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wanderlust: Garden Route, Multi-Country - 2003-08-12

#3 - Garden Route

TRAVEL DOES WHAT GOOD NOVELISTS ALSO DO TO THE LIFE OF EVERYDAY, PLACING IT LIKE A PICTURE IN ITS FRAME OR A GEM IN ITS SETTING, SO THAT THE INTRINSIC QUALITIES ARE MADE MORE CLEAR. TRAVEL DOES THIS WITH THE VERY STUFF THAT EVERYDAY LIFE IS MADE OF, GIVING TO IT THE SHARP CONTOUR AND MEANING OF ART.
--Freya Stark

“FIVE!!!” screamed the crowd of 20 over the 10 knot wind…..

“FOUR!!!”

“THREE!!!”

“TWO!!!”

“ONE!!!”

“BUUUUUNN!!!!”

I didn’t hear the rest as I exploded off the platform using my 14 years of competitive swimming experience. I lifted my head up and out, tightened my thighs and calves and thrust my arms into a perfect swan dive formation. The only problem was I was not diving into a swimming pool.

Far from it.

I had just launched myself out into the open chasm beneath the bridge. The only thing between myself and the canyon floor 216m (710 feet) below was the stuff we breathe - air…..

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I left Cape Town 5 days prior and was getting my fill of adrenaline in South Africa’s scenic Garden Route. Before setting out from South Africa’s 2nd largest city, I spent a day exploring the Cape of Good Nature Reserve with my excellent host-become-tour guide, Jan. En route to the park, we stopped at the quaint villages along the coast to admire the bold surfers braving the frigid Atlantic in Muizenberg then visited the town of Boulders, adequately named after it most distinguishable natural feature. In 1989, to the tiny village’s tourist office delight, 3000 African penguins declared the local beach their home. The village soon became a must stop for every tourist bus heading to the Nature Reserve. After about an hour of watching the little guys waddle around in their tuxedos we were on our way.

Paying the admission fee, we drove directly to the Cape of Good Hope, clambered up the rocky outcropping while battling 25-knot winds and partook in the obligatory photo-opp. Jan took off in his car to meet me on the other side of the Reserve while I walked along a 3-km well-beaten path. After about 1 km, the path came to a fork. The trail to the right dropped down 150 meters to a small cove with a white sandy beach surrounded by some of the largest sea cliffs in the world, towering 250 meters skyward from the dark blue Atlantic. The cliffs and inhospitable coastline brought back memories of the Portuguese coast. After a picnic lunch and more exploring, we headed back to Cape Town not before seeing hundreds of ostriches, rock hyraxes (‘dassies’) and baboons that were wreaking havoc on cars in the parking lot.

The next morning I caught a ferry to visit Robben Island, South Africa’s answer to Alcatraz that held the country’s most feared prisoners for over 400 years. Robben Island was put on the international map however, during the brutal years of Apartheid, when it housed the most ‘dangerous’ enemies of the state, most notably Nelson Mandela. Soon after the fall of Apartheid in 1994, it was decided to keep Robben Island intact and turn it into a museum.

WHERE WE WILL NOT FORGET THE BRUTALITY OF APARTHEID, WE WILL NOT WANT ROBBEN ISLAND TO BE A MONUMENT OF OUT HARDSHIPS AND SUFFERING. WE WOULD WANT IT TO BE A TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT AGAINST THE FORCES OF EVIL; A TRIUMPH OF WISDOM AND LARGENESS OF SPIRIT AGAINST SMALL MINDS AND PETTINESS; A TRIUMPH OF COURAGE AND DETERMINATION OVER HUMAN FRAILTY AND WEAKNESS
-- Ahmed Kathrada, 1993

It was a cold, wet and misty morning and the fog did not allow us to see the mainland, 10 miles away. The weather made the cold darkness radiating from the inner walls of the maximum-security prison that much more profound. Our tour guide began by saying that he had been a prisoner for 18 years for resisting Apartheid. From first hand experience, he told us about daily life in the prison. He made it a point to stress that the prisoners did not sit in their cells and simply wait out their sentences. It was the idea of Nelson Mandela to turn the prison into a university with ‘Each one, Teach one’ as their motto. The prisoners would teach each other in secret and many political prisoners who came to the island with no more than a 3rd or 4th grade education, left with a High School degree. Many of the inmates who received their education behind Robben Island’s steel bars, would later go on to lead the new, free South Africa in the years to come. As the 2-½ hour tour came to a close, we walked down the solitary confinement cellblock and 45 people stood deathly quiet as we solemnly stared into Nelson’s Mandela’s 5 x 5 cage of 18 years. The experience was one I will never forget.

