On the road again: Zigzagging from the R62 to Nature's Valley
I’d never travelled the R62 before, so this trip couldn’t have come a moment too soon.
Dense Karoo shrub land and spekboom vegetation, piercing blue sky and low-hanging clouds set against an empty tarred road for 268 kilometres to Oudtshoorn, stopping only at the infamous Ronnie’s Sex Shop (a bar, people, keep it clean), and the aptly-named Roadkill Cafe (judging by the options on the menu).
A scene straight out of Texas, with pseudo cowboys and furtive cacti, the bar was littered with the memories of decades of road-trippers, including bra’s, underwear, T-shirts and caps along with scrawled names and stickers everywhere the eye could see.
De Zeekoe Guest Farm
After a long day of driving, we arrived at De Zeekoe Guest Farm just outside of Oudtshoorn, meeting up with the farm’s owners Paula and Pottie Potgieter.
Encompassing some 2000 hectares, De Zeekoe Guest Farm lies between the majestic Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains in the heart of the Klein Karoo, part of the world's 17 hotspots with three overlapping flower zones.
Running on solar energy, the farm echoes Paula’s eco-consciousness - she also grows her own organic veggies, and has set aside 1200 hectares for conservation, which is home to a family of 13 meerkats. Naturally, a meerkat adventure tour was our first activity the next morning.
Meeting the Meerkats
We woke up before dawn even had a chance to crack, bracing ourselves against the sub-zero temperatures on the drive to the meerkat conservation site, where we’d be meeting Devey Glinister.
Once dubbed the ‘Meerkat Man’, Devey, decked out in a battered cowboy hat and workman boots, tell us that these wild meerkats are the real deal - not half tame like the ones used for films, but in their natural habitat.
After seeing him every sunrise and sunset, the meerkats are used to his presence and voice, and pay him no mind so long as we all sit still.
First comes a single meerkat scout, sent to identify any threats or source of potential danger. It takes about half an hour for the rest of the meerkats to follow, basking in the early sun while keeping a wary eye out for predators. Stretching and grooming each other, they are just a metre or two away from us as we watch them, thrilled.
Devey tells us that meerkats have numerous burrows, which help protect them from sudden attack. This family consists of one dominant male and female, and 11 children, the males of which are booted out to find their own family as they reach sexual maturity (at about a year old).
Females have it a little easier - they can stay and help the dominant female raise her cubs, but only the dominant male and female are allowed to mate and have offspring.
However, in extreme cases where a new and small group might need to build up their numbers, a subordinate daughter will be allowed to raise her young within the group.
Foraging for food such as insects, worms, the occasional scorpion, and even birds eggs and young chicks, the meerkats utilise the whole reserve, sharing it with only the occasional springbok.
With a strong background in conservation and rehabilitation, Devey is currently planning on opening a meerkat sanctuary, where he can rehabilitate meerkats (often kept as pets, with disastrous consequences) before reintroducing them to the wild.
Breakfast at De Zeekoe
We had a leisurely breakfast at De Zeekoe, before heading out to the Cango Caves, a stunning drive that went up and along to the foot of the Swartberg mountains.
We chose to do the 90-minute Adventure Tour, which basically involved slipping, sliding, squeezing and climbing our way through various tunnels and crevices.
Despite our guide talking to us like we were idiots, the tour was actually very interesting and we learnt that the caves were purportedly first ‘discovered’ in 1780 by a local farmer named Jacobus Van Zyl, who was lowered down into the first chamber with nothing other than the light of a candle.
A series of interconnected chambers revealed delicate crystals,stalagmites and helictites, lit up to reveal the shades of ochre and oxide deposits that adorn the spectacular limestone formations.
A stalwart of tourism since the end of the 18th century, interestingly enough, the Cango Caves were the first to be protected by environmental legislation, after concerts held there led to people ransacking their treasures.
We met up the following morning with Paula for a quick interview about her future plans to help conserve the environment and uplift her community, sharing ideas and tips, before we left, once again in the pouring rain, for Mossel Bay, where we’d be staying at a friend’s villa.
Downtime in Mossel Bay
Still with our non-waterproof gloves, our waterproof pants taking strain and the heaven's opened with rain, we travelled the 90 odd kilometers to Mossel Bay, over the dramatic Robertson pass, arriving drenched but somehow fulfilled at what was a seriously luxurious villa on a golf course in Mossel Bay.
Work, washing, the usual mundane things that you have to do, and then we headed out to George, to try fix the zip of my waterproof jacket (thank god we didn’t get sponsored by this company, as I’d hate to have to try say something positive), and various other errands.
