Thursday, January 19, 2012

South Africa Day 9 - Carry on up the Knysna (pass)

After a decent breakfast, accompanied by the pleasing sound of running water (we were sat not by the toilets, but next to a small terrace fountain), we checked out of Queens Hotel but left our luggage in the safe hands of the receptionist, whilst we had another bash at the Swartberg Pass.

View from the Pass
This time we got all the way to Prince Albert, the town that that lies at the end of the Pass, or the beginning depending on which way you’re coming from of course. By necessity the journey was pretty slow going, the road is traversable but quite steep in places and as rough as a badgers arse for most of it, so the car took a bit of a beating. But I told the car it was worth it, if only you had eyes to see what we were seeing, I told it, or ears to hear me talking to you, or a voice like in Knight Rider, that would have been amazing. But of course it didn’t, despite the fact I painted KITT on the back of it in Tipex after we picked it up, it just wasn’t enough to make it happen.

Another view from the pass
But if it did have eyes it would have seen some pretty magnificent scenery along the road’s winding 27km length that, at its summit, reaches over 1,500 metres above sea level and can collect snow in the winter months. The Swartberg Mountains, or Black Mountains in Afrikaans, themselves are anything but black, with a rich variety of hues, predominantly reds and oranges, from the layers of quartzite that go to make them, huge sections of these are rotated 90 degrees, a testament to the massive geological forces that are at work.

After reaching PrinceAlbert, a small quiet town, we stopped along the high street for a very good coffee in nice gallery/café. While sipping my half fat double caf soy light mocha whipped skinny frothy beverage I noticed that a group of people were decorating the public bins along street, dressing them in pre-fabricated attire, with messages on them to make people use the bins I guess. Seeing this, combined with the fact we had spent the last couple of hours driving across some mountains, made Prince Albert seem very much like it was in the middle of nowhere, made me like the place very much indeed.

View from near the top, from the car
View from near the top, not in the car
Of course the town isn’t in the middle of nowhere, there is more than a single way to get to it other than the Pass, and after finishing up my modest cuppa, we made use of the one that goes via Meiringspoort. Rather than travelling over the range, this road cuts right through it, following the deep floor of the cavernous gorge that has been created by the Groot River, in fact crossing it 25 times all told along its meandering journey. A pretty breathtaking drive in its own right and well worth doing.

The area is well known for its plant life, in fact the geranium is originally from around here, in 1689 cuttings were sent to Europe and cultivated, and they proved rather popular. After stopping at a well frequented waterfall that was a nice, if busy, place to cool off in the hot midday sun, we headed back to Oudtshoorn, picked up our bags, had a spot of luncheon then carried on our way.

Next up was Montagu Pass which crosses the Outeniqua Mountains, this road was built in the 1840’s and whilst not quite as spectacular the Swartberg it certainly has its moments. On the way up there is an old tollhouse where the toll of one penny per wheel or per ox had to be paid. Or should I say it used to have to be paid, which is just as well as I would have been quite happy to pay for my four wheels but I would have drawn the line at the oxen, I was just giving them a lift, they could pay their own bloody way. It’s now a national monument but is not looking its best having been vandalised and generally mistreated. I guess someone must have thought the toll was still in force and taken an exception to it. After that the road climbs to the narrowest part of the pass, a very steep section that runs below overhanging cliffs that supported, what used to be, the railway line between Knysna and Oudtshoorn, but this closed down years ago.

Montagu Pass
Beyond here the road gets steeper before reaching the summit of the pass and descending down the other side. It was actually a slight relief to get off it in a way, partly because there is a lot more greenery and tree cover on this range rather than the sparse rock of the previous ride, and as the afternoon had become rather cloudy it seemed slightly dark and oppressive. The other reason being the road was full of humps, every 100 yards or so, I guess it’s to stop people driving too fast, as although it’s a dirt road, it’s pretty well maintained, but because the humps were quite high off the ground, and the dips the other side were rather lower than the road itself, they all had to be taken at such a low speed it made progress rather tedious. As it was I managed to catch a piece of bodywork under the car and set it to a rather ‘rakish angle’ shall we say.

Looking back towards the Pass
For most people two big passes like that in a day would have seen them all passed out, but not for us, we began work on the Seven Pass Road. This was the original route, again built by that scamp Thomas Bain, to Knysna, our destination for the day, before the main N2 highway arrived. The route runs deep through the Knysna forest and the passes it refers to are actually over seven rivers. The 75 km long road negotiates the deep gorges that take you down and up from each waterway crossing.

We actually only managed 5 of them as it started to get dark and I was a bit knackered to be honest, I guess driving over steep rocky roads all day, although one of the seven passes treated us to sand, which was nice, takes it out of a person, so I was happy to take the main road on to Knysna and procure myself a decent shower. I don’t think my aroma by this time was especially fresh, so I’m sure Sarah was as happy as I was at the prospect.

Got into Knysna just after dark and checked into the Knysna Quays, one of the Protea chain of hotels that seem to be a ubiquitous presence in most of the main towns. It was actually pretty good, in a big hotel chain type of way, had a decent room and a view over the shopping centre, well OK, that wasn't perfect but it didn’t really matter.

After a cleansing shower we took a stroll to the waterfront, which was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, and we became convinced there must be a waterfront ‘proper’ in the town, yet after 3 days there we can’t claim to have found it. I had some seafood, which is what Knysna is famous for, being situated right on the water, from one of the limited amount of restaurants available, mussels to start and then prawns and calamari for main, it was ok, nothing special though. Not that I was particularly put out, I just wanted something to trough on before heading to bedfordshire.

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