We’re just back from a week of travelling – exploring the Karoo and the Western Cape.
The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region in the Northern and Western Cape. As some of you may know, Niall has something of a passion for astronomy – so we headed deep into the desert to find SALT – the South African Large Telescope, the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere.
It was quite the experience. First, I must thank Niall – as I don’t drive, he did the 350-odd km there and back without help, including some rather hairy roads. We passed through the lush winelands around Paarl, through the Hex River Valley and under the snow topped mountains via the Huguenot Tunnel, before coming out into the Karoo desert.
Sutherland is apparently the coldest town in South Africa – we were epicly layered up, just in case. The only reason there’s a tarmac road all the way up there is the telescope. It was quite mad, to be honest. After stargazing in the evening, we walked back to the car- no torch needed, as the starlight was bright enough that we could see the way perfectly. We also spotted the Magellanic clouds, the Milky Way, the rings on Saturn and a nebula that looked like a swan. Oh, and Niall thought Venus was a streetlamp – it was THAT bright.
On the way to Sutherland we stopped at what must be the weirdest little town in South Africa – Matjiesfontein. It was once a Victorian spa town, once the seat of the British Army during the Anglo-Boer war – now, it is a strange place, its twee charm preserved for those passing through; a red double decker bus and Victorian fire truck adorn the main street – there’s also a museum with an impressive collection of chamber pots and early dentistry implements.
And as for the Western Cape? Down the Cape Peninsula, through the fishing villages of Hout Bay, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, with visits to seals and ostriches along the way. We really experienced the ‘Cape of Storms’ (as the Cape was originally named); our boat out to the seals in Hout Bay was dealing with swell about twice its size, and we were very nearly blown off the top of Cape Point by epic gales that diminished as soon as we got down.
The onto the picturesque Winelands, with port and chocolate tastings as well as wine and cheese tastings – and a tour of the Kayamandi township, built in the 30’s outside Stellenbosch to house those who worked in the vineyards, and still home to most of the vineyards’ seasonal workers. Passing through Paarl, we stopped at Victor Verster Prison, where Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man in 1990.
Then Cape Aghulas, the Southernmost point of Africa- and probably the farthest South I will ever go, despite Niall’s suggestion that we head to Antarctica someday. Then back around the coast to Hermanus to see whales and Betty’s Bay to see penguins. Hermanus is amazing – you can sit on the shore and the whales come right into the bay, just messing around. It’s cool, but disconcerting. The penguins – known as Jackass penguins because of their braying laugh – are cute but seem to be especially smelly, even for something eats and poops fish all day.
I find it hard to fathom that we’ve only a week left in our project, and only three weeks left in South Africa. I feel like we’ve seen and done so much, but that there’s so much left to see and do.
I suppose that’s inevitable in a country almost the size of Europe.