We had a huge day ahead of us. We were driving from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth in one day, then slowly working our way back along the coast throughout the next week. For normal people, this isn’t that crazy of a trek, for Kelsi and I, a normal 8 hour drive turned into a 13 hour adventure through back highways and wine country. We had no exact plans, no city maps, and no directions. We just bought a big road map of South Africa and hoped for the best. (For anyone else thinking of doing this, maybe plan a little bit better than us).
Our alarm went off at 6am and we were out the door by 6:45 with all our things. Because we had left our car rental until so late, the only available cars were located at the airport. Which meant, we had to lug our backpacks the 20 minute walk to the bus station, then the half hour bus ride to the airport just to rent a car. We had found a pretty incredible deal through Europcar that worked itself out to $25/day with unlimited kilometers on it and full insurance. Both of which were very important; we had a lot of driving ahead of us!
Kelsi drove. Our car was A. Manual and B. It drove on the wrong side of the road. I was not about to mess around with my limited knowledge of manual cars, trying to figure out which side of the road to turn in to and with the stick shift on the wrong side. I was much safer with the map. It didn’t matter how many turns or corners we took, I could NOT get used to driving on the left side of the road. But the driving was teamwork for sure: I read the map, and found the right highways for us to follow. I shifted gears while Kelsi needed a break to eat, and I helped with the four way stops. Yup, apparently New Zealand and Australia don’t HAVE four way stops. So when we came up to one, and Kelsi blew in front of another car out of turn, with me yelling from the passenger seat, it was quite a shock. From that point forward, it was my additional responsibility to help with four ways. Yes, we are disasters. How we made it through the week is beyond me.
Our goal was to avoid hitting any roads twice (or as much as was possible). So the usual, efficient, N2 route to Port Elizabeth was out of the question. Instead, we decided to head the more local R62 route from Montagu to Oudtshoorn and then follow it South East to Kruisfontein. This route also just happens to be the longest wine route on Earth. It is surprisingly very un-touristy (with more popular wine routes in the Stellenbosch area) and a quiet, scenic route to drive along.
So off we went, up to Bellville and Durbanville, then off route to Stellenbosch for breakfast. We opted for a healthy breakfast choice of burgers and fries. (It was the only cheap thing open early Monday morning in the sleepy university town). Then we headed back up through the mountain passes on our way to Worcester and the N9.
Wineries lined the highways. You couldn’t look one way or another without spotting an idyllic little vineyard. We were so excited to stop in at something along route 62. However, as soon as we hit route 62 and passed Montagu, the wineries stopped. What kind of a wine route was this?! We had over 200 kilometer of driving to find a winery and we couldn’t see ANY!
At first it didn’t matter. It was too early to try a tasting for us anyways, and we wanted to get moving after our off route stop in Stellenbosch for brekkie. But, by the time we saw signs for Oudtshoorn nearing, we were getting a little upset. “How is this a wine route?! Have you seen ANY wineries at all?”
Then all of a sudden we spotted a sign: Gruienheim.
“A winery!!! Look, look! Let’s go!! Turn in! A winery!” We were ecstatic.
We pulled off the main road into a gravel path. A couple turns and a few kilometers later, we pulled up outside a deserted vineyard.
“What do we do? Do we just go in?” All of a sudden we felt ridiculous. We parked the car and wandered around the front farm house. No one was in sight. “Maybe we should just go”
Nope! We’d driven the entire length of route 62 we were sure as hell going to stop at ONE winery.
“Hello?” We called out as we stuck our heads inside one of the buildings. Inside was a small room with a bar along one side. The bar was full of wine bottles and liqueurs. I think we found the tasting room.
We heard a lady talking on the phone in the next room over so we stuck our heads in. She looked up and stuck her finger up as if to say “silent!” I gave her a quick smile and went back to the tasting room to peek around. There we found a map of the riute 62 region with all the wineries on it. there were LOADS of them! at least 20 right on the route that we had just driven… apparently we are just visually impaired.
Soon after the lady on the phone came in “Yes? Can I help you?”
“We were hoping you’d have some wines here!”
“Yes, we do, here is the price list” she hands us a piece of paper and then walked behind the bar.
Then all of a sudden a little old lady walked in the room and her face lit up when she saw Kelsi and I
