Tuesday, 5 May 2015

April 29: To the Garden Route through the desert

It was miserable and raining in Stellenbosch when we woke. I had deliberately selected a route that was not the fastest but would be beautiful, over mountain passes and off the beaten track. Alas, the viz in Stellenbosch was terrible, but we decided to soldier on, hoping it would be better across the mountain passes. The route I selected avoided the “fast” 5 hr route along the N2 and portions of the coastal route. Instead, we went via Routes 60 and 62, though the central desert. My logic was since we would come back via the fast route, we would take a scenic route there.

We were up early, and on the road out of Stellenbosch by 8:45 AM, half an hour later than we wanted. We got on the N1 near Paarl, and got off of it fairly quickly, opting not for the Huegenot Tunnel but the old Huegenot Pass over the mountains. It looked like the pass would have been spectacular, except that there was only 100’ visibility in rain, so it sucked. We saw our first wild animals on the route; a troop of ~20 baboons, which are really not that rare. In fact, we saw 5 troupes of baboons during the day.

The only short tunnel 
Oh, were it not raining 
Yes, that's a baboon 
The Misty Mountains
On the “other” side of the pass, we turned off the N1 onto R60 at Worcester, hearing for Robertson. This valley (the Breede) is a forgotten sister of the Stellenbosch/Paarl wine area, and is home to lots of vineyards and wineries (though also is the home of a lot of brandy, too, so the wine is generally thin and uninteresting, making it excellent for brandy). It was a pretty valley…

Dry and mountainous
…but still raining occasionally, so no great photos. The route we took passes Robertson and Ashton, and crosses a mountain pass…

Upthrusted sandstones
.. to Montagu, then runs on the back (dry) side of the mountains for 100 km…

No traffic and big mountains
…along the way passing Ceres (home of a lot of fantastic fruit juices) and Montagu, “the home of dried fruit”. At Barrydale, we gassed up and headed north across a lot of uninhabited wilderness where there were warning signs for the local 2-toed ungulates (at home, it would be deer. Here, it’s oryx, springbok, blesbok, antelope or duiker, but disappointingly we saw none, so no matter).

The R62 had not-very-scenic picnic pullouts every 5-10 km that were well marked – EXCEPT for the part between Barrydale and Ladismith. For some reason, in that 60 km section (around Ronnie’s Sex Shop, a famous pub that has nothing to do with sex that happens to be in the middle of nowhere but sells cold beer), there are rest areas, but they aren’t signed so you don’t know they’re coming. We therefore had to slam on the brakes to stop for lunch (God job for zero traffic on the N62 Route). The lunch spot wasn’t much; a roadside rest area…

A typical desert roadside pullout
…near the turnoff to the Touwsberg private game reserve…

Lots for sale? In the middle of the desert?
…which has lions, cheetahs, zebra, giraffe and African two-toed ungulates, where you can buy lot and build a house and have those critters bother you, if that’s your thing.

But the cool part about our mostly-uninteresting lunch spot was the birds. Nope, I have no idea what most are, other than the very cool Lesser Double Collared Sunbird (yes, we looked that up, and yes, it's a common bird here).

Our first sighting of a lesser double collared sunbird 
No idea 
No idea either 
Don't know who he is, but I like the eye ring
Several times through the day, we saw ostriches, starting near Barrydale and continuing almost to George. Now, they are farmed here, but at the same time, I know we saw some wild ones.

Adults in black, babies in grey 
The roads here just disappear among the vast expanses of desert.

The ostriches were just to the right
We crossed several mountain passes today, but our best “pass of the day” was the Huisriveir Pass…

Red rock and scrub 
It's 1,000' down 
Red rock and white granite 
A cool valley that probably has African critters in it 
The normal SA Parks pass sign
…where Karen found another cool bird.

We see lots of these guys
We passed through Oudtshoorn, home of a LOT of ostrich farms, and then crossed our final pass to the coast, the Outeniqua…

Wow. Green on one side, desert on the other 
That's the Indian Ocean in the distance 
Two roads lead to those passes 
A pass panorama
…getting to George at 3:15 PM, an seemingly unrushed 6.5 hrs from Stellenbosch.

We stopped for groceries in George (in the Garden Route Mall, which could have been a mall in northeast Calgary for all we knew), then headed to our home for the next 5 nights, Fairey Knowe Backpackers. We got half of this thatched roof cottage…

Thatched roofs are common here
…and this was our room.

Big, airy, but light on furnishings. And heat.
The hostel is “interesting” (a farmhouse older than my country) and pretty. They offer cheap in house breakfasts and dinners. Given our long driving day, we opted to stay here for dinner. Meh. Some kind of bland stew-like thing, which was overpriced at $7.50/person.

Route 62 is being promoted as an alternative to the N2 to get to the Garden Route, and it’s an awesome choice. You might be lucky enough to see critters on the way (we saw 5 baboon troops, more than 6 herds of wild ostriches plus plenty of farms, and a mongoose), but even if you don’t, it’s pretty darned spectacular scenery.


Today’s Travel Tip: Speed limits

South African speed limits always seem to me to be 5- 10 KM too high. Great examples include 60 in towns, 120 on an undivided 2-lane road, and no school or playground zones. And we saw LOTS of cops doing radar work. One speed trap outside of George had 4 cars pulled over being ticketed.

On winding, twisty, steep grade mountain roads, you’ll suddenly find cars or trucks or transports doing multiple km/hr below the speed limit. If you do the speed limit, others may still pass you like you’re standing still. Slow cars and trucks may drive partially on the shoulder, enabling you to pass, but they may not. You are expected to drive on the shoulder (assuming there is one) if someone wants to pass you.

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