A Sunday morning drive up the Montagu Pass

The Garden Route has many iconic passes.  Some crossing over mountains and others through gorges.  Some are part of main routes and are accessible to all, some are off the beaten track and only 4×4’s are recommended while others are only accessible on foot or bicycle.  The Montagu Pass outside of George is one that would fit in between the first two of the options above.  A dirt road over the Outeniqua Mountains, not a main road but accessible to all.  The last time I drove over the Montagu Pass was probably before the KidZ were born so a long weekend in George was the perfect excuse to grab an hour or two and go exploring.  And just to prove that you can do it in a normal sedan we took it on in the Aveo.  Not that I have a 4×4 to do it in otherwise anyways.

Construction on the Montagu Pass started in 1844 under the charge of Henry Fancourt White – yes, the same one of Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate fame – using 250 convict labors. The pass, named after Sir John Montagu who was the Colonial Secretary of the Cape in the 1840s, opened in 1848 and replaced the old Cradock Pass (a hiking trail these days) which used to take travelers three days to get across the mountains into the interior.  
The first stop our our journey wasn’t too far up the road at The Old Toll House.  I actually got a “Are we getting out already?” from the KidZ.  The historic building, built of local stone, have just been restored and work was still being done on it when we passed by.  This is where early travelers had to pay their toll to use the pass.  The toll used to be 2 pence per wheel and one penny for each pulling animal, 2 pence for a horse, cow, ox or mule and 1 half a penny for a sheep, goat or pig.  Wonder what the toll keeper would have said about the traffic using the road these days? 
Dropping down into the valley we stopped at the old stone bridge over the Keur River.  The bridge was designed and built by Charles Mitchell, another prolific South African road builder of the time.  I climbed down the side of the bridge for two reasons.  First to see it from the side and secondly to find the Geocache hidden there.  What’s any road trip without a spot of Geocaching anyways?   
Looking down from the bridge the Keur River could be seen below with the brown coloured water that is to typical of the rivers in the Garden Route region.  The brown colour is from tannin the river picks up as it flows through the forests and fynbos of the region.  All the leaves and plant material that drops on the ground acts as a teabag of sort as the water flows through it, giving it this colour.  The water is still perfectly clean though and used by many straight from the rivers.
We passed through Die Noute, the narrowest part of the pass, and traveled along the valley before starting to climb out and up the mountain.  It’s great to see how the original stone work is still visible on the side of the pass.  No wonder as the pass is said to be the oldest unaltered pass in South Africa.

As we climbed out of the valley and up the mountain vegetation quickly change to the fynbos that covers the surrounding mountains and one can’t but help to marvel at the variety of plants and flowers visible right next to the road.

Drama Princess even had me stop at one of the spots where a stream flowed down the mountain because she wanted to feel how cold the water was and taste it.
There are four passes that cross the Outenique Mountains in this area.  The original Cradock Pass, the Montagu Pass that we were on, the modern Outeniqua Pass and then the railway pass.  As we approached the top of the mountain we got to the first of two railway bridges you get to see while on the pass.  Until about a decade or two ago there were still steam trains using this line, but these days the best way to see it is by going up the pass on the Outeniqua Power Van.  Or stopping under it like we did. 

The bridge is located at Stinkhoutdraai (Stinkwood Corner) which was named after the Stinkwood Trees that used to grow here very prolifically.  There are still some left these days, but many were cut down during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Pulling over here wasn’t just about the bridge but also for us to have a closer look at the wooded cove just behind with another stream flowing down it. 

Near the top of the pass we passed below the second of the two railway bridges.

We decided not to drive out the back of the pass towards the Langkloof and back to George over the Outeniqua Pass, but to rather backtrack for a second taste of the Montagu Pass.  You get to see different sights and things at different angles that way anyway.  Our turning point was at Amanda’s Grave near the top from where we could look back down the pass we just came up on and was about to return back to.
It really is a pity that most people are always in such a hurry to get to their destinations that they just rush along the fastest route possible.  In this case the Outeniqua Pass.  But next time you are in the area, do pinch off an hour or so extra and take a leisurely drive up or down the old pass.  I promise you won’t be sorry.

