Plettenberg Bay to Storms River; Special Monkeys; In which we don't jump off a bridge; Hiking in the forest; The Big Tree; Our new passports are finally ready, but it ain't that easy; Trying to get out of Storms River; In which we spend the night at a gas station; Dragged back to the hostel by the police

Wessel and Marleen were going on to Jeffreys Bay, but we were stopping in Storms River, so this would be our last day travelling together. First, though, we had a couple of stops to make. We had begged them to stop at Monkeyland outside of Plettenberg Bay. They didn’t want to spend the money to actually get inside the place (and neither did we, to tell the truth - we just wanted to see some monkeys) but Marleen knew from having been there before that you could have a drink at the cafe there without paying the admission and the monkeys would come to see you. So that we did, and a few little yellow monkeys showed up. They were funny little guys. One of them came right up as I was taking his picture, grabbed the lens and stared deep into the camera. He was far too close to focus on but I took the shot anyway because it amused me. We played with them for a bit and then went to see the Special Monkey House… where the Special Monkeys live. There are only two Special Monkeys right now. I don’t remember their names, but they were both kept as pets and abused, and had both had their teeth pulled so they couldn’t bite. After being rescued it was found that they couldn’t live with normal monkeys in the park and had to be kept separate. They were a pretty sad sight, the Special Monkeys, staggering and drooling around their compound.

After leaving Monkeyland we went on to Bloukrans Bridge, our second destination of the day. This is the site of the highest bungy jump in the world - some 200 meters or more. Jumping cost R600 (about CAD$75), so in keeping with our Free or Cheap strategy for South Africa, we didn’t jump. This was also in keeping with my own personal Not Jumping Off Bridges strategy. Wessel jumped, though, and we were happy to watch and cheer him on from the bar overlooking the bridge. There’s a big screen there showing video of the people before they jump, so we saw that Wessel flapped his arms really hard just like he promised Sheryl he would. He didn’t chicken out, even though Marleen predicted he would. My thought was that Marleen herself had already done it - twice - so he had no option but to do it himself, and the more she said he wouldn’t the more likely he was to jump. I think she also knew this perfectly well and was making sure he wasn’t going to chicken out and regret it later.

All good things come to an end, though, and Marleen and Wessel dropped us off at our hostel in Storms River and we said goodbye and promised to stay in touch. They’re a lot of fun, those two. We’d only known them a few days, but Sheryl and I both had the same thought that we were going to miss them.

The hostel was an odd place. Bare-bones but comfortable. There was a frog-pond in the back with a couple of tame ducks, and a little dog who was addicted to playing Fetch and would not leave you alone for a second unless you were throwing something for him. The staff were nice, but the owner was creepy and weird and we were happy when he wasn’t around (which was most of the time). He didn’t like us because we didn’t spend enough money - we camped instead of staying the dorm, brought our own food instead of buying their meals, and didn’t buy any of his package tours. He was always haranguing his staff about how many people were buying the tours and making them push them on the guests. A very unpleasant man.

Storms River is a tiny village with only a few streets. It mainly exists to service tourists who come for the Bloukrans bungy jump to the west or Tsitsikamma National Park to the East. We’d arrived on Friday afternoon, too late for the shops. Everything closed early on Saturdays and the village shut down completely on Sundays so we scrambled to buy some groceries at the only mini-market the next morning. Storms River is the only place in the entire country of Africa that I actually felt like I was really in Africa. The little market reminded me of all the tiny “superettes” in the East African countries.

Our plan was to spend a few days hiking in the woods, but the weather was terrible on Saturday - cold, damp and breezy - and neither of us had any interest in messing around in the forest until it warmed up. Unfortunately the hostel didn’t really offer any comfortable places to relax inside. There was one room with a fireplace, but it was full of a giant pool table that you had to edge around, nowhere to sit and a two-minute-long promotional video on perpetual repeat on the TV. Another room upstairs had a futon frame with no cushions on its bare slats, and nothing else. We somehow managed to make the day pass.

Sunday, since everything was closed anyway, we dedicated to hiking in the woods. Tsitsikamma National Park was too far away, but after some cross-examination the hostel staff admitted that it wasn’t actually necessary to pay for their R80 shuttle to Tsitsikamma - there was another, smaller National Park just outside the village with lots of hiking trails. It took a lot of work to get them to admit that, but then they were probably risking their jobs by doing it - the jerk owner would no doubt have fired them for admitting to us that we didn’t have to pay them money.

