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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Out to Oudtshoorn

Day 29 - 32

I lingered around the backpackers a bit the following morning and finally made my way to the taxi rank at 11:00AM or so; I wanted to leave much earlier but the conversations at the backpackers were interesting and admittedly, there is comfort in the familiar (after three days) to the unknown, a new town that I would be traveling to. Typically I travel with every traveler's bible: either the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide (insert country name here) but I had come ill-prepared and couldn't possibly carry an entire library of all the countries that I would be traveling to. So, with only the local maps and Coast to Coast (a small pocketbook with a wealth of information covering mostly place to stay and some things to do type tidbits) on hand, I would be making my way to Oudtshoorn which was only about 80km or 50 miles northwest of Knysna, via George.

Before getting into a car (a car this time rather than a minivan that has been my main mode of transport from the taxi rank), I bid my new friends, Clifton and Sharon, good-bye; took some photos with them at their produce stand and thanked them for their time. I also passed on some money (SAR40, $5.25) that I asked them to hand to Davie and Winston since I had expected to see them again after I left Judas Square but never did. Around the corner at the taxi rank, I quickly found my car. Inside sat a scruffy old man passed out by the effects of alcohol who looked a little scary, and then three younger men, in their late teens, jumped in. I pronounced shotgun and got it as if it were my Godforsaken right because I was a foreigner and female. Our driver was quiet and I later realized that it was because he hardly spoke any English.

We started to make our way out of Knysna but traffic was slow moving since it was the Annual Oyster Festival and the yearly cycling race had already begun and vehicular traffic had been reduced to one lane in order for the bicycles to ride on the road. We also had to stop at the gas station, or garage, as they refer to it locally before heading out of town. I find it funny that all these taxis that transport people, know they are transporting people, only seem to fill up just enough gas for the drive. I suppose it's also psychological; that passengers know that they won't go anywhere unless their fee is paid. At least the garage had free wi-fi and I had just enough time to check my main essentials: email, facebook, weather, exchange rate.

After we finally got out of Knysna (took us about 25 minutes when it should only have taken a few minutes) and the drive was smooth sailing. I politely chatted with the other passengers from the front seat and the drunk had woken up and not only had a sense of humor but was not as scary as I had initially thought. The other guys, all traveling separately were squeezed between each other, going out to George the next town over, to meet with friends. Since there were no direct routes to Oudtshoorn, I would get to George first then switch to another taxi at the taxi rank to get to my final destination. The drive was uneventful until about 40 minutes in, we hear a loud thud and the drunk who had slipped back into a quite doze was woken up and asking if we had hit someone. No, I knew it wasn't a person because I didn't see anyone but the noise was uncomfortably loud. The driver soon said it was the "bonnet", hood (I actually had to think for a second what a bonnet was!), that had flown off; you can imagine the kind of car that I was riding in! So, having pulled over, he reversed on the shoulder lane about 50m to retrieve a piece of his car. We were pulled over for about 15 minutes as the driver, with the drunk coming out to help, tried to reattach the hood. Finally, we were off but we had to drive slowly otherwise it could have easily come off again.
Arrived in George and I was quickly directed to another station wagon which would take me to Oudtshoorn. Within 5 minutes we were on the road again…I think that was incredibly fast too as usually it takes some time to fill up the car before it can depart. The people in the car all seemed nice and smiled silently. The lady next to me made small talk, asking if I was going to Oudtshoorn. Then maybe about halfway through the ride, the guy behind me, who I couldn't see (I try not to look around, stare or make eye contact) asked me where I was from. I turned around and looked at him for the first time. He was a skinny guy with dreads and looked fairly young, I'd guess about 20 or so. He shared with me that he was coming home for a visit from Plettenburg Bay which is where he now lived and worked. He mentioned to me that he had started a tour business which we had now left to his friend and that I may be interested in doing a township tour. He asked how long I was staying and what I'd do when I was there and put his number in my phone in case I wanted to do the tour. I mentioned that I had wanted to go out to the caves (I had so much fun at my caving experience in Sagada, Philippines) and also because Mark, the Scot, had also mentioned that you could see ancient cave paintings on the walls of the cave. Initially, Mark had wanted to drive out to Oudtshoorn but after spending two nights in Storm's River, we ran out of time and because they had to bring the car back within 3 days, the farther we drove away from Port Elizabeth, the longer it would take for them to get back. So, I ventured here alone.

