Al Andaluz

Andalucia. A land of white-washed villages atop olive and almond clad hills. We’d left Seville to explore these “pueblo blancos” and the more rural parts of the province. Our trail led us to Olvera, where we’d found a charming little house in the old part of the town. Owned by an Australian lady who’d managed to contact her local manager, the very helpful Frank, and fit us in at very short notice – we’d booked the night before!

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Olvera, one of the many pueblo blancos in Andalucia

Agriculture in the area seems to be dominated by olive production, with almonds a very distant second crop. Some valleys were wall-to-wall olives, with trees growing in what often seemed really inaccessible places. Perhaps they are one of the few crops that tolerate the harsh, dry conditions.

En route we also passed a lake / reservoir. It was incredibly low, down perhaps 15 metres on its usual level. We were told by Frank that they haven’t had much rain here for about 5 years.

Olvera was a pretty place, somewhere between a village and a town, with winding streets that led up to the church and, above that, the old castle. The houses were all white-washed with orange pan-tiled roofs and, in the older part of town, cobbled streets. Our house was down one of these, arranged over three floors with a tiny little terrace, sadly without a view, on the top. Not that we used the terrace much; it was now in the high thirties every day and this little sun-trap was way too hot most of the time. But the house was reasonably cool, despite its lack of air conditioning, and we spent 5 days there, exploring the village and the local area and just chilling. It was Angela’s birthday and we had a nice meal out in the newer part of town to celebrate.

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View up to the church and castle

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View down across the town

During our stay we visited Ronda, another hilltop town but one which spanned two sides of a gorge, linked by a phenomenal bridge.

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Ronda – not a place for those with vertigo!

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The incredible bridge

Parking in the town was a nightmare, with queues for every car park and a complicated network of one way streets that had us going found in circles for about half an hour. We very nearly turned back but then found an empty space at the side of a road and claimed it as ours. As with many towns in this area Ronda has a long history of occupation that includes the Romans, Moors and various denominations of Christians. It has an architectural heritage to match, along with a very impressive bullring. Bullfighting is very popular in Spain and even some of the smallest villages we visited have their own bullring. We had no intention of attending a bullfight. The whole idea is, to be honest, pretty appalling to us. Animals bred to be brutally slaughtered in a pubic arena. Hmmm. We weren’t at all sure about even visiting the ring itself but here they also had a museum and we thought we should have a look to perhaps understand it more. 

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Statue outside the bullring. A strange veneration of the animal that is slain inside

The bullring itself was a fantastic space with the large central ‘stage’ open to the elements and surrounded by a full, covered, double-layered amphitheatre, with arches holding the two layers up. The steps between the floors were prettily decorated with blue and white tiles. It really was a great building but we couldn’t escape the thought of what happens here and the museum brought that fully home, with many pictures, from old paintings to modern photographs, depicting the history and the ‘art’ of the bullfight.

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The ring

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The seats

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Tiled stairway

We left with a distinct feeling of unease and made our way through the town, across the bridge and took the track down to the foot of the bridge. It was an awe-inspiring view up to the top of the gorge and the buildings perched above.

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Back up at the top we wound our way down to the other side of town and the old Arabic baths. It was a bit of a trek but we were glad we made it. They were really interesting. The building today is just the ruins, although still pretty intact. But there is an excellent video in English and Spanish which brought the baths to life. Rather like a modern spa, they included a hot room, a warm room and a cold room, with water heated at one end and making its way slowing through the sections. The remains had a great feel to them and you could really imagine what it might have been like washing and relaxing in these surroundings.

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Moorish baths

On our way home we passed through the extraordinary village of Setenil de las Bodegas. Some of the houses are built into the rock and one of the roads actually goes through a tunnel in the rock, with houses on both sides. Really surreal.

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Setenil de las Bodegas

Back at base we tried to extend the car rental; as the Landy had been delayed we needed another week. Gareth phoned the rental company but they could only give us 5 more days over the phone. To get more we would have to go to Malaga and speak to someone direct. It was a bit of a pain but we could divert there en route to Granada, our next stop. So after our 5 days in Olvera we headed to the coast and to Malaga airport. Our trip came close to ending on the journey. We were on the motorway when we heard an odd noise, like something skittling over the top of the car. Gareth looked over his shoulder to see a car swerving across from the central reservation (the noise must have been his tyres on the rumble strips) and fishtailing towards us. He quickly swerved our car out of the way and onto the hard shoulder while the other driver struggled to regain control of his. He came within inches of us. A very near miss and it took a little while for the adrenalin to settle, I can tell you!

At the airport, we drove into the car park where our sat nav told us we would find our rental company. We were absolutely staggered by the number of cars here, all rental. Every car hire company you can name had a section and we must have driven past thousands of cars before we found our section. Extending the period was quick and straightforward and we were soon on our way. We decided to take the coast road, hoping for a pretty drive along the sea front. What an eye opened that was. Once upon a time this must have been an unspoilt strip of the Mediterranean, but those days have long gone. Beaches stuffed to the brim with people sunbathing, backed by dense rows of holiday apartments, hotels and restaurants, interspersed with amusement arcades and shops full of tourist tat. Our idea of hell but lots of people obviously enjoy this kind of holiday. We were pleased to be heading back inland towards Granada. We had heard so much about this city and the fabled Alhambra palace and were excited to see it for ourselves.

