Part 1: Setting Our Sights on Sandstones

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

Sunrise is some hours away. Beside me, my travelling companion and closest friend is slumped in her seat, asleep – she’s never been a morning person. We are two young women in an overloaded car, following the national road north-east to see what we can see of the slab of land we call home: South Africa. We’ve been rolling on through the darkness for a time when we pass a fire. It’s caught in a vineyard: vivid funnels of flame swirl upwards with grey smoke in an otherwise black landscape. The scene is haunting – yet only I witness it, driving past in the pre-dawn while my friend sleeps. Encapsulated in a tin-can-like car, no sound but the road unwinding beneath the wheels, my eyes the only ones awake to see the world, I feel wild – I could go anywhere, set my sight on any beautiful scene I’ve ever wished to see. And that is exactly the plan.

Admiring the mountains and campsite from above, Golden Gate. By Caitlin Tonkin.

Admiring the mountains and campsite from above, Golden Gate. © Caitlin Tonkin.

The first day takes Claire and I through the winelands of the Western Cape, into the arid semi-desert of the Eastern Cape, where we stay the night in an off-the-beaten track town, Graaff-Reinet. It’s a pretty town with an over-abundance of B&Bs, so finding accommodation here was a matter of a quick Google-search before arriving. Apart from being a suitable distance away from Cape Town to stop for the first night, Graaff-Reinet is  on our list for one reason: the Valley of Desolation (although our helpful land-lady seems to think that being South Africa’s biggest producer of cacti is Graaff-Reinet’s major draw card).  The Valley of Desolation is a conservancy area, renowned for the rocky valley cutting across its side. You may wonder why a rocky valley would be an attraction in any place, let alone Graaff-Reinet, but you’ll stop wondering that when you stand at the valley’s ragged lip at dusk, peering down into a cathedral of stone, listening to wind sing in the cracks and birdcalls echoing up the walls to reach you. If you are a believer in the church of nature, the Valley of Desolation is a place you need to see.

One spiritual commune with the arid land, a delicious dinner at local restaurant Polka , and a night of stone-like sleep later, Claire and I are back in our little car (already beginning to smell ripe from the kilogram of sweet, dried apricots her grandmother gave us), chugging our way to Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein – a clean, friendly and inconsequential city – is on our route for two reasons. The first is that I have family there, who I’d like to visit and will put us up for a night for free (tip: take shameless advantage of offers of free accommodation when travelling on a budget). The second is that, being a large city, Bloemfontein is a useful place to stock up before venturing into the quieter parts of the eastern Free State, the first province of South Africa that we are set to stay awhile in and explore.

Our first stay is for three nights, in a picturesque town called Clarens. We opt to take the slow route there, leaving the national road to wind through the rising sand-stone hills that border Lesotho instead. A worthwhile stop along this route is The Cabin Farmstall & Deli, where we add some tasty farm treats to our peachy stock of padkos (literally: road food). Despite it being small (and unnecessarily cold in winter), Clarens keeps us busy. By busy, I mean we spend the better part of a day beer-tasting and gorging ourselves on platters of bread, cheese, pickles and cured meats at the Clarens Brewery – a woozy spot to while away a crisp afternoon. (It’s possible we stagger back to our hostel loaded down with boxes of brew, too!) The following day, recovered from our introduction to the local hops, we poke about Clarens’ astounding array of galleries, boutiques and craft shops, eventually collapsing at the Artichoke Restaurant, which offers perhaps the most spectacular view in town of the yellow and orange cliffs in which Clarens is nestled. It also has a bath-tub prominently displayed on its porch – which we naturally have to sit in while admiring said vista.

Leaving Clarens, we make the short hop over to the Golden Gate National Park, a reserve area in the Free State in which South Africa’s famous Drakensberg mountains begin, and a haven for hikers and twitchers alike. Because we are budget-travellers, we camp (a decision we come to bitterly regret the following morning when we wake up on frozen mattresses – seriously). Feeling self-righteously chuffed at our prime pitch directly beneath the sandstone buttress after which the park is named, we settle back into the car to drive a loop through the reserve. It is difficult to explain how beautiful this park is to someone who has not visited. The best I can do is to say that, despite the frozen-mattress incident, the evening we spend sat in our car, watching the sunset colours melt against a rolling expanse of sandstone and veld, sipping red wine, is soft and perfect. It is the moment I began to breathe the city out.

