At the age of 29, I have never been to any part of Kwazulu-Natal in spite of the fact that my parents took us on many holidays. Then one day, a good friend of SWAMBO, Bergitte phoned from London and said she wants to come and visit us after she visited her mother in Durban. That was a great excuse for me to take a week leave and plan a trip to go and pick her up - the long way.
I assume every trip should have a glitch or three to keep it interesting. This one had a few even before departure. Friday afternoon late, I 'lost' the keys of Gifappel. This was rather a crisis as my baby daughter also got hold of the spare keys earlier and we could not find it again. To complicate matters further, Gifappel used two keys. One for the ignition and one for the 5th door. There I sat with a fully loaded vehicle. I could at least turn the ignition with a screw driver, but the rear lid was locked. It seemed like the only option was to unload the vehicle from the rear seat to get to remove the locks and take it to a lock smith.
Later the night, I did with the easy one first and took out the door barrel. Just when I started to unpack Gifappel from the passenger compartment, I got a call from a friend that my keys were handed in at the Uniof versity security, by someone who accidentally took it. To say I was relieved, is sort saying I was stroking a bunny while I was actually stroking a hedgehog.
I doubt that I slept much as I am normally pretty tense of anticipation before the day of departure.
Day 1 – Bloemfontein to Rhodes
I had no time to check the vehicle all over and had my doubts about the anti-freeze concentration in the cooling system as I never replaced it since February, when I got Gifappel. By the lack of finding my proper density guage, I took the risk and did a 'tong-tippie' test of the radiator water. Some may choke at this cowboy approach and I would not recommend it as Ethylene-Glycol in sufficient quantities is poisonous for humans, but judging the sweet taste from experience, I reckoned I would easily get away to the expected -5°C ambient without damage.
The one little thing after the other went other than planned and finally we left at 11:00 – three hours later than hoped for.
I had set the newly installed speed cruise at 110 km/h and we arrived on Wepener after 12:00 - just in time for lunch. We sat down in the pub and the stuffed up animals draw quite some interest from my children. We ordered platters and drinks. The food was quite acceptable and the place was character fully decorated, but the music was a tad too loud and form a compilation of all dance mixes not really complimenting the warm atmosphere created by the decoration and the fire.
The waiters were friendly as well, but the bartender was not at the least interested even in even greeting us – most probably because of the pretty blonde European girls with low cleavages sitting in front of him. I expected more hospitality as this should be one of the main ingredients of country accommodation. The overall impression when we left, was that we will not waste time booking nights there.
Memories 2012: Unfortunately, 2006 was the best we ever experienced Lord Frasers. At the next visit a few years later, the food was close to revolting and at the last visit in 2010, the place was up for sale and it was not possible to order meals any more. Tragic. I have no updated reports yet that things changed for the better.
We proceeded to Zastron to reach Rhodes via Sterkspruit and got another surprise. The bridge was under construction and the road was closed. I decided to fill up. We had to make a detour of nearly 80 km via Aliwal North. SWAMBO took over driving and was soon in trouble when she approached a corner a little too fast for the laden Gifappel. The reason being that, the rear brakes did not take properly and she locked up the front wheels. I was impressed with her skill in getting us through this sort of trouble, but hey, I trained her! She was however rattled and I took over. (I later discovered that the reason for the flat brakes, was a missing self adjuster on the right rear assembly.)
The scenery on the road to Rhodes was wonderful. I had to work Gifappel hard in the lower gears in the hilly area and I was convinced that a diesel motor will come a lot more to its right in this towing world. We lost too much time and had to travel the last hour in the dark - apparently missing the most scenic part of the route. We stayed in Rubicon Guest House and got a warm welcome from Hanna, the owner.
The rooms are enormous due to the fact that it was the school of the town until 1978. The class rooms were converted to guest rooms. It still has the high ceilings, black boards, wooden floors and fire place. All the beds were fitted with electric blankets and the place was clean. Rubicon offers all the basics at an affordable price and I would definitely recommend it. For people who are not picky about designer kitchen- and bathroom fittings, sand stone and wooden floors in the middle of a picturesque spot is ideal honeymoon accommodation.
