#4 - Southern Circuit, Part 2
Jeff Willner - 11 July 2001
(Harare, ZIMBABWE) - Dust crept into the truck cabin
from everywhere, quartz dust as fine as talcum powder, able to pour through
the tiniest hole. Driving south from Sossusvlei to Fish River Canyon
at 100kph we left a half kilometer long dust plume in our wake, and the
suction of open windows drew dust in from every bolt hole in the firewall,
gearbox shroud gap, and floor crack. Over the hours it built up, imperceptibly,
till every surface was covered in a quarter inch of red silt. Behind
schedule (due to the two day delay in Windhoek) we pressed on, hoping
to make camp before nightfall. But after four hours, Jody suddenly lost
her ability to breath. Gasping for air, she was hit by a full-on asthma
attack. We waited anxiously by the side of the road as she recovered
slowly. I removed my sunglasses and blinked in surprise at the light,
the lenses were almost totally obscured. I had thought it was just getting
dark. "I’ve got some nice pictures of Fish River from my last trip",
I told the others. "Let’s forget the canyon and make a run for civilization." And
so we did.
thousand five hundred and seventy two kilometers (give or take a kilometer)
and lots of gas station junk food later, we pulled into Africa’s premier
city - Cape Town. ‘In the late 16th century the Dutch East India company
(VOC) was vying for a piece of the spice trade, and dispatched Jan van
Riebeeck to establish a base where ships could stock up on supplies.
He reached Table Bay on 6 April 1652 and built a mud-walled fort and
planted gardens that exist to this day as the Botanical (Company’s) Gardens
in the center of the city bowl. Cape Town thrived and was known as the
Tavern of the Seas, a riotous port used by every navigator, privateer,
and merchant traveling between Europe and the East. By the end of the
18th century, Dutch power was fading and the British took the Cape in
1806.’ (Lonely Planet) The Union of South Africa was formed on 31 May
1910, and though Cape Town faded in importance to Johannesburg’s fabulous
gold riches and the Afrikaans capital of Pretoria, it remained a vital
port city with a tradition of tolerance and far less racial strife than
anywhere else in the country. The city bowl is circled on three sides
by the 1000m Table Mountain and opens onto a natural port. Surrounded
by beaches, vineyards, and spectacular vistas, it is easy to slip into
the relaxed pace of the city.
spent two days, shopping, sightseeing, stocking up on expedition supplies,
and eating at some terrific restaurants. After five weeks in Africa,
going to the mall was a treat. How incredible to browse at a bookstore
for the latest Harry Potter and see a recent release at the theatre.
Ahh commercialism, the tiny dose was overwhelming as a junkie’s first
hit after detox. It was winter in the south, the beaches deserted and
the nights cold. We had one day of spitting rain, but the second was
a glorious day of sun. Sun glinted off the wet road as I walked down
Long street to St. Georges’s, a pedestrian mall, past tables of antiques,
little cafes, the carving and curio market, and the dozens of jewelry
shops advertising cut-rate diamonds. On the corner of Shortmarket is
the Virtual Turtle, an internet café with a satellite connection. And
after three hours of Junglerunner maintenance, nothing is finer than
to nip across the street to The Left Bank - a French café with the finest
Croque Monsieur I’ve had anywher e. Cape Town is an easy place to call
home, and it was hard to leave on the third morning - so we didn’t, we
enjoyed the city till 4pm and finally headed west.
Stellenbosh is the capital of South Africa’s wine industry,
well respected both domestically and overseas for its high quality, inexpensive
vintages. Home to the finest vineyards and also to the 12,000 students
at U of Stellenbosh, the city combines graceful Cape Dutch architecture
and oak tree lined streets with the vitality of a student town. I was reminded
of a New England village in the fall. We passed sweater clad couples walking
from quaint B&Bs on our way to evening coffee by the fire in a wooden-beamed
café. Full shop windows glowed warmly, a cool breeze whispered past rustling
the fallen leaves on the sidewalk and curb. Only 1.5hrs away, it’s a fabulous
place for a side-trip from Cape Town. Again we had to tear ourselves away,
this time to drive to Knysna (pronounced nie-snah) the heart of the spectacular
Garden Route. Little did we know that this day would be one of the most
eventful of the trip.
started innocently enough with a jog. Rob felt the need to work off some
of the pizza and meat pies that had become our staple diet and by the
time he and Jody finished breakfast and met at the truck our departure
had slipped from 8am to 10. Our first stop was at a gas station to fill
up with diesel, but when I restarted the truck, a red light had lit on
the dash - one of the many modifications to the truck, it had no label
and its warning was a mystery. We checked the oil, other fluid levels,
all fine. We turned around and drove back into town to a Land Rover shop,
but even they could not tell us what it was. I could not get through
to Foley on the phone. Against my better judgment, I decided to go ahead
and drive. Now we were quite late. Half an hour out of town Jody piped
up from the back seat, "I think I left my fleece back at the hostel".
