August 12, 2013

Yellow Buildings, Canyons and Macadamias

One of the big highlights of the trip was the days spent at Kruger Park, but the 2 mornings we spent travelling there was one of the most beautiful drives ever. We (Anil, Vandana and I) traveled in a minivan with 8 others and got to drive through a diverse variety of South African countryside.

Although wintertime in the African subcontinent is not the prettiest time to visit, the dried barren lands created a landscape of all possible shades of browns and yellows. Miles and miles of endless highway with the roads so so straight into the horizon. Once we had exhausted every possible yellow and brown, the orchards of orange trees started. Such a contrast. Rows of trees loaded with bright oranges. It was like the trees were inviting all the cars on the highway to come and pick oranges.

Then just before we hit the Drakensberg mountains we had a pit stop at the quaintest little village- Dullstroom. It is a little tourist town. Midway to Kruger from Johannesburg/Pretoria, it is a common lunch break. Content with fruit for lunch, we used up the 40 minutes to see as much as could in Dulstroom. 

Built against the Drakensburg backdrop, the village is at an elevation of 2100m and is well known for trout fishing. The 'stroom' in Dullstroom is the Dutch word for stream owing to the many tributaries that pass through the area. The Dutch influence has left traces on the architecture. I've noticed that the Dutch like painting their buildings butter yellow (I've seen examples in Sri Lanka).

Restaurants and shops line the main road. The lovely sunny afternoon brought the tables out of the building and onto patios where a guy with a microphone and a guitar entertained the Saturday afternoon family diners. We walked into living rooms converted into curio stores with handmade soaps, jewelry and scarves, leather stores with crocodile handbags and kudu belts with zebra and oryx skins for carpets. A little book store specialising in cigars and used books was a cosy space with shelves from floor to ceiling. And of course the many souvenir shops packed with all things South Africa from postcards, key chains and t-shirts to potholders, beer mugs and shower caps. Aromas of coffee and bread wafted into courtyards flanked by buildings that hid in futile behind leafless trees. 

We passed by a clock store, but didn't go in because of lack of time. On further reading of the village, I read that this Clock Shop has the largest collection of clocks in the Southern hemisphere. There is also a whiskey bar with the largest collection of whiskey in the Southern hemisphere. Quite a bit of fame for a village with a 600 odd population.

The shopkeepers we met were warm and friendly starting up conversations about our travel and boasting about their country and even introducing us to their shop pets. We also  met a chatty pair of guys selling nuts on the road; bags of pecans and macadamias, roasted and salted or plain. 

The long and mostly empty roads are ideal for bike rallys. The leather donned riders bring out their shiny ultra-modified Harleys and use the streets of Dullstroom as their podiums for proud displays. Intrigued by their design and spotless bodies, Vandana sat on one for a picture. A slight tilt brought the quarter of a ton bike off it's stand and onto the grass. Thankfully neither her leg nor the bike suffered any injuries and we quickly left the bikers filled with a lot of embarrassment and suppressed laughter.

The road continued the ascent and before long we were driving alongside the angry faces of the Drakensberg range, South Africa's largest and highest mountains. The layers of basalt, sandstone and clay give the mountains the streaks of reds and pinks. The road weaved between the peaks and I caught glimpses of gorges and waterfalls. We craned our necks to try and see the peaks hidden in the clouds. It's hard to capture the scale or grandeur of the view on camera. If I ever visit South Africa again, would love to do a trekking/camping trip here.

On the way back we took a little detour and went to the Blyde river canyon. One of the biggest in the world with a difference of about 1300m from the lowest to highest point. It was definitely prettier than the Nevada Grand Canyon with the green slopes, the clouds and the river. It was a hazy day and hence could barely make out the outlines of the mountains in the distance. The canyon was like the mouth of a huge monster. Couldn't even fathom the size of it. 

We only had a short time at the canyon. Quick dash to the edge, 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'gasps', poses with the picturesque backdrop and then a rush back. 

There were many local stalls lining the road. So many interesting local artifacts- carved wildlife, traditional masks, jewelry, clothes, bowls and lots of other interesting things. Much to our excitement, the prices were pretty good too despite the stalls being at a popular tourist spot.

Then back down the mountainous terrain to the flat plains and never ending grasslands of yellows and browns. 

If I ever decide to take up trout fishing as a hobby, I will retire in Dullstroom, open a cafe and be a chatty host to tourists on their way to Kruger.

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