Highlights: Scenery, A nice room at Rubicon
Low-Lights: Got way too late in Rhodes, Lord Frasers
Day 2 - Rhodes to Cedarville
Gifappel, with a disconnected choke, a very cold battery and a starter motor of which the bendix got temperamental because of the cold, was a Yellow Witch to get going and it took me the best part of 15 minutes, careful fiddling and hot cursing to get her to run smoothly.
The plan was to go directly over Naudesnekpass to Cedarville, but we learned that there was also a route directly from Tiffendell to the top of the pass. I tried my best to find out what sort of travelling time I could bargain on, but later found that my information source was either not accurate, or not appreciating the place he lives in.
We packed, had a breakfast and decided to drive up to Tiffendell. I filled up in Rhodes, bought 2 litres of anti-freeze and added it to the radiator. The route to Tiffendell is quite bad and although there are many people who do it with sedans, I would not try it. Damage to lower vehicles are quite likely and I had to go to low range first and spin the motor hard to get up the steep incline. Then we were in the snow - a first for me and SWAMBO since we were very small.
We reached Tiffendell and it did not capture our interest. The place was littered with expensive vehicles and yuppie people dressed in the right brands of clothes and gear for a holiday in Switzerland. I queried the receptionist about the road to Naudes-nek pass and got directions. A while later I was travelling west and I knew I had to go east. I turned around and phoned my hosts on Cedarville for directions. We found an unmarked road at the 'Tiffendell 2 km' sign and entered. I was quite nervous as the snow was fairly thick on the track. We were alone. The track was not driven by others in days. We have never driven on snow and I did not had any snow chains or my high lift jack with me.
We stopped a while later at a patch of thick snow and took the children out to play. They enjoyed it tremendously and that alone was worth the trip for me. I had a chance to investigate the structure of snow and learned that the soft layer on top was not the really dangerous part, but the compacted bottom layer. It makes a nice thick ice layer when stepped upon. Observing that the track was almost entirely covered by soft snow, I figured that it would be safe to continue and we had in fact, no problems. The scenery was breathtaking. The road, all on private land, is bad (but never really challenging) and it took two hours of traveling to reach the top of Naudesnekpass by 15:00. At 2500m above sea level, Gifappel had significantly less guts than normal. I also had to do a short bush repair when the left front window rattled out of the rail and could not be wound up again. It took me 5 minutes to remove the door cover, do the repair and put it all back.
By this time, the clouds were low over the mountain and we missed the entire view from the top of this legendary pass – thus I missed one of the objectives of the trip. On the other hand, I have never seen frozen water falls. We made our way to Cedarville and took a wrong turn off once again as the standard road atlas was not showing all the roads. We met a weathered, but so friendly old black man on one of the most beautiful horses I have ever seen. It was a large, strong and muscled dark brown and black animal. It had very long hair for a horse, on the body. It was clearly his pride and the animal was in great condition. The black man patiently directed me in broken Afrikaans to the correct road and I had a hard time to follow him. We left him with a large portion of some of my good biltong and had lost another 45 minutes.
Memories 2012: The frozen waterfalls, and the man on the magnificent horse with the winter coat, are my recollections of the day. Pitty I never took a pic of him.
We found the road to Mount Fletcher exactly as the old man told us, but it was getting dark fast and the trip took us much longer than what we were told by the locals - probably because of the heavy load and me taking care not to hit the stops of the suspension through every dip in the road. By this time the brakes were not well, slowing me even further.
We FINALLY hit the tar and by this time we were not enjoying the trip any more. I opened up Gifppel a bit as we were in the seats now for more than 5 hours since the last stop and I was surprised by the patience of my very obedient children. However, their patience was up and they nagged for the remaining 90 minutes of the trip.
At Matatiele we were stopped at a road block. The police man requested to search my vehicle and spotted my cooler box in the rear. From previous experience of pulling off at speeds traps, I know it works in your favour if you give the officer absolute power over you. I filled him in that I was carrying red meat and politely offered to unpack the vehicle if he wanted confirm, but I did mention that I would appreciate to be relieved from this chore. I learned that they blocked the transport of all pork from the Eastern Cape - which I truly did not had with me. Sigh. He hesitantly believed me and I could go without unpacking.