Did you see that scene in the Simpsons where Sideshow Bob steps on rake
after rake that swing up and smack him in the face - that was the moan
that escaped my lips, Oogh. "It was a gift" she added pleadingly. Around
we turned, back into town again.
It was the afternoon as we left for the third time.
We were going to visit Cango Caves one of the world’s largest cave systems
- not now. We had planned to drive out to the sheer cliffs of Knysna
to watch the sun set - nope. Now I drove mixing the need for speed with
a dread that some catastrophe was brewing in the guts of the machine,
mocked by the red Cyclops eye. At the next gas station stop (Shell Ultra
City - our home away from home) I tried Foley on the satellite phone,
no luck. Finally after dusk we arrived in Knysna. The oyster festival
was in full swing and accommodations were tight, so when the clerk at
the first B&B told Devy that he had nice, cheap rooms available, we all
thought our luck had turned. Devy called me in to check them out, and
as we walked down the hallway all the lights in the city went out. We
found out later that power had been lost to the entire southern cape
- a major transformer had blown in Outshoorn. Feeling our way in the
pitch black hall to reception we were suddenly infor med by the clerk
that he’d made a mistake, the rooms were booked but we could take some
smaller nastier ones. Forget it.
Back in the truck we peered at street signs in the
back lanes trying to find another place to sleep (no high beams remember).
Finally one hostel had a dorm room available. We took it and kept the
key. We’ll be right back to sign in, right after we get some dinner.
But the whole town was dark. People with flashlights and candles wandered
streets that had been bathed in streetlamps, decorative lights, and the
most modern amenities only one hour earlier. Sally saw a restaurant still
serving at the pier. Hooray. We piled out and got a table. "I’m sorry" we
were informed by the waiter, "due to the power outage we aren’t taking
any more orders". Forget this, let’s just drive to the next town. We
took off in a mix of frustration and desperation, climbing the mountain
pass out of town at speed, eager for any comfort. After 15min I wondered
who had brought along a bacon sandwich. After 20min I realized we had
a major problem, smoke was pouring into the cabin and windows. On the
shoulder of the road I grabbed the fire extinguisher and cracked open
the hood - no fire thank goodness. I assumed the worst, the red light
of doom had prepared me for the worst. We nursed the truck to an island
of light in our black world, Shell Ultra City with its own massive generator.
Abandoning the truck in the parking lot, we straggled to the gas station
restaurant like shipwreck survivors to an island shore. Calls for a mechanic
went unanswered, and the next day was a Sunday. Like a bad one-week anniversary,
we were stranded again. Our dinner was crackers, chips, jerky, apple
juice, and cookies (the real dinner took 2hrs to arrive because of the
rush of customers). And finally, at 11pm, the most generous hostel owners
we’ve met, drove out from Plettenberg Bay to pick us up and guide us
to a warm bed.
the end it all worked out quite well. Everyone was treated to a day of
relaxation and beautiful weather in stunning scenery (Plettenberg Bay
is the playground of the richest South Africans). The smoke? After an
expensive weekend visit by a mechanic, he diagnosed handbrakeitis - I’d
left the hand brake slightly on in my rush to get out of Knysna. Oogh.
The red light was simply a low fuel warning for the reserve tank.
Rob and Devy had to catch a plane in Harare in three
days - 2000km away. So we saddled up that afternoon and began our final
epic drive. Single lane dirt roads winding tortuously up mountain passes,
at night, with low beams, at speed - the first night was memorable for
the passengers. We broke up the second day with a visit to Kimberly’s
Big Hole, the largest man-made hole in the world, dug entirely by hand
during the diamond rush and the birthplace of the DeBeers diamond company.
Filled up with diesel at gas stations, slept at gas station motels, ate
at the gas stations, we were on a final push to visit the Great Zimbabwe
on the last night. Even being pulled over by South African police for
foolishly passing two lorries while blowing through a checkpoint didn’t
slow us for long (negotiated the ticket from R500 to R200). But the border
crossing was excruciatingly slow. And we arrived at the park too late.
Not to be deterred, we climbed the fence, snuck past the guards, and
did our own starlight tour of one o f the World Heritage Sites. Sitting
on the mountain summit of the king’s quarters, a thousand feet above
the twinkling cooking fires of the staff huts, under a carpet of stars
- was a memorable denouement to the southern circuit. Life is like a
box of chocolates. Sometimes you get the red light. But sometimes it’s
a mountain peak with good friends under African skies.