I was hesitant to venture all the way to South Africa to run a marathon, but Cape Town and its surrounds turned out to be a diamond in the rough - not only in terms of their sheer beauty among the rugged mountains, but in the contrast/dichotomy of it's economic classes as well.
It all started with a few good shots in the arm to be on the safe side. Then it was off on March 27 for a 22 hour flight to Cape Town, via Atlanta and Johannesburg. The flight was shortened by the charming South African company seated next to me. She gave me a great introduction to her country, what to see and where to go. Before I knew it I was landing in beautiful southern California-like weather - warm, sunny, and dry. It was 11:30am local time (4:30am body time). After a quick walk through customs I confronted my first obstacle as I walked up to my rental car on the wrong side.
Driving is one of those things you do without thinking, which isn't a good thing if you need to think about it. South Africans drive on the left. I expected they wanted me to do the same. I made sure I rented an automatic, just in case the clutch and brake pedals were switched like everything else. I stashed my one carry-on bag for the 10-day adventure in the trunk and cautiously pulled out into traffic. As long as it felt wrong, I was probably right. Or more precisely: "look right, keep left". You don't realize how natural it is to expect traffic to come from the left when you cross a street. I decided to look both ways...twice.
I'm left-handed, so driving on the left wasn't so bad. Oh yes, you pass on the right of course, and you sit on the right side of the car, and speeds are in kilometers per hour which makes you feel like an Indy race car driver. At least everything was in English...well almost. Driving out of the airport, I was immediately introduced to Cape Town's first major contrast in economics, from the bottom up.
Cape Town is a booming modern metropolitan city, also called the "Mother City". It has it's share of wealth, but here in the outskirts lived the squatters. I had read about Cape Town's "low income" eastern suburbs, but as I jumped on the N2 I was amazed at these living conditions. I like camping in the rough, and my house probably qualifies as a bachelor's pad, but what literally looked like ruins or trash piles from a distance were indeed people's homes and shacks, something we probably wouldn't even keep our garden tools in. And these weren't just a few scattered homes made of a medley of wood and corrugated metal jigsaw pieces, they were entire fenced-in neighborhoods that covered acres, and tightly spaced. You might be able to squeeze three people abreast between shacks, if all three were on a diet. Between many you could pass a cup of espresso from within one house to the next.
Swinging my sights forward, I was confronted with the skyline landmark of Cape Town - table mountain, looming large overhead like all the mountains here, straight ahead, smack in the middle of town. In fact, I couldn't look anywhere on my trip without seeing a jagged range of mountains somewhere in view. Table Mountain is unique though. It is wide and flat on top. And when the weather is just right, a cloud layer shrouds just the top - something the locals call the table cloth spread out over Table Mountain, and only Table Mountain.
I discovered Cape Town has not solved the directions dilemma of a big bustling city, as I missed my turnoff and unintentionally became intimately familiar with Cape Town's inner city streets - some of them several times. The quickest way to learn your way around a city is to get lost in it. I also got good practice with turning through intersections (just keep repeating: "left...stay left..."). Eventually I got a layout of the land and found my first night's lodging, Cape Town's unique and simple Train Lodge.
The Train Lodge is a hostel-type accomodation - simple and inexpensive. It consists of old train sleeping cars bolted in place on tracks with a train depot atmosphere built around them. I had my simple and tiny two-bunk (4 bed) room to myself. Two bathrooms and showers were at either end of each train car. And complete with a view of Table Mountain for only 75 Rand.
The exchange rate in South Africa is wonderful for Americans, about 10:1 - 10 Rand to the US dollar. Most countries weren't near that rate. It was a simple and unique first night in Cape Town. Before retiring I drove to one of Cape Town's hot spots: the Waterfront. In fact everyone in Cape Town had the same idea! That's where all the cars and people were. It has the usual stores and restaurants, and a shopping mall along with a live band performing out by the water. I was cautious about drinking tap water, so I ordered soda with my meal. It seems all soda cans in South Africa are half as tall as ours for some reason. Sleep came, appropriately enough, to the sound of an occasional train passing by in the night.
One day closer to the marathon. I started noticing more and more elite-looking African runners and average ones too. This Two Oceans Marathon was indeed big business down here. Huge banners swayed in the breeze throughout the airport and city announcing the race. Oh ya, the race was tomorrow! The marathon was the original excuse for this trip, but it soon became an after-thought as I began planning the trip, and later as I became entranced with the people, location and vacation itself.
