Ziplining Grabouw Elgin Valley, South Africa

Elgin Valley Vista

For years I’ve wanted to experience ziplining. Saturday was the day, and it didn’t disappoint! The adventure was rich with adrenaline rushes, indescribably beautiful South African landscapes, and good company.

Heading Out

I discovered Cape Canopy Tours with the help of a Hermanus kayak company – Walker Bay Adventures. After four attempts at joining a Cape Town kayak group and as many cancellations due to wind and swell in Table Bay, I gave it up. It can be clear on land but wind, tides, and waves put the kibosh on kayaking. Weather permitting, I’m scheduled for a Walker Bay sea kayak trip later this week.

Walker Bay Nature Reserve – Open Africa

It’s early for whale season but there are interesting birds, fish, and animals in and around Walker Bay – sun- and sugarbirds, cormorants, pelicans, herons, penguins, otters, dolphins, seals, sharks, and a local fish – galjoen, kabeljou, and steenbras.

Rocky Fynbos Hillside

Elgin Valley

Elgin Valley canopy tours take place near Grabouw in the spectacular Hottentots Holland Mountains. A South African World Heritage Site, it’s a “pristine, previously inaccessible” wilderness area about forty-five minutes from Hermanus. The endemic floral diversity is spectacular. Mammals include klipspringer (Oreotragus), baboon, leopard, and grey rhebok. Shy nocturnal animals, Cape leopards are rarely seen.

Backroad to Zipline Platforms

Cape Canopy Tours

Cape Canopy Tours is noted for its safety and high-quality zipline structures and equipment. We began the day with a safety briefing. Our guides explained how the ziplines work and what to expect. I quickly learned that the safety briefing wasn’t preparation for a stunning aerial perspective of the Cape Overberg!

Hottentots Holland Mountains

There were six fun people in my group – a couple from Ireland and a family of four from the UK – father, two daughters, and young son. I was the only first-timer, as everyone else had experienced ziplining before.

After the briefing, we were fitted into harnesses, helmets, gloves, and jackets. Our adventure began with a 30-minute ride over rough backroads in an open 4×4 safari vehicle. The views were amazing as we drove over bumps, potholes, and puddles from an overnight rain. Clouds framed the mountain range and created interesting shapes, shadows, and colors. The truck dropped us off and we hiked a short distance to the first of eleven zipline platforms!

Waterfall Ravine

Eleven Ziplines

There were over 8,000 feet of ziplines – the longest was 1,100 ft. Each zip point had a small plaque describing the length of the slide and the nature and geology visible in the surrounding wilderness area. There were abundant rivers, waterfalls, rocky ravines, and fertile valleys. Near the end, we passed over an 82 ft. suspension bridge situated above a double waterfall.

Cape Canopy Ziplining – Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust

The zipline process begins when you step onto a wooden platform where a guide connects you to the zipline cable. You wear heavy leather gloves; one has a reinforced palm for the hand that rests lightly over the cable behind the pulley – the right for right-handed people. Tightening your hand over the cable slows you down, but the guides told us not to do that without their signal.

Cape Leopard – TimesLIVE

The other hand goes around harness lines under the cable. As you lean into the harness and pull knees to chest – the guide releases the cable, and off you go!!

Walker Bay in Distance

Wind and Speed

Our wild card was the wind. It was substantial! At the first zip platform, we were given the option to reschedule, but everyone wanted to continue. It took me several zips to relax and get into the free, magic feeling of flying through the air on a zipline! Of course, the longer the slide, the faster you go. The guide waiting at the next platform puts on the brake to slow you down for landing. The most difficult part (for me) was trusting in the brake. Without it, you would slam violently into the mountain on the other side!

Hike to the First Zip

The speed you travel depends on the length of the zipline, your weight, and the wind. The guide waiting takes all things into consideration in deciding when to pull the brake. Our guide was skillful and my landings were soft and painless.

Fynbos Hillside

In heavy wind during the second or third slide, I missed a signal to tighten my hold on the cable and slow down. I’m still not sure what happened, but suddenly the cable stopped and I was hanging in the middle of the slide looking down at the valley below –yikes. The guide zipped out to meet me and ferried us both back to the other side. Scary as that sounds, it really wasn’t – maybe more so for the guide. Focusing on signals is challenging when you’re moving fast.

