23 Days around SA
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Let's begin with the latest adventure. We have spent a few years travelling the country with the dogs, so there are a few places we return to or have enjoyed, which I will share at a later stage. But while it's fresh, here's the latest roadtrip story.
This one took a lot of logistical planning. 23 days (22 nights) and 8 stops, trying to get as far north-east as possible. For those who don't know the geography of South Africa, Cape Town (where we live) is on the south-western tip. I have found that the sweet spot for exploring a new place is 3 nights and I try keep the driving time to under 8 hours. In South Africa this can be a bit tricky. In some areas there are masses of wonderful places to see, which are quite close together and then other vast areas of barely anything. So it takes planning.
This adventure started on 14th December 2019. Driving from Cape Town, 7 hours, to Baviaanskloof, just over the border into the Eastern Cape. The drive was quite easy, mostly on tar roads, with not too much traffic. The Baviaanskloof is basically a really long road along a river valley between lots of beautiful mountains. It is completely off the beaten track, the closest towns with shops and petrol being Willowmore and De Rust, which are both about 100km away. Luckily our host sent us all the information we would need. We stayed at Speekhout Farm, in the Treehouse. It is literally an adult treehouse, built in a spreading Karee tree. It was an absolutely beautiful house, secluded from the rest of the farm and kept cool in the shade of the tree. There was a braai (barbeque) area under the tree and a deck with a swing bench. The deck was lovely for lying in the sun to read and also spacious enough for yoga asana. The main room of the house has a dining table, with bits of tree growing through it, a indoor fireplace, double bed and a lovely little kitchen. The kitchen was tiny, but had everything we needed and the fridge was big enough to fit all our food. Being big fresh food eaters and it being the first stop we had quite a bit. There was even a coffee percolater, extra points for this house! Through a door by the fireplace you cross a little bridge to the outdoor bathroom. It had a wonderful gas shower and you could be out in nature while a on proper loo ;) Out the other side of the main room is another bedroom, with a double bed with a retracktable roof, and 2 single beds. Off this room is a balcony with a table and lovely views. There are a few games in the house to play on the chilled evenings. So I lost at scrabble.
There are a few trails on the property and crossing over onto the next property. The shortest route is up to the crocodiles tail. There is a rock formation on the one slope, opposite the treehouse, which looks like a crocodile. We thought more like a dinosaur. This route is only about 1.5km and has lovley views, so is great for anyone to do.
There is a longer trail, the Conglomerate, which crosses into the neightbouring farm and has some interesting rock formations. Also the Old Cattle trail, which winds up the ravine opposite the crocodile, starting near the treehouse. We linked them together by going up the cattle trail, which is clearly marked, then across the top, which is not marked, but the vegetation is low so you can find a path easily. And then down onto the conglomerate trail. We also ran over the the back of the ridge from the crocodile, down a fun windy track and into the dry riverbed.
The long road through the Baviaanskloof is also fun to explore. It is very quiet so you can run with free dogs on it. Or just take a drive to see the other places. There is a lovely Communitry Craft Store which sells local art and hand made goods.
It might be because this was our first stop and we were super in need of the holiday, but this was our favourite stop on the trip. It was peaceful with just the right amount to explore. No cell reception, traffic noise or city lights. The only thing that would have improved it was if the pool had been filled so we could swim when it got really hot. They also had pigs so there was a food waste bucket in the kitchen for scraps, extra points since we were without our compost bin. #explorelightly
The next drive was on the 17th December 2019, to the small village of Rhodes, in the Eastern Cape Highlands. The drive was about 8 hours with quite a lot of gravel roads. The road from Barkley East to Rhodes being particularly bad and rocky. We stayed at the Amanzi Emphilo Bungalow, which is a lovely spot on the Bell river. The bungalow is built on a slope, so has lovely views down to the river and of the surrounding mountains. There is a massive deck which is lovely to chill on and watch the sheep go by, herons catching frogs in the river, clouds roll over, read, or do yoga on. The accomodation is all in one room, with a comfy double bed and a bunk bed. The kitchen was well equipped, except there was no fridge, which was a little odd. There was a gas deep freeze outside, which wasn't on when we arrived, but which we had to use and by the last night unfortunetly froze some of our veg. The bathroom is really dark, but works fine, with a wood burning donkey out back to heat the water. Back along the river a little way is a good swimming spot for the dogs and humans, with a flat area where you can lie and read in the sun.
The owners of the property also run a training centre for athletes and host a hiking race every year, so were very knowledgeable about the trails. We did the 8km route, which is partially marked with poles, but we also borrowed a GPS. Being the wet season the route was grassy, but quite easy to follow, since you can see far. It was really windy at the top, but the views were worth it. It is very steep and not very runnable, so we did it as a hike instead of a run.
