Monday, January 17, 2011

Recharging in Cape Town

I needed a rest after a vacation in South Africa. I always feel I need another vacation after a vacation in South Africa. On the flight back to the USA it seems everyone else was in the same frame of mind.

After a hectic and busy 2010 we felt we needed a recharge of our battteries and in December we went on a vacation to Cape Town, South Africa. At times during the 28 hour trip (it felt like 36 hours) to Cape Town, Murphy, from Murphy's Law fame threaten to intervene. At Atlanta airport our flight to Washington’s Dulles was delayed for nearly 90 minutes when maintenance workers did a “scheduled maintenance”, as reported by the captain, to replace all the smoke detectors in the lavatories. I had to wonder how Delta organizes their operations because how can they possibly do a scheduled maintenance while the plane was fully loaded with passengers at the gate, ready to go. Don’t they give a shit about passengers having to make connection flights in other airports? This delay left us scrambling, running and racing against time when we got to Dulles airport to make our flight to Johannesburg. And we barely made it.

At Johannesburg airport general chaos reigned. No one from South African Airways seemed to be quite sure how the new computer system worked; lines (queues) were very long everywhere, passengers were naturally aggravated, and it took forever and a lot of running around to reload our luggage and get boarding passes for our flight to Cape Town. In the end I jumped the long lines by playing ignorant and booked in through the business class counter. The stormy weather around Johannesburg at the time also delayed our flight by more than an hour and we eventually had enough time to board the flight to Cape Town.

Rediscovery of the Overberg and the Boland

One of the objectives we hoped to achieve during our three and a half week vacation to Cape Town and the surrounding regions were to explore and reconnect with the areas we traveled often in the past when we lived there. We wanted to rediscover and appreciate the Cape’s beauty again, but we also wanted to be tourists and explore some new area that we never been to before.

On top of Sir Lowry's Pass looking back towards False Bay and Cape Town.

Two days after our arrival we started a little tour through the Overberg, Boland and Swartland regions of the Western Cape. Our first stop after crossing Sir Lowry’s Pass was Grabouw in the Elgin region of the Cape. In Grabouw we had a long talk with the butcher that makes the famous Grabouw boerewors (South Africa farmer’s sausage.) We stopped there with the specific intention to see if we can buy his spices for the sausage, but he didn’t want to hear anything about that. Initially! We told him we make our own homemade boerewors here in the States and we are not interested in ripping him off or stealing his recipe. We even showed him our American driver’s licenses and he eventually gave in and sold us about three quarter of a kilogram of spices. Spice Gold! He also gave me some tips on how to make the best boerewors and as close as one can get to a complete recipe of his famous sausage. Everything, except the ratios of the spices. Thank you, Johan.

Cape Dutch style architecture in Swellendam - The Rothman Manor House (1834)

Next we had breakfast at Peregrine padstal (a roadside stall) on koeksisters and meat pies and then we drove to Swellendam. This brought back many memories, because we stayed in Swellendam for 4 years during the 1980’s. It was here where I owned my first home and where my kids were born. After a walk through the town and appreciating the Cape Dutch style architecture and a light lunch we visited the Drostdy museum and had an enlightening talk with the curator of the museum.

In Swellendam's Old Drostdy Museum, an old, still working water mill, milling wheat to flour.

From Swellendam we drove to Montagu where we stayed at the 7 Church Street Guesthouse. The original plan was to drive from Swellendam to Barrydale via Suurbraak and the Tredouw Pass, and from there along the famous Route 62 to Montagu, but it was getting late in the afternoon and dark rain clouds have formed over the Langeberg mountains so we opted for plan B, a shorter drive directly to Montagu. The 7 Church Street Guesthouse proprietors were friendly people, it has a fantastic garden with nice rooms and nicely decorated too, but when nighttime came the noisy frogs were unwelcome. The overpowering sound of nature may be great to city dwellers, but it spoilt a goodnight sleep and we needed sleep. After the long flight and a hectic weekend we were still trying to recuperate from jetlag.

7 Church Street Guesthouse, Montagu - Manor house and garden
The next morning’s breakfast was top notch and it was the first time since 2006 that I ate British/South African style bacon again. The last time was in a small eatery around the corner from Kensington Palace in London. South African style bacon taste just soooo much better than the fatty bacon streaks we get in the USA.

From a lovely Montagu, which is surrounded by the dramatic towering mountain peaks of the Langeberg Mountains, we drove to McGregor, one of the few places in the world to lie directly on ley lines, and is considered a sacred place. I have read so much about McGregor in magazines and so many writers have raved about the little “jewel”, so I expected a lot, but it was a total waste of time. The place was windblown, dusty and dead, certainly not much to write about. Maybe I just didn’t feel the “natural energy” or the “spirituality” of the place. We drove back to Robertson after less than an hour, where we spent a while sightseeing and then we took the long drive to Paarl via Worcester and the Du Toitskloof tunnel.

We overnight at the Goedemoed Country Inn just outside Paarl. The historic Cape Dutch house and adjacent garden rooms is situated on a working wine farm and it was marvelous to take an afternoon stroll through the vineyard. We also drove into Paarl to visit some old buildings like the Strooidak church. The church, built in the form of a Greek cross was completed in 1805 and is one of the oldest churches still in use in the Cape.

