Monday, March 12, 2012

Sampling South Africa

Just to show that it’s not all work, work, work around here, we have actually ventured out the last two weekends and enjoyed the beauty that spreads out in every direction we turn! Last weekend, we woke up early in order to beat the heat of the day and hike up Legogate. Legogate means Lion’s Head and from the Hands village on Peebles Road, we wake up daily to a view of the head of the lion. It looms above us and is the backdrop for all that we do here. When the weather rolls in, it comes in over the head of the lion and drops in on us quickly. Clear skies one moment and then a rolling mist shrouds Legogate and we’re all running for cover before the skies open up on us. The moon rises from behind the mountain and every night, at least one of us here in the village, comments on its arrival in its unusually mesmerizing fashion. It creeps over the hill shyly and then seemingly launches itself on its nightly path through the star filled skies. Usually, dinner on the deck involves this nightly ritual of the moon peeking over to see if we’re ready for an evening’s respite from the sun’s heat. As the evening cools, our tiredness wanes and we feel energized enough to make it through the last few hours until bedtime. Saturday morning, a group of us started out on a morning hike up to the summit. The first hurdle was a scramble up a long, skinny face of rocks that ran along the perimeter of a fenced property. The narrowness of the face was not a challenge in and of itself, but the fact that the fence was electrified to keep out intruders, both human and animal, was enough to make you consider each hand and foothold carefully. Somehow, each step seemed to want to pull me towards the fence, much like standing on a ledge makes you feel as if you’re being magnetically drawn over. We all made it to the top without any shocks, other than those my poor underused muscles were making in protest. We’d only just begun. The hardest part of the trail for me was a long, steep, uphill climb through long grass and low brush. My spirit was willing but my lungs were weak. Each breath burned in taunting reminders of the dusty elliptical machine standing lonely in my basement – testament to its underuse and idleness. As we reached the third of several plateaus, a beautiful vista spread out before us and I seriously considered resting there until the group climbed to the summit and returned. I figured I could get a nice nap in on the grass and wake refreshed and tanned by the time they would be descending. I looked up at the summit, seemingly no closer, and argued the value of accomplishment. I couldn’t bring myself to stay behind so I continued on with the group and soon we came to the base of the actual rock mountain. I wasn’t surprised to find that I was able to climb and scale the wall with less effort than I was exerting in reaching it. I enjoyed the climbing parts, each handhold and foothold felt like an accomplishment in itself and I liked the camaraderie of climbing in a group. When handholds and footholds were far between or not stable, there was always a hand extended to grab on to or to take your pack. The climbing part went all too quickly and suddenly, we were standing on top of the Lion’s Head. The view was amazing - 360 degree panorama of the Mpumulanga Province and onwards straight to Mozambique. We could see Swaziland in the distance and the landscapes of both the lowlands and the surrounding escarpment. It was gorgeous. We all celebrated the climb with photos and exploring the head of the lion, which was maybe 500 feet long in all directions. It wasn’t terribly big but it afforded us all room to spread out and enjoy breakfast and even coffee, thanks to one of the more clever climbers among us. The boys tested their limits, and mine, clamouring to the very edge of each rock and looking at the long drop down. The wind was extremely high and gusty and at one point, I wondered if Easton would be blown away on us. We stayed on the summit for about an hour, just basking in the morning sun and the views around us. We spotted the Hands Village from where we had come, spread below us in miniature, along with the farm property and the community of Masoyi. Once we decided to descend, we made one small detour, skirting along the base of the rock until we came out on a shelf of rock, under a large overhanging rock. It felt cave like and cool. Our friend, Bentley, showed us some cave paintings that were there of giraffe and people and small dog like animals. No one knows if they are old or authentic but they were beautiful in their simplicity.
We continued on down the mountainside back through the plateaus where the sun was in full strength and the wind provided little reprieve. We climbed back through the low brush and shady parts with care and headed back to the Hands Village with a great sense of accomplishment, just as our friends and neighbours were finishing breakfast.

We had an early lunch and then our friend, Jayme, met up with us and the girls and we headed out in two cars for the beautiful Blyde River Canyon. We drove through Hazyview and headed out towards Graskop, a small town at the entrance to the canyon area. On our way, we drove through plantations of trees that grow all around the region. They are long and straight and harvested for building wood. As we drove, windows down, the scents and vistas reminded us of northern Saskatchewan or northern BC where the landscapes are filled in by mountains and trees. It was a beautiful drive. Through Graskop, as we entered the canyon area, the landscape changed to rocky plateaus and rolling hills. Every now and then, you would catch a glimpse of a canyon outcropping that showed the heights we had climbed to on the escarpment. The scenery of Africa seemed to drop away below us and we seemed to be skirting the edge of the world. We continued to an area where we could stop and take advantage of a view point. We arrived at the Three Rondawels area and followed the path to the edge. It was breathtaking in its vastness. The Grand Canyon is larger but no more impressive. Where the Grand Canyon boasts a larger area, the Blyde River Canyon is even more beautiful because it is green and lush right to the bottom where the river flows in miniature. The rocks and outcroppings are topped in Africa’s red dirt but also in greys and blues and greens with foliage, rocks and scrub. It was amazing. I teetered between sheer awe and fear. I’m not typically afraid of heights but this was high enough and with few enough barriers to break a fall that I became really uncomfortable. I turned into the mother hen and begged the boys to back up until they were completely frazzled at my lack of adventure, or at least my unwillingness for them to fully enjoy theirs.

