Category Archives: Garden Route

One Wilderness you won’t want to be delivered from

With a network of lakes, rivers and dramatic hills set between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua Mountains, Wilderness is a unique destination.  Often overlooked in favour of the nearby and much larger George and Knysna/Plettenberg Bay on either side, it is a destination in its own right.  So don’t just drive through… stop and explore, as we did.

We were very, very fortunate.  We had social media maven and blogger, Rose Greyling Bilbrough, aka Travelbug Rose (@gotravelbug) as our guide.  She’s also the energy behind Wilderness South Africa, which has become hugely successful with over 10,000 followers.

Yes, Rose is a very enthusiastic flyer, and no, I resisted her invitation to try it. Of course it gives her an unparalleled perspective of the area’s many attractions. It’s just one of many activities you can do.  I think a tandem flight would be a good bet!  Photo: Travelbug Rose @gotravelbug

The Kaaimans River mouth with its signature bridge. There are hopes for reviving the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, and this route is begging for a return of the old steam train or something like the Franschhoek Tram.  Photo: Travelbug Rose @gotravelbug

Wilderness lakes

Waking up in the morning: View from my bedroom at The Wilderness Hotel. This was the original homestead where Wilderness all started, and it’s within walking distance of the village’s pavement cafes, restaurants and the beach.

The Kaaimans River Waterfall. Photo: Travelbug Rose

Exquisitely beautiful and serene. The Kaaimans River Waterfall. Photo: Travelbug Rose

On my first morning, Rose took me canoeing on the Kaaimans River.  That’s the river one crosses just before entering Wilderness from the Cape Town side.

How many times have I just driven past this… intrigued by the houses alongside the river tucked into the steep slopes behind them!

Kaaimans River cottages

It was just a short paddle to a spectacular waterfall, almost completely surrounded by steep, rock cliffs.  A very, very special place.

Thank you Chris Leggat at Eden Adventures for the use of your canoe!

The rest of the day we explored Timberlake Farm Village — well worth a visit, and do stop at Pause Coffee Roastery.  Wessel Kruger is serious about his coffees and you won’t be disappointed.  The cheesecake was memorable too!

We drove into the farming area between Wilderness and the Outeniqua mountains and along a section of the old 75km Seven Passes Road.  This was the original route between George and Knysna before the N2 opened.  It was built between 1868 and 1883 by Thomas Bain and crosses seven rivers – the Swart, Kaaimans, Silver, Touw, Hoëkraal, Karatara and Goukamma – passing through indigenous forests and river gorges.

We stopped for tea and a snack at Hoekwil Country Cafe — “an unpretentious country secret on top of the mountain”.

Wilderness is a class act.  The Milkwood Centre in the village is an absolute delight hidden behind the Spar and a fuel service station.  The area has enough resident money to support pavement cafes, pubs and restaurants which were lively and well supported, even on Monday and Tuesday evenings.  Pomodoro had a great vibe and served one of the best pizzas I’ve had.

Wilderness pavement cafes and restaurants

Lively pavement cafes and restaurants that don’t disappoint.

I was intrigued that Wilderness had managed to retain its village feel and a sense of authenticity.  It has so many attractions but hasn’t gone the way of George, Knysna or Plettenberg Bay.  (In Franschhoek, I discovered How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town after asking similar questions.)

I discovered that one of my former prep school teachers — “Masters” we called them then — lives in Wilderness, so I asked Hugo Leggatt if he knew the reasons.  Here’s his reply:

“I’ve given thought to your question about the village feel of Wilderness. There are naturally various contributory factors but I think I could reasonably cull to two.

“In no particular order, the one is that there was no coastal road between George and Knysna until about 1950, when this section of the N2 was completed. The first proper road between the two towns was built by Thomas Bain in the years from c.1868. This was still the road when I first came here in 1947 and is the one now known as the 7 Passes route.

“So one can say that until 1950 one came TO the Wilderness, not THROUGH. Which meant that most houses were owned by retirees or were holiday homes.

