South Africa presented the same dilemma that Namibia presented. Is it better to rent a car to tour the country or should we look for alternate means? Unlike the Namibia situation which allowed us to map out an itinerary around the capital city of Windhoek, we did not have the same option in South Africa. We may have to go in for a one-way rental or simply rent cars at different cities and do local circles. There was another crucial difference and that ultimately helped us decide. The presence of the Baz Bus option.
Baz Bus operates as a "transfer" service for backpackers to move between South African cities without having to bother with local transportation to bus terminals. One needs to pre-book a seat on their 22-seater vans in advance and specify a pick-up point which is usually at the backpacker hostel one is staying in. They operate four times a week on three routes, Cape Town-Port Elizabeth, Port-Elizabeth-Durban and Durban-Johannesburg/Pretoria. They stop at numerous places of interest doing a round of backpacker hostels right to their very door, sometimes even plodding through extended dirt tracks. They also have transfer points enroute to help travelers get on shuttles at their own expense to destinations not on the main route. Travelers have several pricing packages to choose from - either a point to point ticket with no time limit, or a system wide ticket with a time limit. The bus also provides opportunities for exchanging stories and ideas with other travlers who are on the same route.
After much deliberation over an entire Sunday, we chose to go with a 14 day system wide Baz Bus ticket to make our way from Cape Town to Johannesburg/Pretoria. Unfortunately, we found only one seat available on the bus the next morning and so had to settle for a Tuesday departure. We made good use of the Monday visiting the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
Come Tuesday morning we were up early to be ready for our pickup. The van had a trailer for carrying the backpacks and made a couple of more stops on Long Street before doing a round of few other backpacker hostels in Cape Town. A truant was still in the shower delaying our departure but we were soon on our way. The first stop was at Somerset West, a drop off point for the Cape Wineries. Another hour away was Swellendam which we had considered but dropped after due consideration. The couple who got on there stated that they enjoyed their stay at the lodge located beneath mountains and even saw a few of the rare bontebok at the national park just a few km away. Another hour later, we had a breakfast stop at a service station and managed to get some hot food during the short break.
We went past Mossel Bay which is the first of the destinations that is considered part of the Garden Route. It is one of few towns along the coast that is popular for Shark Cage Diving where one has the opportunity to get close-up views of Great White Sharks. We passed on that and stayed put and got off at the city of George to make our pre-arranged shuttle connection to take us to Oudtshoorn which lay 50 km away from the coast over the scenic Onteniqua Pass. The shuttle service is provided by the lodge we were staying in, albeit for a reasonable payment. It had been a long 490 km ride along the southern coast of Africa and the weather was pleasantly warm. We were bracing ourselves for much cooler weather at Oudtshoorn due to its high elevation, but were surprised to see the mercury shoot from a bearable 30 degrees to 42 degrees as we crossed the mountains to get to Oudtshoorn, some 50 km away. Being inland made a bigger difference to the temperature than being at higher elevation. A Dutch couple who had travelled on the Baz Bus from Cape Town shared the ride with us to Oudtshoorn.
What attractions did Oudtshoorn have for us that we chose it as our first destination on the fabled Garden Route? Oudtshoorn had plenty to offer in the form of Ostrich farms (where one can ride Ostriches or get kissed by one!), mountain caves, wildlife ranches, but we were not interested in these. We were looking for a way to explore the Swartberg Pass in the Great Karoo mountains which was considered to be one of the most scenic in South Africa - quite a feat given the abundance of scenic delights in the country.
The pass could be seen on a 200 km round trip from Oudtshoorn but we were taken aback to learn that such a tour was no longer offered by any agency despite the presence of a poster advertising the route. The lodge offered a few trips and one of them involved going to the top of the pass in their vehicle and to return on a 56km downhill bicycle ride! The only other option left for us was to hire a car and drive on our own. It was too late to make any reservations at the Avis office in Oudtshoorn this evening but we understood that the daily rates would be quite reasonable. We spoke to the young Dutch couple who had come on the shuttle and they too were interested in joining us.
Of course, Avis did not have automatics and so we had to rely on our Dutch friends to do all the driving. We did feel a bit sheepish at this, but they were good sports and looked forward to this unexpected experience as they had not expected to do any driving in South Africa. We stopped outside an ostrich farm on the road to take a look at the ostriches which sped away at our approach. Further ahead was the scenic Meiringspoort Pass and Meiringspoort Falls which was short walk away from the highway. The falls were nicely framed by steep red rocks in a shady area well hidden from the highway. After a brief stop, we headed further on towards the town of Prince Albert, named after Queen Victoria's consort. The town could be viewed from a viewpoint high above as we descended to it from Meiringspoort pass. The neatly laid out valley made for a pretty picture of green amidst the majestic brown Swartberg mountains on either side.
The town itself lay 5km further from the turnoff to Swartberg Pass - we noticed that it was an unpaved road - but Prince Albert was our only lunch opportunity. Our Dutch friends got a taste of how difficult it is to accompany vegetarians in South Africa as we stopped at the first cafe for a quick meal only to learn that they were out of all veggie options. We were about to walk off but were persuaded by the one in charge who immediately guessed the reason for our leaving. She helpfully offered the name of an alternative establishment down the road, but offered to customize a sandwich for us if we chose to stay back. We may be picky vegetarians but we are easily pleased and we could not refuse this nice gesture.
The next hour was as exhilarating as it was tough. The climb to Swartberg Pass seemed endless through a series of switchbacks that crossed the rocky terrain. The vistas at various viewpoints and the top of the pass were as spectacular as its reputation promised. The road descending on the other side was paved and proved to be equally endless. We wondered how we would have fared if we had ridden this route on a bicycle 56km back to the lodge. We were thankful to our Dutch friends for driving the full route including the difficult Swartberg Pass that tested the power of the small car with four adults inside.
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Where is the photo of kissing the ostrich ?????? From, on Mar 28, 2013 at 03:22AM
@Ramesh - Being totally opposed to cruelty to animals (and humans - we don't know which in this case), we stayed away from ostriches that kiss or give rides ;).
The photo of the cute ostrich chick above was taken from the roadside as we passed a rural farm. From , on Mar 28, 2013 at 04:34AM