Reading the Tea Leaves of Ooty and Munnar

Our last few days have been incredibly scenic as we cycled through the hill country and tea estates of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We were both quite surprised at the elevation and challenges that the many hills provided. On the plains, the temperatures where hot but as we climbed up to 7500 feet, things cooled off nicely.  Our first destination was the previous British hill post of Ooty.  To get there, we negotiated another tiger reserve on our bikes and wondered again if we were being watched from the bush. We saw a lot of evidence of elephants – fresh dung, game trails, and freshly broken trees but alas, no actual sightings of the pachyderms.  With most of the wild animals behind us, we were faced with a 4000 ft+, 10 km+ climb, 36 hairpin turns and some serious grade to the road. With the heat and heavier bikes, it took us over 3 hours of steep climbing, but the views of the colorful Tamil homes and vegetable gardens made it worth it  – plus we both enjoy a good challenge.  As we approached 6000 feet, we climbed above the clouds (and smog) that was with us most of the previous few days.

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Trying to figure out if these are dangerous wild buffalo or just future McD’s burgers

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A Climb Begins

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Counting down as we ascended. Suffering began at 29 and continued to 1!

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Tamil Homes

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After some recovery time (read: NAP!), we ventured out in Ooty for a stroll around the Government Botanical Gardens (with an impressive collection of American and Mexican cactus) and a visit to the local, open-air, food market (which strengthened our resolve to stay with mostly veg dishes during the trip).

After a much appreciated crisp evening at elevation, we hopped on a historical train for a spectacular hour-long track precariously perched on cliffs overlooking more Tamil settlements and farms.  (Unfortunately, all photos for the day evaporated into the ether).

Post train, a 30 km+ downhill (woop!) out of the Ooty area had us dodging monkeys along the side of the road and twisting around more hairpin turns. As the designated sweeper, riding in the back required a bit of braking, and I managed to snap a brake cable, but our team car and wonderful guides, Emil and Majesh, had an extra bike so I did not lose too much time to the peloton.

From Ooty, it was a lot of up and down riding. We climbed to Top Station (in Tamil Nadu) at 6300 feet,  Munnar at 5600 feet and up to Lockhart Gap (in Kerala).

 

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Tea-Bagged.  Driver OK.
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These guys are everywhere. We saw one launched 100 feet in the air from a collision with a car but he was seemingly OK although a bit stunned.
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The kids are always so happy to see us!

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How many people around the world and in so many countries has this jeep design transported?

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Giant bee hives

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Up, up and away

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Susan making an inside move on the way down from Lockhart Gap

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The plains of Tamil Nadu

Tea plantations were everywhere. The seemingly beautiful tea shrubs grow in every nook and cranny as well as elevation of the hills. Women exclusively worked the fields from early morning to 4 PM each day. The strong scent of tea emanated from the many tea factories that were scattered along the road every few kilometers.

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60+ year old tea “squishing” machine. The ingenuity in this country is impressive.

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Have you had your glass today!?!

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The road continues.  Through forests, past lumber mills and cattle auctions….on to the famous backwaters of Kerala next.  Stay tuned!

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The 11 am scrum at the Government Liquor Store in the “dry” state of Kerala.  We saw this everyday at every hour at every store that we passed. 

 

The Anxiety of Periyar National Park, Kerala

Imagine the scene if you will. It is 7:30 am in the Periyar National Park. The temperature is cool and the hot Indian sun has not yet had a chance to fully warm the air. A light mist rises above the Periyar river as Kingfishers dart about looking for their first meal of the day. Black monkeys hoot above in Banyan trees alerting the troop of your presence. A pack of otters play at the river’s edge, long-tailed squirrels jump from tree to tree as toucans sing out and woodpeckers do what they do.  The landscape is surreal.

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As you venture further into the wilderness, the anticipation of larger animal sightings increase. With the first encounter of fresh sloth bear dung, no more than minutes old, you notice your guide becomes a bit more vigilant and less supportive of the frequent photo stops. You begin to wonder what is out there and close.

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Long-tailed squirrel
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Giant Fruit Bats (3foot wingspan) waiting for the eeeveninggg

Gradually more and more animal tracks begin to show themselves. Fresh elephant tracks, days old tiger tracks, wild buffalo tracks lead to the river that you are following and that happens to be the only source of water in the area.