“The second factor has to do with the ownership of the land. The property was owned, and named, by George Bennett (English) and his wife Henrietta ( a George girl) who built the initial homestead and ran it as a farm in the years on either side of 1880. After the Anglo-Boer War the property was sold to Montagu White (who had been Paul Kruger’s Consul in London in the years leading up to the war). Montagu lived at Fancourt but had The Wilderness run as a guest house/farm. He had some plots laid out but does not appear to have made any serious attempt to sell them.

“After Monty’s death in 1916 by mushroom poisoning at his Fancourt home, The Wilderness was sold to a new company The Wilderness (1921) Ltd. The main driving force behind this company was Owen Grant (1883-1964) who virtually ran the place for over 30 years. There were strict building regulations – no wooden or prefab houses, for example. Perhaps more importantly for your enquiry, all business was in the hands of the company – the hotel, the garage, the shop – and no guest houses were allowed.

“There is more detail, of course, but the net result was that practically the whole place was “residential”, with such commercial development as there was being controlled by Wilderness (1921).  Things have changed with time but I think those two factors were major contributors to the village feel.

Wilderness is worth another, longer visit.  If the beach, hang gliding (single or taken up in tandem by an expert), abseiling, canoeing, quaint shops and crafts, isn’t enough for you, then the walks and hikes will spoil you.  Have a look at some of the Walks & Hikes in the area.

Thank you Rose for a great introduction!  And for this video!

Plett Rising…

Peter Wallington - chair of Plettenberg Bay Tourism

Peter Wallington – chair of Plett Tourism

Plettenberg Bay has been through challenging times.  There’s been the population growth — its been the fastest growing town in the Western Cape (double Cape Town’s) because of migration from the Eastern Cape where even children are being sent across the provincial border because schooling is better in the Western Cape.  And there were municipal political shenanigans that saw the old Bitou Tourism effectively cease operations in June 2013.

With the municipality failing to meet its responsibilities, an accommodation association had been formed to fill the gap and it was only in July 2013 that a proper tourism body was started again.

Peter Wallington — who moved to Plett after selling his public relations business in Johannesburg — is the chair and has been driving the new organisation with very limited resources.  Their budget from Bitou Municipality in 2013/4 was R1,8m compared to around R4,4m Bitou Tourism received in its last full year of operation, 2011/12.

Tourism is Plett’s lifeblood.  It’s been playground to SA’s rich and famous for decades.  It was the ultimate aspirational destination but that took a bad knock when municipal politics failed to deliver — just like Cape Town did under ANC control, and which led to the establishment of the City’s Improvement Districts.

But the Plett region has more than enough environmental, creative and intellectual capital to rise up again.  And there are the people who are making it happen.

Peter and I spent an hour together, establishing bona fides, discovering mutual acquaintances from our pasts, and exploring the major opportunities for Plett.  Without being prompted, he made it clear that the new Plett Tourism is spreading the benefits of tourism, throughout the whole community, to build an inclusive economy.

Much of the new Plett Tourism’s efforts had to go into getting the buy-in of locals, who had either started doing their own thing in the vacuum or been leaderless.  And showing where the opportunities lie.

Plett's products and clusters - diverse attractions for everyone

Plett’s products and clusters – diverse attractions for everyone

One usually thinks of Plett primarily for its beaches, but there is much more.  It is now a serious player in Wine Tourism and there are now 18 vineyards in the Plett region, contributing much to the region’s events and activities.  There’s a Birding Route, activities galore and, of course, the sublime environment.

The Plett Winelands and a host of other attractions

The Plett Winelands and a host of other attractions

Chatting to Peter, he’s in no doubt that there is lost ground to make up and an enormous amount to be done, to meet Plett’s challenges.  Plett is becoming visible again and it is achieving that with panache — growing the unique brand that sets it apart.  Maybe it’s time for the Municipality to change its name back to Plettenberg Bay to enhance the destination brand…

Plett Tourism's annual review

Plett Tourism’s annual review — click here to download the 7.7Mb presentation

The incomparable Nature's Valley outside Plett

The incomparable Nature’s Valley outside Plett

 

Knysna is as special as always

Knysna isn’t the sleepy hollow I knew long, long ago, but it’s grown up and grown in the nicest possible way.  In this respect, it’s a bit like Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, where environment and quality are key issues.  But Knysna still has its cobwebs, in the figurative sense.  This was just a fleeting visit.