Tiny Bird Sculpture Last Zip Platform

Euphoria

Ziplining time passed quickly and at the end, it seemed like a dream. The hike to the vehicle pickup point brought us back to reality. It was an unforgettable experience that I hope to repeat! My zipline video is attached – minus the screams

Elgin Panorama – Visit Winelands

I’ve booked a four-day, three-night slackpacking hike in July on the Blue Mountain Trail. The trail is 31 miles long and “winds through wilderness, forests, fruit and wine farms, and lush fynbos fields”.

Elgin Basin Vineyard – Wade Bales Wine Society

The trail covers some of the same terrain we zipped over in Bot River and the Elgin Valley as well as areas of Kleinmond, Paardeberg, Kogelberg, and Palmiet. All are part of the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. I’m hiking most days in preparation, as it will be a tough three-day hike for me.

Hottentots Holland Landdroskop Road – CapeNature

Tsitsikamma and Transkei South Africa

Plettenberg Bay

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.

Before Tsitsikamma Hike

I learned quickly that “leisurely” side trips would be a luxury. Driving solo required constant focus and full concentration. I broke my rule of no advance bookings – a mistake that added some stress to getting from point to point by a certain date.

Tsitsikamma Vista

Treacherous Rural Transkei Roads

Unpaved side roads in the Transkei and Wild Coast were dangerous and rough. Chaos in the villages and unexpected people, cattle, potholes, and debris 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!

Thesen Islands Knysna

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 seem amused by unaware travelers jolted when hitting them.

Grahamstown Architecture

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 is no light except for your headlights and the stars and moon.

Tsitsikamma Forest

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.

Coffee Bay Beach

Knysna, Harkerville, and Plettenberg Bay

Scenic 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 rain was needed and welcome.

Tsitsikamma Vista

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“….. a set of circumstances triggered a disastrous wildfire of unprecedented proportions in Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg Bay…..”

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Caracal

Knysna is a tourist town with craft shops, restaurants, and cafés. Popular attractions include Woodmill Lane – a historical timber factory, the waterfront and yacht harbor, and Thesen Islands – a picturesque marina development linked to the mainland by a causeway and bridges.

Masescha View

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.

Coffee Bay Wild Coast

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 Rands in damage to properties and infrastructure and was South Africa’s largest fire disaster in modern times.”

Masescha Butterfly Courtesy of Celia Lily

I enjoyed the diverse, eclectic atmosphere in Knysna and interacting with locals. The really foul weather prevented exploring recreational areas. In the heart of the small town, I noticed homeless people and some panhandling addicts.

Blue Duiker

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” – that it is! The entrance is a few miles down a rough, unpaved, potholed road which was muddy after recent rains.

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 hopelessly lost. The turnoff is marked, but the non-reflective sign is only visible in daylight, and there are no streetlights. I left the GPS with latitude / longitude coordinates 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 found the entrance and my way back.

Dieu-Donneé River Lodge

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”.

Transkei Cattle Hanging Out on the Beach – Christopher Rimmer

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. There are spectacular views of the bay and mountains.

Masescha Treetops

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Plettenberg Bay is known for dolphin pods playing in its warm coastal waters.

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Honey Badger

“For a South African town, Plettenberg Bay has a long history. Portuguese explorers first visited during the 15th and 16th centuries.” Shipwrecks, Cape Dutch architecture, 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.

King Protea Tsitsikamma

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 2 to 6 days. I joined in the middle for 3 days.

Wild Coast

“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.”

Forest Buzzard

Tsitsikamma’s forest habitat is ideal for South Africa’s “lesser-seen bird species” like Rameron pigeon, Narina trogon, Sombre bulbul, forest buzzard, sunbird, and flycatcher. The “fynbos harbors elusive endemics such as Victorin’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.

Masescha Birdsong Lodge

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!

Cape Siskin

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.

Bushpig

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 – 7 three-high bunk beds in each. There was no electricity or plumbing.

Zinzi African Restaurant Harkerville

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“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.”

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Transkei Cattle

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!

Transkei Cattle

During the hike my new lightweight 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.

Tsitsikamma River

Grahamstown and Coffee Bay

After the Tsitsikamma hike I drove to Grahamstown, where they were experiencing a load shedding power outage – common in South Africa. A much-needed shower and comfortable bed were on my simple agenda, and I slept well!

Narina Trogon

Originally, I wanted to stop at Addo Elephant Park en route to Durban. I gave it up after discovering the popular park was 100% booked for the foreseeable future.

Tsitsikamma Hikers

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. Grahamstown was once the second largest city in the Cape.

