finishing order.  All the points as well as the times were fed to the computer and then it was time to announce the winners.  One of the great things about the day is that everybody are winners and that each competitor gets something.  The names are called out in order of final scores and you then walk up to the prize table and choose your prize.  The Gamtoos Tourism members and other businesses in the valley comes on board in a big way and makes it worth everybody's while. I'm really hoping to see bigger numbers enter next year though.

We've already marked the date in our diaries for next year and be sure that we will be back to explore the valley a little bit more.