Winter Wandering

I must be crazy to go camping in the mountains slap bang in the middle of winter. That said, is it me that is crazy, or all the others? I recall this famous saying uttered by Einstein as we drove up to the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape’s magnificent wilderness last weekend.

 

After a delicious breakfast with our good friends Stanley and Rosemary at our favourite local eatery, Cafe Villagio, we headed out of the city. Stomachs were full and the car was fuelled up. Behind us we could just make out the rear side of the famous Table Mountain. In the distance loomed the first mountain pass we would have to cross.

 

Before long we turned off the national road and headed via a scenic route past some farmlands to the town of Wellington. From there the climb started.

 

Bainskloof is a mountain pass on the R301 regional road between Wellington and Ceres in the Western Cape. The 18 kilometre pass, opened in 1854, was constructed by road engineer Andrew Geddes Bain with the use of convict labour. Originally built for horse-drawn traffic, the pass was later tarred. The pass reaches 594 metres at its highest point. Here, the road joins a river, which descends the northern side of the mountains through a precipitous cleft to a stretch of rapids, waterfalls and natural pools. Bainskloof Pass is a national monument.

 

This pass is one of the most spectacular roads to travel along and although I could not see it, I recalled the views from my sighted years. I enjoyed hearing the awes, wows and the OMGs coming from my fellow passengers as we wound our way up the curves through a forested area and past cascading waterfalls. It was sad to hear that much of the hillside had recently burned, but this is actually quite a normal occurrence and in fact needed. The foliage that naturally grows on these mountains is called ‘fynbos’. The only way it germinates and spreads its seed, is through a burn every couple years. Unfortunately much of the hillside has been invaded by trees that should not be there. Gifts from Australia, these high oil content trees make the fire burn too hot and for too long. This is damaging to the fynbos rather than productive. There is a massive eradication program that has been ongoing for years to rid the mountains of these invader trees, but it is a slow painful process. It sometimes feels as if the Eucalyptus, the Port Jackson and the Black Wattle are just too strong. That said, at least the government is aware of the issue and is making efforts to fell these weeds.

 

As we reached the summit and pulled over, there were more gasps of pleasure. The scenery really is staggering when standing and looking all the way over the winelands and beyond towards the mother city in the distance.

 

Just over the top of the pass, the road becomes a tumble of twists and turns. Rock cliffs tower up to the one side and sheer drop offs are just meters to the other. At one point a rock outcrop even juts out right over the road. This pass is one of the few in South Africa with a height restriction in place.

 

Passing over the Breede River at the bottom of the pass, we were thrilled to note that the river was flowing fast. A great sign considering that we have been facing the worst drought the area has experienced in over thirty years.

 

We rode on past many wineries, over the train tracks that lead from Cape Town to Johannesburg and beyond the village of Wolseley.

 

After reaching our first hundred kilometres from home, we came to the next mountain pass to surmount. The Michells pass leads up to the town of Ceres. Towering alongside the pass, just beyond the river, is the Mosterts Hoek Mountain. The second highest in the Western Cape. Right on the peak we spied our first scene of snow.

 

We did not linger in Ceres as we still had another hundred kilometres to ride, half of which was along a gravel road that was sometimes a tough ride.

 

From Ceres we rode up the Gydo pass. This is used for a motorcar race called the King of the mountain, but on this day it was only us that were riding to the top. Pass number three done and we were now at an altitude way higher than our start point. This was obvious complements of the chill we could feel in the air. I was appreciative of my thermal long Johns and my choice to wear many layers of clothing.

 

The last 50 or so kilometres of road are reduced to dirt. Well, a mix of dirt, rocks and gravel. Tamlyn had to keep her eyes firmly peeled on the track as we rode past a landscape not unlike what I imagine Martian plains to be. Mountains towered on both sides as the sand road cut through and rose up, up and up further. Snow was now visible on all the peaks that towered around us. The air was thin and so fresh and clean that it burned your throat if you breathed too hard.

 

The Cederberg Oasis, our destination, eventually came into sight, or so I was told. The place is a well-loved backpackers nestled in a valley. It was a bustling hive of activity at the start of the long weekend. I expected it to be busy, given that it was a long weekend, but it really was jam packed.

 

We pulled to a halt in the parking lot right in front of the lodge just as our friends on their bikes stopped.

 

Bradley and his son Matt had decided to join us for the weekend. They decided to undertake the journey on their motorcycles. I could not help but feel a pang of jealousy at the thought. I would have loved to have had the chance to spin along the dirt tracks on two wheels. Alas, the twenty meter long white cane has not yet been launched, so I had to accept different adventures that were within my limitations.

