1 ENG 111-64 1FA07a Memory Lane Winding through Meiringspoort to the Garden Route When I was asked about my most favorite place in the world, Italy handsomely lost the contest to The Garden Route. This scenic 125 km coastal stretch between George and Natures Valley in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, on the highway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, is a very popular tourist attraction. If you lived inland, like I did, then one way to get to the Garden Route is through Meiringspoort (Meiring’s Passageway). The arid beauty of Meiringspoort is in stark contrast with the Garden Route and, in my mind, you cannot enjoy the one without the other. I hope you, the reader, after having walked with me on my memory lane, winding through Meiringspoort to the Garden Route, will agree I had very good reason to betray my other favorite place. My story starts exactly 24 years ago, in the summer of 1986: My soon to be wife peeked nervously over the rim of the small mountain pool at the narrow dirt road, barely ten meters away, snaking through Meiringspoort (Jongh). The 25 km route follows the winding floor of a natural gorge through the Swartberg (Black Mountain), which separates the semi desert, called the Karoo, from the lush green coastal area (Prince Albert). Like so many times during my childhood I was once again passing through Meiringspoort to a fabulous vacation somewhere on the Garden Route. This time, however, the vacation was extra, extra special. When Lindy took ill a few weeks earlier and landed up in a hospital, I finally woke up to the fact that I loved this gorgeous woman “plenty very much many”. When the doctor recommended she promptly take a holiday to recuperate, preferably on the coast, I recognized a great opportunity and fervently and secretly started organizing. 2 Returning from work a few days after her release, two dozen roses and a beautiful card awaited her in her apartment. The card invited her to “Lindy’s wedding with Johnny, in George, followed by a four week honeymoon in nearby Plettenberg Bay.” A stunned silence endured for quite a while. I was not sure what paralyzed her most, the marriage proposal, or the prospect of a long, tranquil vacation in the breath taking beauty of the Cape Province. Finally, not sure whether I was actually in the vicinity, she softly called my name, and I appeared from behind the fridge where I was hiding, and history was made. “So why are we driving 1,200 km from Johannesburg to George?” she asked the next day, after she had time to find her feet again. “Durban also has great beaches and it is only half the distance.” “Well,” I replied, “you have never seen the Western Cape, and I also need to show you where I had my first ever romantic kiss. Besides, my wedding present to you can be purchased only down there.” Amused I watched as she struggled with which question to ask first; the identity of the unexpected gift, or the subject of my first kiss. “Oh yeah, and who did you kiss?” I laughed at the predictability of females, and replied that I want to get her a Stinkwood or Blackwood dining room set. “Oh, thanks so much honey (hugs and lots of kisses). But who did you kiss?” I then told her the story. My Dad was transferred to George when I was four or five. Soon after entering first grade the teacher one day let us out the classroom's back door for a snack break on the lawn. As I reached the bottom of the stairs the object of my appreciation was right behind me, and in my childish innocence, I spontaneously gave the unsuspecting beauty a hug and a sloppy kiss. To my astonishment she loudly burst out into tears and clutched her tomato sandwich in her fist so tightly, it squeezed through her fingers. The sight of her tear streaked face and runny nose, her ruined tomato sandwich and the subsequent admonishment by the teacher put me off girls for a long, long time. “So, you see, I just have to return to that site to restore my crushed ego!” After Lindy stopped laughing and teasing, I continued. “Actually, seriously now, my memories of my childhood in that part of the country is very dear and precious to me, just like you are, 3 and I would like for you to meet it and make it your own sweet memory.” “Oh! You big old romantic!” she teased, and harassed my hormones with an appreciative kiss. The next week we took the “long cut” from Johannesburg to George, via Oudtshoorn in the Karoo and its arid ostrich farms, where we took a two day respite and a hilarious ostrich ride. Actually, Lindy found it much more hilarious than I did because she managed to stay on top of the bouncing ostrich. Enough said! From Oudtshoorn we headed for George. Instead of taking the N12, I followed the famous route of the imaginary Herrie, a retired circus elephant. His eccentric owner had the crazy idea to go to the beach through Meiringspoort in an old double decked tramcar, pulled by Herrie (McBride). The unusual procession caused havoc, chaos and problems with the law as far as they travelled. In one event, where