After fueling up our car (See Note re: Gas Prices below), we crossed the border out of Luxembourg and into Germany.  While many visitors to Germany focus on the larger cities, mainly Munich and Berlin, we decided to spend our few days in the country in the smaller villages and cities in the southern region of the country.  We followed small country roads in the southwestern part of Germany that passed through villages that seemed to have changed very little over the past hundred years, with names that didn’t make our guidebook or our map.

We then drove down the Rhine Route, a small road heavily promoted by the German tourist board that follows the Rhine river south for a couple of hours. While the drive brought up fond memories of a Rhine river cruise I did during a mad-dash tour of Europe in 1993, the scenery was somewhat disappointing because the river was full of tourist boats and the supposedly quaint towns along the way were far from quaint, with the streets full of gift shops selling “authentic” German wares lovingly made in China.
View of Heidelberg from Castle of Heidelberg
Heidelberg was our next stop, though, and it turned out to be gorgeous.  Home to the oldest (founded in 1387) and arguably the best university in Germany, this vibrant town is full of ancient churches and is watched over by a large castle.  When Mark Twain took his family on a trip to Europe in 1878, his first stop was in Heidelberg, where he intended to stay for just a day or two.  Instead, the allure of the city (which some attribute to the name Heidelberg, which means “Huckleberry Mountain”) kept him here for three months.  We can see why.
Our next stop was Nuremberg, known now as the city that hosted the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war criminals after World War II.  The city was chosen as a host because it was the centerpiece of Nazi activity.  Hitler built huge Nazi Party rally grounds here, and hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered upon them to see the Fuhrer and to be indoctrinated with Nazi-inspired hate.  A fascinating museum, outlining Nazi history and the building of the rally grounds, was well worth our stop and provided us with a greater understanding of the atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s that led to one of the most tragic times in history.

We spent our last couple of days in Germany in the heart of Bavaria, a large region in southeastern Germany that is famed for its forests and mountains.  We based ourselves in Regensberg, another university town we’d never heard of.  It turned out to be a gorgeous, cafe-filled city that was as vibrant as any we’ve seen anywhere.  It seemed that every resident of this ancient city (which is well over 2,000 years old) lived life outside, walking the streets and lounging in the outdoor cafes.
From Regensberg, we took day trips to a few small villages near the Danube River, two of which (Kreistadt and Eichstatt) were having their local summer festivals on the day we visited.  These festivals, put on solely for the local community and devoid of the truckloads of tourists that you’ll see at larger festivals such as Octoberfest in Munich, were full of families enjoying the summer weather, the German music, the delicious sausages and the German obsession – beer.   I took the opportunity to play chess against a hot-shot teenager who thought he was so impressive that he had set up a few tables and was playing 5 games of chess simultaneously.  He crushed me in about 2 minutes.
Part of the Kriestadt festival included a sort of variety show wherein local dance classes performed that year’s routine and a folk-singing group did some sort of square dance.  We’d seen the same kind of stuff at home, but imagine our surprise when a bit of home came to us.  All of the sudden, a group of high school kids from Edmon, Oklahoma (presumably students from a German class on their summer trip abroad) took to the stage and lackadaisically began doing the Macarena and an equally horrifying dance number to a medley of last year’s hip-hop favorites.  (Surely they were forced by their German teacher to embarrass themselves in this way.)  I think we’ll stop laughing about these poor kids in the next decade or so.

GAS PRICES:  If you think it’s bad in America right now with gas selling for over $4 a gallon, try driving in Europe!  We’ve been paying between $7.40 and $8.30 a gallon since we’ve been here.  Filling up the tank is simply painful.  Gas has historically been much higher in Europe in America.  Accordingly, most Europeans drive very small, gas-efficient cars – seeing an SUV or truck in Europe is a rare occurrence.  It will be interesting to see what America’s cars look like 10 years from now.

