Botanical Gardens of Bloemfontein

The Botanical gardens of Bloemfontein in the Free State are exquisitely maintained providing a visual fest of plants and wildlife. However it’s not just the curator to thank for this, there is an element of perseverance found throughout the gardens vivid colours, fresh smells and interesting plant life. An almost silent refusal to not be done in and not to be forgotten.

The red bricked path snaking through the lush, freshly cut grass is accompanied by the sounds of rustling leaves barely hanging on th their branches as Autumn comes to take them away. Cheerful birds chirp away the gossip of the park overhead and an inquisitive Dassie stares at you from behind some bushes.

From the medicinal garden to the looping walks up dolerite and kiepersol littered koppies, there is a sense of calm and subtlety about this place, a sense of growth and destruction, life and death but at natures own pace. Nature hasnt succumbed to the ever-increasing pressures of the working world, where projects need to be completed within strict schedules and business efficiency overrides all. Nature on the other hand is consistent and is not rushed by man or their deadlines.

Upon reaching the top of the koppie, the surrounding areas seem bare and barren compared to the lush tree haven of the gardens. The furious N1 lying adjacent to the gardens slips further and further away as you lose yourself in the intimate atmosphere. The worries and pressures of the lives we lead seep away into the wood and sand.

But it’s not only the escape that makes these gardens a source of reviving energy, it’s the perseverance that is the most striking. Examples of perseverance extend from the wall built by the British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War which still stands unfazed by the harsh climate to the koppies plant life latching on to the earth by their roots in any secure holding they can find and lastly the timeless green-carpeted lake sheltered by a maze of branch and trees. This testament to not be rushed, not be destroyed or overlooked is the life force which is palpable and unshakable throughout the enduring botanical gardens.

It costs R16 (1.2 Euro) for adults, its 10 minutes from the city centre. Get out there and get back to what nature does best. Just be.

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Romancing the Castle of Good Hope

ImageStepping into the first courtyard of the castle, you are drawn into the view of the dominating Table Mountain and Devils peak seemingly more stark than usual due to the coloured walls encompassing the surrounding yard. The combinations of green grass, mustard coloured walls, stone laden Table Mountain in the background and the bright blue sky above, make for an impressive entrance into the castles first courtyard. A grazing white stallion can be seen through the dark walkway into the second, sun lit courtyard. Groups of school children and tourists peacefully walk in the warm sun, chattering about this and that and birds fly overhead. The bustling noise of the city behind you drowns away with each step you take deeper into the castle. It’s easy to feel the safety this place offered the Dutch inhabitants of that time. However this same castle also hosted some horrible torture chambers, death for serious law breakers and some interesting tweaks of engineering in the name of sleep and comfort.

Three museums are found in the castle. Most impressive of these are the William Fehr Collection library in the residence for the second in command. Dutch ceramics, splendid paintings of powerful Dutch ships tackling the rough seas and amazing depictions of Cape Town as it was in 1683, line the halls of rich wooden floors and high ceilings. Portraits of Jan van Riebeeck and Vasco de Gama hang from these same walls, not unlike the ones in history books you’ve seen since third grade but the beautiful works such as the impressive rusted swords and the large, long case clock built in Amsterdam offer something textbooks can’t. The exhibits are well kept and impressive. Tribute must be given to the peering eyes of the lingering personnel, more than ready to point out the signs of “Don’t touch” and “Absolutely No Flash Photography”.

Joining the daily tour with our knowledgeable and articulate guide, Steven, a group of 15 young and old are led through the cool rooms and grassy paths of the castle. One of the main features leading the way through to the second courtyard is the “Dolphin” pool. However the dolphin depiction looks quite different to our dolphins of the twenty-first century. I’m not an expert on the history of sea creatures but based on the statue forming the centerpiece of the pool, it seemed like dolphins were a mix between a frog and a dragon back in the seventeen hundreds.“Maybe that’s what dolphins looked like back in the day of Van Riebeck” giggles an elderly lady exploring the castle with her 2 friends.

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The torture rooms are so often the highlight of these places, people are almost enthralled by what humans used to do to each other, possibly in a way to reassure ourselves that we’ve made some sort of progress in becoming more humane through the ages. These chambers harboured countless beatings to chained detainees, solitary confinement in a pitch black, freezing cold room and dropping potential criminals from a 5 meter height face first onto the stone floor until they confessed to their crimes (even if they weren’t the ones who committed them). As horrible as these torture rooms are and the atrocities that were committed in them,  they don’t even touch the prison camps and forms of torture which the Khmer Rouge handed out in Cambodia, ironically and sadly, occurring less that 35 years ago.

Feeling quite uneasy as you leave the torture chambers, the resident White stallion named ‘Light’ is seen grazing just outside the torture chamber entrance. Dominating in size and presence, the stallion owns the courtyard and has a habit of approaching and optimistically entering the kitchen to demand a snack or two. Shortly thereafter you are led past the SA Navy applications offices, just in case anyone felt a change of career was in order. I’m certain there’s no connection between them being stationed two doors down from the old torture chambers.

