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Oude Caepse winkels (shops) in Swellendam

We left Buffalo Bay behind us today with no really firm plan of where we would end up for the night. We’d thought about staying at Mossel Bay for a night but decided that we had already seen the most beautiful parts of the Garden Route so we carried on. The Garden Route is a really beautiful part of the world and has an enviable combination of sea, sand, inland waterways and mountains offering pretty much something for everyone but it is now really just one big tourist attraction stretching down the coast. From what we saw there were, as yet, no tacky theme parks or big hotels so people are still coming here to enjoy the natural wonders around them but no doubt it will change over the years. It would be a great place to come for a couple of weeks holiday if there weren’t so many other parts of the world still left to be explored.

At some stage during the morning we decided to head down to the most southerly tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas. Our route took us through to Swellendam which was a really interesting place to visit, partly due to its split personality as a small town. We drove in off the main highway through the newer part of town. This was a pretty anonymous place with the usual collection of men just hanging around on the streets waiting for something that never seems to happen. The shops looked pretty ordinary and fairly low end, something we hadn’t expected as our book created the impression that Swellendam was a historic colonial town.

There was the odd building or two that looked as if they had been around for quite a while but following the main road through town we soon came across a different side to the town. Here was the old colonial heart founded by the initial settlers. Cape Dutch style one storey whitewashed buildings with thatched roofs lined the road on either side, the trees all turning to autumn golden colours. Off behind the main road a few more streets were also lined with small, and not so small, thatched cottages and pretty country gardens. Many of them now seemed to have been converted into B&B’s all of which looked like they catered for the top end of the market. It was a very relaxing place to stop for a while and break our journey.

From Swellendam we headed down through Bredasdorp and on to L’Agulhas. The landscape all around here was wide and flat agricultural land. The fields have all long since been harvested and are now just waiting to see the winter through. Sheep, cows and ostriches were grazing in some of the fields but most were just empty. Bredasdorp came and went, an administrative town for the region and from what we saw one that did not have much else going for it.

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Olde Cape Dutch buildings in Swellendam

Towards the end of the road we passed through Struisbaai, another seaside town with some old cottages welcoming you in. They looked like old crofters cottages to me and now a big new estate of holiday homes is being built in the same style but with all modern conveniences added in. Struisbaai was really just a larger version of Buffalo Bay. Here there was a large supermarket and a few more shops which showed that there was a more sizeable population that live here year round but it again had the feeling that most of the houses were now empty and would be until next year’s summer season.

Through Struisbaai the road wound round to L’Agulhas, the most southerly town in Africa. Signs above some of the shops and café’s reinforced the end of the world sort of feeling and again we were in a small place predominantly geared up for the holiday market. We followed the road down to the lighthouse and then a few kilometres further on down a dirt track. A short walk takes you through to a small monument with a simple plaque confirming that this is the most southerly point and the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. I had expected there to be something slightly more grand, a meeting of oceanic currents that was visible to the human eye, so it was a bit of a disappointment to say the least. Another couple there had their GPS out because the lady didn’t believe that this was the most southerly point and she wanted to check it.

We took a few photos and then drove up to a high look out point so that we could see down onto the town. It almost looked like a Lego toy town laid out before us with a backdrop of the sea and all lit up by light so clear it’s as if you could touch it. Our original plan had been to take a detour up to Waenhuiskrans for our overnight stop but we decided to stay in Agulhas instead. We did a quick tour of the local available options and ended up at Rosielou’s Cottages a slightly oddly laid out affair but one that had all we needed as well as a sea view.

Trivial Pursuit was waiting for us on the table and with G&T in hand we headed out to our balcony to watch the sun go down and to test our South Africa general knowledge. We didn’t do too badly but after a while realised that at some stage we had both been moving the same piece around the board. That probably worked in our favour as it meant we could both retire gracefully calling it a void game rather than the game lasting for a few hours until we’d got our final piece of pie!

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The lighthouse at Cape Agulhas, Africa's southernmost point

We set out to leave Agulhas stopping en route at Struisbaai to send a postcard from the most southerly point, only to find out that the most southerly post box is in the lighthouse at Agulhas. A quick turn around and we were soon at the lighthouse, a relatively small building with two brick towers flanking the main light tower. For a small fee you can climb up the lighthouse to get the views from the level of the light. A couple of very steep ladders take you up. It made me chuckle when we got outside to see Stef clinging to the walls of the lighthouse. Up here where you can only fall if you climb over the protective guard rail his vertigo had kicked in for the first time in ages whereas I was more concerned I’d lose my footing on the ladders inside and slide rather ungracefully down to the bottom! The views were definitely worth the climb, especially as we were treated to a beautifully clear and sunny day.

Our second attempt at leaving Agulhas was successful and before long we found ourselves back on the road to Swellendam. We were heading to wine country and rather than going directly to Stellenbosch we had decided to head north and rejoin the scenic route 62 to get there, a longer trip but one we were hoping was worth our while. As it turned out it ended up changing our plans for the next few days.

We wound up and through the Tradouws Pass to rejoin Route 62 at Barryvale and I have to say that neither of us found it particularly scenic. Certainly it was stunning countryside with the road following the route of the high mountain range but we have been on much more spectacular roads both within South Africa and in other countries. It was though our way of nudging ourselves into the wine country and wines soon started to be easily spotted along both sides of the road.

At Robertson we decided we were in need of a break so we pulled in at the tourist information office to get some local up to date information on the wine routes. In the Western Cape there are around 300 different vineyards and there are now something like 12 different driving routes that you can follow to take in a fair chunk of these. It’s a bewildering choice unless you know exactly what you are looking for. What we wanted was just to be able to visit a few, learn the history of the vineyard, perhaps a bit about their production processes and of course to taste the wine.

A very helpful lady gave us some local information and persuaded us not to go any further today but to stop overnight near Robertson. She booked us in to a self catering cottage and gave us a more detailed map of the vineyards in the local area. What surprised us was that she seemed to be totally unaware that Route 62 was meant to be the scenic route telling us that the R317 was a much better option and we soon found out that she was right.

As it was still early afternoon we had time to visit a couple vineyards before heading to our bed for the night. We took the 317 finding it to be awash with colour. Roses and bougainvillea lined the way, beautiful reds hiding the autumn colours of the vines behind them. Our first stop was at Viljoensdrift where, in the summer when the river has water in it, you can take a boat ride and stop for a picnic. We pinged the bell and finally someone came out to help us. We tried a couple of their wines and opted to take away a bottle of their Colombard Chenin Blanc, a very light drinkable wine with an equally tasty price tag – R19.50, about £1.95!

Our next stop was a little further down the road at Goedverwacht. Here a dirt track takes you from the main road down to the cellars and a small building acts as their tasting centre. The ladies here were a bit on the snooty side and it was almost as if it was too much trouble for them to spend time with us. They did though have a very nice Shiraz Rose which was our next souvenir of the day.

We started to make our way back into Robertson, stopping for a last tasting at Bon Courage. Here we were met by very friendly staff who, unlike the last two places, actually seemed to know about the process involved in making their wine and they were happy to spend as much time with us as we wanted to take. They pulled out the tasting notes for us to read, not that it made a lot of difference to us, and generally chatted with us not just about wine but also about our trip and where we were headed next. Our third bottle of the day was duly bought and drunk that evening so I can’t remember what it was other than that it was very tasty!

