A reader and his family gave themselves only three months to plan their camping trip from Durban to Cape Town and back – but the catch was that this journey had to happen over the Christmas period. Their friends didn’t think it was doable.
A few years ago we decided, admittedly rather late in the year, to organise a trip from Durban to Cape Town to see my wife Sue’s family over the Christmas holiday.
The first, let’s call it, ‘predicament’ was: is it wise to tackle such a long towing journey with two very energetic small boys, aged seven and nine? Up until that point, we’d tried to limit car trips with them to a maximum of four hours. This was all in the name of preserving our sanity and good health in the car, and theirs! Anyone who’s driven long distances with kids, particularly young boys, will know what I’m talking about!
Once we’d made the decision to push forward with the trip planning, the next thing to consider was whether to tow our caravan or to travel with the car only, using self-catering establishments along the way. This dilemma was solved very quickly when we received quotes from several such establishments of between R900 and R1200 a night for the four of us. (In fact I asked my wife if she’d given them our names: perhaps our boys’ lively reputation had caused them to inflate their prices just for us.) The only way we could afford this trip was by caravaning or camping.
So we decided on the following travel agenda: in order to preserve parent sanity, we would break the trip up into a number of shorter segments, travelling first from Durban to East London, next to Port Elizabeth, after that Mossel Bay and then somewhere in the Swellendam region, stopping overnight in each place.
My colleagues warned that if we’d wanted to go over the Christmas period, we should have booked a year in advance. That was a worry, because with only three months to go, we were obviously a bit late to take that advice! Undeterred, we forged ahead, applying at a number of campsites and caravan parks, and although we received many negative responses, we were fortunate to get the thumbs up for spots in most of the regions we planned to visit.
Having been subscribers to Caravan & Outdoor Life magazine for the last eight years, we hauled out all our back issues, trying to find reviews on the parks that had replied saying they had space. We couldn’t find anything on Beachview outside Port Elizabeth, but my comment to my wife was, ‘How bad could it be? As long as there’s hot water and reasonable security, we’ll survive!’ We made the necessary reservations, including the time we‘d spend in Cape Town, and, of course, the trip back. The concern now was: would our nine-year-old car, a 2001 Opel Zafira, and our 19-year-old caravan, a 1991 Sprite Sprint, be able to complete the trip without any breakdowns? For an expert answer to the question, I sent both in for a service: the car to our usual mechanic at Glenview Motors, and the caravan to Natal Caravans and Marine in Pinetown, with the same request to both: please try to ensure that these old vehicles stand up to the rigours of a trip to Cape Town and back. To their credit they did just that. Next came the question of which route to take. Well-meaning family and friends advised us that we should under no circumstances go through the former Transkei, as it was far too dangerous. When we asked them if they had actually done the route themselves of late, the answer was always, ‘No, but I’ve heard …’ However, when we spoke to people who’d actually travelled these roads recently, they were a lot more positive. So we decided to use the Transkei route, as the inland alternative through the Free State would’ve added a lot more travel time to our first day’s trip, with the possible result of elevated parental stress!
Before long departure day was upon us. We left early in the morning for East London, and had persistent rain almost the entire way. The Transkei route wasn’t at all bad, except for a very crowded Umtata. In fact we found the roads in KwaZulu-Natal were the most hair-raising. In the afternoon we arrived at Lagoon Valley (This park is now know as Nature’s Rest – check out www.naturesrest.co.za – Ed.) in East London. During our trip preparation I’d used Google Earth to plot all the routes to our campsites, so finding Lagoon Valley was no problem. This caravan park is located on the southern side of East London, and can be reached by driving on the local beachfront racing circuit – provided, of course, there are no races in progress at the time! Our car with caravan in tow on a racetrack must have looked like something out of Top Gear! But our two little boys in the back were thrilled with our choice of access route, making racing car noises as we drove down to the park.
Lagoon Valley is a lovely, peaceful caravan park located in a wooded valley on the edge of a lagoon, set just back from the coast. The boys immediately made new friends, and we ended up wishing we were staying for more than one night. Next was the R72 to Port Elizabeth. Again, well-meaning advice had us expecting this road to be in such terrible condition that it would damage our car and caravan, and inclined us rather to using the N2. But when we asked the East Londoners, they said that even though there were road works, the road was not that bad – and they were right! This route gave us an opportunity to see Port Alfred and to take a leisurely drive to Port Elizabeth and our next overnight stop, Beachview. Beachview is right on the edge of the sea, about 20 km west of Port Elizabeth. On first impression, the campsite appeared to be rather rundown and desolate, but what a stunning setting! The sea views, even in the rainy weather, were awesome. Our allocated campsite was in an area of the park that we shared with only one other tent. The ablutions were a bit worn, but everything worked and there was plenty of hot water. They were also clean. In another area of the park, which seemed more popular, the stands had their own individual washrooms. Above all else, the resort was very peaceful and quiet – much to the boys’ disappointment, and their parents’ relief. We stayed at Beachview for two nights, using the time to see Port Elizabeth.
