The view from the Jungfraujoch observation deck is, quite simply, spectacular. Tucked in the saddle between two of Switzerland’s highest mountains, the highest railway station in Europe offers spectacular Alpine vistas of glaciers and snowy peaks. All of Switzerland lies to the north, as Italy tumbles away to the south.
Well, that’s what our glossy postcards show, at least.
The only tumbling we’re doing is back indoors, as an unseasonal storm system dumps half-a-metre of snow in our path. Out on the exposed observation deck, flying ice is hurled against our eyelashes by gale force winds, and all I can make out is the thermometer reading minus-something-or-other. Sunshine and views are in short supply and we look for all the world like tourists inside a shaken snow globe. Which, in a way, I guess we are.
But even without the views the trip up the Jungfraujoch ranks as one of the greatest railway journeys in Europe, offering picturesque valleys, spectacular engineering and enough bucolic Swiss scenes to grace a lifetime of chocolate boxes.
From the town of Interlaken the impressive cogwheel railway climbs past emerald pastures, snowy fields and through the very heart of the Eiger to reach the underground station and observatory over 3500-metres above sea level.
Even more incredible, is that the railway was built just a few years after the Wright brothers took their first flight. While plans for a train to the summit of the Jungfraujoch were first mooted in 1893, it was another 15 years before the tracks finally reached the top.
“The railway celebrates its centenary in 2012,” says our guide Josef Erni with just a touch of pride, as we chug past the impossibly pretty village of Lauter Brunnen. Waterfalls cascade from nearly ever cliff, but all eyes are squinting towards the towering Staubbach Falls; a popular drop-zone for BASE-jumpers
A retired engineer, Josef has lived in the area for nearly 40 years and is a wealth of information as we make our way heavenwards. Past the village of Wengen, with its popular ski resorts and kilometres of piste, eyes turn towards the distant peaks. Or, rather, the cloud where we’re assured the peaks are usually to be found.
“The peaks Mönch and Jungfrau refer to the monks and nuns that grazed their herds on the high pastures in summer,” explains Josef. “A peak for the men, a peak for the women! On the left is the Eiger, one of the most challenging rock climbs in the world. It was only in 1938 that someone managed to climb the famous North Face.”
The sheer rock of the North Face looms above us as the train pauses at Eigergleischer station – the train stops three times en route to allow travellers to admire the view and adjust to the thin air of 2320m.
And it’s only up from here as the train follows a track tunnelled into the very bedrock of the Eiger, stopping only for occasional glimpses out of viewpoints cut from the rock face. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that’s worth the journey on its own.
Which is just as well, when the views don’t play ball.
All the more reason to savour the journey back to Interlaken; our route wending through pastoral valleys of wooden chalets and tinkling cowbells. The village of Grindelwald appears lifted from the pages of a Heidi storybook, while patches of wildflowers speckle the hillsides. It’s a soft, welcoming landscape that’s impossible not to love.
Nearly all roads and railways in this area lead to Interlaken, and while the trip to the Jungfraujoch is the area’s most popular attraction, the town is a scenic, sedate spot in itself.
A wander along the historic Höheweg reveals chocolate and watch shops aplenty, while further towards Lake Brienz a tranquil Japanese garden offers reflective koi ponds and quiet pathways. Both are in stark contrast to the backdrop of gothic gargoyles and rough-hewn walls of the historic Schlosskirche beyond.
The ‘Castle Church’ of Interlaken was built in the 1300s, when “its lofty chancel was the most stately example of High Gothic architecture in the canton of Bern,” reads the church record. It wasn’t all power and glory though: in 1528 the church was closed and used as a granary and wine cellar, only to reopen in 1909. Today, it’s a peaceful escape from the hordes of Asian tourists, and worth a visit for its impressive stained glass windows.
Perhaps fittingly for Switzerland, my itinerary was timed to the second and there was sadly little time to linger in Interlaken. No time for a boat cruise on Lake Thun, or a stroll to the swimming beach at Neuhaus. No space for a trip up the cableway to Harder Kulm: the dramatic views of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz would have to wait. The annual yodelling festival was just a few days off, but Swiss clocks – and trains – wait for no man. The Golden Pass Line was waiting.
Switzerland is famous for its commuter railways, but it’s also surprisingly good at combining transport with tourism, and a number of scenic railways criss-cross the Alpine foothills. A circuitous route would lead me back to international departures at Zurich airport the same evening, but why not see some scenery en route, I reasoned?
And with the Golden Pass Line it’s all about the scenery. First class carriages (it’s worth paying the little extra) boast bulbous windows that cover most of the roof, offering panoramic views as the line links the Vaud Riviera to Lake Lucerne.
Skirting the shores of Lake Brienz, the deepest in Switzerland, the showering Giessbach Falls immediately has cameras clicking. Past Brienz, the line climbs over high pastures towards the Brünig pass; a scenic cutting surrounded by more chocolate-box scenery. Down into the valley below and Lake Lungern gives way to Sarnen, Alpnach and – far too soon - Lake Lucerne. A night or two in Lucerne is ideal to soak up this 14th century town, but if – like me – you have barely an hour, it’s handy that the city’s most famous sight is right on the station’s doorstep.