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Steven gives us the rundown of all the interesting facts of the castle – He rattles them off like he has said them a thousand times before, and he probably has. The pick of the bunch would be that the Captains Tower found jutting out of the Southern wall of the castle was the tallest building in South Africa for nearly a century. When questioned about the strange wooden bricks laid down as the walkway between courtyard one and courtyard two, Steven replies “It was as per request of the Governor. The reason being that his sleeping chambers were directly above the walkway and the loud clacking of horse hooves kept him from sleeping in late and rudely woke him from his afternoon naps. Therefore wooden bricks were installed to muffle the noise of hooves and boots”. It sure was great to be the king of the castle back in those days.

The tour, being 45 minutes long, ends just in time for the exhibition which happens every day at 12:00.Traditionally clothed soldiers enter and play out the scene of firing the daily cannon. A small, lego-like cannon set up in the centre of the courtyard. Nobody moves back whilst the canon is lit, expecting a small bang after the mighty Noon gun has just gone off on Signal Hill. The little canon seems to muster everything its got and explodes with a ferocious bang which is echoed by the 4 tall walls surrounding us. Everyone is startled out of their relaxed demeanour and some who got too close manage an impressed look and assess their heart beats secretly.

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There is ample to see and learn from this monument. It’s encouraging to know that from the Seventeen hundreds to today, traditions are still alive and kicking. The history of this amazing spectacle in the middle of our everyday lives, resonate through its interesting and sometimes quirky stories. This was after all, not only one of the first buildings ever built in South Africa (as far back as 1666) but it’s also the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa. That’s double the reason to visit the castle that started it all back then, in the place we love so much today.

http://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za/

Indian Venster Trail, Table Mountain

Indian Venster trail, Table Mountain

Climbing up Table mountain has many options, some more difficult than others. Depending on your level of fitness, strengths and courage you choose the most appropriate walk for you. Right? Well in my case I made a catastrophic error thinking I would doodle up the kloof nek path, whizz up some chains and stand unfazed atop Table Mountain. I realized 30 minutes into this hike that Indian Venster was not for people just recently returning to the climbing world.

The gravel path zigzags from the lower cable station in an elevated fashion until you reach a wall of rock extending all the way along the Contour Path of Table Mountain. Although being quite steep on some parts, it’s easy enough and you’re roped into believing that the walk will be a breeze. This is until you see a dangling chain resembling a dead metallic snake hanging down from somewhere higher above, nestled by a rock face crevice. Upon climbing this 7 meter long chain expect to use a lot of arm strength and your knees to be grazed by the sandy rock whilst making your way up. Once you reach the top of said metallic snake, you are kindly greeted with a steeper climb than before towards the next wall of rock. Take in some fluid, work those muscles and sweat until reaching the next chain peeking out from another gap in the rock face. Once you scramble yourself up the second slightly steeper chain, you are struck by a majestic view of camps bay, the city bowl and the 12 apostles. A reward palpable but not yet to be cherished as you look up to the upcoming path and inevitably what is to come.

The views on this hike are none-the-less incredible, standing on the piece of rock separating Camps Bay and the City Bowl allows a feast of stunning visuals. The Twelve apostles have never looked so powerful and righteous from this angle and the cable cart has never been so close either, if not appealing.

From this high-rise viewpoint, you continue scaling up some hair-raising points where you need to keep your composure and concentration. Not looking down was also high on my priority list. The rock face becomes your best friend as behind and beneath you is just empty space and a very, very far way down. The reservoir looks like a kiddies play pool from up here. Once you reach the trail-titled Indian Venster you come across the last chain of the climb but the individuals who set this path has left the best for last – the chain of truth. One last swing of chain, I re-assure myself, and I’m home free. As I’m about to swing to the city bowl side of the mountain I make a strict promise to myself that I’m never doing an intense hike like this again without any training or otherwise, without a parachute.

The entire City bowl opens up before me as i swing out on the chain and quickly push my momentum to something stable. I grab onto a piece of rock on my right hand side and plant myself onto solid ground. Relief comes over me as I stand facing the afternoon sun and I take in the sculpted lions head and bustling city. Overcoming such fear opens ones eyes in a way not much else can and soon the welcomed flat summit of the mountain had never seemed so welcoming. We headed straight for the restaurant and after an ice-cold beer, a lot of shaking my head and talks of the chains “not being that scary”, we head back down. But this time the only thing I’m holding on to is the cable cart window as I’m swept down the ever surprising mountain we call our back yard.

Overview

Duration: 2-3 hours one way.

Difficulty: 4/5

Fear factor: 4/5.

This hike combines 500 meters of steep climbing, scrambling up 3 metallic chains averaging roughly 7 meters and 3 rock climbing sections of 10 meter heights. A friend or guide who knows the route is essential, unless you’re thinking of base jumping and make sure you’re in good shape as once you’ve scaled up the second part of this trail, going down is almost not an option due to the steepness of the climb.

  • It is important to note that people have injured themselves on this hike and some, sadly, have even passed away. So please be careful and be prepared.