“Oooooooh!!! My darlings! How are you?! Are you here for some wine tastings? Where are you from? Are you sisters?!” She was not much taller than five feet and barely stood above the bar on the other side. She was the most pleasant lady I’ve ever met, with a cute little South African accent and a passion for her vineyard. Her and her husband owned the vineyard and all their stuff was sold locally. She was adorable!
“If your looking for dry wines I’m sorry, we only do sweet things here, like ports and liqueurs.” Oh no, I am NOT a sweet wine person. How did we end up at the one winery that doesn’t make dry wine?
“Come to think of it” she said “no one in the area does dry wine here, just not the right place for it I’m afraid. But we do have some excellent ports! Do you like port?”
“Of course!” We lied. It’s not that I don’t enjoy port. It’s just not what I normally go for. But, when in Rome!
To admit, we did try some delicious ports! They were smooth and sweet and as long as you think of them as solely desert wines, then they are delicious. Afterwards we tried the liqueurs: milky ones, honey flavored, rose petal flavored, they were all excellent and unique! And when all was said and done, we couldn’t leave without buying a small pack of something. It would have broken my heart to say no to this little old lady who was telling us the whole history of each thing we tried.
“Where are you staying in Oudtshoorn?” She asked as we were leaving.
“Oh we’re not, we are driving to Port Elizabeth.”
“Port Elizabeth!!!” She exclaimed. The way she said it you would have thought we’d told her we were driving to the moon. “But it’s so FAR! You still have 5 hours at least of driving ahead of you, and it will be dark when you get there. Don’t do that my dears, just stay here in Oudtshoorn. It’ll be much nicer. Wait. Ill get the name of a lovely little place to stay. It’s a youth hostel, you will love it. I’ve heard so many great things about it! Hold on right here a moment. Marylin! Marylin! How do you get to that youth hostel again?”
We stood there dumbfounded, not quite sure what was happening. Then she rushed back in to the room.
“Okay. Here we go. From my front gate you take a right, then a left then a right again at the main road. When you hit Oudtshoorn you will hit one light, then another then another. Then you will turn left and you will be in the vicinity. Okay? So right, left, right, one, two, three, left again and you are in the vicinity!” All this was explained to us with rapid hand movements from the right to the left.
“Okay, say it with me now. Right, left, right, one, two, three, left and you are in the vicinity!” For the rest of my life I will remember these directions. She was so precise with her movements, practically bouncing up and down with excitement as she explained the directions to the VICINITY of our supposed hostel. She was so cute I wanted to put her in my pocket and bring her to Port Elizabeth. But she thought we were going to Oudtshoorn, so that was out of the question.
We said goodbye and thanked her for the directions as we left “remember now, left, right…” We could hear her shouting to us as we walked out.
“So, Port Elizabeth?” Kelsi said
It was so lovely for her to give us directions, but we had already lost a day and had way too much to see. So we continued down the highway on our mission to PE.
It was just as she had said, about 5 hours later we reached the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, and it was dark. Maybe we didn’t entirely think this through. Driving up into a city we don’t know, in South Africa, without a place to stay and without a city map. Only retrospectively was this a bad idea. At the time, everything seemed totally normal.
Luckily for us, while we were in Victoria Falls, I found a travel book for backpackers in my room. It was all about South Africa and the places to stay along the way. It didn’t have maps, but it had one or two suggestions of places to stay with the vaguest directions I’ve ever heard. But it was something. I dragged that book around for a month, and it was finally going to come in handy!
Unfortunately, with zero city maps, finding anything was difficult. We stopped at a gas station just out of town to ask for directions.
“How do we get to the city center of Port Elizabeth?” We asked the attendant
“What?! You can’t go into the city at night!” He said
“Well we have to stay there tonight, we need to go”
“Okay” he said reluctantly, and he gave us some basic directions.
I was reading the guide book as Kelsi rounded the last bend before hitting downtown.
“Wait a second, these directions look much easier” I said “we could stay in the neighboring town of Summerstrand, avoid driving around the city, and wake up on the beachfront! And there’s the turn! Go right!”
So we pulled a quick right, found Summerstrand and a lovely cheap hostel for the night. Even in the night you could see how gorgeous the coastline was going to be in the morning. It was worlds better than aimlessly wandering the city streets for a place to stay, and a great way to end our first long drive of the trip.