The gorgeous Chapel Bridge straddles the Reuss River, and dates back nearly 700 years. Well, it did until a discarded cigarette burnt most of it to the ground in 1993. Still, the 204-metre bridge has been meticulously restored and retains all the flower-boxed, wood-carved romance of historic Switzerland.
Photos taken and paddling swans admired, the Pre-Alpine Express was our last stretch on the rails to Zurich. A far cry from the dramatic Alpine valleys, the surprisingly sedate Express travels through rolling hills and broad lakes to show off the softer side of Switzerland. The lakes lose their glacial blue, and birds of prey soar between tracts of deep-green woodland. It’s countryside less jagged Toblerone, and more seductive Lindt.
You could ride the Express all the way to gorgeous Lake Constance, but I have a plane to catch and my boat across Zürichsee is waiting. At the charming lakeside town of Rapperswil it’s just a few steps to the ferries that ply the forty-kilometres of water lapping against the capital’s footsteps, and make a fantastic way to quietly soak up your last hours in Switzerland.
Stepping onto the pier in Zurich you half expect to see bankers counting gold on every street corner, but it’s a city that wears its wealth conservatively. An embellished bank building here, a row of luxury vehicles there… trams still trundle through the streets and laid-back pavement cafes spill onto discreet squares.
It’s also a city of two halves.
While the old money banks dominate the left shore of the Limmat River, most tourists head straight for the designer boutiques and trendy eateries of the right bank. It’s here you’ll find the real magic of Zurich; the cobbled streets of the Altstadt (Old Town), and the high tower of the gothic Grossmünster.
There’s stunning décor and design at Innenarchitektur on Spiegergaße, and wonderful art at the AHA gallery. There are Impressionist collections to admire at Kunsthaus art museum, or a cheesy raclette to tuck into at the traditional Swiss eateries.
It’s a city that wears old and new comfortably together, preserving its history and embracing the modern. It’s a city I’ll come back to in a heartbeat. And – if I can time the trains just right – perhaps I’ll forgive the Jungfrau and give the nun’s mountain another chance to show off her splendid views.
• Getting there: Swiss International Air Lines boasts a revamped Business Class cabin, and flies daily from Johannesburg to Zurich. Visit www.swiss.com, or call 0860 04 05 06.
• Getting around: From Zurich airport the excellent Swiss railway system is your best way to travel around. If you plan on doing a lot of travelling a Swiss Pass, also valid on buses and ferries, is your best bet. Visit www.sbb.ch.
• Plan your trip: www.myswitzerland.com is the offical website of the Swiss National Tourist Office.
First published in Garden&Home Magazine
In hindsight, perhaps the Bainskloof Pass wasn’t the best place to learn how to drive a campervan.
It’s a gorgeous stretch of road, justifiably regarded as master road-builder Andrew Geddes Bain’s finest piece of work, but Bain probably didn’t have 2.3-metre-wide campervans in mind when he plotted his narrow pass 150 years ago.
Over the summit and down the other side, for a change my eyes were on the road not the view, as I negotiated blind corners, narrow stretches and careering trucks.
Beneath the sheer drop to my right, the frothing Witte River raced along its way to join the Breede River. Against all odds I reached the valley’s broad plains without a scratch on my new set of wheels and as I turned into the Bergsig Estate parking lot I breathed a sigh of relief. So far my crash course in campervanning, wasn’t.
Bar a brief but ill-fated love affair with a Land Rover Defender ’90, I’d driven nothing larger than a hatchback for years, but the opportunity to take a Jurgens WJ Avalon on a spin through the Breedekloof had proven irresistible. Two days of mountains, vineyards and the rumble of the Avalon’s powerful turbo-diesel engine were just the tonic after a busy few weeks in the salt mines.
And as campervans go, the Avalon is the Hilton of the mobile home world. In fact, I’ve stayed in hotels with less room. Fitted with a closet bathroom and kitchenette, the Avalon’s spacious front and rear dining areas collapse into double beds, allowing up to four adults to sleep in comfort.
Although truth be told, the front beds are better suited to vertically-challenged adults that hail from the Shire. I imagine it could also get quite cosy once both tables are converted into beds, but for a pair of travellers it’s as roomy as can be.
And the Breedekloof wine route has no shortage of wide-open spaces either. The historic Bergsig Estate marks the northern end of the route, which stretches from Rawsonville through the scenic Slanghoek Valley, to this corner in the shadow of the rugged Limietberg Mountains.
The Lategan family have farmed these acres for over 170 years, and there’s a very real sense of preserving the land for future generations. Bergsig was one of the first to join the celebrated Biodiversity in Wine Initiative and the estate has more land under conservation, than cultivation.