Dumela from Lesotho

Most December holiday goers would be found in one of the many popular attractions along South Africa’s’ beautiful coastline and why not, what a gorgeous coastline it is. However on the 27th of December I found myself slap-bang in the middle of the country – in another country. Myself and three friends were keen on the possibility of mountain streams, waterfalls and true culture for our December break (And I’m not referring to beer and boerewors culture here) and we found it in one of the most unlikely places. We spent 5 days at Malealea lodge, trekking to thundering waterfalls, laughing in the large powerful rivers, discussing this thing called life with international guests, eating like kings and fueling up with the remote and infectious spirit that is the Basotho Kingdom. Don’t be fooled, this place has a magic you can’t conjure up anywhere else.

The large gouges of land missing from the emerald carpeted earth seem to have been scooped up and eaten by greedy giants stomping the jagged plains. The timeless landscape and dominating mountain ranges almost surpass the big open sky above. Figures ploughing their livelihood glow in the afternoon sun, which blesses not only its people and livestock but the crazy land it shines upon. Here is a land which hasn’t been scarred by large multiple air-conditioned malls and sky rise office buildings. A true homeland. They call it Lesotho.

With the idea of having a culturally rich experience in Lesotho, we found only one option. It seemed all roads lead to Malealea lodge. Malealea holds tons of unique experiences along with gorgeous, untouched scenery and a special charm. Nestled in-between the majestic Maluti mountain range and surrounded by quaint villages, lies this community friendly gem in the heart of Basotho land.

Michael Deutschmann, the manager of the lodge greeted us on our arrival with a number of ideas on how we could spend our time in and around Malealea. “There are no waiting lists here, so if you wake up at midday and decide you would like to go on an overnight pony trek, just let us know and we’ll set everything up for you on the spot.”  Michael allows guests to feel right at home from the word go and allows minimal stress when it comes to itineraries – a crucial part of getting away from all the planning which can so easily plague a holiday breakaway.

Michael suggested some of the many things we could do during our holiday and led our group of four into exploring the quiet surroundings. We were introduced to David, a short man dressed in the common Basotho blanket and darkened chinos who resides in the nearby village. Armed with a mischievous grin and some interesting facts of his land, he was set to be our guide for the famous pony trek offered by Malealea. The ponies and horses used all belonged to locals from the nearby villages and the money paid towards the trip goes directly to them, as long as their animals are in good condition.

David took us out over the rolling hills of Lesotho, past far away villages blasting their music from only the chief knows where and over the hairiest mountain passes you’ve seen since Lord of the Rings. “If you want to buy land here, you must speak to the chief and if he likes you, he’ll give you land to build your home” David remarks whilst passing many man-made huts in the most arbitrary locations on the never-ending landscapes. I wondered how this concept would work in  places such as Camps Bay or Sandton back home. The chiefs of those lands are sure to not be as accommodating.

We galloped towards our lodge after a long day on horseback, crossing rivers and streams littered with lazy trees hanging their branches in the passing water as if drinking their share. The school children were waving at us with their bright, smiling faces and running alongside our now tired ponies, which were sensing the proximity of home. This school is yet another initiative installed by Malealea and maintains the literary needs of many children attending each year. David wastes no time in taking us to the guest book after we de-saddled ourselves to rate his service. One of the many ways Malealea monitors the quality of their tours.  “Sala hantle, David”, we said in our best Lesotho accent and made our way to the lounging area where the smell of meat and hot fire was resonating through the crisp pre-evening  air.

The choir starts their chorus at 6pm every night. Bongo drums, guitars made out of Castrol Oil cans and melodic voices fill the otherwise deafening quiet surroundings of the heartland. We set up close to the fire and begin having drinks and discussions with fellow guests. Two of which were Mark and Jenny, a travelling English couple with a palpable jovial energy. After sharing some niceties with Mark, the reason for their holiday came to the front.“I’ve been planning this trip since I was 20 years old, mapping out routes in my dormitory room at University. Here I am 18 years later with my wife and 10-year-old daughter living that dream”, Mark told us as the fire glinted in his excited eyes. “I quit my job, booked the tickets to Cape Town and here we are, 2 weeks into our 8 month scheduled trip around Southern Africa”.

What a blessing it was to see a dream being realized. It stirs a reviving hope inside yourself and to see the effect of it on another, in the flesh and blood – people with a weight off their relaxed shoulders, a sparkle in their eyes and a lust for life renewed – what a great energy this was to be around.

The warm night carried on with delicious fire-cooked meat fit for a Chief and the local Basotho cuisine of warm pap and beans. This followed by some acoustic sessions and small-talk lit up by the dancing flames of a warm fire. Just as the night was coming to a close, the electricity shuts down, as it does at 10pm every night, and another show begins upstairs – the stars came out in their millions. With the star-studded sky above and the open plains of dark, sleeping Lesotho encompassing you, the realization of being somewhere truly special seeps over you and the worries of everyday life drift away along with the grey smoke into the black night sky above.

For more information on bookings: http://www.malealea.co.ls/