Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cape Town's Noon Gun. An almighty BOOM!

It's a beautiful late morning in the Cape Town City Bowl.  Not much of a breeze blowing and Table Mountain, without a table cloth draped over it, rises up behind the city in all her glory.  Peaceful.  Visitors and locals alike are going about their daily routine, heading between meetings, window shopping, grabbing a quick coffee, sightseeing... Suddenly, BOOM! Pigeons fly up from the pavement, a couple of American tourists duck for cover, a Joburg businessman jerks his head up, a travel blogger from PE nearly drops her camera and a small group of Germans recompose themselves when they realised that nobody else reacted to the sound.  A local sipping his cappuccino at a table on the pavement outside one of the many coffee shops just shake his head and smile.  The Noon Gun gets them every time.

Although I get to visit Cape Town two or three times a year and enjoys going up to Signal Hill for sunset, I haven't been to see the Noon Gun in probably close to a decade and a half.  A visit to the Noon Gun during a quick trip to the Geocaching MEGA in the Mother City meant I didn't just get to go and see the gun fire again, but also show it to my family who made the trip down with me.  

The Noon Gun (which are actually two cannons, the second just in case the first one fails) are situated on the side of Signal Hill overlooking the City Bowl and Sea Point.  About 15 minutes before it is time to fire, a red flag is raised and a member of the SA Navy steps up to prepare the guns for the daily shot.  Everybody stood a bit closer and a quick history lesson followed.

The Noon Gun has been fired since February 1806 and the two original guns are still in use today.  The guns were cast in England in 1794 and brought to the Cape a year later while under British occupation, apparently making the two guns the oldest guns in daily use in the world.  The reasoning behind firing a shot at noon every day (except for Sundays and Public Holidays) was, according to local tradition, to allow ships in port to check the accuracy of their marine chronometers.  Even though a Time Ball was taken into use in 1818, the gun continued to fire daily till this day and many Cape Townian still set their watches to it.  In 1864 they started to trigger the gun remotely from the master clock of the oldest timekeeper in the country, the South African Astronomical Observatory, thanks to the advent of the galvanic telegraph.

Both 18-pounder smoothbore muzzleloaders are loaded daily (six days a week as mentioned previously) with 1,5 kg of gunpowder each.  If the remote trigger on the first gun fails for some reason, then the Cannoneer on duty will quickly change over and fire the second gun manually.  You don't get to see somebody load a cannon with a rammer every day, but you do at the Noon Gun when a rammer gets used to tamp the charge into the muzzle.

With noon approaching and everything in place for the gun to be fired, we were all asked to stand away a short distance.  If you are afraid you'll get too much of a fright because of the sound, then standing behind the guns are best, but for the best view then a side position is the place to be.  Cameras and phones got lined up and suddenly it was time.  The countdown started at 10... 9... 8... 7... a quick check if the camera was focused properly... 6... 5... the lady next to me giggled nervously... 4... 3... it was time... 2... 1... BOOOOOM! Smoke everywhere. Exclamations all over.  Wow, that was slightly louder than most expected.  Quick check to see what my photo looks like and disappointment.  A total blur.  The shock of the BOOM messed with my focus.

A couple of my Geocaching friends did get video clips of the gun going off though and I'm nicking Penny's one to share with you.

Getting to the Noon Gun is quite easy actually.  Just follow the "Noon Gun" signs from the corner of Buitengracht and Bloem Streets up through the Bo-Kaap along Military Road.  Just take it easy going up though as the road is steep and winding and there's always just that one guy who will come flying down from the other direction.

The best part of visiting the Noon Gun?  It is totally FREE!!!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fields of flowers in the Karoo

 It's dry in the Karoo.  The word Karoo doesn't mean "Place of Thirst" for nothing.  But the smallest amount of rain in the last winter of early spring means that there will be flowers.  And flowers there were when I drove through the Karoo Heartland late in September.  On the road north of Steynsburg I had to double take when I suddenly saw fields of yellow flowers and just could not help but to pull over and take out my camera. 

Yet another example that you don't really have to go to the West Coast to see flowers in spring.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A window on Table Mountain

Two weeks ago we had a whistle stop visit to Cape Town to attend the Geocaching MEGA that takes place somewhere in South Africa only every two years.  We literally drove the 800 km down to Cape Town on the Friday afternoon, attended the MEGA on the Saturday and returned on the Sunday.  One of the events during the day took place on Signal Hill and I just could not pass the opportunity to snap a pic of Drama Princess in the picture frame up there with Table Mountain in the background.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Things to do in Port Elizabeth this summer - Grab a backpack and take a hike

There is an Afrikaans folk song that goes, Dis heerlike Lente, die Winter's verby... (It's time for Spring now that Winter has passed - doesn't quite roll off the tongue the same in English though) which means Summer is fast approaching.  Longer days, better weather and spending more time outdoors over weekends.  Plus the holiday season is coming up quicker than my sausage dogs when I open the fridge.  With an eye on said better weather and upcoming holiday season, I was invited to participate in the "Things to do in Port Elizabeth this Summer" Blogathon.  There really is a lot to do in and around Port Elizabeth - Port Elizabeth Daily Photo is evidence of that - and rather than writing a blog post featuring all the usual suspects of Addo Elephant National Park, Route 67 and the Donkin Reserve, SAMREC, Kragga Kamma Game Park, The Boardwalk, Bayworld, restaurants in Richmond Hill, history, township tours and more, I decided to focus on my nine favorite nature trails (in no real particular order) around the Bay.  Yes you read correct, 9 trails, because I like to walk.  The ideal outdoor activity for the upcoming summer. And it's normally free or just about.