A self-guided birding walk is available to visitors, with an easy-to-follow map leading you through trellised vineyards to a permanent bird hide. Birders flock here from far and wide to train their scopes on the rare Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, the star attraction among 200-odd bird species recorded on the farm.
It’s a scorching hot day in the Breedekloof though, so I make do with a little twitching from the balcony of the bistro restaurant. There’s a casual menu of hearty lunchtime fare, with a standout venison pie steeling me for the road ahead.
Not that the Slanghoek Valley requires much of an adventurous spirit, as a forgiving tar road makes it way gently past trellised vineyards and tidy orchards. The Avalon’s powerful diesel engine roars to life when summoned, and even in sixth gear I have no trouble accelerating over undulating hills.
But you don’t want a heavy right foot, because it pays to take it slowly in the Slanghoek. It’s bucolic, photogenic and worth savouring. Small farmsteads dot the roadside, and trailers laden with grapes trundle towards wine cellars. It’s harvest time, and trucks piled high with pressed grape stalks scatter a fragrant cloud of must along valley roads.
When I spot an approaching truck, I become acutely aware of how my campervan fills its entire lane though. A steering wheel wobble on my part and I can kiss those expensive wing mirrors goodbye.
As I take a sharp right turn into Jason’s Hill Private Cellar I hear a clatter behind me. I instinctively glance at my rear-view mirror to see what’s going on, but am greeted by blue sky through the windshield. Ah yes. No rear-view, remember?
I pull to the side of the road and discover the picnic basket and box of wine that’d I’d so carefully laid out on the seat are scattered across the floor of the cabin. First lesson: when campervanning, it pays to pack everything away carefully.
I skip up the steps at Jason’s Hill and into the icy embrace of the air-conditioned tasting room; a welcome respite from the steamy Slanghoek afternoon. Through a set of wide glass doors I can see winemaker Ivy du Toit overseeing a load of grapes being pressed. It’s action stations in the winelands, and I haven’t the heart to drag her away from the tanks for a chat.
The du Toit family have long sold the grapes from their family farm to a local co-op, but in 2001 Ivy began making her own wine in the family garage. The attractive cellar and tasting room followed shortly after, and in 2003 she was named Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year.
And it certainly shows in her well-priced range of top-quality reds, where the flagship merlot is the pick of the bunch. Upstairs, the casual bistro-style restaurant has some lovely local plates, from waterblommetjie bredie to gourmet burgers.
Time is running out though, and I still need to stop in Rawsonville for meat and firewood before finding my campsite for the night. Sadly, this is a town you’d rather speed through than linger in, and even the butchery on the Main Road (the better of the two in town) is a disappointment. You’ll find decent droewors, but little else.
My campsite at Dwarsberg Trouthaven, however, is simply spectacular.
The farm’s six idyllic campsites are spaced well apart along the banks of the bubbling Holsloot River, with private ablutions and a lush covering of grass that wouldn’t look out of place on an Irish hillside. Whether you’re chilling out, cooking or playing camp-cricket (in the river is six-and-out) the pristine river, perfect privacy and thorn-free carpet of green is enough to make this somewhat pricey campsite worth every penny.
But it’s what’s in the river that draws most visitors here.
For his sins – which must have been considerable – expert fly-fishing guide Craig Thom drove out to meet me bright and early the next morning.
“This river is incredibly popular with fly-fishermen, especially in late summer,” explained Craig, laying out rods, reels and unidentifiable flies in an attempt to teach me the fine art of fly-fishing. “We call this a tail-water river, because it draws out the cold bottom waters from the Stettynskloof Dam upstream, so even at the end of summer the waters here will still be cold.”
Apart from the chilly waters, the river was last stocked over 60 years ago so the trout that hide in the eddies of the Holsloot are as wily as can be.
“Oh, they’re very clever, the trout in this river,” says Craig ruefully, an hour later, as our umpteenth cast produces nothing more than a damp fly.
Patience is something of a prerequisite for both fly-fishing and winemaking, I think to myself as the Avalon and I rumble through Rawsonville and into the manicured Deetlefs Estate.
Farmed by the Deetlefs family since 1822, it’s the third-oldest family farm in South Africa and the current owner, Kobus, takes his wines seriously.
“We put our name on the bottle, so the heat is on,” says Kobus earnestly over a tasting of their outstanding whites. “We work very hard to make sure all of our wines have an elegance to them.”
I leave Kobus and winemaker Ferdi Visser to their harvest and wander back to my trusty steed. The N1 beckons, and my only decision is which way to turn. Left, to Cape Town, home and more deadlines? Or right, to the open roads of the Karoo and star-spangled campsites?
Tough choice, but whichever it is in the end, one thing’s for sure. It pays to take it slowly in a campervan.
For more information on the Jurgens WJ Avalon, visit www.wjmotorhomes.co.za. If you’d like a holiday rental, contact Maui Motorhome Rentals at www.maui.co.za. To plan your adventure in the Breedekloof, visit www.breedekloof.com and www.trouthaven.co.za.