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We have arrived in wine country

With the effects of so much tasting starting to take its toll we called it a day for the wine tasting and headed back into Robertson, a small town but one which looked pleasant enough. A stop at the local Pick’nPay stocked us up with bits and pieces and we headed off in search of our accommodation. The lady at tourist information had said that it was near the Wederom Vineyard and even better, it was actually on the vineyard. We were met by a very welcoming Almien who showed us round to our cottage, a small one tucked away at the back. She showed us inside and told us that before we left tomorrow her husband would take us through their cellars and explain about the history of the vineyard and their wines.

The cottage was beautiful. It was small and compact but had everything we needed as well as being tastefully furnished. A comfy bedroom led off a cosy lounge which had a small fireplace in one corner. The kitchen was again small but with loads of character and best of all there was a large brick braai outside. Prompted by me complaining that I was doing all the work, we decided to swap roles for our braai tonight with me lighting the fire and Stef doing all the prep work inside. I have to admit that I think I was very lucky with the wood here but I quickly had a roaring fire both outside in the braai and in the lounge. Stef in the meantime was lagging on the food front so I went and helped him out.

It all came together in the end and we had a very tasty braai but the effects of a long drive and a lot of wine tasting took its toll and we ended up having another early night.

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Canaries were used in the cellars as "gas alarms"

We had a really comfy night’s sleep and woke feeling very refreshed and ready for our cellar tour. Philip is the fourth generation of the Du Toit family to run the vineyard and he started off by telling us some of the farm’s history. During the Second World War Italian prisoners were captured in Abyssinia in Northern Africa. At a loss to know what to do with them they ended up being sent down to South Africa to come and work as labourers on the vineyards.

What today is the vineyard's tasting room was, in WWII the home of Giovanni Salvadori, one of the POW’s. He painted a mural on the wall that depicts the farm as it was during the war. The POW’s were mainly housed in a tented camp surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Giovanni, being an officer, older than the rest (who were mostly 18 or 19) and from the educated north of Italy, was recognised as a more senior POW so an old pig sty was turned over to him as his home.

After the war the POWs were returned to Italy but finding their country in ruins many returned to South Africa. The du Toit family had treated the prisoners who worked for them well, even taking them to the coast on holiday! That has now stood them in god stead and strong links with the Cape’s Italian community continue to this day. Philip told us many stories one of which stuck in my memory. As well as grapes they also grow peaches on the farm and one year had a very abundant harvest. The normal level of staff on the farm were working flat out to try and bring in the harvest but were facing an uphill task until the Italian community turned up en masse, with picnic and entertainment in hand to help them out. The connection still continues and in a week’s time, Philip and Almien will be at the Good Food show in Cape Town promoting their wines as part of the Italian stall at the show.

After explaining the history, and giving us a sample of their wine to taste (not a bad start for 10:00am!) Philip then showed us around the cellars and told us about their wine making process. It is a small vineyard compared to other producing around 7,000 bottles a year. Where they can they have tried to retain traditional wine making techniques. For many years they had been linked to the local wine cooperative which meant that all of their grapes were pooled with those from other nearby farms and made into a blended wine.

Under the terms of the cooperative Philip was not allowed to produce any wine at all. He decided a few years ago that this was too restrictive and that he again wanted to produce du Toit family wines. The local wines estates all helped out in various different ways sharing technical expertise but also enabling him to use their equipment for the first few years until he had his own production capabilities fully established. It’s a strange concept in today’s modern competitive world but this type of community spirited help still seems to be alive and well here.

Philip still uses the original cellars but now for storing his wine rather than making it. To keep the wine cool they were made from concrete and were lined with wax to prevent any unwanted elements from creeping into the wine. In the cellars below the wine is stored in French and American oak barrels (South African oak grows too quickly and is not dense enough to use) to age and continue through its process until it is ready to be bottled. A local company operate a portable bottling plant which tours the local vineyards rather than each having to incur the cost of setting up their own facilities.

I was left with a feeling that Philip has many plans for his wines and how he would like to see them grow and develop. He has though also got many challenges to face. A recently introduced labour law, designed I suspect to improve the lot of the local black community, is one example. If a black person is given accommodation on a farm as part of their employment and they work on the farm for ten years, then the accommodation automatically becomes their property. If the farm owner wants the accommodation back they have to buy an alternative property for the farm worker to move into. Rather than securing employment this has just meant that farms have reduced their permanent workforce so that they can retain control of their property. Philip’s now only permanently employs one person, the rest are casual labour often picked up in town on a daily basis when needed. The law has had the opposite effect of what was intended and frustratingly for farmers does not apply to any other industry.

We went to settle up with Almien in their house which is laden with beautiful pieces of furniture and decorative touches. It is the type of home that you see in home and garden type magazines and her immaculate gardens outside have won awards. It has been a really picturesque place to spend a night and with the friendly reception and tour we were given we have left with a warm glow inside and promises to catch up at the Food and Wine show next week.

Our next destination for the day was Paarl, another town on the wine route. It was only a short ride away through the wine country and we were surrounding by autumn colours and cape Dutch architecture en route. We made it to Paarl just in time to catch tourist information before they closed for the weekend. We’re finding that the accommodation guides we have with us haven’t really been that helpful, especially for finding self catering accommodation. The office in Paarl wasn’t really any different. The lady behind the counter was polite but clearly a bit peeved that we’d come in so close to her shutting up shop. Self catering was soon revealed not be an option so we changed tack and asked for B&B’s. There was no proactivity on her side at all and it was really like dragging blood out of a stone to get her to do something for us.

Eventually we were booked in to the Skinkikofi B&B a little further along Main Street and we went off in search of our pad for the night. Driving up I was slightly dubious as it was a green building on the corner of the main road. It is an old historic house with long links to the KWV Wine Company who have their offices and production facilities just over the road. We were though given another friendly wine country welcome by Marius who showed us a couple of rooms that we could choose from.

Hanepoot Huisies had been very cosy in a rustic country sort of way. Skinkikofi was equally cosy but totally different. The whole place was full of old furniture and bits and bots giving you the feeling that you had walked into someone’s home in the early part of the twentieth century. There are so many interesting things to look at there that its impossible to describe but if you are in the Paarl area its well worth spending a night or two there. We chose our room, unpacked and went to sit outside on a little patio to have a late picnic lunch and a game of cards.

We whiled away the rest of afternoon before heading out in the evening for dinner. In South Africa everyone seems to drive everywhere. This seems to be partly due to security concerns but even here in Paarl where security isn’t an issue no one seems to walk. We were the only people out and about on foot. Marius had recommended that we went to 42 on Main, a local bistro with a good reputation (tourist information and Lonely Planet both also talked about it). It was a good option and we had a very tasty meal. We opted for fish, only wanting a light dinner, but were presented with a huge plateful of food. Canadian portion sizes are definitely the rule in South Africa.

With food and a little more wine inside us we headed back to our cosy little room and crashed out at the end of what has been a very enjoyable day.

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Old barrels with decorative carvings at KWV

Skinkikofi continued to impress us when we got up this morning. A fabulous shower was followed by a very tasty breakfast and Marius providing us with lots of local recommendations of places to go to and vineyards to visit. He told us that they had bought this B&B about four years ago, ran it for a year and then closed it for two years to totally refurbish it. It is a historic building so all changes and renovations had to get prior approval. It has definitely been a labour of love but one that has yielded a fabulous end result.