We reached the guest farm long after dark and was welcomed by the owner. He helped me to carry the crates to the spacious chalet and we prepared to go to bed. The day had a splendid part, but was way too long.
Highlights: Scenery, Snow
Low-Lights: The Day got way too long.
Day 3 - Cedarville to Durban
I got up early to check out the poor brakes and this is where I discovered the missing self adjuster. I manually adjusted the rear brake shoes and it worked great since then.
We departed at 9:30 and filled up in Cedarville. The town is not nearly as idyllic as the name suggests and this is what travelling is about. Discovery. We pushed through to Port Shepstone at between 90 and 110 km/h. Strangely I did not find the scenery to be as special. Being tropical area, I soemhow expected to see a huge variety of plants but here was not nearly the diversity of the Free State.
We had a nice lunch at Port Shepstone and took the R102 instead of the N2 to Durban, but we felt unsafe on the road and got on the N2 at the next opportunity. I was very surprised at what we found the housing to be on the coast line. We expected a continuous block of flats and expensive mansions all the way to Durban, but found just the opposite - quite nice I think.
We reached Durban at 15:00 after taking the wrong turn off and having to find a way back on the N2 through the city centre. We packed off. As expected, I was not very impressed with the city, but decided to at least have a proper Indian style Bunny Chow and visit uShaka world to see the sharks.
The night we spend with the family of Bergitte. She is a vegetarian and made us a truly masterpiece of a dish (like all the the times she cooked for us before) - it rates under the best food I have ever tasted, but as usual for me in any case, not very filling.
I also had one of the famous single malt Whiskey's that Scotland can offer - a brand not available here. I like Whiskey, but never knew that it can be THAT smooth.
Highlights: The Natal South Coast looks totally different than what I
Low-Lights: Nothing in particular.
Day 4 - Durban
We all got in Gifappel - six of us. There was no other option as to have the rear seat shared by 4 passengers. SWAMBO had to drive so that her maergat husband could sit behind and I could gawk at the buildings why she had to negotiate with the taxies. Not a bad deal.
We did a nice harbor tour and soon it was time for lunch. We went to a take away restaurant near the Blue lagoon that is known for excellent Bunny Chows. We were the only whities ordering there between the Indians - proving that our choice of restaurant was spot on for the purpose. I ordered a 1/4 mutton Bunny and SWAMBO had Routi. She found the food too spicy, but I found it be absolutely exquisitely blended, although the tears were running out of my eyes and nose before the end of the meal. Apparently so I understood, a good curry burns twice. Why I could not grasp that fact before, is irrelevant. The confusion was cleared up the next morning.
The children, a bit NAAFI from the long drive of the past few days, dictated that it was time to go home. My four year old had a bad ear ache and cried merrily. I later dropped in a bit of glycerien from a hot teaspoon in his ear and it worked within an hour.
I ordered pizza and started to write my trip report of the past four days. Those days, a Palm Tungsten was what we had. Tablets were still movies stuff.
Highlights: The Bunny Chow going down
Lowlights: Grumpy Children
Day 5 - Durban
I woke up. Actually, I was woken up by something driving me and I knew I had to run. I am sure you can recall the “Panic Mechanic” movie from Leon Schuster where the spietkop told the oak “it's like an angle weeping on your tongue”. A good curry burns twice.
I could not possibly imagine that it would be so much worse the second time. Astro physics is clear that you only need to shoot yourself halfway to the moon to get there as the gravity of the moon will take over. For all practical engineering purposes I was beyond that and in my battered state of mind I shouted for my wife to PLEEEAAASE bring the wet-wipes, but it was like drinking vodka after chilli. I forgot about the alcohol or whatever it has in those nappies and it took all the deliberate trajectory miscalculations in the book to shoot myself through only the three concrete slabs of the floors above me. Until this day, that memory never faded. But I was booooooooorn in-hin Af-ri-ca and unlike the Americans, we are tough. We don't have to pretend.