These people love their distance races. They host the well-known (among ultra-runners) Comrades Marathon each year. The term "marathon" here isn't limited to the standard 26.2 mile (42.2 km) race we are familiar with. The Two Oceans Marathon is 56km (36 miles) and the Comrades is 54 miles. And yet they have huge turnouts for these and other races here.
I was still walking up to the wrong side of the car - and of course pretending that I wanted to do that all along...! You know you've mastered driving here when you walk up to your car on the right side...literally. But I was quickly becoming accustomed to being a lefty, since I was one anyway. I drove off to find accommodations near the race start, but Easter weekend and the race made it difficult. Eventually I found a nice Bed & Breakfast in Claremont, the Harfield Guest Villa, nestled among some beautiful blooming bougainvillea. The cook Anna was from my hometown of Alexandria, VA. The rest of my trip was spent at B&B's ranging in price from 75 Rand at the Train Lodge to 400 Rand at "At Villa Fig". And if one B&B was full they would recommend or call another they knew of. I met many friendly people on this trip.
The popular beach towns are strung along the west side of Cape Town, and dubbed the "Cape Riviera". They stretch down a strip of land that is wedged between the high mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. I cruised into Sea Point, under Signal Knob, then on down the busy car-congested coast to Clifton where the setting sun reflected on the Twelve Apostles - a range of tall peaks. Driving over the pass between Table Mountain and Lion's Head peak back to my bougainvillea bed in Claremont, I found that driving in the dark on the left side of a narrow, windy road was a new adventure in itself.
I picked up some grape Powerade at the race expo earlier that tasted very strong...too strong in fact. But I needed to hydrate before the race, so after drinking what I could stand, I diluted it with water. It was about then that I noticed the word "concentrated" on the bottle. That evening I learned the consequences of drinking something that concentrated - not recommended the night before a little exercise! I would explain, but this is a family article, so I will leave the details to the medical journals.
Waking at 4:30am after a restful 5-hour sleep I packed up my gear and headed to the starting line. Each athlete is assigned a starting location, or "bin", according to their qualifying times. The street behind the starting line was cordoned off into these bins. I was in bin-B, the second bin, which meant I was close to the starting line. With over 9,000 registered runners, those in the last bin would take time to get to the start after the gun went off. Each of us also wore a standard computerized racing chip laced to one of our shoes to register our time when we crossed the starting line, finish line, and points in between. This way, there really was no hurry to get to the start unless you were fighting for top honors. With 15 minutes to spare, I settled into bin-B with my bag of Alleve and hard candy tucked in my shorts, two energy "gu" packets pinned to my shorts, a disposable camera in my hand, and a smile on my face. At 6:00 am sharp (11:00pm body time) the gun sounded and 9,000 of my new friends and I headed down Main Road towards False Bay in the morning dusk.
The Two Oceans Marathon used to run along both sides of the cape, but bad fires and rain in 2000 caused mud slides that closed scenic Chapman's Peak Drive overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This re-routed the race course inland again this year. Eventually the original course will return when Chapman's Peak Drive re-opens.
The first 20-22Km to False Bay was easy and generally downhill. You had to be careful you didn't run too fast and burn out before the massive hills later in the course. Within a mile I was already sweating. After an almost cool start it rapidly climbed (as we climbed) into the 80F's. This meant I had to be careful to drink plenty of water all day and start early. If you've ever watched a race, you've probably seen people handing out cups of water. Have you ever tried drinking something without a straw while riding in a car down a bumpy road? Try doing that while you're bouncing down a road running without shocks, while twisting and swinging your arms. It takes skill to master this feat well enough to get a few sips in your mouth and not everywhere else, including your nose. The countless race volunteers solved this by handing out sealed plastic pouches of water. You simply grabbed one or two and when you felt like drinking, bit into it and sucked out the water without a drop spilt. The green packets were water, and the orange packets were an electrolytic energy drink (like Gatorade). Ingenious and simple.
As the sky brightened and I neared False Bay, I could see a mountain looming straight ahead. I was wondering if I'd be climbing over it later. But for now we squeezed around it, hugging False Bay with a strong head wind as we headed into Muizenberg and on down the coast to Fish Hooke. A beautiful coast indeed with its classic bright primary colored wooden beach bathing huts and always...those mountains...looming closer and closer. Official marathon signs were posted along the entire course. Cruising along the coastline of Kalk Bay, I noticed one that read: "Don't stop for a swim. Keep running!"