Gliding around the Wilderness lakes on a segway

Mountain biking has become a very popular pastime of late and something I’d like to find the time for to try out.  Time and the money for a proper mountain bike.  I really wouldn’t mind a proper off road bike to travel with.  You know, one of those big BMW ones.  But I can barely afford a scale model one so at the moment my favorite two wheel type of transportation is definitely a segway.  Not that I have one, for that it’s way too an expensive a toy as well, but I’ve had the privilege to go on the segway tour in the Tsitsikamma a couple of times before.  Heading back to Port Elizabeth from Cape Town recently I decided to stretch my legs a bit at Wilderness and see what the Wilderness segway tour was all about.  
While the Tsitsikamma Segway Tour follows a route into the forest, the Wilderness tour follows the Pied Kingfisher Trail through the Ebb and Flow (Wilderness) section of the Garden Route National Park.  I was going to be taken on a private tour but just then a newly wed couple from the Middle East on their first visit to South Africa arrived and joined the tour.  So here I want to vent just a little.  They were told that I was media (I love it when I get called media) and that the regular tour was only going 30 minutes later, but they still wanted to join.  Then the man came to me afterwards to tell me he doesn’t want me to publish any pictures of his wife.  Really? I understand and respect their culture but if you didn’t want to be in the pictures then why agree to go along and even pose for pictures? Whyyyyyy????  But I will respect their wishes and not post pictures of their faces.  Luckily I rode at the back so all you get to see of them are their backsides. Ok, rant over and back to this great experience.

We did the obligatory training session in the training yard to make sure we knew how to steer, stop and maneuver before we headed out and hit the trails with our guide in the lead and, as mentioned, me as rear guard seeing that I was a experienced segway rider.  Yeh, love that one as well.  Experienced segway rider.  The trip basically takes you out parallel to the Touw River through varied vegetation types ranging from fynbos to coastal shrubs and wetland vegetation.  All along the way you catch glimpses of the river and lakes and, in the case of the picture above, a couple of locals fishing next to the path.
The path was very easy to follow and at the only technical bit there was an alternative if you didn’t want to try it out.  The guide was never in a hurry and had all the patience in the world when I asked if he could just backtrack a bit so I could get a photo of them coming out of the trail. It was really a pleasure going out on the trip with him.  But I’m digressing.  At the turning point we took a break to enjoy the view of the lake and a part of Wilderness next to the N2 in the distance before we turned around.  The only reason this is the turning point is that the bridge is too narrow for the segways to cross over.  Pity though, and pity that SAN Parks don’t allow them to go on more trails, because it would have been nice to do a circular route and not an out and back.

On the way back we did get to see the Ebb and Flow campsite next to the river. Wow, what a beautiful spot.  I definitely need to bring the family to camp here some time and take some canoes upstream.  
Having done both the Tsitsikamma segway tours (the one hour and two hour tours) before I’m going to be very honest here.  I much rather prefer the Tsitsikamma ones over this, but it is because I am a forest person and will do anything to get into the forest.  All in all I had a very enjoyable experience on the Wilderness segway tour.  I have to say that it’s a different way to experience the Wilderness lakes area from on foot or in a canoe as most do and if you are in the area with some time on your hands then it’s really worth the experience.  
Disclosure: I was invited to join in a segway tour by Segway Tours as I work in the tourism industry and not as a blogger, while I was travelling back to PE from Cape Town.  They didn’t ask for a blog post to be written and I keep full editorial control over the post.