Beautiful Seville and Dancing Horses

Visiting Seville and Granada were among the main reasons for us to spend this month touring Spain. We’d heard so much about these two cities and this seemed to be the ideal opportunity to see them for ourselves. Seville was first of the two on the route we were taking. We’d found a lovely apartment in the middle of the old town which with really helpful and friendly hosts. It also had air conditioning, something that was to become the holy grail of our accommodation searches. It was getting hot now, mid to high thirties and likely to get hotter. In the tent this wasn’t usually too bad. Except in the hottest weather the tent usually cools down enough at night to stay comfortable. In a building that’s not the case so air con was top of the list as we trawled Airbnb.

We’d also managed to make contact with Richard, whose mum Sarah we’d met in Botswana. Fortunately he wasn’t completely horrified that she’d given us his contact details (not openly anyway!) and we met up on our first night in town. We had a great evening as he guided us round some of the tapas bars in the city, including El Rinconillo, reputedly the oldest of them all. He gave us some good tips for the city and other places to visit in the area. He also introduced us to the marvellous combination of pata negra jamon Iberico and Fino sherry. There is probably no better ham – jamon in Spanish – in the world. It is cured ham from the Iberian black-footed (pata negra) pigs which range amongst the oak forests and gorge on acorns in the autumn (the acorn fed ones are the bellota ones). Trust us, if you haven’t tried it, it should be on your bucket list. Yes, even if you’re vegetarian. You may have to re-mortgage your house for a few slices of the good stuff but it’s worth every penny Smile. We’ve had it before but never with sherry. Oh, it tasted damn good!

For our first full day in Seville we just chilled and caught up with the blog. The next day was already planned – a trip to nearby Jerez, or Jerez de la Frontera to give the town its full name and alluding to the days of the conflicts between the Moors and the Christians. Jerez is perhaps most famous for its sherry production but we were there for something else; it is also the home of the Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Equestre – the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Angela had seen the Spanish dancing horses years ago when they came to London and was keen to see them again.

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The hour and a half show was an incredible display of skill and training. It’s almost like a horse ballet. One of the highlights was a performance involving 10 riders on horseback split into two lines and performing a superbly synchronised and complex display. Think dancing horses a la Olympic dressage but ten of them performing at once, filtering between each other with split-second timing, sometimes sideways or at speed. Having ridden before we have an idea of just how much work is involved in achieving a fraction of the skill they were showing. What’s more, all the horses are stallions which usually means they’re more of an handful to ride. But for us the best of the show was a solo performance with a single un-mounted horse handled on long reins by a horseman on foot. It was beautiful to watch such a stunning horse perform this beautiful ballet with the most subtle of commands from the horseman, working from behind or to the side of the stallion. When you ride a horse, many of the commands you give are through your seat and your leg. How they managed to achieve their partnership without those commands was incredible.

It has to be said that there were parts of the whole show that left us feeling a little uncomfortable. There was one section where a number of horses and horsemen (and women) were in the arena at once showing different skills and moves and where the horses responded to the touch of a whip to carry out a particular movement, especially for those where they were rearing up on their hind legs or leaping through the air. It made you wonder how much the whips were used in training and whether the training techniques are humane. So we left with slightly mixed feelings, but still in awe at the skill and beauty of it all.

Sadly they didn’t allow photos in the arena so there are no pics of these gorgeous animals. After the show we headed back to Seville with a little detour via Cadiz, which is on the coast a little further south from Jerez. We didn’t have time to stop which was a shame as it looked like a beautiful place.

So it wasn’t until the next day that we got to properly exploring Seville. It’s a lovely city, with a really nice vibe. Fabulous ancient buildings and narrow streets mix with vibrant plazas and bustling cafes. There were lovely shady gardens to walk through, which was good for us as it was hot, hot, hot!

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The St Mary of the sea cathederal

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Lovely gardens with statue of Christobal Colon – Columbus to you and me

The Plaza de Espana was a particular highlight, a huge sweeping curve of a palace embracing a crescent-shaped lake with ornate bridges and a huge fountain in the middle. It was too big to capture in one picture.

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Plaza de Espana bridge

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One end of the palace

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Fountain with the palace behind

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Fountain detail

Heading on through a bizarrely deserted embassy complex (possibly Peruvian?) we visited the Alcazar and the mesquita and gardens that it’s walls enclosed. Those Moors sure knew something about architecture. A complex of buildings and rooms surrounding intimate courtyards and shady gardens with water an ever-present feature. The decoration, everywhere we looked, was exquisite.

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Gorgeous archways

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Ceiling designed to represent the night sky

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Decoration in an alcove

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Looking up into a small courtyard

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Water was present throughout the courtyards and gardens

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The Alcazar gardens

It was a stunning place and we spent a couple of hours exploring it, after which we wondered back to our cool apartment via the old Jewish quarter, a lovely complex of stone passageways, arched gateways and twisting streets. We’d booked three nights in Seville but ended up staying four. A really great city.

Hello Europe

Our flight, with Emirates, took us to Madrid via Dubai, which was 38 degrees when we landed at 4am! Fortunately the airport was fairly cool and we were only there for a couple of hours. It wasn’t the spangley airport we’d expected but much like any other. The air outside was very murky and, presumably, thick with dust and sand. Nevertheless we got a view of the Burg Khalifa as we took off for Madrid, which was pretty impressive. We couldn’t see Tom Cruise though.

We got chatting to the guy sitting next to Angela. He was going to join his partner for a short holiday in Spain. His other half had been cycling the Camino de Compostela and he was off to meet him for a city break in Lyon. He had a 3 hour bus ride after the flight to get to his destination, which we thought was pretty quick to get across Spain and the Pyrenees to eastern France. However, we’d visited the city a few years before and told him that he must try and visit the Traboules, a fantastic area of interlinking secret passageways and staircases between and sometimes through houses and courtyards. It was only about 3 days later when we were having a planning session and looked at the road map that we realised he was going to Leon in Spain, not Lyon in France… Doh!