Ocassionally, you talk with a fellow runner who happens to be running your pace. A brief friendly chat comes easy with over 20km in common and shared respect for each other. At 22km in Fish Hooke we made that right turn away from the water, climbed across the cape, and never saw flat land again.
The race was going well...well, the first half at least. A mile into the long slow climb up Oukaapseweg I knew I was in for a long, sore day. The hills had started. No, I should say the mountain! It took a sweltering hour to inch up 1,000 ft-high Oukaapseweg , the largest obstacle on the course, and careen down the other side but the view at the top above the mist was awesome!
Running long downhills is worse than uphills because of the pounding and breaking required. My feet and knees reminded me of this as my head enjoyed the scenery. At the 42.2km point and 3 hours 32 minutes into the race, I had completed my marathon on my fifth continent - the reason for being here in the first place - but my car was still 10 miles away and I had things to see, so I continued on. Besides, I think I was parked illegally...
At the marathon point we went through a canopy that sprayed mist to cool us off. There were three of these throughout the course. There was also music in spots. The race started with Chariot's of Fire. The theme to Rocky was heard just as we approached one of the summits, and now at the misty tunnel I heard Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl". Emerging from the tunnel I was greeted by a pair of Uptown Girls in bikinis, "well-suited" for their volunteer position! I managed to keep running...uphill.
It was time for an energy boost, so I reached for one of the energy gu's strapped to my shorts and discovered that they had both fallen off. DOH! Luckily I had my little stash of goodies. I would slowly suck on the hard candy for energy, or occasionally on a Tums for its calcium and to settle my stomach so it would continue to absorb fluids. Two or three times I popped an Aleve.
Another thing that makes this the best organized race I've ever run were the free massage tables that were set up at locations along the last half of the race. These Capetonians really know how to put on a race!
Winding through a beautiful cypress forest with 10km to go I knew I would finish in my goal for a bronze medal (under 6 hours). Anyone fast enough to beat 4 hours got a silver medal and the first 10 got gold. After 6 hours everyone got a blue medal, which is actually very nice too. With the help of some high-order math, I determined I could possibly beat 5 hours if I kept my pace. But I didn't have a good feel for km-based pacing so I added a few fudge factors into the equations.
With the huge finish banner in sight spread high over the course, I sprinted across the grassy finish since I'm a half-miler at heart. (Sprinting at the finish of an ultramarathon looks a lot like jogging). When I got to the banner I realized it was just that...a banner, and the finishline was another 200 meters further! (200m at the end of an ultramarathon looks like 2 miles). So I dug down deep for the last of that thick PowerAde concentrate that had settled down to the souls of my feet and pushed on to finish in 4:55:59 for 1,241st place out of 6,400 finishers. The unemployed winner did slightly better in an amazing 3:09:42, winning by only 11 seconds and taking home 100,000 Rand! The first woman finished in 3:38:02.
It's such a great feeling to finish an ultra! It's not like most of these people look like super fit athletes. They look average and even sport their few extra pounds here and there. The key is the ability to stay on your feet that long and not to think too much. Enjoy the scenery and company instead.
Luckily my car was still where I parked it. I checked out of one B&B and into the "At Villa Fig" B&B in Constantia, a world-renowned wine region. This was the fanciest and highest priced B&B I stayed in. With the Easter weekend and race, it was the only one available. But at US$40/night I wasn't complaining.
Since I still had a half day left to sightsee and all I had done so far was run a 36-mile race, I drove over to Hout Bay on the Atlantic, up the coastline to Clifton, and finally up to the Table Mountain cable car. This is the only way to the top of Table Mountain, short of climbing it, and what a great view it commands as Cape Town and the ocean spread out below you! You can also see the neighboring smaller peak called the Lion's Head.
My legs were slow and sore, but it felt good to hike across the top to a huge crevice to see the table cloth up close and personal. Strong winds blew the cloud layer over Table Mountain, cascading over the edge. As it descended, the table cloth evaporated. Though constantly moving quickly over the plateau, forming and evaporating quickly at the edges, the table cloth looks stationary from a distance, draped over the mountain. As I stood there, the winds picked up and the tablecloth enveloped me in a cold mist. I looked down to see my silhouette in the mist with a rainbow halo glowing around it.