We started our day with a visit to KWV, the largest wine producer in the area. Gone was the family run business feeling we had had from the vineyards we have visited so far. This was very definitely a big commercial enterprise and everything about it seemed to be about making wine in volume to earn enough money to keep shareholders happy rather than it being about the passion of making good wines. Started in 1918, KWV was a cooperative until the mid 1990’s when it turned into a share based company, with shares open to all only from 2003. The company’s website lists a whole stack of accolades for its wines and brandies as well as showing it to be at the forefront of innovation and market development for South African wines.

But, at KWV if you want to see their operation you have to hand over cash and go on a tour. It starts with a short video about the history of the company and is in effect a sales pitch for KWV, their size and how good a company they are. They take you through to their “cathedral”, a cavernous room that houses their wine vats. Each one is enormous in its own right and there are more than 20 of them in total. Our guide gave us some of the production statistics for the company – millions of bottles of wine, millions of litres of grape juice – again a stark contrast to the production volumes we have encountered so far. Their cellar is home to thousands of barrels of wine all aging and waiting to be bottled as well as the oldest and largest wine vats in the world. Yet more bigger, better, sooner statistics to add to their collection.

Our tour ended with a tasting of a selection of their wines. The rest of the people in our group were all South African, an extended family here in Paarl for a university rugby competition in which one of them was competing. Among their contingent was an assistant wine maker from one of the other vineyards in the area. He was a good check and balance to the tour guide and also gave us hints and tips on tasting. I have to say that their wines were good and their award winning Imoya brandy was also very tasty. Unfortunately the US market has already snapped up all of the production volume of the latter.

From the heights of KWV we came back down to earth and spent the rest of our day touring around some of the smaller vineyards. Our first stop was at Kloovenburg which is renowned for its olives as well as its wines. Both were tasty but the best of the morning was yet to come at Allesverloren, which means all is lost. The estate dates back to the end of the 1600’s to a time when long journeys were required to get to the shops and church services at Stellenbosch. Returning from one of those journeys in 1704 the family found their farm burnt to the ground with everything lost, hence the name.

Marius had told us that Allesverloren’s speciality was port. Here they grow a different selection of grapes to most of the other vineyards and this is then reflected in their port. We worked our way through a selection of the wines, eagerly awaiting the port tasting and it was as good as we had hoped. It is a port unlike any other port I have ever tried and was light, tasty and not overpowering. Quite simply it was superb in my view.

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Sniff, sniff, lovely bouquet

We stopped at Café Felix just down the road for a quick bite of lunch and an opportunity to soak up some of the wine we’d been drinking. From the outside it looked as if it would be a really smart bistro with unusual fare on the menu but it turned out to be quite ordinary, tasty but nothing to recommend it. There was also a definite Afrikaaner air about the place where people glared down their noses at you when you made eye contact rather than giving a friendly smile. Ah well.

The afternoon took us to Jacaranda, a small vineyard which we both decided was very much the owner’s hobby. As we pulled up to what looked like a deserted and closed up place a couple of very friendly dogs bounded up to say hello followed a few minutes later by a lady. She told us that her husband was just coming, he was dragging himself away from the rugby, not a great match he later told us. The vineyard is a small field at the front of his property and I got the feeling that he mainly makes the wines just for himself and for something to do. The cellar was an old round reservoir which the former owners had shrunk in size when it started to leak, creating the ideal cool spot for the wine. He was a friendly chap and seemed fixated that I looked just like his niece. We tried his wines, not the worst we’ve had but certainly not up there with the others, and felt obliged to buy a bottle before we headed off.

Our last stop was the Diemersfontein Vineyard. This was set in a small gated and guarded estate where it looks like some of the land is being turned over to luxury property development. The tasting room was in a small restaurant/conference venue with views out over a lake. We could quite easily have snatched a couple of bottles off the shelf and done a runner as it took quite some time for someone to put in an appearance to do the tasting session for us. He was a friendly enough guy and knowledgeable abut his wines but he’d obviously spotted we weren’t going to buy a case full and was more focussed on sorting out some admin than on wowing us with his produce. They do make a very chocolaty Pinotage though which was very tasty.

By this stage it was quite late in the day so we made our way back to Paarl and our room at Skinkikofi. Marius’s wife Diana works within the wine trade exporting wine from a local company out to Belgium. The wine is a Barbera, again a variety that is not common in this area. He brought us a bottle to take with us tonight for dinner (most places seem OK with bring you own). Yet again it was a very tasty wine which we both enjoyed. I suspect though that Marius had thought we would enjoy it with something a bit more refined than a pizza at the local Dros restaurant but it went down very nicely thank you.

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Cuddling an eagle at Spier

Marius again helped us out this morning with ideas of where to go and what to see. Being Sunday it is likely that some places will be closed but he seemed quite confident that we would still find lots of places open for business as usual. It’s also Mother’s Day here in South Africa so he told us that most places will probably be busy for lunch.

Our first stop was the Boschendal vineyard which was founded in 1685 making it the second oldest in South Africa after the Constantia vineyard in Cape Town. It has a colourful history having at one stage been owned by Cecil Rhodes who was instrumental in improving some of the properties and buildings on the estate although he never lived long enough to see the end results. Here, as with many of the other estates, they are combining the best of new technology and modern wine making with old traditional techniques. Our guide books say that you need to pre-book for the tours here but not se. By luck we arrived just before a scheduled tour time and with no-one else there had a tour for just the two of us.

Gleaming metal vats fill the first room of the cellars but next door, with a heady smell of fermenting grapes, is the store for all the barrels, stacked five high. Running along the width of the barrel store is a room that is only opened once a year or on special occasions for VIP visits. It’s the vineyards wine library, something that we have not seen at any other vineyard. Here they store a sample of every wine they make. Once a year their wine masters unlock the gates and spend a day sampling and tasting the wines to make sure that they are ageing correctly and to determine which can be released for sale. It must be one heck of a party as they have a lot of bottles to get through!

The tasting here was probably one of the best we have experienced. You are given a list of their available wines and you select the five that you would like to try. These are then placed in front on you on a piece of white paper so that you know which one is which and can scribble your own notes on the wine. You are given a tasting card with lists of the different characteristics to look out for as well as the vineyards own descriptions of its wine and the staff are on hand to help with any questions you may have.

Boschendal is set in a stunning valley with green fields rolling away in front of you and the mountains framing it all as a backdrop. From here we continued on towards Stellenbosch, stopping at Marius’s next recommendation the Hill Crest Berry Farm. As its name implies this is a fruit farm. You don’t actually seem to be able to visit the farm itself but they have a shop selling their produce and a restaurant/café with great views out over the valley below. The only thing that marrs the scene is the main road which you can clearly see and hear in the valley below. As it was Mother’s Day they were doing quite a roaring trade having to juggle many requests to move indoors out of the cool autumn breeze that was blowing.

From the farm we headed into Stellenbosch, a university town and one that had a pleasant feel to it. We found tourist information but they had just closed up for the day and the chap that was locking up refused to pop back inside and pick up a copy of their walking tour leaflet for us. So we decided to come back tomorrow and headed on instead for our next stop on Marius’s trail, Spier. We had expected this to be another vineyard with the possibility of a tour and a tasting but the sight and size of the car park soon made us realise it was much more than that.