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CITIES ARE FULL OF THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN CAUGHT IN MONTHLY PAYMENTS FOR AVOCADO GREEN FURNITURE SETS.
-- Laurel Lee, Godspeed

I was itching to leave Cape Town to see what the rest of the country had to offer. I spent a night in the coastal resort towns of Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. Each fishing village becomes inundated during the summer months with sun-worshipping beach-goers and wave-hungry surfers from the northern cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein. Seeing that summer was 6 months away and the Indian Ocean was a scant 1-2 degree Celsius warmer than the Atlantic, I enjoyed the peace and quiet, killing time before my reserved date to begin South Africa’s renowned Otter Trail. I may have been killing more than time if the bungee chord tied around my legs didn’t hold……..

I had just launched myself off of Bloukrans Bridge, the highest bridge in Africa and site of the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. Like many previous stupid ideas, this one had been decided over a couple of cold 6-packs. The evening before, while shooting pool and drinking Castle Lager at Tube & Axe in Storms River, 7 fellow hostel-mates from the nearby city of Port Elizabeth convinced me to partake in, what must be the stupidest sport that a New Zealander has invented. There is just something fundamentally wrong and absolutely against out nature as 2-legged mammals to voluntarily throw ourselves off high precipices.

So here I was, 216 meters, 200 meters, 150 meters…. above the canyon floor accelerating to 150 km/hr (93 mph) during a 4 second freefall. This being my first bungee jump, I vividly recall thinking “Holy [insert blaspheme here]!”

My second thought was how deathly quiet it was - quite different than I had imagined. No shrill piercing of the wind whipping past my ears, complete silence. The silence was shattered by a blood-curling scream originating from my lungs.

“YAAAAAHOOOO!!!!!!”

As I got closer, and then too-close-for-comfort closer to the canyon floor, I could make out the leaves on the trees and then felt tension around my legs as the bungee caught. Down, down, and further down, 170 meters, roughly 56 stories, when I began to fly back up in the reverse direction. The world’s largest elastic bang caught, recoiled and I was flung skyward, 100 meters back up towards the bridge. I let out another “YEEEE-HAAAW!!!” and continued to bounce 3 or 4 more times until the chord reached its equilibrium point. Triumphantly, with my 2 feet back on the bridge and a big grin on my face, I was tempted to go a 2nd time but my rational side got the better of me. My backpacker budget only allowed me to throw myself off of 216-meter heights once every trip to Africa.

Having filled my adrenaline reserves temporarily, I was off to begin the Otter Trail, reputably one of the top 2 hikes in the country. The National Park’s service only permits 12 people to begin the trail per day and the waiting list is on average 12 months. By the stroke of good luck I got a spot. The five-day, four night trek runs through the pristine Tsitsikama National Park abundant with indigenous forests along the rocky shores of the Indian Ocean. Imagine hiking along the coast near Big Sur, California or the western coast of the island of Chiloe in Chile for 5 days and you will get an idea of what type of treat I was in for.

The first day was cool and crisp at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit yet beautiful and sunny. I set off with a Dutch couple who was on the last 2 months of their 12-month around-the-world trip. The path began along the jagged coastline as the cliffs fell away into the relentlessly pounding surf. Waves crashed against the rocks every 2-3 seconds with such force that the ground would shake and the spray would reach 4, 5 even 6 meters (20 feet) in the air. After scrambling over a boulder field suitable for giants, we eventually arrived at a 30-meter waterfall that poured down into an icy waterhole, which dribbled another 15 meters into the frothy ocean below. We had a picnic lunch of sandwiches and then, since they were only there for the day hike, Peter and Nicole headed back as I continued on to the first of the overnight camps. About 2 hours later, my 5 other trail-mates (there were some last-minute cancellations) from the Pietermaritzburg hiking club joined me. The campsite which included two 6-person overnight huts was perfectly situated, 20 meters from the ocean. After dinner and a campfire under a bright starry Southern Hemisphere sky, we fell soundly asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.

On the second day, clouds covered the sky and with them, brought an occasional light rain and gentle breeze. Given that ‘tsitsikama’ means ‘the place of much water’ in Khosian, the local dialect, it was to be expected. The day’s 8 km hike brought us inland through Lord-of-the-Ring-like-forests with lush green vegetation and lazily hanging vines. It made me wonder if Tolkien himself had hiked these very forests given that he was born in South Africa and spent his early childhood in the country. Up and down, up and down as we hiked through narrow gorges at the mercy of rugged coastline. As we entered the forests, we would occasionally reach vantage points in the forest’s thick canopy peeking through to the Indian Ocean, 150 meters below. To those who have never seen the Indian Ocean, do not feel like you are missing out. At least here on the southern tip of Africa, it is like its counterparts the Atlantic and Pacific - big, blue and wet. I hiked for a time with my companions but pushed on ahead, preferring to be alone while thoroughly enjoying the solitude and peacefulness of the park. I was awarded with seeing birds such as the Knysna Lorie and the rarely seen Cape Clawless Otter.

