In which we traverse half the length of South Africa, renewing old acquaintances, cementing cherished relationships and taking in a few new places, too. This is the first of a few blogs, the number depending on how much the imagination gets carried away in the moment.
Take this instalment as the introduction and first few stops of our East "Coast" Nostalgia
First up, Jane and David Rosenthal, Jane being a Joeys1 cousin who had long since decamped to that part of the Cape in the form of what is referred to as The Garden Route. Conversation with these two lovely people was never going to be a problem.
Above: We'd barely made it on to Natures Valley Beach with the Rosenthals before progress was dictated by the need for dialogue.
But first, our route. We had made the happy decision to leave Hermanus as the sparrows broke wind on New Year's day. We'd seen out out the Old Year with a relaxed braai with Shelley-ann's sister, Kerry (a.k.a. Kinks), and her husband, Tim. Early to bed and early to rise and all that. Jolling (revelling) on NYE could be left to the next generation. I suspect that, as we left the next morning, most of the other traffic was made up of revellers returning to their beds.
The first instalment of the Nostalgia blog would take us from Hermanus to Umdloti, just to the North of Durban from whence Shan would fly back to be with her Mum and I would meander onwards to pick up with the Vaalies2.
In addition to the aforementioned Rosenthals, we were intending to call on the entire Robertson clan, Pete and Rose Clarke, Shan's brother and sister-in-law, Patrick (a.k.a. Packet) and Susie, and Andrew and Ann Hathorn. We would travel more than 2,000 km to achieve the first leg of the ultimate nostalgia-fest.
Above: Our more than 2,000 km to cover the first, East "Coast", section of our meander ...
So now back to Jane and David. We'd visited them before in their eyrie above Whiskey Creek in The Crags near Plettenberg Bay. On that occasion we'd stayed in their guest accommodation but now they were living there while renting their main house to a family. We'd need to find an alternative place to lay our heads for a couple of nights. I started parsing places in the Crags/Plettenberg Bay area and every place that looked enticing seemed to be eye-wateringly expensive, even for an inhabitant of the UK.
That was until I came across the quirky Villa Villekula. "Quirky" can often be used as a marketing ruse to disguise what is essentially a substandard product so we approached the Villa with a little trepidation but an open mind. Did I mention the place was off-grid, too? And a domestic animal sanctuary.
It is difficult to describe what a wonderful surprise awaited us so I'll start with the view from the main verandah.
Above: This was the serene outlook to be enjoyed with a glass of chilled wine - big skies surmounting a background of the Tsitsikamma mountains with a lake/dam in the foreground, the latter brimming over with fish. Donkeys peacefully grazing completed the sensation of wellbeing.
We could have just stayed there for the two days we had booked and invited the Rosenthals to break bread with us in what was reputed to be the finest restaurant in the area. As it happened, however, the restaurant was closed for the owners to grab a quick breath after the Christmas onslaught. Once we'd overcome our initial disappointment, though, this was a blessing in disguise. Our hosts directed us to a cheerful alternative down the road and we arranged to spend the next day in Nature's Valley with Jane and David.
Above L to R: What a surprise - Shan enjoying a glass of wine to accompany the surprisingly delectable bistro food at the Peppermill Cafe; return to Villenkula to appreciate to accommodation constructed almost entirely from repurposed materials and bric-a-brac, which could have been tacky but wasn't, having been carefully chosen to complement the off-grid spirit of the place.
It seems I've known about Nature's Valley for almost ever. My Mum spoke about it, recalling her youth to me and my siblings when we were young children. She also spoke of holidays in Plettenberg Bay. I'd been to Plettenberg Bay relatively frequently. Used to love the place as a callow youth3. I'd always wanted to go to Nature's Valley but never had. Now we were on our way, being guided by David, sitting beside me in the car. We were all chatting so happily that our human satnav almost failed us at the first major junction, i.e. the one off the N2 that heads off down the edge of the gorge to join the Groot River.
Nature's Valley is a place of two parts. Forest and Beach. The beach forms the backdrop for intense conversation on the beach and is portrayed in the introductory photos to this blog.
There was a brief pause at the mouth of the Groot which was open, terminating our progress in a North Easterly direction. I feared for a person on a standing up paddle board proceeding downstream towards the open sea but she was an expert and manoeuvred out of harm's way confidently.
Above from top left: an intrepid paddle boarder near the ocean; further upstream the water is the colour of cola produced by minerals and their production from water flowing over plant roots; The beginning of the trail; a majestic Yellowwood towers above the forest; Jane and Shan admire the trees while David feeds his plant-identification app with snaps of the lower-growing flora; yes, the trees do have ears - wouldn't you love to know what signals they are receiving?
We paused to feast ourselves on the ocean, the beach and the forested hills overlooking this tranquil place, after which late morning tea seemed a good idea. We emerged to find the post New Year Jan 2 invasion was in full swing. Despite concerted attempts to get to the fabled Blue Rock Cafe, the beach side road was so rammed the only sensible option was to head for the hills.
