This part of the trip is going to cover a lot of territory but I want to do it in one post if I can. The next few days will be a more conventional vacation. Nice hotels, nice restaurants, nice scenery all very nice but nothing you all haven’t done yourself many times. If you miss this post, you won’t miss much. Anyway, if you’re still with me…. Our driver picks us up late morning, after we’ve said our goodbyes. We don’t make the same lunch mistake as in Livingstone. Londolozi has packed us a nice lunch which we share with the driver as we retrace our 2 hour route back to Mpumalanga airport. Going to be a longish afternoon since we have to change planes in Johannesburg before getting to Port Elizabeth.
Port Elizabeth is, as you might have guessed from the name, is on the water and is more or less opposite Cape Town 750 kms to the east. (Both are on the same general distance from the equator as Atlanta and of course this is spring in Africa. So, as a climate reference, think Atlanta in late May). PE, as the locals call it, came into its own in the early 19th century as the British settled it to strengthen their defences. They too have had a history of racial strife and today it is about 50% whites. A city of well over a million people it still seems to be wrestling with its identity. We arrive in the early evening and (barely) manage to land in extreme winds. (Port Elizabeth shares some of the characteristics of Cape Town; big wind!). Get our rental car (from Budget of course) and try to remember how to drive on the left side of the road. It comes back pretty quickly though, except for the trying to signal a turn with the windshield wipers. We may have surprised a lot of drivers behind us but we did manage to have a squeaky clean windshield. Found our way to the inn downtown; the Windermere.We’d been away from the whole security and safety issue so it took us awhile to get
through the gamut of locked gates and alarms. Back in the city! Nice enough place with probably the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, with three couches plus the king bed still leaving the room feeling empty. Perfect irony:We’ve been in smallish rooms for the last ten days and spending lots of time in them. Now we have the biggest hotel room in the world and we’re going to be awake in it for about 75 minutes. Tired and not a clue what’s around, we skip supper, find some snacks and retire. Next day after breakfast we do a city tour with a guy named Alan. We didn’t really enjoy it all that much, it turned out to be mostly historical, covering a lot of ground that we’d already been exposed to and a running commentary on that “Irish bastard”, who apparently from Alan’s perspective was ruining all the heritage buildings in the city by bribing the local government. This seemed to be a recurring theme around Africa. (The bribing government part, not the Irish bastard bit.) Nothing much more remarkable and he dropped us off at one of his favourite restaurants, Spur, for lunch. As plastic as they come, and after having enjoyed quality food in natural surroundings for the last 10 days, it was a total psychological and gastronomical shock. We ate what we could, jumped in the car and headed to Plettenberg Bay, not unhappy to say goodbye to PE.
Nice drive to Plett as they call it. Some nice views and we can see them well; still managing to keep a pretty clean windshield. The roads in this part of South Africa are excellent, not a pot hole in sight. They do have some four lane highways but for the most part they do things a little different here. The better roads are widened slightly, think of an oversized bike lane on each side. Protocol requires that if a vehicle is approaching you from behind, you get as much of your vehicle as you can (usually about half) off the main driving lane, allowing the other car to pass. This is done even if there is oncoming traffic. I don’t know if this is the law or local custom but it works pretty well once you get used to it. Arrive at Emily Moon Inn overlooking a marsh and river just outside of Plett. Pretty setting. They’ve reserved a table for us in their excellent restaurant and we have a pleasant and quiet evening. And this is a big day; last day on malaria pills. No more enhanced experiences.
At the Emily Moon the owners make a point to come down to breakfast every morning and sit at each table with maps and brochures to help you plan your day. Nice touch. Plett is situated in a gorgeous seaside setting and beaches and rock formations dominate the attractions. We’re here for three days and do all kinds of touristy things. But our only noteworthy activity was our day at Robberg Nature Preserve, where we took a hike on a trail carved out of rock. There were a couple of versions of the hike and since we were anxious for a little exercise after all the land rovering, we opted for the two hour version. Questionable choice! If this trail were in North America, you wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the place. Precipitous drops, with no railings, steep shallow steps in the stone, and so on. After an hour as we were remarking how challenging this was it also occurred to us that we hadn’t seen anyone going either way for some time. We soon
learned why as we spotted the sign with the skull and crossbones. (not making this up.)Wondering how hard it could be, we spent the next 20 minutes coming as close to having our estate settled as we ever have. But after mastering a technique we labelled “do the baboon” we felt like we had a chance. I can say in hindsight it was truly exhilarating but I’m not sure I had the same feeling at the time. Thank God we were off the malaria pills.
