The wilderness, forests, desert, beach, mountain…what to expect from this Garden Route we were now driving towards? Everyone in the Karoo (that is all the three people we had left there) seemed to place a high premium on it. When Takalani pulled in front of the Drifters Knysna Lodge (say ‘naisna’), we knew that for the next three days, we would relax. For having slept on a wooden bench back in the camping days, we were now re-discovering the pleasures of comfort. The Wi-Fi, too, to the point of almost spending Christmas Eve in sheer non-communication, wired. The lodge also offered a surreal view of the bay, on which the light continuously altered colours, from dusk till dawn.
We are in the well-off people’s South African zone. Compared to the townships we passed by that stretched far into the horizon, Knysna might well be the African version of Monaco: rather posh and jet-set, perfectly safe to walk at night, a place for rich (and almost exclusively) white people. Boats and yachts of different sizes ornament the shore. As if to spoil the flawlessness a bit, it starts to rain substantially, compromising the chances to walk part of the “Otter trail” in the Tsitsikamma National Park, as foreseen in the planning.
Turns out we’re going for it anyway, with one slightly less motivated Takalani – for having followed him for some days now, I know for a fact that he does not like to walk, and he moderately appreciates standing out in the rain (same as everyone else). Now that we were about to start a three-hour walk under the rain, Takalani was all-focused on how to contain his enthusiasm best. While in the Drakensberg he announced a hike for the relatively fit which turned out to be a Koh-Lanta challenge or close to an assault course for some, he now warns us about a very difficult trail ahead.
“Hé guys”, says he in the whipping rain and wind before giving the green light to our new bit of adventure, “this is a dangerous trek. We must walk on rocks; some of them are sharp and will be slippery on this kind of weather. And in some places, if you fall, you can really break something.” Eyes blink on blank faces. “Most of you don’t have trekking shoes, so pay attention. Those who don’t want to come, please, don’t take risks.” The line breaks at once and we have volunteers for standing aside and waiting. The rest of us give it a try; after all, we can always come back, should the attempt truly reveal itself audacious. Break a leg?
Off we go, impossibly wet and in two minds about Taki’s speech. The road is beautiful, but we not dare to enjoy it too much at this stage, still expecting the worse to come. Indeed, the rocks are slippery and putting one foot in front of the other requires careful consideration for balance. Gradually, we understand that the secret is to move pole pole, slowly, cautiously. Also, put the camera in the day pack.
The end of the trail rewards us with a splendid view of a cascade (a surprise that our jewel of a guide has kept from us on purpose, doubling the joy of our discovery. The strategist in him might have also wanted to avoid giving us reasons to speed up). We are caught between a strongly agitated Ocean and a small and tranquil waterfall; Takalani and I sit down to contemplate the infinite field of water.
“Where does all this water come from?” the Vanda boy loses himself in reflectiveness.
“I don’t know,” I reply, adding up an extra layer to the profusion of the moment.
The hike was magnificent, an absolute must-do worth every step, every hand grip on the wet and cold stones, every little loss of balance and the inherent accelerated heartbeat. We were feeling mighty and wet in the mist that engulfed us and the coast.
On the way back to the comfy lodge we stop in the Tsitsikamma Khoisan village, the entry point to the world’s highest bungee jumping: 216m from the Bloukrans Bridge. The jump may be high, but the price wasn’t any lower! Watching people throw themselves off that bridge, one after the other, queuing up for it, was quite the show. Now, if I could have potentially handled the jump, I am not sure how I would have dealt with the stress of waiting in that line, though. Instead, I went to the cafeteria to watch on a giant screen those who had nothing better to do that day than go down into the void head first, tight to a rope that would hopefully pull back after reaching its limit.
Knysna is where I also discovered that Christmas is much holier when celebrated in the sun, on the beach. No carols, no tree, no presents – long live the Christmas suntan! The water was limb-freezing cold and the sharks might have been a bit of a spoiler, though: I had been swimming for a while when I finally noticed that everyone else was perfectly lined up at the same level along the shore, waist-deep in the water. I paddled back for my life when I understood why.
In the evening, Takalani took us to one of the best local restaurants. On the menu: zebra steak. Even though I like to think of myself as a sworn non-horse eater or the like, fork and knife in hand I ended up savouring the tenderest meat I have ever known. The worst is that I enjoyed it!
Come the night, we walked the streets. Because we could. Knysna made us forget that we were on the African continent. This is the beauty of South Africa: it is Europe and Africa combined, put in a bowl and shaken in the same way in which you’d prepare a cocktail. Things found a place of their own upon falling randomly. And the dazzling diversity ensued.
Cape Town is our next and last stop in this journey. Just when I thought things could not get any better…