Miss New York looked as if she had something on her mind. She had that uneasy laugh and the unsure look, fidgeting nervously. It was 315PM and we were at the "Cango caves", at the foothills of the colorful Swartberg range, about 30kms from Oudtshoorn. The "adventure tour" to the caves was about to start, and our group of 9 plus a large Dutch group made its way to the entrance, accompanied by the guide. The first signs of hesitancy arose at the visitor centre, with Z trying desperately to fit through one of the trial passages, and failing miserably. "Not to worry dear, the narrowest passage is just 15cm and you will have to crawl through many of the exits" said the helpful guide! Adopted pop was brave, he opted for the adventure tour; adopted mom opted out, and sent a desperate message to the rest of the group "please please get my husband back".
The guide started with a set of do's and don'ts. "Leave all belongings behind, including your wallets and cameras, they won't fit. Listen to my instructions and follow them to the t. Do not panic, you will feel claustrophobic at times, but that's natural. Do not linger and always follow the group. Check with your friends if they need help. We have had no accidents on the tour for the past 11 years". New York chipped in cheerfully "what happened 11 years ago?" "A lady on my tour got stuck at one of the passages for 18 hours, and those were the longest of my life" said the guide. It was at this point that New York started having a panic attack, and I thought i was the only one. The guide though was experienced and must have seen several such last minute heart-attacks. He goaded her on, and Z and me promised to kick her through, if she got stuck. The convoy made its way to the first chamber in the caves, and as adopted mom watched, disappeared out of view. We waved our goodbyes for effect.
We were finally on the iconic "Route 62", and the first stop was Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world. Situated in the Klein Karoo between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountain ranges, the town is ruggedly beautiful; high mountain passes and spectacular rock formations dominate this semi-arid area. The town is the largest on the route, and boasts of ostrich breeding farms every door-step; its history and settlement owed to the ostrich feather booms in the past, and today, Oudtshoorn relies heavily on tourism, and I must say, makes a pretty good sales pitch. Multiple outdoor activities, friendly people, lots of eateries and decent accommodation, coupled with the remoteness and natural beauty of the region make it the right starting point of "Route 62". We spent one morning visiting an ostrich farm at the outskirts of the town, and another at the "Cango wildlife ranch", a great example of tourism funded conservation. A quick visit to the "Buffelsdrift game lodge" where an elephant ride saw the women go nuts with selfies, and a sighting of those angry hippos confirmed my initial hypothesis; natural beauty too needs smart packaging, and South Africa tourism has hit the sweet spot, India has a lot to learn in terms of building infrastructure and marketing, in that order. And ostrich is an acquired taste, it is rubbery and chewy.
But what I was really excited about were the Cango caves, and we were at the first chamber. The guide waxed eloquent; first discovered in late 1700's, the cave system followed an underground river, now extinct, and was rumored to be more than 20kms in length, atleast 20Mn years old, with several human settlements dating back to the stone ages. The first chamber is the largest and the widest; the guide switched the lights on, and I was staring at some of the most incredible natural formations I had ever laid eyes upon. Limestone has an aura and the added advantage of being shaped by water; the end result of years of deposits and erosion is a spectacular sight. The largest chamber is about 20m in height and boasts of stalactites and stalagmites, twisted into unbelievable shapes and forms, and reaching all the way to the top of the cave. Entire walls sculpted by dripping water, shaped into unimaginable works of art. They have names for each of the formations, but it was all a blur in the presence of such beauty. We held our silence and took deep breaths, some whispered excitedly. Even the Dutch lady with asthma seemed to be in a divine bliss. If only I had my camera, I cursed, and made do with the limited ability of my phone.
But wasn't this an adventure tour as well? Weren't we told we will have to crawl and creep through narrow passages? It starts at Chamber 2, with a very steep climb separating the two. The guide had very specific instructions, left foot here, drag your arms here, pull up your left knee there. There is a method to fitting in through the crevices and using upper body strength to propel through the rocks; New York needed a push and a tug, we all did, and it started becoming evident as to how out of shape I was, in spite of all the running and the muscle building. The air smelt wet, but there was no water around; oxygen was in short supply and we were breathing heavily; at times, the passages were so narrow that claustrophobia and panic overtakes you, especially when you cannot see the person a meter ahead of you in the twisting pathways, and the narrowness and the dark accentuates your fears. But knowing the only way was forward, we pushed and pulled. And fell and slid, aka Lewey, Dewey and Huey in Duck tales, stomachs down, on passages smoother than marble. Even pops enjoyed every minute of it, brave man. And it seemed New York was having fun too, her initial fears disspiating. The caves are physically demanding, but just about doable, and mentally challenging, but the chills that you get walking in, and the exhilaration you feel walking out, makes the 1-1/2 hr adventure tour worth every minute. Even Denmark wrestling me down in a bear hug (all I did was laugh uncontrollably, the frightened look on her face when Z scared the hell out of her at a passage exit with a "bhoo") did not dim my excitement. It was emasculating though, being wrestled down to the ground by a younger woman, but mass beats strength any day!
Route.62 passes through Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital, to Calitzdorp, the heart of the country's wine industry, the pretty town of Ladismith that seemed overflowing with hitch-hikers, Montagu with its fruit orchards, Robertson famed for its roses, and the wine-growing towns of Worcester (how come a town with this name crops up name in all European settlements?), Wellington, Paarl (with its cricket ground!) and back to Capetown, about 450kms of mountain passes, spectacular vineyards, valleys and pretty towns. People call it the longest wine route in the world (The French may have something to say about this!). My longing for U2 and New York's ipod made me sing "It's a beautiful day", and ended with the girls banning me from making any noise for the rest of the day. "You sound like my grandmother's cat" said German-3, and the women ganged up against me, as usual. It was a beautiful day, the sun was bright and red, the sky was the brightest shade of blue, the air was crisp and the cleanest I had breathed in a long while, the mountains alternated between burnt red in the semi-arid Karoo and greenish brown as we went in to the heart of the country's wine industry, picturesque vineyards punctuated the horizon, with pretty little towns appearing and falling away in a jiffy. The road was at once ramrod straight, heading deep in to the high mountains, and then twisted and gouged through the deep valleys, before hitting the capefold mountains near Paarl. Very sparsely populated is this region, and we went through miles without seeing another vehicle or human habitation. Ronny's sex shop in the middle of nowhere was a welcome distraction and a much needed pee-stop. Everyone seemed to stop here, and old Ronny seemed to know everyone by name. Some men are built for desolation.
We started from Oudtshoorn at 2PM, and it was almost 9PM when we hit Capetown. Tearful farewells right out of a bollywood movie followed at every drop. We had spent a week cooped up in a trailer with each other, and even the normally reticent German-1 was emotional. It is tough to imagine getting to know someone in a week, but the girls swore they would miss me! Where were you all my life, ladies? One of them wanted to take me home (seriously!), and Denmark didn't wrestle me to the ground this time. We exchanged numbers and vowed to stay in touch. Z and me had brotherly love oozing as we said goodbye. I invited everyone home to India, half-hoping they wouldn't take it seriously, but surely planning to ambush them wherever they were. It had been a fabulous week, and a twinge of regret clouded my sleep that night, albeit momentarily. I can make new friends even at the ripe old age of 35, Seinfeld are you listening? And more importantly, relate to youngsters half my age. Travel is a great way to make friends, learn a bit about a new place and discover yourself. By those standards, it was the best of times. "All meine liebe" Germans, "hasta luego" Spain, good luck New York, "hav det sjovt" Denmark., and "dankie"Z. leka leka!