Most of my family on my mother’s side lives in a tiny Minnesotan farming town called Cottonwood (pop. 1,146).  My great-grandmother settled near Cottonwood after she emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the early 1900s.  She came over on her own; her parents and almost all of her ten siblings stayed behind in the tiny Dutch farming town of Ulestraten (pop. 2,660).

I’ve always had a vague idea that we still had some family in the Netherlands,1 but I never knew anything about them.  As it turns out, two of my great-grandmother’s nieces still live near Ulestraten, in a similarly diminutive town called Obbicht.  Lies and Inna Gelissen are now in their 80s.  Having never married, the two sisters have lived together for most of their lives.  When they found out that their (very distant) relations were going to be in their country, they welcomed us into their home with open arms.
Shane (my brother who met up with us for a few days), Derek and I arrived on Lies and Inna’s doorstep having no idea what to expect.  Within an hour, we were stuffing ourselves full of lasagna and some German concoction called Tutti-Frutti, learning about what life was like when the Nazis occupied the area during WWII and being challenged to do shots of an unnamed, but highly toxic, foreign brew.  In a word, it was awesome.
After spending a night in their immaculate home, which is full of mementos from their travels around the world (such a nice change from all of the generic-feeling hotels), the five of us piled into our Peugeot and set off in search of Shane’s and my roots.  We stopped into the church where my great-grandmother was baptized.  On our way out, we ran into a woman and a baby who, as Lies and Inna explained, were related to us.  Distant relations, sure, but meeting them made the world feel very small.  Later on, we visited the cemetery where my great-great-grandparents are buried.  Although both of them died long before I was born, I felt incredibly connected to them as I stood there in the sun at the foot of their carefully tended graves.  I guess family ties are strong enough to survive separation by both generations and an ocean.

  1. I’ve recently learned the difference between Holland and the Netherlands.  Although most people in the U.S. use the two interchangeably, they’re actually not the same thing.  Holland is the name of two provinces (North Holland and South Holland) located in the western part of the Netherlands.  The Netherlands itself is a nation that includes not only the two Hollands, but ten other provinces as well. []

After an 8-hour flight out of Africa (which seemed to last about 30 minutes with the aid of Ambien, a fantastic sleeping pill that is a godsend for long flights), we landed in a very different world – Europe. With only 10 weeks left on our trip, we quickly caught a train from the Amsterdam airport to Lille, France, where we were to pick up the brand-new Peugeot car that we had leased for the remainder of our trip. After loading up the family truckster, we hit the road (without a map), only to get lost twice in the first 30 minutes. Our first stop was Brussels, where we picked up Shane, Shanna’s brother, who was coincidentally in Europe for a few days to present a paper he had co-authored. A few minutes later, we were in a traffic jam on our way to Bruges, Belgium.
After hearing my friend Scott Wells state on several occasions that Bruges is his favorite city on the planet, I had high hopes for this small, medieval town. Having eluded attacks during World Wars I and II, Bruges is regarded as possibly the best-preserved city in Europe, so well maintained that you could easily convince yourself that you’re in the European section of a Disney theme park. The ancient streets are lined with ornate buildings that have housed countless families and businesses over the last thousand years and now serve as homes to quaint hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. While our allotted time here was short, we quickly voted Bruges as our favorite small European city we’d ever visited. Scott, I guess you finally got something right…
After departing Bruges the next day, we stopped in historic Ghent for lunch, drove through the diamond powerhouse of Antwerp and were quickly in the neighboring country of the Netherlands (aka Holland). What we saw of the rural part of the Netherlands was exactly like I had imagined: a land flat as a pancake, full of windmills, small canals, wildflowers and bicycles.