Apart from getting one of the warmest welcomes anywhere — at Knysna Wayside Inn — Beezus loved it too.  His spirits rose tangibly and he walked around the town with a swagger, just as he does in Stellenbosch.  Maybe he sensed that it is far more pet-friendly than Mossel Bay.

Knysna: it's Beezus' kind of town

It’s Beezus’ kind of town. 

I’m always intrigued by how some towns grow well and others either just fail completely or are so mediocre that it counts as a fail.  Invariably, I think, it comes down to someone really competent in charge of the town’s planning department — by getting developers to raise the bar higher than is their norm — and the existence of very vocal and informed citizens.  Knysna has very few really bad buildings, as far as I could see.  Locals may disagree, and I’d love to hear your views.

The Knysna Waterfront has become a regular stop when passing through Knysna and it’s always a source of delight.

Knysna Waterfront

Knysna Waterfront – great ambience, and pet-friendly.

The big surprise on this trip was the newer Thesen Islands.  It is a huge architectural and urban design achievement.

Thesens Island architectural detail

Thesen Islands — What first caught my eye was the quality of architectural detailing.

Thesen Island

Thesen Islands must surely be one of the most significant waterfront developments in SA.

 

Thesen Islands

View over the swimming pool at the Turbine Boutique Hotel of one of the waterways.

Will it be an enduring success?  Well that’s another matter.  The retail mix on the main street into the development just doesn’t work.  There was no buzz or excitement.  Does it have the resident population — even holidaymakers — to sustain it?  I don’t think so.  It’s going to need some serious marketing.

George: why municipalities can’t run tourism

I drove into George — the supposed capital of the Garden Route — at lunchtime on a Sunday looking for the information office.  I found the town as dead as a dodo after the irritation of unsynchronised traffic lights in the long main road, York Street.  And the info office was closed.  Unlike neighbouring Mossel Bay, which is open seven days a week, George’s follows municipal hours it seems.

Yes, I did enter the town with some negativity because it seems that Fathima Watney, tourism head at Eden District Municipality (which covers the whole of the Garden Route), can’t answer emails.  She follows me on Twitter so I had asked for her email address, and wrote to her asking for guidance during my stay in the Garden Route.  No reply, so I resent the email asking if she doesn’t answer emails.  No reply… and still no reply 38 days later.

When I got to the George info office on Monday, I learnt that she’s well-known for not replying to emails.  And in subsequent conversations moving up the Garden Route I learnt that the meetings she calls tourism stakeholders to are a complete waste of time.

Does she deserve to be in this job?  Maybe others have stellar examples of her worth…

Then I tried to make contact with Claudine Carelse, acting head of George Tourism.  She was at their Wilderness office so I tried calling her to arrange to meet.  Her cellphone went unanswered and never switched to voicemail so I called the Wilderness landline.  The woman who answered said Claudine was busy with a client but would call me back.  I never heard from her.

Then I learned about how George Municipality took control of the tourism organisation after interfering in how it should be run.  Well that is a kiss of death.  I went to look at their website, which must be one of the most outdated town websites I’ve come across in a long time.  And I decided to compare how the towns compare in terms of global traffic rankings on Alexa.com.  George’s website fares abysmally.

Garden Route websites global traffic rankings

How Garden Route websites compare in their global traffic ranking on Alexa.com 24-03-2015

Politicians and bureaucrats need to accept that marketing and destination marketing are not within their competence.  They need to support it and provide municipal services and amenities which support tourism, but they cannot run it.

Politicians and bureaucrats see marketing as telling consumers what they want consumers to hear or see.  Wrong!  Marketing is telling consumers what they want to hear or see.

If George, Wilderness and the Garden Route is looking for a tourism game-changer, it needs to start with restructuring tourism in the region.

Graham, on duty at the George info office on my one visit, was exceptional and a true star.  He would be a credit to any tourism organisation anywhere!  It’s just a pity that when I went in search of the Pacaltsdorp Historic Walk, after he gave me the brochure, I couldn’t find it — I didn’t see any road names in Pacaltsdorp nor was the info office clearly marked.

A Gem outside George

Our next stop was George (a town I’d never spent any time in) and we stayed at ArendsRus Country Lodge, attracted by the photo of a fountain and scenic views on CapeInfo.  It was an inspired choice taking us into the rural area close to the Outeniqua mountains.

