Local is Lekker Part 1

Now that Anne and I are both temporarily (and in my case only partially) retired, there were a few shorts trips in South Africa that we had time to do before we started on our long Southern African road trip (see Local is Lekker part 2). Apologies for the lateness of this post – a combination of too much rushing around, laziness on my part and slow internet.

Our first trip was a week of diving in northern Kwazulu-Natal, firstly at Rocktail Beach Camp, with our friends Ryan and Anna and their new son Theo, and then at Sodwana, with Chris & Shelley, and Jackie, Evan and Georgia. Rocktail is our favourite place to dive in South Africa, and one of our favourite places to dive overall. It’s about a 7 hour drive from Johannesburg and is situated on a very remote, unpopulated stretch of coast in the iSimangiliso Reserve. The small dive centre, Mokarran Dive Charters (http://www.mokarrandivecharters.com) is effectively the only dive operator in the area, serving mainly guests at Rocktail Beach Camp, and so the reefs are in extremely good condition, with beautiful corals and lots of sea life. Their service and guiding is impeccable and there are some really amazing things to be found on their reefs – both macro and the bigger stuff. Pretty much all the dives are 18m or shallower and so the diving is suitable for all levels. The dives cost a bit more than at other South Africa dive areas, at R550 per dive (around $37) but the dives there are almost always an hour, are generally not very crowded (our busiest boat had 6 people), and include a huge breakfast spread on the beach. Rocktail Beach Camp is a lovely place to stay, being part of the Wilderness group, but is quite pricey (and is definitely not a place for people on a backpackers budget). Bookings can be done via Mokarran Dive (who often can get special rates) or directly through Wilderness, the operator of Rocktail Beach Camp (http://www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/rocktail-beach-camp).

Nothing like a beer on a deserted beach
Ryan, Anna and Theo enjoying the waves

The weather for our three days was unfortunately not the best, with unusually strong surge, choppy surface conditions and average visibility, but we still managed to have some lovely dives. As usual there were stacks of turtles and potato bass / grouper, paper fish (on every dive), some big schools of snappers, many anemone crabs and cleaner shrimps, squat shrimp, and huge honeycomb moray eels, as well as some more unusual creatures like anemone fish eggs, whip coral shrimp, harlequin shrimp (which we couldn’t get close to because of a large turtle getting itself cleaned in their little cave) and a few grey reef sharks. Anne was also having some temporary issues with her underwater camera so we didn’t get that many good photos in Rocktail.

An anemone crab
An anemone fish guarding its eggs
Look closely for the whip coral shrimps 
A sneaky (and extremely large) peacock flounder
A different type of anemone crab

After Rocktail we headed a bit further south to Sodwana, using the opportunity to practice our dirt track driving by taking the road that goes alongside Lake Sibiya. Sodwana is South Africa’s biggest reef system and most popular dive area, and is also situated within the iSimangiliso reserve. It can be extremely crowded over public holidays and on some weekends, but is generally really pleasant and quiet during the week.  There are several places to stay in the small town a few kilometers from the entrance to the reserve, but we prefer to stay to Coral Divers which is within the reserve, making it much more convenient for diving (http://www.coraldivers.co.za). Coral has a variety of different accommodation options from cheap and simple tents with shared ablutions to small cabins with private en-suite bathrooms, all generally good value. You can self-cater or buy meals at Coral or a nearby restaurant. The diving is also cheap, but very no frills – be prepared to wash and carry your own gear unless you want to pay bit extra. They also offer good value dive courses which include free tented accommodation.  There are some beautiful and varied dives at Sodwana, although it’s popularity means that  there are some areas that are a bit over-dived. The sea conditions had started to improve when we arrived and thanks to some great advice from the camp manager we were able to plan dives that minimized the impact of the surge. One particular dive on Stringer reef was incredible, with two harlequin shrimp, a frog fish, two paper fish, a huge and very chilled turtle and lots of Durban dancing shrimp.  We also got to experience our best ever snorkel with dolphins on the way to one of the dives, when a group of four dolphins decided to hang around with the group for about 10 minutes. They were unusually curious and constantly coming to within touching distance to check us out. At one stage Anne was in the water alone with the dolphins swimming in a tight circle around her.