After spending an amazing day in the Netherlands (Shanna will tell you more in our next post), we looked at a map and decided to drive to Luxembourg, mainly because we knew nothing about this tiny country. After saying goodbye to Shane and departing the Netherlands, we crossed back into Belgium for a couple of hours and got lost on the small, hilly backroads leading south toward Luxembourg, allowing us to visit small, gorgeous towns completely off the tourist track.
We also saw dozens of friterias, small buildings on the side of the roads completely devoted to french fries (was this a dream?). Although still full from lunch, we eventually gave in and stopped at the last friteria before Luxembourg – one of the best decisions we’ve made on our trip. The fries were unlike anything we’ve ever tasted, with the perfect thickness, crispness and saltiness. Unlike at home, where the only viable condiment option is ketchup, the Belgium friterias provide 10-20 sauce options, including mayonnaise (don’t turn your nose up until you’ve tried it!) and “American” sauce – a delicious blend of ketchup, mayo and cajun spices that reminded me of my famous “pink sauce,” which I serve with shrimp and crawfish (of course, my sauce has a few other ingredients not available for public distribution).
Feeling bloated, we crossed the border into Luxembourg, a sparsely populated country (400,000 residents) the size of Rhode Island. As our guidebook only had about 3 pages devoted to Luxembourg, we were unsure of our final destination for the evening. When we read about a small village named Vianden famous for its majestic castle and the fact that it was once home to Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables), we rolled the dice and pointed the Peugeot in Vianden’s direction. Vianden turned out to be the quintessential medieval village, dominated by the gorgeously restored 1,000 year-old castle that overlooked the town, which was built to house the peasants that moved here to be near the protection of the castle’s ramparts.
The next day, we drove through much of Luxembourg, passing its many castles and roaming the streets of the modern and refined Luxembourg City. One of our highlights was a visit to an American cemetary just outside Luxembourg City where over 5,000 American soldiers, include General George S. Patton, were buried after losing their lives fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We could not help being deeply affected by the gravesights of so many heroic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to ensure the freedom of millions of Europeans.

Google Video

When I was in college at the University of Michigan, my favorite Ann Arbor restaurant was a place called Zanzibar.  My favorite thing about Zanzibar was this dessert they served; a lime tart with slices of fresh mango on top, it was basically dessert utopia.  I hadn’t had that dessert since I graduated from college eight years ago.  And then, a week or so ago, I found it again, this time in a place that itself felt a lot like utopia–Zanzibar, Tanzania. 
in Zanzibar's Stone Town
The non-restaurant version of Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania.  Although it’s technically part of Tanzania, Zanzibar feels like an entirely different country.  Unlike its mainland neighbor, Zanzibar is a conservative, Sunni Muslim society.  Burqa-clad women share the streets here with barefoot children and laid-back fruit vendors.  Many people in Zanzibar make their living from the sea; some gather seaweed to use as fertilizer, others catch fish to sell to the post-safari, beach-combing tourists who visit the island each year. 
Mike, Mindy, Derek and I were some of those tourists.  We spent a delightful four days relaxing by the pool of our very tropical-feeling resort (complete with its wonderful desserts) and scuba-diving in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.  Then we headed to Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a warren of winding lanes and beautiful mosques.  (On a random note, it’s also famous as the birthplace of the late Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen!)  After spending a day exploring the history-packed town, it was time to say goodbye, both to the Sontags and to Africa.  We were on our way to Europe!

We don’t have much left to say about our incredible Tanzanian safari, but a few of our pictures were just too good to keep to ourselves. Without further adieu…