Sombre Bulbul

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 different climatic zones”. The weather is wild and unpredictable.

Serval

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…

Wild Coast Map

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 “Wild Coast” which is appropriately named!

Tsitsikamma Sleeping Hut

Coffee Bay is a popular backpacking location for young 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.

Resting Hikers

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.

Tsitsikamma

After taking a few wrong turns and meeting cattle, dogs, and locals on dark unpaved side streets, I arrived to join about 30 people and a few dogs at a rustic outdoor restaurant – hippies one and all. They were celebrating, drinking wine and beer, smoking pot, 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.

Xhosa Village Transkei

Transkei Village

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.

View from Seaview Cottage at Coram Deo

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.

Tsitsikamma Ravine

I found a nearby accommodation – Dieu-Donnee River Lodge. It was only a few kilometers outside Port Shepstone in Southport. I called to ask if they had vacancies. It turned out, I was the only guest!

Knysna Yacht Harbor

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“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.”

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Vervet Monkey

There was no street address, so I met the owner who led me through the dark to the location – off a side road deep in the forest. The owners, a German couple, were oblivious to my exhaustion as they 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 was moving my belongings into the accommodation.

Fiscal Flycatcher – Brian Ralphs

In the morning, I retraced the route through what seemed like endless jungle terrain and couldn’t believe I drove there in the dark.

Transkei Beach Bums

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.

Willen Doen HIV AIDS Orphanage Matukasini Coffee Bay

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!

Rameron Pigeon

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.

wild-coast

Xhosa Houses Wild Coast

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!

Durban at Night by Nick Ferreira

Seychelles Next

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 adventures driving from the Western Cape to Durban. More from Durban later…

Seychelles

Seychelles

Fernkloof Nature Reserve Hermanus South Africa

Maanskynbaai from Fernkloof

Fernkloof Reserve is one of nature’s bright gems, and it’s a short 15-minute drive away! I’ve hiked the waterfall trail and am learning other routes. Fernkloof trails are gentler than Table Mountain with spectacular views of Walker Bay, Hemel en Aarde Valley, and Maanskynbaai (Moonshine Bay)!

Erica Annectens

Cliff Hanger Heath

Mountain Pride Butterfly

Fernkloof has four “routes” – green, red, blue, and orange. I’m working up to the more challenging orange route and its inner and outer circuits.

Fernkloof covers 7 sq. miles in the Kleinrivier Mountains. The reserve includes 37 miles of hiking trails, flowering fynbos, thick shrub vegetation, forests, and secluded dams where you can swim on hot days.

Sugarbird

De Bos Dam

Fernkloof’s luxurious fynbos is magnificent! The word fynbos derives from the Dutch word ‘fijn bosch‘ or fine bush.

Fernkloof is known for around 500 varieties of Erica. Colorful ericas (Cape “heath“), disas, and proteas are endemic to South Africa.

Trail3

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Fynbos is a “collective name for a myriad of evergreen shrub-like plants with small firm leaves, including woody plants with hard leathery leaves”.

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The climate is “Mediterranean with cold wet winters, hot dry summers, and strong south-easterly winds”. I can vouch for the extraordinarily “strong” winds!

Caterpillar Photo from Fernkloof Website

Fynbos

Fynbos

Orange Disa

Pincushion Protea

Disa

Fynbos Brush

Protea

Yellow Disa

Fynbos

Fynbos

Disa Uniflora Bergius

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“There is no other place on earth where so many distinct fynbos species grow in such proximity. More than 1250 species of plant have been collected and identified in Fernkloof.”

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During my hike yesterday, I didn’t see any large mammals but enjoyed birds, mountain pride butterflies, unusual beetles, and lizards. There are several creeks and waterfalls, and I heard, but didn’t see, frogs. Hikers are known to encounter interesting species of turtle plodding along the trails. It would be thrilling to see an elusive Cape Leopard.

Lizards and butterflies are too fast for photos, but I followed a lizard to a rock outcropping near “Adder Ladder”. Considering the name of the trail, I retreated.

Rock Hyrax – Dassies

Beetle, Locust, or Alien Creature?

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Grey rhebok, Cape grysbok, klipspringer, baboon, mongoose, and dassie are present in small numbers. Nocturnal animals in the Reserve are seldom seen but include the porcupine, genet, hare, and Cape Mountain Leopard.”

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I plan to hike Fernkloof often not only for the exercise but because the refreshing, pristine environment is uplifting and makes me feel happy and content!