We loaded our stuff into the tiny Datsun (only $135 for 2 weeks rental, including a one-way fee!), and Jason nervously explored the controls. The pedals seemed to be in the usual places, so with his left hand on the stick shift and a vague sense of the Datsun’s boundaries he gingerly pulled out into Cape Town traffic.
We headed out along the Garden Route, a few-hundred mile stretch eastwards from Cape Town known for its beautiful coastline, national parks, animal sanctuaries, adventure sports, and artsy-fartsy towns. This was Jason’s first time driving on the left, and it felt pretty weird and scary until our first stop – but after that it came pretty naturally.
Around mid-day, we made a pit stop to see the colony of penguins that has long-inhabited a small stretch of Boulder’s Beach.
We watched the penguins for a little while from the small boardwalk.
When we couldn’t stand any more shoving from the other tourists, we headed further down to explore a lesser-known beach where you can sit and even swim with the penguins (if you can handle the freezing-cold water). On the path, this penguin was kind enough to explain his species’ nickname, “jackass penguin.”
After another stop helping some travelers who had rolled their truck driving too fast on the back roads (yikes!), we spent a few nights in a small town called Hermanus. Other times of the year it’s a prime spot for whale viewing, but we just relaxed enjoying the views from the tasty beachfront restaurants.
From Hermanus, our next destination was Mossel Bay — but not before making a short detour to visit the southernmost tip of Africa.
This point is also the division between the colder Atlantic Ocean to the West, and the warmer Indian Ocean to the East. Here, Sarah has one foot in each ocean — although they both felt pretty cold to her.
In Mossel Bay, our “hotel” ended up being an in-law unit in a house in a weird gated community. We couldn’t complain about the view from our room, but we were a bit thrown off when the guard wouldn’t open the gate to let us leave without permission from our host.
After making our escape, we took another detour to Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn, a town famous for its ostrich farms. The ranch was like a cross between a zoo and a theme park, with a thin spread of animal conservation on top. While waiting for the main tour, we explored the snake exhibit and got pretty friendly with these birds.
Soon enough, our tour guide arrived and introduced us to the animals, from giant fruit bats
to this Maribou stork, one of the so-called ‘Ugly 5‘,
to hippos, tortoises, vultures, and lots of other fascinating creatures. At this point the guide stopped to explain some of the wildlife issues that plague South Africa (and Africa in general), ranging from the bush meat problem to the poisoning of vultures (through, for example, the deliberate poisoning by poachers trying to avoid detection).
Lest we get too serious, the next thing we knew he was holding a piece of meat over a lake, and nearly lost a finger when a hungry crocodile jumped a bit higher than expected.
The last stop on the guided tour was the big cats; neither of us had either seen a lion this close-up before. The guide mentioned that Cango doesn’t breed lions, in effort to thwart canned hunting programs, like those of Minnesota dentist infamy.
At the end of the tour, it was time to pick our “encounter” — while we flirted with the idea of crocodile cage diving, we both opted to spend some time with the adolescent cheetahs.
It was pretty unreal to feel the cheetahs purring like giant kittens. We were glad they seemed to have been well-fed before we entered the cage (we never saw the last tourists leave…). But we had mixed feelings about the practice of petting wildlife. After looking into it a bit more, it seems like it has a lot of potential to mislead the public about the safety and integrity of wild animals, among other issues. While Cango Ranch says they use the proceeds from these experiences to run a captive breeding program, we left unsure about what is the right answer. We faced many similar conundrums during our time in South Africa, wondering, as many already have, what the best course of action is to revitalize South Africa’s wildlife after centuries of overhunting, war, and habitat loss.
From Cango, we headed back South to the coast for a couple nights in Knysna, a beautiful small town surrounded by some of the most renowned parks and nature on the Garden Route. Our plan was to take a kite-surfing lesson, but our instructor was a no-show. Some phone calls revealed that the booking agent had dropped the ball, and the weather was not going to cooperate. We were somewhat bummed, but look forward to trying again somewhere in Southeast Asia.
The next morning, we drove east to visit “Monkeyland,” which from the name we feared would be more commercialized and ethically questionable than Cango. When we arrived we were pleasantly surprised, however — it was basically a massive fenced forest, filled with 14 species of primates. Many of them were not native to South Africa, but with regular feedings of peanuts and fruit, they all seemed to get along fine. Nice form, gibbon!
Can you guess how the “blue vervet” monkeys get their name?
In the hour-long tour, we saw hundreds of monkeys up-close, but Sarah still didn’t have her fill — she almost went on the tour back-to-back a second time. Instead, we doubled back to visit Knysna Elephant Park, which had been highly recommended by our Airbnb hosts. We did a little research and found that the park had faced allegations of abuse in the past. We almost skipped it, but further digging failed to substantiate the claims. But we were still a little unsure if we should support the business, especially since they offer elephant riding. Another ambiguous situation.
We decided to go for it and were awestruck feeding and observing these incredible animals
and stayed for an extra hour to watch them play in the water.
The next day, after a funny but largely lackluster visit to the Plett Puzzle Park (which was much less adult-oriented than we had hoped), we pulled into Nature’s Valley where we would spend the last days of our road trip.
Nature’s Valley is a small, quaint village surrounded by nature reserves, with a single general store/restaurant and a roving troop of baboons who throw raging parties in the kitchens of any houses they find unlocked. We were staying with a non-profit called Nature’s Valley Trust, where Sarah would volunteer for the week while Jason indulged his growing biltong (South-African beef jerky) addiction and caught up on work.
Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) was founded in 2000 by a group of area neighbors. Thanks to their grass-roots efforts, Nature’s Valley and surroundings were protected from development and overfishing, unlike many other valleys along the Garden Route. Today, NVT runs research, conservation and education programs, doing cool stuff like using drones for bird research and the Bitou Environmental Education Forum. These folks are doing awesome work – if you are looking for volunteer opportunities in South Africa, look no further!
Sarah was up before dawn most mornings, measuring water quality in the lagoon,
netting and banding birds (Photo courtesy Mark Brown),
surveying fish and other aquatic creatures (Photos courtesy Jennifer Parker and Ruan du Plessis),
and generally having a great time with the NVT team (Photo courtesy Jennifer Parker).
Our last night, we had a pizza party on the beach! As we ate, someone pointed out that the breaking waves looked especially bright. We walked out to the water, and were amazed by the bright bioluminescent organisms that would glow when you stirred the water or kicked the sand. Unfortunately, neither of our cameras were able to capture the experience, but we spent hours playing in the sand and water watching the dinoflagellates do their thing.
On our way out of Nature’s Valley, Sarah finally took the wheel to try out this left-hand-side driving thing (and hone her minimal stick-shift skills).
And as she drove out of town, we finally caught a glimpse of those conniving baboons, scoping out one of the houses down the street.
After a lazy night in Plettenburg Bay trying to escape our empty-nest hosts’ obsession with decorative spoons,
We dropped the car in Port Elizabeth and caught an early morning flight to Kruger National Park!