An Oasis in the Sand

Huacachina is an oasis: literally. In 1999 only 115 people lived in the town, and I can’t imagine many more live there today. Only a couple city blocks long and wide, the town surrounds a small lagoon in the middle of miles and miles of sand dunes. The city is lush and green, with palm trees sucking the water from the single water source. One step out of town, there is only sand! The dunes create high cliffs of sand that tower over the city. While eating out on the patio, I often found myself wondering why the sky behind the palm trees was brown; it was always strange to have to horizon so far above eye level! At sunset, lots of couples and groups of young friends climb the dunes to watch the city in it’s final minutes of light. Huacachina is stunning! I had no idea that oases really existed, but this town is living proof.

I suppose I should let Adam write about the first day there, because I spent almost every second of it in bed with terrible stomach pains. I lost my appetite, but managed to drag my sorry ass to the table to share a dinner. I slept for 10 hours that night, drank litre after litre of water, popped all the drugs I brought and still felt like crap in the morning. So we had a slow afternoon. I managed to walk around the entire town before collapsing with exhaustion – which isn’t a huge feat in a town that has only 3 blocks. But the place was beautiful; it had grassy areas to sit down by the water where you could rent paddleboats or swim in the lagoon. A couple restaurants set up their tables and chairs right near the water for a fantastic view of the place. There was one luxury hotel right at the end of the water, and a bunch of lower budget hostels, each with their own restaurant and happy hour specials.

By the afternoon the pain had stopped and all I felt was lightheaded, woozy and restless. I was tired of sitting around sick and was determined not to let my illness get in the way of our timeline or adventures… So we signed up for extreme sports.

Sandboarding is a sport you can only do in very specific places in the world: Huacachina is one of those. It is exactly what it sounds like. Sandboarding is just like snowboarding, except A. The boards are shorter B. the bindings are simple and wrap around your shoes C. It is much more difficult to control yourself and D. It’s on sand dunes. So we left on our tour at 4:30 and drove off in a big, 7 person sand buggy. Our guide ripped up and down the dunes, scaring the living hell out of the two French Canadian girls next to us. You never knew when the sand was going to descend gently down, or cut off in a nearly vertical cliff: it made for quite the ride and the giggling screams of terror from Marianne beside me were so infectious we laughed most of the way there.

The dunes were unbelievable. They stretched out forever, climbing and falling in perfect slopes where the wind left them. The late afternoon sun left gorgeous shadows of contrasting light and dark brown against the blue sky. It was like looking over a brown ocean with huge waves crashing in on each other. 
After a half hour or so, after our eyes, ears and mouth were well covered in fine sand, we stopped at the top of a huge cliff of sand. “This is where you go sand boarding!” said our guide with a huge smile. Other groups had pulled up to the same spot and had pulled their boards out to the edge of the cliff. We looked over the edge, and straight down about 80m in a nearly vertical drop. NOPE, NO WAY, NOT A CHANCE IN HELL; there’s no way a person can go down that and survive! I turned to Adam and said “you’re on your own”. He looked down at the cliff with a little boy’s enthusiasm and grabbed a board. “You’re CRAZY” I said.

Now for those of you who know how awesome I am at Snowboarding, you should be surprised that I didn’t immediately go down the hill! Hahaha no, actually, my experience with flying down hills at huge speeds only occurs in nightmares. I would prefer to be sipping on a cold beverage at the bottom and wait, with a first aid kit, for Adam to show up. BUT, I also have a bit of an ego when it comes to being “too scared to do something” and Adam knows that about me; It didn’t take him long to convince me to do it. 
Standing on the board would have instantly been the death of me. I saw too many people get whipped around and flipped on their heads to try it. Adam obviously sand boarded down perfectly as if he’d secretly been practicing for six months behind my back! Showoff! So our guide showed me an alternate way of going down.
 Put your board down on the edge of the cliff, lie stomach down on top of the board, face first down the hill, gripping the bindings with your hands and feet flailing out the back. This seemed even crazier, but was my preferred option, so I lay down, and let the guide push me off the edge towards my impending doom.