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Elephant track
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Tiger track. Rather large.

And then the trail heads out to a small plain. It is a kilometer wide and you are completely  in the open. You continue to wonder what is watching you and why you aren’t in a jeep. You are fully committed, out in the middle of the field when an animated, but quiet, guide hops out of the bush hundreds of meters away and frantically sends a barrage of hand signals to your guide. Now your guide appears to be a little less confident and gives you some curt directions to get off the trail and move very quickly for cover.  Gulp.

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After a few tense (or tenser moments), you learn that you are likely not on the menu today. It is “only” a female elephant and its baby.No problem, you think. We’ll just turn around and head the other way. That’s when you guide moves in the opposite direction of everyone else and starts stalking the elephant while giving you directions to fall in line, stay close, and stay quiet. Gulp, pucker, gulp.  Meanwhile, your wife is informing the guide, Devi ( a lovely and knowledgeable guy if a bit new to the job) that there really is no need to see a wild elephant.

20 minutes later, there are no sightings. You call “uncle” and suggest that we go find some more Kingfishers and Hornbills. There is always the National Geographic channel back at the hotel.

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Kicking off our Cycling from Bangalore to Cochin

“Alright, alright, alright.”  Apart from a few days of cycling in late December, we haven’t been on bikes since November so we were both excited to start our two week cycle from Bangalore to Cochin with plenty of stops in National Parks and Reserves on the way.

India Route

We headed out with Emil and Majesh from Xara Active Vacations (Thomas, the owner, was fantastic with pre-trip planning and working with us to customize the trip. If you are considering cycling India or Sri Lanka, be sure to reach out to these guys). They were equipped with Scott hybrid bikes which worked well on both the road and dirt surfaces.  We were both pleasantly surprised at the great conditions of most of the roads we traveled – there was a lot of new tarmac and plenty of room most of the time.  Of course, they were also well traveled by buses, trucks, cars and scooters. But while we found the drivers very aggressive and fast (To get anywhere in India, one needs to be aggressive and driving is taken to a whole new level here.), for the most part, drivers give cyclists plenty of space. There is a lot of honking but once you understand the right-of-way rules and how passing works in the country, you can cycle comfortably within the traffic patterns.  You need to stay focused and be vigilant of the buses that are everywhere and are often traveling the fastest.

The team also had a brand new Toyota Innova which was a great support vehicle and very comfortable for the transfers around the congested areas and through some of the non-cycling tiger reserves. Equipped with a roof rack with four cycles, it was quite the exotic item which continuously turned heads and generated smiles and laughter throughout both the cities and the country regions. (It can also draw attention at police checkpoints where some strategically placed rupees are the best way to get on your way quickly).

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It just took a few hours to shed the Bangalore traffic and get out in the country side.  The guys were kind enough to make a quick stop to do some custom fitting of Susan’s bike to accommodate her shorter legs.

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Along the way, we cycled through some silk worm farms and had a chance to stop and check out the production.

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Our initial destination was Mysore and the famous Mysore Palace (second only to the Taj in terms of tourist visits).

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Along the way, we also climbed up to the Chamundi temple where we were fortunate enough to arrive during a festive time with plenty of crowds and festive cows.

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We also cycled through our first tiger reserves (Bandipur and Mudumalai Nataional Parks), which we found a little bit unnerving. Although tigers are rarely seen and the elephants usually do not come out until the evenings or early mornings, we ran into a couple wild ones close to a check point .  The same check point where the local police informed us that cycling through the reserve has been recently banned for safety reasons.

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We really enjoyed the first couple of days in the India countryside and all its beauty. Cycling provides such a unique way to see a country.  Next up is a big climb from Masinagudi to Ooty.  While Emil and Majesh informed us of ” the big climb that keeps climbing”, we did not expect the severity of the grade that we would experience for many hairpin turns.  Stay tuned for more details on the climb and beautiful, colorful Ooty!

Barmy Bangalore

We are a bit behind on our posts after touching down in India 17 days ago.  We were quickly swallowed up with the chaos of the cities, the beauty of the country and limited by the spotty and constrained Wi-Fi networks here in India.

