Driving the Garden Route
The drive from Hermanus to KwaZulu-Natal was an adventure! I underestimated it, got lost during side excursions, and was challenged every day. The N2 is the “safe” route, but for most of the journey, there’s no median separating opposing traffic. You face the onslaught of erratic oncoming traffic, including drivers passing slower vehicles, and swerving trucks packed with loosely piled goods.
I learned quickly that “leisurely” side trips would be a luxury. Driving solo was challenging, requiring constant focus and full concentration. I broke my rule of no advance bookings – a mistake that added stress to getting from point to point by a certain date.
Treacherous Transkei Roads
Unpaved side roads in the Transkei and Wild Coast were dangerous and rough. Chaos in the villages and unexpected people, cattle, and potholes sometimes scared me out of my wits! Seeing small children crossing the road near blind curves with poor visibility was unsettling! I drove slowly and carefully but almost hit a pig, goat, and cow. Undaunted by honking cars, Transkei cattle graze where they want, oblivious to the rest of the world and unafraid of automobiles. Some describe them as “beach bums” – they should spend more time on the beach and less on the road!
In between small towns like Mossel Bay, George, Knysna, and Port Alfred, this part of South Africa consists of rugged Indian Ocean coastline, rural African villages, and grazing cattle. Unbelievably, both animals and humans randomly walk in and across the highways. Large speed bumps are strategically (??) placed throughout the roads for traffic control. The poorly marked bumps could damage your car. Villagers are amused when unaware travelers get jolted after hitting them.
Speed bumps must be the most economical way to protect people and animals and ensure that reckless drivers slow down. Along speed bump protected stretches of road, sometimes it’s necessary to drive 5 – 10 mph. A few times thought I’d damaged the rental car by not slowing down enough in advance, but the sound was worse than any actual damage. Driving at night would be crazy, as there’s no light except for the stars, moon, and your headlights.
During the drive, I learned South African “rules of the road” on the highways and toward the end of my trip, became a more confident driver. The length of the entire drive was roughly like driving slowly from the Oregon coast to Chicago.
Knysna, Harkerville, and Plettenberg Bay
Knysna is a popular holiday destination. The few days I spent there were plagued with wild weather and spurts of heavy rain, prohibiting prolonged outdoor activities. With drought, the heavy rain was welcome.
“….. a set of circumstances triggered a disastrous wildfire of unprecedented proportions in Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg Bay…..”
Knysna is a tourist town with abundant craft shops, restaurants, and cafés. Popular attractions include Woodmill Lane – a historical timber factory, the waterfront and yacht harbor, and Thesen Islands – a marina development linked to the Knysna mainland by a causeway and bridges.
Thesen Islands include “19 man-made islands linked by arched bridges and surrounded by tidal waterways”. A separate island has houses and apartments in Dutch colonial maritime style.
In June 2017, Knysna suffered a devastating forest fire. “A set of circumstances triggered a disastrous wildfire of unprecedented proportions in the Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg Bay area. The wildfire consumed vast areas of commercial plantations, and lives were lost. It caused billions of Rand in damage to properties and infrastructure and was South Africa’s largest fire disaster in modern times.”
I enjoyed the diverse, eclectic atmosphere in Knysna and interacting with locals. The really foul weather prevented exploring recreational areas. I noticed homeless people, panhandlers, and addicts In the heart of the small town.
Next stop was Harkerville, a small settlement in the Eden District on the outskirts of Plettenberg Bay. I spent the night in a rustic cottage at Masescha Country Estate. The birds and exquisite natural beauty of the area were captivating, but getting there was a challenge. A British couple – Ray and Angie – purchased Masescha about 13 years ago. The name is a Hebrew word meaning “hidden,” and that it is! Muddy after recent rains, the entrance is a few miles down a rough, unpaved, potholed road.
That night I enjoyed dinner at an African restaurant – Zinzi – meaning an abundance in Swahili. It was near Masescha, but when returning in the pitch-black night, I got lost. The turnoff is marked, but the non-reflective sign is only visible in daylight, and there are no streetlights. I left the GPS at the cottage, thinking it would be easy to find my way home. It was a terrifying experience as I pulled to the side while fast-moving trucks barreled down the highway almost grazing my car. After several tries, I finally found the entrance and my way back.