En route I saw a sign for The Hop Route, which I remember being promoted with a flurry several years ago, and wondered if I was going to experience something special.  Well… the Hop Route seems to have died but the scenery is spectacular.  Could this rival KZN’s Midlands Meander, I wondered, since I had never been there?  Now that I have been to KZN’s Midlands, I’m sure that it could easily  become as popular with a little more entrepreneurial spark and marketing.

George countryside

Rolling farmlands on the road to ArendsRus

George countryside

View from my room at ArendsRus towards the coast with a sea mist coming in.

Sunset from ArendsRus

Sunset from ArendsRus

ArendsRus is rather special — very comfortable and stylish — with views that let the brain breathe.  I was there on a Sunday and Monday night, which was unfortunate because the restaurant — which is very popular — was closed.

ArendsRus Country Lodge

ArendsRus Country Lodge

 

Boggomsbaai and the quirky Fred Orban

The Buffalo Rally was on and Mossel Bay was full of bikers. And dog-friendly posed a challenge, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Mossel Bay Tourism suggested that I stay in Boggomsbaai.

Well, it has a stunning (officially dog-unfriendly) beach, Fred Orban lives here, and there are no shops or pubs or restaurants at all (unless you’re participating in the Oystercatcher Trail, when you’ll be convivially hosted in their quite surprising establishment). Continue reading

The most memorable & thought-provoking experience anywhere!

Much has been made of the fact that the earliest artifacts of modern man were discovered at Mossel Bay.  So this is where modern man evolved, on the southern coast of the African continent.  So what?

Then do yourself a favour – a big favour – and go on Dr Peter Nilssen’s Point of Human Origins Experience.  It’s an experience and a memory that will last a lifetime!

Peter and his colleague, Jonathon Kaplan, were appointed to prepare the Archaeological Impact Assessment for the Pinnacle Point Golf Estate on the outskirts of Mossel Bay which led to the discovery of this unique piece of human history and the research that followed. Continue reading

Mossel Bay — a rising tourism star

Standing high above Mossel Bay, the St Blaize lighthouse was first lit in 1864.

Standing high above Mossel Bay, the St Blaize lighthouse was first lit in 1864.  It lets tourism down by not offering tours over weekends as well as less-than-attractive access.

Mossel Bay has been on the up-and-up for some time and tourism numbers to the area have grown steadily.  The town includes more rural areas like Boggomsbaai (where Beezus and I stayed) on the Cape Town side to Herolds Bay on the George side, with Brak river in between.

The tourism office is good and it deserves much of the credit for Mossel Bay’s success in tourism.  Of course they are helped by an enormous range of activities and attractions that will cater for all travellers — click here to download their guide.

The town itself is rather cluttered and it seems that the new Langeberg Mall on its outskirts has affected CBD trading badly.  Maybe this should be the stimulus to revitalise the CBD.  New developments at The Point provide some attraction but much more needs to be done if the Mossel Bay brand is going to grow.  It is a town at the crossroads.  I wonder if the municipality has a clear idea for the road ahead.

While most contemporary architecture is rather mediocre, the town’s saving grace lies in its history — it does have some fine historic architecture and there is a Historic Walk, with a brochure from the Info office.

Standing high above Mossel Bay, the St Blaize lighthouse was first lit in 1864.

St Blaize Terrace, built in 1909 and renovated in 1986.

The museum complex across the road from the info office is definitely worth a visit.  The star of the show must be the replica of the caravelle that brought Bartholomew Diaz to the Bay on February 3, 1488.  The curator told me that funding is down and so are visitor numbers.  Maybe it’s time for a new business model because the Diaz Museum feels a little sparse and unused, along with the whole museum complex.

Mossel Bay Bartholomeu Diaz Caravelle

The replica of the caravelle that brought Bartholomeu Diaz to Mossel Bay in 1488, and which sailed from Portugal to Mossel Bay 500 years later, in 1988.

The highlight of my visit was the Point of Human Origins Experience.  Peter Nilssen’s presentation was much more than just thought-provoking.. it is something that will stay with one forever.  The town should be making much more of this memorable experience, and it needs to be accessible to many more people.  Human Origins tourism should be part of any game-changing plan.  Time for an interpretive centre?  (I will be writing more about this experience.)