Rocking in Die Bôrdienghuis

The evening was one of the highlights of our vacation to the Cape. After our afternoon visit to Paarl and a walk through the vineyard we drove to Wellington, about 10 kilometers from Paarl for dinner and a live show of Jan Blohm, one of South Africa’s premier Rock singer/songwriters, and one of my favorite Afrikaans artists, in the Bôrdienghuis Teaterkafee in the Breytenbach Sentrum. The Sentrum is located in the house where the very famous South African author/poet/painter Breyten Breytenbach grew up. The dinner before the show was excellent, one of the best meals we would have in South Africa. Simple, rustic, and very flavorful; chicken pasta with basil pesto, sun dried tomatoes, zucchini and red peppers, great bread, and dessert was as traditional South African as you can get; Melktert with a fig dressing and pomegranate seeds. Koningskos for M, but I am not a great lover of melktert. Initially Blohm accompanied, as a backup guitarist, a new act on the Afrikaans music scene, Christoph Kotze, before he took the stage alone to rip through most of his well-known songs and many staaltjies (stories) about his life. At the midway break, it was very hot the evening and Blohm requested a break from the hot stage lights, when we stood in the gravel courtyard of the Sentrum and drank crisp Sauvignon Blanc white wine at tables made from old wine casks, I went “backstage” and introduced myself to Blohm and we had a nice chat about music, Bruce Springsteen, and living in America. Nice chap, very approachable.

The next morning after another fantastic South African breakfast at Goedemoed Inn we headed north through Wellington along Route 43 toward Bainskloof Pass. Bainskloof Pass, built by Andrew Bain in 1853, is regarded as one of the most beautiful and most rugged passes in South Africa. Although Paarl was getting ready for another hot sunny day, as we got closer to the Limiet Mountains the sky got cloudier, it became windier and eventually as we climbed higher into the mountain it started to rain. Certainly not the best weather for driving along a rugged mountain pass or for stopping at the few places that allow stopping along the very narrow and twisting road. That was really unfortunate because part of my plan to rather cross the Bainskloof Pass instead of taking the easier and faster Route 44 to Tulbagh was to see the unspoilt nature of fynbos and proteas in the higher elevations and in there, apart from the fact that Bainskloof Pass is the magnus opus of Bain’s several passes that he built around Cape Town, lies part of the area’s charm; the fact that so little has changed there since the mid-1800s.

After the Pass we continue on with Route 43 until it split off to Route 46, through the tiny hamlet of Wolsley until we got to Tulbagh, a most beautiful town lying in a bowl of the Winterhoek Mountain. I have never been to the 300-year old town of Tulbagh before and part of the appreciation of everything Cape Dutch, Tulbagh’s restored architecture in Church Street is an absolute must see. Especially if you visit the museum and see what it looked like after the great earthquake of 1969 and how it was restored now? It must have been a mammoth task to restore not only one of the Boland’s but also one of South Africa’s most beautiful and most historic streets. Strolling along Church Street is like walking through history.

Tulbagh's Church Street Collage:
Top left: An old wagon; Top right: De Oude Church (1743);
Bottom left: Old Parsonage (1765) The oldest parsonage in South Africa still in use as a parsonage; Bottom Right: House #14 (1892)

Lite is not always light

It was also in Tulbach at the Bravo café that we had one of our worse lunches. The service was terrible and M’s milkshake was nothing but flavored milk, no thickness and probably no ice cream. I ordered a “lite”, low alcohol beer but their idea of a light beer is a regular lager with ice cubes. We had to order our sandwiches three times because the girl kept on forgetting what we ordered. We did try to get lunch at other restaurants before we decided on the Bravo, but they were either fully booked or the establishment was not open for lunch and it was raining and we weren’t in the mood to run around in the rain. Also it was getting late and we still had to drive all the way to Citrusdal in the Olifants (Elephants) River valley where we would sleep over the night.

All I remembered of Citrusdal is the terrible state of the main street; full of potholes the size of sinkholes, and the rain. We arrived there early evening and it rained, all evening, all night, and it was still raining the next morning when we left again. Nevertheless, the hospitality at our family where we stayed was fantastic and very welcoming. The next morning we had to cross the Piekenierskloof in very thick mist and constant rain on our way to Piketberg. I shouldn’t really call it mist, we actual drove through rain-filled clouds that hugged the mountain like new lovers do when they embrace one another. At Piketberg we stopped to do some groceries shopping for the next 4 days at the beach in St. Helena Bay.

The impressive Dutch Reform Church in Swellendam

From Piketberg we would leave behind the green landscape of vineyards, olive trees, fruit farms and old Cape Dutch style houses of the Boland, and the golden brown landscape of freshly harvested wheat fields of the Overberg and the Swartland for a total different experience in the West Coast peninsula.

The past 3 days brought back many memories of places we’ve been before and created new memories of places we never saw before. We saw delightful vistas and spectacular panoramas along the country roads we traveled and stayed in historic houses that now serve as classic bed and breakfast establishments. We appreciated the architecture of the white Cape Dutch houses, and the Victorian and Edwardian style buildings where ever we went. We had lunch under old oak trees in Swellendam, dined on local delicacies like bobotie in Montagu and drank local wines where we could. We thoroughly enjoyed drinking green cream sodas and appletiser and grapetisers again, and eating koeksisters, biltong, curry pies and melktert. A trip well worth taking that left us with many happy memories.

Next post: The West Coast and its unique character.

Under the vineyard canopy at Goedemoed Country Inn in Paarl.

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