My Mom has upgraded from chirps and grunts in the passenger seat to specific directional commands, which are much more helpful to me as the driver as we head through the Stellenbosch wine country and beautiful farmlands towards the coastal resort town of Hermanus east of Cape Town and near the beginning of the famous Garden Route along the Southern tip of Africa.
Left. Left. LEFT!
Looking down at Stellenbosch from the pass
We navigated our way out of Cape Town in a rental car. On the Left side of the road. In the rain. In traffic. We did not make it out unscathed. As I drove the five blocks back to the hotel to pick up our luggage I couldn’t find parking so attempted to turn around and … scraaaaaape …
The green Mercedes parked too far out in the road was already missing paint off the bumper — you could barely tell where I scraped it. But I left a note anyway, being a good citizen. And overcame my urge to ignore the incident and beat it out of town. The rental car already had a scrape documented in that area when we rented it. But there is nothing like having your mother in the passenger seat to keep you on the straight and narrow. The rental car repair … now that’s probably going to cost me a touch. But then that’s why we bought insurance, and have back up travel insurance that covers what rental car insurance doesn’t.
So beyond frayed nerves, and the very embarrassing moment of walking back into the rental car office a mere 20 minutes after leaving with an unscraped car to file an accident report, we made it out of Cape Town alive and well and headed out on the rest of our journey.
Driving got much easier out of the city. And infinitely more beautiful. And the further we left Cape Town … a gentle city by Africa’s standards … the more relaxed we became.
Originally I was thinking we would wind our way around the coast and check out another penguin colony on the way the Hermanus. Mom loves penguins. But she has the map and the GPS out and says “Let’s drive through Stellenbosch. Here is the exit right here.”
So we exit and head through wine country – and it’s beautiful. The vines have turned gold and red for autumn and stretch through the valley and up the lower mountain slopes. They are framed by serious mountains that are rugged and frame the skyline with defined horizon. The Wine Estates are huge, and ornate and there are hundreds of them along the road around Stellenbosch and the nearby wine areas.
I am still a new enough left-sided driver – and a recently chastened one at that – so I’m driving slow and steady with left, left, left as the mantra in my head. Mom has the window down snapping photos in between trying to figure out how the GPS works. I find myself driving miles on narrow roads over mountains … you gotta watch it when Mom get’s the map in hand and a detour in mind…
I decided that perhaps stopping and actually wine-tasting might not be the smartest move given my new left-sided driving skills … I obviously need all my wits about me. So we followed our noses and the map and made a big loop through several wine regions ringed by mountains and canyons and gorgeous mountain passes. This country reminds me of greener Yakima Valley in Washington in many ways. Orchards and vines. Fruit processing facilities. Olive oil. Cheeses. A wonderful foodie world if you take the time to explore it.
And we safely rolled into the seaside town of Hermanus before dark into a lovely old Victorian Hotel on the water. A retreat for Cape Town residents and destination for travelers from South Africa and the world during the summer. And a whale-watching destination in the winter, when the town hosts Right Whales – endangered whales hunted to the edge of extenuation because they were unlucky enough have a lot of oil and conveniently float after being killed. Now starting to recover their numbers, they have come back and come into the old harbor at Hermanus … so close you can whale watch from the shore, or sitting in your hotel room, or having a glass of wine on a cliff-side restaurant.
There were no whales for us this early, but Hermanus is still a beautiful town to enjoy. There is a lovely cliff-side trail planted with native plants to stroll. Shops and restaurants. And most entertaining, the first annual XTreme sporting event was being hosted here this weekend. It was – as an organizer told me – the towns attempt to bring out the tourists on the May Day Holiday weekend before the rains and winter settle in for good and tourism drops until the Whales come in August.
They have the stage. And the bands. And the courses marked off. Urban cycling. Paddle board racing. Cliff Running. A triathlon. Open Water Swimming. Anyone can enter. And there is a disorganized sense of fun as they struggle through their first year trying to make this event work. There is serious money and work behind this event … besides the professional talent hosting and stages and the event production, they are offering 20000 rand in prize money for some of these events – enough to bring out the Pros to a new event for what is probably pretty easy money this first year. That’s real money here.
So Mom and I stayed in town today and watched the events and walked the path and had a delicious seafood lunch and drank some wine. We chatted with local folks … the artist who makes pancakes from a food cart to earn his money. The woman visiting from Cape Town with her family for the holiday weekend. The waitress who’s dream is to visit Salem (yes, Salem) because of all the witchy creepiness there. Followed by New Orleans. I heartily endorsed the New Orleans plan, and we talked music and Mardi Gras.
The town’s monthly Art walk was today, and we met an artist who collected old letters and currency and envelopes and used them as his canvass for pen and ink drawings. He told us the stories behind documents, including his story of having left Zimbabwe to study fine art in South Africa, though he still travels back to Harare once a year to visit his parents. He says the Zimbabwe currency is useless now, and can be found in piles on the street, so he picks it up and brings it home for his art.
What strikes me most is that here in Hermanus we could be in Europe, or America, or Mexico, or a resort community anywhere in the world that caters to visitors and diligently works to soften the rough edges that lie close. All countries have towns like this, and they draw visitors searching for a vacation destination away from home, yet these places are carefully not too different from home, and to have the careful familiarities that keep visitors comfortable.
Hermanus is still Africa … but it’s Africa for those who can afford to be here, and have the private transportation to get here. Or it’s jobs for those who come to work, though those who serve the coffee and make the beds must live on the outskirts as they could never afford to live in the city.
Which is the same across many beautiful parts of the world. And in many of the desirable places to live – including Seattle. And selfishly, I’m enjoying my respite here after the worries of Cape Town, even though I’m very aware of why this town works so hard to cater to those like me.