Nature's Valley is the start of the Tsitsikamma hiking trail that extends along the heavily-forested coast for more than 60 km to the mouth of the Storms River. In my grandparents' days this forest covered vast tracts of the area between the coast and the Tsitsikamma Mountains. Giant Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus and latifolius) dominated the skyline, interspersed with other regal trees such as Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata). These were literally decimated by the logging industry, fuelled in part by the thrust of sleeper-hungry railways and the furniture industry. Now there is a scant scattering along the coast and the Hiking Trail is probably the best way to experience it.
And we wonder why there is global warming?
Foiled in our attempts to reach the Blue Rock Cafe, we resolved to head back to The Crags and the Pepperpot and (at least Shelley-ann and I) ate too much. Conversation continued throughout and we succumbed to tea and David's delicious cake when we finally dropped our companions back at their home. Holidaying may be relaxing but it sure doesn't do much for the waistline, especially when the dreaded Long Covid discourages any mitigating exercise.
As we drove away from the Rosenthals' a sad air enveloped our car. How many more times, if any, would we see them again?
We dawdled back to the Villa in a contemplative mood and ruminated over a glass or two of wine before resuming our journey eastward.
Above from top left: our host, Daniela, showing typical love and attention, this time to her adopted animals; the verandah from which we enjoyed our evenings and breakfasts at the Villa; those Tsitsikamma mountains again, bathed in early evening light; Shan soaking it all in in the gloaming.
The next leg of our journey resumed the next morning relatively early. We were headed right across the Eastern Cape to Tyolomnqa, with an unknown quantity for the last section, both in terms of directions and the state of the road.
But we were excited to be heading there at the invitation of Denise King, now the matriarch of the Robertson clan, originally from Durban. It had always been a place of mystery to us ... Far from the Madding Crowd. It is also the holiday retreat for Peter and Rose Clarke. The extent of its mystery was always the perennial excuse when trying to see one or more of its itinerant inhabitants at certain times of the year: "Oh no, we'll be at Chalumna4."
It has always been that a certain 290 km of the Eastern Cape highway (the N2), stretching from Storms River to Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Beyond that the big east-flowing rivers such as the Fish, Buffalo and Kei kick in, flouting their immense canyons bedecked with canyon-side vegetation. We would remove a bit of the monotony by taking the coast road beyond Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) and travel via Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred to the Tyolomnqa River, just after which we'd bear right on to roads of dubious passability for the final 9 km to our destination.
To fortify ourselves for the featureless 220 km we decided to visit the Big Tree shortly before we would reach the Storms River Bridge. Time was (I have to remind myself that callow youth was around 50 years ago) that you just pulled off the N2 down a gravel road and, before you knew it, the gargantuan Yellowwood (Podocarpuus Falcatus) presented itself beside the track. At least 600 years old, and reputedly anything up to 1000, this emperor of the forest has a girth of almost 9 metres, a height of more than 36 metres and its canopy spreads around 33 metres.
Usually you'd be the only car stopped in the small clearing, unlike nowadays where there is a tarred car park more than a kilometre away and an entrance fee to visit the tree via a network of boardwalks.
Not that this is a bad thing mind. The entrance fee is fairly modest (less if you're South African) and the troupes of visitors encourage inclusivity and appreciation of what is left of the enormous forests that once graced this area. I just hope the fees go to preserving and extending this area of magic.
Above: having traversed a kilometre or so of boardwalk it is quite difficult to encapsulate the enormity of this arboreal monarch ... but you have to give a try. Even better, go and have a peek for yourselves if you haven't already.
Fortified by the tree and a slightly weird motorway services attempt at lunch just East of Gqeberha, we finally turned off the tar and down a deceptively smooth dirt road headed for the coast. We'd kind of programmed the satnav with the shortest route to Robertsonville and it seemed to behaving. Until, that is, we reached a fork in the road. "Our" road was on the right, running along a pretty secure looking fence.
Now there was a time (yeah, I know, back in the 70s) when Toyota Corollas were built and tested in South Africa for the vagaries of the rural roads there. Our 2021 model was only really happy on urban tarmac and, even then, the more predictable bits in the Western Cape. Avis was no doubt aware of this because underbody damage to rental cars was subject to a punitive surcharge. And then, of course, there was the inconvenience of leaving half of one's car on the road and having to be helicoptered out of the bundu. And for that to happen, we'd have to call for help and, guess what, there was zero signal where we first encountered a scale model of the Swartberg blocking our path. Actually, the mountain range might have been OK had it not been for the mini Fish River Canyon on the other side ...
We turned around, not quite sure what to do next. While hesitating to decide what to do we heard a not particularly friendly voice calling us. A fairly robust looking man and two youngsters were summoning us from the other side of the fence. I won't say that actual fear occurred but we definitely felt uncomfortable being confronted in the middle of nowhere .
"Where are you going," he demanded. His companions weren't smiling either.