Harkerville forest is an indigenous paradise where “the smallest creatures have right of way”. Interestingly, it also includes “the remnants of an experimental plantation of Californian redwoods, planted there in 1925”.
I stopped in Plettenberg Bay, another popular area along the Garden Route. “Plett” is built on a hillside near the border of the Western and Eastern Cape. Views of the bay and mountains were spectacular.
Plettenberg Bay is known for dolphin pods playing in its warm coastal waters.
“For a South African town, Plettenberg Bay has a long history. Portuguese explorers first visited during the 15th and 16th centuries.” Cape Dutch architecture, shipwrecks, and historical relics like the Old Rectory built by the Dutch East India Trading Company are points of interest. Plettenberg Bay is known for its beautiful pristine beaches and dolphin pods playing along the warm coastal waters.
Hiking Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail
In late October, I began a three-day hike along the Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail. It was a fantastic wilderness experience walking through forests, mountain fynbos, and gorges, while traversing rivers and mountain streams. The hike began in Nature’s Valley and included from two to six days. I joined in the middle for three days.
“Along the Tsitsikamma Hiking Trail little contact is made with the outside world. Baboon, vervet monkey, caracal, honey badger, large-spotted genet, bushpig, and bushbuck are found along the route and at overnight huts. Leopard, serval, and blue duiker also occur, but are seldom seen.”
Tsitsikamma’s forest habitat is ideal for South Africa’s “lesser-seen bird species” like Rameron pigeon, Narina trogon, Sombre bulbul, forest buzzard, and flycatcher. The “fynbos harbors elusive endemics such as Victorian’s warbler, protea canary, and the Cape siskin“. We heard and saw many birds but never spotted their nests. One person in the group was good with bird calls, and the birds responded.
We also heard, but did not see animals, including the remains and sleeping nests of baboons who often come out of the dense forest at night, using the hiking trails to move through the forest quickly. The baboons made warning calls as hikers approached, but I never saw them. At one point, I became separated from the group and wondered if the baboons were eyeing me from the bushes!
My group included 12 strong, experienced hikers – all South African. The hiking was challenging, and for me, it would have been difficult carrying a heavy backpack. I hiked with a day pack and hired a porter to move my gear between overnight sleeping huts.
The other hikers were from Cape Town. We had interesting conversations and evening meals and shared facilities with another group of about 14 Indian businessmen and their cook. The cook prepared incredible Indian cuisine by campfire which was shared generously with everyone. There were two separate sleeping huts with 6 to 7 three-high bunk beds in each. There was no electricity or plumbing.
“Along the Tsitsikamma Hiking Trail little contact is made with the outside world. Baboon, vervet monkey, caracal, honey badger, spotted genet, bushpig, and bushbuck are found along the route and at overnight sleeping huts.”
More difficult than the hiking was sleeping in a small room of heavy snorers… There were several Muslims in our group who were up each morning around 4 am for prayers. Dawn prayers – salat al-fajr – begin before sunrise. In such close quarters, their early rising awakened everyone in the hut. The lack of sleep affected my hiking ability, but I’m grateful for the experience. The magnificent scenery was worth the discomfort!
During the hike my new Sony camera malfunctioned… I took a few iPhone photos and others in the group agreed to email theirs. The camera has a flashing error message that refuses to disappear. After checking online and visiting camera shops in Durban, I discovered there are no Sony dealers in South Africa. Guess I’ll send the Sony in for repair and purchase another camera. I have several more months of travel before returning to the US and will sorely miss the lightweight little camera.
Grahamstown and Coffee Bay
After the Tsitsikamma hike I drove to Grahamstown, where a load shedding power outage was in process – common in South Africa. A much-needed shower and comfortable bed were on my simple agenda, and I slept well!
I wanted to stop at Addo Elephant Park en route to Durban. It’s a popular park, and I had to give it up after discovering it was 100% booked for the foreseeable future.
Grahamstown is between Port Elizabeth and Port Alfred. It’s home to Rhodes University and South Africa’s National Arts Festival. Originally, the town was a military outpost established to secure the eastern frontier of the British Empire’s Cape Colony. It was once the second largest city in the Cape.
