Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mountain Passes and Geography Classes

After leaving Cool Runnings resting safely at anchor in Knysna, we headed out in our little VW Vivo rental car. Our destination was “Numbi Valley” a farm a few kilometers outside of de Rust in the Karoo. Deciding to give the national roads a skip, we opted instead for a secondary, unpaved road, the Prince Alfred’s Pass. It turned out to be a stunning drive, and we ambled along, taking most of the day to arrive at our destination.  We loved the constant change in countryside from open fields to forests to contorted bends in the cliffs.

We stopped at a small settlement called de Vlugt, where we learnt that the pass had been built in the 1860’s by Thomas Baine. It took 5 years to complete, and at 68.5 km (42.5 miles) it is the longest publicly accessible mountain pass in South Africa, as well as being the second oldest unaltered pass still in use. Bain constructed 29 passes mainly in the Cape colony in his lifetime. Apparently this pass epitomizes all of his unique touches, but especially his exceptional dry walling method of construction, where, to support roads on mountain faces, he broke up large rocks using fire, followed by cold water to crack the rocks into manageable triangular pieces. He then stacked them up at an inward tilting angle of 15 degrees and backfilled from the top. The more backfill that was added, the stronger the retaining walls became, utilizing the scientific principles of friction and cohesion. (Can you tell, there were school lessons involved here!!).  There are many kilometers of his original walling still supporting this road, and it was amazing for us to see this first hand, knowing that those exact rocks were laid there, by hand, over a 150 years ago! Many sections of this pass have been declared a national monument. (info from

A stop in de Vlugt at "Die Plaaskind Padstal" (Plaaskind = farm child; padstal is a stand on the side of the road (pad)

The road into de Vlugt, just before the pass winds its way into a more mountainous section

Some stats on the pass

A typical section of Thomas Bain's rock work walling

Another view of the pass winding its way through the mountains

At the intersection of the road which leads to Plettenberg Bay, there is a sculpture called "Calling the Herd" by Strijdom van der Merwe.    The sculpture consists of interactive trumpets that symbolically call the elephant herd along a mountain ridge overlooking the valleys in the Keurbooms Corridor, encouraging them to return and call as they once did. Here Dave tries to get hold of some of them!

We summited a peak called "Spitskop" viewpoint and enjoyed stunning scenery at the top

Another beautiful view from the Spitskop viewpoint

As we exited the pass we found ourselves on a flat plateau between two mountain ranges, the Outeniqua Mountains and the magnificent Swartberg mountain range. This plateau is called the “Kammanassie”, and it was typical Karoo landscape, beautiful in its own way, with flat, dry land covered in “feinbos”. We saw tortoises trying to cross the road, and soon we began to see ostriches pecking away at the ground! Before long, we found our turning off the tarred R 62 road and we were once again driving on another dirt road. Carefully following the instructions we’d received from our hosts, Kath and Ross, we soon found our destination: Numbi Valley Permaculture Farm. The setting was absolutely stunning, and we took the rest of the afternoon to enjoy our surroundings and relax after the long drive of the day. Kath and Ross farm here, and practice permaculture, which, without delving into depth of the philosophy basically means they practice sustainable agriculture, working with nature, rather than against it. The farm is totally off the grid, using solar power for electricity. They have a grove of olive trees, and a small garden with every type of vegetable you can imagine. A few fat, healthy chickens lay eggs, and some fruit trees produce plump fruit. It really is a little oasis in an arid desert! Our accommodation was once the laborer’s cottage, and it has been beautifully transformed into a 2-bedroomed, self-catering cottage. We loved our 2-night stay here, waking up to stunning mountain views, and watching the stars in the pitch dark night.

A small sign welcomes us

Our pool area.  The water comes from a natural spring they have on the property.  

The cottage blends in so well with the surroundings

The views from the cottage and pool area were stunning!

Fresh veggies growing in the desert!

The following day, after a bit of a slow morning, we drove towards Oudtshoorn, with the primary goal of visiting the Cango Caves. However, on the road there, we passed the Cango Ostrich Farm, so we thought we might as well tick that box too, and stopped for a quick visit. We were lucky to see a baby ostrich in the process of hatching, and Gaby was the only game one in our group who volunteered to give an ostrich a hug!