Our entry point was Bangalore where we scheduled a few days to adjust to the new time zone, deal with jet lag and regroup for a bike ride from Bangalore to Cochin. We were flying from Cape Town which is only a 4 hour time difference but flew Emirates (nice airline) through Dubai on a red-eye.

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We quickly learned that there is very little relaxing in India’s large cities. Bangalore is India’s 3rd largest city and continues to grow rapidly fueled by its IT hub and international customers.  There is a beautiful new airport, road construction everywhere, residential and commercial construction projects and traffic that rivals the traffic jams of Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta decades ago. The honking and road noise is constant and makes Manhattan seem quiet and tame.  The horn is as important as the gas and break pedals for Indian drivers. It takes some getting used to, but after a couple weeks, you can become somewhat comfortable with it.

Navigating the city was a little tricky during our initial forays.  We got stuck in mad traffic from the airport.  The hotel recommended, auto-rickshaw driver for our first outing to an art museum tried to take us to three other locations and could not find our destination. We missed out on a booked tabla performance because it took us an hour to find a taxi willing to take us the 9 kms to the performance  – which ended up taking us another 90 minutes to drive to the location of the performance. Although, in the course of the taxi hunt, we met a lovely and feisty, elderly Afghani woman, Mrs. Khan, who reprimanded the young taxi drivers for 20 minutes for refusing to help us. (In hindsight, we cannot blame the taxi drivers given the traffic that night).

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So after spending 4+ hours in taxis and a few more in auto rickshaws in the first couple of days, we decided it would be best to stay local and walk for the remainder of our visit. We were staying only a few blocks from the MG Road area where there are plenty of good options for restaurants that are kind on visitors’ stomachs and a plethora of microbreweries – a relatively new addition over the last few years that has been driven by local entrepreneurs and the local government.  We were impressed and enjoyed visits to Arbor Brewing Company, The Biere ClubBrewsky and Toit. We also had an excellent meal at Karavalli – pricey by local standards but well worth it.

Walking is better than sitting in the traffic of Bangalore, but it is not without its challenges.  Walking is slow going- dodging the people, the cars, the scooters, the bikes, the cows and hundreds of other obstacles. Streets and sidewalks are often pockmarked with holes.  Stairs and steps do not always comply to standard sizes making them awkward.  Garbage is piled up on sidewalks, and often it is burning.  It is a bit chaotic and sounds a bit crazy but this is part of the charm of India; it is a full assault on all five of your senses!

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The biggest downside to walking is all the ogling. Given our limited wardrobe, Susan mostly has sport skirts and skirts are not very common here. A Westerner in a skirt is very uncommon and apparently quite the site.  The staring is constant, aggressive, and from males of all ages. (It has continued in the countrysides where a cycling western female in a skirt is extremely exotic but more on that later).

We have enjoyed the food a lot and are eating Indian 3 meals a day. There are Western options – the burger and pasta is often there – but the Southern India dishes are too good. We are mostly sticking with veg options so there is a lot of dahl, aloo gobi, paneer dishes of all types.  Dosas and idlis with sambar as well as tomato and coconut chutneys are our preferred breakfast. Bread options are fantastic with far more options than the standard naan in the States- e.g. parathas, parottas, chapaties, rotis, and more.  The range of pickles are amazing as well and tasty- mangos, limes, lemons, dates, papaya, garlic, bamboo!

Our visit to Bangalore was more about prepping for our cycling rather than sightseeing, but we did a little and visited the Modern Art Museum (where we were followed by security guards in every one of the 20+ rooms – I think it was Susan’s shifty looks), the Parliament building (beautiful),  and the oasis of calm that is Cubbon Park.

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During our last couple days and night, we found the neighborhood of Indiranagar that was a bit easier to tour on foot and filled with a bunch of interesting restaurants and shops.  We would definitely recommend this spot if you find yourself visiting this city.

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Bangalore was the perfect entry point. There was a bit of an adjustment period, but it has been fun jumping into the chaos, taking in some of the sights and enjoying the local dishes. Stay tuned for details on our cycle trip to Cochin.

