Most tourists pursue pretty much a set route when they come to the Cape.
They’ll spend a couple of days in Cape Town, followed by a day or two’s tour of Stellenbosch and the Cape Winelands in order to indulge in a bit of wine-tasting and maybe even some superlative cuisine at a local wine farm.
Then there’s the inevitable mad dash along the world-renowned, heavily-touristed – especially during high season which is November to February – but undoubtedly scenic Garden Route.
This expedition comprises a good 750km or 12 hours of solid driving from the Mother City to Port Elizabeth, from where people generally fly back to Cape Town before departing for home.
All very lovely, with lots of dramatic mountains covered in forest sweeping down to azure seas, but unless you’ve got enough time to amble off the main drag and explore a bit, it can all seem a bit relentless.
Hence the possibly controversial decision when my parents were visiting here to take a somewhat different tack.
In a bid to offer them a broad overview of what the Cape has to offer as well as lessen the car fatigue, I plumped for exploring the more gentle beauty of the Overberg and its environs, a mountainous region between Stellenbosch and the Garden Route that most people simply sail through without stopping.
First on the list of adventures was Aquila, a private game reserve about two hour’s drive north west of Cape Town in the lower reaches of the Klein Karoo. The Karoo, which is a Khoi-san word meaning ‘land of thirst’, is a vast, scrubby, semi-arid area that covers about a third of South Africa’s total land mass.
But while everyone will tell you that the game reserves in the Western Cape are not a patch on those elsewhere in the country – most particularly the Kruger National Park on the Zimbabwean and Mozambique border – we loved it nonetheless.
As the trip involved an overnight stay, we were lucky enough to be taken out on a couple of two-hour game drives to see the Big Five – elephants, leopards, lions, rhino and water buffalo – plus a goodly number of zebras, springbok, hippos and eland by head warden, Timothy.
Timothy had not only trained at Kruger and knew his stuff, but was also a first-class entertainer, which all added to the fascinating experience.
But he did, quite rightly, become incensed by the new depths that the ‘canned hunting’ industry is currently plumbing – rather than having to be physically present to shoot drugged animals in an enclosure these days, so-called hunters can now opt to do it virtually over the internet in a games format.
All they have to do is point and click from their computer and some paid lackey will perform the deed on their behalf before couriering the head to them as a trophy. Sick.
Anyway, still staying on the Karoo theme, another worthwhile stop was the Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens near Worcester, which is a sister site to the vast and rather more famous Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.
Divided up into separate themed rooms housing plants from different arid and semi-arid regions across southern Africa, the delights on show range from weird and wonderful tree- and cactus-like structures to vibrantly colourful displays of wild flowers.
Enchanting. You don’t realise just how much variety there is in what often appears to be uniform, scrubby old brown and green terrain until you get up close and personal.
A bit of culture
On the more historical and cultural side of things, meanwhile, the area also offered an abundance of delights.
For example, there’s the Kleinplasie museum, again near Worcester, which is like a smaller version of the Beamish open air, ‘living’ museum back home in County Durham – except that the former focuses on Boer heritage and the latter on life in the North East of England at the apex of industrialisation in the early 20th century.
But there’s also the tranquil and charming village of Greyton to have a nice relaxing coffee in as well as nearby Genadendal or ‘Valley of Grace’ – the first and oldest mission station in South Africa, which was founded in 1737 by Moravian missionaries from the Czech Republic.
The Moravians happened to be among Europe’s first Protestants, rebelling against Rome some 50 years before Martin Luther – and they continued their non-conformist ways in South Africa, providing education and vocational training to the indigeneous Khoi and local coloured communities in the face of opposition from white farmers and the Dutch Reformed Church.
In fact, in recognition of the good works performed there, Nelson Mandela even renamed his official residence in Cape Town after the village in 1995.
And it must be said that the tourist information office and café adjacent to Church Square at the heart of the village do know how to do a mean bran muffin. They also offer iced honeybush tea in various flavours ranging from pineapple to vanilla, which was a new one on me.
A bit sweeter than the more famous rooibos, honeybush tea is only grown in the Cape’s more mountainous regions and, being packed full of immune system-boosting vitamins and anti-oxidants, is supposed to be good for all manner of coughs, colds and allergies.
Also good for you – unless, like my mam, you happen to slip and cut your legs to ribbons, poor thing – are the hot springs in Caledon. Located in a spa next to the casino, there are five pools of natural, hot brown water, created as the waters cascade down a small hillside.
Although they scald progressively more flesh from your bones as you scale the heights, the views over the surrounding farmland are lovely. Despite a dead frog in one pool and painful scarring from another, it was, in fact, an altogether relaxing and rejuvenating experience. Which is, after all, what holidays are all about.