Exploring South Africa’s ‘alternative’ Garden Route
The mountainsides in front get steeper. Signs point to hiking trails and fishing spots. Things are about to go up a notch or two, and the N1 motorway is about to get considerably more dramatic.
This isn’t the motorway we’re supposed to be on. The N2 leads towards the Garden Route, South Africa’s most heralded road trip. That heads broadly along the coast from Cape Town, taking in several pleasant seaside towns, and some rather un-South African greenery.
We had read up on the Garden Route and could not help but feel it sounded a bit underwhelming. Perfectly nice, but it seems perverse to travel so far for merely perfectly nice.
Going inland, however, presented a more intriguing and pleasingly rough-around-the-edges alternative. Hitting the Little Karoo semi-desert, tackling mountain passes and taking on a few of the country’s less famous wildlife experiences sounded rather more exciting.
And it all begins with the Huguenot Tunnel. This tunnel burrows for 3.9kilometre underneath the Du Toitskloof mountains, and feels like a border crossing between the Cape’s gentility and the dusty, dirty-handed interior.
The first stop is Worcester, the sort of place where people work the land and wear boots on a permanent basis. The open-air Worcester Museum makes a decent fist of harking back to how things used to be, with women making soaps and candles from animal fat in traditional Xhosa huts, an old-school dairy with a churn and a tobacco-drying shed. Shepherds huts, horse mills and labourers’ cottages complete the scene, but the more interesting snippets are found inside.
The displays go into the dried- fruit industry, which was introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century and made a significant impact on South African cuisine. It is still fairly major. It’s fair to say few people think about how the wax is removed from the skin of grapes in the process of creating raisins and sultanas. But here the skin-cracking and drying processes are explained.
The importance of sheep as South African farming moved gradually inland from the Cape becomes apparent too. Initially sheep were raised for slaughter stock, but soon the space available made farming for wool lucrative. It became South Africa’s main export way before diamonds and gold were discovered – and now lanolin and sheep gut (which is used for tennis rackets) are solid money-spinners too.
But it wasn’t education we came for – it was Route 62. And it starts to get properly spectacular on the Cogmanskloof pass. This links the small towns of Ashton and Montagu, and finds its way through the mountains by copying what the Kingna River has done. The small, narrow valley snakes through the gaps in the imposing, rubbly slopes for 6.5km, with the occasional baboon leaping across the road to play unofficial traffic policeman.
Once on the other side, the scale and relative emptiness of South Africa begins to make itself known. The road weaves through scrubby fynbos landscapes, almost always funnelled through ancient rumples in the Earth’s surface. Various environments come to mind – the high roads of Utah, the desert motorways of Oman, the Spartan outback of South Australia, but none are quite right. There are more splashes of green, and more signs of life. It always feels intimidating rather than desolate.
Oudtshoorn, a country town with a touch of the cowboy about it, is the major hub in these parts. It is also considerably more obsessed with ostriches than any other place on Earth. Ostrich-farming is a big industry here, and has been since the Victorian era when any lady who wanted to impress would have ostrich feathers in her hat. Fashions change, of course, but ostrich feathers are still mighty handy for feather dusters. The ever-increasingly bizarre tour at the Highgate Ostrich Farm starts in the section where workers are putting feather dusters together. The feathers are dyed, then shoved into a plastic holder to keep them together. Apparently, the static electricity the feathers generate makes them pick up dust particles much more quickly than ordinary dusters – hence their value.
Next door to the duster factory is the shell-carving workshop. Here, an artist called Burton carves up to 20 shells a day. He always uses the infertile eggs, draws patterns on them with a pencil, then starts carving with an electric drill. The end result is both gorgeous and extremely cumbersome to carry around. Ostrich eggs are huge – 24 chicken eggs could fit inside one, and it can bear the bodyweight of a slightly chubby human.
The tour visits the incubators, from there on to a pen of baby ostriches, and then invites a test of nerve by feeding some of the adults. They are not graceful or careful feeders. When food is held out in an outstretched palm, it is pecked at with galumphing force and ferocity. Anyone managing to keep the hand held out throughout the entire process has nerves of steel.
It all finishes with the ostrich handlers becoming jockeys, leaping on board the big birds then clinging on for dear life as they gallop around a short race- track. The speeds the ostriches can reach – at least over a short distance – are eye-opening. They fizz past in a blur.
The ostriches are hard to miss around Oudtshoorn, but another inhabitant takes a little more dedication to spot.
“A meerkat’s comfort zone is 250 to 300 metres and they’ve got very good eyesight. By the time you see them, they’ve gone,” says Dolph, the guide for Meerkat Adventures’ early morning tour. Meerkats are nervous, skittish creatures, and company owner Devey Glinister has spent a year getting to know one particular family in order to get them to trust humans. “He’d gradually get closer to them, read books to them and just talk until they began to understand that humans aren’t a threat,” says Dolph.
And now the meerkat family knows humans won’t eat or attack them, they can concentrate on noises that genuinely do signal a danger, such as something brushing in the vegetation. The camping chairs that Dolph has brought along aren’t just for comfort, either. Sitting down is a submissive gesture – it makes us look like less of a threat. We wait outside the burrow the meerkats slept in last night. It can be a long wait, too. Generally, the colder it is, the later they tend to come out.
While waiting, we get a lecture on life, meerkat-style. They like living in desert areas as they can spot predators more easily, and they’ll eat pretty much anything that’s small and moves slowly. They’re part of the mongoose family, and adult males will hang around on the edge of a family’s territory in the hope of luring a female away.
After about an hour, there’s finally a sign of life. An adult female meerkat scurries out of the burrow and immediately stands upright. It’s on sentry duty, something that the family will instinctively take in turns. Then one by one the rest of the family emerges, with some of the smaller meerkats only being a few months old. They stand in the sun to warm up, they clean themselves and they play-fight. And then, they move off for a day’s foraging, leaping through the scrub with surprising athleticism. After the meerkats have moved on, it’s time for us to do so as well, and the final branch off Route 62 back to the coast requires navigating another of those mountain passes.
Prince Alfred’s Pass is no ordinary pass though. It is an absolute leviathan. The gravel road starts at Avontur, then starts zigzagging, swerving, getting increasingly narrow and becoming more precipitous by the kilometre. The journey along it involves repeated wrestling with the steering wheel, maintenance of nerve and plenty of tricky wrangling to find safe passing spaces from something that comes the other way.
But Prince Alfred’s Pass has something extra on top of this – sheer, remorseless relentlessness. There are several wider bends or drops in elevation that fool the driver into thinking the worst is over, only for things to get narrower or higher again. The seemingly thin strip of mountains is actually a fat band of them, appearing in seemingly never-ending waves.
What initially appears to be a quick weave through the mountains turns into a 68km monster drive, an experience in itself that should give anyone who enjoys being behind the wheel the thrill of challenge and conquest.
The pass finally ends near Plettenberg Bay, and a world of dust, scrub and stark peaks suddenly turns to grass, golf courses and beaches. It’s all very agreeable, but the drama of the inland route wins hands down.