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Reflecting on South Africa

Prior to arriving in South Africa, we were not sure exactly what to expect and received mixed feedback from people that had previously visited. People spoke of poverty, security, and the dangers of driving although more spoke of the diversity, scenery, and history.  It was not that long ago,  there was a regular state of emergency in South Africa and protests, riots and killings were a regular occurrence.  The 70’s and 80’s were terrible times here but even as late as the early 90’s, there was trouble.  However, in 1994, South Africa drafted a democratic constitution that helped facilitate a pivotal change allowing for the transition from apartheid rule to a democratic nation.  Nelson Mandela’s leadership, the end of apartheid and the 2010 World Cup (and many other factors) have had a significant impact on the culture here. Yet, one still feels the tension beneath the surface and the disparity among the population is visually apparent all over the country.

 

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After having spent five weeks in South Africa, in our opinion, it is a stunning and beautiful country, diverse is so many ways- e.g. landscape, population, weather, etc.- with a lot to offer travelers.  We spent three weeks in Cape Town and the surrounding areas- e.g. Cape Point, Stellenbosch, Hout Bay, Simon’s Town, and two weeks in the Karoo and the Garden Route.  We could have stayed longer in South Africa and Africa as a whole.  (We already want to return to the Western and Eastern Cape Winelands, spots missed on the beautiful Garden Route and Cape Town, in general.  Also, in terms of Africa as a whole, we plan to visit places like Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique and St Helena, an island off the coast of Africa which is building its first airport and flights from Johannesburg to St Helena will start this year.)  We definitely suggest getting out there and visiting South Africa.  Not only is this a gorgeous country to experience and explore, but right now, the exchange rate is so favorable against the USD, once you get here, you can have a 5 star vacation at a low cost.

Security should be a concern and one needs to be aware at all times while walking in the city and driving in the country. Nothing should be taken for granted. Common sense should prevail.  But having said that, it is certainly possible to be comfortable and enjoy your visit.

When traveling, there is often the option to “go deep” in a region or “go wide”. We are certainly very thankful for having the opportunity to spend quality time in Cape Town and the surrounding region.  Here are some of our reflections on our visit:

  • The scenery is stunning between the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Table Mountain, Overberg Mountains, False Bay, Swartberg Pass.

 

  • Mountains dominate the Cape Town cityscape.  In addition to the well-known Table Mountain, one is constantly treated to views of Devils Peak, Lions Head, and the 12 Apostles – from everywhere, city center, on the coast, from the water, and on all of the inbound and outbound highways – it is wonderful.
  • Keep an eye out for the “tablecloth” that blankets Table Mountain on a regular basis.  Dense fog accumulates and spreads out quickly on Table Mountain.  We witnessed it several times, and Table Mountain never disappoints offering stunning views.

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  • South Africa has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world-e.g. Coney Glen Beach in Knysna, The Head in Knysna, Oyster Bay, Walkers Bay Nature Reserve in Hermanus, etc.  However, one needs to be careful of sharks on most beaches.  Sharks are so prevalent that a shark flag system is used and shark spotters are positioned on or near the beaches.

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  • Our new favorite phrase  is “Pleasure” (Pronounced Pleeeesure). It is the way it is pronounced as well that makes this word special. It is used in lieu of you’re welcome and much nicer, in my opinion. I don’t think we have heard it in London or Sydney as much.  We heard it all the time after we thanked someone.
  • “Just now”, a local phrase, not to be confused with right now as it could mean 5 minutes from now, 5 hours or 5 days and I think we experienced all definitions.
  • This is a car-oriented culture, and drivers are aggressive. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. There is a limited bus and train system which we used very little.  Uber is great and very affordable for inter-city transit.
  • Although drivers are aggressive, they share the road.  When someone would like to pass, the driver in the lead pulls over to the side allowing the other car(s) to pass. If only the Pacific Northwest would adopt this practice.
  • Hitchhiking is very common here among the locals- women traveling solo, women with children and men are seen hitchhiking on the side of the road everywhere. Some holding cash in their hands to entice drivers. It is the non-official transport network.

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  • Constant attention while driving is required here.  It is not unusual to see people walking in the middle of roads, running across the road or on the sides of highways. (We have enjoyed living without a car.  The two weeks on the Garden Route was the first time we used a car in about 3 months.)

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  • Keep your eyes out for baboons in the road as well. We only saw baboons on the road twice during our time in South Africa but they are everywhere.  Think of them as the “raccoon of Africa” only with longer claws and sharper teeth.  They are after our food that we leave in cars, garbage cans, and along the roads.

