A Whirlwind Tour of South Africa
Two weeks covering the country from bohemian St. Albert, to the wine region to cosmopolitan Cape Town
Also be sure to reserve your rental car before you arrive here; if you reserve locally, you will probably have to pay a fee for each kilometer you drive over 200 km, and that adds up very quickly in this large country. I reserved from home with Avis and got a new VW for two full weeks, with unlimited kilometers, for just over $300; the cheapest option was $50 less, but lacked a tape deck. You can also go with Budget, which has begun offering local rentals in queer bubble-shaped vehicles, like enclosed golf carts, with superb fuel economy.
Since the weather is absolutely flawless -- 85 degrees, a gentle breeze, and barely a cloud -- I've scrapped my touristic plans for tomorrow for one singular activity: climbing Table Mountain. From up there, a kilometer high, you can see the entire region, the Cape of Hood Hope, and two oceans (the Atlantic and the Indian). It's free to climb, or you can take the cable car for about $8.50 round-trip. Personally, I'm a climber-there are freshwater streams high on its ledges-and the views of downtown are so special, they beg to be seen among the fynbos (indigenous shrubs) and dassies (peculiar groundhog-like rock dwellers).
A side trip from Cape Town: Prince Albert
My travels have brought me to the idyllic town of Prince Albert, which for the past few years has steadily been gaining favor as a getaway from the Big Smoke of Cape Town. It's about four hours east (longer for any driver with a sense of leisure), and you can get there in one of three major routes, any of which is more gorgeous than almost any road you're likely to have been on before.
Tourists by the thousands swarm the overrated strip of coastal greenery known as the Garden Route, two hours south of here. It's a real waste of vacation time that they choose that overcrowded highway, jammed with motels and rip-off joints, instead of exploring the breathtaking canyons that wind down the Groot Swartberge range to Prince Albert.
The Swartberg Pass (off the N2 from George and Oodtshorn or off the R62) is the most astonishing way in, with its dirt-bed switchbacks and phenomenal views of farmlands to the south and mighty burnt-red canyons to the north. The best way to reach Prince Albert is to descend through those blazing canyons (most tourists prefer this method since you'll be on the left, or safely on the mountain side, almost the whole way); although the trip is only about 13 miles, it will take over an hour. On the way out, many opt for the more subdued Meiringspoort pass on a route that traces scalloped land through new winelands and old-style Afrikaner towns like De Rust.
This is ostrich country, and on the way in and out you'll pass dozens of open-pen farms where these big birds galoomph around in the sun. Feel free to stop your car to take a few pictures and to tell them how delicious they are, but don't make the mistake I did and stick your hand too closely to their necks, swaying like sunflowers in the breeze; these reptilian-brained goliaths can't tell food from friends, and you'll get a shocking (but harmless) peck.
It's also baboon country. Strange as it seems to North Americans, in between South Africa's adorable farm towns (which but for a few details might fit into the Great Plains or Texas) are swaths of land dominated by true African wildlife. The baboons you'll meet around Prince Albert, like the ones I spotted loafing beside a brook in the cavernous Meiringspoort pass, are still afraid of humans, and unlike the ones around Cape Town, are not predisposed to leaping into your car to tear up your upholstery. Yet.
By night, in the unfathomably wide velt (wild flatland) that stretches to distant mountains, visitors can lay down to see millions of stars gather around the famous Southern Cross (mostly invisible to North Americans, so see it best here or in Outback Australia), and occasionally hear the whooping scream of leopards in the far distance. I haven't personally heard one, but a friend who lives in Prince Albert took me to a place where he frequently sees their tracks.
Prince Albert was settled in the mid-1800's by a handful of farmers who were lured into the desert by the spring that flows from the mountains through the town year-round. To this day, the spring (which is so pure you can drink right from it) crisscrosses through the town's few streets in miniature system of canals and sluices. The water, in turn, nourishes this mineral-rich land and produces stunning horticulture -- Prince Albert may be a desert hamlet, but its dazzling array of floral life, plus its assortment of astonishingly well-preserved Dutch farmhouses, make it a true oasis.
Today Prince Albert attracts a mixed bag of artists, free spirits, and harmless loonies. As someone who partially grew up in Key West in the '70s, I was intrigued by the tales I'd heard about the friendly vibe (and gentle gentrification) Prince Albert had acquired in recent years. A decade ago, so I'm told, it was hard to find anyone in Prince Albert who even spoke English instead of Afrikaans, so old-fashioned South Africa it was. Today, English is everywhere.