There is a hotel, with conference centre and golf course but Spier is somewhere that you could come and spend a family day out as well. There is a lake with manicured gardens around it for picnics although, not having had to pay to get in, you have to buy your picnic here and can’t bring your own with you! There are several different places to buy food and drink, a couple of shops, an old house which is now a small museum, a wine tasting area and today there were lots of people out with their Mum’s.

We had both decided that we had reached saturation on the wine tasting front so instead we headed to Spier's other attractions, the cheetah outreach area and eagle encounters, both of which you had to pay to get into. The cheetahs are housed in wire pens on the edge of the Spier estate. A viewing platform enables you to look down on top of them and if you want to you can pay more money to be able to go into the cages and stroke the cheetahs. They are beautiful animals but like many others on a warm Sunday afternoon they were very docile and were having a nap.

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Getting up-close with the birds of prey at Spier

Another cage near to the cheetahs had two really adorable Anatolian Shepherd puppies. The centre here breed the dogs and then encourage the local farmers to use them on their farms. The dogs are natural protectors of livestock crops and keep the wild cheetahs at bay. This means that the farmers do not need to shoot the wild cheetah’s to protect their crops. The puppies were superb, bundles of fluff and fur falling over each other in play. Further up fully grown adults were also having a Sunday snooze and they were large and powerful dogs, not suitable for your average family pet.

Next to the cheetahs they have what they call the eagle encounter, a collection of various different birds of prey. Most have ended up here as rescue animals having been injured, poisoned, illegally removed from their nests or having become too much of a problem for owners who had bought them as pets. The centre tries to rehabilitate the birds where possible which often means they have to train them how to fly and to hunt as well as stopping the birds thinking that they are the same as people.

One of the birds they had here was a Secretary Bird, one we had seen in the national parks from a distance but never close up. These birds are enormous with large powerful legs that they use to stamp on their prey. Another, a type of vulture, was lying in the sun with its wings spread out either side and looking a bit like a penguin. Some of the birds you could hold and stroke but you need to maintain a healthy respect for them because they are still semi wild, as an unsupervised little girl found out when she walked up too close and got a couple of pecks on her cheek.

The staff run various sessions throughout the day to explain more about the birds, their lifestyles and what makes them tick. We caught a couple of the shows and sat in awe as the trainers had the birds of prey flying about all over the place hunting for food and catching “prey”, usually a small ball with a bit of meat tied on somewhere. It is a long process to rehabilitate some of these birds and the people who work here are definitely here for the love of the animals.

It was late in the day by the time we left Spier and we headed back to Paarl still with many of Marius’s recommendations left unexplored. In the evening we went to Malle Madonna for dinner, another fabulous meal at very affordable prices. I can really understand why people like this part of the world. The climate is good, the people friendly and the lifestyle seems very agreeable.

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Gleaming copper pots in Stellenbosch

We decided that today we would probably skip wine tasting for the day and instead go and have a look at some of the local villages. The wine country is dotted with loads of different places to explore and all of them sound attractive. All of the guide books you see and read focus on Stellenbosch as the main town, Franshoek and Paarl as the key centres in the area. As we’re staying at Paarl we decided to spend most of today having a look at the other two.

We started in Franshoek which is meant to be a quaint place with nice shops and lots of good places to eat. Stef sums it up a little differently as “bums and bistros”. They had friendly staff at their information office who gave us a map of the vineyards in their area and confirmed that the main street was home to lots of little boutiquey shops. Within seconds of leaving the office we encountered the first of several “bums”. Even though it was still relatively early, they were definitely wobbly on their feet and not because they had been tasting the local produce. Franshoek was the first place where we’d noticed that the people hanging around were drunks.

The main street is very picturesque. A Dutch Reformed church is prominent on one side and shops and bistros line the other. It all looks very old at first sight but many of the shops are in mini malls which have a very definite “made for tourists” feel to them. In fact we both felt that the whole town was geared towards the tourist market, and the affluent end at that, as it was simply boutiquey shop, bistro, shop, bistro all the way up the main street. What I think used to be a charming village now to me seems very manufactured.

At the end of the main street is an imposing monument to the French Hugenots who fled Europe and settled in South Africa. They were encouraged to come here by the Dutch East India Company who needed more farmers to help settle the Cape and establish it as a permanent refilling stop for the shipping trade. The Hugenots were wanted for their wine making skills and knowledge and were instrumental in the establishment of the wine industry here. It must have been a tough time for them though as they had had to leave most of their possessions behind them when they left France for the Netherlands and were only able to bring essential necessities with them on the voyage south.

There is a small museum to the Hugenots at the end of town with loads of information about their fate in London and the early days of settlement. There are period pieces of furniture and some possessions (bibles, lace, tableware etc) on display. The museum’s annex also provides a centre for genealogical research to help people trace their family roots back to these early settlers. One panel proudly shows that notable politicians, actresses and sports people are all descendents of these original Hugenot settlers.

From the museum we made our way to another Franshoek (which means French corner) institution a place where you can try over 40 different cheeses from around South Africa. However as we found out it is not a place to go to at lunch time. If you come at lunch time you can still taste a variety of cheese but by having the cheese platter in their restaurant, which we did. There were bries, blue cheeses, hard cheese and goat’s cheese, all quite tasty but none that really made a great impression on us. It wasn’t helped by a few very persistent flies who not only liked buzzing around us all the time but who also took a shine to Stef’s wine and decided to go for a swim in it!

Leaving Franshoek behind we made our way on to Stellenbosch and this time were able to get a walking tour map of the town. The map shows the location of the old historical buildings in town, many of which still exist and some of which you can go into. First on the list is the old town arsenal, a small building surrounded by a high wall which as yesterday was firmly locked up. On the corner is the Fick House, the old Burgher’s house, a smallish building which is now used as offices but which you can go into. The rooms are simple but with impressive pieces of furniture and a gleaming kitchen out the back. A very ornate rose garden is off to one side.

Across the road is the old coachman’s cottage, what now seems to be just a large open room that is perhaps hired out for functions. We ambled across the central square, the braak, making our way towards the Stellenbosch museum. There is loads of fabulous architecture in this town to keep your eyes entertained and although modern shops are now housed within the buildings they have managed to keep an old world feel to the place.

The museum was great fun to visit. It is made up of four of the oldest houses in town, all of which have been lovingly restored and furnished to give you an idea of what it was like to live here at different periods in history. Ladies in period dress are on duty at each house and they explain a little about the house and what life was like. The first house you visit is the oldest and simplest built circa 1709 by Sebastian Schröder, a messenger of the court and furnished in the typical style for 1690 - 1720. The house was gradually expanded and developed over the years but the rooms are still today very simple. Beaten earth floors, rustic furniture occupy surprisingly large rooms where the family would eat, sleep, cook and dry various different types of food. Not so long ago someone who was born and raised in the house came to visit the museum and helped them to recreate the rooms as he remembered them.

Next we went into the Blettermanhuis built in 1789 by Stellenbosch’s magistrate and furnished for the 1750 – 1780 period. It was quite a contrast with very spacious rooms, grand furniture, tiled floors and lots of large windows bathing the interior in light. The man and lady of the house had separate rooms which they would use to entertain their friends. The lady’s room was very feminine with a small piano, lots of chairs for her visitors to sit on and several foot warmers ready to keep them warm on cool days. The man’s room was much simpler with a sturdy desk, pipe rack and guns ranging along the wall.

