Ticket to ride: Plett to Addo
With heavy rains forecasted, again, we decided we’d just about have enough time to pop over to Plettenberg Bay, before heading inland to the Karoo.
I’d come across the cafe Liv Green while searching for healthy food in Plett, and just one email conversation with Kira Primo convinced me that she was a woman after my own heart.
An ardent environmentalist, Kira has successfully prevented the cutting down of an ancient milkwood tree, is the force behind the greening of the Spur franchise and is currently protesting against the proposed commercial harbour development in Plett, which heralds the end of regular dolphin and whale sightings along the coast.
While I enjoyed a delicious ‘chocolate mousse’ smoothie, consisting of cocao, organic peanut butter, goji berries and banana (we asked for dates instead of honey) and Chris tucked into a stoneground wrap, we chatted to Kira about life, health and the environment.
Kira tells me that no chemicals or preservatives are used at Liv Green, and that she is committed to using raw, organic ingredients as much as possible.
Passionate about helping people, Kira is currently running a case study on the healing effects of juiced cannabis, is starting up an an organic herb garden (she sources her fruit and vegetables from local farmers) and is planning to open a soup kitchen to help feed the homeless.
Together with husband Giovanni Primo, she also runs Plett Beachfront Accommodation, right on Central Beach. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a night with Kira and her husband, especially when promised a sea kayaking trip the following day.
Aiming to provide affordable accommodation on the beach, Plett Beachfront Accommodation is like a very upmarket backpackers. We slept in utter comfort and luxury in an en-suite bedroom, everything white and sparkling.
While Kira was unable to install solar (the reflection over Odlands Street was deemed to be dangerous), and wind turbines had also been overruled (noise pollution), she’s done her best to ensure the lowest carbon footprint - including 0.1 LED bulbs and fluorescents (using up to 80% less), as well as energy-saving switches.
She is also installing a greywater system (to water her herb garden), uses only biodegradable products and plans to green her fridge using a natural cooling system.
Kira and Gio are also well-equipped to advise travellers on any number of eco-friendly activities. Gio runs Dophin Adventures, offering sea kayaking tours, so we decided to take him up on his offer of a tour of the bay.
It was approaching sunset (our favourite time) so we set off for the beach, kitting ourselves out in a rash, vest, booties, life jackets and wetsuit shorts which did little to cover our rapidly goosepimpling flesh.
I was voted the ‘driver’; sitting up front, I’d be responsible for steering the kayak with my feet, and Chris would follow my lead as I paddled. Instinctively, I knew this could be a recipe for disaster - couples have broken up for less. However, my objections were overruled and I steeled myself for the task at hand.
Gio told us that the trickiest part of sea kayaking is getting out of the shore break, and later, coming back in. After giving us a quick lesson and a push, we were paddling furiously through the crashing waves, while I struggled to keep the kayak in a straight line.
Surrounded by the ocean, gently bathed in the last rays of the fading sun, it was easy to see why Gio kayaks daily. In fact, he’s seen whales and dolphins more times than he can count, and has even kayaked from Plettenberg Bay to Knysna in just three hours. To put this perspective, it took us two hours to get around the bay and back again.
Feeling pleased at our apparent prowess, having avoided sharply jutting rocks and hidden currents, our last challenge was to "surf" the waves back into shore.
Paddling furiously once more, we were so close to the shore a 2-year old would be able to stand, when the world’s smallest wave spun us around and, despite Gio’s very specific instructions on what to do in such a situation, thoroughly dunked us.
Surfacing to find the kayak on top of my head, I was surprised that I’d even managed to go under, given the kids play-pool depths I was currently floundering in.
Spluttering cold and laughing, it took us about a millisecond to drag the kayak to shore, before rushing to the hot showers that awaited us.
Promising to return in future, our next challenge was the drive to Baviaanskloof, where we hoped to camp. After dire warnings from all and sundry, we decided not to drive through Baviaanskloof as initially intended, due to the threat of raging, flooding rivers.
We chose the scenic route through Diepvalle Forest on the R339, passing friendly cyclists and no doubt scaring off any of the elusive Knysna elephants that may have been lurking about.
Spotting a sign for Spitskop Viewpoint, we followed a seriously degraded gravel road for about a kilometre to the top, mastered only in first gear and with no small amount of gumption.
Fortunately the views from above were an apt reward, an artist's masterpiece brought to life.
Slowly cruising along the gravel, we made it to a tiny padstal at the picturesque village of De Vlugt (so small that you could sneeze and you'd miss it).
