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Friday, April 18, 2014
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Published: 12/19/2004

Driving through South Africa much easier than we thought

The very last thing the South African Airways captain said to us - right after he had explained that our aborted landing at Cape Town International had been due to high tail winds, not a mechanical malfunction - was that we should really watch out on the roads.

"Driving in this country can be extremely dangerous," he advised.

Later, having already spent five days cocooned in the company of our Cape Town friends, Andre and Gill Loubser - stowed away in their gated-community condo and protected by two vertically challenged but vociferous woofers - it was high time for us to break out, to explore the wide open spaces beyond the Cape Peninsula, to mix and mingle with the real South Africa.

After much debating and flagons of local wine, a workable game plan did eventually come together - sort of. We would drive out along the N2 Highway to the oceanside resort of Knysna (everyone's favorite destination) and use it as a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside - the forests and the mountains, the bays and the beaches - that make up the famed "Garden Route."

Then we'd venture north, into the arid hinterland known as the Klein Karoo and into ostrich country before returning home via Route 62, the world's longest wine road.

But despite this game plan, and the pre-booked accommodations, and the good advice of our friends and their friends, it was still with considerable angst and some stress in the lower extremities that we set out early one morning in our rented, right-hand drive Toyota, maps at the ready and fingers crossed.

We headed east, in the direction of Mossel Bay, where the highway meets the sea and then hovers and hugs its way along the Indian Ocean for 200 miles or more.

Trouble was, this was all 500 miles away. Ahead lay long stretches of perilous road - not to mention probable bands of marauding baboons, rabid ostriches, and all the other exotic impedimenta that our vivid imagination, and the South African veldt, could dream up.

It took us all of 30 minutes on the N2 highway to realize that the roads were in fact, not dangerous at all. Au contraire. They were simply magnificent, the best we've ever ridden on anywhere. Lightly traveled, well-tended, and racetrack smooth. (No freeze/thaw cycle here).

And there were so generously bermed that overtaking was a breeze, especially when every car and lorry automatically moved over onto this wide berm when being passed. (A courtesy flash of the emergency lights and you're gone.)

In almost a thousand miles of driving in South Africa, whether on two lanes or four, mountain pass or back country trail, we had no problems at all - not a single white-knuckle moment.

Drivers were universally courteous. On the brief stretches where there was road construction, flag wavers would energetically signal caution. Signage was always explicit - though, as usual, we managed to lose ourselves in a couple of townships.

And filling up the petrol tank was better than a NASCAR pit stop, as enthusiastic teams of uniformed mechanics would leap forward to service the car. It was as much as we could do to stop them jacking it up and changing tires! (Tips were always readily and happily accepted. Credit cards weren't.)

We did take a couple of precautions, however, given that this was South Africa and unknown territory for us. We always drove defensively, never at night, and we removed our radio whenever we left the car, as per rental company instructions.

That said, the trip unfolded pretty well as planned. Knysna - which translates to "it's nice" in the local Khoi language, was exactly that. Just our kind of place: a compact seaside resort with all the proper amenities and few pretensions.

So, in the course of the next two days, we did our thing. Drove out along the dramatic coast as far as Storms River. Poked our noses into plush resorts like Plettenberg Bay. And dipped our toes in the warming waters of the Indian Ocean off a pristine beach called Nature's Valley.

As this was Africa, we also spent a couple of hours at a primate rehab center called Monkeyland, in the company of dozens of free-ranging lemurs and langurs, gibbons and marmosets, and monkeys of many different stripes - all rescued from circuses and organ grinders and potential butchers, and all destined to spend the rest of their lives playing in the trees of this jungle reserve.

On the way back to Cape Town, along the Wine Road, we also stopped off in Oudtshorn - the ostrich capital of the world - to learn more about these strange flightless birds, which can run up to 40 mph and live to 50 years old in the wild.

Ostriches also happen to taste pretty good, as we found out that night on our return. Our friend Andre, using his own patented braai barbecue, scorched up some terrific ostrich steaks, opened a bottle of the best Constantia shiraz, and toasted to a great reunion and our future return to South Africa ASAP - if not sooner!



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