We’d booked three nights in Madrid, just to catch our breath and have a quick look around as, being the capital, we thought we should. After which we would pick up a hire car and make our way south. We didn’t really expect much of the city, expecting it to be big, loud and commercial, but we actually really liked it. We had an apartment in the old town which worked out very well. It was small and basic but had everything we needed and was perfectly located for visiting the main sites on foot. It was quiet yet had cafes and bars on the doorstep. The old town was lovely; tree lined avenues, impressive plazas, beautiful parks and historic buildings to befit the capital, as well as smaller, more intimate squares and narrow streets with equal appeal. We’re not really great art lovers so gave the world-renowned galleries and museums a miss, focussing on the city and buildings instead.

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Plaza Mayor, celebrating it’s 400th birthday

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Those Minions get everywhere…

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Felipe III in Plaza Mayor

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The bear and the strawberry tree – the symbol of Madrid

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Palacio Real de Madrid near the cathedral

After the Plaza Mayor, we went to the fantastic covered market close by. A myriad of colours with stalls selling frozen yoghurt, every sort of air dried ham and beer and wine sellers. Fortunately for our wallets, it was a bit early in the day, but for lunch we found a very un-presupposing bar and had a beer and some delicious gambas and garlic, or rather a mound of garlic with some prawns – it was fantastic though and we were glad we shared it Smile.

We really enjoyed Madrid and were glad we’d given ourselves a couple of full days there. On the Thursday morning we picked up the rental car, pleased that we had booked ahead; a group of young Russians came in while we were sorting out the paperwork and were quoted (and paid) £100 Euros a day for three days hire! Ouch.

Our next stop was Toledo, a walled medieval hill-top town about an hour’s drive south of the capital. We had a room in a hostel for a couple of nights and managed to find cheap parking on the street nearby. The first and last time that would be the case in any of the historic towns. The town was beautiful, occupying a position on a bend in the Tagus river.

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Toledo

Our hostel was near the Puerta del Sol, a gorgeous stone gateway in the town walls dating back to the 14th Century and the Catholic Knights Hospitalier.

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Puerte del Sol

The streets wound their way up from here through narrow, twisting passageways, every now and then coming out into a plaza or coming to an abrupt stop at someone’s door. Some streets followed the walls, with occasional views out across the countryside. Others led to the heart of the town, with its impressive cathedral and imposing Alcazar (Moorish fortress). The Museo del Santa Cruz near the Alcazar was fascinating. A museum of art and history, it was in a great 16th century building which used to be a hospital and had a gorgeous central courtyard. There was quite a bit of gold bling on show in the main museum, along with a number of oil paintings (some by El Greco) and a really good modern art exhibition of miniature buildings (minimalist styling in plaster of Paris).

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Museo del Santa Cruz

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Courtyard in the museum

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Silver gilt museum exhibit

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Toledo Cathedral

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The imposing Alcazar of Toledo

We strolled around in the evening, when the town was washed in fantastic warm lighting, and had some fairly expensive ice cream – €7.50 for 3 scoops!

After our second night we left for Cordoba, visiting Los Molinas en-route. These windmills, several of which topped the ridge by the village of Consuegra, were once common across this part of Spain and were made famous in Cervantes classic Don Quixote. The ones at Consuegra have been restored and you can go in one of them to see the workings. Each has a name, this one being Molina Rucio.

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The inside of a working mill

In Cordoba, whose streets were incredibly narrow and tricky to negotiate by car, we found a car park through the Parclick website. This was a bit of a godsend as it meant we could find and book parking before getting to each town and usually got a reduced rate into the bargain. We settled in to a nice hotel 200m from the famous Mezquita or mosque. Through this remarkable building you can trace the changes in rulers and religions of this region over the past thousand years or more. The first church was built by the Visigoths. When the Moors invaded, they built a mesquita on the site which was extended over time to the current size. When the Catholics ousted the Moors and took back control they fortunately kept the mesquita but added a huge church in the middle. There’s also a green and tranquil garden surrounded by cloisters and filled with citrus, palm and cypress trees, fountains and water channels. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful and we spent a couple of hours exploring. First we climbed the tower for a fabulous view over the mesquita and the wider town.

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View of the bell tower

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The view from the tower

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The shade of the garden was welcome in the 35 degree heat!

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View showing the Catholic church built in the middle of the mesquita

Inside, for us anyway, the Moorish elements steal the show. Rows and rows of elegant arches and columns form the main building, with the most intricate relief and carvings. Some of the decoration is just unbelievably beautiful. The light inside was subdued so the pictures don’t really do it justice.

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Inside the mesquita

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Row after row of elegant columns and arches

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Incredible Moorish decoration

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The detail in the plasterwork was something else

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The beautiful ceiling of the Catholic church

It wasn’t cheap to visit – E9.50 each plus and extra E2 each for the bell tower, but it was worth it. We topped it off with a long (and rather warm) walk round the rest of town, with its lovely mix of stone and white washed buildings and its superb Roman bridge, before enjoying a scrummy dinner accompanied by live Spanish guitar music.

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The Roman bridge

We really liked Cordoba and would really recommend it. But we needed to move on and the famous city of Seville was next on our itinerary.

