Couchsurfing: Garden Route, Port Elizabeth, Somerset East 11 – 15/04
We had left from Cape Agulhas in good spirits, but at that time of the year the day was short and evenings too chilly for our summer gear. I had lost my gloves long time ago, in Windhoek, and my spare pair had been baked by desert heat to the point of being unwearable, so my hands were freezing. Everybody had been saying how wild-camping was unsafe in South Africa, but the fact of the matter was that had not seen a single unfenced spot all day. We did try reluctantly a few campsites, none was open though, high season now over. We stumbled upon some hotel that was 60 euros for two beds in a dorm. When we arrived in Bredasdorp it was already pitch black. We saw a couple of power bikes parked in front of what looked like a cute pub, The Pink Piano, so we figured we could go in, have a drink and ask locals for advice.
If you’re not in the business of meeting quirky characters don’t bother to couch surf in South Africa. Here one must leave their prejudices at the door and step in expecting nothing. Which is what we did, and we were rewarded with hospitality, sense of humor and some of the most unusual encounters. The cocktail nation of South Africa may lack in the peaceful cohabitation department and may not be the jolliest around, but this very polarized structure has allowed all sorts of social specializations that are quite an eye opener for someone coming from a place like Romania. Not being judgmental is hard, so let’s go.
In Cape Town we were hosted by a jewish guy who works in the film industry and his romanian girlfriend, then by christian Afrikaners, who couldn’t be more different from the cocaine addicts we were warned about. The Cape Town motorcycling community provided the fun, the information and the rides into the veld. 300 kays from the Mother Town, in Bredasdorp’s Pink Piano pub, we had a bad feeling that it was the right place to ask for directions. Three biker dudes and a goth chick were dressed head to toe in black leathers, sporting army style haircuts and swastikas pins. We sipped our tea and beer while the guys debated our situation in Afrikaans. Nothing good could come out if this, we thought, but we were about to be proven wrong. The guy sitting right next to us at the counter put down the phone and offered us a wide smile; his wife had agreed to welcome us for the night at their place! JJ is a mechanic at a testing facility for the South African military aviation. His wife teaches English at a colored school, and they have two kids, a girl and a boy. We enjoyed each other’s companies and stories so much, it was hard to put an end to the night. In the morning we exchanged contacts and regretfully said good-bye. Cheers, JJ!
Midway between Ct and PE, on the East coast of SA, lies the scenic garne Route, named for its lush vegetation. Garden Route is hailed as one of world’s best drives. Frankly, we couldn’t see why: its basically a quite busy freeway running parallel to, but far from a section of the country’s most beautiful coastline. The drive itself is not particularly thrilling, as the routes more a eco-tourism destination, for shopping, sunbathing and the odd celebrity spotting, a holidaymaker and the world’s rich and famous paradise. It is a charming holiday area, not catering to the travelers on a show string, but to enjoy the beautiful views, the beaches and tranquil bays, one must leave the freeway and drive many kays to reach the resort towns. We had nor the time or the budget for this, so after a few off-road detours to smell the salty breeze and sink our eyes into the endless horizon we kind of got bored with the traffic.
In 1488 Bartholomew Diaz was the first european to reach south African soil in Mossel Bay. We stopped there in a cute cafe owned by architects, for a latte and internet. Later we asked some locals where to sample the famous Mossel Bay wild oysters, but they were not even close to the ones we had in Walvis Bay! The seafood basket at the Sea Gipsy was brilliant though, if not very cheap.
Garden Route, when it’s not full of jeeps.
After Knysna we decided we had had enough, so we took a left towards Route 62, via Albert Pass. In a couple of kilometers we were again alone, riding on a superb gravel road that winded up rolling green mountains. For a while we remembered to take some shots of the stunning views and frigid waterfalls, but soon enough we were too spellbound to stop.
The road looked like that:
Once we hit the plateau again, we took Route 62 across the hilly countryside that cuts through several conservancies. It was already getting dark though, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see much. At some lost filling station we bought petrol and some food.
It was after 8 p.m. when we arrived at our host in Port Elizabeth. Bernard had been following our thread on advrider.com since last year. But this guy was an Ironman. If you are not familiar with what is the toughest and most grueling athletic competition in the world, let us give you a few details. The numbers alone defy description: 3,8 km open sea swim, 180 km cycling, 42,2 km run; world record is over 8 hours, cutoff time 17 hours. Bernard has done it twice, in little over 11 hours! He has been training his body and mind for a lifetime to beat what is generally accepted to be humanly possible. And yet, with this ironman schedule, he invited us in his life, and boy, what a man we discovered behind the iron!
Bernard & Sharmyn are quite the iron couple really: she has also done the competition, twice!
PE is the third largest port for cargo, built around the Bay of the Lagoon and the 1799 fort, but officially named after the arrival of the 1820 British settlers, their ships carried ashore through crashing surf and confronted by a desolate sweep of sand and the uncharted bushland behind that. Today PE is – together with Uitenhage area – the heart of the motor industry where the largest automobile manufacturers are headquartered. Also PE’s Nelson Mandela Bay is the venue for Ironman South Africa. The wind swept beaches are perfect for an intimate picnic, so we grabbed some barbecued chicken and a bottle of Merlot and hit the dunes.
The few rustic Dutch town houses that survive have been refurbished as souvenir shops and info points.
Malls and recreational areas line the ocean. From this wifi connected cafe we could see street-side african art dealers selling generic carvings and jewelry called ‘curios’ since Zambia.
PE is nicknamed ‘the friendly city’, and rightfully so. Terry, an architect and his wife Dorianne had also been online with our travels for a while and were keen to meet and host us. We shared many stories over a lovely dinner, a far too short opportunity to get to know each other. Hoping that we would meet again, we left PE the next morning, as Bernard had made plans to braai at his father’s farm near Somerset East. We hoped on our bikes: us on the Tenere, Bernard on his 80s BMW R1100 S, and 150 km and a prickly pear road side snack later, we were in front of the Avon Heights gate.
The country estate is a collection of charming buildings and family memories: pliable chairs manufactured in the 30s for the British army, old photographs, vintage furniture and a lovely rustic kitchen & stove
Among the family treasures, a 1932 Harley, from a 1137 pcs. lot specially designed for the British army. One day Bernard will bring this baby back to life.
But the most precious secret on the estate is the waterfall that offers an astonishing background for braaing and swimming. We left our beers to cool in the crystal clear stream and made the fire.
Our chilled gang
Avon Falls, an impressive sight at over 30 meters drop into several pools
All that is good must have an end though
In our case that meant a trip to the public hospital in Somerset East, where Bernard’s dad had to get a few stitches after injuring himself onto a rock. The three hour wait in the hallway was quite interesting for us: this sketchy countryside hospital is not much worse that our Municipal facility in Bucharest!