Off the Beaten Path in the Western Cape of South Africa
Quick, when you hear about South Africa's Western Cape, what comes to mind? Well Cape Town, duh. Definitely the Garden Route and probably Stellenbosch and Franschhoek for the wine enthusiasts out there. And for those who have visited South Africa, perhaps Gansbaai, known for its whale watching and shark cage diving. But what about the "Ostrich Capital of the World"? Or one of South Africa's most notorious haunts? Or a piece of wilderness in a destination called Wilderness that looks like a map of Africa? So maybe these aren't things you probably go to South Africa for, yet it was the offbeat finds beyond Cape Town that really made the Western Cape of South Africa for me on this most recent trip (hosted by South African Tourism). So take an offbeat road trip with me through the Western Cape of South Africa!
Matjiesfontein. I believe the term "blink and you'll miss it" had to originate when someone blinked and drove right by Matjiesfontein, South Africa. The proof is in the tour of Matjiesfontein (pronounced "Mikey's Fontain") in an old London bus, which leaves at the sound of the driver, Johnny (who is also the pianist at the bar), playing a trumpet and takes no more than 10 minutes (and the most entertaining 10 minutes of your entire life) for a distance that's about equal to two circles around your local grocery store parking lot. The main attraction, however, the The Lord Milner Hotel, just happens to be one of the most haunted places in South Africa. And there were certainly some sounds and rumblings that night at the hotel, but that could have been the whiskey. Or maybe it was our cast of characters (half South Africans and half bloggers from around the world) that shut down the bar, one of the most extraordinary bars (and bartenders, Abraham, who has bartended there for 20 years) I've visited, where we were belting out Sweet Home Alabama (evidence: Exhibit A) at the top of our lungs.
Matjiesfontein may seem like just another small town, but spend a night like our group of South Africans and travelers from around the world did, and like us, it may make for the most magical moments of your trip (and if you're lucky, like me, perhaps you'll walk away with a nickname, which I received from my newfound group of friends that night, "Slow Burn").
Street art in Prince Albert. Anyone who knows me knows that I love street art and often photograph at least one piece of it in every city I visit. Imagine my surprise when I not only found it in South Africa, but in Prince Albert, a small village in South Africa's Western Cape. We were passing through on the way to Swartberg Pass, when South African blogger, Kate, yelled, "STOP," and our van skidded to a stop. Looking around, I expected to see something like a family of baboons (not out of the ordinary there), but instead saw a series of elephants painted on the side of homes by South African artist, Falko. We all got out and spent the next 30 minutes taking photos of each of the installments, as well as kids who ran up to us, cheesing from ear-to-ear and waiting for their photo to be taken as well. It was one of those unexpected travel moments that you don't find out about in a guide book, but have to stumble upon yourself, and as such, stands out because of its spontaneity and the simple pleasure that derives from it.
Swartberg Pass. Okay, so this is where we end up seeing the baboons (seriously). But of all of the places I've visited in South Africa's Western Cape, Swartberg Pass is the most captivating. Around every bend of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is another panoramic view or geological formation that's more beautiful than the previous. It all felt very Lord of the Rings-esque and while the drive through the pass can be bumpy and even treacherous after a rain shower, the views are unparalleled. It's kind of like the Grand Canyon of South Africa. Make sure to spend some time at the top of the pass to hike around and take some photos.
Oudtshoorn. So Oudtshoorn is funny, and not in just the way the name looks and is pronounced (the "d" is silent). You guys, it's the Ostrich Capital of the World! I didn't even know that was a thing, but I've never seen so many ostriches. And there are ostrich farms throughout Oudtshoorn, like Safari Ostrich Show Farm, where you can photograph, pet, feed, and even ride them. Or you can walk among cheetahs or even go cage diving with Nile crocodiles at the Cango Wildlife Ranch, as one does at a wildlife ranch. However, a couple of my favorite and most serene dining and lodging experiences took place in Oudtshoorn, first at lunch at the Surval Boutique Olive Estate, where we dined at the base of the Swartberg Mountains after a long day of driving. The second at our accommodations for the night, Rosenhof Country House, a country homestead that I would've expected in the countryside of England and not South Africa's Western Cape. It was the "slow burn" of all the places I visited in South Africa.
Adventure Tour in the Cango Caves. Okay, so maybe the Cango Caves is the most touristy thing on this list, and perhaps if you get a guide like we did, then it may feel like just another cave tour. But lo and behold, they have an adventure tour, requiring scrambling and squeezing through literal nooks and crannies. Any adventure tour that comes with warnings is the type of tour I want to be on. Adventure tour or not, Cango Caves is one of the most impressive cave systems in South Africa and only adds to the allure and captivation of Oudtshoorn.
Wilderness. If you're going to name a place something like Wilderness, then it better be freaking awesome, and this certainly didn't disappoint. Approaching the famed Garden Route for the first time, my expectations of it were met when I was greeted with views atop Kaaiman's River Pass with sweeping views of the ocean. Just below us, was a trestle bridge winding through a couple tunnels in the pass. You can't call a place Wilderness and have tunnels and trestle bridges and not expect me to go exploring. From there, just off the main highway in Wilderness is an interesting overlook called the Map of Africa. When you stand at the viewpoint overlooking the wilderness (appropriate, of course), you'll notice that the settling of the river flowing around the hill just below you looks like the continent of Africa. And then just behind you a panoramic view of the ocean. This is Africa.