To some, the success of a game-viewing safari is measured by whether the safari-goers spotted all of the “Big Nine”: the lion, the leopard, the cheetah, the cape buffalo, the elephant, the black rhinoceros, the hippo, the zebra and the giraffe.  As we made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater we had managed only six, lacking the cheetah, the black rhino and the leopard.  If we were to achieve this feat, we would have only our days in the crater and the Serengeti to do so.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the most spectacular part of an area referred to as the “Crater Highlands,” which consists of a series of volcanic mountains and collapsed volcanoes, or calderas.  The crater itself is a massive expanse of land that, at roughly fifteen miles wide, is one of the largest calderas in the world.  It is an incredible sight; its steep walls create incredible blue-green vistas at every turn.  The crater is also known for its massive collection of animals, with lions, cape buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, and many, many other species roaming freely within its walls. 
On our first morning in the crater, we all met at 6:30 am (yes, Shanna included) to get to the park before the masses had started their trek in the same direction.  We were immediately greeted by the first of four separate spottings of lions, each providing its own spectacular opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their own environment.  Our first viewing included two lionesses with six young cubs in tow taking full direction from their mothers.  We then followed one of the lionesses as she began a hunt.  We watched the zebras and wildebeests nearby snap to full alert when they sensed her presence.  At one point, the lioness passed literally within a foot of our car, causing Derek to retreat with his camera from the window to the safety of the interior of the car (once again caught in stunning fashion on video by Shanna).  While the viewing was awesome, we still had yet to see the remaining three members of the “Big Nine.”

As we continued our quest, we spotted two black rhinoceroses and a baby rhino in the distance, several hundred yards from our location, followed soon thereafter by a sighting of a cheetah, also in the distance.  The next day, as we were making our way around the crater, we spotted another large male rhinoceros and noticed it moving toward the Lerai Forest, the place where most of the roughly 24 rhinos in the park call home.  We positioned our car between the rhino and the forest and waited as the black beast made its way toward us.  After stopping to determine his path, he passed between two vehicles and within 15 yards of our car.  What a truly magnificent creature–one that seems more prehistoric in its stature than most.  With just the Serengeti left to visit on our safari, we had only the leopard left on our Big Nine list.

The Serengeti National Park, an immense space of over 9,173 square kilometers, is best known as the location for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebras from their “winter home” in the southern portion of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to their northern digs in the Masai Mara (a large reserve park just over the border in Kenya).  While the migration typically takes place in late May and June, the dry season came early this year and we missed seeing it, which led to a fairly disappointing first day in the Serengeti. 
One would think that, after 12 days spent wandering from park to park, seeing God only knows how many animals of every type and taking literally thousands of pictures, we would be completely burnt out and ready for a new location, away from the dust, the heat and the land rover.  You would be entirely correct.  Nonetheless, as we sat around the campfire on our final evening in the bush, a most unlikely plan was hatched for our final day of viewing, especially for those who know just how much Shanna enjoys her sleep: a pre-dawn trek into the Serengeti in search of the leopard, the only remaining of the “Big Nine” that had, as of yet, escaped our now keenly trained eyes for animal viewing. 
It was clear that each of us, especially those of us with the competitive juices of lawyers, wanted to achieve this seldomly met goal.  As it turned out, we were rewarded in spades with what was a perfect morning of game viewing–one where we would spot eight of the “Big Nine,” lacking only a further sighting of the black rhino, which doesn’t even inhabit the Serengeti.  Shortly after leaving the bush camp, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise in the Serengeti.  We then spotted two jackals in the midst of a fight.  Soon after Mindy snapped a requested picture of the battling pair, we all spotted a cat leaping from the shelter of taller grass, roughly 100 yards to our rear.  With lightning quickness, the cat–which our guide confirmed in excited tones to be a leopard–rushed from the field on our left to the field on our right.  We had seen all of the Big Nine, along with many, many others.

While seeing animals is fantastic, it can, at times, take on the quality of an exquisite art museum after having been to several exquisite art museums, where each painting of the Madonna appears like the last. With that said, however, you always seem to find some nuance in the animal viewing, much like each such painting has its own personal inspiration.  In fact, we as a group and individually had several such instances along the way and came to expect – well – the unexpected.
When we reached Arusha National Park after a long day a travel, the unexpected greeted us in the form of a gaggle of giraffes, two of whom were fighting for domination.  We would spend the next two nights at the Hatari Lodge, which was built by Harvey Kruger, who starred in the John Wayne safari “classic,” Hatari.  This was quite a change from the bush camp, with nine spacious bungalows, decorated in African art deco, each with its own fireplace.
Arusha Park is also known as “Giraffic Park” due to its large numbers of giraffe, which we saw in close proximity during a four-hour hike on nearby Mt. Meru.  In order to take this hike, we had to employ an armed ranger to protect us in case we were threatened by any of the wild animals in the park.  We were never aware of any danger as we walked among a family of giraffes, with their graceful strides and gentle faces, or as we hiked through a field with cape buffalo on one side and warthogs (which made Derek crave baby back ribs—they apparently taste like suckling pig) on the other.