Farewell to New Friends and Farewell to Africa

Eningu was due to sail to Rotterdam at the end of the week and we arrived at the camp site run by Duncan (who was arranging the shipping for us), his wife Ellie and their daughter Chloe, on the Saturday, giving us a couple of days to get her ready before she was checked in. We’d booked a rondavel so that we could do this without having to live in her at the same time. It was Duncan’s birthday and we were invited to join them and a couple of their friends for a little soiree. A very nice evening it was too. On Sunday we got up ready to get cracking on the car only to find it was raining, which it proceeded to do all day. It meant we couldn’t get much done except sort our bags out.

Our plan was to head to Spain while the car was being shipped, hiring a car and spending the time visiting some of the historic cities which we would find difficult to do with the Landie. Our luggage was packed for a year’s worth of travel and weather but Spain in July and August was going to be hot, so we slimmed down our bags to the bare minimum. Even Angela managed to be ruthless! Unheard of.

On the Monday the weather cleared and we managed to get the car cleaned up a bit and reorganised ready for the container she would spend the next month in. We cleaned carefully round our little green mascot. He was a freeby dished out for kids in one of the supermarkets when we first arrived in SA. We’d got three of them, before we got wise to refusing them at the checkout, and we stuck them on the dash board for a laugh. They were cheap and nasty and the other two kept falling off but he just stayed put and so we left him there. He has stayed there for the whole of our trip, clinging on through the intense shaking of some horrendous roads. He has no name (we’re not quite that sad!) but he has a small place in our hearts and a place in the Landie as long as he decides to stay.

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Our little green mascot

Gareth also replaced the broken shock absorber with the unbroken one from the old set that we’d retained. Never throw anything away in Africa. You never know when you might need it…

By Tuesday morning we were ready to head off and we said our goodbyes to Eningu, Duncan, Ellie and Chloe. We’d tracked down the ‘wine tasting on horse-back’. It was at Paradise Stables in Franschoek, along the renowned South African wine route, and they also had accommodation so off we set. The cottage was really nice and had an open fire with plenty of firewood supplied – it was pretty chilly but with the fire stoked up it was very cosy. As the mornings were so cold we’d booked the afternoon ride, which was wise. Even at 1pm there was a freezing wind, so we wrapped up warm and headed to the yard to meet our trusty steeds. It was the first time we had ridden a horse for 5 years and we soon found all the uncomfortable bits, but it was great fun and the scenery was lovely. It was just the two of us with our guide, a lovely lady called Yolanda who was a trained chef and had worked on yachts in a previous life. The ride was about 4 hours including stops for wine tasting at two vineyards, (one of which was owned by Richard Branson!). It has to be said that our riding improved considerably after the first stop… Smile

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On horse-back in Franschoek

We were both in need of a haircut and before we left Franschoek we had a quick chat with Yolanda who put us in contact with a girl in town. She managed to rearrange her clients and fit us in at lunchtime so we had a lovely lunch in a French cafe on the main street and then got our locks chopped.

We’d been invited to dinner that night with Hannah’s family. We’d met her and MJ in Swaziland where they’d had a bit of car trouble and we’d followed them to the garage to make sure they got there ok. The family lived in Muizenberg to the south of Cape Town, a few blocks from the coast and the big rollers that hit the shore there. No surprise the guys were surfers! We were greeted as if we were old friends and given a big hug and thank you by Hannah’s mum for “rescuing her daughter”. She’d cooked up a beautiful leg of lamb for us and the family and we had a lovely evening with them all. They also put us up for the night, which was really kind, and gave us a hearty breakfast to send us on our way.

Our next stop was about an hour’s drive north of the city at Yserfontein. We’d been invited to visit Mike and Hester, who we’d met in the Kruger. They lived in a beautiful house in the village, right on the west coast. They showed us around the area. Our first stop was at a vineyard and olive producer in Darling where we had an olive tasting session. We imagined it would be trying a few different olive oils and indeed they started with those. Then came several different types of olives, then various olive-based products, including olive paste, olive biltong, an olive rub and even olive jam.

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They were all delicious. Then came the body products – lip salve, skin cream, etc.. It was amazing the range of products available. To finish off, there was the wine to try… Of course the idea was to entice you to buy and needless to say we came away with several items! Fortunately the ship that was transporting the car had been delayed so we knew we could drop our purchases off with Eningu rather than cart them to Spain with us. Smile

After that we went for a very good lunch and then dropped in on Mike’s mother. When we got there he made us play a trick on her, telling us to walk in first and say “Hello Maureen, remember us?”. She looked at us rather puzzled until Mike came in behind us. Mean, but fortunately she saw the funny side. I think we know where Mike gets his naughty sense of humour from! From there we visited the local craft brewery for a few tasters, then their local for a few more, and finally home for soup and more wine. Phew! Awesome day.

The next day we all drove up the coast to watch the finish of the Burg Endurance Race, an epic canoe race from Paarl to Velddrif. The town had set up a big party at the finish line and we waited as the leaders approached. These guys had been canoeing for the past 4 days and yet the race to the finish was superb. Two of them were neck and neck, one inching ahead then the other and vice versa. It was a fantastic end for us to watch. The winner, a Hungarian who just pipped the reigning champion at the post, was the first international winner in the race’s history. Third place went to a guy from Essex. Yay! After all that excitement we needed some sustenance and had some of the best fish and chips we’ve ever eaten at the local chippy. Back home along the coast to watch the rugby, a braai for dinner and a look at some of their amazing videos from previous safari trips and their old house (which was in a private game reserve). In the morning Mike gave us a whistle-stop tour of Yserfontein before we headed back into Cape Town. What a great weekend and a great couple.

On our way south we stopped in at Duncan’s to drop our purchases off in the car. He wasn’t there but we had a nice chat with the gorgeous Ellie who is Spanish and who gave us some tips about places to visit. Then we said a final adieu to Eningu and wished her luck on her voyage.