Craig Thom offers fly-fishing equipment, tours and guiding. Visit www.streamx.co.za.
First published in AA Traveller
I don’t like cockroaches.
Rats, I can manage. Mice aren’t a problem. But don’t show me cockroaches unless I have a can of bug spray in each hand. So an hour spent scrambling through historic storm water tunnels – parts of them evidently holding a Periplaneta Americana convention – was perhaps a strange way to spend a morning.
But let’s take a step back, out into the sunshine, for a minute.
From Vredehoek, a leafy suburb above the Cape Town city centre, there’s a splendid view of the front face of Table Mountain. Hundreds of metres of sandstone soar heavenwards, its face pocked with gullies carved by streams. In winter, these streams become torrents and the ‘mountain in the sea’ glistens with water.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the indigenous Khoi called this place Camissa; ‘the place of sweet waters’. The Dutch East India Company rather fancied them too; for growing vegetable gardens and keeping its soldiers, ships and sailors well watered.
But once those gushing streams hit the city they all but disappear. Except they don’t, not really. They’re still there, simply hidden beneath the tarmac.
“This road, and tunnel that runs beneath it, was once an open river with houses built on both banks,” explains Dwain Esterhuizen from adventure company Figure of 8. “Platteklip Stream and Silwerstroom converge just above here, and this was the stream that fed the Dutch castle at the Cape.”
Having locals and livestock living atop your supply of drinking water is never a good idea and before long the open river was canalised, then enclosed. As the suburbs expanded, the tunnels stretched further up the mountainside. Through the East City, across Roeland Street, past the Gardens Centre mall and, well, right up to beneath our feet where the manhole’s open maw was waiting to swallow our small group of tunnel tourists.
“But are there rats down here?” asked one tourist nervously, as we clambered down. There aren’t, but it didn’t stop a few people asking the same question over the next hour.
With everybody in and headlamps on, the manhole cover clangs shut and we start walking. Snippets of trivia float backwards from Darren, and we stop often to soak up our surrounds: the precise brickwork, lattice of spider webs and mysterious side-tunnels.
Although this is officially a storm water drain, at first there’s barely a trickle beneath our feet.
“It’s very dry today,” agrees Darren Massyn, our tunnel guide from Figure of 8. “Sometimes the water comes up to your calves! But we don’t even think of running this tour in the winter. As soon as the heavy rains arrive, it’s far too risky.”
Along the entire length of the tunnel storm water drains disappear off to left and right, no doubt connected to distant streets.
And they’re not the only evidence of life on the surface. Although there is surprisingly little rubbish down here, the occasional take-away wrapper or cigarette box is a reminder that litter has to end up somewhere.
Further on, a far-off tree’s fibrous roots wend their way deep into the tunnel, sucking up moisture from beneath our feet. An engineer’s oversight is here too; the foundations of a mystery building up above punched through the roof.
Every few hundred metres we stop beneath a manhole cover, the daylight and extra headroom offering a welcome break. At each stop Darren whips out a photograph to show where we are: perhaps alongside the Garden centre, or in the intersection of Roeland as it heads towards Parliament.
It was one of my favourite parts of the tour; knowing we were just beneath the feet of unwitting commuters. Darren swears that a British tourist once climbed up to beneath the manhole cover and asked passersby for directions to the beach.
As the tunnel drops, the water level rises from a trickle to a gurgle. And the tunnel changes character too. Late-20th century concrete becomes century old brick as the tunnel widens. A few hundred metres from the Castle, the oldest section is oval and built of shale; just like the Castle.
“That light at the end of the tunnel is our exit into the Castle grounds,” says Darren, pausing for effect. “Either that, or it’s a train.”
Chuckles of laughter – some of it relieved – echo back down the tunnel. After an hour underground we pop out into the grounds of the 300-year-old Castle of Good Hope.
It’s not often you give much thought to manhole covers as you drive around a city, but those holes have to lead somewhere. And in one instance, they lead to one of the Mother City’s most interesting urban adventures.
So next time you’re driving over a manhole in Cape Town, stop for a minute… there might just be a lost tourist down there.
For tunnel tour bookings and dates, contact www.fo8.co.za or call 021 439 3329. A reasonable level of fitness is required, as you’ll mostly walk bent over, and on brick that is often slippery.
First published in Sunday Times Travel
“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match."
Legendary British explorer Wilfred Thesiger may have been writing about Rub' al Khali; the vast ‘Empty Quarter’ that stretches across the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, but his words are echoing through my mind as I stand atop a dune in Namibia’s barren Skeleton Coast National Park.
To the west, the barchan dunes march inexorably northeast towards Angola, driven by the relentless south-westerly winds that lash this barren coastline throughout the year. It’s a landscape that’s ever changing, yet perfectly timeless.
