The Beautiful South

FIVE months ago, just setting foot on the northern shores of Africa was one small step for man, one giant leap for overlanders with days, weeks, months, miles and countries stretched out before us on our journey around the continent.

Cape Town – never mind the final destination of Cairo – seemed another world away as we got our feet wet (literally) in Morocco.

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Stunning Coastline – One of many such views down the Western Cape

But after 22 weeks, 155 days and three days later than scheduled (courtesy of certain borders and visas halting our progress for longer than hoped), we have reached the Mother City and after all that time heading south, we are preparing to turn round and begin the second leg of our adventure north.

Not that we are in any rush.

If Namibia brought a complete change in conditions, surroundings, scenery and facilities, South Africa has stepped things up to a different level.

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Long Way Down – Sat on the top of the Cape of Good Hope

It is stunning.

We have been spoiled over the past week or so, not just with the facilities at places we have stayed, but also with mile after mile of wonderful scenery. Every time we go round another corner or over the top of a crest, another magnificent view stretches out in front of us.

Not a good time for your camera to give in (following the early demise of my Go Pro, which is heading off to a camera repair shop in Cape Town, it has meant a lot of work for my iPhone).

And not a good time for more than one person on the truck to need a bit of a catch-up on their sleep after a series of big nights out – and the odd day, to be honest. Close your eyes around here at your peril. You’ll miss something.

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Wet And Wild – Our unexpected stop on the banks of the Orange River

One or two people were in need of catching up on some sleep after our hectic few days in Swakopmund, ensuring our couple of nights in the Namibian capital Windhoek were fairly relaxed.

Well, they were for most of us as we spent our time catching up on our shopping at the mall down the road and heading out for a group meal, which saw zebra slip in behind kudu in the favourite game steak ratings.

For those of us who actually got served.

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Rude Not To – Making the most of our surprise final night in Namibia

Rolling out of Windhoek, our final two nights in Namibia provided a huge contrast in facilities and surroundings as, once again, we veered from the very basic to comparative luxury. Both were very welcome.

The first came at the end of a lengthy drive day, which saw us pull off the main road late in the afternoon and start heading towards a distant mountain rising out of the plains.

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Friendly Fire – Ben the occasionally over-eager Rhodesian Ridgeback at Highlanders

Most of us assumed pretty early that it was our destination for the night, but doubt any of us were expecting Steve to guide Nala up a narrow, rutted, sloping path to an abandoned campsite towards the top of the mountain – just down the track from a volcano crater – as the storm circled the peaks around us.

It was not that rough a night – and we even had the old brick outhouses from the campsite to prevent any digging – and it only rained heavily for around 15 minutes. Unfortunately, that 15 minutes coincided with the time we had decided to put up our tents.

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Tough Going – Relaxing at Highlanders

By the time our tent was up, rain cover on and we were able to step inside and weigh it down before it was fully pegged out, there was a couple of unsettling puddles which seemed to herald a damp, uncomfortable night.

Thankfully, once we had finished sheltering on the truck for as long as possible, the rain had stopped and the wind had dried out the worst of the water – at least on my side of the tent, Michael opting to sleep outside to avoid any remaining moisture, until more rain forced him inside and he attempted to sleep on my drier side of the tent as well.

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Harvest – Karla amid the foliage at the hostel in Stellenbosch

Any moisture in tents the following night was much more isolated as we wrapped up our time in Namibia in the luxurious surroundings of a campsite just before the border – which we had been due to cross, only for a last-minute change of plan to marry our arrival in South Africa with dates on Nala’s paperwork.

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Wine List – Our selection, complete with accompanying cheeses, at the second of our four stops on the wine tour…

We had been expecting a bush camp after crossing the border late in the day. What we got was a campsite in pristine condition, lovely soft grass to pitch our tents on, hot, clean showers, the best pool of the trip – sandwiched between a well-stocked bar and the picturesque Orange River – and, most pointedly for the night’s events, the same herd of Oasis overlanders we had tracked across Swakopmund.

So while they celebrated the last night of their trip from Nairobi, we offered a helping hand to ensure they were nice and fresh for their pre-dawn departure for the all-day drive to Cape Town and dived into a night of… well, that all depends on which stories you choose to believe (at least those who were not fighting the truck’s pet cold did).

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… and rather later in the afternoon

After mopping up the aftermath in the morning, it was off to the final border of the southern leg and the quickest, our crossing into South Africa taking roughly an hour from start to finish.

And our latest country did not disappoint with beautiful scenery from the off, not least around our base for our first two nights at the Highlander camp.

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No Picking Up – One of the penguins at Betty’s Bay

Perched on the tiered side of a valley overlooking farms and vineyards and run by a former overland driver, it took no time to register near the top of our favourite campsite charts, particularly for those of us who dived straight into a session of tasting the local wines. For tasting, in some cases, read downing.

It made for a very convivial evening, if an uncomfortable morning for some as we embarked on a major truck clean and, in my case, total revamp of my locker and kit. After a couple of hours lying around the pool and once Ben, the camp’s young Rhodesian Ridgeback, had been persuaded not to hump or chew everything he could get his paws on.

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Marker Point – At Cape Agulhas with two Australians and a stuffed kangaroo

There was more wine flowing in, possibly, even more beautiful scenery on a day’s tour around the wine cellars of Stellenbosch. It all started in refined fashion. But that’s a lot of wine in a relatively short period of time.

Stellenbosch was also our base for our trip to the most southerly point of Africa, prompting plenty of picture opportunities at Cape Agulhas, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.

It was all given a slightly surreal edge by the monument at the Cape having been unveiled by South African apartheid-era president PW Botha, one of the great political villains of my youth.

The system of inequality he oversaw for so long may have been swept away by the emergence of the Rainbow Nation, but it is still possible to see the divide between the haves and have nots in this country.

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Windswept – Look carefully and that’s me trying to hold Karla’s hair down at Cape Point

Some of the towns we headed through on a breathtaking trip back up the Atlantic coast almost had tracks running through the middle with signs indicating the right and wrong side – not that you needed signs, given the clear colour and prosperity divide.

But while there remains vestiges of the past, on the whole South Africa gives the impression of a modern country moving forward to a brighter future.

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Bottoming Out – Nala in the shadow of the Cape of Good Hope

It certainly has the natural resources that have created those haves and which, hopefully, will eventually filter down to more of the have nots.

Natural resources were certainly on view at our final stop before heading back to Stellenbosch – the enchanting penguin colony at Betty’s Bay – and the next day’s stop at the Cape of Good Hope, our final port of call before rolling into Cape Town.

And that’s a whole other story…

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