Our second morning we ran along the road, which is extremely quiet, through farmland. The views are lovely, of the mountains, farms and down to the river.
In the tiny village of Rhodes we didn't find much to do and the rain was bucketing down, so we couldn't wander about too much. One thing Rhodes does not have is a petrol station, which is not advertised by any tourism or town information centre or site, or our hosts, which is really bad. But it probably wasn't too clever of the hubby to let the petrol get quite so low either. We found out about an old man who sells canitsters of diesel, but unfortunelty could not get any because we didn't have the correct pipe to fill our car. This meant we had to change our planned route out and go back the way we came, instead of doing the Naude's Nek pass which I was quite keen on. The nearest town is Barkley East, which was 65km away from the bungalow and the petrol gauge was saying we had 84km left. But remember it was a really bad rocky gravel road. So early on the 20th December 2019, we had an extremely stressful drive, coasting on the downhills, checking constantly how far we had to go, and arrived at the petrol station as the gauge went to 0km! Phew! But lesson learnt.
Once we had filled up the petrol tank we could continue on a much more relaxed drive. But not really.... This was the worst drive we did, through parts of the Eastern Cape we had never been through. The roads were bad, with masses of potholes, crazy drivers who have obviously never learnt what the solid white line in the middle of the road means and buildings as far as the eye can see. The area is so beautiful, but there is no clear space of land, without human habitation. The houses are not on top of each other, like in a city, but no matter where you look, over all the rolling hills, there is not an acre of land without buildings on it. Very sad to see how humans take over the planet. After about 8 hours of harrowing driving we reached the accomodation, Zizi Lodge, Kwazulu Natal. And yuck, what a dreadful place. The photos used to advertise the place were obviously taken quite a few years ago and the place has become very run down since. The room was a tiny shack type dwelling, one of 4 in the same hut. The place was so badly built, with holes in the floor where the bath and toilet had been gouged in, skew doors between rooms where the light blasted through from nextdoor, and no ceiling, just builders plastic on the roof. It was supposed to be self catering, but there was no surface area to cut food or put cups and plates out on, or even enough cutlery and crockery for 2, completely bizarre. Unfortunetly Google Photos somehow deleted the photos I took of the place, so I could not add these to any reviews. It was a dreadful uncomfortable stay, but we tried to find a few things to enjoy.
There are a lot of activities in the area, geared towards families and kids. Not many places where dogs are allowed, and obviously we could not leave the dogs in the million degree shack while we went out. So things were pretty limited for us. We did find Clearwater Trails, which is a banana and nut farm where they have made cycling and running trails. The trail started near the Umtamvuna Gorge which separates the Eastern Cape and KZN. After this the trail was not very exciting, except for the small bits of single track through spider infested vegetation, which led to some creative web-clearing running style by the hubby.
In the same area we went to the Red Desert, which is considered by some to be the smallest desert in the world. It was probably caused by overgrazing and therefore a manmade desert, so there is some debate. It was red and sandy and small for a desert, but not very exciting. The coffee roastery, Beaver Creek, down the road was better. They allowed us to have the dogs at an outside table. We did a coffee tasting and bought a bag to take home.
There is one beach in the area that allows dogs, Trafalgar Beach, so we drove there everyday for a run and chill. The weather wasn't nice though, continuously overcast and very, very humid. I'm not sure if it's always like that in summer or if we were just unlucky (and spoilt by our perfect Cape Town weather). The people in the area were also very unfriendly, which made going out quite unpleasant. The restaurants seemed quite undecided if they allowed dogs or not and could cater for veggies or not, and kept changing thier policies depending on which manager was there. We are sadly very unlikely to ever return to this part of the country and now completly understand why most of the country's population ends up in Cape Town over the summer holidays.
Finally the 23rd of December arrived and we could leave the nasty shack. This drive to a farm just outside Memel, in the Free State, was about 7 hours, again on pretty bad roads, with some more scary driving. We found a Checkers store in Newcastle on our way, so were able to stock up a bit on food. On arriving at the farm the family was so friendly and even the kids jumped in the car to show us down to the house. To our relief the place was exactly like the advertising photos and just perfect. The house is secluded, away from the working area of the farm, with a dam in front and surrounded by hills. It is enclosed with a fence, so you don't need to worry about dogs or kids wandering off, but the area is big so you hardly notice the fence. The house is one big room, with 4 single beds, we pushed 2 together. The lights are all solar and there is a battery pack so you don't need to worry about running out of power. The gas fridge was on when we arrived, it makes such a difference when hosts are thoughtful and organised. There is a lovely gas stove and all the cooking utensil you need. They had also put out bowls for the dogs with a packet of biscuits each, super sweet. And there was a big basin and some washing powder, so we could wash some of our stinky running clothes. Being about halfway through the trip this was much needed.
