Sunday, November 16, 2008

The wrong side of the road (Nov. 13, 2008 - Cape Town, South Africa)

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!! So, we rented a car and have discovered that the steering wheel is on the wrong side. We had kind of overlooked this fact until Ken opened the right side door of the car to let me in (such a gentleman) only to realize that it was the driver's side. Oops. Such began the day that was a long sequence of newbie-left-handed-driver mistakes. We quickly determined that my job was to navigate and that each time we turned, I was to holler 'Left! Left! Left!" so Ken didn't turn into oncoming traffic. We are happy to report that this system only failed us once.

Driving in South Africa, incidently, is only marginally safer than being a pedestrian. Jay walking seems to be the national sport, and yet drivers are quick to stop for people crossing at crosswalks.

We headed east out of Cape Town toward wine country and a town called Stellenbosch. The hills around here produce all of the wine exported from South Africa, and there are something like 50 of them - they were everywhere! The landscape is green and rolling, with jagged mountains similar to Cape Town's famous backdrop, blocking most of the rain coming in from the ocean. Between the climate and the sandy soil, the conditions for growing grapes are ideal.

We stopped for a cellar tour at one of the oldest wineries in the area, which was established in 1692 and is now known as Lanzerac. Among the many highlights, we learned that:
  • Their 55 acres produces 250,000 bottles of world class wine (half of which is consumed in South Africa) - everything from chardonnay to merlot.
  • Oak barrels are imported from France for about 8000 Rand (about $1000 Canadian), used for four bottlings and then resold to port distillers for less than 10% of their original cost.
  • Red wines are coloured by the skins and seeds of the grapes, and in pale wines (like rose), the skins and seeds are left in for only 8 hours. Dark wines (like merlot) have them for up to 3 weeks before they are filtered out.
  • The tannins in wine come from the skins.
  • This winery doesn't use pesticides unless necessary, so they rely on rose bushes planted at each row of vines to show signs of early infestation.

We joined a nice couple from Scotland to sample five of the wines, and we were told which flavours and aromas to look for while tasting. It was all very interesting, but Ken had to decide which variety to buy at the end because Pamela ended up drunk. He decided on a bottle of their Classic, which was a combination of several types of red grapes and had won several awards.

We kept going past Stellenbosch and through another pretty town called Franschhoek that was surrounded by mountains to the east. The road climbed up and afforded a pretty vista of the valley down below - and the dozens of vineyards stretching into the distance. As soon as we hit the top, the rain started as if on command. Down, down, down we drove, past a large lake, eventually meeting up with the highway that we left Cape Town on earlier. The scenery from there was coastal, as the road followed the head of False Bay past wide white sandy beaches and seaside apartments. Apparently, this area is popular when it gets hot, as the beaches are awesome but the water is cold, so people don't swim much. P.S. False Bay also has an unusually high population of Great White Sharks!

Before turning north to head away from the water, we drove a section of highway that told us where the sewage treatment plant was, closely followed by a shantytown slum that spanned both sides of the highway, as far as you could see. It was a very depressing and desperate looking scene. Oddly enough, the giant shantytown was right beside a nature preserve that was basically a stretch of grassy sand dunes along the beach. In places, the sea threatened to consume the road, as the waves crashed within feet of the pavement, and sand was spread across most of the road. A pull-out area on the ocean side had tracks going through it that looked as though a snow plough had to push a path through a foot of sand. Proof that you can't mess with nature!

Kiteboarders were zooming back and forth across the beach at Muizenberg, where we turned north to head back to Cape Town. The clouds had lifted a bit as the harbouir came into view, and we were quite pleased with ourselves that we had successfully done a self-guided tour without becoming roadkill.

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