Reinforced with dried fruit and fresh spring water, we drove along a waterfall and then the stunning Prince Alfred’s Pass on a winding road that was little more than enough for two scooters to drive abreast.
And then we arrived in the not-quite-desert wastelands of the Karoo, carpeted in Acacias (white thorns) and bristly shrubs.
As the sun started to sink in an ominous manner, we searched for a place to camp, spotting a sign at a place called Elandspoor. We quickly set up our tent, putting on gloves and beanies as the cold started to sink in to our very bones.
We woke up at first light to the sound of the wind howling, the sky gone grey and overcast like the face of a patient hearing they have cancer. We started packing as quickly as we could, the sky spitting at us in escalating fury as we rushed around like headless chickens.
Forgetting to hold the tent down, I turned around for a second and the wind had picked it up, throwing it violently and with evident glee into the willing embrace of the thorn trees. We extricated it slowly with belated care, and finally were on our way to Willowmore, raising our fists with glee as we passed a sign welcoming us to the Eastern Cape, my homeland.
Stopping at a cafe that reminded us of a Victorian Lady’s tea parlour in the heart of the Wild West, we were unsurprised to see a serious lack of vegan options of the menu. The trusty potato came to the rescue, and sated, we headed out to Steytlerville, roughly 100 km away.
We sailed past a sign saying PE, Steytlerville at high speed, me thinking there must be another route while Chris was clearly married to technology and the GPS. Some 50km later and we were on a gravel road, clearly the wrong route but we’d come too far to turn back. Besides, it was only 30 km.
After driving for an hour, we passed a farmer who told us we’d be reaching a graded road soon. He was somewhat incredulous to even see us, truth be told, and warned us of worse roads ahead.
I held on to the thought of a graded road like a wartime soldier hangs on to a picture of his wife, passing dry river passes, degraded farm lands and the occasional lonely farmhouse as if every corner would be the last.
Despite having refuelled from our jerrycans, our fuel ran lower and lower as we rode interminably onwards.
Finally reaching the graded gravel, we were able to up our speed to a zippy 60km/hr in nervous anticipation of the sun’s game of hide and seek. At last, a tar road and we saw, with sinking hearts, still another 53 km to Steytlerville.
With my fuel already on reserve, we ploughed on, hoping to find a place on the way to safely stop. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Just 25 km out of town, Butternut came to a halt.
We dithered and dathered for a while, trying to decide who would stay and who would go as it was dark, lonely, and colder than a morgue out there. Eventually we decided to go together on Chris' bike, as Spud was doing somewhat better with fuel.
We pulled Butternut off to the side of the road and hid her from immediate sight in a slight depression. Crossing over to a farmhouse on the other side of the road, we checked if they had any spare fuel (nope), and asked them to please look out for any marauding strangers.
Back on the road again, the sun successfully pulling off its disappearing act, we were so certain that we’d make it that it was quite a surprise when Spud spluttered and died just 1.5 km out of town and the nearest petrol station.
We tried to flag down a few cars, but the combination of our somewhat thug-like appearance (jackets, hoodies and buffs covering our faces from the appalling cold) and our prime location right outside the townships RDP housing proved too daunting for any would-be rescuers.
By the time we called Frieda Kleinhans, manager of Noorspoort Guest Farm where we’d be staying that night, my faith in human nature had plummeted.
Fortunately for us (and humankind) Frieda came to the rescue like a guardian angel, armed with a jerry can full of fuel, a funnel and a siphon. We filled up Chris’ bike, rode the 1.5 km to the petrol station and filled up the spare fuel; somehow surviving the cold and dark ride back to my bike.
And then back to Steytlerville, driving the short distance out of town to Noorspoort, another thankfully shorter stretch of gravel and we were there - two frozen icicles, thrilled at the thought of a hot shower and bed.
Sinking into the slumber of the half-dead, we awoke the next morning somewhat revived. Taking note of our surroundings for the first time, we saw an old, beautifully-restored farmhouse furnished with priceless antiques.
Maintaining an old-world charm, Noorspoort is a divided into a 3000 hectares game reserve and a 5000 hectare working smallstock farm. After spending some time the next morning chatting to Frieda, who told me a little bit about the guesthouse and its history, we met with Dok Craven, owner of Noorspoort and the head of the fifth-generation on the farm.
Dok practices sustainable farming techniques and has a vegetable garden that is fully organic. Composting, a worm farm, bee hives, and commitment to planting spekboom (known for sucking carbon out of the air) testify to the family’s eco-consciousness - in fact Dok’s son Danie is a fellow permaculture practitioner and has started an indigenous nursery on the property for medicinal plants.