Driving between Wilderness and George along the back roads

Last Thursday morning I did a presentation at a tourism stakeholder workshop in the Tsitsikamma and after lunch moved on to George for a weekend exhibit.  Having had some time on my hands I decided to veer off the main road and pick up a few Geocaches along Bo-Langvlei Road, the dirt road running behind the lakes between Sedgefield and Wilderness.  The plan wasn’t to do the whole road but only the last section of it starting between Bo-Langvlei and Island Lake.  My plan was just to Geocache and explore a bit so my camera was securely packed away in the boot of the Polo and I was just snapping pics with my phone along the way.  
Turning off the N2 I hit the first stretch of dirt road which was nice and smooth with only a few bumps to negotiate.  The second cache on my list was located at the old Duiwerivier Railway Station.  It’s really sad to see how the railway infrastructure along the line has deteriorated over the ten years since it was closed due to flooding.  It’s going to take a bit more than just cutting back a few bushes and pulling out some weeds to get the train running along this track again.
Leaving the station I started heading west and the next cache located at the back of Island Lake.  Standing on top of a beacon next to the road the view across the lake was stunning and although I could probably have spent a lot more time there it was time to get moving again.
I passed the Hoekwil Road turnoff and proceeded along Waterside Road at the back of the Serpentine section of the river.  The next stop was at the bridge over the Touw River, one of the only bridges in the country that is shared by both the road and the railway line.  The bridge is located inside the Wilderness National Park with both the Ebb and Flow campsites located to the left and right of it.  While I was searching for the cache under the bridge a number of holiday makers passed by in canoes on the river.  I’ve still gotta do that.  The beautiful surroundings just reminded me again that Ebb and Flow is still on our list of campsites we want to stay at in future.
At this stage my plans changed slightly and I decided to backtrack a kilometer or two and take the Hoekwil Road.  This tar road took me way up the hill from where I could see the lakes district below, past the community of Hoekwil and onto the Seven Passes Road.  I’m kinda embarrassed to say that I’ve never driven the Seven Passes Road although I’ve heard how scenic it was.  The Seven Passes Road is the old road between Knysna and George and traverses, yes you guessed it, seven passes along the way.  The majority of the road was tar with bits of very good dirt road in between.  Along the top between river valleys were mostly open areas with farms while the valleys are covered in pockets of indigenous forest. 
The first pass I drove through led down to the Touw River with an old steel bridge spanning the whiskey brown water that is so typical of the rivers and streams of the Garden Route.
The whiskey coloured Touw River with it’s surrounding forest
The second pass took me down to the Silwer River…
… and by now I was well and truly convinced that I had discovered one of the lesser known but truly worth discovering gems of the Garden Route.
The last pass took me down to the Kaaimans River, well known for the pass on the N2 between Wilderness and George as well as the railway bridge spanning the river mouth.  But here I was away from the hustle and bustle rush of the N2.  The sun was about to go under although it was getting dark very quickly at the bottom of the valley.   
I parked just past the old bridge built in 1904 and followed a path down the river for about 50 meters or so towards the last of the caches for the day.  After a bit of a tough search I found what I was looking for with the help of my phone torch and on my way back to the car I just realised again how often Geocaching can take one off the beaten track and to places like this.  Places that you would often not have seen if it wasn’t for a cache being located in the area. 
At the top of the pass the road spit me out close to the Saasveld Campus just outside of George with the silhouette of the Outenique Mountains beyond the town as my horizon.  It had been a very interesting and, frankly, relaxing afternoon and in my opinion a much better option that if I had just barreled along the N2 and sat around the guesthouse for the rest of the afternoon waiting to go and get dinner.  All thanks to a few containers forming part of a global treasure hunt game hidden along the way.

Sunset over the Knysna Lagoon

I spent the weekend in Knysna for work and didn’t have a lot of free time, but that did not stop me from dashing down to the Knysna Heads just in time to catch the sunset.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spent some quality time in Knysna and I seriously need to make a plan and get back there to explore the forest a little more than I have in the past and also get down to places like Noetzie again. Hopefully soon.

