Get your kicks on South Africa's Route 62
Will Hide finds that his sterling goes a long way on a spectacular journey along South Africa's 'unknown' highway
I've slowed down for many things on the road - schoolchildren, cyclists, ponies - but never plums. Yet there, by the side of the dirt track, was a sign asking me to do just that.
Bruce Gilson laughed when I pointed this out and I reduced my speed to the requested 20km/h (12mph) as we drove past his organic orchard. “If you go too fast, dust from the road settles on the leaves and inhibits the plums' growth,” he explained as his Jack Russells, Figgie and Hoolie, bobbed up and down on the back seat.
Bruce and his wife, Alison, grow apricots, peaches, plums, mangoes, olives and grapes on Tierhoek Farm, outside Robertson, 112 miles (180km) east of Cape Town, as well as renting out four cottages. Mine had satellite television, but rather than subject myself to another news bulletin of financial meltdown, I sat for several hours on the front stoep (veranda), with a good book and a crisp lager, watching the hundred or so busy cape weaver birds constructing their hanging nests in the tree directly in front.
Just beyond where I had parked my hire car was a field of vines bordered by meadows and the Langeberg Mountains towering behind. There was not another soul around, except for the large tortoise I discovered in the field, a scarily large spider on the gate to the pool, and my friends the weavers.
After almost 20 trips to South Africa in the past 12 years, I consider myself something of an old hand there, but it was only recently that I discovered Route 62, near Bruce and Alison's farm. The road is gaining fame not just for the spectacular beauty of its scenery, but also the increasing number of B&Bs and guest houses that pride themselves as much on their food as their decor.
And with the rand hovering around 17 to the pound, there is the added bonus of paying about £12 a head for a three-course meal. On previous visits I, like most tourists tearing from Table Mountain to the Garden Route, always used the functional but dull N2 motorway. Now I'm a convert to the pleasures of this alternative road from Cape Town.
Route 62 rises over mountain passes, then descends through lush valleys, past vineyards and fruit fields before rising again through the little Afrikaans-speaking towns of the Klein Karoo. Barrydale, Ladismith and Calitzdorp are peppered with prim high street tea rooms and white-washed, tin-roofed houses, where the breeze catches washing hanging in front gardens, acting as multicoloured, unofficial flags for the region.
From the spectacular Huguenot Pass on the N1 motorway east of Cape Town to Oudtshoorn, “the ostrich-capital of the world” (thousands are bred in the area), the road meanders for a distance of more than 450km. From there you can drop down to the south over the Outeniqua mountains and join the Garden Route at George.
However, after a fine four-course meal, including ostrich, at my guesthouse De Zeekoe, outside Oudtsoorn, and a 5am start to go meerkat-spotting with a local expert, Grant McIlrath, I headed north, over the heart-stopping switchbacks of the Swartberg Pass, to the quaint “dorp” (village) of Prince Albert on the edges of empty, arid Karoo.
I had only one night here, but could easily have spent more. My hosts were Ria Steyn, who ran a stylish B&B farmhouse, the Dennehof, and Jeremy Fremantle, who has escaped the metropolitan rigours of Cape Town to launch a new cookery school, African Relish.
“Prince Albert is a bit of a culinary enigma,” he told me as we drove along, kicking up clouds of dust (no delicate plums here) en route to a fig farm, 25km out of town. He was referring to the many fruits and vegetables grown in the area despite the daunting climate - temperatures climb to more than 40C in summer. Karoo lamb, the most famous and tender in the country, is a big pull for foodies, too. “It has a distinctive flavour,” he said, “due to the vegetation the sheep graze on. And springbok and gemsbok are also abundant here as well.”
Our culinary chat continued that evening around a table at the Olive Garden restaurant. It is run by Bokkie Botha, a man who, with exceeding charm, could probably talk the hind leg off a kudu, but would then pan fry it with a balsamic reduction and serve with an exceptionally fine red. With his wife and friends from the village we tasted several delicious dishes and I realised I was lucky to be here at all - Botha opens the restaurant only two nights a week.
From Prince Albert I ventured farther north, then west, past creaking windmills in the middle of the desert, brought alive with seas of delicate purple spring flowers. I stopped for a stretch at tiny, colonial Matjiesfontein, where time seems to have stopped about 1900 and a Union Jack still flies by the turn-off from the main road. Then it was back to Route 62, via the Rooihoogte and Burgers passes, to the vineyards of Montagu and Robertson.
In theory you could drive along Route 62 in a day, but that would be a shame, not least for the driver forced to keep eyes on the road and not get distracted by signs such as Ronnie's Sex Shop (actually, a bar near Warmwaterberg). It is worth taking at least three days to explore the excellent wineries and restaurants, not to mention activities such as horse riding, kayaking, climbing or mountain biking.
The specialist food-oriented travel companies, such as the Johannesburg-based Samp & Soufflé, are cottoning on to the area's growing gourmet stature and organise explorations along Route 62 that require you to bring trousers with a forgiving waistband as well as a good camera and a map.
“The great thing about this area,” says co-owner Suzanne Foster, “is the really fresh local ingredients, and the revival of country cooking traditions, with lots of different influences, especially Dutch and Cape Malay. And Route 62 is the longest wine trail in the world, so we're spoilt for choice on that front.”
“Agh man,” agreed the son of a vineyard owner near Bonnievale as I slurped and reluctantly spat my way through some rather nice bottles of chardonnay, “just a few years ago the towns along Route 62 were real sh*tholes, but they've really upped their game. There is some great food here now - there didn't really used to be.”
I spent my last few evenings eating tremendously well on the way back to Cape Town, with a four-course dinner at Jans Harmsgat Country House, near Swellendam, for example. Equally splendid were the springbok skewers, sesame pork and almond and gooseberry cheesecake, cooked by the Swiss chef Bernhard Hess at Mimosa Lodge in Montagu.
So often visitors to South Africa hare from A to B, but Route 62 proves that the journey is just as much part of the holiday - especially with the exchange rate on your side, allowing you to make the most of your pitstops.
NEED TO KNOW
Samp and Soufflé (00 27 11 728 4032, www.sampsouffle.com) can organise a similar eight-night itinerary including accommodation in Cape Town and along Route 62, some activities and most meals from £965pp depending on group size. See also www.route62.co.za.
Virgin Holidays (0844 5573860, www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers packages to South Africa, including return flights to Cape Town and a week's car hire, from £1,039pp.
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