Our first morning we had decided to do a run on a 2 day hiking trail, which was a little drive away. Since Andrew does not do any of the organising I had given him the one task of finding out about this hike. He found a map somewhere and whatsapped the owner of the farm, who didn't respond. All this I only found out once we got there. Anyway, we had driven so far so decided to do the route anyway. It started out with markers and then the disappeared, which wasn't helped by the map being incorrect - it showed we were supposed to be above some chalets. After blundering around in the bush for a while and then deciding to run down to the river and then back to the car, we spotted a marker - so the route actually went below the chalets - serious basic map skills lacking there. We decided now that we had found it we would follow it for a while. It was pretty badly marked and overgrown. Since we were constantly needing to look for markers, we could not watch our feet all the time, this is when I stepped on Cobra. Luckily it was very lightly and I jumped off and away very quickly, with a big shriek. Andrew, who was at the back, watched it flare it's hood and sail between the dogs, who were in the middle. We were so lucky none of us got bitten. This is why making sure you get hold of the property owner, or anyone who will know where you are, is so important. I hope Andrew has learnt a lesson from this incident, but he probably hasn't and I won't be giving him any tasks to do in future. Letting the organised person do the organising is best. Anyway we survived, with a story to tell and the views were quite nice.
Needless to say our second morning's run was on the farm roads. This was Chirstmas day. What a lovely peaceful Christmas, just the 4 of us. The weather was a bit crazy, with a hail and rain storm in the afternoon, but it cleared by evening so we could braai and drink bubbles outside. We also took the dogs in the kayak on the dam. They prefered it when they both went at the same time, rather than on their own, and had a great time. Pirate looked like he was ready to sail the sevens seas, maraudering.
This stop, number 4, was surprisingly the cheapest of the 8, and definetly one of the best. It was so comfortable and quiet and had everything we needed. Including games, so I could finally win at some scrabble.
Boxing Day, 26th December 2019, brought us another driving day. Now we were on to Thabazimbi, in the Limpopo province. To get there we had to drive through Gauteng on the massive highways, this was quite a change from the driving we had been doing and I was glad to be the navigator instead of the driver. At least going through these areas we had more of a choice of where to stop for groceries, so could do a big restock. As we drove through Limpopo, getting closer to our destination, the temperature rose rapidly and we arrived in 42 degree heat. We had booked into the private nature reserve of Grootfontien. We followed the directions from Afristay, which was the booking agent I used, and arrived at a locked gate. A week before our arrival I had received an email from the owner of the farm telling me the balance of the payment was due, this was a bit weird because their policy said cash on arrival. But she was quite adamant that they had no place to store the cash, etc (all other accomodation prefered cash because they could pay their workers without going into town to draw). Anyway, while we were in Rhodes at the time, I had to find some stable enough cell reception to make the payment. I recieved a last email from her saying the payment was received, thanks, nothing else. So we were obviously a bit worried when we arrived to the locked gate, having paid in full. We backtracked a bit down the road to another gate with a different sign, but same name (the sign at the previous gate being in all the adverts). Also locked. So we went back up the road to the gate with the sign from the ads and luckily in a tiny area on the road there was some vodacom reception. So I called her. She was very irritated and claimed she had sent me an email with instructions on how to get in. Obviously, I had never recieved any such email, even in my spam, which I always check. It turns out the directions on afristay were incorrect and we were at the wrong gate, we had to go back to the other gate and the keys were behind a pole, she told us. While we were doing all this driving up and down we noticed another car doing the same thing. While we were searching around the poles of the gate they came to join us. A man and his son jumped out and said they had been searching for ages, had no cell reception, but had received the email. They had searched behind poles, under rocks, everywhere, and found no sign of the keys. He was ready to drive the gate down, he said. Then along came a ranger from a neighbouring farm, who also jumped out of his car to help. No one could find the key. Since I was the only one with reception I drove back up the road to call her again. She was even more irritated this time, but said she would send her guy down. We went back to the gate and while we waited, searched for another 10 minutes and finally when Andrew climbed halfway through the gate he discovered the key! No keyring or anything helpful, just a tiny padlock key on a tiny piece of wire, in the bush, behind a big pole. So we entered the property, long drive up the driveway, though another gate and up to the house, where we found the guy who we had been told would be coming down. Obviously not on his way down, but sitting waiting for us. Not a positive start.