The park and its hiking trails were good. Some of the trails were wide and well-maintained, and some were leafy and overgrown. We started down the wrong way almost immediately, but soon got ourselves oriented and back on the map. We followed one trail after another until one of them led us beside the highway. I noticed on the map that about a kilometre down the road back toward the village was the so-called Big Tree. We both love a nice big tree so we set off to see it. The highway was brutal walking - no shoulder, and torn up by construction on either side. One spot we had to cling to an embankment to get over a culvert being excavated. When we finally got to the little National Park reserve around the Big Tree, there were notices that it was closed - because of the highway construction, we reckoned. But since it was closed there was nobody watching it. Oddly for South Africa the place wasn’t surrounded with fences and razor wire - only a small barrier. We don’t let things like that stop us, and we hopped over it and went down the boardwalk to see the Big Tree, stepping quietly in case there were rangers around. There weren’t, and the Big Tree was truly Big and worth the walk - it probably would have taken eight or nine people to reach around its trunk. We immediately saw another reason why the reserve might be closed, though - a giant branch of the Big Tree, as big itself as the trunks of most trees, had come crashing down and smashed the boardwalk below to pieces. The broken end of the branch looked healthy enough inside, so I can only guess that it had been brought down by a big windstorm.

The trails were really nice in that reserve, and obviously we were the only ones on them, so we spend a couple of hours wandering them all. We saw strange plants and bugs and a couple of oddly-shaped green birds called Loeries that followed us curiously for awhile. We knew we were the only people to have passed for a few days at least, because the trails were all spread side to side with spider-webs - mostly with the spiders still in them. Sheryl has a thing about spiders, so I went first, ducking and stepping over when I could, and breaking and apologizing when I couldn’t or didn’t see them in time. The spiders would cling as their webs stuck to me, and then scramble down to my elbows or knees and drop off. Some of them were big, too. I didn’t mind at first, except when they got me in the face, but after awhile it got a little annoying and I was glad when the trail opened up again. We didn’t see anything bigger than a bird, though we’d been told there were bushpigs. A family of bushpigs is not something I want to run into - think wild boar and you’re getting the idea - but we didn’t see them, though we certainly saw enough evidence of them.

It had been a good day, but after eight hours of walking we were tired, hungry and filthy and headed back to the hostel. Out of the woods, and with a kilometre still to go on dusty dirt roads, we entertained ourselves with our rock-kicking game. The rules are simple. You find a rock, and then you kick it down the road. You keep kicking it until it goes in the ditch or the grass beside the road. Then you find it and kick it again. If you lose the rock or your toe starts to hurt too much to keep kicking the rock, then you lose the game, and if you get where you’re going without losing the rock then you win. Let no one say we’re not capable of amusing ourselves. In any case Sheryl declared herself the winner of her game when we reached the main road of the village, but I kept kicking mine until we got to the front gate of the hostel.

The next morning - Monday morning - while cooking breakfast, we had a most welcome and long-awaited phone call from the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria. Our new passports were finally ready! We were one step closer to leaving South Africa and heading on to India. We’d already had to jump through so many hoops even to get this far that we were overjoyed. I immediately started to make arrangements with a courier company to pick up the passports and get them back to Joan’s house in Cape Town. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds - there were authorization letters that had to be written and credit-card payment forms that needed to be filled out, and things to be sent by email in lieu of fax. It was too late to have the passports picked up that day, since the High Commission only allows pickups until noon, but I scheduled it for pickup on Tuesday to arrive in Cape Town on Wednesday. All that the courier needed was my authorization letter and our names and birthdates, according to the High Commission. I’d provided all that in the authorization letter and over the phone, so everything was set, I thought.

Sheryl made arrangements to get us back to Cape Town too, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds either. There’s nowhere to buy bus tickets in Storms River, see. It’s a tiny village. The nearest place to buy bus tickets is sixty kilometres in either direction. You can buy tickets over the phone and pick them up in any Shoprite supermarket, but the closest Shoprite was back in Plettenberg Bay. All we could do was buy the tickets over the phone, pay for them with a credit card, and show the confirmation number to the driver and hope that he wasn’t a jerk and let us on the bus. This was all a bit complicated by the fact that the bus station was five kilometres outside the village along a busy, dark highway, and that the bus didn’t come until midnight. That’s midnight exactly - 00:00h. Sheryl, being a travel agent, is very aware of the problems it causes when something is scheduled at midnight - tell people midnight Monday and it can be 24:00h on Sunday which is 00:00h on Monday or 24:00h on Monday which is 00:00h on Tuesday. So she was very careful to make the phone agent confirm explicitly that we’d be getting on the bus at 00:00h on Tuesday and arriving on Tuesday morning as well. The agent emailed her the confirmation number and the departure date - Tuesday the 20th of January - so all was well. Again - we thought.

