South Africa: Bloemfontein to Cape Town

29th June - 13th July 2002


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Rebecca and I crossed the border from Lesotho back to South Africa at the Van Rooyen's Gate. We left behind the traditional way of life of the Basotho people and were once more back in the modern South Africa; a first world country on a developing continent almost a world apart from Lesotho rather than a few footsteps through the dust. Once we finally made it through the queue at the immigration post and walked down a road on the other side of the fence I really began to miss the mountain kingdom we had just left behind. I am glad now that I took this unplanned detour to this small landlocked country in the mountains. My memories of Lesotho will last a long time.

We now found ourselves standing in a dusty taxi park in South Africa looking for transport to Bloemfontein, the capital of Free State and also the judicial capital of South Africa. There was nothing much in the way of a settlement at the Van Rooyen's Gate. The R702 tarred road stretched off into the distance crossing the plains to Bloemfontein, the landscape a stark contrast to the mountains of Lesotho. We found a minibus and waited until all the seats were full before we pulled out onto the highway and continued our journey to Bloemfontein. After spending the last week in Lesotho, travelling in minibuses where there was always room for one more, it felt odd to be in a minibus carrying a maximum of only fifteen passengers. The journey along the R702 was uneventful, passing through the small town of Dewetsdorp on route as the road beat a path across the plains to Bloemfontein.

As we neared the city the road passed through the townships that seemed to surround every major town and city in South Africa. Some of the conditions looked terrible, makeshift shacks of corrugated iron and other cast off rubbish formed ramshackle houses, the township's layout in a chaotic mess. In stark contrast to this were the areas of new housing; identical cinderblock square houses in neat rows stretching away from the road in long straight lines. The new housing had been built with almost military regularity and precision; it reminded me more of a barracks than a low cost housing development. This was all part of the new South African governments plan to provide housing for all the people of South Africa. The minibus stopped many times along this road past the townships dropping off most of our fellow passengers. We were the last two passengers on the minibus as we arrived at the taxi park in downtown Bloemfontein near to the railway station.

Rebecca and I planned to travel our own independent ways from this city. My plan was to take an overnight train to Port Elizabeth on the coast the following night, Monday. It was late Sunday afternoon when we arrived, the city was quiet, the streets away from the minibus taxi park and the railway station almost deserted. It was also World Cup final day, Brazil playing Germany. We walked the short distance up Harvey Street to the railway station where I booked a ticket for the next nights train. I also found out from the ticket clerk that Brazil had won the World Cup. There was a small television on in an office behind the clerk where I could just glimpse the Brazilian team celebrating. We came to Bloemfontein mainly to sort out a few things after spending the best part of the last two weeks in the wilderness of the mountains of Lesotho and previous to that the Drakensberg Mountains. Rebecca had to contact her airline to see if she could extend her ticket by a couple of weeks. Depending on the outcome on Monday she would either continue her journey by train south to Grahamstown or would have to double back to Johannesburg to catch a flight to Europe. I needed a bit of time with a reliable internet connection to catch up on some correspondence and to sort out my finances online.

There were not many budget accommodation options in the city. Bloemfontein is not really on the backpackers route and the Baz Bus doesn't come this far. There were two hostels listed in my guidebook, Taffy's and Naval Hill. We chose to head for Taffy's as no one we had met had any good things to say about Naval Hill. We found a private taxi outside the railway station and gave him the address of Taffy's. He had't a clue where this street was so he asked some other taxi drivers before heading north out of the downtown area. What should have been a five or ten minute taxi ride turned into a magical mystery tour of the northern suburbs of the city. The taxi driver failed to find the street and drove around hopelessly lost, stopping now and again to ask for more directions before doing yet another u-turn. He had not grasped the basics of navigation and was quickly losing heart. A map could have helped him and he had no excuse as they hand them out for free at the tourist information centre. After almost half an hour we finally found Louis Botha Street, it felt like we had won the lottery, our days journey from the mountains of Lesotho was almost over. We stopped outside Taffy's. It was just another ordinary suburban house. It was deserted, no one at home, the hostel closed down.

After all the effort of finding this place we returned back towards downtown and the Naval Hill Backpackers, situated at Naval Hill overlooking the city. We also found ourselves only about 2km up the road from the railway station where we started this epic taxi ride into the unknown. We felt sorry for the driver, after all he had tried so hard to find the address we had given him, he was just not very good at it. We checked into the hostel, the end of another days journey. Ahead of me lay one of those organisational days that you have to devote some time to if you are ever on the road for any length of time.

The backpackers was different but not really as bad as other people had made out. Any budget traveller passing though this city ends up staying here. The building is an old converted water pumping station. It was a cold, noisy place. The dormitories were partitioned off with corrugated iron; even the doors were corrugated. The partitions had no ceiling and were dwarfed by the cavernous building. It was the middle of winter, the night time temperature was dropping close to freezing outside and this large building did not hold heat very well, especially once the sun had set. I was only staying a night so it really was not a problem.