After three days we leave Plett. The first part of the drive is the Garden Route along the coast, followed by a drive through the mountains. We’re headed a few hundred kms to a place called Grootbos. Now none of the locals knew what we were talking about when we mentioned Grootbos. We learned later that there is no Gr in Groot; there is only phlegm. To pronounce it you start by looking someone straight in the eye and pretending you’re going to hawk one big one right in their face, then at the last instant backing off and calling them boss instead. Try it. It took a little practice but eventually we could get people to understand us without making a mess. The six hour drive from Plett to (look out!) Grootbos was easily the most dramatic drive either of us has ever taken. If one had been asleep and just woken up from time to time they could easily have believed they were in one of a Hawaii beach, the Swiss Alps, a Saskatoon grain field , an Arizona dessert, or a French meadow. You could have sworn the village we stopped in for lunch was in rural Mexico. Unbelievable drive, leaving the ocean and going through several mountain passes and then back down into valleys and spanning temperatures from a low of 16 degrees to a high of 34. We had been warned that we might be held up by some agricultural strike activity (more on that later) but we arrived at (stand back!) Grootbos without incidant.
Now we had no idea what to expect in (lets call it Gbos). It turned out to be a hillside accommodation adjacent to a small seaside town. Totally hidden from the road it consisted of two clusters of buildings, each cluster having a large hotel-like main structure with separate cabins situated throughout the property. After being met in the parking lot, and having our bags taken, we were escorted into the reception area. There we were offered a welcome drink while the hostess described the facilities after which a guide would outline the activities that were available to us. Claire had been feeling a little under the weather that day (Spur wasn’t going to be her new favourite restaurant) and her only wish had been that we’d be able to find a place that would make her a peanut butter and banana sandwich before being put to bed. I was with her on this. We’d been having rich full meals served to us for what seemed weeks and a simple repast was in order. I wish I’d had a picture of her face then, when we were advised that the feature of the hotel was the 6 course gourmet meals that were already included in the cost of the room and what time did we want to start? As we were escorted to the drop dead gorgeous cabins we tried to figure out what to do. There was no other place to eat and there was no other dining choice at the hotel. We just couldn’t do it, so I asked the front desk if there was any way we could just have some food sent to the room. They were more than happy to accommodate as long as we could pick off the set menu. We did and an hour later a couple of the lads arrived with a tray of food and some wine. Not exactly what we had in mind but just fine. There was no sign of the dessert I’d selected and one of the guys said he’d forgotten it but would be back with it shortly. After an hour or so, I’d just about given up on dessert when there was a knock on the door. One of the guys, whose name we learned later was Johann, a tall skinny young guy, was back with a tray. As he lifted the cover from tray he hauled back and sang from beginning to end something in Afrikaans which I presume was Happy Birthday, because on the tray was a big chocolate cake with a candle and the words, wait for it, Happy Birthday Gerald! Yes, it was that most magic of days, November 15. (HI Mom!) It was a strange but endearing moment with Claire stretched out, me about ready for bed and Johann standing in the middle of the room wailing away. Priceless!
Next couple of days were activity filled. Whale watching, horseback riding, cave walking. Fun. We did manage the six course gourmet the next night. Not bad. The highlight of Gbos though, was a new tree. The area had had a severe fire six years ago and hundreds of acres of forest had been destroyed. As part of a reforestation program a foundation had been established and for a (not so) small donation you could buy a tree. We decided to buy one for our grandson, Beckett. Having a choice of trees after we text messaged him for some direction. After our consult it was decided that the next day we’d plant an Ironwood tree in his name. At the appointed time we met a guide named Promise (remember, tribal name in English) in front of the hotel and he accompanied us several hundred yards up the hill He’d already dug a hole so we began with the ceremony
consisting of Claire and I planting the tree, filling it in and watering it. Promise then took the GPS co-ordinates and we were asked to name the tree. We decided to call it Promise in part because of his participation and in part for the confidance we want to have for Africa’s future. You can watch Beckett’s tree, Promise, grow by going to Google Earth and plugging in the co-ordinates of: South 34° 33.044East 019° 24.913.
GBos to our next destination is only a couple of hours away. After going through the Franschhoek pass through the Franschhoek Mountain we arrive at, you guessed it, Franschhoek. Smack in the middle of the Wine District it is a pretty little town. Vineyards everywhere. Our inn is in fact situated on one. La Petite Ferme is a small vineyard boasting one of the best restaurants in South Africa. On property they have a dozen different rooms available. I’ve posted a picture here of the view from the deck of our room. Franschhoek has a French heritage (The Huegenots who arrived in the 17th century helpedmature the South African wine industry) and you keep forgetting that you’re not in some small French village. Lots of wine, everywhere. And the prices! One day in the inn’s bar I noticed a chalkboard entitled Cellar Prices, listing the various wines available. I commented that although the wines were of high quality, the prices were among the highest I’d seen since arriving. The Sauvignon Blanc for example at the equivalent of a little under $7.00, wasn’t expensive for a glass of wine but not inexpensive either. The bartender looked at me like I had holes in my head exclaiming “Monsieur that is the price for a bottle, not a glass!”