“They can move up to 15 metres a year those dunes,” says our guide Kallie from over my shoulder, as if reading my thoughts. Growing up in a village not far from our tents at Wilderness Safaris’ luxury Skeleton Coast Camp, it’s not surprising that he has a sixth sense for bringing this landscape to life.
Which is just as well, because the Skeleton Coast isn’t a place you’d likely choose out of a holiday brochure. It’s by turns both swelteringly hot and icy cold, inviting yet unwelcoming. As AA Gill once wrote about the Kalahari, it feels like the desert has it in for you.
And indeed, the few animals that eke out a living here are supremely adapted to this forbidding ecosystem. It might be a national park but you shouldn’t come expecting the Big Five and herds of wildebeest. If you’re not keen on sand, or if you’re mildly agoraphobic, perhaps you should rather stay home.
But deserts – for me at least – have an irresistible allure, and the Skeleton Coast is one that’s made a deeper mark than most. Perhaps it’s the dramatic approach: almost all guests fly in from Damaraland, soaring down over endless dunes. And with just two flights a week in or out, there’s a splendid feeling of isolation when you step off that Cessna Caravan. You’re here for the duration; you’re committed… like Thesiger and his Bedu guides.
Except where Thesiger slept in the open under a blanket, Wilderness Safaris knows a thing or two about luxury in the wilderness. Set on an island in the dry Khumib riverbed, about 20km inland, the camp’s six Meru-style tents host only a dozen guests at a time.
There are few frills, but you’ll find homely and spacious canvas suites with private balconies and sweeping desert views. Meals are served in the open-plan lounge and dining area where driftwood, washed up on a sea of sand, adorns the west-facing deck. Once the sun has dipped behind the dunes, guests gather at the communal dinner table to swop tales from their days in the desert.
And that, in a nutshell, is why you should visit. Why you must visit… because despite the homely cooking and warm welcomes, the rustic-chic accommodation and ice-cold G&Ts, the real thrill is leaving it all behind and heading west.
Except, at first, we didn’t.
When Kallie explained that for our first full day we’d be heading inland, I grumbled inwardly. Why did we come to the Skeleton Coast to head for the hills? I want sand dunes and seas, not hill and vales! But, not for the last time on the trip, Kallie would be proven right.
Inland, a lonely road leads across a moonscape of dry mountains and drier plains. Months after the last proper rains fell; the Oryx that canter away from our vehicle appear to be grazing on little more than dust. Even the famous fairy circles – bare patches in the grasslands, perfectly concentric and the work of hungry termites – are faint in the hot days of early summer.
After an hour or two the emptiness is little changed; we’re still one lonely vehicle with little more than pronking springbok and skittish oryx for company. But by mid-morning we reach the reason Kallie headed east this morning: the Hoarusib Canyon; far and away one of the most spectacular landscapes in Namibia.
After ogling an ancient welwitschia we spend the morning slowly making our way upstream; the gravel road continually criss-crossing the burbling Hoarusib River. It’s life-giving water that attracts a vast menagerie of animals into the canyon. Just half a kilometre away the land is harsh and unyielding, yet in the canyon it’s all lush grasses and smiling springbok. Unsurprisingly the area’s desert-adapted elephants like to congregate here too, at one point blocking our path and forcing us on a detour.
And the birding is as impressive as the game watching, with both migrants and endemics to keep twitchers happy. Flocks of Common Waxbill flit amongst the tamarisk trees, while Olive Bee-eaters flash past in a blaze of green. Blacksmith Lapwings and Common Moorhen splash in the shallows as a pair of Verreaux’s eagles float effortlessly on the abundance of thermals. We lunch under an Ana tree as an Augur Buzzard soars overhead.
The canyon ends in the village of Purros, where a self-drive campsite and tourist-oriented Himba settlement attract overlanders keen for a taste of the Skeleton Coast. But with our camp situated slap-bang in the middle of Wilderness Safaris’ private desert concession I’m looking forward to more than a taste the next morning. I’m going back for seconds.
The Namib Desert – Kallie tells us as we drive out after breakfast – is the oldest in the world. For the past 55 million years its been quietly guarding the western shores of Namibia, keeping all but the hardiest of man and beast at bay.
Like the sperregebiet further south, hard men once mined these dunes with the glitter of diamonds and amethyst in their eyes. Few of the former and barely enough of the latter ensured that the mining camps have since been left to the desert, the sands unmarked by picks and shovels.
Today it’s only antelope tracks and a few lonely roads that mark the gravel plains and dune fields. Closer to the coast, the tracks from rare Brown Hyena are often seen, although spotting their owners requires a little more luck.
Over the course of the morning we drive circuitously towards the coast, wandering slowly across the sands to discover a menagerie of life invisible to the untrained eye.
Every so often Kallie – without warning – screeches to a halt and tears across the dunes like a man possessed. Moments later he returns with another desert marvel: a Namaqua chameleon burying its eggs, a Shovel-snouted lizard that dives head first into the sand to escape pursuers. Evidently Kallie dives faster. About the only desert fauna we’re a wary of is the Sand Snake. Although harmless, it’s lightning-fast race across the sand is unnerving, and best observed from a distance.