We prepared to visit Ushaka Marine world and the 8 year old Garmin 12XL helped us a lot to get direction. It was long before the streetmap versions.
Just when we got at Ushaka, I was confronted by a chirpy holiday club salesmen. We scratched a card and won a trip, was a bit pissed off as we had to listen for an hour to the system to get it - and for the third time in my life confirming that this is not my sort of holiday. This will definitely be my last time as all of them works exactly the same.
We went back to Ushaka. I was quite disappointed with the setup. Expensive to enter and already making a huge loss for the municipality. Although much bigger and them aprk decorated than the Cape Town Aquarium, it has a cramped feeling from the single volume isles. Also, unlike the Cape Town Aquarium where all wall surfaces are finished with carpet, these are all hard surfaces, making the place overly noisy and spoiling any effect of the tranquillity that should be in a place like this.
I did however like the collection of sharks, rays and sea tortoises tremendously, but could see far too little of it. I have yet to see one of them that I do not find breathtakingly beautiful. We then went to see the dolphin show and even my 18 month old daughter was over the moon with excitement, clapping her little hands so vigorously that she missed most of the time.
Our time was up quickly. With SWAMBO navigating fom the GPS and my intuitive feeling for direction, we made it back to the flat and I packed Gifappel to be ready for early departure the next day. I could not wait to hit the small roads again.
Highlights: Sharks, Dolphins
Low-Lights: Holiday club Salesman, Ushaka
Day 6 – Durban to Harrismith
I cannot exactly remember what the name of the little town is, but Bergitte went to an old Anglican boarding school. Like Grey College, it must be one the most impressive college estates that exists in South Africa and I wished we could spend more time there , but we had to push on to Harrismith and that was still a long drive considering the leisure pace we committed to.
I was once again not very much consumed by the surroundings – until we reached the Natal Midlands. We aimed for Kamberg and then drove to Giants Castle. Once on the gravel, the roads were almost deserted and we perhaps passed two other vehicles on the road. Giants Castle was worth the trip. We had a nice lunch in the Restaurant and I am definitely planning to come and spend a couple of days here in the future. This is also a place where the bearded vulture is still common – a magnificent bird to look at. I do find it intriguing however, that the bird is called the “Lammergier” in Afrikaans – the conclusion I make is that they were known to catch lambs. I do not believe a bird of that size is capable to pick up a lamb and fly away with it. I white vulture, yes.
Somehow we managed to leave the baby bag behind at the Restaurant of Giants Castle – with bottles, diapers, clinic cards and the rest in it. So we had to improvise a bit.
Giants Castle would actually have been a great end for the day, but we had to push on to Harrismith and like all the other days, got there long after dark at 18:30. The guest farm that I booked into, was quite a disappointment as it was something way different that what I had expected. At the time I booked (two months earlier) I could find nothing else in Harrismith and was a bit forced to take this one.
The people replied in 15 minutes with all details and the efficiency was exceptional. It was a farm indeed, but the house was a stone throw away from the N3, basically divided in many rooms separated by wooden partitioning and none of the self-catering facilities as I have understood it would had. The hosts were very friendly and helpful, but this place is not recommended for holiday purposes. The only purpose is to offer a bed and breakfast for people who get in late and get out early. To sooth things a bit, we opened a bottle of red and had ginger brandy for dessert.
I was a bit embarrassed to treat our host like this.
Highlights: Giants Castle
Lowlights: Cyara B&B
Day 7 – Harrismith to Merrimetsi
We all slept well and warm, but got up very early the next morning and had a good breakfast. I borrowed the internet connection for money transfers and off we went.
SWAMBO and Bergitte did a lot of the driving again and I was once again impressed with how easy Gifappel is to handle – even for our lady friend used to driving a Golf. This was her first time driving a 4x4 and she did great. The scenery through Golden Gate was wonderful as usual, and we stopped at Clarens for a walk around. Unfortunately, the place is even more pretentious than when we visited it 5 years ago, so the stop was short.
We pushed through to Ficksburg and stopped for lunch at a place that caught our eyes – “Die sinkhuise en sy kombuisie”. I had a nice bryane and the ladies had sandwiches. The service was very slow, but the ladies friendly and we did not mind as we were in no hurry.