Within an hour (about 70km away), we were in Oudtshoorn and by the end of the car ride, Amos, the young looking dread lock boy behind me, only a few minutes ago a stranger, was now my friend and he was offering to help me carry my box (yes, still carrying it) and would help me find my place. Before leaving Kynsna, I was able to book a place at Karoo Soul, which was referred to me by another backpackers that Highfield's (Knysna backpackers) had called and was told was booked; the other place listed in my Coast to Coast was also booked. I had to walk far since I didn't listen to Amos and get off the bus when it passed my place; but anyway, I also wanted to know where the taxi rank was for when I would leave, that I ended up having to walk about a mile or so (or at least that's how far it felt), with my big red bag on my back and my backpack in the front, and Amos carrying my box.
We finally got to my place at the bottom of the hill and there in front of us, seated towards the back of the lot was a beautiful, big plantation looking home. We were actually at the entrance that is rarely used and because of that, the gate was locked. I tried calling to see if someone could come and open it for us since after all that walking and at least 30 pounds of luggage (mine alone; Amos had his luggage bundled compact but equally heavy), I really didn't (couldn't) want to walk around the corner and up the treacherous hill. When I called no one answered so we waited a bit and tried again. Finally Linda, who was minding the place, came down to unlock the padlock and let us in.

The home was beautiful, very clean and modern looking with lots of artwork. Turned out that Amos, knew the owner though she was away on vacation (or holiday as they say here) in Tanzania, through an art society that they both belonged to. Truth is I came to learn that Amos was very talented, smart and quite the entrepreneurial type. He was actually in "Plett" helping to educate adults, or the 'denied' generation, due to the conditions during apartheid and lack of educational opportunities not available to most (colored) people of that time. There was a veranda that bordered almost the entire house with chairs and tables sprinkled throughout. At one side of the house, you could also catch amazing views of the sunset and the African sunset cannot be missed, miles of sky stretching the horizon with beautiful colors painting the sky. The house had a dorm and several private rooms and even some cottages in the back; everything except a common area where boarders could mingle together. They had a tv in our 6-bed dorm room but it didn't appear there was a tv in any other room. It was already 2:00PM and I wanted to try to make the most of the remaining part of the day so we quickly dropped our luggage and Amos took me to a restaurant, recommended by Linda, for some ostrich fillet.

I was afraid that I wasn't going to like the ostrich so asked Amos if we could share a plate together. I didn't want to waste anything even though he reassured me that it is very good. And very good it was! It looks like beef and cuts like beef but the meat is incredibly tender and it isn't gamey as I feared it would be. I also had a choice of two sides so opted for the chips (french fries) and vegetables which were served au gratin and really good! We also had a couple of drinks and before we knew it, it was already 3:30PM so not enough time to enjoy any of the touristy stuff. Instead, we caught the first half of the game that day, Germany vs. Argentina.

Amos ended up walking me back to Karoo Soul to retrieve his things and we watched the African sunset out on the veranda. It's hard to imagine that we had only met a couple of hours earlier, already I trusted him and he was very helpful to be sure that I was sorted for my tours the next day. I didn't have a car so he promised he would call around to see if someone could take me to the caves and then the ostrich farm and if time permitted, the "Wilderness" park which was like an interactive zoo, some of its inhabitants being white lions and cheetahs; and even an opportunity to swim next to crocodiles while you were placed in a cage.

Later that night, as I was trying to connect to the free wi-fi at Karoo Soul, I had greeted an older gentleman and saw a young girl. I wasn't sure if they were part of the owner's family or not. Later, while seated outside, the same man excitedly comes out, almost shouting, to ask if I was from Japan. "No" I responded but mentioned that I did have ties there. He hastily left after he got his answer, apologizing because he had something cooking on the stove in the kitchen. Later he and his daughter enjoyed dinner at the kitchen table; looked like they were eating some kind of fish. I was passing time, waiting for the next game, trying to stay connected to the internet and catch up on my blog. The man came outside again and offered to make me some coffee. He introduced himself as Jeff and pointed out his daughter, Yasmine, which I misheard and called her Jasmine the whole time!

Jeff, originally from Istanbul, Turkey, has lived in South Africa for 26 years! His wife, a Namibian, is 21 years his junior. He has two daughters and Yasmine, his younger one that was traveling with him, I sensed immediately was 'daddy's girl'. He was a particular man, refused to use only his own things; he even brought his sandwich grill, and had strong opinions about certain things. He seemed very global; having spent a couple of years of his early adult life in Germany and then moved to England and often tells people that he is from London, not Turkey, but insisted that there was no need to teach his children Turkish as there was no need for it. He was an interesting character that loved talking to people. Although his comments sometimes came out abrasive or somewhat self-righteous, you could tell that he was genuinely a nice person. To the extent that he offered to take me to the caves and maybe even the ostrich park the next day. He also offered me a blanket because it was cold outside and even a toasted cheese and onion sandwich. Even though I desperately wanted to work on my blog, I listened with my eyes on him while my fingers typed away, occasionally glancing down. Finally at about 915PM, we moved in to catch the second half of the Spain vs. Paraguay game in the dorm room that also had a small 13" box screen tv.