We soon learned that taking such breaks from the “personal massager,” our guide’s nickname for the Land Cruiser (I would suggest personal “hell” might be more accurate), was important.  We would, over the course of our safari, spend many an afternoon simply enjoying each other’s company instead of game viewing.  With that said, during the next several days we had numerous instances of “unexpected” sightings of game that would reinvigorate us all from the monotony that game viewing can at times become.

Monkey Mayhem   – Each evening at sunset dozens of vervet monkeys would emerge from their jungle homes to create what can best be described as “monkey mayhem” by climbing on top of  (and, if given the chance, inside and around) the nine bungalows at the Hatari Lodge.
Born Free – Just as we thought another day would pass without spotting a big cat, we made our way through Tarangire National Park and noticed several vehicles, full of tourists with cameras and binoculars aplenty, parked alongside a dry river bed.  We stopped and pulled out our binoculars.  In the bushes across from us we saw a young lion eating a recent kill (a cape buffalo).  As we scanned the area, we saw several lionesses lying in the dry river bed, then four young cubs playing in the grass close by.  Then the papa lion, with his flowing mane, stood up from where he had been lying hidden in the tall grass and sauntered towards the lionesses.  We had stumbled upon a pride of lions!  We stayed there for an hour watching the cubs play with each other and then take a short break to run to mama and nurse as she lay stretched out in the grass.  We saw the older lions take turns feeding on the kill, while the papa lion kept close watch over his family.  Our guide, Lesika, told us it was rare to run across such a large pride (we counted about 12), feasting together on a recent kill.
Monkey Mayhem Part Two – Now feeling as though one of our viewing missions was complete, we headed back to our lodge in the middle of the park.  Before we made it there, though, we ran across a large clan of baboons, well over a hundred in number, crossing the road immediately in front of our vehicle and engaging in all sorts of curious acts, some that would make you blush.
Charged By An Elephant – The next morning we began our journey to the Ngorongoro Crater.  The trip began in spectacular fashion when we stopped to view an elephant family with two young elephants and apparently got a bit closer to the babies than the mother desired.  She (all 8000 pounds of her) charged our car in spectacular fashion (all caught on video by Shanna).
The Pink Flamingos of Lake Manyara – We spent a few hours seeking out animals in the area around Lake Manyara.  The highlight of our time there was the chance to see the lake covered with what could easily have been fifty thousand pink flamingos.

We quickly learned while on safari to expect the unexpected and to savor the unique sightings that each day inevitably held.