The next 3 days Mother Nature was more agreeable and we were blessed with spectacular sunny skies and warm days in the low 70’s. The path never took us out of earshot of the rumbling Indian thundering upon the golden brown cliffs. The most challenging and enjoyable part of the trek were the 3 river crossings where the rivers meet the sea. Having consulted the ocean tides, we knew our time window but my pace was a bit fast and I arrived at high tide for the Bloukrans crossing (incidentally, the same river I had bungeed over 5 days prior) which was the most difficult of the crossings. I killed an hour with an early lunch and then changed into shorts, strapped on my tevas, walked about 300 m up river and waded through the frigid water. After arriving safely on the opposite riverbank, I needed to hook back up with the trail 300 meters downstream. This required a lateral rock climb 2 meters above the turbulent river/sea with a 15-kg backpack. It was challenging, but a blast as I hummed my best impression of the James Bond theme song out loud for an exciting 15 minutes.

Although Bloukrans was the most enjoyable part of the hike, I must admit the best part of the trail had to be the outhouses. Expecting ‘long drops’ as they are commonly called in this part of the world, they were clean toilets with running water (don’t ask me how, we were miles away from civilization). The cherry on top though, was the tinted single-viewing windows that allowed you to see out, but not in. Each outhouse had spectacular views overlooking the sea. Nothing like doing good old #2 as you gazed out and watched the Indian relentlessly pound the cliffs 50 meters away. It was a hiker’s dream come true!!

The hike ended as amazing as it began. As you neared the last kilometer of the hike on the 5th day, you reached a high cliff 250 meters above sea level that ended abruptly, overlooking a 5 kilometer white, wide, sandy beach. After briskly hiking down the 10 or so switchbacks, I kicked off my hiking boots, changed into my bathing suit and ran into the ocean, diving headfirst into the cold but refreshing 2 meter waves.

Not only have I seen and experienced some amazing things over the past 3 weeks; I have met some really great people. In addition to those people I have already mentioned, I have met and befriended travelers from all over the globe. Andre from Switzerland, Melinda from Australia, Steve and Nichole who I spent a day biking with, Steve and Claire on a 12 month backpacking world tour, and Jesus and his 2 companeros de Mexico, among others. They all have their own special stories and adventures but I wanted to mention one traveler in particular. Axel Bayer started his travels on August 4, 2002, from Germany and has traveled through Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. A pretty major undertaking, particularly when traveled by BIKE! Using no other form of transportation than his mountain bike, he was in Plettenberg Bay on Aug 1, 2003, only 400 km from his final destination of Cape Town. It makes you only begin to imagine the will and determination of the human spirit.

I am currently in Umkomaas the scuba diving hub for the Aliwal Shoal reef 30 km south of Durban, meeting up with one of my best friend’s from Miami uncle shortly. From here I am off to the Drakensberg Mountain Range (Dragon Mountains) for 6 days of hiking before heading up to Swaziland and later Inhambane, Mozambique to take a Scuba course.

IF OUR LIVES ARE DOMINATED BY A SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS, THEN PERHAPS FEW ACTIVITIES REVEAL AS MUCH ABOUT THE DYNAMICS OF THIS QUEST – IN ALL ITS ARDOR AND PARADOXES - THAN OUR TRAVELS. THEY EXPRESS, HOWEVER INARTICULATELY, AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT LIFE MIGHT BE ABOUT, OUTSIDE OF THE CONSTRAINTS OF WORK AND OF THE STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL. YET RARELY ARE THEY CONSIDERED TO PRESENT PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS — THAT IS, ISSUES REQUIRING THOUGHT BEYOND THE PRACTICAL. WE ARE INUNDATED WITH ADVICE ON WHERE TO TRAVEL, BUT WE HEAR LITTLE OF WHY OR HOW WE SHOULD GO, EVEN THOUGH THE ART OF TRAVEL SEEMS NATURALLY TO SUSTAIN A NUMBER OF QUESTIONS NEITHER SO SIMPLE NOR SO TRIVIAL, AND WHOSE STUDY MIGHT IN MODEST WAYS CONTRIBUTE TO AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THE GREEK PHILOSOPHERS BEAUTIFULLY TERMED EUDAIMONIA, OR ‘HUMAN FLOURISHING’

–Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (2002)

davidmlawrence@yahoo.com


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