Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Vacation" to the Garden Route, Part 3: Goukamma and Tipsy travels in Port Country

 The third leg of our trip took us from Knysna to Calitzdorp, with several stops along the way. Notably, this drive took us through the Oteniqua Mountains just north of George, and into an arid area around Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp known as the Klein (Little) Karoo. Apparently, the climate there is practically identical to the Douro Region of Portugal, where most of the world's port wine is produced.

Our first stop heading west out of Knysna was the Goukamma Nature Reserve, again managed by the excellent CapeNature organization. Previously, we made an error and said that CapeNature was non-governmental. In fact, it's run by the Western Cape government, and another example of how progressive they are especially when compared to Gauteng's government. 

Gaining acess to the hiking trails meant ferrying yourself across a tidal estuary. The water here is marked by a high tannin content - this means it's as brown as dark tea and stains your pants just as well.

The Goukamma hiking trails spiral through unspoiled coastal dune systems. Although the views are rewarding, humping up sand hills when you're supposed to be at the beach is a bit exhausting.

Once you finally get to the beach, however, you're rewarded with miles of clean sand and no people. Kelsey was ecstatic not to have to hike any more hills.

The wind blows constantly parallel to the shoreline, forming these little micro ripples.

These tracks (except for the two at the right) were made by one of the two monitor lizards common to the Western Cape (either Rock Monitor or Nile Monitor). Note the tail drag (line in middle), and the splayed feet on either side showing the shuffling gait. Also note that Jonah's footprint is only slightly longer than the monitor's hind foot. We never did catch up to this guy, but we tracked him into the caves at the edge of the dunes. 

We were lucky enought to see these African Oystercatchers (Haematopus moquini) standing stoically in the waves. This species is nearly threatened with only about 6,000 left in the wild. 

Jellyfish were abundant and very very large. This particularly gross specimen was a smorgasbord for the local snail population.

And so we left the coast, headed through the Oteniqua Pass (where it was raining too hard for pictures), and ended up in the Klein Karoo outside Calitzdorp on the Red Stone Hills Guest Farm. You can see above where the name comes from. These rocks are part of a Cretaceous faulting system, and some of them preserve dinosaurs.

We stayed in a lovely cabin on the farm, next to the ostrich pen and the grape fields. The neighbor's friendly dog joined us for dinner.

Desert-adapted species abound in the Klein Karoo. Above is a Leopard Tortoise we saved from the middle of the road.

This Pale Chanting Goshawk is a lizard specialist. It can often be seen hunting along the ground.

But let's be honest, the real reason we were there was to taste the wine. Here's the tasting lineup at Boplaas Wine Farms, a specialist in ports that also dabbles in a few hot-weather grape varietals like Touriga Naçional. 

We made sure not to leave empty-handed.

Just down the road is De Krans, another port specialist. Their ruby reserve port topped our tasting, but the rest of their wine was only so-so.

At De Krans, you were permitted to walk through through the vineyard. We were there smack in the middle of harvest time, so the grapes were ripe and delicious. This unfortunately also meant that the bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and other nasty insects that crave sugar were on patrol. Farmworkers bring around bundles of dry grape vines that they light on fire and use to smoke out these pesty insects.

Here the grape harvest is being brought into the processing room with a giant auger. On the other side (not pictured), a massive cone of grape skins is spit out. These grapes are going to be made into muscadel or white port.

Here's the view over the vineyard out the back of Calitzdorp Wine Cellars. The wine here wasn't quite as good as at other places, but the scenery more than made up for it.

And finally, our accomodation at the Port Wine Guest Farm. After a mid-afternoon nap to sleep off our port buzz, we walked from here to a lovely little restaurant for dinner.

Stay tuned for the conclusion to our vacation: The Swartberg Pass and the real Karoo! 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Vacation" to the Garden Route (Part 2: Plettenberg Bay and Knysna)

Part 2: Plettenberg Bay & Knysna (click here for the link to the route map)
After two nights at Tsitsikamma, we headed about an hour west towards Knysna. Along our route, we stopped at Plettenberg Bay. It became clear as we drove through this area that it is geared towards the 'rich & famous'. However, the Robberg Penninsula at the tip of Plettenberg Bay is run by the excellent CapeNature, a non-government organization that protects natural areas. As you'll see, it is absolutely beautiful and one of the highlights of our trip.

This map shows the trail along the Robberg Peninsula in two dimensions. Zoom in on this photo to see the different warnings about the trail from CapeNature. The Fountain Shack (icon on the map) is a rustic cabin right on the coastline. If you're willing to take cold showers from a bucket and lug all the necessities (beer & wine) for a 45 minute hike, this is the place to book.

Here's a view of the same trail three dimensions. Note the lack of safety features, but rest assured, it was clearly marked! Also note the lack of people on this beautiful sand beach.

Two of the Earth's greatest monsters are found on the sands of Robberg, possibly explaining the lack of tourists. Behold the Man of Six Toes & the Man of War.

Did we mention that it's beautiful?

Kelsey was ecstatic that halfway through the 2 hours hike, we hadn't seen a single snake!

A handy German tourist (possibly the 6-toed beach monster), kindly offered to take our photo after the hike. 

Then, we were off to Knysna...

Above is a panoramic of the most dangerous body of water in the world, the entrance to the Knysna lagoon. We've labeled some of the more interesting features in town, including the best restaurant on the waterfront: Spur (don't worry, Charné, we skillfully obliterated the garnish). As you can see, Knysna is home to the township with the best view in South Africa. 

