South Africa #11: Backpacking Chicks (I) - #WellDone

Backpacking Chick #1 
Months ago, I asked many of my friends if they wanted to come visit me in South Africa. A brave English girl, Nadine, actually took me up on my offer and booked a flight to Cape Town in April. We've been looking forward to this trip for months, but, of course, being us, we did almost no planning for it (hey! We bought guide books, that counts, right?).

This post covers week 1 of our road trip along the Garden Route in South Africa's Western and Eastern Capes. Nadine spent a few days in Cape Town and then headed down to see me in Hermanus on Tuesday. Yes, we did have one of those beautiful, slow motion run reunions except for the fact that the guard gate at SANSA separated us (whoops!). In true Lois fashion, I immediately took Nadine for a 6 km hike around Hermanus and we caught up on all our gossip. No whale sightings though :(

Day 1: Stellanbosch and Jonkershoek

So the first thing we had to do was pick up the rental car about a 3 km walk away. This was the ONE thing we actually planned and had a reservation for, and I can't even begin to describe what chaos ensued when we went to pick it up. After a 2 hour delay requiring passports, excessive charges on my credit card, and much head banging, we drove away in our darling black Ford Fiesta we named Carlito.

Is this real or is this fantasy? 
Nadine getting into the vino life style 
First stop: penguins at Betty's Bay. This was a non-negotiable for Nadine, and hey, I'm not going to complain about seeing more penguins. We cooed at them for a few hours ("Awww look at the penguins having sex on that rock") and then headed to Jonkershoek Park near Stellanbosch. After a 30 minute drive on the worst dirt road I've ever been on (poor Carlito), we made it to the trail head. We hiked up to two waterfalls in the mountains in our dresses with hiking boots, and then went skinny dipping in the pool of the second waterfall (yeah, no pics here, sorry. Probably available for purchase though if the price is right).  We also saw a frog that was the size of a guinea pig ("Kiss it Lo, it's gotta be a prince") and then ran away from the pool because you don't mess with frogs that big.

From there, we headed into the nearby town of Stellanbosch, briefly walked around, and enjoyed one of many lovely meals together. We got back to Hermanus late, packed up Carlito and tried to figure out where we should go the next day, fell asleep exhausted, and woke up before dawn (this is a recurring theme in our story)...

Day 2: De Hoop and Wilderness
10 meters away tops O.O
Our game plan was to drive a few hours every day and to try to sleep at a difference place every night, getting to Addo Elephant Park by Monday. But we decided to detour the first day to De Hoop Nature Preserve near Cape Agulhas after quite a bit of hemming and hawwing. What an AWESOME choice (despite the 40 km of pretty bad dirt road... poor Carlito). De Hoop was one of those magical places that you show up expecting a cute park with some ocean views, etc. but instead you enter this world where zebras roam free and ostriches run across the road.
This photo exists because of copious bug spray

Sand Dune Picnics, the usu
After a pleasant breakfast (Nadine = Americano, Lo = Latte), we rented some mountain bikes for the day. We received two adamant warnings from the mountain bike rental people. First warning: The Horse Flies are everywhere bring bug spray. Second Warning: Are you fit? Like in really good shape? Nadine and I, strong independent Western women with a keen sense of adventure, didn't think too much of these warnings (Pshawww).  Needless to say, we had to turn back and retrieve the bug spray after twenty minutes of horsefly swarms, but things were quite halcyon after that.

We biked 12 km or so to the sand dunes in the park and played around in them a bit before eating lunch. As with most people's lunch breaks, we then explored beautiful tidal pools along the coast after our fruit snacks and trail mix lunch. Unfortunately, we were short on time, so we had to bicycle back... and it was quite traumatic.

Tidal Pools at De Hoop 
Instead of taking the road this time, we decided to take the unmarked mountain bike trails back (why not? we had been successful so far!). The horsefly swarms came back with a vengence, to the point where they were biting through Nadine's pants even after we applied bug spray to the pants (?!?!!?!). So we're hurrying along on this sketchy unmarked trail in the hot afternoon sun, we're being eaten alive by horseflies (which Nadine is having a minor allergic reaction to), and we see baboons,  ostriches, kudu, and etlind - all of which are dangerous and very close to the non-trail trail we're following. There's no kind of safari like a bike safari in which adrenaline is keeping you going the whole way :)

8 km later of mild terror (approximately the level of an upside down roller coaster), we make it to the road and the zebras (angels, really) and breathe a huge sigh of relief and immediately start discussing how epic that bicycle ride was (it was!). When we returned our bikes, the attendants then thought it would be a good idea to notify us that there were leopards in the park too... because, you know, those horseflies are more of a threat than leopards (#AfricanSafetyStandards).

Overall, De Hoop was absolutely incredible though. I write the above paragraphs satrically, but it was an absolutely stunning park and I would highly recommend. Just make sure you go the right direction on the mountain bike path (more things they told us after we returned the bikes).