The Grosvenor house was initially built in 1782 and was extended several times until its current form was finalised in 1803. Furnished in the style of 1800 – 1830 it is grander still and was the first house with an upstairs floor. In one of the parlours is a unique upright piano, one of only five in the world, where the strings stretch up above the keyboard rather than down to the floor. Finally we made it to the Bergh Huis built around 1850 and furnished for typical houses of that time. It was a true Victorian statement of wealth. Highly ornate wallpaper lined the walls downstairs, the same pattern in each room which was unusual. The rooms were stuffed full of bits and pieces that had been acquired on the family’s travels, again a statement of wealth. The dining room had a fireplace and upstairs was a bathroom, another first.

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Playing with perspectives in Stellenbosch

After the museum we spent half an hour or so just ambling around more of the streets looking at the old buildings and soaking up the atmosphere of the town. We both wished in some ways that we had spent at least a night here as the town has a very welcoming atmosphere. It may be something to do with the fact that it is a university town and there were lots of young people out and about. It had its fair share of nice looking cafes and restaurants and one of them provided a warm spot to relax for a while and watch the world go by.

Back in Paarl we were steeling ourselves for yet another one of Marius’s dinner recommendations. We had booked a table before leaving this morning, a precaution that we hadn’t really needed to take because it wasn’t full. Noop’s is run by a chef who used to work in all the posh hotels and restaurants of the world. When he was little he loved Snoopy, couldn’t pronounce the “s” and became known as Noopy, dropping the “y” to name his restaurant. He has brought very high quality food and wine together in his restaurant but is charging very reasonable prices for it. We bucked the Paarl trend again and walked there, about 300 minutes from Skinkikofi, and were both glad to have the opportunity to walk off yet another fabulous meal before hitting our pillows.

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Die Afrikaanse Taalmuseum in Paarl

Well today we finally managed to break away from the lure of Skinkikofi and Paarl and head on. We had only planned to stay here for one night but ended up staying for four, the result of a combination of a great place to stay and very friendly hosts who opened our eyes to the local attractions and really put us in a position where there was no motivation to go somewhere else in wine country. It has been an absolutely fabulous stay and I can well and truly recommend Paarl, and Skinkikofi, above Franshoek and Stellenbosch as a great place to stay and a convenient base for exploring wine land.

Before we left we headed into town to take a look at the Afrikaanse Taal museum, a museum devoted to the origins and development of the Afrikaans language. It’s not the form of childlike Dutch that we had both expected but a language that is much more complex. It really reflects the multicultural place that Cape Town and South Africa were in the 1800’s. Dutch is definitely the root language and Dutch people and Afrikaaners can quite easily understand each other but the language has also been shaped by traders from other European countries as well as from Asia and Africa.

People passing through the Cape as early as the 1670’s commented on how different a language Afrikaans had become. In the late 1800’s, a local man Arnoldus Pannevis, who was deeply religious wanted to see the bible translated into Afrikaans. His dream resulted in the founding of the Association for True Afrikaaners whose purpose was to formalise and standardise Afrikaans, see it recognised as an official language and ultimately to get the bible translated. Ironically some of the earliest written Afrikaans has been traced back to school children copying various Islamic holy texts.

The museum is based in a house that has now been restored to the state it would have been in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the Malherbe family lived there. They were key players in the Association for True Afrikaaners and the printing presses used to publish their Afrikaans language newspaper are still there. Upstairs is a more modern section of the museum, geared primarily to school children. There are lots of interactive exhibits for the kids (young and young at heart!) to play with but if you don’t understand Afrikaans they are a bit lost on you.

From the museum we headed back through Paarl and out the other side and finally made it to the Fairview vineyard, somewhere we had been aiming to get to for the last few days. It was another Marius recommendation, not only for their wines but also for their cheese, primarily goat’s cheese and it is well and truly worth while going to. As we walked from the car park to the tasting rooms I couldn’t understand why Stef had stopped and got his camera out. There was a circular tower with a staircase leading around the outside but I had to look twice before I realised that the goats around the outside were real and not models.

And so we found ourselves back to more wine tasting. At Fairview you can opt for either the standard tasting of six wines or the master tasting of eight wines including their more expensive varieties. The temptation was too great and we went for the master tasting, which also meant you got a very big glass to swirl the wine around in and smell it rather than a titchy tiny little one. As usual we liked some but didn’t like others. For me the best was their Solitude Shiraz, not a cheap wine but one that is definitely worth the money. We obviously made all the right noises because the chap organising our tasting, who had spent 3 months last year working in London as a sommelier for Jamie Olivier, kindly gave us their international shipping costs. I think he was a bit peeved when we only bought one bottle but we did create the impression we would buy more when we got back to the UK!

After tasting their wines we moved round the corner to where Fairview has their cheese out and available for you to taste. They had a really tasty goat’s cheese, cream cheese rolled in a coating of chakalaka (an African spicy vegetables dish which is just moreishly tasty), brie’s and blue cheese. I think I was in seventh heaven with the wine but Stef was in his element with the cheese. They had lovely home made bread on sale too so as well as the wine some bread and a few bits of cheese slipped their way into our bag.

From Fairview we finally set off towards our final destination – Cape Town. For us it comes with mixed emotions. It’s somewhere we (me in particular) have been looking forward to coming to for a long time so it’s exciting to finally get here but it also marks the end of our trip as from here we head back home to London. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel as if we’ve been away from home for a year and yet now we’re heading back.

It is only a short hop from wine land to Cape Town and in under an hour Table Mountain loomed into view. It dominates the skyline from a long way away and somehow looked mysterious and daunting shrouded in deep cloud, a view of it that we were to see again and again over the next few days. The motorway led straight into the heart of the city and before long we found ourselves down at the V&A Waterfront. Like many other cities and towns based on the water Cape Town has turned its harbour into an entertainment and shopping complex with just a few traces still remaining of the shipping trade which prompted its founding all those years ago.

As usual we had nowhere pre-booked to stay and having now lost confidence in the accommodation guides we had with us we had decided to just head straight to tourist information. The chap there was friendly and quickly advised us against staying somewhere with a sea view because the weather at this time of year makes it not really worthwhile. Instead, he booked us in to a self catering loft apartment slap bang in the centre of town. There was a strike in town today from the local security guards, an ongoing dispute as they are not happy with their proposed 8% pay rise (!), so he advised us to wait for an hour or so before going to check in. We had a coffee on the waterfront, and then found the local Pick’nPay supermarket before finding our home for the next 6 nights.

Our apartment in the Adderley Terraces was a loft style maisonette which is part of a brand new development. It looks like it has been built on top of an old office building but as the flats are on top of a car park I think another building has been demolished and this one put up in its place. It is a very smart development with all mod cons, a small gym, pool and secure parking. It’s been kitted out with modern furniture and fixtures and looks like a really comfy place to base ourselves for our last week.

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Goats at Fairview

We emptied out the car, amazed at how much extra stuff we had acquired over the last few weeks. A complete unpack soon revealed that some of the bits we had been carrying around with us were well and truly surplus to requirements and they quickly found their way into the bin. As I worked out how to use what has to be the most space age washing machine I have ever come across (it played tunes and had lots of coloured lights as well as an LCD display telling you what it was doing!) Stef found out that the internet connection and satellite TV we should have had were not connected. He phoned Maryke, the contact we have for the flat, a very friendly but very chatty and very loud lady who lives in Paarl. She confirmed that as tourist information had asked for their cheapest price it was not included but could be for a bit of extra dosh.