Riding to Reflections
As the day drew to a close, we set off for Reflections Eco-Reserve.
Set against the Rondvlei Dam and the Garden Route Nature Reserve, with over 140 bird species Reflections is a bird-watchers dream, and the perfect place to, well, reflect.
Family-owned and run, Reflections uses solar energy and a wind turbine to power their guest houses, which are built entirely out of alien wood, with each house having its own solar geyser. They also recycle, compost and have planted over 1000 trees to offset their carbon footprint and that of their guests (more on that coming soon).
After an idyllic time at Reflections, we headed off to George to meet with Niel du Toit from Scoot Cafe, who, somewhat fortuitously, was down on holiday.
Racing to Teniqua Treetops
Naturally, we under-estimated how long it takes to catch up, have a leisurely lunch and still service the bikes, clean the carburetors, repair the starter motor and do some necessary modifications. Though Niel had kindly offered to host us that night, we decided to press on, thinking we could outpace the dying sun.
There’s a fine line between stupidity and adventure, but I’m sure most would agree that driving on the N2 at night is pretty damn stupid.
Following the highway, marked out only by cats-eyes as it curved and twisted around the mountain pass, we trusted in our instincts and no small amounts of luck, as our bike’s headlamps did little to illuminate the road before us. Trucks roared past, lighting up the way for a precious second before disappearing ahead.
Still, there was something thrilling in the adventure of it all, braced against the cold we conquered the darkness, bravely finding our way no matter what the universe threw at us.
Up, up and up, surrounded by forest with not a glint of light other than the stars above us, through a gate and onto a gravel road, slowly but surely making our way to the next gate and the next and then we were there, in a fairy tale in an enchanted forest, high up in the trees in a magical treehouse suite.
Located in the heart of an indigenous forest, the treehouses make the most of jaw-dropping views over the forest canopy, which contains some 1000-year old milkwood trees. We hiked down to a steam, which snaked its way through the forest as it must have done for centuries.
Owners Robyn and Viv Patz are passionate about the forest, ensuring the establishment has minimal impact on the environment through eco-friendly strategies such as dry-composting toilets, solar power, rainwater harvesting and reforestation.
Waking up to the sound of birds tweeting and chirping, the sight of a Knysna Loerie lounging on our deck and the vast, unhindered forest stretching before us was extraordinary, truly putting meaning into the phrase ‘on top of the world’.
Getting to know Kynsna
Next up was a drive into Kynsna, where we’d be missing the upcoming Oyster Festival by less than a week. Often called the Pearl of the Garden Route, the tiny town of Knysna is surrounded by acres of indigenous forest, and is also home to the dramatic Kynsa Heads.
One of the most striking geological features along the coast, the Knynsa Heads comprise two great sandstone cliffs that flank the mouth of the lagoon, which connects the estuary with the relentlessly crashing sea.
We stopped to buy food before venturing further into the forest along Rheedendal road (just outside of Kynsna) to Peace of Eden, a traveller’s lodge where we’d be staying in a safari tent deep in the forest.
Definitely more on the rustic side, Peace of Eden has a recording studio, and offers musical outreach internships (volunteers learn the ins and outs of the business whilst assisting with various musical projects, including workshops with township musicians, musical therapy with underprivileged children, instrument-making and more).
For us, the main draw was the permaculture garden (more information coming soon), though we spent most of our time glued to our laptops catching up on work.
Regularly menaced by a ‘tame’ guinea fowl that wanted to peck me at every opportunity, and a blue-bottomed monkey that seemed determined to steal my computer bag, I was delighted that nature still found a way to intrude into my work zone.
Finding our way to Wild Spirit Backpackers
Last but most certainly not least, we continued to Nature’s Valley, where we stayed at Wild Spirit Backpackers, an eco-oasis in the middle of the forest.
Our room opened up to indigenous forest as far as the eye can see, overlooked by the Tsitsikamma Mountain range with Peak Formosa towering in the distance.
Everything at Wild Spirit finds a home - from weary travelers to old car seats. Eco-consciousness is high - upcycling workshops, recycling, composting, a permaculture garden and simple greywater harvesting along with the plan to go completely off-the-grid meant that Wild Spirit was a place right after our own hearts.
I especially loved the bathroom sink - cleverly positioned above the toilet, guests washing their hands also filled up the tank - ensuring not a single drop was wasted!
Evenings came to life with bongo drums, fire poi, musicians and the buzz of conversation, making Wild Spirit a tough place to leave.
But who knows where the road would take us next? With heavy rains and 65 knot winds predicted - would we go up into the Karoo or along the garden route? Check out Ticket to Ride: Plett to Addo.
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