Although our time in Cape Town provided some of the best moments of the trip, it was also tinged with sadness. The ambiguity was splitting up, like a pride of lions when a new male arrives. In our case the fracture wasn’t due to the call of the wild, but the call of reality. Three of our little ragamuffin gang were headed back to the States, back to job obligations and everyday life. The remaining four of us began the last leg of this African journey – a self-guided driving tour of South Africa’s famous Garden Route, a series of roads that meander along the country’s southern coastline and nearby mountains.
With the ambiguity’s numbers cut nearly in half, anxiety was running high. Would the rest of us fall prey to some other lurking threat, like a canceled reservation or a compromised credit card? And since we were down to just four individuals, did we even still qualify as an ambiguity? Were we now only an ambigui-titi? Is that even a word? (Somewhere in Africa, it probably is.)
There was also anxiety about how our dwindled group would move safely from place to place. After all, in South Africa they drive on the wrong side of the road, and none of us had ever taken the wheel in that situation. Plus our rental car was packed to the max with luggage, souvenirs, snacks and ourselves.
To be fair, the left side of the road isn’t really the wrong side. It’s an arbitrary choice, I think. I just don’t understand why the motoring world didn’t get together a long time ago and pick one side or the other. Too bad, but that ship has sailed – I’m sure it would be cost-prohibitive for any country to switch.
But even if the left side of the road isn’t the wrong side, it definitely isn’t the right side either. So as I took the wheel for the first time, I could feel the tension in the vehicle as my three passengers all prepared to scream instructions at me if and when I fucked up by reverting to my natural driving instincts.
One thing did give comfort to the ambiguity (or whatever we were now called). Our rental vehicle was a white Toyota Fortuner (a mid-size SUV model similar to the 4Runner that’s sold in the States). Eyeing over the vast inventory of rental cars at the Cape Town airport, it was clear that half of them were white Fortuners. Great! We had camouflage! Looking like everyone else was our best chance to avoid being singled out to face the dangers of South Africa’s vicious and highly competitive urban jungle.
But in fact, driving the Garden Route was a breeze. The roads are mostly in excellent condition, there’s not a lot of traffic, and it’s one of the safest regions in all of Africa. Once you get the hang of the whole “a right turn here is like a left turn back home” thing, the rest is easy.
Our first overnight stop was Hermanus, a cute seaside village about 60 miles southeast of Cape Town. Hermanus is famous for whale-watching, but we weren’t there at the right time of year for that. No matter. The town has lots of fun shops and restaurants, and the drive along the coastline from Cape Town to Hermanus offers some spectacular scenery.
From Hermanus, we drove to Cape Agulhas. That’s the southernmost point in Africa, and the place on the map where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The two oceans coming together is really just a man-made designation – it’s not like you see turbulence in the water or any such phenomenon to indicate you’re at a special boundary.
It is true that at Cape Agulhas a compass points to true north without magnetic deviation. (The word “agulhas” is Portuguese for “needles.”) But the waters themselves couldn’t care less how our ancestors chose to divide them. Still, it’s fun to say you’ve been there, kind of like when you stand with one foot on either side of the border between two states or two countries. Or when you do the same thing at the Equator, like we did in 2016.
Our second overnight stop was Swellendam. It’s the third-oldest town in South Africa. The drive to Swellendam took us inland to the mountains and more gorgeous scenery. We stayed at a lovely old country house where we were treated so damn swell (see what I did there) that we practically begged them not to let us leave.
After more meandering along the mountains, we made our way back to the coast and spent a night in the harbor town of Mossel Bay. With over 100,000 inhabitants, Mossel Bay is the largest place we stayed during our time on the Garden Route. Maybe that was why it felt less charming and more touristy. We had our only mediocre dinner of the whole trip in Mossel Bay. And the taxi that took us to and from the restaurant was piloted by a disgruntled South African man who had little good to say about the world around him. On the other hand, we had a great view of the city from our hotel.
The following day we drove further east, into the Tsitsikamma National Park. Tsitsikamma is a coastal reserve with mountains, forests, estuaries and a famous suspension bridge. We were probably about the ten millionth tourists (give or take a few) to cross that bridge and take a bunch of pictures of it. Hey, you want to find a place in the 21st Century where you can be the first person to set foot? Try Mars.
After Tsitsikamma, we retraced our route west to our final stop, the town of Knysna (pronounced nize-nuh – or something close to that). Knysna lies on the shore of a lagoon that opens to the ocean through a narrow passage between two sandstone cliffs. “The Heads” – as the cliffs are called by the locals – are Knysna’s main claim to fame. Many a fishing ship, and many fishermen too, were lost trying to navigate The Heads. But the geography is cool, so we took a bunch of pictures of that too.
On our final day in Africa we drove to a town called George, dropped off the rental car, hopped on a short flight to Johannesburg, and then took a much longer plane ride back to the States. (It’s around 16 hours from Jo’burg to Atlanta.) That’s where the ambiguity finally dispersed completely, like antelope scattering across the African bush. But our little ragamuffin gang will remain in close contact. Hell, a majority of us live in the same condominium in Baltimore. And of course the ambiguity as a whole will live on with the animal spirits, at peace with the natural rhythms of the world and nature’s constant cycle of rebirth and renewal. You know, the “circle of life” and all that Lion King crap. Kind of like a dead animal on a road somewhere becoming some other animal’s supper.
Regardless of which side of the road it happens to be on.