Later that night, I wanted to retreat to my own space and after taking a shower, went to the kitchen to finish reading Honolulu, a book written by Alan Brenner, that I brought with me and have thoroughly enjoyed. If you like stories about old Hawaii, and want to read about actual events through the voices of fictional characters brought to life by the real-world experiences, you need to pick this book up! Jeff was offended and asked if I thought he was creepy; that was awkward. I just told him that I needed the light in the kitchen to read since the room was too dark. He then went on to remind me that it was a dorm and so that we need to be mindful that we share the space; which is exactly why I went to the kitchen, not wanting to turn the light on while his daughter was trying to sleep. Anyway, but that's Jeff.
The next morning, I woke up at 8:30AM and thought I would connect to the wi-fi before we started our day. I tried to be quiet not wanting to wake up the other two (it was just me, Jeff and Yasmine in the dorms) but so much for that, Jeff started talking to me as I tried to take out my instant coffee from my bag. I felt like a child caught stealing candy! The night before, we talked about leaving at 10AM but Yasmine likes to sleep in so she was still in bed. I couldn't get connected to the internet so I just had my coffee and two pieces of toast. At about 9:50AM, Gina, another manager at the guesthouse, asked if I would be staying another night. I liked the place, the free wi-fi and it was incredibly reasonable so I thought I should…but I really needed to be on my way to Cape Town. It was already over two weeks since I had initially told Peter I was coming. I also still wanted to check out Mossel Bay; it was considered the end of the 'Garden Route' and would help to break up my trip so I wouldn't have to sit in a van for 7 hours (or whatever it is) to get to Cape Town. Gina needed to know of my decision because they would need to change the linen if I was leaving or charge me if I was staying. I had 10 minutes to figure out what to do. Jeff asked why I wanted to go there as if to suggest that it wasn't worth the stop. Instead he suggested that I just stay another night so that I wouldn't have to rush out; another long night of conversations with Jeff came through my mind…I also thought it would be better if I could get to Mossel Bay that night, I could sleep there and leave the following morning. The only problem was that if I left Oudtshoorn too late then I would get into Mossel Bay late and with all my things, would need to find a place to stay in the dark. I had to make a decision quick. Amos was extremely helpful in getting me sorted and arranged a minibus for me at 3PM since he knew of my concerns of getting in town late. So, I called Mossel Bay and booked a place to stay, on a train**, and told Gina I wouldn't be staying. Therefore, I needed to quickly pack up my things and get going because I had to be ready for the bus at 3PM.

The guesthouse actually offered us vouchers to give us discounts to the places that we were going. We would do a stop at the caves first and then we would go out to an Ostrich farm and if possible, the Wilderness Park. But, it was already 10:30AM and we still hadn't left yet…I was going to have to prioritize my list and understood that I may not be able to do the things that I wanted to. I would also have to allot time to getting back to the guesthouse and then out to the taxi rank. I then suggested that since the Ostrich farm was on the way to Mossel Bay, maybe I could bring my things with me and then have the minibus pick me up there. Called Amos and he was able to make the necessary arrangements for me; what a God sent! We were finally ready to go at 10:50AM. We were told that we could get on the 'Adventure Tour' at the Cango Caves at 11:30AM. About 30km away, we figured we'd make it just in time. We got there just in time and I offered to take Yasmine in with me since Jeff had already been in the caves before and suffered from claustrophobia. After my caving experience in Sagada, I was excited to see what the caves were like here.

I ended up paying for the ticket for both of us, which I didn't mind since they were driving me around, but did find it interested that there was no offering of money from Jeff. I think I may need to do a separate blog entry on this topic as I do think this is a very big cultural difference where in the US, or maybe just in Hawaii, people are always taking out their wallets and people are often fighting over the bill. After several attempts to pay the bill are denied, then the person can finally retreat and politely accept. I have had at least three situations here in South Africa where somehow I got paying the bill and the other people there did not make an attempt to offer any money. I didn't want to come off rude asking them for their share but it did make me wonder how their view of paying and treating goes. I suppose another story for another time…

The cave tour started promptly at 11:30AM and our group was about 25. Walking in, we were greeted by signs and paved walkways; I found this strange and a bit disappointed as the caves from the start, gave me the impression that it was very much commercialized. There were stairs built and lights strategically placed; it was nice but didn't feel like I was in a real cave. The tour guide was great and very knowledgeable; found out he has been doing tours there for 17 years or so! At the end of the route which is 1.2km one way, there are three small crevices that need to be crawled, climbed and squeezed through. The points named 'coffin' and 'devil's chimney' didn't rest too well with me. Yasmine and I were at the front of the pack and went through it rather quickly. It was strenuous but definitely a walk in the park and much less of an adventure as the ones I did with Erwin in the Philippines. Since Yasmine and I were done early, we were asked to wait in the waiting area but after a while, we just started heading toward the exit. The tour is 1.5 hours and so I planned to be out of there by 1PM. It was already 1PM and I only have 2 hours left before my minibus would take me to Mossel Bay.