The pavilion at Mossel Bay's Santos Beach

The pavilion at Santos Beach c1916– a replica of the Brighton Pierhead after the architect visited the UK.

But for many visitors, Mossel Bay is primarily about a beach holiday and the area has plenty of those.  My favourite beach was Herolds Bay with its seasonal bistro on the parking lot alongside the beach.

Herolds Bay


Herolds Bay with its beachside bistro was a surprise discovery, which happens when you avoid the N2. It’s delightful, just like the other dorps outside Mossel Bay — Boggomsbaai, Groot and Little Brak River.

 

Mossel Bay: No domestic pets on all Public Open Spaces -- the ultimate dog-unfriendly town?

No domestic pets on all Public Open Spaces — the ultimate dog-unfriendly town?

One of my few gripes was with the municipality.  (Redefining stupidity was the other.)  It is the most pet-unfriendly area I’ve ever encountered — and it says a lot about the mindset of the municipality’s management.

Every beach, every public open space, from Boggomsbaai in the West to Herolds Bay in the East displays the sign shown alongside.  Nowhere do you find signs saying what you may do… I saw no signs saying “this is a place where dogs can be walked on a leash or run free.”  (Knysna showed a refreshing flip side of the coin.)

Surely… Public Open Spaces includes all sidewalks too?

Come on SPCA… animals have rights too.  Surely you can prosecute the municipality in terms of animal rights legislation?

Following the Getaway Show in Cape Town a few weeks ago, there are rumblings that the municipality wants to play a more dominant role in tourism.  If they do, and if they don’t know their place, it will be the kiss of death for tourism in this town.  But there will be more on that in future stories here.  This is a municipality that needs a game-changing plan — the private sector has got it right but local government hasn’t.

Redefining stupidity

Mossel bay's Langeberg Mall: A great shopping centre but apparently a clueless property owner/manager

Mossel Bay’s Langeberg Mall: A great shopping centre but apparently a clueless property owner/manager

One of my first stops in Mossel Bay was for provisions at Pick n Pay at the Langeberg Mall.  After parking and going up to the retail level, I was struck by the ambiance of the centre and whipped out my camera.  A woman standing with a group of men in front of me charged up and said no photos are allowed in the Mall.  When I said this is nonsense, she threatened to have me arrested if I went ahead.  I should have asked what I would be arrested for, since I never saw any signs prohibiting photography, but I explained who I am, where I’m from, and that I’m trying to help promote Mossel Bay.  She was adamant, saying its head office policy, so when I asked which property company managed the centre, she told me it is Redefine Properties and offered to give me the CEO’s phone number.

So, Redefine Properties and all other property companies, please read Oi!… stunning… and clueless.    That was written in March 2010.  A few months later, after interviewing the CEO of FNB, I stopped as I was leaving to take photographs of Bank City.  A security guard stopped me from taking any.  A tweet about this got an immediate response from FNB and their policy was changed within two days.  Photography is allowed with the exception of ATMs and the people using them, which makes sense.

In this age of selfies, is the prohibition of photography purely idiotic?  What if I had whipped out my mobile phone to take photographs of the area behind me?  But the real crux is — don’t you want people sharing pics of the great places and spaces they went to?  Are you really just another member of the tourist-unfriendly brigade?

Andries, the honey distiller

Andries and his distilled honey

Andries and his distilled honey

Vermaaklikheid doesn’t have much in the way of shops, or anything other than the river, but the shop I went to for milk was happy to open up when I arrived.  And we started chatting — with the shopkeeper and her husband, Andries.  Had I ever tasted distilled honey, he asked?   He’s been working on an innovative way to distill honey for years and, he believes, he has a unique product.  It’s not quite legal to sell yet, but Provincial legislation is being prepared.

It’s not quite mampoer and the alcohol content ranges from 16 to 43% alcohol.  The 16% smells and tastes like a very smooth sherry — it is very more-ish.  The variation of the drinks between the honey gathered from summer fynbos (almond aromas and taste) and winter fynbos is remarkable.

So maybe you’ll see a Vermaaklikheid home-grown product soon.