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Her bodywork may not be so good but her engine keeps going and her chassis’ solid as a rock…

Our final night in South Africa was spent with Dave and Judy, who we’d met watching rugby at the Addo Elephant Park. They were lovely and made us feel very at home. We had a nice relaxed evening chatting over some wine and they treated us to a fab pork roast for lunch on the Monday whilst giving us space to get ourselves organised for our flight that evening. We got to the airport in plenty of time and dropped off the car, breathing a sigh of relief when the hire company rep passed it as undamaged (not that we’d done anything to it, but you hear the stories about getting stung…).

So, after nearly nine months we were finally leaving Africa and we were sad to go. We’ve had so many adventures and some incredible experiences. Between us, we’ve fended off hyenas, kissed a hippo, been chased by angry elephants, hand-fed bush-babies, been licked by a cheetah, walked with rhinos, slipped on whale blubber, rubbed the inside of a hippo’s mouth, peed near a passing leopard, been confronted by a spitting cobra, watched lions mating, given a neck massage to a Bataleur and had bush-babies playing on our tent in the middle of the night. We’ve baked in 46 degrees in the desert and shivered at minus 14 in the mountains. We got caught up in a sandstorm like you see in the films. We’ve watched the African sun set over the Atlantic ocean, deserts and mountains and the moon rise over a stunning salt pan. We’ve tackled the legendary Van Zyl’s pass, camped on an extinct volcano, driven some of the highest passes in the continent and been awestruck by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Along the way we’ve been to just about every Land Rover garage in southern Africa but although Eningu has had the odd problem she’s never broken down on us and has always got us out of trouble. We’ve travelled through seven countries, driving more than 20,000 hard miles on gravel, sand, rocks, mud, salt pans and tarmac (some of it even good!). We’ve forded flooded rivers and flooded roads. We’ve broken 2 shock absorbers and punctured 2 tyres. We’ve replaced the thermostat, the radiator expansion tank and the turbo (the latter probably unnecessarily). We’ve replaced 5 sets of brake pads and still haven’t stopped them squealing!

We’ve met some fantastic people and been staggered by their hospitality. We haven’t been eaten by lions, bitten by a snake, stung by a scorpion, eaten by cannibals or caught ebola, although we have discovered that there are spiders in Africa (but they’re all very small and friendly). Sadly, we haven’t eaten a guinea fowl.

It’s been an absolute blast. But it’s not over yet. Farewell Africa, hello Europe…

A Whale of a Time

From the Bontebok park we headed straight to the coast and the De Hoop Nature Reserve. We had read about this place. White sand dunes dropping down to a huge, azure bay that, in season, plays host to a large percentage of the Southern Right Whale breeding population which every year make their way to its sheltered waters to calve. It was a haven of tranquillity and wildlife, marine and shore-based. We really wanted to stay there for a couple of days and had tried to book when we’d first arrived in the country last November but their camp site had been “closed for renovation”. There were cottages but they were quite exclusive and very expensive. So now we tried again, thinking that 8 months later they should have got the camp site finished. But no, it was still “closed for renovation”. We had a sneaking suspicion that they wanted to keep it exclusive and wondered just how much of a hurry they were in to reopen the camping area… So, a day visit it was.

We’d decided to have lunch in the reserve as there was a restaurant and, as we were rather peckish, were going to head there first. But there was a large bank of cloud off the coast that looked rather familiar; just like the fog banks we’d seen on the west coast of Namibia. It looked to be getting closer so we drove the 7 km straight down to the dunes. We parked the car and clambered up the huge white dunes to see the bay below us. It was a gorgeous place and there in the shallow waters in front of us were at least a dozen whales.

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Looking south over the bay – the sun is in the north in South Africa

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A whale waving at us

As we watched, the wall of cloud moved closer. It was sea fog and we’d made the right call.

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The fog bank rolling in (apologies for the dodgy camera angle…)

We had about 15 minutes to enjoy the place and watch the whales playing in the water (ok, maybe they didn’t wave at us) before the fog reached shore. The brilliant blue skies disappeared, along with the bay and its mammalian residents, in a complete white-out. We left the beach as others, cameras in hand, arrived too late and we went for lunch. At the car park we noticed a rather good piece of dust ‘art’ on someone’s rear windscreen.

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Better than the usual “clean me” messages…

As luck would have it (for today at least)  the restaurant was basking in sunshine and we had a fabulous lunch in the garden. Such a shame we couldn’t stay. Instead we’d booked into a backpackers lodge in Struisbaai, just up the coast from Cape Agulhas – the most southerly point of Africa. The road there was quite rough and by the time we arrived we were a bit tired and the afternoon was getting on so we decided to visit the Cape in the morning. We also had a clunking sound from the rear of the car. A quick look told us what we feared: the shock absorber had snapped again! We would have to deal with it in Cape Town.

From our research, the only camping in the area seemed to be on the barren, windswept seafront and it was also very cold so we’d opted for a cheap room at the backpackers. We had a great evening, cooking chicken in the Dutch oven over an open fire in the living area, chatting with the manager and his girlfriend and drinking Baby Guinness. Ladies, it’s Kalua with a Baileys top, looking just like a tiny pint of Guinness. Absolutely yummy. Well, at least Angela thinks so. Gareth preferred the whisky. Can’t think why.

It was a cold night, even in the room, but we got up excited to be visiting the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. That was until we opened the curtains to find that the clear skies of the previous evening had been replaced by a wall of white. Sea fog. Maybe it would clear?… We headed to breakfast and got chatting to a couple of Dutch girls who were great fun and told us about horse-back wine tasting near Cape Town, something we decided to look into when we got there.