Google Video


After nine months of tracking Derek and Shanna’s journey on this blog, we were thrilled to finally join them in Tanzania.  Mindy planned the itinerary, all Derek and Shanna had to do was meet us in Arusha, near Kilimanjaro, with very little prior knowledge about what the next eighteen days would hold.
Tanzania, unlike other parts of Africa, including neighboring Kenya and Rwanda, has for the last twenty years been free of religious and ethnic conflicts.  While the economic culture has been one of rampant poverty, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic exists here as it does in other parts of Africa, the people have found a way to find happiness in a society dominated by a culture accustomed to living off the land, and where a person’s net worth is often measured by the size of the herd he owns or the land he cultivates.
Tanzania has also reaped the rewards associated with a vibrant tourism industry that takes advantage of its numerous and diverse regions, from the valley between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, to the plains of the Serengeti, and its roughly 430 species and subspecies.  The ability to view these animals in their native habitats in the numerous parks, game reserves and conservation areas was why Mindy and I chose Tanzania to meet Derek and Shanna, and where we rekindled our friendships and where we began our search for “The Big Nine” – elephant, leopard, lion, black rhino, cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra, cheetah and hippo.
Our safari began at Hemingway’s Bush Camp in the Olmalog Game Reserve in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the area where Ernest Hemingway hunted and from where he wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”  Our guide for the duration of our safari was Lesika, and our mode of transportation a Land Cruiser, with which we would all develop a love/hate relationship, as it would provide us access to incredible game viewing and picture-taking opportunities, as well as carry us for hours across unpaved roads bouncing us around uneven terrain and kicking up enough dust to create a visible film on our bodies.
The advantage to being on the game reserve, as we would later discover, is the ability to go “off -roading” in search of wild animals in the arid land.  We were free to wander about as we wished, being guided only by our desire to get the next best shot (cameras only, however).  We were also able to get amazingly close to all the elephants and zebras wandering only yards from our vehicle.  It turns out that elephants have a tremendous sense of smell and hearing, but terrible eyesight, and so as long as we stayed downwind from them we could get close enough to almost touch them.  We were also able to trek into Kenya for a bit, and at one point embraced each other with one foot in Kenya, and one in Tanzania.  At night we returned to our tents for bucket showers with water heated over an open fire, and a delicious meal served by a campfire.  Our entertainment was provided by the Masai tribe we had visited; clothed in their pastoral bright red garments, they danced, jumped and chanted by the firelight.

Scenes from the top of Table Mountain
As we drove through South Africa, we met a lot of locals who were eager to hear which parts of their country we’d seen already and which ones we were planning to visit next. Upon hearing our schedule, a lot of them said something along the lines of, “Just wait until you get to Cape Town. You’ll love it.” How right they were.

I loved our time in Cape Town so much that I’m afraid I’ve become a bit evangelical about the place. (If you know me personally (or maybe even if you don’t), be prepared for me to try to convince you to go there as soon as you possibly can.) Why I am such a fan of Cape Town? This short list just scrapes the surface:
Cape Town, viewed from Signal Hill
(1) Its natural wonders are both incredible and incredibly close by. Table Mountain is right in the middle of town, more or less. It serves as both a beautiful addition to the skyline and a fantastic vantage point from which to look out over the city. We rode a cable car to the top of the mountain and spent a happy couple of hours wandering along its well-maintained trails and trying to wrap our minds around the fact that the mountaintop is completely flat. Afterwards, we headed over to Signal Hill to watch the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean and the city lights slowing turning on. Gorgeous.
Speaking of gorgeous, less than an hour outside of Cape Town lies the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. We took a very, very windy hike along the rocks above the park’s spectacular coastline and ended up at the Cape of Good Hope itself. Although it’s often given credit as such, the Cape of Good Hope isn’t the southernmost part of Africa (that honor goes to Cape Agulhas, a little bit to the east). The Cape of Good Hope is, however, the southwesternmost point. That phrase may not look as good on a t-shirt, but it’s something…
On the way to the nature reserve, we stopped at Boulders Beach, which is famous for being home to a colony of 3000 penguins. These penguins were formerly called “jackass penguins,” which is not a reflection on their character, but rather on the donkey-like noise they make. They’ve recently been upgraded to a new name and are now simply called “African penguins.” The walkways along the beach allowed us great views of the penguins, who seemed to be very used to the presence of humans. (We even had the opportunity to swim with the little cuties. Seeing as how it was about 55 degrees, however, we passed.)

(2) It’s an incredibly cosmopolitan city. As such, it has all the gourmet food, excellent shopping and, err, dirty martinis anyone could ever want.
Nelson Mandela's Cell on Robben Island
(3) Its tragic history has been shaped into lessons for future generations. While in Cape Town, we visited Robben Island, home of the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. (The entire island is now a museum.) Our bus tour–sadly, there’s really no other way to see the island–took us past the lime quarry where Mandela and other prisoners slaved in the heat. We were then led through the prison and to Mandela’s cell by, amazingly enough, a man who was incarcerated on the island for 7 years because of his work with the African National Congress. Our guide had some amazing stories to tell about his time on the island, and he seemed remarkably able to talk about his experiences without getting angry.

