On vacation (the journey home) Part II

I can hardly believe it’s already been three weeks since we’ve returned from vacation.  That convinced me to quickly share the last few pics of our trip before I completely forget what it was like.

I left you in the tiny hamlet of De Vlugt, about two thirds of the way through the Prince Alfred’s Pass.  You would recall that it’s a gravel pass that winds for seventy kilometres through the Outeniqua mountains between Knysna and Avontuur in the Western Cape Province.  The road is quite narrow in places and tend to rise steeply around hairpin bends.  We took it slow, stopping often, and had been driving for about two hours by the time we reached De Vlugt.  We were starting to wonder if the pass was ever going to end.

Prince Albert Pass
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Prince Albert Pass
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

By this time we had left the forests far behind, but it in no way diminished the beauty of the mountains.

Prince Albert Pass
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Prince Albert Pass
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”
– J.R.R. Tolkien

You see the road in the background to the left of this last photo?  It’s the same road in the foreground right, about twenty minutes earlier.  Pass-builder Thomas Bain tended to go for the spectacular route, rather than the easy one.

I little more than three hours after we turned north from Knysna we finally left the mountains for this:

Karoo road
This photo completely fails to capture just how vast the emptiness is

From the rugged forested mountains to the completely flat expanse of the Karoo is such a sudden contrast that I’ve heard of people developing mild agoraphobia when confronted with the emptiness.  I love it.  While my heart will always belong to the mountains, I consider the Karoo one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Nowhere else in SA do you have this uninterrupted view of the sky, and with the towns small and far apart, you should see the stars here at night.

The only thing I don’t like about the Karoo is driving through it.  On these flats the roads tend to run straight as an arrow, and especially if you’ve already been driving for over five hours, with the winter sun baking through the wind shield, staying awake becomes a very real challenge.  Luckily we were only driving to the town of Graaff-Reinet about 250 km beyond the pass.

Graaff-Reinet is a town steeped in history, with several museums and historic buildings and a national park which borders the town.  We arrived there late Sunday afternoon, so there wasn’t really time for sightseeing, but the wife and I decided there and then that we would return for a full vacation so we can thoroughly explore the region.

The perfect end to the day

Our guest house in Graaff-Reinet made me feel like I had stepped into my grandma’s home, with knick-knacks and trinkets stacked everywhere.  By this time we were ravenous, as we had planned to buy lunch on the road but couldn’t find anything open in the few towns we drove through.  The plan was to find a place that sells takeaways, but when I saw the lovely braai-area with dried wood stacked underneath I knew the only option was to visit the supermarket for lamb chops to braai.

We snacked on potato chips while waiting for the fire, but the wait was worth it.  If you’re not from South Africa you’ll probably have to take my word for it, but you haven’t yet tasted lamb unless you’ve had Karoo lamb.  The shrubs they eat give their meat a very unique flavour.

The next morning we slept late, breakfasted on coffee and rusks (provided compliments of the guest house) and hit the road for the last stretch home.

Karoo road
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong…
Karoo road
Those of you interested in geography and geology will immediately notice the very visible horizontal strata of these hills.

The Karoo is not all flat, by the way.  Several ranges run across this large area of the country.  None of them are quite as impressive as the mountains along the escarpment of the country, though.  Most were not formed by some form of geological upheaval but rather by erosion of the landscape over billions of years (I taught Geography, in case you were wondering).

View from Lootsberg Pass
From the top of the Lootsberg Pass
Karoo hill
I could look at this scene all day and not grow bored
Secretary bird
Or maybe it’s because it looks like it’s wearing a suit. But then we should probably call it a personal assistant bird. Source: Wikipedia

Somewhere around this area we were lucky enough to spot a secretary bird.  I don’t know why they call it that – could be it’s a very organised bird.  What I do know is that it’s one of the most bad-ass birds in Africa.  That’s because this bird prefers to snack on snakes (though it has been known to kill mongoose and small gazelles as well).  And not those harmless little garden snakes either.  This bird regularly kills vipers and cobras by stomping them to death before guzzling them down.  (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

All too soon we had to say farewell to the Karoo as well as we exchanged it for the grasslands and mealie-fields (African sweet corn) of the Free State, and we realised our vacation was finally over.  To add insult to injury, as we were crossing the Orange river into the Free State my mom (who had stayed behind in Mossel Bay for another two weeks) called to tell us the whales had finally arrived and were frolicking in the water not fifty metres from shore.  If we had stayed two days longer we would’ve got to see them.

Oh, well.  Next time…