Getting lost in the Redberry Maze in George

Literally for the last couple of years now the Damselfly has wanted to visit Redberry Farm in George on the Garden Route.  We just never had the opportunity to be in the area long enough to do so until we spent a long weekend in the town recently.  It meant that Redberry Farm was at the top of our “To Do” list for the weekend.  The reason for us wanting to visit Redberry Farm wasn’t to actually go and pick strawberries (it was cheaper to buy them in their shop anyway), but rather to go and experience the Redberry Maze.

I had seen one or two photos of the maze so I knew it was a proper maze, but hell’s bells, it was so much more than what I expected.  It was a proper dinkum right out of the movies and fairy tales maze.  The maze has about 10 000 meters (yes, that is 10 kilometers) of pathways and is grown from over 30,000 Syzygium Paniculatum plants.  The object of the maze isn’t to go in one entrance and find your way to the exit. No, it’s a lot more complicated than that.  Each person who enters is given a stamp card and you then have to go and find the seven stations that will each give you a different stamp to put on the card.  The map you get is very small so not that easy to follow, which is cool because otherwise it would be too easy, and it only pinpoints two of the stations so you have to search for the rest.  Not that finding the two was easy either.
I gave the Family a choice to either go in as a group or individually for us to see who can get out first.  The Damselfly and Drama Princess decided to stick with me while Chaos Boy wanted to fly solo.  He was off like a bolt while we took the more systematic slower approach. 

The maze is really amazing (excuse the pun).  The hedges are between three and four meters high and where it’s not totally impenetrable they have inserted wire to make sure nobody cheats their way out.  Plus the guardians will keep an eye to make sure you don’t try.  Just don’t get a fright when you come around a corner and encounter a big metal spider, scarecrow or some other maze creature.  If you are going into the maze, do go prepared and take some water and a hat… perhaps some padkos… and a sleeping bag and tent… Oh and make sure you do your toilet stop before you enter because you never know how long it’s going to be before you get out again.
The one corner of the maze is totally isolated from the rest and the only way in is along a 25 meter long underground tunnel.  Dark, damp and scary.  The trick is to try and do it without your phone’s torch.  A word of warning though, if you do, don’t run your hands along the walls… 

I am proud to say that an hour and a half after entering the maze I led my little group out again with all seven stamps, collecting our prize badges at the exit.  We met some friends from George for some coffee / milkshakes / strawberry juice in the very popular coffee shop section and waited for Chaos Boy to emerge.  And waited… and waited… and waited… An hour later I headed back in to go and rescue him, finding him where he was collecting his last stamp.  The boy was exhausted from all the running.  Just shows that slow and steady often gets you there quicker.
Would I go again?  In a heartbeat.  I absolutely loved the experience and wouldn’t it be great to see this as a roadblock on an Amazing Race?  What does it cost? R35 per person.  Not bad for an hour and a half worth of entertainment.
Just in case you were wondering.  We weren’t invited to visit, paid our own way and nobody there even knew that I was a travel blogger. 

Trains, trains and some other stuff at the Outeniqua Transport Museum

When in George the one attraction you have to visit is the Outenique Transport Museum (also known as the Outenique Railway Museum).  It used to be one of my regular stops on the Garden Route back when I was working as a tourist guide and the Outenique Choo Tjie steam train was still running.  Spending a long weekend in George I just had to take the family to show them this amazing place.  I was just a little worried, because although I love museums, they might possibly find it slightly boring.  I was wrong.

The museum has an exceptional collection of railway memorabilia which include 13 steam locomotives and probably twice as many (if not more) different carriages.  Some of the pieces that take pride of place in the museum are the Emil Kessler – Johannesburg’s first steam locomotive, the impressive GL Garrett, a coach from the Royal Train of 1947 and Paul Kruger’s coach and private saloons.  The Damselfly grew up on stations in the Langkloof while her father worked as a station master and she was mesmerised.  I could not believe that I was actually waiting for her the whole time as she slowly looked at just about everything in the museum, often calling me back to share some railway related childhood memories with me.  One of the things the KidZ loved the most was that they could climb into some of the locomotives and see what it looked like inside. They were all happy which made me happy and not guilty at all fro bringing them to a museum while we were on holiday.