Speaking of the price of wine. In Plett we had been warned about agricultural worker strikes on the route back to Cape Town. You’re aware that there’s been a lot of trouble as miners in South Africa have been striking for higher wages. Lives have been lost. People have been injured. Well now the same thing is happening with the agricultural workers. They are striking against the vineyards and other farms and are protesting by burning tires and trash on the roads and preventing traffic from proceeding for hours at a time. Although we had seen some residue of that on our way to Gbos we hadn’t encountered any trouble. However, when leaving Franschhoek on our last day we would see a gathering, um gathering and it looked like there might be some trouble. As we drove we met at least a dozen oncoming police, ambulances and other emergency vehicles . We never confirmed it but I think we’d just dodged one. Now, I’m not one for militant unions and strikes and so on, but then I’m a product of a North American economy. We learned that the workers were being paid 69 Rand and were demanding 150. Outrageous on the face of it. An increase of over 100%. Until you do the math and convert to Canadian dollars. 69 Rand is $7.80. Oh, and that’s not per hour, that’s per day. So these guys are picking grapes all day for less than a dollar an hour. No settlement was in sight but the farms had agreed that they might be able to handle (the equivalent of) $9.00 per day and that’s where they seemed to be stuck. Now, I know that currency conversion is dangerous because you earn and spend within a county. But there is no way you can convert $1.00 an hour into a wage that can support a quality life for an individual or a family. It gave us something to think about as we enjoyed our $7.00 bottle of wine.
Had a lovely stay in Franschhoek over a couple of nights and then it’s time to head home. Our plane leaves at 11:30 tonight and we have to put in the day somehow. It’s a half hour drive to Stellenbosch, another wine county haunt, where we have lunch and wander around. (To Claire’s annoyance I spend half the time there trying to steal Wi-Fi somewhere. The sim card I’d bought on our arrival had picked this morning to run out just prior to me making final travel arrangements back in Canada.) The local Budget office suggested that a (non-alcoholic) visit to the Spier Vineyard, only a half hour from the airport might be a pleasant way to spend some time. And she was right. Strange place really but strange in a nice way. Large convention hotel, craft market, wine tasting, restaurants, bars and nature trails. After some touring we settle down in the open terrace by the bar and read. Finally time to go. Drive past the large shanty towns near the airport as a final reminder that yes Dorothy, we are in Africa. Since we left Port Elizabeth we could have been in any tourist area in the world, Africa would be our last guess. But the shanty towns remind us of what’s behind it all. And when I say shanty “town”, don’t be misled. They can be pretty big; one of the largest, Khayelitsha, is home to almost 2 million souls.
Turned the car in and hung around the airport for a few hours. Had my last Castle (local South African beer) and ate our last meal in an airport restaurant. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but the airport food was good, it was reasonably priced and the staff was attentive and friendly. (Remember this last impression, because I’m going to make a point later.) Finally, it’s 11sh and we climb aboard. Almost 12 hours to Amsterdam, and after a two hour connection, a 7 ½ hour flight to Toronto, where we arrive pretty much 24 hours after leaving Cape Town. Long day (and night) but we’re back in our native land almost 4 weeks to the day after leaving.
This has been a long post, so I’m going to leave the sum-up and some other material for later, so if you’re interested check back one last time in two or three days.
Post Script: This isn’t really about Africa but it is about our trip and I will make a connection. We’d decided to stay in Toronto overnight. Didn’t think we’d have the appetite for another connection and flight just to arrive at Halifax in the dark and cold. Had a room booked at the Sheraton Gateway hotel. The tribe in Toronto (daughter, grandson & what’s his name) came out to join us at the hotel for dinner; a very nice treat and a good time was had by all. Now for those that don’t know, the Sheraton Hotel is a nice enough hotel on airport. It is very convenient and generally the rooms are reasonably priced given its location. But really! $10 for a bowl of cereal. $5 for a cup of black coffee. The tribe met us in the lounge where three beers and a coke cost us over $50 with tip. Breakfast for two; over $50 and the dinner, well, never mind. $10 for an hour on the internet and on and on. And the service? Somewhere between indifferent and disdainful. And it’s not much better in the airport next door. I understand that it only makes sense to exploit your strengths (don’t forget, I was in the car-rental business). But at some point you cross a line and here it is crossed with gusto. OK there’s the rant, here’s the connection. Canada likes to think of itself as a land of gracious people and an extraordinary tourist destination. That may all be true but as I compare that pleasant tasty meal in Cape Town airport and chatting with the owner while settling our $30 bill to the gouge and grunt experience anywhere near Pearson airport it makes you wonder which is the developing country. That’s the question of the day.