We waited as long as we could for the fog to lift but it was in vain. Serves us right for our smugness the previous day. It was thick as soup and the drive to the Cape was slow. The first landmark we saw was the old lighthouse, now a surprisingly interesting museum to lighthouses of the world. We climbed up the series of increasingly narrow and very steep wooden ladders that led up to the lamp and out on to the ‘deck’. It was brilliant and you could imagine that the view would be pretty spectacular, but we couldn’t see a sausage!

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Foggy and bloomin cold!

A sign by the loos gave a stark warning for caution over potential inhabitants, although we’d have been surprised if any self-respecting ‘bitey’ animal were out in this weather and if it was it probably deserved its dinner!

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From there we followed the signs that appeared out of the gloom leading us to Cape Agulhas itself. We parked the Landie on the sea front and found the spot that marked the most southerly point of the entire continent, where the two oceans meet. (Actually the meeting point shifts between here and Cape Point further west depending on the currents, but Agulhas seems to be the generally accepted point of reference for the merger). Looking east, the first land you hit is Australia. To the west, it’s South America. The vast expanse was difficult to comprehend. At least I’m sure it would have been if we could see anything.

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Cape Agulhas. Apparently there were two oceans in front of us…

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… at least the sign said they were there so it must be true

It was a bit of an anti-climax but there was still an atmosphere to the place (well I guess there would be with that much water vapour in the air) and we were glad we’d gone. We headed off, driving inland to escape the fog, which we eventually did. Our next stop was to be Hermanus, once a whaling town but now the self-proclaimed whale  watching capital of South Africa and one of the best places for shore-based whale watching in the world. On our way we drove through a village with a familiar name…

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Haven’t we been here before?…

We’d done a fly-by of Hermanus at the start of our trip and hadn’t thought much of it. Nevertheless our guide book gave it good review and we were on a whale hunt. It seemed like a good place to stop for a few nights. We booked a self catering apartment above the owners’ house, getting an out-of-season special of three nights for the price of two. What a gem it turned out to be. A fabulous flat with lovely owners, Graham and Jenny. They plugged our extension lead into their garage so that we could keep the fridge running and gave us some great tips for things to do and places to visit.

We’d already booked a whale-watching boat trip for our first morning in town. The flat was well-located and we had a 25 minute walk along the cliff-edge path to the harbour. The sea was relatively calm and, after an introductory talk by the skipper we set sail (or rather motored) in search of whales. The skipper spotted a Bryde’s Whale (pronounced a bit like “brewders”) on our way out, although nobody else saw it. Then after a while he announced the presence of a Southern Right Whale (so named because it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt… Sad smile) off the bow at 1 o’clock. This time we did see it. Then another at 3 o’clock, and another at 9 o’clock. For the next hour we played cat and mouse with these gentle giants of the ocean, never getting too close, always waiting to see if they would come closer to us – the whale-watching boats are carefully controlled here and risk losing their licence if they get too close or interfere with the animals’ behaviour. Sometimes we watched a group of two or three of them together for 10 minutes at a time, other times we just had a fleeting glimpse as one surfaced briefly and moved on.

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The whale’s back, heading away from us, with Hermanus in the background

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The whale ‘spy hopping’, to check things out

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There are two or three whales here (no, that’s not a great white…)

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat…

Incidentally, thinking of Carcharadon Carcharias (come on, you’ve all seen Jaws; and no, we didn’t know it was spelt like that either), nearby Gansbaai is one of the world’s centres for cage diving with Great White Sharks and the waters off its coast are known as Shark Alley. This is not ‘our thing’ as the ethics of cage diving, when they put out bait to attract the sharks, are highly debatable and potentially increase the risk for conflict between these incredible fish and people. But in the last couple of weeks the sharks had disappeared from the area. Killer Whales had moved in and the carcasses of several sharks have been found, apparently killed by the Orcas and seemingly just for their livers (perhaps with a nice glass of Chianti?). It wasn’t clear whether they’d chased the rest off or had killed larger numbers. Either way, for now the sharks had gone and the cage diving industry had at least temporarily taken a dive.

Back to our whales. It was magic. We’ve never been so close to a living whale and probably never will be again. We headed back to shore with massive grins and quite a lot of sea spray on our faces – the skipper had picked up the pace considerably on the way home! On the Friday night our hosts invited us to join them and their friends for a braai and we had a really lovely evening with them all. On the Saturday morning we joined them all again for the final Lions match. It was a really good game which ended up as a draw, drawing the series. Not the win we’d hoped for but not too bad for our boys against the best team in the world.

After the match we said our farewell and went to visit the country market in Hermanus, purchasing some rather promising-looking pork products, before moving on west. We were delivering Eningu to the shippers and had booked a few nights at their camp site so that we could get her ready for her voyage back to Europe. Next stop Cape Town.

Ostrich Divas, Cango Caves and More South African Hospitality

The Little Karoo is a semi-desert landscape, much of which is denied of moisture by the surrounding mountains which also provide some fantastic scenery as you travel into and through the area. We had found a little cottage on an ostrich farm called Ostrich Divas just outside the town of Calitzdorp. It was incredibly good value, looked really sweet and, more importantly, we could watch the second test between the Lions and the All Blacks in the nearby town.

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The ostriches are farmed for their meat and leather

The farm was run by Kallie and Karin, a lovely Afrikaans couple. Our Afrikaans is more or less non-existent but fortunately their English was excellent. On our first evening Karin invited us to dinner. They were having a braai and the friends they were expecting couldn’t make it. They had plenty of food and she welcomed us to join them. Of course we accepted! Not only did they have a large outdoor braai, they also had one inside too! Gareth got huge braai envy…

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The farm’s indoor braai – got to build me one of those!