Eventually we made the last leg of the day to Merrimetsi. We arrived there well in time at 16:00 and it was a wonderful atmosphere as we entered the old sand stone house with a fire place in every room. The house is taken up in the register of national monuments and is well over a 100 years old. The water for the bath room is heated by a donkie and it was already smoking softly when we arrived.
That night we decided to cook on the fire and there was a pile of wood that we could use. I opened the half bottle of red that we did not finish the previous night and it went down between, SWAMBO, Bergitte and me before the wood properly took fire. I made a camp bread and Bergitte, a veggie dish in a clay pot – all with fresh herbs from the garden. It was lovely. Of course I had my eland steak as well and it was as tender as ever. SWAMBO was however very tired and we suddenly realized that she was gone. I went to look for her, but she was fast asleep in bed with a half a glass of Rosé left on the bed cupboard.
It was a lovely night – not too cold, so Bergitte and I finished the cooking and looked at the stars. She could clue me in quite a bit as it is one of her hobbies. By that time we were on the third bottle of red and naturally the topics of discussion turned to religion, peak oil and all those heavy stuff. Later, with my feet facing the fire and nicely warm in my shoes, there was a burst of laughter from Bergitte when the soles of my safety shoes started bubbling like marsh mellows from the heat – something that happened to many of my mates around the fire! Inside, my feet were just lekker warm, so imagine my surprise.
We went to bed long after midnight and I slept well.
Day 8 – Merrimetsi
We were back at lunch and by this time, SWAMBO looked a lot better. She had a good rest and was ready for some serious socializing that night. With no red wine left, we poured mugs and mugs of herbal tea, lit the fire in the sitting room as well as candles and pulled out the digital cameras to review the shots of the last couple of days. We all had a great time and went to bed not too late, as there was still a small pile of fire wood in our bed room that had to be used.
Day 9 – Merrimetsi to Bloemfontein
After a wonderful nights rest and with nobody booked in after us, we had a lazy morning, making breakfast on the fire and me packing Gifappel doodely-doo. We got away at 11:00 for the final 130 km to Bloemfontein. The two days at Merrimetsi was by far the best I had in a long time. Unfortunately the farm was now for sale and it is clear that the interested parties only wants it for farming. Thus, the changes are 99% that Merriemtsi will not offer eco-tourism from next year. This is really sad as it must rate as one of the best places I have ever visited.
We arrived home safely. Overall consumption was 6 km/l. Not bad for a petrol, but I don't get used to it. Gifappel did a great job, and reliability wise, I am rest assured that Gifappel will take me to remote places and bring me back.
What did I learn from this trip?
I have to shorten my distances travelled for a day, considerably. I don't want to get to the camping spot later than 15:00 on a day. As I drive so much for work, I don't want to do it all day for my holiday as well. On top of it, there is so much to see between point A and B, that one have to go slower to take it all in. But, it was nice to do something different again.
The packing system that I made worked excellent. SWAMBO packed clothes for each day and we managed to pack two to three days of winter clothing for the family between two crates. Summer clothing will obviously takes a lot less space. The additional benefit, is that dirty clothing can be packed in the box of the previous day. The crates worked well for me and cost R 30 against R 130 for the small ammo boxes. Me and SWAMBO can handle the weight of a create easily and they stack well. I safely tied them on the shelf with ratchet straps. In total, I had 15 of these small crates, but can pack up to 18 crates. That should be enough for a two week summer trip when the baby is out of diapers and from the bottle.
Below the shelf, I have put the water cans, bigger plastic boxes with fluids and tools, as well as all the long stuff like the spider chairs (the tent in future) and the gas bottle. IMHO, it is much better than a drawer system, because everything is accessible with little more effort, and can be taken out to where the fire or tent is. Also, I don't have the loss in space that the rails of the drawer inevitably creates.
The spare wheel carrier work brilliant. I could find no trace of stress on any part of the bumper or body. The door latch mechanism works very convenient.
Overall, I am very happy with how my setup is getting together. I am doing it with little money, and surprisingly little effort.