Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Roadside gnomes in the Karoo

I always go on about all the treasures one get to discover when road tripping.  Well known landmarks, inadequately marked but well worth taking turnoffs, interesting attractions, beautiful views, fascination people, lekker food, unusual sights and so much more.  Driving back to Port Elizabeth from Graaff-Reinet the other day I passed through the town of Jansenville and a few kilometers outside of town spotted something from the corner of my eye.  My head swung to the right and I had to make a double take.  Was that a garden gnome I just saw next to the road?  "Full stop, Mister Chekov." Or Mr Sulu if you're still an old school Trekkie fan.  Sharp turn to starboard, u-turn made and back for a closer look.

And no, I wasn't mistaken.  Two garden gnomes sitting on an old drum next to the road, one in Springbok colours and the other wearing the Southern Kings colours, watching the traffic go by.  I seem to remember reading something about a gnome that used to sit around here that was broken off by some passing idiot, so this must be the spot and they're probably his replacements.  Two, so that they can keep each other company and chat about rugby and the weather. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Sunday morning drive up the Montagu Pass

The Garden Route has many iconic passes.  Some crossing over mountains and others through gorges.  Some are part of main routes and are accessible to all, some are off the beaten track and only 4x4's are recommended while others are only accessible on foot or bicycle.  The Montagu Pass outside of George is one that would fit in between the first two of the options above.  A dirt road over the Outeniqua Mountains, not a main road but accessible to all.  The last time I drove over the Montagu Pass was probably before the KidZ were born so a long weekend in George was the perfect excuse to grab an hour or two and go exploring.  And just to prove that you can do it in a normal sedan we took it on in the Aveo.  Not that I have a 4x4 to do it in otherwise anyways.

Construction on the Montagu Pass started in 1844 under the charge of Henry Fancourt White - yes, the same one of Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate fame - using 250 convict labors. The pass, named after Sir John Montagu who was the Colonial Secretary of the Cape in the 1840s, opened in 1848 and replaced the old Cradock Pass (a hiking trail these days) which used to take travelers three days to get across the mountains into the interior.  

The first stop our our journey wasn't too far up the road at The Old Toll House.  I actually got a "Are we getting out already?" from the KidZ.  The historic building, built of local stone, have just been restored and work was still being done on it when we passed by.  This is where early travelers had to pay their toll to use the pass.  The toll used to be 2 pence per wheel and one penny for each pulling animal, 2 pence for a horse, cow, ox or mule and 1 half a penny for a sheep, goat or pig.  Wonder what the toll keeper would have said about the traffic using the road these days? 

Dropping down into the valley we stopped at the old stone bridge over the Keur River.  The bridge was designed and built by Charles Mitchell, another prolific South African road builder of the time.  I climbed down the side of the bridge for two reasons.  First to see it from the side and secondly to find the Geocache hidden there.  What's any road trip without a spot of Geocaching anyways?   

Looking down from the bridge the Keur River could be seen below with the brown coloured water that is to typical of the rivers in the Garden Route region.  The brown colour is from tannin the river picks up as it flows through the forests and fynbos of the region.  All the leaves and plant material that drops on the ground acts as a teabag of sort as the water flows through it, giving it this colour.  The water is still perfectly clean though and used by many straight from the rivers.

We passed through Die Noute, the narrowest part of the pass, and traveled along the valley before starting to climb out and up the mountain.  It's great to see how the original stone work is still visible on the side of the pass.  No wonder as the pass is said to be the oldest unaltered pass in South Africa.

As we climbed out of the valley and up the mountain vegetation quickly change to the fynbos that covers the surrounding mountains and one can't but help to marvel at the variety of plants and flowers visible right next to the road.

Drama Princess even had me stop at one of the spots where a stream flowed down the mountain because she wanted to feel how cold the water was and taste it.

There are four passes that cross the Outenique Mountains in this area.  The original Cradock Pass, the Montagu Pass that we were on, the modern Outeniqua Pass and then the railway pass.  As we approached the top of the mountain we got to the first of two railway bridges you get to see while on the pass.  Until about a decade or two ago there were still steam trains using this line, but these days the best way to see it is by going up the pass on the Outeniqua Power Van.  Or stopping under it like we did. 