A quiet road in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, en-route to Graaff-Reinet. By Caitlin Tonkin

A quiet road in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, en-route to Graaff-Reinet. © Caitlin Tonkin

The first few days of any road trip are about letting go. It takes a little while for the city buzz to stop rattling about in your body, for the rhythms of the road to take hold of your bones, of your mind. Your busy thoughts need to unspool, to make space for what you are going to see and learn. As Claire and I rumble our way from wine-country to arid semi-desert to the rolling grasslands of the eastern Free State in the first few days, I think a lot over how this trip of ours might be measured. In the changing landscapes. In the borders we cross. In days (35), or kilometres (5000). In two girls, one Toyota Tazz. All of these are true, but as we sit in Golden Gate at the end of our first week and gaze across a blazing view that has always been there but which I’ve never seen before, I wonder if the real measure of this trip will not be in how much more we will learn to love this country, our country.


Part 2: Learning to Not Call Dad

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

Somewhere in the muffled darkness, an alarm rings. Groan. Roll-over. As I cocoon in the warmth of our cosy tent, contemplating the needle-sharp cold that will grip me on my dash to the ablutions, I wonder why we are doing this. By this, I mean camping in the Drakensberg mountains mid-winter, setting wake-up alarms, and (soon) hauling ourselves up steep mountain paths — all in the name of holiday! It doesn’t seem near languid enough to be called a holiday. Yet, this is what people come to the Royal Natal National Park in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa to do. The hiking part, at least. Judging by the entirely empty campsite, most people seem to have known beforehand that staying in chalets (pricey) or the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge (budget) just outside the Park, are more sensible accommodation options during the bitter mountain winter. Nevermind — Claire and I are tough. Well, we will be soon.

We spend four nights, three solid days, exploring the Royal Natal Park. We included this park in our trip because it encompasses one of the more well-known features of South Africa’s famous Drakensberg mountains (so famous, in fact, they amusingly starred as the new home for apocalypse survivors in the film 2012). What we have come to see is the Amphitheatre: a massive, curving wall of rock which rises out of the landscape, towards which the rest of the jagged, roiling valley turns, as if in aspiration of reaching similarly magnificent heights. This particular arrangement of the earth is so impressive it makes almost anyone’s photographs look professional. It also makes for breathtaking hiking.

Sighting at the Royal Natal Park. By Caitlin Tonkin.

Sighting at the Royal Natal Park © Caitlin Tonkin.

So, we hike. Day one we meet up with some friends who are also in the area and know it well, and follow a route directly through the valley to the foot of the Amphitheatre. (Picking the brains of people who have hiked an area before is generally a great tip for this kind of travel; they can tell you which of the routes recommended by the officials are really worth doing, and where the secret gems are). Day two we cheat a little, opting to explore on horseback instead (information on guided horse-rides through the Drakensberg foothills is available at the Park’s reception area). Day three, we skirt the Amphitheatre itself and summit a neighbouring peak, to get a different perspective on the whole scene. In short, we spend three days filtering the city air out of our lungs, inhaling fierce clean air, and absorbing from every possible viewpoint a spectacular mountain range. Therein is reason enough to visit the Drakensberg, I think.

But something else happens the three days we spend in the Drakensberg. At the start of our five week journey, right when we need to, Claire and I learn that we are tough. Our five days in the Drakensberg involves us doing a lot of things that would normally be the Dad-job. We pitch our tent in the dark when we arrive late on the first night (because Google Maps lies and gets us lost); we build our own fire and cook our own food over it (successfully, even though we vow never to do it again); we hike through a wild mountain range just the two of us, scrambling up chain ladders on rocky faces with only each other for support; we amiably take turns washing dishes at night in the frigid cold without bickering about it like children. When we left Cape Town on our grand adventure, some people were sceptical about us travelling across the country alone, two young women, vulnerable. Yet in the Drakensberg, all the things we have to do to be safe and warm and well-fed, we manage to do. As we drive out of the crisp valley early on the fifth morning, our small car weighing heavily with damp camping equipment, we both feel satisfied, I think. Satisfied at discovering, in the mountains, our own capability. That we can get by without calling Dad.