The next day I spent most of my time down at the Waterfront, a shopping and entertainment complex alongside a man-made lagoon in Kings Park, west of the downtown area. Downtown was easy to navigate by foot as the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Some of the streets had changed their name since my map was published, part of the governments renaming program since the end of apartied. The twin hills of Signal and Naval Hill to the north provided a backdrop to the city. Seeing shops again fully stocked with almost everything under the sun felt strange after coming from Lesotho, where there was next to nothing. South Africa, I was beginning to learn, was a land of contrasts when compared to its neighbours on the rest of this continent.

Later in the afternoon I met up again with Rebecca back at Naval Hill. She had been successful in changing her flight and now had an extra two weeks to spend in the country. Her journey would now take her on the overnight train towards Port Elizabeth to catch a connection to Grahamstown. After a drink at a local bar/restaurant that evening we took a taxi the short distance to the railway station. We were advised by every local white person not to walk to the station in the dark; the small fee for a taxi fare seemed like a good insurance policy.

I was booked on the Algoa express train that runs from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. The train was due to arrive in Bloemfontein at 21.20 but was running over an hour late. So was the Amatola that runs from Johannesburg to East London, which was due in at 19.50. It was a cold winters night; passengers crammed into the waiting rooms to keep warm, others stood in small groups along the platform, all of us waiting patiently in the cold crisp air. I began talking to a local man who was returning to work after spending the weekend at home in a small town north of Bloemfontein. This was a journey he made every week, spending most of his time away from his wife and children, whom he missed. It turned out that he was a building surveyor, the same profession as my brother. We talked about the work he was doing. His plan to further his career was to study a degree course at Reading University in England. This was also the university that my brother studied at for three years. I knew the university had a good reputation for surveying courses in the UK, but didn't realise that it was world-renowned. I gave the man my address if he ever needed any advice or information about the university in the future, he could always contact me.

Time passed quickly as we talked on the platform, our breath condensing in the cold, night air. At 22.30 our train finally arrived and in a fairly orderly way everyone clambered aboard. The train was not busy and Rebecca got a sleeping compartment in the carriage next to mine. I was booked into a two-berth compartment, which I had to myself. The one thing I will never forget about this train journey was the cold. It was the coldest train ride I had ever been on. The heater in my compartment only seemed to work when the train stopped at a station but eventually it stopped working altogether. I huddled around the heater in the middle of the night in the desperate hope that it would begin working again. It didn't. At 01.30 I pulled my sleeping bag out from the bottom of my pack and wrapped myself up and shivered myself off to sleep. I didn't sleep that well, it was far too cold and eventually by daybreak I gave up and welcomed the start of a new day.

I looked out of the window and in the first glow of the morning sun saw the dry, rocky landscape we were travelling through on our way south to the coast. Along the more fertile river valleys we passed by farms, many of them farming ostriches. Hundreds of these enormous birds roamed about the fields in huge flocks. Aloes were flowering, giving the landscape a splash of red colour amongst the rocks and the dust. It wasn't long into the morning when we reached the station at Alicedale where Rebecca left and continued her journey onto Grahamstown. We said goodbye on the platform, our journey together from St Lucia over the last two and half weeks at an end. Within a few minutes the trained pulled away from the station and I continued on to Port Elizabeth by myself, another couple of hours down the line.

By mid morning the train finally reached Port Elizabeth, PE for short, slowly making it's way past the huge townships that stretch alongside the railway line outside the city. I was leaning out of the window enjoying the warm sunshine on my face after the freezing cold of the night. A familiar smell suddenly hit my nose; I breathed deeply and could smell the sea, the smell of home. I looked across to the other side of the carriage and through the window I saw the ocean, Algoa Bay, the bay that has given it's name to this express train. The sea sparkled in the bright sun, like a thousand diamonds glinting in the sun. It was great to be back on the coast. The train at last rolled to a halt at the station, my twelve hour journey from Bloemfontein almost completed. All I had to do now was find a hostel to stay in for the night. The station is next to one of the old landmarks of the city, the Campanile, a fifty-two metre high tower built to commemorate the arrival of the settlers in 1820. It's almost dwarfed by the elevated freeway running right past the station skirting around the edge of the downtown area. As I began walking into the city everything felt very strange. For the first time since embarking on this journey across Africa I had arrived in a large western city. I walked the short distance to the friendly and homely Port Elizabeth Backpackers Hostel on Prospect Hill and checked in.