Traffic Jam...Karoo style!

Did you know that an ostrich's eyes are bigger than their brain?!

Gaby gives an ostrich a hug

The baby ostrich hatching from its egg

An ostrich family:  mom in the front, dad, with his black feathers at the back, and a group of kids in the shade

Gaby gets a neck massage!

Dave stands on ostrich eggs

Then it was on to the Cango Caves. We had visited these caves on our last visit to South Africa in 2012, but the kids were smaller then, and we just did the “Heritage Tour”, which takes you through the main chambers. This time, we signed up for the “Adventure Tour”, which takes visitors deeper into the caves, and requires a bit of climbing, slithering on tummies, and negotiating some narrow tunnels! The caves have spectacular examples of stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations, and are believed to have been formed by an underground river. There is continuous exploration of the caves, and they continue for many kilometers, but only a small section is open to the public. We had a great time, and the caves continue to be jaw-droppingly spectacular!!

Stalactites and stalagmites that are millions of years old

Incredible formations

That's me exiting "The Postbox", a tiny slit in the rocks

Gaby in one of the tunnels

Dave negotiating another tunnel

The group of people in the center of the photo show the scale of the caves.  This is the first and main chamber

Speaking of jaw-droppingly spectacular, our drive back to Numbi Valley was just that. We decided to take the long way back, and negotiated the Swartberg Pass in our little rental car. This quote from pretty much sums it up: “The Swartberg Pass is for many South Africans, the rubicon of gravel road passes. There is an allure and a mystique around this old pass, coupled with its status as a national monument, which elevates this pass to the very top of the list. It was Thomas Bain's final and best piece of road building.”. We were lucky to be able to drive it, as it had only recently been re-opened after some serious rain and flooding had damaged the pass quite dramatically. The scenery once again rivaled anything we’d seen so far, even surpassing, in our eyes, New Zealand, which, up to this point had the most spectacular scenery we’d ever seen.

Half way up the pass, Dave and the kids look down onto the valley below

A view of the Valley

At the top of the pass, you reach "Die Top".  Apparently people feel quite an accomplishment at having reached this pinnacle, and feel the need to put stickers on the sign

And now we have to go back down...

Looking back at the pass, you can see the road zig-zagging down
The Swartberg mountain range is regarded as one of the finest exposed fold mountain chains in the world, and the Northern end of the pass shows this especially. We were absolutely amazed at the rock, and how it has buckled over the millions of years. Much of the Swartberg is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Can you say great geology lesson, anyone?!
Upon our return to Numbi Valley, (through yet another pass, the Meiringspoort pass), we enjoyed the evening with Kath and Ross, who made delicious pizzas for us in their outdoor pizza oven, topped with lots of fresh ingredients from their garden. The next morning Dave and I took a long walk around the area, hoping to see some of the wild antelope or small mountain cats that are known to roam around the area, but unfortunately did not manage to spot any wildlife. We did see fresh droppings and tracks, but the animals themselves eluded us!

We saw many, many fields with this crop growing on them:  we found out they were onions!  The farmers harvest the seeds
Our drive back to Knysna took us through our final pass, the Outeniqua Pass, but unfortunately the clouds has started descending upon the mountains, and we saw nothing but white fog! We drove back along the Garden Route through George, along the coast and finally back to Knysna. We were happy to find our floating home happily swinging on her anchor, waiting for our return! We spent a few more days in Knysna, exploring the town and surrounding area, before deciding on a weather window to take us to Cape Town.

Gaby psyched up and ready to go to Cape Town!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Not-so-Nice Trip to Nice-Na (Knysna)

When we sail, and talk about waiting for weather windows, it means that we are waiting for the best wind direction for us, which is usually from behind, or some degree from the side. We don’t want the wind coming from the front, because that will cause the boat to slam into the waves. On this South African coast, for the direction we were going in, from PE to Knysna, we were looking for wind in a south easterly direction, which is the weather window we chose when leaving PE. The South-Easter is usually accompanied by fair weather. However, if the South-Easter is accompanied by a cut-off low as occasionally happens in the spring and autumn months, this can cause heavy rains to fall over the Eastern Cape. It is a violent, fast moving front which, along with the heavy rains, brings strong winds and high seas. It is known as a “black South-Easter”, and this is what we experienced out at sea in the pitch black of night from 7:00pm till around 1:00am on November 14th, when it finally passed over us, and subsided to a relatively calm 25 knots of wind, while the seas still remained huge!