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  • Be sure to stop at train tracks.  There are no blinking lights or automated gates to alert drivers to oncoming trains.  It is quite unnerving.
  • People are generous.  One morning we went to our car at a place we were staying on the Garden Route, and the young kid had washed our rental car for us.  (Although Chris thinks they may be more entrepreneurial and looking for innovative ways for tips)
  • Gas stations typically have not one but two or three attendants to service your car.  One to pump the gas and the other to clean the windshield or check the oil, water, air pressure.  It feels like the 70’s back in the States!
  • Open bars and “free mini-bars” are the norm in places along the Garden Route.  From water to wine to tawny ports, all are free and as much as want. It is very inviting.

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  • Personalized service on the Garden Route was a regular occurrence as well.  At one place we stayed in Prince Albert, the owner made dinner reservations for us in advance without asking us.  It was much appreciated since we arrived on a Sunday night in a sleepy town with not much open.  At another place, we had a gorgeous rose arrangement in the room.  (I thought they were fake roses, at first, but no, they were real.)                               IMG_3000
  • Security is everywhere in Cape Town and surrounding areas- e.g. security personnel at grocery stores, security gates to enter spas, 24-hour armed security at apartment buildings and restaurants, and aggressive barb wire is everywhere.  Even the vineyards, 50km outside of Cape Town, have barb wire surrounding the grapes.

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  • Wi-Fi is atrocious in this country.  It could be the geography and population, outdated telecom laws or something we missed. But it is awful. The free stuff is bandwidth-limited and most of it is not free.  It is very different from the most of the rest of the world, and the country would do well to address – both for tourism and more importantly, local growth and innovation.
  • Mandela’s vision was for a rainbow nation.  And while the sentiment is often quoted, as a traveler, we experienced something different. We were constantly confronted with two different classes of living standards.  It was most prominent in tourist areas. As example, wherever there was a scenic, coastal hamlet, you could be sure to find a township 10km down the road housing the workers that support all the restaurant and hotels.

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  • For carnivores, there are a plethora of unique meats to try here-  kudo, springbok, ostrich.
  • Ostrich farms in the Karoo area are plentiful.  The meat is lean and tasty.  And it is lower in fat and cholesterol as well as higher in protein, calcium and iron as compared with other meats. Maybe we should eat more ostrich in the States?  We really enjoyed all the meat but especially the springbok and ostrich carpaccio.

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  • Even the most popular snack is meat.  Biltong is a tasty, cured and dried meat much better than jerky, in our opinion. We need to figure out either how to make Biltong or get in the States.  It is super tasty.

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  • Bobotie is a favorite dish of Capetonians, the national dish of South Africa, and definitely worth a try.  It’s a baked dish of minced beef and lamb with curry spice, yellow rice and topped with egg custard.  Bananas, coconut, and chutney are served as sides for topping Bobotie.
  • Wine and wineries are abundant here with the oldest vineyards dating to the 1650’s. An incredible amount of it is sold to the UK and not available elsewhere but the industry growth is strong and the geography wide – we will see more South African wine everywhere in the future.
  •  Pinotage, South Africa’s unique varietal, is a grape that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut. It is our new favorite wine, for sure.

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  • Cape Town is crazy busy during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. With Cape Town in the same time zone for most of Europe and easy overnight flights from most major cities in Europe, there are a lot of Europeans here during the holidays.  Plus many from Johannesburg travel to Cape Town for the holidays.
  • One can here a loud blast every day at noon in Cape Town.  Don’t fret as it is the cannon that has been fired for hundreds of years, initially for sailors to set their watches.  Today, local Capetonians still look at their watches to make sure it is set to noon.
  • Most of the geraniums purchased in the States and Europe originated in South Africa.
  • Protea, South Africa’s national flower, is a stunning flower with over 2,000 species. We admired these flowers everywhere we went.

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  • With the USD at an all time high against the rand (the finance minister was changed 3 times in a week prior to our arrival), hotels, restaurants, wine are super affordable.
  • There seems to be a strong undercurrent in the country for President Zuma to step down.  The changing of the finance minister three times in one week and the plummeting of the rand (local currency) seem to be driving this sentiment.
  • Despite the financial challenges for the rand, Cape Town seems to be going thru a bit of a renaissance.  Older buildings are being torn down and new ones going up.  This was especially prevalent in Green Point, one of the neighborhoods we stayed.
  • Cape Agulhas is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, not Cape Point.