Herrie’s owner had to defend himself in court after having been arrested for destroying a road with his elephant and tram, he uttered that half the lawyers present in the court room are idiots. The judge demanded an apology, and Herrie’s owner complied by saying that half the lawyers in the court room are not idiots. They never made it to the beach because the tram got stuck at one of the hundreds of hairpin curves in Meiringspoort. All Herrie's huffing and puffing could not dislodge the tram, to the annoyance of other travelers who piled up on each side of the bulky road block with two tails (Langenhoven). The story of Herrie was written in the 1920’s by C.J. Langenhoven, who also wrote the original national anthem of South Africa in 1918 (Wikipedia, Cornelius Jacobus Langenhoven). Langenhoven’s famous comment about Meiringspoort is: “In each bend you will find a drift and at each drift a bend” (Guest House). Due to the stretches of dirt road at the time, Meiringspoort carried very little traffic, and that gave me an idea. “You do know that it is tradition for newly wed’s to skinny dip in Meiringspoort?” I said, unsuccessfully trying to keep a straight face, because there is no such tradition. Fortunately, she was so intent on helping me brake for the next hairpin curve that she did not look at me, else she would have caught on to my evil prank. “Since we aren’t coming 4 back this way, I suggest we do it before our wedding” I continued, and as if by prior arrangement, I spotted the ideal location as we came around the bend and pulled off, shielding the pond with the car as best as I could. The shield was not exactly a big success, but before she had too much time to take in this latest development, I shed my clothes and jumped into the chilly mountain water. Having done mountain hiking before, I knew what to expect, and managed to pretend that the water was pleasantly warm. Very reluctantly and dubiously she followed suit. “You son of a seafaring cockroach!” she screamed upon hitting the water, “I’ll get you back for this! You just wait till your next shower!” Once every ten minutes or so, a car would pass our pond, forcing us to duck below the rim. “Johnny, don't you think we should get out now? Just now somebody else gets it in its head to stop here, and then I will die on the spot!” “Well,” I teased, “with this chilly mountain water there's not much left of me to see, so I don't care. You just need to sit very still, and they'll think you are a beautiful painting.” “Oh yeah, and what are you going to do when they try to take the beautiful painting home?” she retorted. She had me, as always. I stole a few extra seconds to enjoy a little more of the bright sunshine against my skin, the deep blue sky, the herby and fresh smelling mountain air, and the music of the birds. When we were sure no cars were approaching, we sneaked out, did a half-job of drying ourselves in the sun and then struggled our damp bodies back into our clothes. We continued our trip, slowly snaking between the soaring cliffs of spectacular rock formations that lined the scenic route, decorated by wild geraniums. The geranium seeds were exported to Europe in 1710 and subsequently were spread worldwide (Guest House). Next time you see a geranium, realize you are looking at a part of Meiringspoort! The winding road crosses the Groot Rivier (Great River) twenty five times over single lane bridges, and where the dirt and concrete met, a nasty ditch awaited the suspension of the bouncing vehicle. Each drift (crossing) has its own name and historical story. We stopped and 5 got out at Herrie se Klip, meaning Harry's Stone (Sophia). This spot in Meiringspoort was Langenhoven’s favorite writing place, away from the hustle in wealthy Oudtshoorn where he lived. On one such visit he scratched Herrie's name into a large stone, and this piece of graffiti was declared a national monument in 1971 (Guest House). After a quick visit to the Skelm Waterval (Sneaky Waterfall), we exited Meiringspoort and our next stop was the minister’s house in George. I was lucky that the minister from my teenage years, who remembered me well, happened to be stationed in George and therefore we had at least one familiar face at our unconventional wedding, far from home, with no friends or family present. Only the two of us, the minister, and a staff member as witness, attended the ceremony on that last day of January, at the peak of summer. After our amazing four week honeymoon in a beach cottage at Plettenberg Bay, we had two wedding receptions, one at Lindy's family on the way back to Johannesburg, and the second with family and friends in Johannesburg. The four weeks gave us plenty of time for both honeymooning and exploring the Garden Route with the dozens of villages, beaches and nature trails along it. A favorite was the lagoon village of Knysna (nice-nah, Khoi for ‘ferns’) and the Knysna natural forest, home of the unique species of wild elephants and indigenous trees like Stinkwood and Blackwood. (Knysna) Maybe