Gaby tried to capture the big seas we were going through
It was only one night, but it far surpassed any bad passages we’ve had to date, in our entire trip. The wind got up to 40 knots, and the seas were coming at us from the side. We had numerous waves breaking right over us, one was so bad, that even with all the canvases down, the water still gushed into the cockpit, through the salon and down the stairs into the starboard hull! The worst of it was between Cape St. Francis and Plettenberg Bay. Our mistake was that we were too close to shore as we rounded Cape St. Francis, because we didn’t want to be too far out, as winds were stronger out there. But what we didn’t anticipate, was the strength of this storm, the wind being so strong and the sea so huge, and it was gradually pushing us closer and closer to shore. Catamarans generally don’t point well into the wind, so we were unable to steer further away from shore, and slowly we got closer and closer, at one point we were just 2 miles off-shore. Luckily, as we got closer to the point of Plettenberg Bay, the wind subsided somewhat, and we were able to point more into the wind, and away from land!

Knysna Heads - view from land - for perspective in the middle of the photo is a 10m (33ft) inflatable RIB dinghy with two big outboard engines coming in through the surf!
By the time we arrived at the Knysna Heads, at about 8:00am on Wednesday morning, November 15th, my nerves were shot, and we still had to negotiate entry into the Knysna Lagoon through the infamous Heads, 2 steep and rocky outcrops that provide a narrow entrance into a tranquil lagoon! We called the local NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) to ask if they thought it was OK for us to enter. They said all looked good, and to follow the leading lights into the lagoon. There is a submerged rock in the middle of the entrance, and one side of the entrance is very shallow and rocky, so you have to come in really close to the port side, so close that you feel you can touch the rocks! It was, of course, cold and raining, but we all had full confidence in our excellent skipper, who had negotiated narrow coral-lined passes in the Society Islands and Tuamotus, and conquered the infamous bars in Australia, and true to form, calmly and expertly guided Cool Runnings through the Heads and into the safety of the Knysna Lagoon! It was an exhausted, bedraggled crew that limped into Knysna on that morning, but we were oh, so thankful to be there, and be safe!

This is a shot from the live Knysna webcam.  We managed to capture the moment the camera caught us coming in!
Inside the Lagoon - safe at last!  Ben and Gaby in their foul weather gear.  It was the first time in the entire journey that we have used our foul weather gear!

The Heads on another day.  We watched this boat, but it didn't go out!
The Heads looking back into the lagoon

We were about to anchor, when a voice came on the radio and told us to come and tie up at the Knysna Yacht Club jetty. Colin Forster was there to help with the lines, even though it was pouring with rain. We were made to feel so welcome, it was wonderful! We treated ourselves to a hot, cooked breakfast at the Yacht Club, and were also welcomed there by Alan, the commodore of the club. We stayed on the jetty for the day and that night, and took the time to recover, and then explore our surroundings on foot.

Cool Runnings tied up to the Knysna Yacht Club jetty

A calm morning, a day or two after we arrived - tranquility at last!

The lagoon on a windless morning, looking back to the Heads

The Knysna Quay with its waterfront shops is right behind the yacht club, and a short walk from the boat. Although very much geared to the tour buses that arrived every day, it was still nice to peruse the shops and marvel at all the lovely African souvenirs, I especially love all the wire work…big giraffe and other animals all woven out of wire. On one walk a little further up the main street, we spotted a dentist, and decided it was time for the kids to have a check-up, and for Ben, in particular, to have some teeth removed. He had 2 very stubborn baby teeth that were not coming out, with the grown up teeth growing right over them.

Part of the Knysna waterfront area (unfortunately in the rain!)
The friendly Knysna Yacht Club

We went inside and asked if we could bring the kids in. We made an appointment for later that day, and while I stayed behind and cleaned and tidied the boat, Dave took Ben and Gaby to the dentist! Lucikly for the kids, Dr. van Zyl was fantastic, and they both declared that if she were their dentist at home, they would never mind going to the dentist! Both of them had a checkup, each had teeth removed and x-rays done, and it cost us just over $200! That amount would not even have covered any co-pay we would have had to pay at home!