Our initial plan had been to have a quiet night in, have the bread and cheese we’d bought this morning at Fairview for dinner, catch up on diaries and gradually switch back into city mode. That quickly got thrown out the window though as we both, Stef more than me, were itching to go out and have a look at Cape Town. We’d had a look at the cinema at the V&A Waterfront and decided to head back, see Mission Impossible 3 and then go for cheap and cheerful fish and chips in the harbour.

For me the film was pretty poor, enjoyable enough but not as good as its predecessors. We’d checked that it was showing on the big screen in the cinema which it was but big here is small compared to what we’re used to in London. It was comfy enough though although not a patch on the Gold Star cinema we had been to in Singapore. The other disappointment was that the chippy was shut by the time the film had finished.

We headed back to our loft apartment, amazed at how quiet the city centre was at 9:30 at night. It’s a far cry from London where there would still have been people milling about. Had we not gone past the train station and a branch of McDonalds I doubt we would have seen anyone at all. Our bread and cheese was suitable munched with us both savouring the flavours of these and the accompanying bottle of wine. We watched out of the window hoping for the skies to clear but no stars were in sight and we suspected we were in for another cloudy day tomorrow.

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"Stefan's Jewellery and Gems"

We both had slept really well in a very comfy bed with a really snug duvet that we wrapped around us all night. Hoping for a clear day we woke to clouds and rain, listening to the rain pouring off the metal roof and splattering into the pool below us. From our bedroom window we could see the clouds rolling in and shrouding the surrounding hills and the city. They would clear briefly giving you the tantalising feeling that a clear day would ensue but then a few minutes later everything would be white again.

Maryke came round in the morning to sort out our internet and DSTV connection. She was again very chatty and gave us local tips and hints about what to do and where to go. We spent the morning in our loft watching the rain, catching up on our diaries and generally deciding whether to wait for a dry spot or whether to just get out and get wet.

Curiosity got the better of us and we headed out a little after lunchtime getting suitably soaked in the process. The loft apartment is at the northern end of Adderley Street, just a few minutes walk from the parliament buildings and the beautiful company’s gardens. The gardens were built initially as allotments but they have since been turned into mini botanical gardens. Even in the rain they had a calming and tranquil air about them. In the middle stands a statue to Cecil John Rhodes.

At the northern end of the gardens are the national museum and art gallery. They are a far cry from the scale of their London counterparts but made for an interesting afternoon and had the added benefit that they kept us out of the rain. The museum mainly focussed on natural history, with a large collection of stuffed animals covering a wide variety of species found in Africa. If you don’t have time to make it to one of the game parks you can at least come here and still see the Big Five but somehow seeing displays like this makes me cold.

For the most part the museum was laid out in a very old fashioned manner. There were few information panels about the displays and the ones that were there were very factual and quite dull to read. The exception was an exhibition about sharks which looked new. Here they had taken the time to tell you about unusual species and/or to write the information in a way that captured your interest and imagination. My favourite was the cookie cutter shark, which latches on to your skin with its sucker like lips and then uses its teeth to cut away a chunk of meat. It doesn’t matter if you are human, a dolphin, whale or different type of shark the same technique is used.

They also explained about some of the “construction” features that make sharks so streamlined and effective in the water. Their skin isn’t just a blubbery layer which is what I had expected. It is made up of thousands of little plates, each of which is almost trident shaped and grooved with gulleys so that the water passes over it very efficiently. All very interesting stuff. In the main hall of the museum, which stretches up through all three floors, they have suspended the skeletons of a couple of whales, huge graceful animals.

The museum is well laid out and we started at the top and simply worked our way down following the ramps around the main hall. The ground floor was home to displays about the peoples within South Africa, focussing on their customs and traditions. It seemed like a good exhibition but by this time my ever shortening concentration span had reached saturation point and I wasn’t taking in any more information. If you go to the museum it is worth checking before hand what time they have shows in the Planetarium. You can’t go in on your own and we missed the start by half an hour.

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Clearing up the market at the end of a soggy day

From the museum we cut across the square to the National Art Gallery, which proudly declared that its current feature was a Picasso exhibition. For me this was the perfect size for an art gallery. There was enough space so that you could have different exhibitions but it was compact enough that you reached saturation as you hit the last room of displays. What I did find surprising though was that it was mainly full of European old masters and only one room focussed on an African artist, Gerard Sekoto.

The Picasso exhibition focussed on how the painter had come to Africa, liked what he saw and integrated African themes and styles into his work. I have previously felt that shapes, forms and figures in Picasso’s work have just been abstract images. With a little imagination now I could see how the African influence had come to bear. Even so, I’m still left with the feeling that sometimes he was having a joke on the rest of us!

From the museum we ambled down into the centre of Cape Town to have a bit of a look around. By this stage it was about 5:00pm and we had expected to see streets bustling full of office workers on their way home after a hard day’s work. The streets though seemed eerily quiet and deserted and even though the shops were closing up there were few people to be seen. We popped into a smart little bar for a drink or two to ponder the weather, what we had seen of Cape Town so far and to plan out how we wanted to spend the rest of our time here. The chap in the bar explained that this is about as busy as it gets. Most people drive to work so at the end of the day they are straight into the car park and off out of town.

Our quiet and cosy little bar ended up being a little too cosy and rather than just stopping for one quick glass of Shiraz we ended up staying for another and another and (I think) another. By the time we left we were both very glad that we only had to toddle a couple of minutes to get back to where we were staying. The remains of our Fairview bread and wine served as dinner for the night and we were soon tucked up in bed again, watching the clouds obscuring the night sky.

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Behind bars on Robben Island
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But luckily our friend, a former inmate, has the key!

Rain again delayed play for the morning but in the afternoon we headed out to Robben Island. The island has a long history having been occupied at some stage over the years by several of the foreign nationalities who traded in the Cape. Primarily it has been used as a place of quarantine, a leper colony or a place of incarceration but has also served as a military base. It is perhaps most famous for its time as a prison for those opposed to the national regime in the Apartheid years with Nelson Mandela possibly being the most well known of its inmates.

From the main harbour you are taken by catamaran over to the island which takes about half an hour. I thought it was a relatively calm day but the boat seemed to roll quite heavily and I spent most of the journey across feeling a little queasy to say the least. Being hemmed inside a hot cabin from where I couldn’t easily see out to the horizon didn’t help and I vowed to get an outside seat on the way back even if it was tipping down with rain.

At the island you are bundled on to a large bus and a guide takes you on a tour of the island. In some ways it is similar to Alcatraz in San Francisco. The prison is the dominant feature of the island but around it is a small village which was, and still is, home to the people who work at the prison. Today many of those buildings have now been converted into a conference centre. Our guide on the bus was a very entertaining chap from the Indian community. He had a great way of involving everyone in his commentary and soon had us chuckling away. Soon he had revealed how broad the foreign interests and involvements in South Africa had been. The bus was full of tourists from quite a wide range of nationalities. If they didn’t come from one of the early settling countries their country had been key in supporting the anti apartheid movement so he was able to demonstrate that wide influences have come together to shape the modern day South Africa.