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  • Sports are huge here, especially cricket and rugby.  We went to a soccer game and cricket match.  Average cricket match starts at 10 am and ends around 5 pm.  You would have to love this sport to sit in the Newlands stadium, as nice as it is, for this long.

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According to a recent survey, 41% of Americans did not take a single vacation day and 17% of Americans took less than five vacation days.  Europeans, on the other hand, have four weeks vacation plus holidays and take their vacation seriously. If you do not have any vacation plans yet, take your vacation this year, and we highly recommend visiting Cape Town and the Western Cape region.  (Think Southern California but less people, more culture, better beaches and more stunning mountains.)  Cape Town is a gorgeous and very livable city with stunning coastline and mountains.  Maybe a good place to spend six months a year when you retire?

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Plucking a Pearl from Oyster Bay

“With nowhere to go but everywhere…”, we left the desert and headed for the coast, specifically to Oyster Bay, 300 klicks away.  Our course weaved through a set of dramatic canyons, more ostrich farms, wine farms and finally ended in a painful, but beautiful, 25 km stretch of dirt road that intersected countless dairy farms and deposited at the end of the earth.

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We stayed at a small lodge, Oyster Bay Lodge, in Oyster Bay on a gigantic estate with 3.5 km of deserted coastline.  The property was stunning and just the place to hang out for a couple days and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. There were more trail runs with the birds in the morning, picnics on the beach and cribbage in the afternoon.  (We still need to play the rubber match.)

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After a couple days in Oyster Bay, we continued along to the coast making it to Knysna for a few nights. Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Wilderness and George are all big holiday destinations with incredible coast lines, beaches filled with Great White sharks and forests filled with mountain bike trails and epic multi-day treks, including the world famous Otter trail and shorter Dolphin trail.  We were not equipped for either trail so we may have to come back one day!  We opted for a few other shorter day hikes at Tsitsikamma National Park and Goukamma Nature Reserve.  Both beautiful spots.

Tsitsikamma is well known for its suspension bridge trail as well as its waves (which are one of the most photographed spots in the country).

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Goukamma was much smaller but no less spectacular.  We went out for a 2-3 hour hike and saw only 2 people the entire time.

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Hand operated ferry to trail head

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Just us for miles

The highlight of the Knysna area was the Heads  – the stunning outlet for the Knysna river. There was a bit of rain and wind when we were visiting which was a much appreciated break from the desert conditions over the last week, but it prevented us from our plans to see the Heads from a kayak.  But we were not too disappointed as the view from the cliffs above were fantastic.

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We are moving on from the coast again and are off to the winelands next.

 

 

Making a Pass at Prince Albert

Wow. The driving over the last couple days has been stunning.  Moonscapes, desert, mountain passes, ostrich farms, townships, and very few other drivers on the road. The main focus of our route was to take on Swartberg Pass, 30 kms of dirt road over a mountain pass separating two deserts and ending in Prince Albert, a small farming village with an incredible amount of charm.

A Garden Route Post 3

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The pass is quite a civil engineering feat and quite an accomplishment, especially considering it was built in the late 1800’s (hit the link above for history and details). Our ambitions for our drive were more modest, we simply wanted to safely get up and over with our under powered 2WD rental car.

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What We are Driving vs What We SHOULD be Driving

Driving the pass took about an hour or two – we lost track of time as we became awestruck with the views. It required more than average focus and attention given the soft shoulders, potholes, water bars, washboard stretches and other cars. There were a handful of other drivers – mostly German tourists in rental SUVs and trucks. South Africa seems to be super popular with German tourists and retirees given the time zone, weather and availability of direct flights.

 

Driving continues to be both fun and exciting.  For the most part, the roads are in good condition, including the dirt ones, which you quickly encounter when you leave the main routes.  However, obstacles are everywhere demanding constant attention.  People appear everywhere and in the most unsuspecting places.  Townships and informal settlements are spotted everywhere especially near industrial farms and agricultural areas, tourist towns, and even small villages. And near the townships, there tends to be a lot of foot traffic. Hitchhiking is very common and often commercial.  On highways and at intersections everywhere, you will find folks along the roads with bills in their hands looking for rides.