One of my highlights of the museum every time I visit is the massive model train layout in one of the rooms.  I used to spend way too much time in here while my guests were wandering around and it got me interested in modeling.  When I say interested in modeling I mean I’ve actually started building my own landscape model, without a train though.  Like farther like son… and daughter.  The KidZ nearly got stuck in the model room and I had to dig out coins to make the trains run a couple of times.

But the museum is a transport museum after all and not only about trains.  There is a huge exhibit of privately owned vintage cars, fire fighting vehicles from waaaaay back, a car similar to the one from Ghost Busters (which Chaos Boy immediately spotted) and a horse drawn hearse. 

I think one of the biggest highlights of our visit turned out to be the Umfolosi Diner car.  Yes, the museum has a little coffee shop dash restaurant in a diner car and there was no way that we were going to pass up the opportunity to have something to eat in it..

So milkshakes, chicken nuggets and pies, chips & gravy it was.  All we needed was the sway of the train and the rhythmic katic-katic katic-katic sound of the wheels on the track.
So next time you are in George, doesn’t matter if you are staying over or just passing through, pinch off an hour or so and head for the Outeniqua Transport Museum.  They are open daily (excluding Sundays) from 8am to 5pm in season and Monday to Friday: 08h00 to 16h30, Saturdays and Public Holidays: 08h00 to 14h00 and closed on Sundays out of season.  The cost, R20 for adults, R10 for kids under 12 years and under 6 years for mahala at the time of our visit in April 2016.  
And just in case you were wondering.  We weren’t invited to visit, paid our own way and nobody there even knew that I was planning to write a post about it. 

Three easy on the pocket George attractions

I don’t think George is very high on anybody’s list of possible holiday destinations.  Yes, as part of the Garden Route but not standing on it’s own.  If that is how you think then I’m going to have to tell you how wrong your thinking is.  Spending Easter Weekend in George showed me in four days that George is actually the ideal family destination.  Beautiful mountains and passes, a stunning coastline, a laid back town atmosphere and not outrageously expensive attractions.  We were camping in George and took it easy while we were there (plus I did a load of Geocaches) so chose one attraction to do every day while there.  It turned out that all three are highly recommended and very cheap to do so here are Three things to do in George that are easy on the pocket.
The Outeniqua Transport Museum is a must do while in George and if you do nothing else then you have to try and get here.  The museum used to be the departure point of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe and has the most magnificent collection of trains (13 locomotives and numerous carriages), vintage cars and other vehicles, railway memorabilia and the most magnificent model train layout.  I thought the family would be totally bored but they were anything but.  You can also have lunch or just a coffee and milkshake in a dining car.  The best of all, adults pay R20 and kids under 12 only R10.  What an absolute bargain.

The one thing we really wanted to do while in town was a visit to Red Berry Farm.  Red Berry Farm offers strawberry picking as well as a host of kiddies activities.  We were there to do the hedge maze.  I knew in advance that it was a proper hedge maze but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what we encountered.  A truly dincum get lost for hours hedge maze.  You get a stamp card and have to look for 7 stations along the way to complete the card which took me an hour and a half.  After having coffee and a chat with friends who came by to say hi, I went back in an hour later to go and find Chaos Boy who was still wandering around looking for his last two stamps.  Would I go and do it again? In a heartbeat.  The cost? A paltry R35 per person.

On our last full day in George the options we considered were to either go down to Victoria Bay or up the historic Montagu Pass.  We opted for the latter of the two and explored this truly scenic pass completed way back in 1848.  The trip up was a combination of beautiful scenes, historic sites and being close to nature.  Although a dirt road that does take a battering from the rain, we drove up to the top and back down without any trouble in the Chev Aveo.  So what would you pay for this little outing? Well, nothing more than your petrol and some snacks for along the way.  Just don’t leave your camera behind.