When we came outside, we found Jeff at the restaurant chatting with a biker couple, wearing leather jackets. I must have seemed a bit unfriendly because I was trying to catch my breath from the workout in the caves and stay out of the sun; I was breaking a sweat this point from the exertion and the heat in the caves. Eventually, I was called over by Jeff and I introduced myself to the couple. Jeff had told them that I would be going to Mossel Bay which is where they were from. They asked how long I was staying and if I was traveling with anyone. They asked where I would stay and I mentioned that I had a reservation in the train. Jeff had an opinion for that and said it was terrible and that I shouldn't stay there. Zelda, the wife, made a comment to her husband Pieter in Afrikaans, and then turned to me and asked if I would like to stay with them. Now, you know, it is probably NOT a good idea to just stay at a complete stranger's house but how often does one get invited? Pieter also commented that because they travel a lot, they know that when they extend kindness to people, they always receive it ten-fold when they visit. He didn't sound as if he expected anything in return but they genuinely wanted to help me out. In all my travels, this has happened to me more than a handful of times and I can honestly say that I usually sense if it's a good or bad idea and usually it's good. I can also say that of the people that I have met like this, I still keep in touch with many of them and have developed lifelong friendships. One example of that is Lavinia whose wedding I went to earlier this year in the Philippines. Met her almost 10 years ago and will never forget her family's kindness to me!

Unfortunately, they couldn't take me back with them to Mossel Bay because they were on their Harley's but they said that they'd be getting back to town around 4 or 5PM. I would still be able to ride my minibus and then wait for them to come get me. I wanted to chat with them more, especially because I had already agreed to (shamelessly) accept their offer (note that at this point, we had barely just exchanged names) and I really should know who I am staying with! But we were pressed for time and if I still wanted to go to the Ostrich farm, I needed to be on my way. It was already 1:20PM and I had about an hour and a half before my minibus.

Got to the Ostrich farm a little after 2PM and just missed the tour by a few minutes. The parking attendant quietly rushed us in to join the group. Doing this, we missed the registration and payment portion…We saw a short video on ostriches and then went outside to view some of these enormously big birds! We also got to stand on ostrich eggs! Even with all my weight it didn't break! But the guide said that if we were to throw it on the ground, it would…How does that work? Anyway, so we went outside saw an assortment of ostrich varieties: red ostrich, blue ostrich, white ostrich…I didn't know there were so many different types; the colors referring to the color of their skin. We also got to feed the ostriches, go on the ostriches and a few lucky and brave ones, me included, got to go for a quick ride on the ostrich! It was a lot of fun! The tour was done within an hour and I was awarded an "Ostrich Driver's License" valid for one year! When I got outside the group dispersed and I found Amos waiting for me with a car full of his friends. It was a bit abrupt but I quickly exchanged contact information and said good-bye to Jeff and Yasmine. It was awkward and I felt as if Jeff felt that I wasn't grateful for his acts of kindness and there wasn't much of a genuine, 'it was great knowing you' kind of a feeling. Yasmine, I think who's a lot like her father, was also very standoffish. I tried to get an email so I could send the photos that I took of Yasmine from the caves and the ostrich riding but Jeff said he doesn't give out his email and so I should just mail it to them; his home address he did provide to me. So they were on their way and I waved as the car drove away leaving a tail of dust behind them.

Amos and his friends, Dini, and two others that they nicknamed Pastor and Brazil, were waiting for me and were all really nice. I just made it and it was nearing 3PM. We talked and laugh and took pictures and I was able to give them some chocolate covered almonds that I have been carrying with me from Hawaii (thanks Roger!). Amos was getting worried about the bus and called them at least 5 times to ask when they would get there. They don't seem to hold a high regard for punctuality. It wasn't until about 3:30PM that they finally pulled up. I got to sit in the front again and it was about an hour or so ride to Mossel Bay. Pieter and Zelda had suggested that I wait for them at Delifino's, a popular restaurant overlooking the water. I was still a little nervous; not whether or not they were nice people, I didn't question that, but rather if they were serious about me staying and whether or not they were going to come get me. Unsure, I kept my reservation on the train just in case I needed to spend the night there. Only having 2 pieces of toast that morning and a few chocolates, I was hungry so ended up ordering chicken tenders and chips…it was strange when the dish came because it was grilled chicken with a barbeque type sauce, so not what I had in mind…I waited for Pieter and Zelda, wondering if they would come and get me…

**It's supposedly considered one of South Africa's weirdest places to stay because it's housed in a train car.

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