the excellent historic novel, Circles in a Forest, (Matthee) which we both read and saw the movie, left a lasting impression on us two animal and nature lovers. The story plays off in Knysna and the adjacent forest during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It is about the fiercely independent families of woodcutters in the forest defending themselves, the rare elephants and indigenous trees, against the exploitative greed of the timber merchants and the ruthless plundering of the ivory hunters, which nearly extinguished our precious heritage (Kalahari.Net). The 1970 estimate of eleven elephants in the Knysna forest dwindled to only one known elderly female elephant at the time of our visit, and complete extinction was feared. Fortunately, recent DNA research uncovered five additional females of this species, as well as 6 evidence of a calf, which indicates at least one bull survived, and hopefully is still alive (Wildlife). I took Lindy to several of the very small furniture factories in the area who specialize in exotic Stinkwood and Blackwood handmade furniture, available nowhere else in the world. We would have loved a Stinkwood dining room suite, but this scarce and strictly controlled wood is outrageously expensive, and we settled for a $5,000 Blackwood dining room set, at about half the price. The spectacular Bloukrans (Blue Cliff) River Bridge on the Garden Route, a few kilometers past Plettenberg Bay, was another favorite. At a dizzying 215m above the river, it is the world’s highest commercial bungee jumping location. Neither of us was brave enough for the exhilarating plunge into the depths. (Adventure) A few kilometers down from the bridge is Storms River Mouth, the starting point of the challenging Otter Hiking Trail through unspoiled nature in the Tsitsikamma National Park. (Footprint). Loaded with a backpack with enough food for five days, you cross endless steep valleys, one moment walking on the beach and an hour or so later, standing 500ft up on the apex, overlooking the ocean. You don’t always know what to fear most; the exertion of continuous braking for miles against uncontrolled descent down steep and slippery hiking paths, the inevitable uphill struggle you know awaits you at the end, or the occasional lethal puff adder sunning itself on the footpath. Rivers, including the scary Bloukrans River, are crossed by tying your back pack in a waterproof trash bag and swimming across. Timing your arrival at a river crossing during low tide is essential for a safe crossing. I did this trail twice during my bachelor days, and on the first hike I was privileged to see the sea otters frolicking in the shallow waves so close to me I felt I could touch them. The last day, crossing a flat plateau to the village of Natures Valley, is an anticlimax after the previous days of exertion. The worst part is the hitchhike back to your car at the Storms River Mouth. It is often the gullible foreign 7 tourist that takes pity on the dirty, unshaven and smelly hitchhiker that had been standing at the roadside for hours. I showed my new wife all these treasured memories, including a long hike to the first waterfall on the Otter Trial, and before we knew it, the four weeks in paradise was over and we had to return. On the way back I told her more about my rich childhood experiences in that part of the country. The route to the Garden Route via Oudtshoorn and Meiringspoort was the same route my Dad often took to our beach destination during memorable summer holidays, after he relocated the family back inland at the end of my first grade. The 1960's Ford Fairlane, towing a large caravan (camper), was heavily loaded with food, luggage, Mom, Dad, six kids, the nanny, and the miniature fox terriers Pennie and Tiekie (Nickel and Dime). How we all managed to fit into that car and survive the two or three day trip, without killing each other, I still do not know. I do remember my Dad threatening more than once to drop us off on the side of the road, which invariable resulted in about five minutes of peace on the back seat. I also remember my Dad opening his window every now and then to “air the car from the toxic gasses coming from the back”, although I seldom became aware of the offensive odors, purported to smell suspiciously like the boiled eggs my Mom dished out during the last road picnic. It must have been my siblings or those darn dogs, because surely, “it wasn't me!” Normally we would break up the long trip by spending a day or two in greater Oudtshoorn, but on this one occasion we camped out in Meiringspoort for the night. My Dad, the perpetual teaser, started one of his camp fire stories that our kids could never get enough off. He made sure that the very superstitious nanny was within earshot, and proceeded with a long story, made up on the spot, about how the red stained cliffs of the gorge resulted from the Tokoloshe who frequently slaughtered people (mostly kids, for added effect) at the top of the cliffs, as peace offering to the gods. I learned