As we toured around the island he told us about some of the other people who were key to the anti apartheid struggle. Nelson Mandela attracts pretty much all of the focus these days but he also told us about Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu. A number of different political organisations were all active but the ANC gets the most focus. We passed one small building in a caged enclosure which is where one very influential prisoner, whose name escapes me, was held. He was deemed to be so influential in the anti apartheid movement that he was kept in solitary confinement for many years. When he was finally released his vocal chords had effectively seized up through lack of use.

We also passed a small limestone quarry which is where the prisoners were sent to work each day. It was futile work consisting mainly of moving rocks from one side of the quarry to the other and then back again the next day. We saw the quarry in the rain so it was hard to imagine the sun glaring off the face of the rocks and magnifying the heat the prisoners would have worked in. The combination of bright sunlight, dust and no sunglasses took its toll on their eyesight and many were left partially blind. Apparently you cannot take flash photographs of Nelson Mandela because his tear ducts have been totally blocked up from this dust.

Our guide told us how the prisoners also filled their time by getting an education and how many left their time in captivity with two or more university degrees to their name. Education wasn’t always available but it was allowed from a certain stage. Prisoners could apply to study with the courses all being distance learning programmes. Many of the guards who stood over them with guns during the day also benefited as the prisoners included them in the loop teaching them how to read and write so the guards also got an education.

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Cape Town's worst busker

At the prison complex we were handed over to a different guide, a former inmate who had spent seven years on Robben Island. He was quite happy to answer questions if you had any but his opening shot was “we’re short on time and need to push on” and that set the scene for our tour. We were the last group to arrive at the prison but the first to leave and there wasn’t really any time to think about what you were seeing and decide what questions you wanted to ask.

We both left with no idea of what daily life was really like for the prisoners and how they were treated by the prison system. We saw their cells, 2m x 3m, sparse rooms with a mattress on the floor to sleep on and a single bucket for use as washbasin and toilet. There were exercise yards outside where they could play tennis, using the balls as message carriers to send information from one block to another. There was a hospital and a room where prisoners could see their political party’s legal representatives in private.

It seems ironic that this site has come full circle for some people. The early criminal prisoners (which included Mandela) quarried rocks to build the more permanent prison for the political prisoners (Mandela included). They then spent many years here as inmates but now still live on the island but working as tour guides. In the spirit of reconciliation they do not seem, publicly at any rate, to harbour any grudges or grievances for the time they spent as prisoners. It’s very much just a period of history that happened and much as horrific incidents and experiences occurred, the present is the present and its time to move on. It’s a mindset that could be effectively copied to other areas of the world.

We took the boat back to the mainland and toured the different places to eat looking for something a little different. As with many major cities cuisine from many parts of the world is on offer here but, if our experience of the Greek place we went to was representative of the rest there weren’t many typical dishes on the menu.

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Dassie, a distant relative of ... the elephant

We woke this morning to find that …. it was yet another wet and cloudy day! We seem destined not to see Cape Town in anything other than a foggy state which is frustrating because we know that tantalising views are waiting for us both of Table Mountain and from the top of Table Mountain. We drove up through town to see if by any chance the cable car up the mountain was running. Half of the mountain was shrouded in deep thick clouds and not surprisingly the cable car wasn’t running. We opted for plan B and decided to drive down the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope.

Leaving the centre of Cape Town along the beach road we passed block after block of holiday apartments. It reminded us both of Punta del Este in Uruguay. At this time of year the whole area had an almost soulless and empty feel to it but you can imagine that in summer it is full and bustling with people all making the most of their few days by the sea. A little further on the blocks of flats gave way to more typical seaside villages with large houses dotted up the hillsides competing with each for good sea views.

We worked our way down and through Camps Bay which not only has great sea views but also has a small and lovely sandy bay. It looked like a very pretty village and is apparently one of the better places to have your holiday home. From here the road followed the coastline winding down to Hout Bay. The clouds hovered in the sky, hugging the mountains and shielding their peaks from view. At Hout Bay we ended up doing an unplanned detour (bad navigation by me!) into the town itself rather than carrying on further south.

Hour Bay is dominated by its harbour. Beyond it there are what looks like a few fish processing plants and beyond those smaller houses which are probably home to the fishermen. The bay itself is really beautiful. It’s set back a kilometre or two from the main coastline so it provides what looks like a sheltered natural harbour for vessels big and small. Alongside the fishing boats many of Hout Bay’s more affluent residents had moored their yachts.

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Still a long way from home

The harbour was also home to a few different companies offering glass bottomed boat trips to tourists. A couple of coaches had arrived and unloaded their cargo of camera snapping tourists. I wish we could have met some after their trip to see what it was like, more than anything because it was still peeing down with rain. The local traders for the tourists had their wares lined up on the docks covered over in huge sheets of plastic. All would have been quiet without them as there was no sign at all of any fish being bought and sold.

We turned back and headed through the other side of Hout Bay where the large houses of the more affluent section of society line the road hugging the coast. It is a large bay and as with Camps Bay it has what looks like a lovely sandy beach. Again I would imagine that during the summer months the whole area takes on a different feel as it gets packed with South Africans on holiday.

Leaving Hout Bay we continued on along the coastline driving along Chapman’s Peak Road. It’s a toll road and obviously one that gets closed in high winds or very bad weather but the views from it are fabulous. Built by Italian prisoners of war in WW11 it is now a popular scenic drive or cycle ride for those with very strong leg muscles. Picnic spots and lay-bys have been carved out along the way so that you can simply stop to enjoy the view for a while and it’s a pretty amazing view to enjoy.

Driving along Chapman’s Peak is a bit like driving along Big Sur in California, although it’s a lot shorter. The ocean dominates your view to the right with an amazing array of colours while to your left mountains rise up to the clouds. Each time the coastline headed inwards, a sandy bay ringed the shore and a village had been established behind it. Out to sea the tell tale signs of this difficult stretch of coastline could be seen as waves crashed over rocks still submerged by the tide.

Kommetje came and went as did Scarborough and soon we were in the Cape Hope national park. The landscape here was suddenly different from the rest of the cape. For one thing there were no houses in sight so it was probably a better reflection of what the rest of the cape may have looked like. There were no manicured lawns or tall palm trees, here it was mainly low lying bushes and grasses. The road through the park has a few different trails that you can follow, either taking you to places where you can spend the night or to different bays and coves on the waterfront. We simply headed straight down as far as the road would go.

The car park confirmed that this is a big tourist destination. Several coaches were parked up as well as one of the infamous Baz Bus buses. These provide a cheap and easy way of getting around South Africa’s destinations for those travelling on a budget and are a Lonely Planet staple form of transport. We took the quick route to the top of the peak travelling on the Flying Dutchman, not an ill fated vessel that haunts the seas but a small funicular railway. At the top a short flight of steps takes you up to the original Cape Hope lighthouse. Its small compared to many we’ve seen and was ultimately decommissioned and replaced by one lower down the slopes as it was shrouded by clouds too many days of the year and therefore wasn’t particularly effective.

From here you could see the different currents of the sea working their way around the peninsula. Bearing in mind that this is the same body of water that we have around the British Isles it was incredibly clear. Where there was no seaweed the water was a deep aqua marine colour broken up only by the sand being churned up along the bottom. A couple of dassies were happily munching away seemingly oblivious to the interest they were creating among the camera toting tourists above then. A signpost told us that we are now only 9,623km away from London, the closest we have been in a while.

