We finished the Otter Trail mid-day on a Wednesday and still hadn’t decided exactly what to do next. We felt pressured to finally get to Cape Town and leave South Africa but when camping in Wilderness we met a lovely couple who invited us to visit them in the Karoo. The Karoo is a vast, open, semi-arid region of South Africa that is surrounded by mountains. We had only vaguely considered going there, but John and Ann spoke so highly of their little town, Prince Albert, that it was hard to resist their invitation. It’s rare that you meet people who so sincerely love where they live.
After finishing the trail we headed north to Outdshorn, the ostrich capital of the country. The town and its innumerable ostrich farms boomed during the ostrich feather craze of the 1800s. Apparently they even had a large population of Jewish ostrich barons. Now the birds are farmed for meat and to offer ostrich rides to tourists. Note, however, that you can’t ride one unless you weigh less than 136 pounds. They don’t include that fact in the brochures… The ostrich farms were desolate looking places for the most part: dirt fields with flocks of giant birds eating out of old tires, though some were in large grassy fields. We only stayed in the town because it was getting too late to drive any further.
The next day we stopped by the Cango Caves before heading up Swartberg Pass. The caves house amazing rock formations but are heavily commercialized. However, unlike similar attractions in the States, they offer a tour that lets you crawl through tight, awkward spaces. This shockingly fun option is only offered to the “lean” but luckily Jeanette and I qualified because they really just mean the not overly chubby. Apparently a few years ago a woman was stuck in one crack for over 11 hours. It took three rescue teams and many gallons of soap to get her out. We didn’t get stuck, though my bizarrely awkward way of getting through the “Chimney” was a close call...
The last segment of our journey to Prince Albert was driving over the Swartberg Pass. The twisting, steep gravel road through rugged, rocky mountains truly is a feat of engineering. Jeanette’s ability to drive it in a small two-wheel drive stick-shift was a feat of will and amazing driving abilities. I never could have done it. I prefer my bike. We safely made it over and to the quaint olive-growing town of Prince Albert.
John and Ann moved to the town about 16 years ago after living in Cape Town for about 30 years. We sat with Ann in the back of their pick up as John drove us around the town. Ann pointed out all of the various houses that John, an architect, helped build or refurbish and all of the local landmarks. It was evident how much they still enjoyed and respected each other, even after over 40 years of marriage. Before leaving for Cape Town the next morning John took us on a botanical tour of the semi-arid koppies that surround the town. The wide-open landscape is filled with small succulent plants and rocky soil, perfect for growing very tasty olives. We walked back through the town, where John seemed to know everyone and all of their stories.Though we didn’t fully plan on it, the side trip to the Karoo was fully worth it. It was nice to step away from the normal backpackers trail for a while and experience both crazy tourism and wonderful hospitality. It will be fun to show John and Ann around Alaska some day.