From there, we drove 3 hours to Wilderness, almost running out of fuel (!!!!) along the way. By pure luck, we rolled into our camp site and fortunately we the only ones to camp in the field that night.  After an amazing dinner in town where two older men kept eavesdropping and interjecting into our conversation (the one guy really wanted a spliff. I have no idea how this relates to ex-boyfriends). We snuggled into Nadine's tiny tent and prepared for the next day...
Looking pretty wild in Wilderness 

Day 3: Wilderness, Goukamma, and Peace of Eden
Snake face! Mouth is smiling but eyes aren't :P
We woke up early and walked from our campsite at Fairy Knowles to the Kilpspringer trails in town. They're gorgeous rain-forest like trails that are extremely well taken care of. Unfortunately, the park system can not help the fact that tree roots, which may appear similar to snakes to some, cover the trails. Nadine, who REALLY does not like snakes, did not approve. The picture below is an example of Nadine's "snake face", or when Nadine is trying to smile but is actually like barely keeping things together on the inside. Poor Nadine.

We hiked up to a beautiful waterfall and had another typical scenic picnic lunch. Yours truly jumped into the pool at the base of the waterfall, but snake fever is contagious and I was seeing way too many 'snakes' at the bottom of the leaf covered pool.

Moments when life actually can't get better

If Nadine was writing this post, she'd then transition to our next adventure saying something like "And then the local slave driver Lois cracked her whip because one 6 km hike isn't enough for a day... there has to be a second activity". Well said Nadine, so we headed to our next adventure at Goukamma National Park.
Romantic beach get away excursion

Nadine's snake face and a spider stick
This park still baffles me. We literally saw NO ONE except for the person at reception who took our park entrance fees. We pulled our selves on a platoon across a river (team work!) to an island. The trail started out unexceptional ("At least the Dunes probably have fewer snakes"), but then, out of no where, it dropped us out to a beach on the other side of the island. And this beach... O.O!!!! It was huge, perfect, and EMPTY. There weren't even foot prints from previous visitors or little bits of trash... it was pristine. We walked for several kilometers along the ocean just in awe of the place - it didn't feel real.  In fact, it felt so unreal that we panicked and had to GPS our location to find the exit path off the beach because we didn't see it. Fortunately, we were able to find it with some ingenuity.

More Perfection
Unfortunately for Nadine, it was back to rain forest esque hiking AKA snake land for a few kilometers. We were just starting to despair ever actually making it off this island ("maybe this is why no one is in the parking lot") when we emerged on top of a mountain on the island with the MOST beautiful overlook I think we've both ever had. We both took in 360 views of the island and surrounding rivers/forests in the late afternoon for a few minutes before picking up the pace and racing back to the platoon before sunset. We still had to drive to Knynsa (30 minutes away...)
Our romantic cottage get away with porch

From some light googling, we had heard of a Vegetarian retreat in Knysna called "Peace of Eden" and decided to go for it. This place ended up being pretty close to perfect - especially when they offered us a > 30% discount on a cottage for that night and we decided to 'splurge'. So Nadine and I had a wonderful night of sleep in our own cottage (serious upgrade from camping!). Unfortunately, I didn't know how to work the hot water heater so I had a cold shower. Nadine just "happened" to figure it out a few minutes after I finished my shower... I guess that was her revenge for an early morning.

Day 4: Knysna Forest and Plettenberg Bay
A casual mid morning stroll 
After an amazing vegan omelette (as this blog suggests, don't think too much about it), we headed up the road to the nearby Knysna forest at the Gouveld entrance. We kicked off the day by doing a random 3 km loop in the woods (high occurrence rate of Nadine snake face during this walk) before finding the trail we actually wanted - Jubilee Creek. The Knysna forest was very cool because it was formerly a gold mining site, so there were all these abandoned mines in what felt like a wild jungle. It was spooky.

We made our way to the end of Jubilee Creek where there was a 'waterfall'. The definition of waterfall seems to range wildly in South Africa, and this water fall was more like a trickle over some rocks.  However, the walk was, as per usual, incredible. On our way out of the park, we also saw a pack of baboons. Never Underestimate Baboons! They can bite the jaw off a lion apparently and open locked car doors through open windows. Never fear, we survived the ferocious baboons.. this time!

Supermodel at the Farm Stall Look Out
From there, we stopped at a farmstall and had some quiche, scones, and tea as we overlooked the forest. Nadine and I are both keen hikers, but these slow moments really made the trip sometimes. We'd just giggle and drink our tea and enjoy each other's company. I bet Nadine's smiling as she reads this - you need a mix of both to really make a trip and Nadine and I were great at complementing each other on this aspect. I was more "Go-Go-Go" and Nadine would bring us back to reality (she's in charge!).

Plettenberg Bay Beach 
We had never intended to stay in Plettenberg Bay... but plans changed so we stayed at a city hostel in Plett. The dorms were well lit and clean, so we signed up immediately. After we changed, we went and boogie boarded/played in the waves for a few hours at the Plett Bay beach. It was a totally unexpected surprise in our trip, and I loved every minute. The waves were ~2 meters at the highest, and they were certainly the biggest waves I've ever rode on.  After playing in the waves, we grabbed some wine (first bar I've ever been to where they filled the wine glasses up to the top) and had some cheese and crackers. A few uni students nearby took pity on us and fed us their left over pasta (yummy!) and we had fun sitting by the fire and talking about travel with them and a German guy taking on the world by bicycle.
Can you spot the seals? There are hundreds! 