"We're trying to get to Chalumna," I replied.
"That's back the way you came from," he countered. The girls had begun to fidget.
"But we're headed for the lagoon and a friend's house on the Chalumna River ..."
At that a light went on, the girls started smiling: "You need to go back to the fork [it was a few hundred metres back] and turn right." He gave us lengthy instructions, which we promptly forgot. Turns out he had a game farm behind the fence and thought we might be up to no good. Not sure we resembled poachers in our white Corolla street car but no harm done.
We set off hoping the satnav would recover some sort of signal. Before it did, we caught a glimpse of a giraffe peering at us across the top of a thorn tree.
Mobile signal had deserted us but the satnav seemed to have some half-hearted idea and we eventually found ourselves confronted by a gate with Chalumna Estates emblazoned on it. Miraculously Shan's mobile signal had partially restored itself and she managed to speak to Denise (Den). Den said she could phone the gate with a code and it would open. Shan rang off while I manoeuvred the car into position. The gate didn't open. After a polite pause Shan phoned Den again.
A conversation ensued in which Den seemed to suggest she might have to send her stepson, Nick, up the last 1.5 km to let us in but he was just out on a short errand so we might have to wait a while. We were just arranging ourselves around the view down the steep descent to the river in preparation for the significant wait when suddenly the gate opened. Girding our loins, we shot through and inched down the hill towards the river.
"Let's hope it doesn't rain before Wednesday, or this road will be a tricky ascent," Shan opined.
"I suppose there are worse places to be stuck in," I replied, taking in the riverside idyll below us.
Arriving at Den's house we clicked as to why conversations had been a bit frantic.
"Welcome and how lovely to see you," Den grinned as we got out of the car, "Oh, and don't use the toilet, the tank is flooded. We're waiting for the lorry [these lorries were known to us as honeysuckers] to empty it."
"Everyone will have to use the boathouse loo," she added, "There're only 11 of us."
With no further ado, after we'd shifted our luggage from the car to her house, Den thrust a beer in my hand. "Come on, let's go and say hello to the rest of the family."
The "rest of the family" consisted of Den's three sisters, Susan, Louise and Sally, their children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The 4 sisters' parents had been Hugh and Bar Robertson, lifelong friends of Shan's Mum, Judy. Their extended family in Chalumna at the beginning of January numbered something like 25 people across an age spectrum of close to 60 years. Apart from Den, Shan hadn't seen any of them since Sally (now Attenborough) and David's wedding in 1983.
So there were quite a few "Robertsons" to greet, hug and renew acquaintances with. Each of Hugh's and Bar's 4 daughters had their own houses along the river front.
Pinning everyone down, though, was quite a mission with all that extended family and their collected friends scattered around the small community. After a brief stint with Susan and Mike Booth at their place we finally settled down with Louise for a dop5.
.Above, almost sisters, L to R: Louise, Shan and Den; Shan and Sally were born three days apart.
We had one full day in Tyolomnqa and, boy did we make the most of it. Dawn to dusk and beyond. Four of the 11 in Den's house were children and a wonderful water world awaited. It started out mucking about in the lagoon before breakfast and then progressed to the ocean in boats and, of course, there was the obligatory braai6 that evening for supper. Shan and I snuck home with Den for a short stretch to recharge our batteries for the forthcoming evening
Above, sort of top to bottom and L to R: Joe Heywood was seemingly a man of boundless energy, paddling the children around the lagoon from not long after sunrise, although, in the first frame, leaving his mate's wife Claudia (King) to swim along behind. The first four frames were not that long after sunrise; the full width shot was taken at sunset from Pete and Rose Clarke's place where I'd snuck off for a peaceful beverage with himself at the Clarke place a little further upstream. We'd got together at la Vierge a month or so before7 in the Hemel-en-Aarde but this was altogether more relaxed, shooting the breeze with an old friend over a bottle of his finest Walker Bay nectar. We walked back some of the way along the Clarke's long quiet access road appreciating the peace and battery regenerating properties of the darkness and the rustle of wild animals in the undergrowth alongside us; back at Den's Joe was still going while Claudia and Nick King were trying to keep out of the limelight. The last pic of the exhausted children and Joe's wife, Taryn, looking out over the darkened river and hopefully enjoying a little peace after the long day.
For some the evening might then have been over. Certainly Joe and Tarryn were driving back to Cape Town early the next morning although Shan and I, too, had a long journey ahead. Longer than we thought but that's for the next instalment in which we have an assignation with the Deale patriarch, probably much of the cement between the families in this episode of the blog and playing a starring role in the next.
In the mean time we got the conversation bug and crawled to bed at an unseemly hour.
And, by the by, the honeysucker had arrived the previous afternoon, which was a relief for everyone.
We complete #1 of the East "Coast" nostalgia as we head further North East towards Kwa Zulu Natal. In #2 and #3 I'll travel beyond commune with Vaalie friends and relations and commence another road trip with my darling daughter, Kate.