I woke SORE the next morning. And as luck would have it, my room was on the second floor.
As I dined on a fresh breakfast on the front patio in perfect sunny weather and with a majestic view of the mountains, my host at the "At Villa Fig" B&B explained "fynbos" (fine-leafed bush) - a unique variety of thigh to car-high brush unique to South Africa. In fact, there are only six floral kingdoms, or ecosystems, that cover all plant life in the entire world. These usually cover vast areas, but the Southwestern Cape's fynbos boasts more than 8,500 different plants in an area less than four percent of the Southern African land surface. In fact, South Africa's plants and flowers represent 10% of the total number of plant species in the world. It's a unique ecosystem found no where else in the world. It has the most variety of plant species per square meter than anywhere else and as I would soon discover, completely carpets the Cape of Good Hope.
Retracing my race route to Muizenberg and Fish Hoek, I discovered some prime traffic congestion areas along the coast. But the race was over, I was in no hurry. I passed the mountainous right hand race turn and continued south along the arching False Bay coastline to Simon's Town. Because of the curve around False Bay, you could see miles and miles of beautiful coastline and beaches, and far across the bay, tall rugged mountains - an enchanting hazy bluish by day and glowing rust in the setting sun.
Picturesque Simon's Town has been the base of the South African navy since 1957. I stopped at one of its protected bays called Boulders, to stroll among its land-based colony of 2,300 small, cute Jackass penguins. As I continued south I encountered signs warning not to feed the baboons. I soon discovered why as I passed a couple of cars stopped along the roadside with a troop of chacma baboons crawling all over them, looking for handouts.
Once thought to be the southern-most point of the African continent until someone eyed (and remeasured) a piece of land to the east, the Cape of Good Hope jabs south into the Atlantic like a jagged dagger. And the Atlantic fights back with a vengeance! Originally called Cabo Tormentoso (Cape of Storms) by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, the Cape of Good Hope is known for its high winds and treacherous seas. It is the graveyard to many shipwrecks, including the legendary Flying Dutchman that sank in 1641. Sightings of the phantom ship have been reported since then, once by King George V of England.
Today was no different. The wind gathered speed as I hopped my way down the Cape, now a nature reserve. Wind surfers sped across ocean waves at Pegram's Point. Strong winds blew mist back out to sea off the top of high, crashing, milky white waves at Neptune's Dairy, forming rainbows in the mist. The winds made it impossible to hold my camera still and difficult to even stand. It didn't seem to bother the herd of antelope or ostriches I saw off in the fynbos though.
The winds reached their zenith at the tip of the Cape where the Cape lighthouse somehow remains standing. A funicular railcar, like an incline, takes visitors up to the lighthouse from the parking area. It closes at 5pm, which is when I arrived. I looked at the long winding flight of stairs, mustered up a strong dose of mental morphine for my sore legs and started to climb knowing the trip back down would feel worse. Actually, jogging down was easier than walking - less braking. Somehow I still managed to pass tourists.
My thighs had been mincemeat all day and my calves chopped liver (i.e., not as sore). If you shut off the soreness from the waist down and walk funny so as not to use those muscles as much, then you're fine. Just don't expect to suddenly get out of the way of anything.
At the base of the lighthouse the wind was deafening. Even with a stone wall waist-high, you stagger against the gales and sometimes can't walk against it as you watch the sea pound just as relentlessly against the rocks 98 feet below. Back at the parking lot, a baboon was harassing a tourist until she gave up and tossed her ice cream cone. Meanwhile, the swirling winds would set off more car alarms. I'm glad this wasn't on the race course!
Simon's Town, home to the Navy since 1957 and the Jackass penguin for much longer, was mine for the night. And Bertha had me for dinner. She was a cozy restaurant on the water with lights lining the bay. My first experience with ostrich (that I know of) was tender and delicious, in the form of a steak. Another of many pleasant sunny dry days around 30C had come to a close...
Some people may question why I would take this trip alone, but I met more friendly people on vacation than I would have if I stayed home. Combined with the beauty and excitement, that's not lonely.
Everyone should be required to travel overseas at least once in their life to see what life is like outside the U.S., and to appreciate their life within it. When you were in elementary school, that was your world. When you advanced to high school, your world became bigger and other high schools were your rivals. Then in college, your world expanded further, and those high school rivals from your hometown area became your friends with a common bond. This natural progression continues until you travel abroad and get a worldly view of things.