 

Wild animals are about but generally in the heat of the day they are scarce. Yet, there are ostrich farms all over the place and it has been on the menu every night.  Ostrich carpaccio is quite popular and very tasty.,.. and it does not taste like chicken.

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We spent a night in Prince Albert after completing the pass and had one of the better dinners of the trip at Gallery Cafe. Prince Albert valley is a major agricultural area with wine, olive oil, and produce grown here. So restaurants are stocked with locally grown delights. We had a bottle of a blended red wine from Reiersvlei that was fantastic.

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We have been staying at small inns and large B&B’s which have been great.  Most have had pools to dip into in the afternoon when temperatures hit 100+, and we have noted a local custom of well stocked,  no charge mini-bars and bottles of complimentary port wine in the rooms.

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Next up: we leave the desert and head back to the coast.

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All is Swell-en-dam it is Good to Be Here.

Our road trip continues, and our travels have taken us to one of the oldest Dutch settlements in South Africa, Swellendam, to a small national park with big views and finally to Calitzdorp, a sleepy,little, country settlement busting at the seams with port winemakers.

A Garden Route Post 2

While the road to Swellendam from Stanford wound through some beautiful vineyards, we did not find the town that interesting.  It felt a bit run down with not much going on, but we stayed at a small inn on a wine farm, Jan Harmsgat, about 20km from town which gave us access to some fantastic hiking trails.

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And we were close to the small, but impressive Botebok National Park where we had a short trek and toured some of the park by car. It had an impressive amount of wild springbok, gemsbok, and not surprisingly, bontebok roaming free.  Surprising, however, there was also an impressive amount of turtles roaming free as well – curious given the hot and arid conditions.

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Further up the road, we visited the small, mountain hamlet of Montagu (we did not find Capulet).  It felt like one of those small, hippie towns you find in Arizona or in parts of California.

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Chickoletos for Sale

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We ran into curious birds siting in trees.  One of the blocks at the edge of town has trees that is a home to what looked like hundreds of egrets.

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It was then on to Calitzdorp which sits at the edge of the Little Karoo (a high dessert known for its geology and ostrich production).  We were there only for one night but were able to sample at least 10 different port wines.  De Krans, winner of the best port of 2014 in South Africa, had some great ones including their award winning Cape Vintage Reserve 2012. Good wine is incredibly affordable for those with USD. We have often found great bottles for $8-$10 dollars and some fantastic bottles for less than $20. Unfortunately, not much is shipped or distributed to the US and a lot of it makes its way to the UK.

De Krans

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Our next stop is Prince Albert at the base of the infamous Swartberg Pass where we tested our horribly, underpowered VW Polo.

 

 

South African Road Trip

We set out from Cape Town with intentions of spending a couple weeks exploring the Western and Eastern Cape. We will drive to Oyster Bay just about 100km south of Port Elizabeth spending most of the time in the Karoo (a semi-desert natural area) on the way out and following the coast on the way back.

However, our first few days, we spent driving out along the coast to Stanford visiting the Hermanus and Klein River lagoons.

A Garden Route Post 1

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We stopped in Betty’s Bay on the way to check out some penguins.  While there, we bumped into some Dassies (or Rock Hyrax or 20lb Guinea Pig!) and more than a few endangered Black Cormorants.

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Our next stop was the seaside town of Hermanus. Only an hour away from Cape Town, this is a fantastic spot for whale watching although the summer is not the best time to view them.  The town has an amazing 10km cliff trail along the waterfront that is scattered with sculptures and dramatic views.

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Our ultimate destination for the day was Stanford and the Mosaic Lodge  on the Klein River lagoon.  The lodge is situated on this gorgeous lagoon, a stunning setting below a dramatic mountain range and home to an amazing amount of bird life.

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The lodge is also not too far from a dune swept beach and nature reserve, Walker’s Bay, where we spotted some whales off the coast. We didn’t see much of the whale but could see their spouts as they exploded through their blowholes. We really enjoyed our stay her and our morning runs through the fynbos (shrub land) dodging porcupine diggings and accompanied by the calls of the blue cranes (South Africa’s national bird).

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It was a great start to our road trip. The scenery has been dramatic and varied.