He showed us around our camp, which was nice and spacious, if a little run down. There was a big fire pit, which had broken chairs around it, these could have been removed since there were only 2 of us, and a wonky table. There was a very welcome splash pool which they had just filled, and he showed us the outside toilet and shower. The shower was a paraffin donkey, which was new to us, but we never ended up using it because we stayed in the pool most of the time. The house was built against a big rock, hence the name Giant Rock Lodge. The bottom part of the building was the kitchen, which was big and had a large gas fridge/deep freeze, which was on at our arrival. It also had a 2 plate gas stove and lots of cutlery. Above the kitchen was the bedroom, very basic with just a double bed and chest of draws. There was also a wonky table, which again probably should have been removed since it couldn't be used. Outside was a big deck with lounging chairs, better than the downstairs chairs, and a broken thing we could only assume had once been a wooden table. The view was lovely and the windows of the room where mesh with camping blinds over so you could leave it open and see out at night. This was great except when there was a lightning storm to wake you up with the flashes.
Most of our time there we spent in the splashpool, since it was over 40 degrees. We did take one trip into the town which was about 20 minute drive away. There wasn't much open, apparently they close the restaurants in season, odd (maybe they all went to Cape Town). It is a mining town, so was surprisingly wealthy for such a hot rural area. We ended up having lunch at the Spur, which was great to see how they have expanded the plant-based side of their menu. And they allowed dogs in the outside area, so we could chill in the cooler space for a while. We also found a glass recycling drop off, which we were ecstatic about because by this time our recycling bag was very full and heavy.
The running on the property was lovely. There was no map, which wasn't great, but we asked if we could do circular routes or if we must come back the way we went. Luckily, because out and back was the answer, otherwise we could have ended up doing unknown amounts of kilometers in the heat and bush. We found a good hill to run up, with great views and explored different sides the 2 mornings. The second morning as we started down, it started to storm, a big thunder and lightening rain storm. Pirate was scared, but did very well on the lead. And Dash pretended not to be scared and bravely ran in the front with me. We were soaked by he time we got down, but in good spirits, and cooler finally!
Overall this stop was quite nice, even though it started out a bit funny. The heat was insane, but it cooled off on our last day and the splash pool was great. When the family that was staying in the nextdoor lodge left the day before us, we went to go check it out. It was a much bigger lodge and obviously used more often and therefore better cared for. Most of the photos online are of this one, especially the splash pool with a view. There wasn't any wild game that we saw, which was something that had been advertised, but maybe becuse of the heat they were scarce.
BOKKRAAL WATERFALL VALLEY
29 December we were on our way again, having now been the furthest from home we were to travel, it was a bit like going home. This was a very short drive, only 3 hours, but there was quite a lot of rain and the only way to get there was on dirt roads. So we had a very exciting drive through extremely slippery mud, where the car was sliding around and I was in hysterics because I kept imagining us getting stuck and the having to try push the car while losing our slipslops in the mud. But we made it there okay, to a lovely house in the woods. We stayed in the Kliphuis, which had a lovely red door, like our home home. It was stone, with a thatch roof, with iron sheeting over it, probably because it was a bit leaky. It was a really lovely and cool and a very romantic setting, pity we are super unromantic people. There was a good size kitchen with 3 plate gas stove, just a small gas fridge, which again nicely had been put on before we arrived. A good sized lounge and a double bed, with the bath next to it. No door to the loo, so that was a bit less romantic. The lights were powered by a battery, like a car battery, and there were also parrafin lamps. We were quite keen to bath as soon as we arrived, after not washing for 3 days, but the gas geyser wouldn't light. It was a funny gas cyclider, with batteries insteads of a pilot light, the batteries weren't catching. Luckily there was a parrafin donkey too, which we struggled to get going, and the owner had to come back and forth to bring diesel and rags to get it lit. Eventually it was on, and quite fun to use once we had all the right stuff.
By this stop the dogs seemed pretty exhausted and slept whenever they could. On getting out of the car they seemed a little confused that we weren't home, but they got over that and ready for adventures very quickly.
On one of the days we drove into Groot Marico, which is the nearest town. It was super tiny, but we found a little coffee shop and a craft store, which had all sorts of this made by the locals. Apparently the area is popular for making Mampoor, which is an extremely alcoholic South African drink, about 80% alcohol. We bought a pink lady flavoured one, which we still have not had the guts to drink.
The hiking trail on the property was a little over-grown and hard to follow at times, but since we did it both days, it was much easier the second day. As we like to do, there was a little bit of jumping over fences, crossing through rivers and bundu bashing. It was so lovely to be in the cool after the previous stop and it was so lush. There were even stinky fields of mushrooms, which seemed to die overnight. The dogs had loads of fun in the rivers and exploring in the bush.