that the “tock-kuh-loss-hee” is an ancient midget assistant to a witch doctor and that the witch doctors “created” the dwarf by artificially stunning 8 the growth of a captured child, but there are many other legends in circulation (Vanhunks). The legendary creature is feared intensely by most natives, so much so that they always place their bed on a twelve inch stack of bricks, to prevent the evil dwarf from sneaking up on them while they sleep. The eerie barking of wild baboons in the distance, disturbed by a predator, and other mysterious animal sounds added spice to the goose bump story. We kids eventually caught on to Dad's amused glances at the nanny, whose eyes were by then the size of saucers, and Mom’s signaling him to cool it. After dinner, the poor thing locked herself in the car and refused to emerge until the morning light provided a sense of safety. A peace offering of early morning coffee and rusks (dried cake) persuaded Nanny to foolishly emerge, giggling nervously. We then proceeded to the Skelm Waterfall which falls into a bottomless dark pool, as legend has it (Prince Albert). While Mom got breakfast ready in the tiny camper kitchen, Dad told a captivating story of a beautiful mermaid (Sewell) that lives in the pool, and the eternal good fortune that befalls you should you be so lucky to witness her. That was a huge mistake, because we kids then insisted on staying another night so that we can see the mermaid. Fortunately, Mom just then called us for breakfast and we promptly forgot about the mermaid. Many years later my Dad’s story, which I thought was just one of his usual made up stories, was confirmed when I read on the web that Meiringspoort had been damaged several times in the past by flash floods through the gorge. The web site states: “During the Meiringspoort floods of 1996 the ‘legend of the mermaid’ was revived. So much damage was caused by water that not only houses were flooded, but crocodiles, ostriches, cattle, trees and chunks of tarmac were washed down river. As the story goes, during this turmoil, the Mermaid was washed out to sea. She was caught in the net of fishermen and taken to the C P Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn to recuperate. The local radio station announced that she was being held in a ‘revival tank’ in the stone tower at the Museum. People phoned and came in droves from as 9 far afield as Zimbabwe and Namibia to see this unusual creature. But they were disappointed; they could all see that she was a shop window mannequin dressed up as a mermaid. The radio station insisted that there are mermaids in the area because the Khoisan rock paintings (13 – 15000 years old) show creatures with fishtails.” (Guest House) After a hearty English breakfast at the falls, compliments of Mom and Nanny, we continued the nerve wrecking journey, towing the caravan through tight curves, with the car frequently bottoming out on the potholed dirt road. We passed the time on the slow journey by imagining horror stories of getting stuck like Harry and his tram, and being chased by the Tokoloshe. The nanny was absolutely horrified at the prospect and eventually stuck her fingers in her ears to block out our bloviating, much to our delight. Eventually, we would make it through Meiringspoort and join the Garden Route. The excitement started to build as we got closer and closer to beloved Buffelsbaai (Buffalo Bay), situated between George and Knysna, for another care free, memorable summer holiday in perfect weather. Several rock formations with caves and crevices we could investigate or climb to the top to spot faraway ships, rock pools filled with interesting sea life, and a picture perfect beach were all specially placed there by God to keep us kids occupied and give our parents a well deserved rest. After having witnessed and experienced every childhood treasure engraved in my memory, Lindy concurred. My childhood was truly spent in paradise, and so was my wedding and honeymoon. Sorry Italy, but your beauty just could not compete with sweet memories in another beautiful setting. 10 Bibliography Adventure Blog. Bungy Jumping at Bloukrans Bridge: Not for faint hearted... 23 January 2010 < HYPERLINK "http://www.adventureblog.org/entry/bungy-jumping-at-bloukrans-bridge-not-for-fainthearted/" http://www.adventureblog.org/entry/bungy-jumping-at-bloukrans-bridge-not-for-fainthearted/ >. Footprint, Hiking Club. The Otter Trail. 23 January 2010 < HYPERLINK "http://www.footprint.co.za/otter.htm" http://www.footprint.co.za/otter.htm >. Guest House, Die Gat. Attractions - Oudtshoorn & De Rust. 23 January 2010 < HYPERLINK "http://www.diegat.co.za/oudtshoorn.php" http://www.diegat.co.za/oudtshoorn.php >. Jongh, Tinus de. "Painting of Meiringspoort by Tinus de Jongh, father of renowned artist Gabriel de Jongh." Tinus de Jongh Art Gallery. 22 January 2010 < HYPERLINK "http://www.tinusdejongh.co.za/T 7 Meiringspoort.jpg" http://www.tinusdejongh.co.za/T 7 Meiringspoort.jpg >. 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