South Africa's Route 62
One of Audley's South Africa country specialists, Rob Philips, travels down Route 62 from Franschhoek to Oudtshoorn.
From Franschhoek, I climbed into the Franschhoek mountains for a commanding view across the extensive vineyards and lush valleys that characterize the winelands of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. Once over the pass, the descent took me into an altogether different landscape; the vast semi-desert of the Karoo.
This is in fact the Klein Karoo, which links with the arid plain that stretches all the way from the watershed of the Garden Route's mountains to the Northern Cape, when the Karoo eventually becomes true desert in the form of the Kalahari.
This is big sky country, and for those driving from the Mother City, as Cape Town is affectionately known, this is your first taste of the 'real' Africa. Sophisticated vineyards and irrigated valleys still abound but the vast landscape, the arid jagged peaks on the horizon, the incredible birdlife and the road signs strongly warning against the feeding of baboons all clearly indicate that you have entered a different world from Cape Town.
The other side of Robertson, which is worth a stop for its Klipdrift brandy, I joined the historic Route 62, which many South Africans will justifiably tell you is one of the most beautiful drives in South Africa, if not the whole continent of Africa. After twisting through a picturesque, rocky gorge, I entered the wonderful little town of Montagu.
Founded in 1851, Montagu sits on the edge of the arid plain and is a delightful little town of traditional Cape Dutch architecture, consisting of immaculate white gabled buildings with thatched roofs. In comparison with the arid bushland (known as 'fynbos' at the coast and the 'veld' inland), the pure whiteness of the houses matched against a deep blue sky forces the visitor to squint in the light.
Montagu is populated by artists and, with over 20 national monuments, others looking to escape the 21st century. Saturday is market day in Montagu and this little community turns out en masse to sell its wares to locals and those passing through: koeksisters (traditional Dutch sweet, cinnamon covered cakes), cookies, chutneys, ostrich steaks, fruit and other foodstuffs jostle for space next to antique and clothes stalls. It is a friendly, convivial place and wandering around in the shade chatting to the locals would be a wonderful way to spend half an hour if you're passing through.
A couple of minutes' walk along Bath Street away from the town's stunning little church lies a real treat. The Leidam bird hide overlooks a small lake and woodland which is alive with hundreds of ibis, heron and egret. It's a birdwatcher's dream and you could spend hours whiling away the day here, listening to the birdsong and taking shade from the hot Karoo sun.
Montagu also lies in excellent wine and brandy country, so there are ample opportunities for further tastings if you did not satisfy all your needs in the Winelands. For the more adventurous, the area around Montagu is a mecca for hikers, climbers (the nearby sandstone and rock outcrops provide some of the best rock climbing spots in South Africa) and mountain bikers.
A particularly pleasant short hike, known as Lover's Lane, takes an easy path the 3 km through the red rocks to the thermal springs at the Avalon Springs Hotel. There are also several longer and more challenging day hikes from Montagu. Take precautions here though if you're venturing out for the day - the Karoo sun is unforgiving and summer temperatures regularly top 40°C (104°F) in the little shade that there is.
This wonderful little town also boasts a dozen or so restaurants and coffee shops and some wonderful guesthouses. So, why not kick back and stay overnight and be drawn in by the hospitality and what a local might say, in a guarded whisper, is the 'real' South Africa?
If you haven't the time to overnight in Montagu, the excitement along R62 continues as it plunges deep into the Klein Karoo, which is cut into by strips of green. Narrow valleys, made fertile through irrigation, contain abundant fruit farms and vineyards where further wine and brandy tastings are possible. Fruit farms line the route, providing you with ample opportunity to taste the Karoo. Game-viewing, cattle-ranching, horse-riding, quad-biking and hiking are all activities that may tempt you to take your foot off the pedal when you are driving R62.
Barrydale, Ladismith and Calitzdorp are the only towns I passed through over the 270 km (150 miles) traversed between Montagu and Oudtshoorn. All are pleasant little one-horse Karoo towns with restaurants and cafés where you can pause and soak up the silence.
All of the towns on R62 are safe to wander around, so take a peak off Main Street and you will be rewarded with some beautiful Karoo and Cape Dutch architecture. The sandstone church in Calitzdorp is particularly of note and is another listed national monument. Calitzdorp is also the port capital of South Africa and, of the five wineries around the town (all of which take visitors), Boplaas is argued to provide the best fortified wine in this part of the world.
Finally, the ostriches of Oudtshoorn's dusty farmlands come into view and you know what you're having for dinner tonight.
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