Before I start though, remember to always take out what you take in, only leave footprints behind, don't forget a hat and sunscreen, make sure somebody knows where you are walking (in case you get lost and don't return when you were supposed to) and always keep in mind that it is safer and recommended to walk in groups. So here we go. 

1 - The Humpback Dolphin Trail - Beachfront Boardwalk

Port Elizabeth must have one of the best city beach fronts in South Africa.  It is clean, beautiful, not over developed and a pleasure to explore on foot.  The walkway along the beachfront stretches all the way from the Kings Beach parking area to the lollipop beacon taking in sites like McArthur Pool, Bayworld, Humewood Beach with the old slipway, Shark Rock Pier, The Boardwalk and all the surf sites.  It's nothing strange to take an early morning stroll or jog along the beachfront and see a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins swim by.  Port Elizabeth and Algoa Bay is the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World after all.  Beyond the beacon the boardwalk leaves the main beachfront behind and follows the coastline towards Cape Recife.  Very few people actually know that this section is called the Humpback Dolphin Trail and gives you some of the best uninterrupted views of Algoa Bay the city has to offer.  

Good for a nice easy early morning walk or jog or late afternoon with a ice cream in hand     

2 - Sacramento Trail

If Port Elizabeth's hiking trails had to choose a head boy then the Sacramento Trail would probably have been it.  The popular kid, a good all rounder, sporty, slightly academic and not bad looking to boot.  The Sacramento Trail is an 8 km return hike from Schoenmakerskop to Sardinia Bay and back.  Probably PE's favorite trail, the Sacramento offers some of the best coastal views around and is also a photographer and any nature lover's dream.  Rugged coastline, sandy beaches, hidden coves, fynbos, wetlands, flowers and as an added extra, Khoi middens hidden among the dunes.  And have I mentioned the awesome views? 

One of the great things about the Sacramento Trail, named after a Portuguese ship that sank here in 1647, is that even though it is an out and back trail, you can walk out along the coast and back along the top of the vegetated dunes (adding to those great views) on the bridle paths.  Spot is also welcome to tag along as long as you keep him on his leash.

The best time to do the trail is early morning followed by breakfast at the Sacramento Restaurant. The start of the trail is also a great spot to enjoy sunset from. 

Sacramento Trail map 

3 - Coastal Fynbos Trail

Very few people realise that Schoenmakerskop is also home to a second great trail.  The Coastal Fynbos Trail starts to the east of the village at Sappershoek and is located on the land side of Marine Drive.  Because of the bad soil quality, slightly lower rainfall, underlying rock and salty winds the vegetation along most of the trail consist of... you guessed it, fynbos.  Fynbos, also known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, consist of over 9 000 species of plants and the Coastal Fynbos Trail is particular attractive in spring when a lot of these are flowering.  The full circular trail covers about 7 km although there is an shorter 4 km option available if you're still only a "middle distance" walker.

Not quite the Sacramento Trail but a very good alternative if you have done the former before and looking for something different in the area  

Coastal Fynbos Trail map

4 - Cape Recife Nature Reserve - Roseate Tern Trail

The 9 km Roseate Tern Trail through the Cape Recife Nature Reserve is probably the most diverse of all the trails around Port Elizabeth.  It offers a mix of coastline where you can see see the remains of shipwrecks on the reefs, reclamation ponds full of water birds, vegetated sand dunes giving some shelter from the sun, the remains of a World War II observation station and barracks, the historic Cape Recife Lighthouse (built in 1851), various marine birds along the coast, an unofficial nudist beach and SAMREC.  The South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre plays an integral part in the conservation effort to save the endangered African Penguin and is the ideal spot to start and end your walk at.  The centre also has a coffee shop where you can refill your tank before heading off to your next activity for the day but hopefully not before taking a tour to learn more about our tuxedo'd feathered friends. 

Make sure you don't forget your binocs and bird book in the car as the variety of birds along this trail is amazing.

Roseate Tern Trail map

5 - NMMU Nature Reserve - Grysbok Trail

I'm sure that as soon as this post hits the interwebs and goes viral you will start to see some comments between all the positive ones on Facebook going something like, "... blah blah unsafe...", "...waffle waffle dangerous fishcake...", "...troll troll take your life into your hands...", "...muffle puffle I live behind bars and have no life and how dare you go out and enjoy yours...".  For all those doom prophets and anybody else looking for a totally safe and secure environment to go and walk in, I have the perfect option for you.  The 830 ha NMMU Nature Reserve is fully enclosed with only access from on campus.  The Grysbok Trail offers two easy flat loops of about 2,5 km and 3,5 km or a combination of the two through coastal thicket and fynbos with the opportunity to see some game along the way.