They also run courses in geese-farming, permaculture techniques such as building with ferrocement and have even hosted Templeton Award winner Professor George Ellis on reconciling religion and science.
Noorspoort has two self-catering houses in town equipped with solar heating, two self-catering houses on the farm, and 6 guestrooms in the farmhouse - eventually hoping to implement solar more comprehensively in future.
Eco lovers can go for a hike, which leads to a viewpoint overlooking the game farm, cycle around the property or the quaint town of Steytlerville, or enjoy a birdwatching tour (where over 200 types of birds can be identified). The farm is also home to three converging plant biomes including Cycads, Euphorbias and Haworthias.
At Dok’s urging, we took a small detour on our way out, heading back into Steytlerville to see the Valley of Flags - decades of South African history depicted in the form of painted flags on the cliffs of the pass into town.
After filling up, we tackled the roads to Addo, a pleasant drive on tarred roads that took us past implacable mountains, with the Karoo stretching out around us as if to touch their base.
The sky too was an unforgettable sight - marked by wispy stretched-out cottonwool clouds, it looked like a child had taken foam and pulled it across a panoramic canvas.
The smell of citrus welcomed us to the Sunday’s River Valley, as we rode past rows and rows of citrus farms. Arriving at Woodall Country House and Spa, also on a citrus farm, we heaved a sigh of relief and promised ourselves some well-deserved relaxation.
After a welcoming drink at the restaurant, overlooking a natural dam that attracts over 70 different types of birds, we were shown to our suite, a luxurious one-bedroom with views of the lake, a private swimming pool and a bed so big I could roll over three times and not fall over.
Quite by chance, it was also Chris’ birthday weekend, and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to celebrate. A claw-foot bath, a giant shower and unique African art set a very stylish scene, and the day was rounded off with dinner at the restaurant, with the chef pulling out all stops to make sumptuous vegan fare.
We spent the next morning with Connor, Woodall’s Manager, who showed us around the property.
Sourcing their employees locally, supplementing their kitchens from the organic vegetable garden, using biodegradable products and energy-saving measures such as thermal insulation and an eco-friendly heat pump, Woodall is committed to conserving the environment - even using local and recycled materials in construction.
I was fascinated to see a hanging compost system - the compost is well aerated, which means it rarely, if ever, needs turning.
Woodall is also an active force in the Thembulethu Trust Church Feeding Scheme, providing creches in local communities with basic foodstuffs, clothing and other essential items.
Connor tells me that Woodall currently provides food for around 400 kids a month, also organising regular fundraising initiatives such as gala dinners.
Of course, we couldn’t leave the area without going on an Addo elephant tour. Met with much mirth when we suggested going on our scooters, we reluctantly joined the sunset game drive.
Proclaimed in 1931, when only sixteen elephants remained in the area, Addo is now home to over 550 elephants, including lions, buffalo, hyena, leopards and a variety of antelope and zebra species, to name a few.
In fact, the park is fated to expand into a 264 000 hectare mega-park, linking Addo to the Garden Route protected areas. After seeing numerous elephants, including one eight-day old baby elephant, it soon became a greater challenge to try and spot an eland.
After sleeping on another amazingly delicious dinner, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of thunder, heralding a downpour that continued till the next morning.
We left in a drizzle, heading to the nearby Orange Elephant Backpackers, where my first permaculture teacher Hazel Mugford has now established herself. Just before the gravel road became tar, there was a muddy horror of a hill, and once again I slipped and fell over.
And if that wasn’t enough, the entrance to the backpackers was practically a swamp.
Going through a puddle at full speed, I nearly crashed into Chris who’d stopped to survey his next move. He slid across like an ice-skater; watching him nearly topple, I lost my nerve and got him to ride Butternut the rest of the way across.
While Hazel was not in residence, owner John Allderman showed us around the property, telling us about some of their eco-friendly initiatives, and his plan to go off-the-grid within five years.
From permaculture gardens to workshops and training, heating using a rocket stove system, John has a vision and is determined to implement it.
He also plans to create a huge donkey-type boiler to heat water
This will simultaneously heat the backpackers through an innovative system of pipes running below.
Needless to say, there was lots to talk about, and we wished we could have stayed for longer. But we were rushing to reach Port Alfred, and the last day of the Grahamstown Festival...Till then, Sala Kakuhle (stay well).
Get the next edition: Scooting from Port Alfred to East London, visiting permaculture and green projects along the way like a mechanised version of Road Runner!