Getting some off-road practice in on the road past Lake Sibiya
The friendliest dolphins in the world
A really chilled turtle
A frogfish!!
A huge honeycomb moray eel
A perfectly posed paperfish surrounded by glassies
Two harlequin shrimps hiding in a hole
Sunset drinks with the Sodwana crew

After returning from diving we headed down to Cape Town for an annual food and wine festival that we try to never miss – Constantia Fresh (http://www.constantiafresh.com). It’s held at one of the Constantia valley’s top wine estates, Buitenverwagting, and consists of wine tastings from around 30 top South African winemakers plus food from six top Cape Town chefs.  We were joined by our mates Ryan, Anna and Theo again (thanks for helping us out with accommodation), as well as Andrew and Tam, and my brother Brandon and his wife Nola. As always it was a great day, with far too much wine being drunk, especially since the previous night we’d had another massive wine and food evening with Brandon and Nola that the organizer of Constantia Fresh, Jörg, arranges for his mates. Suffice to say, we were not feeling at all well on Sunday morning. This didn’t stop us from doing the walk up Lions Head (one of the mountains to the side of Table Mountain) with Anne’s sister Jenny. It was a beautiful sunny day and the views of Table Mountain and the Cape Town beaches were spectacular, although I wasn’t always in the best shape to enjoy the views. One of the highlights was arriving at the top in the heat and having Jenny take out two ice cold beers from her backpack! The busy weekend ended with a good catch-up at Forries (a Cape Town institution) with our mates Nicola (a former colleague and fellow travel nut), and Nick & Hayley.

One of the highlights of our pre-Constantia Fresh dinner
Quite a few wine tastings down… (Sorry for blocking you, Theo)
Anne and Jenny scrambling up one of the tougher sections on the Lions Head hike
We had perfect weather for the hike
Another great view from the top

The next day we headed up north to the Cederberg, a mountain range about 4 hours drive from Cape Town. Jenny had lent us her Suzuki Jimny, so the sand roads in the area weren’t a problem. The Cederberg is a well known hiking area with several options for accommodation. We decided to stay at Sanddrif near the Cederberg Wine Estate (http://cederbergwine.com/sanddrif/), which is perfect situated for two of the more popular trails, the Wolfberg Arch and the Maltese Cross. We stayed in the simple but really nice self catering chalets, but the nearby campsite looked like a really good option. On the day we arrived we headed off to the rock pools about a 20 minutes walk from the campsite, which were a lovely way to cool down in the heat. The path is a little tricky as it is not always clear which way to go, but not at all strenuous.

The view from our cottage at Sanddrif
Anne having a dip in the rock pool

The next morning we headed out to the Wolfberg Arch, leaving at around 7am. Make sure you have bought your permit from the Sanddrift reception the day before!  After a short drive we parked at the entrance to the trail (in the small shaded area a little further away from the start and not in the harsh sun near the start of the trail (like everyone else). The first part up to the Wolfberg Cracks is a fairly strenuous 1 to 1 1/2 hour long uphill hike. Because of our early start this first part was in lovely shade which made it a lot easier – I would not recommend doing it later when it is in full sunshine. At the Cracks you have the choice of the easier wide crack or the tough narrow crack, which takes around an hour longer and is not recommended for people with vertigo or claustrophobia. We decided on the wide crack as it was starting to really heat up and we didn’t want to spend too much time in the sun at the top. Even the wide crack requires a bit of scrambling over some ridiculously large boulders but it soon clears up into a nice path. After around 30 minutes you reach the top and then it is a fairly easy 1 1/2 to 2 hour walk to the arch itself. The views and rock formations along the hike are spectacular and we were lucky to have it all to ourselves – the only people we saw on the way to the arch was a German couple who were looking for the hard-to-find entrance to the narrow crack (you need to find a huge boulder wedged across the crack and crawl up and under it). The track itself is fairly vague, but there a small stone cairns every 20 – 50 meters which guide you in the correct direction. By the time we headed back (along the same route) it was really starting to heat up and we were very grateful for our early start. All in all it took us 6 hours, walking fairly fast.

Taking a break on the way up
Anne enjoying the view back down to the wine estate
The Wolfberg Cracks 
Looking down through the wide crack
Getting close to the arch
Made it!
A quick rest to enjoy the view before heading back down

That afternoon we headed back to reception to get our permits for the Maltese Cross and Stadsaal Caves, and stopped over for a lovely wine tasting at the Cederberg Wine Estate, right next to the reception office. This wine estate is the highest in South Africa and has some really nice and interesting white wines – well worth a visit. Before sunset we drove to the nearby Stadsaal Caves and San rock art, which are also worth seeing.

The Stadsaal Cave
San rock art

The following day we got up early again for the Maltese Cross hike, which involves a 20 – 30 minute drive along a bumpy track to the start. The hike took around 3 hours and is pretty much straight up to the cross and then straight down again. Because of the orientation it is not possible to avoid the sun on the hike up, so try do this one when it is cooler. Once again our early start meant we had the hike completely to ourself on the way up, and we only started meeting other people on the way down. The views on the hike are fantastic and the cross itself is pretty spectacular.

One of the rock cairns to guide you along the route
Made it to the cross!
Me at the bottom of the cross

After the hike we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and headed back to Cape Town to meet up with Andrew and Tam, who were kindly putting us up for the night. We had a great dinner at El Burro Taqueria that evening, and headed back to Joburg the next day for our final two weeks of frantic preparations for our road trip!

 

PS for all the non-South Africans, ‘lekker’ is Afrikaans for good or nice.

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