There were ten of us, five canoes and that meant one thing – time to pick a partner. I took a deep breath and looked around. The German couple had already taken the brightest looking canoe, the best oars and were practicing their strokes. The youngsters obviously hooked up according to their age. That left me and Spain. Well, we are a natural fit, I thought. We were the eldest singles in the group, I don’t swim, have never canoed, and have a morbid fear of water; she said she was an excellent swimmer, and as she confided later on, loved water sports. Great, someone to drag me ashore if the canoe capsized, I thought, thanking all those million gods I never believed in, but tend to remember when in trouble. We were at a glistening river in the small town of “Wilderness” after a 6 hour drive from Capetown. Someone chose the name well. Calm backwaters, the ocean within hearing distance, a light mist coating the river, the air as fresh as my lungs could ever remember, terns diving for fish of which there seemed to be plenty, and the gently setting winter sun warming our backs.
But there was a race to be won, four canoes took off, while ours struggled to get going – I couldn’t get either the timing or the direction right, and the Spaniard desperately struggled to hold our course, she had badly misjudged how ignorant I was of the fine art of canoeing. But we found some rhythm as my fears subsided, the beauty of the setting and the drive not to get embarrassed by the kids kicked in, and soon we were overtaking the first, then the second canoe and miraculously, we were second, surely that wasn’t the script. The goal was to reach a small island about 2 kms away, the German pair had already won, but our canoe just wouldn’t stop. Spain had taught me how to row but not how to maneuver and bank. It took three circles round the island, and an immense struggle just to anchor, and we ended up last, and the laughing stock of the group. But I was not only alive, I had actually loved every minute of it. The group were already frolicking in the water. It was 5 PM the first evening. I watched the sun go down over the far end of the river, and it was a beautiful sight.
The tour had not started well. “Z” was late in picking me up from the hotel, and by the time we had rounded up the rest, it was 9 AM and we were hungry. When I got (http://takeabreak.in/) and the wonderfully patient Kamal to draw up an itinerary for a week in South Africa, I had given him two don’ts: No Indians, and no rules. It turned out that among the nine in the coach plus the guide, there was me – the Indian, a mid-40’s German couple from Dresden, three more German girls 17, 20 and 27, a 25-yr old blonde from Denmark who reminded me of Bjork, a 50-yr old Spaniard, and another 20-yr old from New York. What were the chances of that? 7 women in a randomly drawn group of 9 across the world, and 5 of them German, and another who could also speak the language! The initial rounds of introductions were, as they usually go, hesitant. The drive from Capetown to Wilderness passed through some stunning locales with strange sounding names, Swellendam, Riversdale, Mossel Bay, George, along the “Garden route”. The scenery oscillated between mountains and farmland, long straight stretches punctuated by small towns and way more cattle than people, till we hit Mossel Bay where the first sight of the ocean for almost 4 hours sent us in to raptures, and a brief high-fives and excited oohs and aahs. But the girls chatted non-stop which as usual gave me a headache, it was a long drive, the lunch was at a farm house that specialized in aloe vera products, and it seemed even the food was full of it.
And we just couldn’t remember names, and after a couple of tries, gave up and started calling out nationalities; India, Spain, New York, Denmark, German 1,2,3, Mom and Pop (reserved for the couple) and Z were ringing out in the coach, and I was trying to drown it all out by reading Charles Darwin and humming U2 and Coldplay. It didn’t feel right, here I was, a mid-thirties guy trying to fit in with girls half my age, aka Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, with neither the looks nor the money. Wish I was 10 years younger! The Lion walk mid-afternoon was something that I, New York and German-2 skipped, and the only exchange we had was “I’d rather see it in the wild rather than walk with one that behaves like an over-grown cat”, but the rest of the group seemed to have fun, and looked at us three outcasts with a crooked eye. Came all the way to South Africa but didn’t participate in the first activity, I imagined them saying. It was first at Wilderness and the canoe race, and later that evening at Myoli beach after a mix-up with the rooms, that the first coherent sentences were exchanged with Denmark and German-1, and the rest. There was a cozy little pub and a lovely fire, and dinner was pizza by the side of the beach. Maybe it was the lovely fire, or the warm Indian ocean, or just the sand in our slippers, and the moon overhead. Over a couple of beers, moonlight, and semi-drunken personal stories, I actually liked the girls calling me “Indian guy”. It seemed the feeling was mutual; over the rest of the tour, our nationalities became our names. Except mom and pop, who remained mom and pop.