We spend an hour at one of the park’s famous ‘Roaring Dunes,’ the hot, dry slip-face of the barchan setting off a reverberating hum when disturbed by a gaggle of bum-sliding tourists.
“We’re lucky today,” says Kallie. “The fog didn’t really come in last night. The dunes have to perfectly dry for them to roar. If they’re even a tiny bit damp, you can forget it.”
And the Skeleton Coast is famous for its fog, formed when the hot desert air meets icy sea breezes off the Benguela current. The thick fog may have thrown countless ships ashore here, but it’s also a life-giving source of moisture for the plants and insects that carefully collect and store precious droplets each morning.
As we finally reach the coast a bank of fog is building offshore; the desert creatures will feast tonight, I think to myself. In front of me, the Atlantic looks as barren as the desert behind. But the freshly caught kabeljou flapping in our cooler box, destined for the camp kitchen, puts paid to that fallacy. And in the dry sands there’s an equally astounding array of life; perfectly adapted to this hauntingly beautiful – yet hostile – land. You only need someone to show you where to look.
As we head back to camp, I think old Thesiger was quite right. Our tyres may be leaving their impermanent tracks in the sands, but the searing sands of the Skeleton Coast have left their mark on me for good.
+27 (0) 11 257 5133
First published in Indwe magazine
Out at the Muizenberg backline we call them the ‘men in grey suits’. Here in the waters of Cape Town’s False Bay, to mention the Great White Sharks by name would – for the superstitious – be inviting an unwelcome visit.
So instead we play mum. As we wait for the next wave to roll in from the deep we talk of swell and wind and that right-hander we caught last time. But as I sit on my long board waiting for the unpredictable Muizies swell, the image of a Carcharodon Carcharias cruising silently beneath my toes is never far from my mind.
Like many fears, it’s also largely irrational. According to the Global Shark Attack File, barely a single shark attack per year is recorded in Cape Town waters, and fatal attacks are rarer still: just four deaths in the past decade, compared with thousands on our roads. But perhaps because it’s so primal – because today we’re so unlikely to become part of the food chain – the thought of a Great White Shark appearing from the depths with open maw strikes a particular chord in most of us.
So perhaps the best way to battle an irrational fear is with information, to use the stick of logic to beat some sense into us. And that’s where the Shark Spotters come in.
This groundbreaking shark research and beach safety program, the first of its kind in the world, has revolutionised the way Capetonians – and holidaymakers – use the waters that are home to both Speedo-clad swimmers and toothy sharks.
Turn back the clock to 2004 and local surfer Greg Bertish, founder of adventure travel company True Blue, was in the water at Muizenberg during a shark scare.
“It was about six months after a surfer had lost a leg at the river mouth nearby,” recalls Greg. “Back then it took about 10 minutes to clear the beach and get everyone out the water, and I thought that there must be some way of doing this better.”
That ‘way’ was the seed for today’s much-lauded Shark Spotters program, which sees binocular-clad spotters on the nearby mountainside watching for sharks, and a system of flags on the beachfront to inform surfers and swimmers if the waters are clear, or if sharks are in the area. When a shark has been spotted, a siren sounds to tell people to clear the water.
This basic set-up is little-changed seven years on, although funding from the City of Cape Town and the Save our Seas Foundation has allowed for an expanded program of spotters across the southern peninsula.
“We operate on four beaches year-round, and two additional beaches during summer,” explains Sarah Titley, project manager for the Shark Spotters. “At the moment we have 17 spotters working in shifts every single day of the year.”
Monwabisi Sikweyiya was one of the first spotters to join the program, and says that there’s more to spotting than admiring the view for a six-hour shift: “You have to know what you’re looking for. Often when you see a shark it could easily be mistaken for a shadow.”
“If the shark is swimming close to the surface the best thing to look for is the movement of the tail. Dolphins and whales swim by moving their tail up and down, while a shark moves its tail side to side,” explains Monwabisi. “Ideal conditions are when we have calm waters with clear skies. We don’t want too much wind on the water, and lots of sun helps with visibility too. It also depends on how far out the surfers are in the water. If the backline is one kilometer from the beach we need perfect conditions to spot.”
“We’re lucky with the False Bay coast in that we have the mountain right there. You need the height advantage to see the sharks clearly,” adds Greg.
However, even if spotters see a shark in the water, there’s not much they can do to keep beachgoers out of the water.
“There’s no legislation in Cape Town to keep people out of the water, like there is in Durban,” explains Sarah. “At the end of the day it’s about people’s own choice, and that’s really what Shark Spotters is about. Yes, we’re trying to prevent shark attacks, but we can only do it by informing people. So we give people information about the shark spotting conditions, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to enter the water.”
