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Gavin Explores - South Africa (Part 1)

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Part 1: Stellenbosch and Cape Town.

As we are traveling around South Africa for 3 weeks, this is going to be a break from the normal style. Each blog post will take in a lot of different towns and areas of South Africa, but hey TIA. 

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Getting There

We booked our flights through an Air France sale. They each came in at about £500 return. 

We arrived into Cape Town domestic airport at about 12:30 pm on January 2nd, after a nearly disastrous change over in Johannesburg, and queued for an exhausting hour to collect the hire car. January is prime holiday season in South Africa so every man and his dog were queueing to collect their cars, luckily our queue was by far the shortest, but we still waited 60 minutes, desperate for a shower and a nap after about 22 hours on the go.

Currently, we are staying in a beautiful B&B just out of Stellenbosch, which is about 30 minutes out of Cape Town. The Vredenburg Manor has been exactly what Andy and I needed to unwind and relax after the rollercoaster of 2016. Like most people, we have been running on fumes since about mid-November and this place is perfect. It should be prescribed by doctors. We’ve spent a few days combining exploring the local area and reading by the pool in the baking sunshine. You know that feeling when you’re on holiday and you just keep napping everywhere, you try to move around and just fall asleep there, or you read your book and sleep for 35 minutes.. that is the last few days and it has been GLORIOUS.

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Things To Do

Stellenbosch

We are only a short drive from the University town of Stellenbosch or Stellies to the locals. Stellies is a beautiful old town with plenty of amazing restaurants and bars (it is a student town after all), yet the buildings still share the wonderful western cape architecture, so you’ll see plenty of white buildings with columned porches, high gables, and wonderful Cape Dutch details all along the high street. If you are near to Stellies and are craving a nice meal, I cannot recommend this place enough. Even if you are staying in Cape Town, it’s worth tripping out to explore, so one of you will have to be the designated driver, or if you’re on your own Uber is very cheap here.

Franschhoek

Slightly further towards the mountains is the famous shopping town of Franschhoek, which I’m assuming translates to French Area (Hoek is used a lot in South Africa town names and means hook/area). Franschhoek, as mentioned was set up by French settlers and Huguenots in the 1800s. It consists of two main streets which are litter with stunning buildings and quaint yet still rather touristy shops, but it is set in the base of a series of jagged mountains, often with clouds rolling over the top. There are many hostels and B&Bs in Franschhoek as it is a popular stopover destination for people doing wanting to explore the joys of the Winelands, but also it is a great place to spend a few days and a few Rand. After we had snooped around the shops and bought our little items, we headed for the Franschhoek Pass, a road that winds up through the mountains to continue on the Garden Route. From here you get a stunning view across the valley, taking in the basin that Franschhoek sits in. Truly magnificent.

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Vergelegen Winery

Right in the heart of the Wine Lands, the Vergelegen Winery has over 3,000 hectares (which I’m lead to believe is about 6,000 acres) of land. Not all of this is for producing wine, in fact it is well known for its gardens and afternoon picnics in the sky high woods filled with camphor trees (when you crush them, the leaves smell like albas oil). We spent an afternoon here trying out their house Sauvignon Blanc and eating their picnic (235R pp), then walking around their huge, well cultivated and incredibly well-manicured gardens. Vergelegen has such a diverse selection of plants and trees in their gardens, with huge thick bamboo shoots in one quarter, beautiful rose gardens, more hydrangeas than you could think to grow in one area, plenty of trees with trunks bigger than your average swimming pool, and 400-year-old Chinese white mulberry trees brought over to try to start a silk trade in the cape. Their wine is magnificent and I know, as with all the wineries in the area, they do wine tasting sessions.

I do love wine tasting sessions. Although last time I did one it was in Santorini and I got so pissed I broke a rib. So be warned.

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Lions Head Mountain.

Now everyone knows about Table Mountain in Cape Town, well do you know, there’s plenty more mountains to explore than that. This morning we were up and out by 6.15 am to get to the Lions Head Mountain, slightly further west that Table Mountain. We arrived at 7 am and the place was already booming with Sunday morning climbers, so we ended up parking about 1km away from the start of the trek. I’d read up on Lions Head and it apparently is classed as a 1 or 2 in terms of climbing, but I don’t know what this is set against and I don’t know what the maximum is, but it wasn’t an easy climb, in fact, there were some very hair-raising moments. Nothing makes you realise how Health and Safety made the UK is until you get to somewhere like this and find you are to clamber up a rock face, using chains and clips without any other guidance than your own common sense. Had this been England, we would have been sat down and given a good 45-minute talk on rules and regulations, and the dos and do-nots of shimmying up a rock face like a lizard.

Regardless of the nerve-wracking climb, it was a wonderful experience. It took us just over an hour to climb to the top, but the view is stunning. The top of the Lions Head gives you a 360 look around, taking in Cape Town itself, the surrounding Camps Bay, Table Mountain, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 18 of his 27 years) and so much more. I could not recommend this highly enough. I have heard from so many people how busy Table Mountain gets, even the first cable car of the day will give you a 45 minute wait, with the climb taking you about 2 hours, whereas the slightly lower Lions Head meant we were back at the car for 9.15, which I was pleased about as it was already cracking 30C by this time, so make sure you take some water with you (and don’t wear flip flops for gods sake).

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The final push to the top of the Lions Head

Getting Around

Public transport in Cape Town is all but non-existent. From what I have heard, the trains that do exist tend to not be too safe, although the authorities are pumping money into changing this, and there is now an underground bus that gets around downtown CT, the My-Citi bus.

The usual option for people is hiring a car, which most people do, and there is plenty of options available. We are currently with Thrifty, which it seems people frown at but they have always served us well.

Uber is popular and cheap here in Cape Town, but you will be required to have internet connection for this.

Eating & Drinking

Grand Café and Beach (Cape Town) - The only place we ate in Cape Town. This place is the hub of eating and drinking by the ocean on Cape Town. It’s all very snazzy and attracts your average Cape Towner, bare in mind you ‘average’ Cape Towner, is basically a supermodel. The food at the Grand Café was impressive, large pizzas to share, or if you’re Andrew, to eat on your own, and plenty of amazing fresh fish. Because it’s so big and busy, it took a while for our food to come, or even get ordered, so the drinks, while we were waiting, meant the total bill came to about 800R for 2, which still is just over £50.

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Andy, chowing down on the large pizza

In Somerset West (where Vergelegen is based), there are plenty of malls and restaurants to try out, we dined at Turn ‘n’ Tender, which is a chain of SA restaurants offering delicious steaks and great wines, you’ll find other Turn ‘n’ Tender restaurants around (we ate at one in Joburg last year), and they do not disappoint.

Tiger’s Milk (Stellenbosch) - which is a trendy but new eatery, that is yet to acquire their liquor license, but will compensate that with giving you a complimentary glass of wine or pint of local beer with your meal. Our grand total here was about 300R

The Big Easy (Stellenbosch) - over the road from Tiger's Milk, is slightly more expensive but serves amazing food and as we found is a great place for a champagne lunch.

The Stellenbosch Kitchen (Stellenbosch) - a great spot for a peaceful and delicious dinner, all coming in well under the price for a meal in your average London restaurant.

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This was the view from the peak of the Lions Head. Truly stunning.

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