Our next stop was at ATKV Hartenbos near Mossel Bay. We found this caravan park, or at least our section of it, rather cramped and very busy. I guess that is the nature of travelling at peak period. But we certainly experienced no major problems with the park, except that the sites felt a bit too small. We were given a few hours of entertainment watching a large extended family trying to fit a Jurgens Exclusive and a Classique, both with tents, onto two adjoining sites that had trees located in awkward positions. I’ve never witnessed caravans being moved around their stands so much, in the name of setting up camp! The stands in this park are just next to or a little back from the beach, and the ablutions are kept spotless. Almost every leisure activity you can think of is offered, but, for my wife and me at least, it was a bit too noisy and crowded. Our boys absolutely loved it, though. We stayed for two nights, visiting Mossel Bay and the Dias Museum, which even two very active little boys found very interesting.
Next stop was L’Agulhas campsite. When hunting for a caravan park in the area, Sue was referred to this municipal facility by the people at Struisbaai Caravan Park, which was fully booked. L’Agulhas isn’t one of the more widely known camping areas, but, according to Google Earth at least, it’s within spitting distance of the famous Cape Agulhas lighthouse. On the way there we finally said goodbye to the rain that had followed us all the way from Durbs. Seeing clouds while filling up in Bredasdorp, and having a Durban way of thinking, I naively asked the petrol attendant if he thought it was going to rain. He burst out laughing and said, ‘Ag nee, man, die wolkies kom hier, maar die reën kom nie!’ Now we really knew we were in a completely different world! This feeling intensified when we saw the brilliant turquoise sea, whiter-than-white beaches and whitewashed houses of this beautiful region. L’Agulhas Caravan Park consists of a flat piece of ground with large, grassed and clearly demarcated camping stands located in the middle of the village, almost like a village green. There are virtually no trees in the campsite, although it should be noted that there aren’t many in the entire region. The ablutions were clean and there was plenty of hot water. Our stand was one row back from the beach, which has one of the largest tidal pools I’ve ever seen.
However the edges and bottom of the pool were very slippery, which I discovered the hard way, before I’d spotted the warning notice. I can still feel the bruises! My mishap did, however, provide the rest of my family with great amusement. We visited the harbour at Struisbaai; with its picturesque little fishing boats it looked like something straight from a postcard. Next we continued to Cape Town and Imhoff Caravan Park at Kommetjie. Imhoff is a sheltered park set a little back from Long Beach, which, with its white sand and aquamarine sea, must be one of the most beautiful beaches in South Africa. One of our most memorable experiences here was watching the sun set over the ocean – something we got to enjoy each evening. But a small problem we encountered was convincing the boys that it was their bedtime, when the sun was still high in the sky. In the end we just gave up and let them stay up late for the rest of the holiday. We went where everyone visiting Cape Town should go: Kirstenbosch Gardens, Simon’s Town and the Waterfront, where we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium. And we also spent Christmas with Sue’s parents and her brother’s family – our primary reason for making the trip. Then, all too abruptly, it was time for us to make our way home.
Our boys were given watches for Christmas, which we soon realised was a mistake, when, on the return journey, I was repeatedly asked, ‘How much longer until we get there?’ Previously my standard response would’ve been to just guess a time, and the boys would’ve been none the wiser. But this time my guesswork was quickly exposed as they kept close track of the time on their new watches, and a chorus of ‘Daaad! But you said …’ would soon follow. We stopped at the Karoo National Park on the outskirts of Beaufort West. The weather was hot, but this is a well-run park with excellent facilities, and the surroundings have an almost eerie, stark beauty.
Our route home continued across the top of the Eastern Cape, through towns like Middelburg, Steynsburg, Molteno and Dordrecht. The quietness and starkness of this region makes it uniquely beautiful, all the more evident to us from crowded KwaZulu-Natal. Valschfontein was our next stop, a caravan park on a working farm north-west of Queenstown that we had found on the internet. Seeing that it was late December, we had been worried about securing a booking somewhere in the area, but when my wife phoned Valschfontein the response from the farmer said it all: ‘Ag nee, man, liefie, kom maar, daar’s altyd plek hier!’ When we arrived we were the only guests. It’s primarily an overnight caravan park, with good facilities. By 22:00 there were four caravans present, so it’s obviously well used at that time of the year.
The final leg of our journey began the following day. We travelled through Elliott, Ugie, Maclear and Mount Fletcher, along the tarred R56, a road with breathtaking views over the foothills of the Drakensberg. The road enters KwaZulu-Natal at the town of Matatiele. The stretch from Kokstad to Port Shepstone was again the worst section of road on our trip, but it didn’t really matter now: later that afternoon we arrived home in Durban. Our trip had been mishap-free, apart from a speeding fine, where the speed limit had dropped to 80 km/h from 100 km/h without the driver realising it. Fortunately for me, my wife was driving at the time! We’d seen a good portion of South Africa, during one of the busiest travelling times of the year, without much stress and delay, by mainly making use of the back roads, where there wasn’t a great deal of traffic. We’d also completed the trip with two young boys, and were surprised at how easily they had adapted to the travelling lifestyle. A portable DVD player played its part in this. In fact, we enjoyed the trip so much that less than two weeks later we headed off caravaning again, this time to Salt Rock Caravan Park, north of Durban: a fun end to the last few days of the boys’ holiday.