The best thing to do in Knysna is to visit Mitchell's brewery. You'll need a beer after trying to find it.

The "Heads" of Knysna are tall bluffs flanking the entrance to the lagoon. We also took a walk around the East Head, as the West Head was off limits unless you took a ferry and paid R450. Jonah was extremely brave and even peered over the edge.

Here's what he saw...

...and here's what his perch looked like from below

Kelsey, however, was not afraid of heights nor of doing her Right Whale impression. After all, there were no snakes on the Head.

Graffiti here was not limited to spray paint. Someone must've really loved Marie.

Hiking down to the bottom of the Heads gives you access to Coney Glen beach: South Africa's strategic sea urchin, limpet, and crab reserve.

Thankfully, it was low tide. No Diving!

After the hike, we stopped at the local café and got this Rooibos Cappuccino. Rooibos tea (red bush) is a premiere hot quaff in South Africa, but is not strictly speaking a tea at all. It's actually a legume that grows as a bush in the Western Cape, in the Clanwilliam District. 

In addition to the coastline, Knysna is home to some of the last indigenous yellowwood forests in the world. We drove inland to check them out and to search for plants. Before getting to the forest, we needed to stop at a padstal (literally a "path stall", or farm store) for a drop of liquid courage to face the snakes.

On our "Circle in the Forest" walk, we saw a few specimens of this wacky fungus. Anyone know what this is? We don't have the fungus field guide! 

The majestic yellowwood. As you may have guessed, it was raining, so this is the shot we got while dashing back into the car. We were looking for plants, after all.

The best thing about our Knysna accommodation was this cool owl light outside our door. Let's not speak of the barking dogs at 3am, the breakfast bacon stinginess, or the lack of a top sheet when it was 90F at night.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Our tipsy visit to port country.

"Vacation" to the Garden Route (part 1: Tsitsikamma National Park)

Two weeks ago, we took a working holiday to drive the famous "Garden Route" along the South Coast, looking for plants, the occasional dinosaur, and some good port. Our trip took us from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape west to Tsitsikamma National Park, then to Knysna via Plettenberg Bay, and then North into the Karoo via the port and ostrich capitals of Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. The scenery was amazing, and we took more than 1000 photographs, so we're breaking things up into four parts. Today, part one: Tsitsikamma National Park.  

Our route, more or less. Red line indicates adventure route along the R339 and R340 - 60km long, 3.5 hours of driving, all switchbacks.

The real reason Jonah was in the Eastern Cape to begin with was to do some work at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. You may remember the dinosaur Jonah collected while staying at the Murder Ranch. This is the monstrous foot of that animal, with the hands of grad student Blair and preparator Lindikhaya for scale.

Our drive out of Port Elizabeth took us past a big windfarm west of town. The coastal part of the Eastern Cape is flat and windy - the coastal sand dunes there are the biggest in the world - making it the ideal "green power" plant. 

A small detour on the R102 gave us this view of a bridge spanning the Van Stadens River, one of many river gorges along our route. These were created by the bottom edge of South Africa lifting up while rivers cut down to the coast. 

We reached the eastern edge of Tsitsikamma in the early evening and checked in at our digs at Storms River Mouth rest camp. Here's the view from the parking lot. More about the vegetation later.

And here's our backyard. We rented a small, dorm-like and seaweed-smelling apartment in this well-disguised complex.

The view of the Indian Ocean from our back porch. A storm was brewing and the waves were up to 10ft. 

Of course, we didn't have much time to rest because we had to sample the local Helichrysum populations! As usual with field botany, this meant two things: 1. long walks through snake-infested wilderness, 2. it was raining.

Luckily, we didn't have far to go. Helichrysum odoratissimum was literally everywhere you looked.
Kelsey couldn't have been happier!

This meant we had a bit of time to explore the Otter Trail, a 52km walk along the entire coastal margin of the national park.

Here our fearless captain leads us into the sea...

While our practical navigator huddles under a cliff out of the rain.

Soaked, cold, yet having fun, we retired to the lodge for vital supplies: cappuccino and crappy ponchos.

After a warm cup of coffee, and with renewed spirits, we took the walk to the Storms River Mouth itself. This cliff margin scramble includes three suspension bridges. 


Kelsey was not at all scared.

Oops! Rain's back!

We had both noticed a certain...aroma stench coming from areas of the walk. Naturally assuming it was tourist offerings we were surprised to learn it was instead the middens of these dassies (hyraxes). From the wikipedia entry: " Rock hyraxes produce large quantities of hyraceum—a sticky mass of dung and urine that has been employed as a South African folk remedy in the treatment of several medical disorders, including epilepsy and convulsions. Hyraceum is now being used by perfumers who tincture it in alcohol to yield a natural animal musk." Yup, MUSK.

The coastal margin forest is incredibly diverse, and most of the tree species were completely new to us. The most beautiful of the trees are these yellowoods (more in part 2), which unfortunately have been devastated for lumber.

Did we mention it was raining? Did we mention the trail was steep and slippery? Here, our captain riffs on the Bruce Springsteen cover but looks like he should have wiped more thoroughly.

Fun's over, time to press all those specimens! At least we've got some good South African wine to keep us going.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Plettenberg Bay, the Robberg Peninsula, and Knysna, the 50 point scrabble word named town