It took longer than expected. At least longer than it should have. For one thing, I had a flight already booked out of Cape Town – the final leg of my RTW adventure. The plan was in motion, so why was I making things difficult for myself by procrastinating about what to do next? Perhaps it was the fact that this next trip would mark the end of my cross continental, southern hemispherian backpacking odyssey. Or it might been the fact that I was totally and utterly in denial of going back to ‘the real world’ (whatever that means). Regardless of what it was, one thing was for sure, I wanted to end this awe inspiring and eventful trip of a lifetime on high note. Something that was worthy of a traveling finale.
And so after 3 weeks of indecision, and countless text messages to my faithful GLG to organize things (alas I had no internet access), I finally put aside all far flung ideas of traveling overland to Mozambique via who knows where and decided to do what I had planned to do in the first place: the Garden Route.
Roughly speaking, the Garden Route is the stunning stretch of coast between Port Elisabeth and Cape Town on the Western Cape of South Africa. Sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean, it’s a luscious green paradise of inland lagoons, rolling hills, unique marine reserves and indigenous forests. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for a fix, a nature lover wanting to discover your inner Zen or someone who’s just looking to chill out and watch the world go by, the Garden Route has it all. Feel like hiking through age-old national parks to pristine beaches? Take your pick. Want to attempt the world’s highest bungee jump? Be my guest. Keen to kayak out to watch the Southern Right and Humpback Whales swim by? Grab a paddle. Want to zip-line through a canopy of ancient forest? Tighten your harness. Yep, you guessed it, the GR has it covered.
My traveling buddy Hadar and I decided to do the ‘route’ in style. Backpacking style, that is. As South Africa’s only hop-on, hop-off backpacker bus that delivers travelers door-to-door, the Baz Bus offers a safe and reliable service down the Garden Route. They’re also very accommodating – something we found out after dropping a passenger off at the Wild Spirit Lodge in Nature’s Valley. While the driver was unloading a Dutch traveler’s bags from the mini-bus, the Lodge’s ‘receptionist’ (if you could call him that) strolled out to greet his new guest. Sporting a long beard, hot pink pajama pants and carrying a steaming cup of coffee, he was a sight to be reckoned with. Hadar and I looked on enviously. Who was this colourful character and why did we suddenly feel like we were missing out on something? We flipped through the guidebooks furiously, looking for clues as the bus drove off towards its next destination.
Finally I found a small description in The Alternative Route: ‘…Nothing is perfect and everything is fascinating – the artwork, the frogs and the bumble bees, the mysterious pathways in all directions….from the valley with the waterfall to the hillsides covered in wild flowers and the magical hike through Tsitsikamma’s indigenous forest along pristine beaches to the river mouth. Head back for a well deserved drink beside an open fire and the spectacular views on our tented deck.’ Done. We’d turned the bus around, checked ourselves in, downed a delicious home cooked breakfast, tightened our hiking boots and were on our way before you could say ’Wild Spirit’.
After our unplanned but spontaneous stay at the magical Wild Spirit Lodge with musician turned philosopher host Angus (aka silk pajamas), we headed to Knysna. Pronounced ‘Ny-znah’, the town sits perched on a stunning lagoon. Its spectacular setting and warm, temperate climate makes it a perfect all-year-round holiday destination. We were a day too early for their annual Oyster Festival (damn!), so we decided to take advantage of the hostel’s free Knysna Heads sunset tour instead. After being told about strict numbers, we arrived back at the hostel to find 14 people booked on what should have been a 7-person mini-van tour. Apart from our surfer-come-tour guide in the driver seat, it was stacks on for the rest of us. Indeed, with all the white picket fences and coffee shops, I’d forgotten ‘This Is Africa’.
By a sheer stroke of luck, our guide tacted on a ‘bonus’ Knysna Township Tour on the way back to the hostel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we were taken up to the cliffs overlooking the lagoon where a sprawling maze of ramshackle houses seemed to have the best view in town. Unfortunately this view is bitter sweet for the Xhosa people living in this disadvantaged black community. A result of the apartheid era, life in the township is hard. Many live without running water, electricity or proper hygiene. Walking through the chaotic maze of laneways and makeshift wooden and tin houses, it’s difficult to imagine that only a few kilometers away, white families are driving Land Rovers home from well paid jobs.
However, it’s not all what it seems. Delve deeper and you realise that there’s a real sense of community here that is special and unique. Out of the hardship has come a strength and courage that unites these people in a quest for survival. They support one another and in its own way, it’s a thriving community. Children play in the streets and neighbours actually talk to one another. There are tailors, hairdressers, shoemakers and restaurants – none of which display any signage or advertising. The people just know where to go and who to see when they need something. It’s also comforting to know that philanthropic support is being given by the wider community (including our hostel) to help raise the standard of living for this poor and under privileged township. Freedom has not come easy to these people, but their spirit burns bright. I want to believe that the future for the New South Africa is one of hope.