The kitschy sounding “Garden route” has several variants, but the general rule is that one moves from the Western cape to the Eastern cape; ours was from Capetown to Jeffrey’s Bay. 700kms of wild natural beauty that encapsulates the country at its best, and ranges from low brown mountains and grey misty clouds, golden rolling farmlands and vineyards, lush dark-green forests, wonderfully picturesque stunning blue coastline, lakes, lagoons, estuaries and some of the prettiest laid-back coastal towns one can imagine. Strange names dot the landscape as one moves from the west to the east; a mixture of Dutch, German and several local dialects they tell me. Mossel bay, George, Knysna, Sedgefield, Wilderness, Jeffrey’s bay, Plettenberg bay. Even stranger weather followed us, and it seemed to change every hour. Z laughed it away saying the closer we got to the coast, the more mercurial it would get. Welcome to South Africa.
As all famous routes go, the garden route is dotted with “things-to-do”. Want to spend a couple of days in the silent backwaters with spectacular views of the those tongue-twisting mountains Swartvlei and Outeniqua, stay at Sedgefield, where I stayed the first night at “Purple Heron” (http://www.purpleheron.co.za) and woke up to sounds of birds chirping and a glorious sunrise. Jenny actually had herons wandering on her lawn, while she rustled up a wonderful breakfast, although I didn’t see anything purple. Fancy a swim or surf, make way to the lazy beautiful town of Jeffrey’s bay, where we stayed 2 nights, amid a huge swell, a thunderstorm and 10 metre waves on the first night, the highest in the last 10 years, said our host Michele at Sea Whisper (http://www.seawhisper.co.za/). And then all those adventure activities, the bungee-jumping at Bloukrans, the zipline at Tsitsikamma, or kayaking at Knysna. All within a few hours’ drive from each other. South African tourism sure knows how to package its attractions, the route is dotted with innumerable guest houses, wildlife ranches and beach towns, each more attractive and interesting than the other, the local folks are laid-back and helpful, and the tourism infrastructure is more than adequate. Value for money too, or maybe that’s the advantage of traveling in off-season. But someone explain to me why the “Garden route?”
We whistled through Knysna and marveled at “The Heads”, the infamous gateway where the lagoon joins the ocean, and marveled at the beautiful lakes and the gorgeous cottages carved in to the hills surrounding the lagoon. The girls bungeed from “Bloukrans”, the self-declared highest in the world (highest cantilever bridge it may be, that connects the Western and Eastern capes, but my geeky alter-ego says it is the Macau tower, from which, nine years, a gawky young man had conquered his fear of heights, and then like Seinfeld declared “I choose not to jump”!), while the men chickened out (we were old you see, and our time had passed). Surprisingly, the sentry said they have about 70% women jumpers. And all the men waiting for their women chuckled and said “now you know who’s smarter”. So it’s decided then, women are braver and men are smarter.
We zip-lined across 200m long and 50m deep gorges at the Kruis river, an exhilarating experience that left me breathless and wondering why I hadn’t done it before. Inspiring company said pop, just before we slid across the longest of them, 211m and really scary, with our clothes splattered with dirt and grime, and our helmets dark and slimy. Atleast here the men displayed true bravery, while the women chickened and shouted their hearts out; some got stuck mid-way, ignoring the guide’s instructions on where and how to brake (one can either listen or exchange notes on nail-polish and boyfriends, not both) and had to be rescued mid-way. German-1 and German-3 managed to collide mid-way, and both miraculously survived without broken bones; first time man and I’ve been doing this for 6 years, said Tete, our zipline guide. “How do they do it man, how do they screw up something so simple?” But we still love them man, don't we?