Blue and yellow on the Knysna Lagoon

It was a late afternoon on a gloomy day, our only day, in Knysna and I was taking a walk around Leisure Isle with a couple of friends.  The mission was actually one of a Geocaching kind, but two of us had our cameras with us as well and once the cache was found it became a photography trip.  With not a lot of sunshine around it meant that there would be no spectacular lagoon sunset so we found ourselves a couple of subjects in these two row boats moored a few meters away from the island.  It wasn’t long and we were both flat on our tummies to try and get a low angle and a nearby fisherman was so interested in what we were doing that he nearly missed the slight tug on his line.

The iconic Knysna Heads

What are the icons of the Garden Route? There are a few.  The adventure activities in the Tsitsikamma, Storms River Mouth, the view over the Beacon Isle Hotel with Robberg in the distance, the Knysna forest, the lakes around Sedgefield and Wilderness, Kaaimans Bridge outside Wilderness (especially when the Choo Tjoe still ran), Outeniqua Pass in George and the Dias Museum in Mossel Bay.  I left one out on purpose.  Probably (one of) the biggest icon on the Garden Route must be the Knysna Heads and, directly linked to it, the Knysna Lagoon – which is actually an estuary.

Road tripping to Cape Town and spending the night in Knysna was the perfect excuse for a drive up to the view site on top of the Knysna Heads.  Located on the Eastern Head, it has a breathtaking view of the Western Head and the opening into the Knysna Lagoon.

The Eastern Head is mostly a upmarket residential area where most of the houses have views we can only dream of.  The Western Head area is part of the Featherbed Nature Reserve so the area is protected and not developed.  Thank goodness.

Another view site just down the road gives one this magnificent view of the lagoon with Leisure Isle in the middle and the town in the distance.  It was a greyish day so I just slapped it with a bit of HDR for the effect. 

Exploring the old Storms River Pass

I have a special connection with the Tsitsikamma forest.  It is where I go to plug in my soul for a bit of a recharge.  It doesn’t even have to be an extended recharge.  Just a couple of minutes sitting in the forest next to a stream taking in the forest with all my senses is enough.  There are various ways to explore the forest with trails being the most effective way to leave everything behind.  One of these “trails”, the biggest one actually, is the old Storms River Pass starting from Storms River Village.

The Tsitsikamma (then known as Zitzikama) area was first surveyed by the famous pass builder Thomas Bain in 1879.  He found impenetrable forests east of Plettenberg Bay with access made even tougher by deep gorges.  During the planning process of building a pass through the Storms River gorge, Bain followed the ancient elephant migratory routes down to the river and as elephants find the easiest way down, decided to build his pass along those routes.  Labour for this difficult task was provided by convicts and some of their graves can still be seen on the outskirts of the Village.  The pass itself was completed in 1884 and until the N2 and Storms River Bridge were built in 1955 was the only way to get through the gorge.  Today the road is closed for traffic and can only be access on foot, bicycle or on Storms River Adventures’ Woodcutters Journey tour.  

The Woodcutters Journey takes one down the pass in a small truck with a guide telling you more about the history of the area as well as the ecology of the forest.  The tour tops quite often for the guide to point our specific trees or plants and explains the role it plays in the forest and those who have lived in it in the past.  The tour also allows for you to hop off if you want and walk a section of it.  
I had been down the old pass a number of times, but on this specific trip the guide showed us something I have never seen.  He took us along a path next to the road and showed us some of the original stonework done by Bain and his workers.  In this case a small tunnel under the road to channel water away.
At the bottom of the pass the forest opens up and while the guide unpacked a picnic lunch, we took a walk to the low water bridge over the Storms River.  I’m sure I was told at some stage that the bridge were built by soldiers after the first World War, but please don’t quote me on that.  I can’t seem to find any info on it on the internet.

The trip down the Storms River Pass really is an alternative way to explore the forest and learn a bit more in the process.  I need to be alone to recharge though and the batteries are starting to run low.  I think a return visit is just about in order.