The bridge is located at Stinkhoutdraai (Stinkwood Corner) which was named after the Stinkwood Trees that used to grow here very prolifically.  There are still some left these days, but many were cut down during the late 1800's and early 1900's.  Pulling over here wasn't just about the bridge but also for us to have a closer look at the wooded cove just behind with another stream flowing down it. 

Near the top of the pass we passed below the second of the two railway bridges.

We decided not to drive out the back of the pass towards the Langkloof and back to George over the Outeniqua Pass, but to rather backtrack for a second taste of the Montagu Pass.  You get to see different sights and things at different angles that way anyway.  Our turning point was at Amanda's Grave near the top from where we could look back down the pass we just came up on and was about to return back to.

It really is a pity that most people are always in such a hurry to get to their destinations that they just rush along the fastest route possible.  In this case the Outeniqua Pass.  But next time you are in the area, do pinch off an hour or so extra and take a leisurely drive up or down the old pass.  I promise you won't be sorry.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Gliding around the Wilderness lakes on a segway

Mountain biking has become a very popular pastime of late and something I'd like to find the time for to try out.  Time and the money for a proper mountain bike.  I really wouldn't mind a proper off road bike to travel with.  You know, one of those big BMW ones.  But I can barely afford a scale model one so at the moment my favorite two wheel type of transportation is definitely a segway.  Not that I have one, for that it's way too an expensive a toy as well, but I've had the privilege to go on the segway tour in the Tsitsikamma a couple of times before.  Heading back to Port Elizabeth from Cape Town recently I decided to stretch my legs a bit at Wilderness and see what the Wilderness segway tour was all about.  

While the Tsitsikamma Segway Tour follows a route into the forest, the Wilderness tour follows the Pied Kingfisher Trail through the Ebb and Flow (Wilderness) section of the Garden Route National Park.  I was going to be taken on a private tour but just then a newly wed couple from the Middle East on their first visit to South Africa arrived and joined the tour.  So here I want to vent just a little.  They were told that I was media (I love it when I get called media) and that the regular tour was only going 30 minutes later, but they still wanted to join.  Then the man came to me afterwards to tell me he doesn't want me to publish any pictures of his wife.  Really? I understand and respect their culture but if you didn't want to be in the pictures then why agree to go along and even pose for pictures? Whyyyyyy????  But I will respect their wishes and not post pictures of their faces.  Luckily I rode at the back so all you get to see of them are their backsides. Ok, rant over and back to this great experience.

We did the obligatory training session in the training yard to make sure we knew how to steer, stop and maneuver before we headed out and hit the trails with our guide in the lead and, as mentioned, me as rear guard seeing that I was a experienced segway rider.  Yeh, love that one as well.  Experienced segway rider.  The trip basically takes you out parallel to the Touw River through varied vegetation types ranging from fynbos to coastal shrubs and wetland vegetation.  All along the way you catch glimpses of the river and lakes and, in the case of the picture above, a couple of locals fishing next to the path.

The path was very easy to follow and at the only technical bit there was an alternative if you didn't want to try it out.  The guide was never in a hurry and had all the patience in the world when I asked if he could just backtrack a bit so I could get a photo of them coming out of the trail. It was really a pleasure going out on the trip with him.  But I'm digressing.  At the turning point we took a break to enjoy the view of the lake and a part of Wilderness next to the N2 in the distance before we turned around.  The only reason this is the turning point is that the bridge is too narrow for the segways to cross over.  Pity though, and pity that SAN Parks don't allow them to go on more trails, because it would have been nice to do a circular route and not an out and back.

On the way back we did get to see the Ebb and Flow campsite next to the river. Wow, what a beautiful spot.  I definitely need to bring the family to camp here some time and take some canoes upstream.  

Having done both the Tsitsikamma segway tours (the one hour and two hour tours) before I'm going to be very honest here.  I much rather prefer the Tsitsikamma ones over this, but it is because I am a forest person and will do anything to get into the forest.  All in all I had a very enjoyable experience on the Wilderness segway tour.  I have to say that it's a different way to experience the Wilderness lakes area from on foot or in a canoe as most do and if you are in the area with some time on your hands then it's really worth the experience.  

