Eventually we reluctantly said goodbye to Cape Town and drove off in a rental car towards the south. Our first stop was at a funky place called Pajamas and Jam in the burb of Somerset for breakfast. The selection of cakes and breakfast goodies was amazing, though Vivian, Jo, and I agreed that our caramel Nutella hot chocolates were heavenly.
Then we made our way along the beautiful eastern side of False Bay through charming coastal towns to Hermanus and then to Gansbaai. Bay is baai in Afrikaans. The the “G” pronounced with a clearing of the throat.
We had booked a place on Airbnb called the Whale Tail. When we arrived it was like the feeling we had when we got to Sand Island in Kenya. From the front lawn (and all the rooms) there was a sweeping view of the sea with the town of Hermanus about 30 km away on the other side of the bay and the mountains rising up behind. To the right the wide bay ended in a nature preserve with pristine beaches and sand dunes and rocks a couple of miles away.
We dumped our luggage and went out to explore the rocky shore – with inlets and cliffs and hidden caves.
Over the next few days we walked along the paths at the edge of the shore a couple of times a day. We explored large caves that were inhabited by our ancestors a few tens of thousands of years ago. Evan and I left Jo and Vivian perched on top of a rock by the bay and ran up and slid down giant sand dunes till we were exhausted (which took me about 5 minutes).
One afternoon Tim, our Airbnb host loaded us into his four wheel drive and took us for a tour of the “township” and the coast further out of town. We inspected beautiful tidal pools and saw poachers in wetsuits going out to collect abalone. Abalone from this region fetches top prices in the global seafood market. Attempts to govern sustainable fishing has given rise to a Chinese blackmarket. They pay local young colored South Africans in drugs to poach abalone. The town has given up calling the cops because nothing happens. So now the locals turn a blind eye to the poachers and the poachers don’t create a security hazard for the locals. It works -unless you’re an abalone or an honest fisherman.
When we see or hear whales come close to the rocky cliffs we run out to see them, walking on the rocks as fast as we can to keep up with them. The calf usually frolics and breaches and does the headstand thing where its tail sticks straight out of the water while the mother, huge by comparison, staidly swims on, smacking one flipper periodically on the surface so that her calf gets used to that sound and stays close to her once they start their long journey to the cooler Antarctic waters.
Besides fishing and whale watching, the other huge business in town is shark diving in cages. We didn’t have to decide whether to try it or not – when we were in Gansbaai the seas were too rough and the trips were cancelled. You don’t actually have to dive – the cage isn’t fully submerged. The waters are chummed to attract great whites and the tourists, wearing snorkel masks and standing in the cages neck deep in water, stick their heads underwater to observe the sharks. Apparently last year two orcas killed three great whites to eat their livers, temporarily depleting the town of their prized sharks. Fortunately the orcas left and a few more great whites appeared. But those that understand orca behavior say that it’s only a matter of time before the orcas return – their large mammalian brains let them remember these things.
We drove about two hours to the southern most tip of Africa one day. It was cold and windy and more desolate here though there is a nice sized town just before Cape Agulhas. We quickly took a photo on top of the monument that marks the southernmost point and ran back to the car and drove to Gansbaai. Below the brass monument marking the cape there was a neat blue sign with a white line down the middle. On either side of the divider the words “Indian Ocean” and “Atlantic Ocean” were nicely printed. Alas the ocean and the beach looked the same in both sides of the sign and paid no attention to silly names given by humans.
The Rugby World Cup is being played in Japan. “A real game, not like the American football you play with helmets and body armor” they said, though I told them I hadn’t ever played American football. Tim invited me to see the game (called a test) between two rugby superpowers – the South Africa Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks. If you’ve seen Invictus (which we did a few days later one evening in Croatia) you know how important rugby and the Boks are to the South African psyche.
We walked into a smoky old bar where everyone except me was wearing the green and gold jerseys of the Boks and Castle beer flowed like water. I got a quick tutorial on rugby and when I correctly got the fifth round of beers they accepted me as one of their own. Except for the dead animal heads mounted on the wall I could have easily been in dive bar in Austin with old friends.
Later that evening the kids wanted pizza and on Tim’s recommendation we went to Mama Rita’s – a cute little place with very friendly staff and great food. As it was close to sunset and we were a couple of blocks from the sea I asked our waiter if we could take our wine glasses and go watch the sunset. We had ordered a bunch of dinner and hadn’t paid for anything yet and she had never seen us before but she didn’t bat an eyelid. Jo wasn’t sure if we should be walking outside with wine glasses. I told her this was South Africa – home to a lot of good wine. And we were just miles away from some big wineries.
We started crossing the street. I handed Evan my wine glass so I could get my camera out. Jo frowned at the growing list of bad civic behaviors. I shrugged and said that there’s so much real crime in South Africa the cops were busy enough. And a second or two later a cop car with lights blazing and siren blaring charged directly towards us.
A moment later the cop car turned away. Jo breathed a a sigh of relief and went back to dinner. Evan and I and the wineglass watched the sunset.
Back at Mama Rita’s I ran into a couple of my new friends from the smokey bar earlier that day. They had cleaned up and were with their wives. After they finished their dinner they stopped by our table to say hello to the family. We felt a tiny bit like locals : )
Later that week we took the inland route back to Cape Town. While the coastal roads were dramatic, the farms and green and golden endless rolling hills of wheat were a beautiful sight to behold. We thought of the views of Kansas along the turnpike – but more rolling and even more expansive and with occasional steep mountains thrown in. We stopped at the Tokari vineyards halfway between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek for lunch and then drove to Cape Town and got on one of the last Thomas Cook Condor flights. Our flight landed in Frankfurt at 05:00 on a gloomy cold Monday morning. Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy at 08:00, leaving about 600,000 travelers stranded worldwide.
In Frankfurt we rented a car, got some Euros from an ATM, got on the autobahn, and headed off towards Bavaria in the rain. It felt very strange not to be in Africa. Today is one day shy of two months since I left Austin. And everything is A-Ok.