And it pays to listen to the Spotters, as Michael Cohen discovered in September last year. Entering the water at Fish Hoek’s Clovelly Corner despite flags warning of a shark in the bay, Cohen was bitten in the shallows and lost a leg, but was lucky to escape with his life.
“The swimmer knew what the situation was, with a shark in the water, so unfortunately the only person to blame is the victim,” says Monwabisi, who was one of the first on the scene and performed initial first aid. “We did everything we could to keep him safe, but if someone chooses to enter the water when there are sharks around there really isn’t much more we can do.”
But the Shark Spotters program is about more than keeping swimmers safe, with daily records on beach conditions, shark numbers and shark behaviour used by the Save Our Seas Foundation and the University of Cape Town to further shark research and conservation.
“We’re here to protect people, but we’re also here to protect sharks. If it wasn’t for a program like Shark Spotters there could be nets in these waters like they have in Durban,” says Sarah. “But even those nets aren’t completely effective: shark nets aren’t solid barriers so sharks can swim through them. Apparently in Australia over 60 percent of shark attacks happen on netted beaches.”
Beautiful, yet deadly, the Great White Shark is – largely – the victim of bad PR. Although involved in just a handful of deadly attacks, it’s been cast as the big bad bully of the oceans, ever on the prowl for unlucky swimmers and unwary surfers. Yet the occasional headline certainly doesn’t mean we need to panic, or stay out of the water this summer.
“We expect a spike in sightings at this time of year. During winter the sharks are generally out at Seal Island, while in summer they come closer inshore,” explains Sarah. “But this is exactly the same type of shark activity we’ve seen for the last six or seven years. It’s very typical.”
In the end, it comes down to using a little common sense. Sharks eat fish and seals, not humans, so if you see dolphins, birds and seals hunting fish in the breakers, there’s a good chance there are sharks around too.
“People don’t need to panic, they just need to be sensible,” says Sarah. “The risk of being bitten by a shark is so small, but you do have to be aware of what’s going on. We can help you make an informed choice about using the ocean, but in the end the individual has to make the decision and accept any risks.”
“There’s certainly no need for people to stay out of the water and, honestly, if you look at the cold hard facts you’re far more likely to drown at the beach or get hit by a car on your way here!”
Find out more about the Shark Spotters at www.sharkspotters.org.za
Shark Spotters on Duty
Permanent beaches (365 days a year)
St. James/Kalk Bay: 8am-6pm
Fish Hoek: 7am-6.45pm
The Hoek, Noordhoek: 9am-5pm
Temporary beaches (Oct-April; weekends, public holidays and school holidays)
Clovelly: 10.30am – 5pm
Like the waters that ebb and flow through Knysna’s famous lagoon, this ever-popular holiday town is all about change; elephants come and go, forests are cut down and renewed, holiday houses are repainted or rebuilt. Visit in a year’s time and you might not recognize the place.
And perhaps nowhere is change more evident – and attractively done – than in this boutique hotel on Thesen Islands. This residential and shopping development evokes strong opinions among tourists and locals, but there can surely be few complaints about the careful transformation of an old wood-burning power station into the Garden Route’s most stylish boutique hotel.
Just 10 years ago the turbines and boilers that dominate the double-volume reception area were whirring away to generate electricity for the towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. Today, they’re a dramatic welcome to one of the Cape’s most delightful hotels: a dramatic artwork on their own, and a playful reminder of the building’s rich history.
With its airy ceilings, metal rafters and exposed brick walls there’s a chic industrial feel throughout The Turbine, and history echoes down the bright corridors adorned with control panels, dials and gauges. But – with all that industrial metal about – what could be a cold and unwelcoming space is carefully softened with modern furniture and fine linens throughout the hotel’s 24 bedrooms and suites.
Fittingly for a seaside town, the Regatta wing is playfully decorated as a tribute to the ships, schooners and yachts that have sailed through the famous Knysna Heads. Maritime signal flags adorn rich linen scatter cushions, and vintage photographs of visiting ships adorn the exposed brick walls. It’s whimsically nautical, without being over-worked.
And the same goes for the 90-seater Island Café downstairs. Boho-chic chairs and understated African prints make for a colourful space and – thankfully – there’s not a tired buffet in sight come breakfast-time. Instead you’ll be offered a delicious selection of bistro-style classics: think eggs benedict draped over croissants, scrambled with salmon, or French toast with mascarpone. Next door, the Turbine Tapas Bar is a popular spot in the evenings, with sport on the big-screen TVs and a good selection of Asian-inspired tapas dishes.
With a small spa facility on site, and a rim-flow pool that overlooks the millionaire houses of Thesen Islands, it’d be quite easy to simply ignore all that Knysna has to offer and settle in at The Turbine. The Knysna tides may come and go, but the über-chic Turbine Hotel is surely here to stay.
The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa
Sawtooth Lane, Thesen Islands
044 302 5745
First published in Indwe Magazine
As jigsaw puzzles go, Phinda Private Game Reserve is a challenge. With 14 000 hectares, seven ecosystems, 400 types of bird and hundreds of flora and fauna species, it’s the kind of place where you need to know your way around the bush.