Once over the edge I absolutely FLEW down; with sand whipping up into my face, I think I screamed the entire way to the bottom where I came flying up at Adam’s feet. I can’t believe he convinced me to do this on a day I was nearly puking my guts out only hours earlier!! But it was surprisingly fun!! I didn’t crash and I came out unscathed (unlike my wakeboarding experience in the Ilhabela that I still have scars from). We had to hike up through the sand to the next dune, which was much shorter than the first, and then finally a third before our guide picked us up.
 We then trekked over the hills in our sand buggy for a couple minutes before pulling up to another large dune. “Want to try again?” he pulled out the boards again as we walked to the edge of the dune to look over. I got instant butterflies. This was one on the biggest sand dunes I’d EVER seen. It was more vertical than the first and at least one and a half times as high. I was terrified! Perhaps I’d skip out on this one. The first guy to go down nearly came to a dangerous barrel roll finish as his board spun sideways at the bottom. His girlfriend flew down at record speed and came within inches of crashing into him. This did not look safe. Adam obviously grabbed a board, hiked up the hill to add another 10 ft in height and slid down the hill on his stomach, a trail of sand dust shooting out from behind him as he went down. I could barely hear him as he yelled what I can only assume were bragging taunts at me from the bottom. I hesitated a couple more minutes before the other Canadian girls (who chickened out themselves) convinced me I could do it. So once again, I came screaming down the hill towards the rest of my group! It was exhilarating and a little terrifying, but all in all I loved it! Successful afternoon on the slopes!

We trucked down to an area to watch the sunset over the sand and the whole place looked like a painting. It didn’t seem real to be sitting there watching the shadows change as the light disappeared. Then just like that, we all got back in the buggy and went back to our little oasis.

The next morning we had organized a winery tour with the two French Canadians from our dune buggy tour. Their driver picked us up at 11:30 and we set out to our first winery. Our guide, Jesus, spoke wonderful English and was a wealth of information about the brewery. The first winery was a family owned industrial winery. The family name, Picasso, is one I remember from home, but most of which were too expensive for me to afford in Canada. We walked around the grounds, learning all the techniques to make their world famous Picasso tempranillo wine and Pisco, the popular 42% liquor that is so common here in Peru. When we’d finished, we sat down to taste them all. We tried a red, white, rose and the Pisco. The wine was tasty, and the red tempranillo which had earned itself a gold medal in Peru and a silver in South America, was probably the best. However, I have to admit, Peruvian wine is not one of my favorites. All the wines we tried over the day had a certain similar taste to them that I am at a loss of how to describe. I suppose each country has this, and that’s how sommeliers can determine which country a wine comes from, but personally, Peru is not my favourite. We ended up buying a winning bottle of Pinot blanc from the winery that came highly recommended and was a great price. But that too left me disappointed: looks like those wine courses have made a wine snob of me after all!

The second place we went to was a family owned traditional winery. It was quaint, beautiful and everything was made by hand – or foot. They had huge concrete pits where people still stomp on the grapes to extract all the juices. Apparently once a year, on the March solstice, they have a big festival where people come to drink and dance over the grapes for the entire night to help make wine. We sadly missed this by only a couple days. Once the grapes are properly crushed, they are moved into clay pots and covered for fermentation. This winery only makes wine and Pisco once a year, not very sustainable that’s for sure. So it’s lucky that they also have a large field of various fruit trees, which also produce chutneys and pecan chocolate that is to die for! We got a tasting of several types of pisco, some dessert wines, a few types of chutney and the chocolate. It was a great way to end the tour.
 When we arrived back at our hostel we only had to kill a couple hours before catching our bus and moving onwards toward Nazca!