The trail comes out at the Tufa waterfall, which is one of 2 such waterfalls in SA. It was so interresting to learn about this amazing stuff that takes hundreds of years to form. Near the waterfall is the lapa and pool, which we spent most of our last day at, the last day of 2019.
Our new years eve was very chilled, it stormed most of the afternoon and evening, Pirate was not a happy boy. So we had to cancel our plan to braai and just have an indoor dinner by lamplight. Obviously we went to sleep early. But we still got to be awake at midnight, because I woke up at 23:58 when I felt something hurt my finger. I quickly put on the light and pulled back the duvet, to find a scorpion! I screamed and leapt out of the bed and in my panic thought I was going to die. We did an online search and found that scorpions with small tails and big pinchers are generally not poisonoius and I calmed down a bit, because that's how this one looked. I slept on the couch anyway. In hindsight it must have nipped me with it's pinchers, because of the direction it was facing and also becuse I had no lasting effects or pain. But it was just as scary as the snake and I don't know how I survived the trip so far! Overall we really enjoyed this spot, just a pity about the scorpion.
Starting 2020 with another long drive, into the Northern Cape, to near Groblershoop. Only a 2 night stop this time, as there is not really much to do in the area. Arrived in 44 degrees to Slypsteen guesthouse. It is built on a hill above vineyards, looking down to the Orange River. The houses are thatch, but somehow extremely hot inside, maybe something funny about the way they are built. We had a small cottage, which luckily had aircon. On arrival the owner told us about some powder that we would see in the corners on the floor, which was to try get rid of the geckos, and not posionous for the dogs. We were ok with that, since we like creatures. There was also a couple of rat traps and a cage trap, which was a little worrying. On the property there was a deck and pool, and what looked like a restaurant, but was closed up. We had dinner on the deck and a swim, and on return to the cottage found the bed, cutlery and crockery covered in what looked like massive rat droppings. We discovered the geckos she was talking about were not normal cute small one's (or big pretty tropical island one's), but massive mutants, infesting the entire place. It was so disgusting that we immediatly contacted her and told her she needed to move us to a clean room. The property was pretty empty, seeming to be a one night stop over between destinations, so we managed to get another room. This one was bigger and a bit cleaner, though it still had traps everywhere and was even hotter than the previous one. The aircon only worked for the bedroom, so the kitchen and bathroom were boiling hot. We pushed the 2 single beds together and away from the walls, to avoid droppings if there were mutant geckos in this one too.
Early in the morning, before it got too hot, we went for a long run through the vineyards and planatation. Spent the rest of the time lying in the aircon or by pool. Did a quick drive to the town of Groblershoop, but there wasn't anything to see or do and nowhere else of interest nearby.
We were very happy to be on our way again on the 3rd January 2020. A long drive, almost straight west, to the coast. We arrived to a lovely cottage in the tiny town. The cottage was crisp and seemed very new. It is 2 separate fully self catering rooms, with patio braai areas. The only problem with this was that our neighbours had the TV on the entire time, watching game shows, nogal. We unplugged our TV as soon as we arrived. We couldn't have been more opposite couples.
The bed was super comfy, the place was spacious and clean. The kitchen had a big fridge and there was a coffee percolator, win! The braai area was great too, you could look across the veld to the railwayline, with all the long, assumedly iron ore, trains going by.
Our morning run was along the cliff path from Doringbaai north to Strandfontein, about 20km there and back. It was beautiful, looking down to the sea from high cliffs, and little bits along the beach, and very well tended. It was one of our favorite runs of the whole trip, also because it was longer than we had found other places.
Exploring the town was very quick, it is tiny. A small fishing community, with an abalone farm that has been set up to create jobs and stop poaching, a really good innitiative which hopefully other coastal towns will learn from. There is also a small vineyard and winery. The wine tasting is inside the resaurant at the harbour. Luckily they could squeeze us and the dogs in before all the bookings, it was a really popular spot. The tasting was very well done and we got a couple of bottles of white, not normal for us, but it was so interesting. We also got in a snacky lunch, it was a really lovely spot.
Unfortunelty this stop was only 2 nights as we were running out of leave days. It would have been nice to do the trail a second time and explore the nearby villages, but we have put it on the list of places to return to.
On the 5th January 2020 we made our weary way home, with a collection of great (some scary) memories, constellations of mosquito bites, scratches galore and full hearts. We and the dogs were almost relieved to be home, to recover from the adventure.
Now to get planning the next one.