Day 5: Robberg Park and Wild Spirit 
Robberg is the highest rated park I've ever seen on Trip Advisor... it had a perfect 5 star with > 20 reviews, so we had high expectations. Despite subpar weather (rainy! boo!), Robberg was unbelievable and lived up to those expectations. Robberg is a peninsula that is coastal mountain seal preserve. Fortunately you stay far away from the seals (they smell!), but you get these amazing aerial views of them swimming from above.

Beach Walk time
You go through all this crazy scenery in the park, ranging from random waves going in crazy directions at the point (it actually said crazy waves on the map too!) to dense forest to mountain climbing to beaches. What more could you ask for? There were also super dangerous parts (i.e. slippery rocks, high tide trail wash outs, etc.) to keep us with a nice adrenaline high the entire time.
Climbing up the coastal cliffs again

We also saw a lone penguin on the rocks at the point. Since penguins mate for life, it was seriously depressing so see one dejected and scared penguin by itself at Robberg. Hopefully the poor guy stays far from the seals which were on the other side of the peninsula.

From Robberg, we drove to our accommodation for the night - Wild Spirit near Nature's Valley. Wild Spirit is a trip unto itself; essentially, it's a hippie commune in the woods that is massive with it's own restaurant, craft shop, private rooms, huge campground(s), and several large dorm buildings.

Warrior woman Nadine expressing her feelings about the weather at look out point
We checked in and then (Lois cracks whip) we had to do our second activity of the day. We drove down to Nature's Valley and scoped out the trails there. It was still rainy, so we only did a short trail up a hill with an OK look out (we'd been totally spoiled at this point) before returning to Wild Spirit. Before dinner, we read our books by the fire and just kind of relaxed. Unfortunately, we both missed the 'manifesting your dreams through interpretative dance' class (SHOOT!).
My favorite dorm ever 

Morning hike at Wild Spirit 
We had a great time at Wild Spirit hanging out by the fire and teaching some of the other guests about space physics and our research. Everyone was quite surprised that South Africa had a Space Agency (they do! I work there, I promise!). This night, Nadine and I had a healthy separation and she slept in her tent while I went for the dorm (that tent did not accommodate a 183 cm individual well) and we both had one of the best sleeps of the week that night.

Day 6: Tsitsikamma National Park and [shudders] JBAY

Your innocent heroine let Nadine sleep in a bit while she went for a walk in the morning around the Wild Spirit Property. It was absolutely stunning and serene; just taking roads, I walked through pine forests and, maybe it was the hippie vibes or something, but I felt the stress melting away. We all get caught up in work and pushing ourselves, but sometimes it takes a place like Wild Spirit and some morning light to really bring some balance back.

Just a Lo on a Rocky Perch
Ocean kayaking to the river mouth
From there, we headed up to Tsitsikamma National Park, which is one of the gem stones of the Garden Route. It was way too crowded on the main trails, but the off trails were delightful. I did a short hike to a bridge before a kayaking trip, and I ended up on a rocky outcropping (how did that happen? mmmm).

Liloing up the gorge
Cliff Jumping 
#WellDone Backpacking Chicks
Ocean near Storm's River Mouth
Nadine and I decided to do a kayaking / liloing trip up Storm's River, which is a river that cuts through the nearby mountains and ends at the ocean. The water is this beautiful deep emerald color and slowly changes from salt to fresh water as you paddle upstream. We poked into some caves where you could here the bats deep within and we paddled amongst sting rays. At the fresh water point, we switched to liloing (a floating mat) and kind of lounged around a bit. On the way back, innocent heroine did some cliff jumping (twice, of course). This was probably one of my favorite activities of the trip, and we spent most of the time either laughing or in awe.

Naturally, we had to squeeze in another activity (two a day!). We decided to do a 6 km round trip hiking along the coastline boulders (I should say through the boulders... ). We had no idea where we were going most of the time, but we had beautiful views of the ocean all along the way. The waterfall at the end was the best of the trip - dozens of mini waterfalls contained within a giant wall that came out of nowhere and flowed into the ocean.

On the way back, Nadine dropped her camera in the Boulder field that had tidal pools interspersed throughout. By some MIRACLE, her phone was wedged between two rocks above multiple tidal pools and was TOTALLY unharmed. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it... I was sure her camera was a goner.

African sunset into JBAY
From there, we reluctantly left Tsitsikamma and headed towards Jeffrey's bay. The next day was our Addo Elephant park game drive day, and J Bay was the closest 'safe' city. However, we should have known better when the first hostel we went to had no internet or electricity, the second was dodgy as dodge gets, and the third seemed a little ... off. With it getting well into the night (it's not safe in South Africa at night... at all), we decided to go for the last hostel, Island Shit (sorry, I mean Vibe). But... since that's a Sunday/Monday adventure, we'll save that for the next post :)

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