South Africa, Uniquely Diverse
South Africa is extraordinary in ways too numerous to count. Its diversity of people, cultures and animals, and the never-ending, ever-changing landscape, are only a few of the highlights that make it a bucket-list favorite for any serious traveler. Many parts of South Africa look like regions in the western U.S., while others are unique from any place we've ever been. Mountains, plains, savannahs, bush, deserts, forests, expansive valleys, rugged coasts and pristine beaches are just some of the natural wonders that make it such a remarkable country.
The drive leaving Swaziland began on relatively flat ground. However, the terrain gradually continued to build into ever-higher hills until some were more than a thousand feet above sea level. In addition, rugged mountains punctuated the landscape along the way giving the scenery an almost European feel, while the occasional kopje made it uniquely African.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane transitioned into farmland supporting beef and dairy cows, goats, sheep, horses and donkeys. We were constantly on guard while driving, as in many locations four-legged creatures grazed untethered along the side of road. There were frequent warning signs indicating no fences, which were simply depicted with an image of cow in the center of a yellow triangle. The posted speed never changed, just the frequency of caution signs.
Several times we were driving on the equivalent of a major U.S. Interstate highway (e.g., I-10, I-4, I-95) while a domesticated menagerie grazed along the road. Cars, trucks and buses whizzed by at 120 kilometers per hour (nearly 75 mph) unfazed by the proximity of the ubiquitous herbivores. There were few fences and most of the time no herder was in sight. Many times animals wandered into the road, and all traffic came to a complete standstill while the offending beasts took their sweet time moving from one patch of grass to another. It gave new meaning to "free range".
Port Elizabeth is home to Addo Elephant National Park. It was first established in 1931 and began with only 31 elephants. Today the Park has an estimated 450 of the pachyderms, and comprises nearly 410,000 acres; proving once again that humans can, if they choose to, undo the adverse impact they have on animals and nature. Although it sounds like a lot of space, it's not for animals that consume up to 440 pounds of vegetation each day, and require vast tracks of land and huge quantities of water to survive. Plans call for the park to nearly double its size, and will include a marine sanctuary along the coast.
Most of the National Parks in South Africa allow self-driving, which can provide many up-close-and-personal experiences. At the entrance to all parks, drivers are given a list of dos and don'ts before proceeding. There were the obvious, such as staying in the vehicle at all times, not getting too close to the wildlife, and not exceeding the posted speed limit of 40 KPH or 25 miles per hour. However, one of the don'ts took us by surprise . . . "Don't drive over the elephant dung on the road." Pachyderm droppings are South Africa's equivalent of IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices. In addition, the mountains of dung act as highly effective speed bumps, and helps to ensure the speed limit is observed. The plentiful poo is everywhere in the road, and avoiding the heaping mounds takes the driving skills of an Indy racer. However, the edict had nothing to do with concerns for the driver or passengers' safety, but a rare species of dung beetle that is only found at Addo. Apparently the elephant poo in the Park is very special indeed.
As with most things extraordinarily beautiful, the English language falls woefully short of describing its true grandeur. It is absolutely necessary to see it firsthand. Pictures and video do not even come close to the 3-D wonder of South Africa. One such place is Tsitsikamma (Tit-see-ka-ma), located along South Africa's East Coast. There are so many words to describe it, but none adequately characterizes its true beauty. California's northern coast comes the closest in appearance and majesty, and is a strong competitor, but still falls short.
The mountains in Tsitsikamma plunge into the sea, and the surf constantly assaults the jagged rocks below. The ocean is relentless in its constant struggle to reclaim the coast for itself. Waves crashing against the rocks have done so for millennia, and shoot geysers 10 stories high. The combination of wind, sea and currents produces a perpetual purple-blue haze that hugs the high mountains like a warm blanket.
We visited several small coastal towns in route to Cape Town. Several left a lasting impression including Mossel Bay, Gansbaai and Hermanus. Each had unique qualities that make them a destination for anyone traveling in the area.
Mossel Bay is a quaint town overlooking the southern fringe of the Indian Ocean. The first European explorer to discover the costal community was Bartolomeu Dias on February 3, 1488. There is an excellent museum with a replica of the small ship he and his crew sailed into the naturally protected harbor. It was before the days of a ship's wheel, and only had a large rudder that required more than one man to steer. Bart and his merry band of sailors were true adventurers!
The small town of Gansbaai is best known for shark cage diving. The area off the coast has one of the highest concentrations of Great Whites anywhere in the world. They are drawn there because of the equally high concentration of seals that inhabit the islands just offshore.
During certain times of the year, whale watchers overwhelm the town of Hermanus. The community is perched high on cliffs overlooking the ocean. A paved trail along the edge of the cliffs provides unobstructed views of the leviathans during their annual migrations. The town has many fine restaurants, upscale homes and accommodations, and shops aplenty. The mountains, which are a backdrop to the town, are home to a high concentration of baboons. It's mostly a love-hate relationship between the monkeys and their human cousins. Signage throughout the town reminds drivers to slow down and watch out for their fellow primates.
With approximately two weeks to go before leaving for Southeast Asia, we still had a lot of territory to cover. The final destination before departing was Cape Town, the crown jewel of the continent. The Western Cape Region is just as diverse as the rest of the country, and is rich in culture, history and sheer beauty, which will be the focus of next week's article.
And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."