 

Gerrit, the owner of the lodge, has been a good friend for many years. I am always so impressed by the growth of the Cederberg Oasis when we visit. Each year he adds more accommodation and develops the place beyond what I think to be possible. This does not come easily and I can honestly say that Gerrit is one of the hardest working people that I have ever met. Not only is he such a workaholic, but also one of the most positive people I have ever come across. He favourite saying is “Life’s good man…”

 

Our weekend lodging was in some of the permanent tents that are located a couple hundred meters from the main building. Nestled amongst the trees in old orange orchard, each tent is equipped with comfy beds and warm cotton linen and blankets. I was most appreciative of the extra blankets provided.

 

Our tent was set up right at a little private stone construction called The Bug Camp. This small open structure is equipped with its own BBQ area and a small kitchen with a fridge, stove and all the kit needed. There is also a private restroom complete with a toilet, basin and shower. Yay, no need to struggle with getting guided to the communal toilets in the middle of the night.

 

On the first night we ate at the lodge restaurant and had the house specialty. Grilled BBQ pork ribs and fries. This is the meal that the Cederberg Oasis is most famous for. The portions are so massive that Tamlyn and myself normally share a portion and struggle to finish the meal. Stan ate a steak, Matt got stuck into a chicken schnitzel while Bradley and Rosemary chose to sample the chicken wings.

 

With everyone’s appetite satisfied, we decided to return to our own little rest area in the privacy of the Bug Camp. We lit a fire and sat down to enjoy a good catch up. Stanley brought out a bottle of shooters and everyone go a little tipsy.

 

The following morning, we all woke a little later than usual. I as always knew that I would be unable to sleep late. I made sure to have my iPad, headphones and a good audio book at the ready next to the bed. I was more than happy to have a lay in, it was freaking freezing. Gerald Durrell’s story telling kept me company while everyone snored away.

 

After a breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, Tamlyn, Rosemary and I decided to go for a walk. Stanley chose to return to his tent where he had a heater fan blowing and an old Lois Lamour cowboy book waiting. Bradley and Matt went for a ride further into the mountains.

 

The walk was probably the highlight of the weekend for me. It was so nice to get outdoors and give the legs a good stretch. 

 

With the roadway being nice and wide and pretty void of traffic plus pretty much in a straight line, I came up with a cool idea. I asked the ladies to walk about a metre on either side of me and not guide me. I put away my collapsible cane and just used the audio of their footsteps as a guide. At first, Tamlyn was a little cautious. She really hates it when I struggle and fall. After a few hundred metres everyone felt more comfortable. The sounds of their hiking shoes scraping along the gravel was more than enough assistance and I manage to walk all the way back to the lodge without needing to hold onto anyone. This may seem as if it is not much of a hurdle to overcome, but rest assured, it was a massive accomplishment. I certainly could not have walked a few kilometres unassisted a couple years earlier. It felt great.

 

That afternoon we purchased some meat packs from the lodge and cooked our own little dinner. Drinks flowed, old jokes were shared for the hundredth time and more shooters were downed. 

 

As I lay in the tent that night, I listened carefully to hear what I could pick up. The sound of the wind bristling through the citrus trees, the laughter of some Dutch tourists and their occasional strange accents from a nearby camp, the crackle of the fire as the last coals burned out and then, the start of Stanley’s nightly snoring. The last thing I remember is popping in my earphones, putting some mellow music on and spooning up with my gorgeous but cold wife.

 

Day three and we headed back home. Goodbyes were said and one last look around the mountains was enjoyed by all. Well, all except me that is. As they stood staring, I smelled the wild fynbos and drew a picture in my mind of what colours were no doubt flooded across the hills.

 

On the way home we stopped for some junk food that was decent but not great. Roadside gas station diners are what they are and although that kind of meal is not really my thing, I was hungry and happy to get some grub into my mouth.

 

The last big mountain pass we rode over is the DuToit’s pass. This would normally be a quick nip through the tunnel, but we chose the alternative route over the top of the mountain. Our choice was worth it with waterfalls cascading right along the road side. This was so loud and impressive that although I could not see it, I could really appreciate it none the less.

 

Back in the mother city and we bid farewell to our friends. Stanley’s first port of call was to the mobile phone store. He had somehow managed to crack the screen of his cellphone. You have to love the Uncle. He manages to always wreck a phone on our weekend away trips. He is the village idiot without a doubt. At least he is our village idiot. 

 

No Leopard whispering, no swearing and arguing, no drunk disruptive behaviour and no unhappy people. Just a pity that the weekend was over so fast. I cannot wait for the next one, three months ahead. At bloody least it will be Springtime in the Southern hemisphere by then. 

 

We have already booked the trip. It is to a small West coast town that is located at the mouth of a river. I am hoping that we can hire some little kayaks. I recon with a couple paddling a few metre’s on either side, I will be able to give this adventure a solo try. Let’s just hope I don’t paddle right out the river mouth and get lost at sea. That said, if I just keep going I may make it to Argentina. I have always wanted to visit Buenos Aires. Anyone keen on teaching me the tango?

 

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