There is one activity though that defines the garden route, the trail through “Tsitsikamma national park”, part of the much larger “Garden route national park”. The advantage of being with a group of such assorted characters is that you can always find someone who shares your interests. When Z announced the second morning that we would spend the morning hiking, two groups formed in the coach; the oldies which included me, mom and pop, and Spain who let out an enthusiastic “whooo” and the youngsters, which cried “ahhhh”. But the rules of the group, which we had all agreed to in our drunken stupor sometime the previous night, demanded that even a single yes would outweigh all other nos’ and everyone would end up with the same activity. So with Z leading, off we went trundling along the several trails across the Storms river. The name comes from one of the indigenous languages, and means “clear water” said Z. “Will we have to walk a lot?” asked New York. Me and Denmark rolled our eyes, and desperately tried to hide our laughter.
The most famous is the “Otter trail” and takes 4-5 days, and another German couple (too many Germans in a short span I agree!) I met at lunch said it was worth the effort and pain. But the easier and shorter “Suspension bridge and lookout” trail which leads from the west side of the river, across the river mouth and the two suspension bridges, is quite charming and passes through several look-out points and waterfalls. A large number of birds, some beavers, some otters, large variety of flora, wonderful colors, and very few humans make it a great 3 hours for those willing to put in the effort. The young girls were huffing and puffing, while the golden oldies were chugging along, me humming, Spain clicking, mom and pop talking, and Z running at times. It is a lush temperate forest, with several endemic flora and fauna of which we saw a lot and didn’t understand many. The waters surrounding the park are apparently teeming with otters and dolphins, and at times whales; while we got no sighters, I can imagine why they would belong here. The park is one of the most visited in the country, yet manages to remain calm and spotlessly clean. The scenery is spectacular, with massive cliffs, rocky shores pounded by the swells of the Indian ocean, green as far as the eye can see with proteas, and teeming with life; you see a bit of it, but you can hear all of it.
While the hike was thoroughly enjoyable, the group dynamics came into full play. The first day was merely sizing each other up, and the second was when we started enjoying each other’s company. Silly questions were asked and crazy answers were given. I remember telling German 2 and New York that “music was in my genes”, when queried on how I managed to hum something or the other all the time. I might have also invited Spain to India. Mom built a stone pyramid on the beach and confessed it was something she had always wanted to do, but never got the opportunity – children and society! Dad laughed at mom and was yelled at, and ignored through lunch. German-1 went in to a yoga pose at one of the cliffs, and we got in to an argument and a demonstration of who was more flexible – the land which invented yoga surely won. And a contest that continued right till the end of the tour, at all possible occasions, including toilet breaks, and remained unresolved. Spain confessed her Buddhist leanings and demonstrated her unflinching love for meditation, at the most illogical of times. Denmark wondered why we were talking, when we could have more fun jumping up and down the suspension bridge, and scaring those at the center. New York, meanwhile wondered when the next sleeping break was. Z ran up and down the steep climbs, but then threw it all away, lighting up at every available opportunity.
As the rainbow emerged at the far end of the cliff while we were at lunch, punctuated by spells of heavy rain that seemed to come in from nowhere and bright sunshine that promised to melt away all biases, that existential query began to resolve itself, just as the mist vanished behind the golden sun. “Will I fit in?” And now the group was teaching me, it doesn’t matter, as long as one lives in the moment. The group selfie on the suspension bridge led to another legend that continued through the trip – “Will there ever be a decent snap with the Indian guy in it?” The answer, ladies, is no. Check your smart phones. Some guys just can't pose, but surprisingly, all women can!