Gaby at the dentist

Ben's turn!

So, with all the necessary evils of dentist visits, cleaning and vacuuming and laundry done, and with no good weather window to Cape Town for about a week, we decided to rent a car, and do some land exploration. Knysna is situated on the beautiful “Garden Route”, and it is also not a long distance to go inland to Oudtshoorn and the Klein Karoo. So on Saturday morning, November 18th, we left Cool Runnings safely at anchor and headed off in our little VW "Vivo" rental car to see what we could see!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving and A Visit to the Windy City (Port Elizabeth)

Firstly, a very Happy Thanksgiving to all our family and friends in the USA!! We just finished our own small Thanksgiving dinner aboard, and thought back to last year's Thanksgiving meal we enjoyed in New Caledonia, with Lyn & Bruce Savage!  Tomorrow morning at 6:00am we will depart Knysna for the 300 mile trip to Cape Town. We expect to arrive there early Sunday morning.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Hibberds aboard Cool Runnings!
And now back to our next installment of our travels through South Africa!

Our ride to Port Elizabeth from Durban was fast, if not the most comfortable. After leaving Durban, we headed out to sea for a while, and a couple of miles further south, off Aliwal Shoals, we found the Agulhas current. The current is at its strongest between Durban and East London, and then, as the coastline turns towards Port Elizabeth, the current continues straight, and one has to stay further offshore to stay in it.

The first day and night we had speeds of up to 12 knots (at times between 4 – 5 knots of current), and surfed waves at speeds of up to 22 knots!! We had very strong winds and big seas. One wave was so big, it tipped the boat to one side to such an extent that the Engle (our portable fridge/freezer), which is heavy, and a stool with Dave’s tools inside, also extremely heavy, went flying down the starboard hull stairs! It was very scary, and we now have dents both in the stairs and the wall to remind us of it! But we had our fastest passage to date, covering 212 miles in the first 24 hours! Dave and I got very little sleep, as the wind continued to blow the following day and night, and by the time we neared PE, on Saturday morning, November 11th, we were both exhausted! We took down the mainsail, and sailed the last 20 miles across Nelson Mandela Bay (formerly Algoa Bay) on half our jib only. We wanted to arrive in the light, so we had to slow down.

Arriving in PE at dawn
We entered the Port of PE at about 5:00am and headed towards the concrete wall we had been advised to go to. It was indeed just that, a rough concrete wall, and together with wind blowing us onto to it, and the swell coming into the harbor, we were not too thrilled to tie up there. But, having no other alternative, we did, monitoring the movement of the boat closely. We noticed a mooring ball in the middle of the channel, and decided that if we could also tie to the mooring ball, we could pull the boat off the wall a little. So we lowered the dinghy, and Dave ran lines to and from the boat through the mooring ball. We had a web of lines holding Cool Runnings in place, but still, it was a precarious position.

A local couple, working on their boat advised that our best option would be to anchor in the channel, as they predicted the swell would just get worse, and even with all our lines, we would be tossed against the wall! In the meantime, Dave got in touch with his contact, John, at the Algoa BayYacht Club and asked if there were any other options. John advised that there was one walk on mooring (berth) available, and we could use that. Off we went and tried to tie up there. The swell coming into the harbor was so bad, that we actually broke a mooring line, with the violent back and forth motion of the boat tied up to the dock!