After a pleasant breakfast on the patio overlooking Simon's Town and False Bay, I bought some small iridescent green malachite stone animal carvings from one of the many local vendors who set up their wares along streets, parking lots…anywhere. The stone came from a copper mine.
Today was a new adventure that would take me east along the coast from arid lands to South Africa's beautiful and semi-tropical "Garden Route", an all-day drive. Beautiful sandy beaches with long stretches of surf ran for miles as I arched around the north coast of False Bay, through the Wolfgat Nature Reserve toward the misty mountains I had been viewing for days. Cars seem to either have two people in them or are packed with twenty!
Near Strand there were more poor shanties, crowded together and fenced in for acres and acres. On the beach by contrast was a parasailer. Surfers rode the waves as my car hugged the loose rock cliffs of those misty mountains I had seen the day before. I had to stop in my name-sake town of Gordon's Bay, look around, and buy a trinket before continuing to Betty's Bay. Scattered along the coastline were small man-made swimming pools designed to fill by waves and the next high tide.
Betty's Bay is a small coastal town with bright colorful roofs. Oh yes, and 7-11 stores have made it to South Africa! I learned a new driving talent as I cruised down N2 towards Caledon. There's a refreshing courtesy among drivers here to pull over and drive on the left shoulder to let someone pass. After passing, a few flashes of the emergency lights says thank you. That's not the only reason for driving on the shoulder though. You definitely have to watch out for oncoming passing traffic in your lane! The wide shoulder is effectively an extra lane of travel for driving…and walking and biking and herding and wildlife, so it pays to keep your eyes open. But considering these hazards, it still seemed more civilized than D.C. rush hour traffic.
The N2 curved inland for awhile into arid open rolling plains. The speed limit here was 120 kph (75 mph). Caledon makes up for the arid monotones with very colorfully painted homes, generally pastels. In fact, the road pavement looked pastel too. After passing a brick-making oven near Napier, I drove long, straight, and flat for 35km through a marsh, racing the setting sun to see the southern-most point of the African continent. It was then that I realized I was even beginning to think in a British accent (or was it Irish?).
South Africans speak primarily in either Afrikaans or English (with a bit of a British-style accent). Afrikaans was derived from Dutch. When Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Good Old Cape from the Netherlands he couldn't understand the indigenous people, called the Hottentots! They had to work for the new settlers so they were taught a very easy-to-learn Dutch. It was called "Kitchen-Dutch", not really the lingo to speak if you wanted to impress a fellow Dutchman. A lot of the complicated grammar was left out of this new language. The Hottentots looked after the Dutch children, who started speaking Kitchen-Dutch to the horror of Mom and Dad. Gradually Afrikaans became a part of everyday live. It wasn't recognized as a proper language until the 1950's.
Speeding down the long open marsh to southern-most Cape Agulhas, I passed signs for tortoise crossings. I managed to beat the setting sun after a full day of driving, but just barely. A plaque stands at the southern-most point with the Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Supposedly, on the right day, with keen eyesight and I'm sure lots of imagination you can actually see a color difference between the two oceans! I couldn't, but then the sun was quickly going to bed. Just across the water, beyond view, was Antarctica - my final continental marathon conquest. The sharp jagged rocks that shoot out of the water at nearly vertical angles, and the rough choppy waves that crash against them made this point feel like it was indeed the bottom of the world.
After another two and a half hours on the road I stopped at George, where I would catch a steam train the next morning. I settled into a cozy modern hotel complete with a thatched ceiling and loft. My thighs felt much better. Today it was my calves' turn to feel sore.
Are washcloths an American thing? Nowhere I stayed seemed to have them. I also learned that the term "appetizers" returns puzzled looks. The locals call them "starters". And the response to "thank you" is "pleasure", "robots" are traffic lights, "en suite" means your room comes with its own bathroom, and cape salmon is a delicious white, not pink.
After a wrong turn and an early morning mad-dash I just made the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train to Knysna by the skin of my teeth. Apparently my legs were feeling much better - almost functional again! The nostalgic narrow-gauge Choo-Tjoe train steamed through gum and pine tree plantations and cut through narrow gorges on its way to the coastline. It hugged cliffs and sharp bends along the ocean, crossed the curved Kaaimans River bridge, and steamed through several tunnels.