Disclosure: I was invited to join in a segway tour by Segway Tours as I work in the tourism industry and not as a blogger, while I was travelling back to PE from Cape Town.  They didn't ask for a blog post to be written and I keep full editorial control over the post.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Driving between Wilderness and George along the back roads

Last Thursday morning I did a presentation at a tourism stakeholder workshop in the Tsitsikamma and after lunch moved on to George for a weekend exhibit.  Having had some time on my hands I decided to veer off the main road and pick up a few Geocaches along Bo-Langvlei Road, the dirt road running behind the lakes between Sedgefield and Wilderness.  The plan wasn't to do the whole road but only the last section of it starting between Bo-Langvlei and Island Lake.  My plan was just to Geocache and explore a bit so my camera was securely packed away in the boot of the Polo and I was just snapping pics with my phone along the way.  

Turning off the N2 I hit the first stretch of dirt road which was nice and smooth with only a few bumps to negotiate.  The second cache on my list was located at the old Duiwerivier Railway Station.  It's really sad to see how the railway infrastructure along the line has deteriorated over the ten years since it was closed due to flooding.  It's going to take a bit more than just cutting back a few bushes and pulling out some weeds to get the train running along this track again.

Leaving the station I started heading west and the next cache located at the back of Island Lake.  Standing on top of a beacon next to the road the view across the lake was stunning and although I could probably have spent a lot more time there it was time to get moving again.

I passed the Hoekwil Road turnoff and proceeded along Waterside Road at the back of the Serpentine section of the river.  The next stop was at the bridge over the Touw River, one of the only bridges in the country that is shared by both the road and the railway line.  The bridge is located inside the Wilderness National Park with both the Ebb and Flow campsites located to the left and right of it.  While I was searching for the cache under the bridge a number of holiday makers passed by in canoes on the river.  I've still gotta do that.  The beautiful surroundings just reminded me again that Ebb and Flow is still on our list of campsites we want to stay at in future.

At this stage my plans changed slightly and I decided to backtrack a kilometer or two and take the Hoekwil Road.  This tar road took me way up the hill from where I could see the lakes district below, past the community of Hoekwil and onto the Seven Passes Road.  I'm kinda embarrassed to say that I've never driven the Seven Passes Road although I've heard how scenic it was.  The Seven Passes Road is the old road between Knysna and George and traverses, yes you guessed it, seven passes along the way.  The majority of the road was tar with bits of very good dirt road in between.  Along the top between river valleys were mostly open areas with farms while the valleys are covered in pockets of indigenous forest. 

The first pass I drove through led down to the Touw River with an old steel bridge spanning the whiskey brown water that is so typical of the rivers and streams of the Garden Route.

The whiskey coloured Touw River with it's surrounding forest

The second pass took me down to the Silwer River...

... and by now I was well and truly convinced that I had discovered one of the lesser known but truly worth discovering gems of the Garden Route.

The last pass took me down to the Kaaimans River, well known for the pass on the N2 between Wilderness and George as well as the railway bridge spanning the river mouth.  But here I was away from the hustle and bustle rush of the N2.  The sun was about to go under although it was getting dark very quickly at the bottom of the valley.   

I parked just past the old bridge built in 1904 and followed a path down the river for about 50 meters or so towards the last of the caches for the day.  After a bit of a tough search I found what I was looking for with the help of my phone torch and on my way back to the car I just realised again how often Geocaching can take one off the beaten track and to places like this.  Places that you would often not have seen if it wasn't for a cache being located in the area. 