Featured image © Martie Swart


Part 3: Sunshine and Sleep (That’s More Like It!)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

The upper-east coast of South Africa, between Mozambique’s border and someway past Durban, is often called ‘The Sunshine Coast’. Presumably, that name was thought up to sell package beach holidays to pasty tourists; yet, as Claire and I gratefully discover, it is apt. In contrast to the moody, unsettled landscape of inland Kwa-Zulu Natal, the coastline of this province is almost tropical. Think banana trees and sugarcane. Think balmy sea water. Think 25 degrees Celsius in winter. Having spent two weeks traipsing our way through some of the coldest parts of South Africa, Claire and I reach the Sunshine Coast ready for some rays.

Fresh, locally-grown fruit in St Lucia.

Fresh, locally-grown fruit in St Lucia. © Caitlin Tonkin.

After one of our longest days on the road, where hills wind into pine plantations and eventually flatten towards the sea, we arrive in St Lucia — a coastal town reliant on tourism for its survival. The draw of St Lucia is its close proximity to a number of South Africa’s most stunning natural attractions. Between Trip Advisor, Getaway Magazine, and St Lucia’s official tourist website, you’ll get an informed sense of the scope of activities that St Lucia offers (but do be wary, because a number of the activities sold as pricey package tours can be done on a budget by yourself). We have five days in St Lucia, and we pack them full with as much of what is on offer as possible. Our more budget activities include a daytime amble down to the fruit market on the town’s main road to pick up fresh pineapples, and also sundowners at the beachside Ski Boat Club (the walk to the club is lush, but be cautious of doing it after dark, because you may meet a foraging hippo!) We do splash out once in St Lucia, opting for a guided drive of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site, followed by snorkelling in the warm waters of Cape Vidal. Multiple rhino sightings, sunshine fun, and an excellent braai (barbecue) lunch, make it money well spent.

The sign says it all!

Seriously — watch out for the hippos! © Caitlin Tonkin

In hindsight, St Lucia stands out as my favourite stop in the five weeks we are on the road. Although our lousy accommodation at Bib’s International Backpackers causes us to abandon St Lucia a day early for an unscheduled night in Durban, the thrill of lying in your tent at night, with the evening breeze carrying in the piggish snorts of hippos digging up grub not 100 metres away, is unbeatable.

Nevertheless, the road (and cleaner accommodation) calls. With less than 24 hours to spend in Durban, we prioritise: visiting the fishies at uShaka Marine World (fun, but very touristy), and finding bunny chow. Bunny chow is a Durban speciality of a hollowed loaf of white bread, filled with curry. We locate some in a no-name, kitsch Indian restaurant in the mall where we do our shopping — and eat ourselves into such a state of the itis that we cannot eat again until lunchtime the next day. However, it is worth it, not only because it is delicious, but also because I develop such a bloated stomach that, with Claire’s subtle manipulation of the camera angle, I manage to briefly convince my long-distance boyfriend that I am pregnant (he is less amused by this prank than I am). Heavy with food and somewhat worn-out from our whirlwind introduction to Durban, we drive a short distance further south to the tiny town that is our final stop along the Sunshine Coast — Umzumbe.

Travelling, as we discovered that first half of our road trip, is exciting. It is eye-opening, get-your-heartbeat-racing, empowering. But… it can also wear you plumb out, doing all that adventuring every hour of every day. So when we pull in at dusk to what becomes our favourite backpackers of the trip, Mantis and Moon, we collapse on the sofa with two sluggish dogs, in front of the first TV we have seen in weeks, and sleep through at least two films we have both seen before. And for three days, the pace of life proceeds much like this. We snooze, we walk to the beach, we visit the local pub, we get into a tiff with the resident vervet monkeys over food that is left unattended owing to said snoozing, and we chill for long enough to get friendly with some fellow travellers. With the singular exception of zip-lining at the Oribi Gorge (well worth it!), we do a lot of nothing. Although the Sunshine Coast offers an array of activities to keep you busy, the real pleasure of it, for us, is in this: the chill factor. The Sunshine Coast, for all its business, exudes easiness, a happy-go-lucky feeling. It gives us permission to soak up the sun, sleep and restore some balance to the force. It is an excellent place to be on holiday.

