THE LITTLE KAROO
Land of Rugged Landscapes and Weird Plant LifeOctober 29-31
Not far inland from the coast near the towns of Plettenberg Bay and George, a highway veers inland through the rugged Outeniqua mountain range into the area known as the Klein ("Little") Karoo. The Outeniqua range, and other larger ranges farther inland, isolate the Little Karoo and its much larger sister, the Great Karoo, from the higher rainfall received on the coast. The dry, somewhat harsh climate has created a very unique region, full of spectacular mountain passes, big ostrich, sheep and vegetable farms, and weird plants adapted to the unusual environment.
Nice picture - blooming onion field, Little Karoo
Heading into the Little Karoo gave us a welcome change from the much-touristed "Garden Route," which leads from Plettenberg Bay along the coast to Cape Town. There are tourists here, but the towns of the Little Karoo maintain a timeless character that really makes the region feel unique. Highway 62, which runs through the Little Karoo, is something similar to the United States' famous Route 66. Decades ago, it was the primary route from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. The N2 superhighway, which was built in the 1950s, effectively cut off through traffic in the Karoo. The little towns which prospered on cross-country travelers eventually fell on hard times. The flip side to this is that many of the towns, like Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert and Calitzdorp, feel "frozen in time" -- little-changed from their heydays of the 1940s and 1950s.
The tiny Karoo town of Prince Albert
Ostriches at one of Outdshoorn's farms
We stayed in the Little Karoo's largest town, Oudtshoorn. Oudtshoorn is a pretty town full of bright white Cape Dutch buildings and big, shady trees. It's also the self-proclaimed Ostrich Capital of the World. And with good reason -- Oudtshoorn is surrounded by huge ostrich farms. It's impossible not to notice the influence of the giant birds on the town. Everywhere you go in Oudtshoorn, there are ostrich souvenirs for sale -- ostrich feather dusters, elaborately-painted ostrich eggs, ostrich leather handbags. And there isn't a restaurant in town that doesn't serve ostrich steaks. (For those of you that have never tried ostrich back home, you should. It's really excellent, full of vitamins and very low in fat). We had to play the first-time tourists to the area, so we visited an ostrich farm and learned all about the birds. They're not the smartest animals, but they're remarkably adapted to survive in rough, dry climates.
Jen making ostrich friends
Mike with Cheetah
Oudtshoorn has an outstanding little private wildlife park. It's more like a small zoo than an open, African-style park, but the work they do here is very important. The park breeds and raises endangered animals, including many of the big cats, most notably cheetahs. The animals they breed are sold to zoos and game parks, where they are reintroduced to make up for population declines in the last century due to overhunting. We got to go inside the Cheetah pen to pet the beautiful cats! As it turns out, cheetahs are the only big cats that will become totally tame in captivity. A tame cheetah will never attack a human being. They're more like giant housecats than lions or tigers in disposition. There was something really special about being so close to nature's fastest land animal. One of the pretty cats even started purring as it was being petted. A very cool experience. Not to mention that the nominal fee we paid for entry was going to a great cause...
Jen with Cheetah
Halt! Roadwork on the pass
No visit to the Little Karoo would be complete without making the trip over the spectacular Swartberg Pass. Passing through the rugged Swartberg mountain range which separates Oudtshoorn and the Little Karoo from the much drier Great Karoo, the pass is one of South Africa's scenic highlights. The road is unpaved and very narrow, with severe vertical drop-offs from the 1600 meter-high pass. This requires careful, slow driving, but the effort is worth it. There weren't many cars on the road, but near the top of the pass we were unlucky enough to find ourselves stuck behind a road repair crew which was re-leveling a steep portion of the roadway. We basically had to turn off our car and wait for the work to be finished. Eventually, the big land mover backed its way up the pass to a cutout, and we were finally allowed to pass. The view from the top ("Die Top" in Afrikaans!) was unbelievable, with the dry reaches of the Great Karoo to one side, and the much greener Little Karoo to the other side. You had to see it to believe it!
The Spectacular Swartberg Pass
Daisies on Swartberg Pass
The Karoo region is filled with interesting plant life. South Africa is the only country which contains one of the six unique floral kingdoms in the world within its borders. The Cape Floral Kingdom exists exclusively in the Cape region of South Africa. Some of its strangest representatives live only in the Little Karoo area. These include many kinds of protea flowers and strange succulent plants which are adapted to life in the semi-desert of the Karoo. We stopped the car several times just to get out and look around in the bush to see what we could find. There were lots of bush daisies, proteas, and weird-looking plants all around.
A protea - South Africa's national flower
From the Little Karoo, we drove toward Cape Town, stopping in the Stellebosch winelands area for a few days...
STELLENBOSCH AND THE CAPE WINELANDS
Great Food and Great Wine in a Beautiful SettingOctober 31-November 5
Only about 45 minutes east of Cape Town lies South Africa's most famous wine producing region. The university town of Stellenbosch is probably the country's best-known wine center. Surrounded by beautiful green mountains and a verdant countryside filled with vineyards and orchards, Stellenbosch is a perfect place to spend a few days before or after visiting Cape Town. We got caught up here for five days, staying in a small guest house just a ten minute walk from the busy downtown area. Wine tasting is a fun way to spend an afternoon in the region. Stellenbosch not only has world-class wineries, but also a number of excellent restaurants and shops. Being a college town (the University of Stellenbosch is South Africa's largest), it's also a pretty hopping place, with a fair amount of nightlife and good pubs. Excellent wineries, a pretty and historic downtown area, safe streets, excellent restaurants, and good night life...what more could you ask for in a town?
Wheat growing in a new vineyard near Stellenbosch
Lady dressed in period attire in old 1698 house
Stellenbosch is the second-oldest city in South Africa (after Cape Town). It has some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, many dating back to the late 1600s and early 1700s. One of the city blocks contains a group of buildings which have been nicely restored to their original early 18th century state. You can take a tour of the buildings interiors to see how the early Dutch settlers lived (the house attendants are even dressed in period outfits). Just walking through Stellenbosch's beautiful, shady oak-lined streets is like stepping 300 years back in time. There are many perfect examples of early Cape Dutch architecture in town.
Stellenbosch's beautiful seminary
The original homestead at Rupert & Rothschild
The South Africans really do produce some outstanding wines. And they should...they've been at it for over 300 years (making California's wine industry look like an infant by comparison). It's unfortunate that more Americans haven't discovered the remarkable quality and range of Cape wines. Part of the reason may be is that many U.S. states impose high duties on imported South African wine (protectionist measures against local wineries, perhaps?), so importers don't exactly have a big incentive to bring them to the States. One of South Africa's newest, and best, wineries is Paarl's Rupert & Rothschild, a creation of South African tycoon Rupert and French winemaker Baron Rothschild. Just over one year old, R&R is already a huge hit. (For those of you familiar with California's premium Opus One label, you'll recognize the Rothschild name...he's partners with Robert Mondavi in Napa county). We went tasting at R&R's beautiful ranch, just outside of Paarl, and we have to say their Baron Edmond merlot/cabernet blend is one of the best wines we've ever tasted. If you ever find the Rupert & Rothschild label at home, buy it -- you won't be disappointed!
The vineyards at Rupert & Rothschild (nice view, eh?)
We really had a tough time pulling ourselves away from Stellenbosch, but we had to stop with all the wine tasting and the great meals before we started getting fat and lazy. Besides, a great destination was calling out to us...Cape Town!
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