Giant Meteor Craters, Majestic Mountains, Rolling Farmlands and a Pulsating City. A Road Trip Across South Africa
Each time I visit this part of the African continent I seem to see it in a completely different light and this time around things were no different. If anything, crisscrossing the country in the dead of winter with its clear, azure blue skies and the crisp air makes everything sparkle.
Leaving Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest metropolis, on one of the multi-lane highways that weave and snake around the city means I am in open country in no time flat. Speaking of flat, this part of the country resembles the proverbial pancake with the sealed roads stretching forever to the distant horizon. Here the landscape is peppered with field after field of winter crops of yellow canola, bright green winter wheat and patches of indigenous renosterveld that is pleasing to the eye. A solitary Cape vulture circles lazily overhead, a reminder of how this region was once the exclusive domain of Africa's wild creatures.
The first part of the journey will be relatively short at just two hours as I head towards the Vredefort Crater, the largest verified impact on earth surface at more than 300 kilometres (190 mi) across. The centre of the crater, known as the Vredefort Dome was formed over 2 billion years ago when an asteroid, approximately 10–15 Kilometers in diameter travelling at some 170,000 km per hour struck the earth with a mighty explosion and formed a huge depression that still exists today. The "Vredefort Dome", consists of a partial ring of hills that is all that remains of a dome created by the rebound of rock beneath the surface after the collision.
My destination is Witklipfontein, a wonderful 215-hectare game lodge teaming with antelope, zebra and giraffes mingling with a large herd of Angora goats. I have come primarily to see the unique structure of the main guest lodge which has won numerous architectural and environmental awards.
Belgian brothers, architects, Damien and Xavier Huyberechts combined their vast experience and passion for nature to create a unique living environment. The structure itself blends seamlessly into the surrounding terrain as it seems as if the ground of the hill has been lifted by a giant hand in order to slip the house under it.
It was love at first sight. The structure is what one would certainly call the perfect ‘bush weekender’ for, as I write this a herd of zebra strolls lazily past the floor to ceiling glass walls. followed by a couple of curious giraffes.
Leaving here was tough but the call of the mountains was strong and so it was time to head east to the awe-inspiring Drakensberg Mountains.
The scenery, especially in the north of South Africa is considered by many to be the most spectacular in Africa, a sublime medley of rugged peaks, scarps, pinnacles, forest, waterfalls and rivers. One of the biggest attractions is the 25,000 odd examples of San rock art many at least 40,000 years old.
This majestic mountain range conjures up images of aeons past and it is no wonder J.R.R. Tolkien saw this landscape as inspiration for the part of Middle Earth called the Misty Mountains. With peaks that exceed 3000m, the Berg – as locals like to call it – forms the backbone of the Maloti-Drakensberg border between the Kingdom of Lesotho and South Africa.
Again the winter climate made my brief trip through the mountains all the more memorable. Crisp, cold mornings followed by bright sunny days under impossibly blue skies painted these soaring peaks into sharp relief.
Before heading south I feel compelled to travel to an area just outside Howick to see the unique statue of Nelson Mandela constructed at the 'capture site' where the future president was apprehended and his subsequent incarceration for 27 years on the notorious Robben Island in Cape Town. The monument itself, designed by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose is a series 55 vertical steel columns each between 6.5 and 11 meters high that, when viewed from a certain angle suddenly reveals Mandela's imposing profile. This towering monument is a fitting tribute to one of the country's most revered leaders.
From here the long drive to the Western Cape coast at about 1100 km seemed daunting at first but, like all long road trips in this wonderful country as soon as one sets off the scenery changes and lulls one into a sense of well- being.
A nine-hour stint, crossing the small and large Karoo, a semi-arid desert the terrain is yet another part of the country that is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Rugged and dry yet alive with ochre colours has meant that the region has attracted writers and painters from far and wide, drawn like moths to a flame to its rugged beauty.
Suddenly the terrain ends abruptly when one reaches the Swartberg Mountains standing like imposing sentinels protecting the coast from the desert.
Once across these mountains winding through a dirt road pass designed and constructed by the 19th-century engineer Thomas Baines, the magnificence of the rugged the coastline of the Garden Route is revealed in all its brilliance. I am heading to the quaint town of Knysna for a brief family visit and am always thankful that my sister chose this part of the world to settle.
Situated on a large lagoon framed by two giant ‘heads’ which give access to the wild seas beyond the area is surrounded by thick virgin forest that once teamed with vast herds of elephant. The clear waters of the ocean are electric-blue in colour and, at this time of year, electric-freezer in temperature meaning these are not a welcoming waters for humans to go floating in.
This rugged coastline teems with life (16% of the planet’s coastal marine creatures lives along the rocky coast that stretches from Cape Town Durban in the north of the country.) and so it’s no surprise to learn that some of the ocean’s biggest mammals make a living in these waters. Giant humpback whales pass lazily by during winter as they head north to their favoured breeding grounds.
This region of South Africa, known affectionally as The Garden Route is one of the more popular holiday destinations for South Africans and international visitors and consequently during the summer holiday period of December and January, thousands flock here to soak up the sun and spend time with family and friends.
My time in South Africa was, as always too short but once again I have felt blessed to have had the opportunity to explore another part of the country that offers the visitor so much diversity.
There is no doubt that I will be back!
Photographs copyright Paul v Walters July 2019
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and, when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.