Featured image © Steve Slater


Part 4: Transkei Thinking

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

In Umzumbe (our last stop on the Sunshine Coast), Claire and I find a quote in our hostel which reads ‘Travel is the only thing you buy which makes you richer,’ We both take a fancy to the phrase and scribble it down to remember — I think it strikes us as poetic and profound. Yet, as the national road leads us through the Sunshine Coast and into the Wild Coast (or the Transkei), I begin to wonder if the phrase isn’t a little trite, isn’t imbued with privilege.

Cows on the beach on Port St Johns (a typical Transkei sight) © Caitlin Tonkin

Cows on the beach on Port St Johns (a typical Transkei sight) © Caitlin Tonkin

The Transkei is the northern, coastal region of the Eastern Cape (this is where Claire and I begin circling back on ourselves, having passed through the Eastern Cape briefly on the first leg of our journey). Under South Africa’s racist apartheid regime, it was one of the ‘independent’ black states the government created to keep black people and white people separate; and the name from that period, ‘Transkei’, has stuck around. Despite now being 100% part of the South African state, the area still carries the marks of segregation and economic neglect. It is predominantly a rural region, where much of the population are living in challenging to dire conditions. Yet, it is also a tourist-magnet, so alongside small houses and huts are hotels, eco-friendly lodges, and backpackers for white kids on surfing holidays (Claire and I patronise these backpackers, so we’re included in that category!)

Continue reading


Part 5: On Misadventures and Endings

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

Claire and I are in Grahamstown, a university town in inland Eastern Cape. We have planned our trip so that we catch some of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival: this is two weeks during which this student town is overrun by artists, musicians, performers and others of a dramatic inclination, during South Africa’s largest arts festival. (Travel tip: add some flair to your travel itinerary by planning around local festivals). Specifically, on this particular morning (our first and only full day at the festival), Claire is out and about soaking up jazz performances… and I am spending my fun-money buying throat lozenges, vitamin C, pain killers, and tissues at the local pharmacy. After four weeks on the road, my body has thrown in the towel, to the extent that our travel medical kit is not sufficient.

When planning our trip, Claire and I envisioned Grahamstown being our ‘party stop’, an interlude of drinking, night-life and catching up with mates to break the chill-factor of the Eastern Cape (and four weeks of just each other for company). In reality, I determinedly haul myself to the selection of shows we had planned to see, in between which I abandon Claire to her partying and opt to sleep off a debilitating cocktail of medication, congestion and fever instead. Not so much the plan. But, few journeys ever go 100% according to plan and the trick (I learned) is to be able to absorb the unexpected (i.e. travel with enough extra cash to heavily self-medicate if you need to!) The most I can say about Grahamstown is that it has a very well-stocked pharmacy. Thankfully.

Finding life (and fairies) in Hogsback's forests

Finding life (and fairies) in Hogsback’s forests © Caitlin Tonkin

Pulling out of Grahamstown two nights after pulling into it, Claire and I enter our last and perhaps quietest few days of travel together. We loop through the purple and green landscape, dotted with red aloes, towards Hogsback — a whimsical town in the Eastern Cape mountains whose surrounding forests are said to have inspired parts of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. There, we spend two days snuggling in front of the fire and drinking sherry at the Away with the Fairies Backpackers (fantastic!) We also spend a peaceful afternoon looking for waterfalls and fairies along one of the gentler forest trails, followed by a soak in the backpacker’s outdoor, cliff-top bath with a view.

Waterfall-hunting © Caitlin Tonkin

Waterfall-hunting © Caitlin Tonkin

Continue reading