A couple of dolphins were playing about in the cool waters below us but unfortunately moved too fast for us to get a couple of snaps to keep. We watched the skies change out to sea, getting ever darker with just a few small patches of light coming through. A couple of small boats had been out looking at the Bellows Rock just off the coastline, a particularly treacherous bunch of rocks that had been the cause of several ship wrecks in the area. The boats had turned about and were heading back to shore moving pretty fast and managing to keep ahead of the storm that was working its way towards us.

With rain imminent we headed back down to the shelter of the café to sit and watch and wait it out. You could see how the wind was gusting along from the way it whipped up the surface of the water. What had been relatively calm waters when we arrived were now covered in white caps of foam with the rain moving in as a grey downpour as we watched. A couple of baboons were also a source of entertainment. They were hunting for food and were getting pretty hacked off that the people running the restaurant had shut the doors so they couldn’t get in, something they do when they can. They prowled up and down looking for a way in and rattling the doors but to no avail.

Between June and November people also come down to the cape to watch the whales go by on their annual migration. I’d hoped that we might be lucky to get to see one and we were! Out in the bay I saw a smooth a graceful curving coming up and out of the water and pointed it out to Stef who confirmed that it wasn’t just me going mad. We both agreed it was too big to be a dolphin so it had to be a whale. We had a friendly waitress who served us and told her we’d seen a whale. She was dubious because at this time of year they usually stay further out to sea so that they don’t get washed into the rocks which are sharp. But she saw it too and then pointed it out to one of the tour guides who jumped up and down like an excited little boy when he saw it as well.

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Penguin family at Simonstown

We left the cape and started to work our way back up to Cape Town this time driving up the east coast of the peninsula. On our way out of the park Stef spotted some Cape Mountain Zebra which only occur in small numbers so they are pretty rare. There was also a hartebeest, either a red one or a Lichtenstein’s one. They don’t occur in this area naturally so it must have been introduced but it was also a rare spotting.

As we came up to Simonstown we saw the signs for the Boulders penguin colony and stopped off to have a look, making it with just half and hour to go before closing which was more than enough time. A boardwalk takes you out over the sand dunes and within seconds you get your first sighting of an African penguin. They have longer legs than others I’ve seen so don’t look quite so comical when they walk. There were a few lone individuals on the dunes but most were on a small sandy bay all congregated together. Young penguins were being groomed by their parents and you could see patches where their adult coat had come through replacing their baby fluffiness. Others were tucked away warmly on their nests being shielded from the cold wind by their parents. Quite a cacophony of sound accompanied the sight and it was a small detour that had definitely been worth making.

We carried on from here back up towards Cape Town hitting busy roads as it was by then rush hour on Friday night. We’d expected pretty much all of the traffic to be heading out of town but it was not so. The downside was that we’d decided to see if we could get back to the waterfront to make it for the 6:00pm showing of the Da Vinci Code. The minutes slipped away from us and we got there probably in time to just slip in as the film started but the seats were all sold out. Ah well, we’d rushed back for nothing but we booked seats for tomorrow instead.

Not yet ready to head back to our little pad we went for a quick drink in a bar on the harbour, grateful to be sitting next to the wood fire they had burning. Back at our loft we cooked a very tasty curry and watched the King Kong DVD we’d bought as consolation for not getting to the pictures. Or at least Stef watched the film; I nodded off part way through so nothing’s changed there then!

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Driving along the Cape Peninsula

Yet again we woke to cloudy and overcast skies. Lying in bed I watched the clouds as they raced across the sky with odd clear patches giving a glimpse of a few stars before the clouds came over again. The mist was very low and I watched as the tall building about 100m away vanished into the clouds, reappeared and then vanished again.

We’d hoped today to make it up to the top of Table Mountain but with the rain still lashing down we doubted that we would be able to. Our suspicions were confirmed as we made our way out of the back of Cape Town and up the hill to the cable car only to see the “closed” sign hanging at the entrance to the car park. We decided to go and take a look at the views down and over Cape Town anyway although I have to admit to wimping out and staying in the car while Stef got soaked outside.

It was a strange sight. In front of us Cape Town was partly bathed in sunshine but also partly covered in clouds. The sea shimmered away towards Robben Island and we both thought of the people taking part in the sailing regatta out in the bay – not the greatest of days for a sail. Behind us Table Mountain was a dark mass of thick clouds with no sign at all that it would clear up in time for us to make it up to the top before we leave in two days time. You could make out the cables from the car that goes up to the top but they soon disappeared into the clouds.

We weren’t alone in hoping to get to the top. The open top tour bus with, not surprisingly, no-one sat outside had pulled up outside the entrance as well and a few desponsent and slightly soggy tourists were staying firmly indoors waiting for the bus to do an about turn and head back to Cape Town. Not wanting to give up just yet we decided to head over to Signal Hill in the hope that the clouds, which race across unbelievably quickly across the sky, would have cleared up a little more by the time we got there.

The road wiggled around to the top of the hill where a few others were braving the weather to get a view. We went for an amble to the highest point to see if we could work out where our apartment block was and were surprised to be able to see it below us. We had fabulous views over Cape Town and from here could also see out to Robben Island in the bay. Our walk though was cut short as the rain soon started to pound down again drenching everything in sight. We took refuge in the car and watched the clouds playing across the sky.

At a loss really for what to do we headed down the hill and took the back road down to Camps Bay, one of the small coves we had driven through yesterday. It is one of the more developed of the coastal resorts with a small strip of restauarnats and a few shops along the way. We opted for Nando’s, a strange choice for us as it’s the type of place we avoid like the plague back home, but the branch here looked appealing and the staff were friendly and welcoming.

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Stef feels on top of the world after an invigorating dip (up to his ankles...) in the cold Atlantic waters
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Ah, do you remember China?

We opted for a light lunch as well as a drink and Stef chose the peri-peri chicken livers. Being a man with a penchant for things spicy he went for the hot option rather than just the normal level of spice. It has been a long time since I have seen him suffering with pain eating food that really is incredibly spicy. A tiny dip the size of half a little finger nail was enough for me but he struggled on through the dish claiming to love every mouthful. Half of my wine and a bottle of water were needed to help cool the pain along the way!!

After lunch we went for a short walk along the sandy beach. Stef did his by now obligatory test of the waters and declared it to be very cold, not a big shock really as its now the Atlantic Ocean which isn’t renowned for its warm waters! A couple of dogs, one large one small, were playing about with each other on the beach. I still don’t have a clue why the little dogs always seem to be controlling the big ones but this pair were no different. They were quite happily yapping away and chasing each other along the sand.

As we drove into town a little while later we looked up to see the top of Table Mountain clear of clouds, although they were still hanging a little way above the top, and the cable car running up and down the side of the mountain. With tickets already booked for the cinema we didn’t have enough time to go up to the top know so both agreed to run the risk that it would be closed tomorrow, our last real day. The weather stayed pretty iffy for the rest of the day so we just ambled around on the waterfront at a loss for something to do killing time until the evening. Sea lions graced one part of the waterfront and in another a live band was entertaining the crowds.

The Da Vinci code filled part of our evening, not a bad film in our opinion and one that made for pleasant viewing for an hour or two. A rather dodgy Chinese meal rounded off our evening and transported us back briefly to Asia. The bright lights illuminating the red decoration were friendly companions to our chopsticks and had us both reminiscing about the Chinese leg of our travels.