Try out the GPS treasure hunt game of Geocaching.  The trail has about 35 caches hidden along the way.  Or just keep an eye out for some donkeys in pajamas. 

6 - Baakens Valley - Lower Guinea Fowl Trail

The Baakens Valley isn't just an excellent hiking area, it has also become very popular with trail runners and mountain bikers.  The Baakens Valley truly is Port Elizabeth's natural urban gem and really deserves more people venturing onto the Lower Guinea Fowl Trail, one of the best trails around.  Although you are at times barely a hundred meters from the nearest house it feels like you are miles away in the middle of nature with the river on one side, wind in your face, wild flowers in bloom all around, guinea fowl calling in the bush nearby and the rush of city life slowly flowing out of you. The one thing that really counts against it is that it is a 7,5 km one way trail between the 3rd Avenue Dip in Glen Hurd and Settlers Park, so make sure your transport is sorted and waiting for you when you finish walking.

There are a number of entrance / exit points along the way with shorter loops one can take around Walmer, Dodds Farm and Wellington Park if you just want to go for a quick stroll.

7 - The Island Nature Reserve - Bushbuck Trail

Hiking along the Bushbuck Trail one would be excused if you suddenly started thinking that you are on the Garden Route somewhere.  The vegetation on the western side of Port Elizabeth is very different from the south and east and consist of Alexandria coastal forest boasting indigenous tree species like Outeniqua Yellowwood, White and Hard Pear and White Milkwood.  It really is the ideal place if you need to plug your soul into the forest socket every now and then for a recharge. You also don't need to be a hard core hiker to venture onto the Bushbuck Trail with five distance options catering for everybody from the family strollers (900 m), gentle walkers (5 km), long distance guys (7,5 km) and the ultra day hikers (a full 16 km combining all the trails).  If you phone in advance and ask very nicely, one of the ECPTA rangers may just be able to accompany you on your hike as well. 

The Island has some really neat and well maintained picnic and braai spots where the non-hikers in the group can hang around while you are out enjoying nature.

8 - Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve

The Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve truly is a hikers paradise.  The 500 h reserve can be found about 35 km west of Port Elizabeth and probably is the best place around to go and see Proteas in the wild.  The nice bit about it is that there are different flowers blooming just about all through the year so there is always something to see.  Van Stadens also caters for one and all when it comes to the variety of trails with easy short walks through the fynbos, past the dams or to the Arboretum and bird hide on the plateau or longer walks along the Forest and River trails that lead down into the gorge.  Some of the trails and picnic spots also have great views of the magnificent Van Stadens arch bridge. 

If you don't enjoy walking don't stay away.  Most of the plateau area of the reserve is accessible by car so just pack a picnic basket and go throw open a blanket at one of the view points or picnic areas.

9 - Sleepy Hollow

When I first heard the name Sleepy Hollow, images of the Headless Horseman waiting for me down a dusky forest path immediately jumped to mind.  I've been several times over the last few years and have yet to see any ghostly horses or pumpkins being flung my way.  Sleepy Hollow, located a few kilometers off the Blue Horizon Bay road in the Maitland River valley, is magical though and the only trail out of my list that is on private land.  The trails are fairly short but it's quite easy to get yourself lost (not literally but rather figuratively) exploring the old abandoned mine tunnels, swimming in river pools, rock hopping up to the waterfall, watching the Knysna Loeries and foofie sliding into the Sleepy Hollow swemgat surrounded by cliffs and forest.

Take a tent or hire one of their caravans and spend the weekend at the campsite

That, I know, was a mouthful and like any good infomercial I can say, "But it's not all..."  There are a number of other nature trails I haven't even mentioned.  The Maitland Nature Reserve Trail, Aloe Trail, Flamingo Trail, Lady Slipper, Groendal, Van der Kemps Kloof and others.  Add to that the heritage trails of Route 67, the Donkin Heritage Trail and the South End Heritage Trail and there is no reason for you not to want to strap on your boots, grab a backpack, fill your water bottle and pack a few sarmies.  What are you still waiting for?  

Disclosure - This blog post is part of the #SharetheBay Port Elizzabeth #Blogathon 2016 campaign in collaboration with Cheap FlightsNelson Mandela Bay Tourism and Travel Concept Solution.  I keep full editorial control over the post because nobody's going to tell me what I like and not.

Below are the posts of the other eight bloggers that took part in the #Blogathon

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fields of Coral Aloe

Just as the "normal" Aloes in the Karoo Heartland is done flowering, it's the turn of the Coral Aloes.  A drive through the southern Karoo Heartland (on the N10 just over the Olifantskop Pass from Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape two weeks ago had me stop a couple of times and grabbing for my camera with literally fields of flowering Coral Aloe stretching away from the road.

A carpet of orange

Just more proof that the Eastern Cape doesn't have to stand back one step when it comes to showing off it's beautiful flowers in spring.