Grahamstown‘s streets are wide with many trees, historical museums, and churches. It’s part of one of the “most diverse ecological regions in South Africa”. It intersects “four climatic zones” and the wild weather is unpredictable.
I decided to take a side trip to Coffee Bay, misjudging how long it would take to drive from point to point with no idea what was in store in such an isolated rural area! If I thought previous roads were wrought with cattle, humans, and debris – this stretch of Transkei territory made them look like child’s play! At one point, I almost gave up, but turning around seemed the coward’s way out after I had already come so far…
Coffee Bay is a tiny town – population of about 200. It’s situated on the Wild Coast in Eastern Cape Province about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Durban. The town is named after “hundreds of coffee trees which grew from beans either scattered by a shipwreck or by plunderers”. It’s on the appropriately named “Wild Coast”!
Coffee Bay is a popular backpacking location for backpackers hiking from Port St. Johns. I stayed overnight in a small rustic cottage called Seaview Cottage at Coram Deo. By the time I arrived it was almost dark, since there were no street lights, I couldn’t see much. When I booked, the owner set me up with a local manager who was to meet me, provide keys, and take me to the cottage. We had trouble connecting but finally met. The manager, Julie, showed me to the cottage on a hill overlooking the coast.
I was hungry and asked if there were any restaurants nearby. Julie invited me to join a birthday party at a small nearby restaurant and explained how to walk there from the cottage in pitch dark. It sounded like fun.
After taking a few wrong turns and meeting cattle, dogs, and locals on dark unpaved side roads, I arrived and joined about 30 people and a few dogs at a rustic outdoor restaurant – hippies one and all. They were celebrating, smoking pot, drinking wine and beer, and eating fish and meat – no other dishes served. I enjoyed partying and talking with them. There were several Africans from the village who were shy but warmed up as the evening lingered.
Some of the Coffee Bay locals I met sponsor orphanages and preschools. Many Coffee Bay children became orphans when their parents died of HIV/AIDs. Later, I stumbled back to the cottage in the dark and collapsed into my bed.
Port Shepstone and Southport
The next day I drove to Port Shepstone – no cattle or people crossing the highway, but it took longer than expected and I arrived after dark. Port Shepstone is named for Sir Theophilus Shepstone, a British South African statesman who was responsible for annexing the Transvaal to Britain in 1877.
“If a vehicle breaks down in that area and you don’t get help within 10 minutes, there’s a 99% chance you’ll be attacked.”
There was no street address, so I met the owner who led me through the dark to the accommodation – off a side road deep in the forest. Oblivious to my exhaustion, the owners, a German couple, tried for 30 minutes to get their credit card machine to work – more power problems. I wilted and almost fell asleep on my feet. An African guard wrapped in a blanket patrolled the property. He startled me as I moved into my room for the night. In the morning, I retraced the route through what seemed like endless jungle terrain and couldn’t believe I drove there in the dark.
Durban and KwaZulu-Natal (“K ZED N”)
Durban is a vastly different experience from European-like Cape Town or coastal Hermanus in the Western Cape! I’m glad to have “branched out” a bit to experience more of this often rugged but strikingly beautiful country.
After arriving in Durban, I became aware of reports about N2 drivers being attacked along a stretch of road called “Durban’s Highway of Terror“. Now that it’s over, I won’t dwell on what might have happened. My rental vehicle is a new VW Polo, and it performed well. Driving that route in a poorly maintained vehicle would be a mistake. They say, “If a vehicle breaks down in that area and you don’t get help within 10 minutes, there’s a 99% chance you’ll be attacked.” YIKES!
The accommodation in North Durban is small but comfy and I’m acclimating to the change. The weather is warm and tropical, and the friendly owners are helpful. I feel safe here. The neighbor’s parrot is hilarious. It makes authentic telephone ringing sounds and sings into the evening.
Durban drivers are brutal. They’re impatient, drive dangerously, and tailgate within an inch of your bumper. I’m still learning my way around, so it’s somewhat unnerving – a good exercise in staying calm and keeping on your toes!
After a month in Durban, I’ll travel to the Seychelles. Lots of reflection is necessary to absorb experiences and all I’ve learned about South Africa during this trip. This blog post only summarizes some of my many experiences driving from the Western Cape to Durban. More from Durban later…