Which is precisely how I found myself behind the wheel of a two-ton Land Rover, desperately scanning the road ahead for tracks while watching the foliage for the telltale ear twitch of a male nyala. I also had to keep up a witty banter of animal factoids, and ensure everybody was having a good time. Oh yes… and try not to drive the Landie into a ditch. It seems that turning a died-in-the-wool city slicker into a khaki-clad safari guide is not as easy as it looks.
Meaning ‘The Return’ in isiZulu, after the massive game relocation that took place in 1991, Phinda is a gorgeous slice of northern Zululand. It’s here that safari operator &Beyond trains guides for its lodges across south and east Africa – putting them through a gruelling six-week course that covers everything from tracking to tyre-changing – so there are few better places to learn the language of the bushveld.
And for guests looking to add some spice to their safari getaway, the nuts and bolts of those six weeks are helpfully compressed into a four-day ‘Bush Skills’ course that combines lazy nights in the reserve’s luxury lodges, with busy days spent learning the ways of the wild. It’s the ideal way to get a taste of what it's like to be the bulky game ranger up at the front of the Land Rover; rifle slung over a shoulder, a name for every leaf and feather.
While the word ‘course’ conjures images of dreary days staring at Powerpoint presentations, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The bushveld is your boardroom for ‘Bush Skills’, where your notes are jotted in the dusty soil and the agenda can be interrupted at a moment’s notice when a grumpy elephant gets in the way.
By the end of it, softie safari tourists will know how to handle a vehicle, track game, fire the .375 Brno bush rifle, identify fauna and flora, and speak the subtle language of the bush. A language that seems to be second-nature to game rangers in this paradise for pachyderms and all-things-toothy.
The four days are tailored according to what your group is interested in, but for a little taste of everything it’s best to let your ranger and tracker set the pace. Tracking is the basis of understanding the bush, so don’t be surprised if you spend more time looking down – not up – for animals.
And the best way to do that is to head out on foot, keeping your eyes and ears open for what’s around you. If you listen closely the bush will talk, says our ranger Grant, hunching down in the sandy track.
“Tracking is not just footprints in the sand though, you need to use all five senses. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle; you just need to fit all the pieces together. But see the whip-mark from the tail… and the deep impression in the sand? This is where a pride of lions slept off the heat of the day,” explains Grant. “That grass pushed down over there? It looks like rhino, heading into that valley… probably from yesterday when they went down to drink.”
They’re all tiny whispered clues to what was here before us, but piece them all together and the puzzle begins to take shape. Grass is not just crumpled; it’s where elephant have trundled through. Those tufts of fur on a thorn tree? The lion probably moved through here quickly. The jackal was definitely here after the buffalo… see how the claw marks are on top of the chaos of hoof-prints?
After a day on foot learning how to track, Grant ups the ante. Now we have to look for spoor while showing ‘guests’ around the reserve. But first we need driving lessons, so Grant hands me the keys and invites me to go off-road.
“You never have the vehicle in low range when you encounter elephants, and you always plan your escape route,” says Grant from over my shoulder. “If they become uncomfortable, or if there’s a mock-charge, you need a quick getaway.”
Sound advice, particularly when we take turns in the exposed tracker’s chair up front. Zipping along at 25km/h, with the gravel road a blur and the prospect of a grumpy pachyderm around any corner, I start to appreciate the incredible skill of the tracker silently scanning for spoor.
While we certainly saw the Big Five – and more – during our days in the pristine Phinda landscape, this isn’t your typical safari holiday. It’s rather a bush escape aimed at the safari tourist who’s seen the Big Five, done time on the back of a game vehicle and is looking for something more. It’s a chance to understand the bush and enjoy a slice of life as a game ranger. To imagine, for a moment, that this wild world is your office. It’s a beguiling thought, although I’m not sure I’d fit into those too-tight khaki shorts.
For more information on the Bush Skills course at Phinda Private Game Reserve, visit www.andbeyond.com or call 011 809 4300.
Kruger and Karoo classrooms
The bushveld is the perfect place to introduce young ones to the wonders of nature. For family-friendly wilderness escapes, try these two options:
EcoTraining has been teaching professional field guides the language of the bush for 17 years, but also offer a good selection of short courses (from 1-14 days) for intrepid holidaymakers who want to learn more about the Kruger landscape. The accommodation is usually rustic, but it’s an affordable way to enjoy a taste of the ranger’s life.
Visit www.ecotraining.co.za or call 013 752 2532
For young rangers, Samara Private Game Reserve, north of Port Elizabeth, offers a specialist ‘Aardvark’ programme geared specifically for children. Apart from giving parents a break, kids will learn to identify spoor, head out tracking with a ranger, go star travelling through the Milky Way and plant carbon-storing Spekboom.
Visit www.samara.co.za or call 049 891 0558
First published in Discovery Magazine