The train wound through the beautiful lakes and forests of The Garden Route and made a long sweeping curve around the Knysna Lagoon before finally crossing it on a 2 km (1 mile) bridge. The entire trip is a scenic and relaxing two to three hour 60 km ride.
Knysna is world-renowned for its cultivated and wild oysters. I had less than two hours to explore the town before catching the returning train so I set out on foot for the Knysna Oyster Company on Thesen's Island. Apparently I wasn't the only one with this plan. Sitting outside, overlooking the lagoon, I dined on a variety of delicious Knysna oysters, each with its own distinctive taste. Speaking of being outside, there were almost no bugs on this trip. Maybe it wasn't their season or I was lucky.
The return train trip to George passed by another closely packed shanty neighborhood with cinder block outhouses. These people are poor, but several of them still smiled and waved. Money doesn't always buy happiness I guess. I did meet people looking for handouts, but there were others who were just casually friendly. The less friendly folks luckily kept to themselves for this trip. I started to notice more people in George and other towns who wore bright blue overalls or shirts. Maybe they were public workers. Apartheid was a big issue for these people in the past. I'm sure residue of it still exists. But aside from the shanty neighborhoods, it wasn't apparent from my outside vantage point.
South Africa has parking attendants in places that aren't even parking lots. They help you park, help you pull out and "watch your car". Some are reputable while others are just looking for a Rand.
I raced to Mossel Bay to mail a few postcards in another race with the sun. It's not that South Africa only has one post office - it's that Mossel Bay has one of the oldest and most interesting post offices in the world. It seems 16th-century seafarers left messages for each other in a shoe suspended from a milkwood tree. Portuguese captains would also leave messages engraved on flat rocks. A cement and stone shoe-shaped letter box now stands there, nearly engulfed by an large ancient knarled milkwood tree. It's an official mailbox with a unique postmark. I mailed my post cards, then explored Mossel Bay.
Mossel Bay, or as the locals say Mossel Brai, is second to Hawaii for having the mildest all-year climate in the world according to the Guiness Book of Records. It seems Marsh Street is the hot stretch for the under-25 crowd. That and "The Point" at the end, along the ocean. It sports a campground as well. I stayed at Allemans Dorphuis, a big old stone house B&B built in 1891 with old wooden floors, simple rooms "en suite" and a narrow mardi-gras style wooden balcony. The bathroom had an old overhead flush toilet and the bedroom had old fashioned (dare I say original) push-button light switches. A great place for only 150 Rand.
The next morning, over a delicious continental breakfast that included one small ostrich meatball, my host told me about Mossel Bay and introduced me to Rooibos tea, also called Red Bush tea, bushman's tea or "Nectar of Nature". It is the tea my flying companion told me about earlier. More like an herbal or green tea than a regular tea, Rooibos was discovered at the turn of the 20th century in the Cedarberg area of the Cape. The locals discovered that the fine, needle-like leaves of the "Aspalathus Linearis" plant made a tasty, aromatic tea. They harvested the wild-growing plants, chopped them with axes and then bruised them with hammers, leaving them to ferment in heaps, before drying them in the sun. Today Rooibos is still processed in much the same, but more modern, way.
Rooibos is a very healthy drink. It has no caffeine, is low in tannin, which can effect one's absorption of iron and protein, contains anti-oxidants which are good for the immune system and may slow aging, and has no oxalic-acid that can cause kidney stones. The mineral content of Rooibos also contributes to the maintenance of healthy skin, teeth, bones, and metabolic processes. It is reportedly also good for allergies, asthma, stomach disorders, irritability, sleeping disorders. Supposedly infants who can't take milk yet can be given Rooibos tea until they are ready for milk. Besides all that, it just tastes good too.
My host pointed out that my trek today would throw me into the middle of a huge outdoor Akrikaans music festival in Oudtshoorn with thousands of people. But first I returned to the Post Office tree in daylight and toured the Dias museum with its surrounding grounds. Graciously, my host had hosed yesterday's arid dust off my car, so I was starting the day fresh. What service!
In August 1487, Bartolomeu Dias and his small fleet set sail from Lisbon, Portugal to explore the West African coast, erecting padroes (stone crosses) along the way. In February 1488, he dropped anchor in an inlet he named Sao Bras (St. Blaize) or Angra dos Vaqueiros ("Bay of the herders"), depending on who you talk to - today's Mossel Bay. In 1988, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his landing, a full size replica of Dias's caravel retraced his voyage to Mossel Bay. There the 25-ton vessel was lifted out of the water and placed in its present museum.