We also stopped in at the District Six Museum, a moving museum about a once-vibrant, diverse neighborhood that was bulldozed during apartheid in an attempt to turn the district into an all-white area. Some 50,000 people were forcibly relocated to what were essentially slums. Many of the people who were evicted from their homes have returned to the museum to mark on a map the location of their former houses and nearby landmarks. Since democracy arrived in South Africa, the government has prioritized the rebuilding of District Six and the return of its land to its former residents, but its progress has been slow.

(4) It’s–finally!–diverse. We have been shocked at how racially divided South Africa is. We were happy to see that, in Cape Town, people of all races seem to mix more easily. It was a really nice change.

If those reasons aren’t enough to convince you to make the trip, I’ve got plenty more…

Getting in a car with virtually no plan in sight is a luxury in which few of us seem to indulge these days.  With limited vacation time, today’s traveler seems to plan every minute of their trip, making sure they make the best out of every moment.  During our 30 days on the road in South Africa, we’ve felt like we’ve been on a different trip from the prior 9 months.  Having our own wheels has allowed us to avoid the stresses of booking flights, boarding buses and trains and following the schedules of the transportation industry.   It’s been a refreshing change.
Sunset from our balcony in Knysner
The last week has been one of the highlights of our road trip.  After finishing our hike along the Wild Coast, our only future obligation was to catch a flight out of Cape Town 9 days later.  So we hit the road and started heading down the coast.  The South Africa tourism industry has named the 300 or so miles of coastline east of Cape Town the “Garden Route.”  While there is a notable absence of gardens along the route, the scenery is stunning – steep, majestic mountains just a few miles from an endless stretch of empty, white-sand beaches.
Surfers at "Supertubes" in Jeffrey's Bay
Our first stop on our drive was Jeffrey’s Bay, world-famous for its surfing.  Surfers from around the world come to J-Bay to test their skills on the massive waves that consistently pound its shores.  Although neither of us surfs (a fact that pains us both), we wanted to see talented surfers in action.  The next morning, we walked down to “Supertubes,” a particularly famous surfing beach – it’s said to play home to the “perfect wave” – near our hostel.  We’d picked a good time to be there – dozens of surfers were busy putting the guys in Point Break to shame.

Full of envy, we loaded up the car and drove west until arrived at a coastal town called Knysna.  With the help of our guidebook and our cell phone, we were able to find an amazing hotel right on the Knysna lagoon for a fantastic low-season price. 1  With an incredible view of the lagoon right from our hotel balcony, we felt very little incentive to stray far from our room.
After a couple of days doing virtually nothing in Knysna, we continued to head east toward Cape Town.  While we had planned on going to Hermanus for a cage-dive with great white sharks, it was cancelled due to windy weather.  We called an audible (something you can’t really do without your own car) and headed to Franshhoek.  Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, Franshhoek is famous for the superb wine made in the area and shipped around the world.  Again, we consulted or guidebook, negotiated low-season discounts and found ourselves in a top-notch hotel for a very reasonable price.  We spent the next day touring some of the local vineyards and having a couple of meals at world-class restaurants that cost a fraction of what they would back home.  I’m not sure either of us has ever been this relaxed…

  1. For anyone considering a trip to South Africa, we would highly recommend visiting in May or June – the low season here.  The prices are much lower than the rest of the year and you’ll have pretty much everything to yourself; in many cases, we’ve been the only people in hotels and national parks that are completely full during the rest of the year.  The inexplicable part is that we’re not sure why this is the low season – the weather is fantastic (not too hot or cold), there’s no rain, it’s the best time to see wildlife and the most ideal time to scuba dive. []

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