Dave inspects the mooring berth.  It doesn't look that bad, but boy, it was terrible!
Our last resort was to go and anchor in the harbor, which turned out to be our best option. There was not a lot of space, but enough for us to anchor and to be able to swing if the wind changed (which it did), and really, we were lucky, as 4 other boats came in after us, and they all really battled to find somewhere to “park”. One ended up tied up to a fishing boat, one ended up on the wall we first tied up to, another tied up to another concrete wall, and the last tied up to the outside of the mooring we had tried (but at that time, the wind had switched and the surge was not as bad as we had experienced!). It was after 9:00am by the time we were finally settled, about 4 hours after we had arrived!
Cool Runnings anchored in PE.  We are the Lagoon on the right of the picture next to the blue ship.  The big Lagoon cat on the left is 62 foot long!  Look how tiny we look in comparison!
"Maria" from Stockholm, a 46ft Hanse ended up tied up against another concrete wall
It turned out that Dave’s good friend from school days, Sean Rushton, had moved to PE a year or two previously, so they were anxious to reconnect! Sean, his wife Lise, and their adorable 10-month old son, Kai, came to the yacht club to meet us for lunch. We had a great meal, and the kids had fun playing with Kai. Eventually, even though he was a very good baby, Kai’s patience ran out, and Lise had to take him home!

At the Algoa Bay Yacht Club with Sean and little Kai

Ben and Gaby with Kai.  They look like they might enjoy a little sibling!!!
We were actually going to joke and send this to everyone saying it's our new family portrait!
Sean was kind enough to drive us around, and take us to “Makro”, (a Walmart type store), as we were in dire need of replacing our big LED flashlights that we need at night to check sails and such, and which had all given up their ghosts on us, all at once! Ben and Gaby enjoyed checking out all the “stuff”…we had not really been in a big store since Australia, and I had a hard time getting them out of the sporting goods section, where they had spied skateboards, boogie boards, scooters and other cool stuff, most of which are too big for the boat (and really, Gaby, where are you going to use a skateboard on a boat? She’ll give you lots of answers, by the way!). Sean came back to the boat to check it out, and then we had an early night that evening, still exhausted from our journey down from Durban.

On Sunday, after assisting two of the international boats that arrived that morning to find a place to tie up, the wind switched and blew ferociously from the south west. We got to see first-hand why Port Elizabeth is called “The Windy City” (it is also known as “The Friendly City”, so that balances it out!!). It was so strong that we were reluctant to leave the boat, and had to change our plans with Sean and Lise. We had originally meant to go to their house for lunch, but undeterred by our predicament, they packed up all the food, and brought it to us, picnic style! Kai did not enjoy the dinghy ride out to the boat, and I don’t blame the little guy! The wind was cold and strong, made a huge noise and no doubt he got wet on the ride over. However, once on board, it didn’t take long for him to relax, and we all enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken enchiladas, salad and garlic bread, and much to Ben and Gaby’s delight, Milk Tart for desert!! A huge thank you to Lise for preparing such a scrumptious lunch, and bringing it to us!!

Lunch aboard with Sean, Lise and Kai

Sean, Lise and Kai
We think he'd make a fine deckhand!
We watched the weather closely, as we were anxious to get out of PE (no offense, Sean! We loved your city and seeing you, but the harbor was not the best place for Cool Runnings to be!). We were anchored right next to the area where the magnesium iron ore is loaded onto ships, and in just 2 days, our boat was covered in fine, black dust. We had heard about coal dust covering boats in Richard’s Bay, but this was much, much worse!

We were just a couple of boat lengths away from this ship that was being loaded with the magnesium

However, on Monday, even though it had calmed down in strength, the wind was still blowing south west, and we decided to stay another day. Luckily, the sun was out, and Sean took us for a lovely drive along the coast, and in no time we were driving around Cape Recife. It was hard to imagine that the city and this beautiful, unspoilt coastline were in such close proximity to each other! Watching from the shore, we saw a whole pod of whales jumping right out of the water, multiple times! None of us had cameras (other than our phones), so we just decided to enjoy the moment and watch these amazing creatures obviously enjoying themselves!

Fishing boats in PE Harbor

We watched as this tug sprayed its water cannons, escorting a small cruise ship into the harbor

By Tuesday morning, the wind had started to switch, so we pulled up our anchor and headed back out to sea. The forecast looked decent enough, with some stronger wind forecast for part of the way, which didn’t concern us too much, as it was in the right direction, and we knew we could reef down our sails and manage it. Little did we know that this patch of stronger wind would turn into a “black south easter”, a violent, fast-moving cold front, that put Cool Runnings and her crew to the test and would prove to be our toughest passage yet over the past 20 months since leaving Madeira Beach!

A wonderful shot Sean took of us as we headed out of PE...thanks for the great stay and company!!