But we didn’t know that all our plans were being complicated against our will at the time. We thought that everything was fine, and that we’d arrive in Cape Town on Tuesday morning and our passports would be delivered shortly after that, and we could get everything sent off to the Indian High Commission that same day. Our hearts were light and unconcerned. We hung around the hostel until 11 in the evening, settled up and got a ride with the surly owner to the bus stop at the gas station outside of town. It was then that things started going wrong. On the ride the owner bitched about having to give us a ride, even though we were paying him R100 for the privilege, and also more or less accused us of stealing some ratty old lamp he’d made with his own two hands for the hostel. It was a great coincidence, he said, the lamp going missing that morning and us leaving that day. We just looked at each other like, can you believe this maniac? and told him that we hadn’t really noticed the lamp and in any case had no interest in carrying a lamp around the world with us. It was clear that he didn’t believe us, and he kept the van’s inside light on to scrutinize our faces for signs of guilt until we got to the gas station, where he dropped us without a word. We found out the next day, by the way, that the lamp had never been missing in the first place, but had only been put behind the bar because its bulb had burnt out. I’d like to think he felt ashamed when he found out, but his kind never do.

So we were still shaking our heads half an hour later, at midnight, when our bus was supposed to show up. It was a chilly night, and we had our sweaters and jackets on. Midnight came and went, but we weren’t especially worried at that point - buses are always late in this country and the woman whose bus had just come had told us it had been an hour late. It was a safe enough place - the gas station and its shop were brightly lit and open all night. Our biggest problem was boredom while waiting for the bus, although there were a couple of big owls flapping around and hooting by the road, and that entertained us for awhile. I, personally, was expecting the worst, and assumed that the driver wouldn’t let us on the bus because we didn’t have paper tickets. But neither of us expected that the bus would come and then drive right past without stopping, which is what happened at about 12:30. We held out hope that it had just been some other bus passing at around the right time going somewhere else, but after another hour it was clear that it really had been our bus and that we were stuck.

There wasn’t an awful lot we could do at that point. The highway was too dark, too busy and too torn up with construction to walk the five kilometres back to the village even if this had been some other country where it was safe to do that sort of thing. We could set up our tent somewhere near the gas station if the staff didn’t kick us out, but where would that get us? We’d still be stuck there in the morning. We really needed to get back to the hostel - we knew there was a couple there with a car who were heading to Knysna in the morning and who would probably give us a ride, and that was at least a bigger town and in the right direction. There’d been a policeman through a couple of times but we hadn’t seen him in ages and didn’t know if he was coming back at all. We spent the next few hours trying to discreetly approach nice-looking couples and older people to ask for rides into the village. Nice-looking people are in very short supply at gas stations at four in the morning, though, and there was the added problem that any nice, normal people are certainly not going to want to pick up two scruffy and weird-looking backpackers at four in the morning at a gas station, no matter how polite they are. Needless to say we were unsuccessful at getting a ride. The shop staff were kind enough to let us stay inside while we waited, but this was a mixed blessing - the shop was as cold as a refrigerator and only the tiniest bit warmer than outside.

We’d more or less resigned ourselves to waiting for daylight and walking back to the village, as dangerous as it was, when the cop finally showed up again at half-past four. He said “Are you two still here?” and Sheryl, springing into action, said “We need to ask you for a big favour”. “Yeah, yeah, get in the truck”, he said. I wanted to ride in the back of the paddy-wagon but decided it was better not to push my luck. The cop said we weren’t the first that this had happened to - that it happened all the time, in fact. If we hadn’t been so tired we’d have been outraged at the bus company. The cop was really nice and dropped us off back at the hostel, where we set up our tent exactly where it had been for the last four days. I managed to snatch two hours of sleep but Sheryl was too wound up. She was gone when I woke up at seven o’clock, and I was taking down the tent when she came back and said she’d been talking to Michelle, one of the staff, and that Michelle had asked everybody in the hostel and arranged a ride for us all the way back to Mossel Bay.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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