We left with our group intact and headed back to Graskop where we stopped at Harrie’s Pannekoek House. We sat down in a simple courtyard with an umbrella table made of two polished slabs of wood. The walls around were whitewashed and simple and it only enhanced the beauty of the meal we were about to have. We all ordered various pannekoeks and as each arrived, they looked better and better. Jayme and I had coffees which came in a large silver French press and made the meal perfect! The boys were in heaven with pannekoek stuffed with cinnamon, sugar and with caramel and fresh whipped cream on the side. Jason had his stuffed with black cherries in a liqueur sauce while I didn’t hesitate to order the dark chocolate mousse stuffed pannekoek with fresh whipped cream. We all left happily stuffed with something out of the ordinary! We headed back to the village where we arrived just after dark and fell promptly asleep.
Sunday morning, we went to Touz Hill Church in White River with Bentley and the girls. We packed our swimming stuff along with us and made a quick stop after church at Pik-N-Pay for braai (bbq) supplies and then headed back towards Sabie and on to Mac Mac pools. To date, I think this is one of the best places in the world to bring your kids...or just yourself! We followed similar landscape as the day before as we headed up towards the escarpment area again. We turned off road onto a small gravel path leading up into what was seemingly a large spread of a farmer’s field. We wound our way up to a small booth and parking lot in a grove of trees and paid R10 each to enter, or just over a dollar. We parked and then found a picnic spot to unload our stuff, changed into bathing suits and then headed to the first pool. Mac Mac pools are natural rock pools fed by springs. The water is clear and crisp and cold and it was the perfect way to spend the day. The first pool we jumped into was surrounded by a large shelf of rocks with about 4 inches of water on them. It dropped off to be about a 10 or 12 foot deep pool that was clear enough to see all the way to the bottom. On one end of the pool was about a 15 ft waterfall that we jumped over and swam into a small cave behind. The water coming off the falls was warm after having made its way from an upper pool by way of smaller pools and warm rocks for about a quarter mile. It was beautiful. We made our way up to the upper pool that was a long, shallow pool of only about two feet of water and a nice sandy bottom. It was the perfect kiddie pool with a small waterfall at the head of it and a lovely rock wall to sit and dangle your feet off of. We decided to break for lunch after a few hours of swimming and exploring. We cooked boerworst (an Afrikaans farmer sausage) and had drinks and fruit and chips and then went back for more swimming. While others played rugby and Frisbee, Easton and I decided to hike down the falls and rocks and explore each and every pool along the way. Some were narrow and deep, others wider and shallow with small waterfalls. We picked our way along the tops of rocks and through the pools; it was really a lot of fun. We found a favourite pool halfway down the stream, with what looked like a natural waterslide. Easton tested it out but we were disappointed to find, it wasn’t really slippery. It did make a refreshing place to sit though with water rushing past you on both sides. The pool below it was about 4 feet deep and cool and clear, surrounded by large boulders which we jumped off of. The lower end of the pool was surrounded by a natural rock wall over which the water flowed and it too, made a great sitting place. We climbed over and down the falls until we were stopped in our tracks by a 4 ft snake slithering just a few feet in front of us. We froze and watched it slither its way onto dry rocks and out of the water, towards the grass. I stood for a long time just watching where it had gone, not moving for fear of it returning. I snapped a few photos of it to show to Bentley, the local snake guru, who assured us it was a harmless grass snake. I felt reassured until I showed Faith, a high school girl who lives with us at the village, and she said that all bright green snakes were bad and to avoid it. Ugh. I took her advice as well.
I did go back in the pools after that but kept a pretty wary eye about me! I expected snakes in the surrounding fields and rocks but when the thought entered my head earlier in the day about the possibility of water snakes, I scolded myself for being over cautious. Being right does nothing to ease my fears, let me tell you.

As the sun began to fade, we decided it was time to return to the village. Once again, we arrived home exhausted but also exhilarated. These two days were the perfect way to end a long week and begin a new one. It brought us a different type of exhaustion, one that was all physical while our mental and emotional states were restored and rested. The area we are staying in is challenging in its extremes – heat and cold, rocks and wetlands, mountains and valleys – but it is also breathtakingly beautiful in all these different settings. We went to bed all feeling incredibly lucky to have been able to take in what must be just a sampling of what this small corner of South Africa has to offer.

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