We had a really lovely evening with them and they invited us to watch the rugby on their (huge) TV rather than go into town the following morning. They were about to go on their first holiday for years and unfortunately one of their daughters was coming down with a throat infection. In the morning we got a text from Karin to let us know they’d gone to the doctors but that we should let ourselves in and watch the match without them. How lovely was that?! They got back before the start of the second half, daughter medicated up and things back on track for their trip the next day. The Lions won (just). Fantastic!

After the match we got a bite to eat in town, leaving our hosts to their preparations, before heading to visit the Cango Caves. Karin recommended a back road through the mountains which was just beautiful.

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En route to the caves

On the road we passed a rugby pitch somewhat different to the Wellington stadium that had hosted the Lions game…

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I wonder if the cows are present on match day?…

The route took us slightly longer than expected and we got to the caves just in time for the tour. Our guide was fantastic, incredibly enthusiastic and not averse to the odd joke about the roof falling in or people falling into the deep crevices in the old cave floor. She also told us a true story about a woman who had opted, with her husband, to go on the “Adventurer’s Tour”, a much longer tour than ours that took you deep into the caves and through some extremely tight gaps, clefts and natural tunnels. She was apparently of generous proportions and, against the advice of the staff and her husband, she insisted she could fit through the gaps and demanded to go on the tour. The guides relented. They got to the first obstacle where the participants had to squeeze through a narrow slot between the horizontal layers of rock. Most of the group were through when she took her turn. She got stuck. Tight. No matter how she wriggled she couldn’t get out. They had to get the emergency crews in to get her out. It took 11 hours. Apparently they had to cut her clothes off and grease her up to get her out. Meanwhile, her husband, who had told her she wouldn’t fit through, left them to it and headed back to the centre to await them in the bar! They now have life-sized cut-outs of the pinch points at reception so that you can check you will fit before you book – they were pretty small…

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Cango Caves

We’d booked three days at the farm. Kallie and Karin were off on their holiday early on our last full day but left us with everything we needed, including a large bag of home-made droerworst and an ostrich-skin key fob that Karin had made, and even offered for us to stay an extra day free of charge if we wanted to. Much as we were tempted we had to move on but it was a lovely offer nonetheless and their generosity was fantastic. We had a walk on the farm that afternoon. They had such a beautiful location, with views to the mountains. On the Saturday we’d popped into a butcher to buy some biltong seasoning so we could make our own a home and he more or less tried to sell us a farm in the area. It was dirt cheap and looking at these views you can understand that one might be very tempted… Smile

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The view from the farm

But we have no desire to live in Africa and when Monday came we left the Little Karoo, without a farm of our own, and made for a town called Swellendam. Our route took us through yet more stunning scenery and beautiful mountain passes. Every turn seemed to provide another amazing view, with plunging canyons, soaring peaks, great lumps of rock weathered by the harsh climate and with the bush somehow making a living from the sparse soil.

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Eningu in need of a clean after the dusty roads of the Little Karoo

We checked into the camp site at the nearby Bontebok National Park. We were really only using the park as a stop-off point to our next destination but it was worth a visit as it is one of the big success stories of South African conservation. The Bontebok is an antelope, somewhere between the size of a red and a fallow deer, that was on the brink of extinction until a few local farmers set aside some land to conserve the remaining animals. The project worked and the little fellas have come back from the brink. The park is full of them and we had a lovely late afternoon drive round the tiny park looking at them and the other wildlife, which included the incredible metallic-green Malachite sun birds.

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Bontebok and calf

The next morning saw us up at a civilised hour. We were not cat-hunting here (although they do have the odd Caracal), we were heading back to the south coast in search of something much larger.

Baviaanskloof

We headed west from the park towards the Baviaanskloof. This was another place we had read about in one of the SA outdoor magazines and it sounded worth a visit, especially for an interesting-looking walk. Although not that far from the busy coastline, this valley is remote and fairly hard to get to. The road in from the east was through a narrow gorge on a dirt road. Just how we like it! Smile

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The road into the Bavianskloof

We spent the first night at a camp site near the entrance. It was a beautiful location in a deep valley right on the river. No other fool was camping and when we asked the farmer-owner if he had a location that got the morning sun (to help us thaw out) he laughed. The sun apparently doesn’t get up over the mountain before about 11am at this time of year! He gave us a lovely site which had a covered kitchen area and was near the ablutions. We bought a load of firewood from him and got a large fire going to keep us warm and cook dinner.

We knew the morning was going to be cold. Minus 2 we’d been told. So we decided to get up early, get on the road before breakfast and try and find somewhere to stop once the sun was up. It was a wise move. It was very cold and we had to scrape the ice off the windscreen.

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Ice on the windscreen in Africa! Outrageous.

Not only that, the riverside looked a bit like a winter wonderland. The farmer had left sprinklers on overnight to water the site. This was the result:

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Sleigh bells ring…

We wound our way up the gorge. The only road went through a nature reserve and we had to pay a small fee to go through. It was a lovely area. Our plan paid off and we got up on top to find the sun shining and a warmer if slightly wind swept spot for breakfast. The area is apparently home to zebra and various antelope although we didn’t see anything. It didn’t matter though, it was a lovely drive and we saw no one else up there. Marvellous!