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It has been exciting learning the road etiquette and getting comfortable with the left-hand driving and the aggressive driving. Roads are generally in good condition but some of the routes includes dirt roads and most do not have much of a shoulder. There tends to be people everywhere and they often wander out in the road – even if the road is a super highway.  Drivers are fast but very considerate of others. Passing is part of the experience, but slow drivers and trucks pull over to the side for overtaking vehicles. There is none of the maddening slow drivers in the fast lanes that is a frustrating aspect of driving back in the States.

We are looking forward to the sights down the road.  Stay tuned for more photos and descriptions in the coming days.

A Little “Mother City” History

We have really been enjoying learning the history of the places we have been visiting.  Traveling provides a source of education difficult to get in school (and far more interesting), and Cape Town, South Africa has a fascinating history.  If you find yourself in Cape Town, here are a few historical tours and museums to check out.

  1. Footsteps to Freedom Walking TourHighly recommended.
  2. Robben IslandA must do when visiting Cape Town.
  3. District 6 MuseumJust OK but nonetheless interesting and informative.

Footsteps to Freedom Walking Tour was, by far, our most interesting experience.  A passionate and knowledgeable man, Ivor, led the tour.  Ivor was born and raised in Cape Town but left during the tumultuous 70’s and 80’s.  There was a plethora of information Ivor provided in the 2.5 hour walking tour.  Here are just a couple ( of the many) interesting facts shared during this tour:

  1. The tour starts at the Taj Hotel in downtown which is conveniently located near the Mandela Rhodes Place.  A partnership was established between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust of Cecil Rhodes (also the sponsor of the Rhodes Scholarships) giving full funding for up to a maximum of two years of postgraduate study for an African citizen under 30 years of age.

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2. The purple people of Cape Town:

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In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid activists took to the streets in Cape Town four days before parliamentary elections, police turned a water cannon with purple dye on them in an effort to halt the demonstrations and mark the protesters for identification and arrest. The plan backfired, however, when one protester hijacked the nozzle from a police officer and sprayed office buildings and the local headquarters of the ruling National Party.

Unesco declared Robben Island in the Western Cape a World Heritage Site in 1999. Robben Island is located in Table Bay about 30 minutes off the coast of Cape Town.  We were really looking forward to this tour and had read great things about it; however, the tour sadly did not live up to expectations.

Robben Island is the infamous place where Nelson Mandela would spend 18 of his 27 prison years.   Also, Robert Sobukwe was also imprisoned at Robben Island  (for a total of 6 years in solitary confinement and served a total of 9 years) after leading a march to local police stations defying the Pass Law.  The Pass Law was an internal passport system designed to segregate the population.  In my opinion, the tour did not do a great job of detailing the lives of these political prisoners who were instrumental in the end of apartheid.  Nonetheless, it is a must do when in Cape Town.

The tour is about 4 hours long and includes a 30 minute boat ride to Robben Island from the V&A Waterfront.  The boat ride alone makes the tour worth it providing amazing views of this stunning city.

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The tour also includes a bus ride around the island with commentary on the history plus a tour of the prison by one of the prior inmates.  Again, the tour could have gone into more depth on the political prisoners that were held here and seemed to be geared too much towards kids with not enough details on the facts.  (Suggest reading the Long Walk to Freedom prior to this tour.)

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District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.   District Six was a vibrant center in downtown Cape Town. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of forcibly removing non-whites from District Six to areas outside the city had begun.  This obviously caused significant hardship for folks as they not only had to leave their homes and neighbors but were moved to areas that required a significant commute to their jobs.

In 1966, District Six it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. More than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.  The museum was established in 19904as a memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during the Apartheid.

The end of Apartheid (Afrikaan word mean the state of being apart) in 1994 and the drafting of a democratic constitution was an amazing event after nearly 40+ plus years of racial segregation.  It is a wonder that the country did not erupt in civil war during this time.   Today, despite the recent economic challenges.  Unemployment is around 40%.  Just before we arrived, the Rand plummeted and President Zuma, in the course of a week, changed finance ministers three times. Yet, despite these challenges,  Cape Town is vibrant place.  And outside investment continues to pour in with many Europeans buying holiday homes.  We were surprised at the number of cranes in the city and the amount of building happening here right now.