PE is the largest coastal city between Durban and Cape Town and is a major industrial centre and busy port. The city has come a long way since the first British settlers arrived in 1820 to become this busy metropolis. I relaxed at the PE Backpackers, an old Victorian building, while I tried to make some plans. My plans seemed to be very fluid at the moment and I was seriously becoming road weary. The excitement of arriving in a new city had lost it's shine, it felt more like a chore; to see the sights, take photos, visit museums etc. I needed a break. I was very near to Cape Town now, the original destination of this journey from Kampala in Uganda. I was now only a days bus ride away from my objective. It was tempting to get on the Greyhound or Intercape bus and be in Cape Town the next evening. I spent a couple of hours chatting with the owner of the backpackers, hoping she would come up with some good suggestions to stop me jumping on the next Cape Town bound bus. She did and recommended Storms River and the Tsitsikamma Coastal National Park. There were two long distance hiking trails here too. My plans were set, I would go hiking in the wilderness again, but first I had PE to explore in an afternoon.

My room at the PE Backpackers looked out across to Donkin Reserve, a public park on top of a hill that looks out over the city and port. There is a lighthouse in the park built in 1861, which now doubles as a tourist information centre. There was also a stone pyramid. Rufane Donkin erected this pyramid as a memorial to his wife, Elizabeth, who also gave her name to the city. I took a map of the city, pulled on my walking boots and went to walk along the Donkin heritage trail to get a feel for the layout of the city and glimpse some of it's history. The trail is marked out by a blue dotted line painted on the pavement for tourists to follow. Trying not to look too much like a tourist I followed the blue line from the opposite side of the road. I walked up Prospect Hill and picked up the trail along Belmont Terrace.

I soon came to Fort Frederick. It is a small fort sitting on top of a hill overlooking the mouth of the Baakens River and the bay. Built in 1799 it was the first stone building built in Eastern Cape. It never saw any action and no shots were fired in anger from it or at it. I continued following the trail along Bird Street and on to St Georges Park. From the park I took a shortcut and headed back towards downtown along Havelock Street past Havelock Square. Along Ivy Street and Upper Hill Street were the original settlers cottages dating back to 1820. I finished my walk in Market Square next to two of the most impressive historical buildings in the city. The City Hall, built between 1858 and 1862 and the Public Library. The library was indeed a fascinating building from the early Victorian period. The facade is made from terracotta, which was shipped out from the United Kingdom in 1837. The building started life as the courthouse before becoming the public library in 1902, which it remains to this day, although it was closed for renovations during my visit.

I left PE the next day. I didn't have an early start, which made a pleasant change and I walked down to the long distance taxi park, next to the railway station at midday. I boarded a minibus taxi that was heading west along the N2 and jumped out a few hours later at the junction for Storms River village, a couple of kilometres past the Storms River bridge. Once the minibus departed I was left standing in the middle of nowhere beside the road, the Tsitsikamma Mountains towering above me to the north of the road. I had no idea how far the village was from the junction and began walking. I was surprised when in about ten minutes I was standing at the main crossroads in this small village. A sign reading, Rainbow Lodge, pointed to the right, the guesthouse where I planned to stay. I continued along the dusty, dirt road until I reached the guesthouse.

Once I had settled in that evening I made some enquiries with the owners about hiking in the area, and especially the two long distance trails, the Otter Trail and the Tsitsikamma Trail. The Otter trail seemed a fairly tough trail, especially the eleven river crossing, some of which you had to swim across depending on the tide. I didn't have the necessary equipment to fully waterproof my pack for a challenging crossing like that. I decided the Tsitsikamma trail through the mountains and forests was the trail for me. My plans were not looking hopeful; as I had expected you could not hike the trails by yourself. There was no-one else staying at the guesthouse, apart from four gap-year students from the UK whose only physical activity appeared to be drinking beer. I waited until the next day to phone the Regional Forestry Manager to see if anyone else was booked on the Tsitsikamma trail whom I could join. It was bad news; there were no bookings for the next fifteen days. My hiking plans had come to nothing.

Instead I spent the rest of the day on short hiking trails in the surrounding local forests. I walked to the eastern edge of the village to the start of the Goesa Nature Walk. The trail is short at only 2km but takes in some fantastic indigenous forest, the highlight being the forest of tree ferns about halfway along the trail. These ancient trees made the forest seem almost prehistoric, as though time had stood still. The indigenous forests of the southern Cape look similar to the classical rain forests of the tropical regions. There are some major differences though. These forests here are not as tall, with a canopy height of about 27m and are not so species diverse. There are 470 different forest species, of which 87 are tree species. The major tree species are the yellowwood, ironwood, stinkwood, white pear, cape beech and cherrywood. The Goesa Nature Walk didn't take long to stroll around, so I walked north out of the village and along the N2 to the Ratel Nature Walk. This walk is longer at 4.2km and runs along the lower slopes of the mountains of the Tsitsikamma range. After half a kilometre I reached the Tsitsikamma Big Tree, a giant yellowwood and a popular tourist attraction. The walk through the forest gave me a glimpse of what I was missing on the Tsitsikamma Trail.

I decided that I would leave Storms River the next day and travel to Cape Town, a city where I wanted to spend some time and where I had originally intended to end this journey.

Continue reading this journey: Cape Town