After my history lesson I headed back further in time to "The Point", where the ocean meets Mossel Bay and early man met both. There stands Khoi-San Cave, also called Lighthouse Cave, St. Blaize Cave, or Bat Cave, where the first indigenous people are believed to have lived. Khoi, or Strandlopers, and San lived in this Cave, at different times, in past centuries. The cave is over 10m high, 12m deep and 22m wide at its mouth. It faces the ocean and used to be home to thousands of bats as well.
On the rocky trails around the cave and shoreline I met some cute little varmints that look like squirrels on steroids, which might explain their small tails. From the cave's high vantage point, I could see one reason for The Point's popularity. Several parallel walls of rocks jutted out of the water closely parallel to the shore. These made great diving platforms and calmed the water between them from the breaking waves. I jogged the few meters back to the car. My legs felt great, though I knew they wouldn't last even a quarter mile yet without "feeling the burn".
Off to the ostrich farms, if I could make it through the music festival crowd. I noticed a dried herb smell (almost taste) to the air as I cruised north through drier lands, inland toward Oudtshoorn. It reminded me how lava rocks smell in a sauna. It was another hot, dry, sunny day. Once again, no matter where you were you could see tall sharp mountains at some compass point. This time it was a new range stretching across the north.
In Oudtshoorn I stopped to get water. The music festival was indeed busy and festive with various bands, foods, and crafts scattered around. I decided to soak in the laid-back atmosphere along with some liquids. Besides, the hunt for a parking spot was worth more than just a bottle of water. As I walked past one venue, I heard the singer belt out a rousing rendition of John Denver's "Country Roads" song, with a somewhat livelier beat to it. As the chorus rolled around, the entire crowd got into it, singing as if they were all homesick West Virginia natives, but with a slightly different accent.
I made it to one of the three public ostrich farms by high noon, ready to ride an ostrich, but was told it was too hot (30-35C/85-95F) too ride them. Bummer. But the self-tour was interesting. Did you know you can stand on an ostrich egg without breaking it? I bought a short lamp made from a carved ostrich egg. The light lit up the translucent egg beautifully. The trick, once I got back home, was to convert the 220-volt lamp to our 110-volt system.
Next were the cool Cango Caves, so I continued north to the mountains. En route I passed a man herding ostriches down R328. There are a lot of ostrich farms in this dry open region. Apparently when ostriches get hot they stand with their backs to the wind and open their wings to cool. I tried spreading my wings as I cruised north - it worked!
The Cango Caves were very cool, well, warm actually, a constant 18C (64F) at 95 percent humidity. Instead of the standard tour, I opted for the hour-long adventure tour that included going deeper into the caves and crawling through four tunnels or cracks that were just wide and/or high enough to slither through.
Among the massive and delicate structures, we saw Cleopatra's Needle, a stalagmite that is 160,000 years old. As you remember from Geology 101, stalagmites "might" reach the ceiling, while stalactites hang down. The oldest formation in the cave was 1.5 million years old. The large main chamber used to hold concerts until too much wear and tear was occurring. Local herdsmen discovered the cave in 1780. Rock paintings and stone implements though indicate the first chambers were inhabited about 15,000 years ago. We almost became some of them!
We were apparently the last group for the day because as the three German youths and I walked back out we walked, stumbled, and groped through some sections where the lights had been turned off. Deep in a cave in the bowels of the earth in total darkness - now that's an adventure tour! Finally we found a lighted section, but when we got to the entrance it was closed. Eventually we realized the exit route was different than the entrance route, so we retraced the darkness, improvised a little off trail and made it out alive, with the help of a lighter.
I had driven east along the coast and Garden Route, and north to ostrich lands and caves. Now it was time to head west through South Africa's world-famous wine region and eventually my flight home tomorrow. I hoped to see the Swartberg Pass, built by Thomas Bain's convict labor gang over seven years, but time was running short and I had to get to Montagu before all the B&B's closed. Queen Elizabeth knighted Thomas Bain for his road-designing efforts on several mountain passes, but I would have to wait to see those another time.
Instead of taking the longer major road, I decided to take the proverbial "short cut" through the countryside. On the way to Calitzdorp, a cow strolled slowly through an intersection looking sorely in need of milking. I ached for a mile thinking about it.