This year saw the 100th anniversary of a huge flood in the valley, when torrential rains had filled the creeks surrounding the area which then poured in to the kloof. The single escape route – the gorge we’d entered the valley through – was not big enough to drain the water quickly enough. Several people lost their lives including several members of one family. We passed a marker post that one of the descendants had erected to show the flood level. It was way over our heads. Scary.

We’d booked ahead to camp at the Bo-kloof guest house, on a farm near the west end of the Baviaanskloof. It was only about 100km but it took until mid afternoon to get there as parts of the road were pretty bad. On arrival, the farmer’s wife was concerned about how cold it was and more or less insisted that we have one of their chalets, offering us a good deal on it. We didn’t argue. Angela was coming down with a cold and we were considerably higher than we had been last night so it was going to be even colder. We settled in, opened up the tent to let it dry out and dragged our bedding inside to do the same. We did a quick clothes wash, getting them up on the line to enjoy the rest of the afternoon’s sun and then went for the walk.

The Waterkloof is a small, narrow gorge that cuts back into the mountainside behind the farm. We followed the track up through the farmyard and into the foothills. The mountain loomed either side and the sides slowly closed in, until we were squeezed onto the river bed, or rather a jumble of rocks with a trickle of water, to get upstream. Then the walls seem to almost join, leaving a cleft barely more than 1 metre wide in places.

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The walls were covered in vegetation with mosses and ferns all over the place. In one part, where the kloof opened up a little, a large area of dense green lilies, with the occasional bright white flower, covered the floor. It was a fantastic place, almost prehistoric and well worth the effort to get here. It reminded us of Ludd’s Church on the edge of the Peak District in the UK, which is well worth a visit if you haven’t been there.

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Lilies growing in the dank gorge

The walk was not difficult, or long, although we spent so much time taking photos and just stopping to admire it that we didn’t get quite to the top. We we were worried about losing the light before we came down so edged on the side of caution and got down before it got dark.

Once the sun had gone down the temperature dropped. We turned the heater on and were glad not to be camping. In the morning we headed out of the kloof, through another cool pass, and back towards the coast. There were a number of game farms along the way, including one with giraffes which were pretty surreal to see at the side of a public road. We also had our road blocked by some other animals which were perhaps more in keeping with the area.

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We chose a route through the stunning Prince Alfred’s Pass and Paardekop Pass, avoiding the coastal town of Knysna. It had recently suffered huge bush fires which had done an incredible amount of damage. Four hundred houses were burnt down including 40 B&Bs, which gives you an idea of the importance of tourism in this area. People also lost their lives including a young fireman. It seems the fires were started deliberately and several local men had been arrested.

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Prince Alfred’s Pass

En route we passed a cafe that we’d heard about and where we just had to stop for a pic…

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We finally found it…! Smile

We dropped in at the surfers’ mecca of Plettenburg Bay, but just to get provisions. Our camp for the night was at Nature’s Valley, just up the coast. Another SAN Parks site, it was cheap and sheltered. There was also a pub nearby which had the rugby on in the morning… We were expecting it to be warmer down here but disappointingly it wasn’t. Another camp fire to keep warm and an early night.

The morning was much, much warmer. The wind had changed and was coming from the mountain – a berg wind – which, counter-intuitively, was warm not cold. We headed down to the Nature’s Valley pub and watched the Lions play the Hurricanes (this time the result was a draw) and then drove to Storms River. The main road was a toll road but there was another route via the Boukrans Pass. Our gps suggested this was sometimes closed but there were no signs or barriers so we drove on. The tree-lined road wound down a narrow valley with a steep drop to one side and the cliff to the other. The further we drove the worse the road got, with trees fallen across it, several small landslides into the road and some bad potholes. But a path had been cut through so we carried on. It was great fun but we decided that it probably was closed after all… This was confirmed by a partial roadblock (a pile of earth across half the road) at the other side. Ah well.

Back on the road, we headed to a fuel station that was said by our guide book to have one of the most spectacular locations in the country. It overlooked the Storms River Canyon, an awesomely deep and narrow fissure which the main road and footpath crossed.

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Storms River canyon

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Here’s one for our mums…

The main Storms River ‘resort’ is part of a much larger coastal National Park. It covers the mouth of the river and part of the adjacent coastline. You can camp right on the front here, with the waves crashing in front of you and the wind whipping around you. Hence why we’d opted for the Nature’s Valley part of the park! As we arrived Angela scanned the ocean and there, in the bay in front of us, was a Humpback Whale tail-slapping and breaching. Our first whale since back on the coast and the best view we’d had so far. We watched it for 15 minutes while it frolicked. Brilliant. Too far away for a pic sadly.

One of the reasons to visit Storms River is the suspension bridge across the river mouth. It’s a fantastic structure, with the sea on one side and the deep gorge of the river on the other. You can do a kayak and lilo trip from the coast up the river. It looked like brilliant fun and we were sorely tempted. However a quick check of the water temperature soon decided us against it, especially with the sharp wind that was blowing. Nevertheless, the bridge was more than enough of an attraction.

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Around the main car park area we watched several Sunbirds sipping nectar from the Aloes. Beautiful little birds, and similar-looking to humming birds, these fellas clamber and flutter around in search of nectar, probing the flowers with their long and delicately curved bills. Many of them are very brightly coloured, just as these were, but they rarely sit around for long so getting a shot was quite hard!

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Double-collared Sunbird…

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… feeding on Aloe

We drove back to camp along the Boukrans Pass again, this time feeling a little guilty as we were actually passing “road closed” signs, but we knew it was passable so we went for it. What rebels. We spent 4 nights in Nature’s Valley before heading back inland again to take the R62 through the Karoo, one of South Africa’s must-do routes, so of course we had to do it.