At the top of the pass the road spit me out close to the Saasveld Campus just outside of George with the silhouette of the Outenique Mountains beyond the town as my horizon.  It had been a very interesting and, frankly, relaxing afternoon and in my opinion a much better option that if I had just barreled along the N2 and sat around the guesthouse for the rest of the afternoon waiting to go and get dinner.  All thanks to a few containers forming part of a global treasure hunt game hidden along the way.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Butcher Block Umhlanga - the BEST steak I have ever had

I don't think there is anybody out there (except obviously vegetarians or vegans) who doesn't love a good steak.  Not everybody can make a good steak though.  I have tried many times and just can't get it right.  It's always either done to much or not enough and I think the Damselfly may even have given up on me finally producing her the perfect steak.  But there are those who CAN make the perfect steak and on my visit to Umhlanga recently I discovered just the place to enjoy it at.  Unfortunately it's just too far from home to do so on a regular basis.

The Butcher Block Restaurant is located on Umhlanga Ridge right next to the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga where we were staying.  The nice part of staying at the Holiday Inn Express was that we could sign the bill to our room and only settle it along with the room bill on departure. 

We decided to indulge a bit and go for starters as well before tucking into the steaks.  The Damselfly loves mussels and I love cheese so she opted for the Mussel starter (Half shell mussels gently simmered with Chardonnay, garlic, mascarpone cheese and cream) while I went for the Camembert starter (Deep fried camembert cheese served with roasted almonds, fresh rocket, cranberry sauce and melba toast).  Great options on both instances.  Second tick for Butcher Block for the evening.  The first being the great service we received from the moment we walked in.  A greeting at the door, a greeting from a passing manager, a good table at the window and very attentive, brisk and extremely friendly service. 

Then it was time to select our steaks. With a great variety it wasn't easy though and we both probably changed our minds a couple of times while discussing the different options on the menu.  The Damselfly eventually settled (although settled probably isn't the word; more like excitedly chose) on the Camembert and Bacon sirloin steak (Steak with a delectable green peppercorn sauce topped with pan-fried bacon and Camembert cheese.  My choice fell on one of their specials for the evening, a Fillet steak stuffed with jalapeno peppers, cheddar and mozzarella wrapped in bacon with a paprika infused butter on top  When the steaks came we immediately knew we were in for a treat when we saw that they were flame grilled and cutting into them they were also done to perfection.  The Damselfly's medium rare and mine just over medium (so that a good vet can't save it anymore).  My better half also mentioned that the bacon on her steak definitely wasn't just catering grade beacon fried in a pan as it had a distinct smoked taste and flavour to it.  Both steaks came on very nicely presented plates and were served with chips. Steaks = tick number three and four.

My lovely wife having dessert

And talking of dessert.  Although we weren't really planning to have dessert after starters and mains, I decided to have a look at the menu anyway.  With the Damselfly only having ice cream and chocolate sauce I decided to be a little more adventurous and try something else.  I was torn between two options and hadn't even finished asking the waiter which he would recommend when he said the Kahlua and Ice Cream Crepes. (Ice cream rolled in light crepes, drizzled with hot Bar One sauce topped with roasted almond flakes)  I'm sure I could find somewhere to fit that in as well... Out came the plate with two pancakes filled with ice cream and accompanied by a shot of Kalua.  My eyes went big but it tasted so yummy that I made sure I found enough space for all of it. Fifth tick goes to the dessert giving them a full house for the evening.

The verdict at the end of the night? Butcher Block can really be highly recommended and served us probably the best steaks we have ever had anywhere.  And don't just take my word for it.  The next morning while waiting for our taxi to take us down to the beach we chatted to a British visitor who comes to the area at least once a year.  He asked us about our plans for the day and told us that we definitely had to try the restaurant (Butcher Block) next door as it had the best steaks he's ever had and he travels extensively.  So next time I'm in Durbs and feels like a steak I know where I will be going. 

Disclosure: We were invited for a weekend at the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga by the InterContinental Hotels Group and they carried all the costs for the weekend.  They asked for a blog post to be written about the hotel itself but had no editorial input in the content of the post. This post I threw in extra as I can recommend the place with conviction.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sunset over the Knysna Lagoon

I spent the weekend in Knysna for work and didn't have a lot of free time, but that did not stop me from dashing down to the Knysna Heads just in time to catch the sunset.  It's been a few years since I've spent some quality time in Knysna and I seriously need to make a plan and get back there to explore the forest a little more than I have in the past and also get down to places like Noetzie again. Hopefully soon.