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Take the scenic route

Canoodling whales, stalagmite-laden caves, post-box trees and fragrant mountain trails, a fun road trip down South Africa’s Garden Route is the only way to take it all in

brunch Updated: Feb 16, 2013 19:45 IST

Every few seconds, the blue, satiny calmness of the ocean would get roused by two tiny blips, causing furrows to appear on the water’s surface. Savagely yanking a pair of binoculars from my friend’s hands, I pressed them to my eager eye. The blips took on a form as my now enhanced vision could clearly establish a pair of frolicking whales – I later learned that it was a mating ‘dance’ of sorts. Abandoning any silly idea of reaching for my camera to capture the moment too ephemeral for posterity, I took in the vision. A scene so potent, that I’ll never forget that crisp spring afternoon at Munro Bay.

But memorable was the last adjective I’d use to describe the beginning of that day. I was on a weekend road trip with four of my Afrikaner South African friends, down the Garden Route from their home in Uitenhage on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, nestled in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region, to Mossel Bay, 363km away in the picturesque Western Cape. http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2013/2/Garden.jpgHaving been dragooned out of the house at 5am, with the cold seeping though my fleece jumper, and the steel grey sky threatening to unleash its freezing aqueous load (or so the radio warned us), I felt as though I was living in my own gloomy version of 50 Shades of Grey with each progressive shade more ominous than the last.

Early morning glory

Ever the optimist, my friend Deisre – who had orchestrated the road trip with her legendary and rather Kafka-esque planning skills – quickly had us in top spirits after surreptitiously spiking our morning coffee with brandy, while singing songs about rainbows, sunshine and their ilk on loop. By 8am, halfway though our six-hour drive, all the aforementioned gloom was quickly forgotten as we stopped at a cozy café in the sun-kissed town of Knysna (pronounced nice-na) for a typical South African breakfast of spicy pork-beef boerewors sausages, scrambled eggs on toast and koeksisters, which are plaits of fried dough drizzled with sugar syrup. All this washed down with zesty granadilla (as passion fruit is called in South Africa) juice. Divine!

A tiny jewel of a place, Knysna is a compulsory pitstop along the Garden Route, with its quaint cafés and boutiques selling bric-à-brac. The 13sqkm Knysna Lake is a tranquil haven and a great spot for kayaking or enjoying a cruise along its placid waters that are framed by The Heads, two sandstone cliffs from where the views are stunning. After a stroll along the honeysuckle-scented mountain trail, we hit the road heading west along the N2 highway towards Oudtshoorn, passing though pastoral landscape dotted with farms perched on the foothills of the imposing Swartberg mountains.

Cave of wonders: The Cango Caves are said to have begun forming 20 million years ago.

In the depths

Deisre’s husband Marius brought the station wagon to a halt at the gates of the Cango Caves in Klein Karoo, regarded as South Africa’s largest show caves. Discovered by Dutch colonists in 1780, the caves are said to have begun forming 20 million years ago when acidic ground water chemically eroded the 100-million-year-old limestone rock. Once inside the 5.3km long caves and putting aside any latent claustrophobia, we wriggled and slithered our way into the bowels of the cold, damp caves. We stopped every now and then to ogle at the dramatic melted wax-like formations of stalactites and stalagmites. And they have equally dramatic names like ‘Bridal Chamber’, ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ and ‘Frozen Waterfall’ to name a few.

After an hour of cave dwelling, we got back to sunshine and fresh air streaming through the station wagon’s open windows. I could sense a conspiracy brewing among my quartet of friends. There were know-it-all smiles pasted on their faces and indecipherable Afrikaans exchanged in hushed whispers. I let serendipity take its course. And I was glad that I did.

With childlike squeals, I was made to pose for photographs in front of a large signboard that read Dias Museum Complex. Sharing the last name with Bartolomeu Dias, the first Portuguese navigator to land on South African shores, I’d always harboured ideas of some long lost familial connection with the explorer.

This Mossel Bay museum complex built in honour of his arrival in 1488 – and reconstructed to its present form in 1989 – includes a working post office built into a Milkwood tree, a granary constructed in 1786 by the Dutch East India Company, a Maritime Museum which houses a replica of Dias’ wooden Caravel ship, and an Ethno-Botanical Garden that once provided plants and herbs for food and medicinal purposes, used by the Khoi-San and Xhosa indigenous people and for the European settlers living in the Mossel Bay area as well.

Quiet interlude

Once I’d picked up enough fridge magnets and commemorative coins for my huge Dias family back home, and after scanning for the nth time, a painting of old Bart for any resemblance, I headed towards the solitary bench next to the fresh water spring overlooking Munro Bay that Dias named Aguada de São Brás in honour of St Blaise. It was here, while I sat in quiet contemplation, when I added the most spectacular of them all. And yes, it involved a certain amorous couple cavorting in the Indian Ocean down below…

Indians need a South African visa. Visit http://vfsglobal.com/southafrica/india/

Rock solid panorama: Rock formations on a beach along the Garden Route.

There are daily direct flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg with South African Airways (www.flysaa.com). From there, you can connect to Port Elizabeth with carriers like Kulula (http://www.kulula.com). Once you’re at Port Elizabeth, you can hire a car or drive down the Garden Route. Book a car at www.avis.co.za, www.europcar.co.za or www.budget.co.za.

Remember, that because South Africa is situated in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are in reverse. This means that spring (mid-September to November) through to summer (late November to March) are ideal times for a vacation along the Garden Route when the temperature hovers between a comfortable 19C to 25C

* Boxes of the herbaceous and soothing Rooibos tea make perfect gifts to take back home.
* Vacuum-packed Droewors (dried spiced beef sausages) and Biltong (cured strips of Impala, Kudu and Springbok meat).
* Bottles of indigenous South African Pinotage wine from the Western Cape.

Despite its reputation as an unsafe country, there are places in South Africa that are relatively safe. The Garden Route is one such family-friendly destination where you can drive without any fear of mugging or carjacking. It is, however, prudent to avoid driving when dark and to use the services of a registered guide for visits to townships. Also, it is not advisable to offer rides to any kind of hitchhikers.

Have a whale of a time: It is possible to spot humpback whales (above) in the area .

There are a range of hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and campsites to suit every budget.
Mossel Bay- Park House Lodge (www.parkhouse.co.za)
Oudtshoorn- Oakdene Guesthouse (www.oakdene.co.za)
Knysna- Island Vibe (www.islandvibe.co.za)

From HT Brunch, February 17
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