Be wary of straight direct routes on maps. Especially if the line is narrow. It's always something. I was reminded of this fun fact as the road I was on gradually narrowed into a dirt road - at times, only one lane wide. I was headed into the foothills of those tall ragged mountains I saw days before.
But it's a great way to see the countryside as well as the locals. They were quick to smile and wave back, though they did turn and gaze quizzically back after I went by. You begin to wonder when you're on a narrow windy dirt road in the middle of nowhere and the locals, though friendly, look at you with this "what the #@*?#! are you doing here" look. But at least my same radio station still came in, so I continued on…for hours…enjoying the scenery…as the sun began to slip again.
Houses and farms were scattered along this popular walking route. You could tell when a car was coming the other direction by the advancing cloud of dust. Then it was windows up and recycle the air for a minute. As a courtesy I slowed to a crawl when passing people walking so they could breathe once I passed. I stopped at a few ridge tops to admire the jagged mountains, rolling hills, and blushing sun. This was fun. A little long, but fun.
Eventually I came to an intersection. The sign said left, so I turned right and headed over a narrow winding mountain pass road (it was on the map). Cattle ranged freely here and "evidence" suggested they walked this road too. Occasional cattle grates in the road and fences kept them from roaming too far.
Eventually I came down to a valley oasis where tall 20'-30' grasses or reeds grew along a narrow creek. After a couple hours of dusty arid driving I began to sense how good water must feel to these people. The stars had been great here every night, but tonight they were all out partying with double intensity.
By 8:30pm I pulled into Montagu, found a B&B, the Koo Karoo. It's not hard, just follow the B&B or hotel signs in every town and ask around. I checked in with the Heydenrychs, then drove up to Avalon Springs for dinner and a warm dip on my last night. After discovering I like Kingklip fish, I jumped into the natural hot springs - warm springs actually - at the base of some beautiful lit-up cliffs.
It turns out my host at the Koo Karoo B&B ran the Two Oceans Marathon two years ago. Seems my trip had come around full circle. I motorcycled across the US years ago along historic route 66. South Africa's route 62 is a little like our nostalgic route 66, but without the classic malt shops. Their goal is to promote its route 66-like mystique and charm. The route 62 emblem is even similar with the characteristic US highway shield on it. I strolled around Montagu in search of a route 62 sticker and eventually succeeded.
On my search I discovered a cat-crossing traffic sign on one of the main streets. For six years a friendly legendary cat used to cross back and forth, nuzzling folks until someone killed it for no reason just a week earlier. They even sold cat-crossing sign postcards.
After the marathon I had emailed a request for one of the large cloth 8.5 foot tall race banners that waved in the streets. Checking my email in Montagu, I discovered one was available - as long as I could make it back to Cape Town to pick it up before my flight!
After eight days of perfect weather the rains finally hit, and hard, once I got to the 3.5km-long tunnel through the Du Toitskloaf Pass. Because of the bad weather and little time, I headed straight for Cape Town, passing the wine regions of Paarl, with its monument to the Afrikaans language, and historic Stellenbosch. The marathon office was near the airport. I was able to get the race banner, race back to the airport, drop off the car, pickup my tax refund for goods purchased (what a deal!), and wisk through a quick easy bag inspection with a half hour to spare before my flight!
Flying back from Cape Town takes 25 hours (including three connections), versus the 22 hours getting there (with two connections). We flew to Johannesburg, called "Joburg" locally, then to Santa Maria in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa to refuel. Apparently, since 9-11, international flights are not allowed to hop within the US. This is why the flight now refuels at Santa Maria instead of in the US. US officials also boarded the plane and ensured that every carry-on belonged to a passenger there.
Twenty-five hours after leaving Cape Town I was home. It was amazing that I was in South Africa what to me was this morning! Driving back from the airport was tricky. It seems everyone drives on the wrong side of the road here! For days I kept turning my wipers on to make a turn. My total driving mileage in South Africa was 1668 km (1036 mi). It was a lot of driving, but I experienced a lot too. Now I know where to spend my relaxing time on the next trip to the other down under.
This was continent number five in my quest for running marathons on all seven continents. The previous one was the Great Wall Marathon in China last May (Booz Allen's IQ, issue xxiv, summer/fall 2001). And the next one? Maybe along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu high in the Andes mountains of Peru.