October 2, 2017

Adventure || Maxima Tours' Namaqua West Coast Flower & Whale Spectacular

collage-west-coast-whale-flower-tour
At the end of August, hubby and I decided to take some time out and visit a place we hadn't seen yet. And the flowers of the Cape Floral Kingdom and Namaqualand were it. Ideally we would have liked to go on our own, with daughter in tow, so we could see everything at leisure but that would surely have ended up being a much longer excursion than we had time for. Having seen Maxima Tours' offering for an eight day bus tour, which included a stopover in Hermanus for whale watching, we were sold. The tour included a flight down to Cape Town via Kulula and a bus tour up the West Coast.

Day 1: Hout Bay, Seals, and Cape Town

After arriving at Cape Town International Airport, we made our way to Hout Bay for lunch and a trip to Seal Island.  The boat made its way across the bay to see Chapman's Peak Drive and then around the head to the island. It was a lovely windy day and the best experience without my usual long hair!

hout-bay

Our hotel for the evening (and the following one) was the Fountains Hotel in the centre of Cape Town. Dinner and breakfast were buffets and although nothing special was prepared for us, the buffet was hearty and varied and there were more than enough dishes to keep us satisfied, including an excellent lentil salad. The hotel is very tall and has many rooms. When asked what the building was before its renovation, a porter said it was once a hospital. I can't find any details about which hospital. Can anyone tell me in the comments?


fountains-hotel

Day 2: Whales, Penguins

This is the day I was most excited and anxious about. What if there were no whales? What if the weather was terrible? Before my question could be answered, we were to visit Betty's Bay. However, our day was swapped around due to protests along the road to Betty's Bay so we went directly to Hermanus instead. A little early for our boat trip with Southern Right Charters, we visited a quaint little tourist centre in Hermanus which houses the largest wine shop in the southern hemisphere, The Wine Village. Rows and rows of fermented grapes and other fruits in bottles adorned the shelves. The company also delivers worldwide.

wine-village-hermanus

Southern Right Charters offers a very professional and comfortable whale watching experience. Its catamaran is purpose-built and has plenty of spots for viewing the whales. After an introduction to Southern Right whales by the Skipper, we launched from the New Harbour and headed to Walker Bay with our fingers crossed. No need for wishes of luck, however: a large female was seemingly just waiting in Walker Bay to show herself off.

This experience was one of the most amazing I have ever had. Though I was armed with two cameras, I was often too awestruck by her grace and friendliness - and kindness - to snap anything. She came so close to the boat, at one point sailing past it on her side so I could catch a glimpse of her curious eye and at another, swooping out from underneath the boat to show off her sheer size. The experience was also interesting, as two males came along too to attempt to mate with her, so we were lucky enough to see their courtship.

This massive animal was so utterly peaceful it gave me goosepimples to watch her. I marvel at her kindness despite her kind being hunted by generations and generations of greedy and heartless humans to the point that the species was driven to extinction.

When I go down to that area again, there is no way I will miss another opportunity to watch these amazing creatures.

hermanus-whale-watching

Visiting Betty's Bay was a bit of a rush because it was already quite late in the day. Despite just a short time to take the walk through the penguin rookery at Stony Point, we still saw lots of penguins, including babies and a lonely nest with two eggs. The colony is one of only two land-based African Penguin colonies in the area. There are also three types of Cormorant, as well as gulls and dassies. When you arrive at Stony Point, you may wonder about the railway tracks leading out from the sea: the spot was the home of the Waaygat Whaling Station, which was still operational until 1922. The rails and a few signboards are all that remain to remind us of the cruelty that took place there.

bettys-bay

After dinner we went up to Signal Hill in the ice-cold wind to see the lights of Cape Town.

Day 3: V&A Waterfront, Paternoster, Tietiesbaai, and Cape Columbine

On this day we were meant to visit the Postberg Flower and Nature Reserve, but the cloudy weather was not conducive to flowers seeking the sunlight. Instead, after a short stop at the V&A Waterfront, we made our way to Paternoster, Tietiesbaai Nature Reserve, and Cape Columbine to see the lighthouse, one of my favourite of all things along the coastlines of the country. The lighthouse was the last manned lighthoust built in the country, established as recently as 1936.

waterfront-paternoster-cape-columbine


Our hotel was in Saldanha Bay's Hoedjiesbaai Hotel. This is such a beautiful spot. Despite the industrial view, the water was clear and we saw a sandshark making its leisurely way along the shore. At night, there were five within the light of our torch. Saldanha Bay is probably known best for its important connection to the Sishen iron ore railway line, which reaches all the way to the northern Cape. We were lucky enough to see the miles-long train travelling as we drove through the area, and then saw the same train at Sishen a couple of days later.

hoedjiesbaai-hotel-view-saldanha-bay

Dinner was a bit disappointing as there was a miscommunication about our requirements and nothing was prepared for us. They were accommodating, however, and the next morning we were presented with fresh fruits and nuts.

Day 4: Langebaan, Postberg Flower and Nature Reserve

Today we made our way back down the coast to Langebaan and Postberg Flower and Nature Reserve to see some of the Cape Floral Kingdom of flowers in the region. Carpets and carpets of flowers were located in this tiny little reserve, which is only open to visitors in August and September every year. There is also a limit to the number of visitors allowed per day. The reserve also had some eland and ostriches. We also spotted some Mountain Zebra, though, which is quite a lucky sighting. The lookout point was also stunning.

postberg-nature-reserve-langebaan

After the flowers, off to Lambert's Bay. A small fishing village, it is now a large manufacturer of potatoes, which are now processed in what was once a fish factory. After dropping our luggage at Lambert's Bay Hotel, we took a walk to Bird Island. There was once a penguin colony located on the island, but all that is left of the rookery are some empty nests and an interior aquarium area where some penguins were once kept. I think the problem is that the breakwater gave rats, cats and other predators unprecedented access to the colony, which doesn't seem like it was such a good idea. Access to the island is supposed to be controlled but we saw a couple of men poaching crayfish off the breakwater who obviously didn't pay any conservation fees.

There is a cordoned-off section of the island that was filled with rare blue-eyed Cape gannets and circling seagulls, along with a couple of Cape Cormorants. All in all, the island was quite disappointing. The interactive rock pool was nothing but water, the light in the guano collector's hut was not even working, and the penguin room was empty. There were some skeletons of sealife and a morbid whale puzzle from whale bones. We walked around the island and then along the dock. The boats seen in one of my photos below are actually searching for marine alluvial diamonds!

bird-island

Lamberts Bay Hotel is my favourite of the accommodation we made use of during our trip. The building was built in 1888 and has thus been serving the town for over a century. It has plenty of character, with little shaded nooks, murals in the garden, a solid steel railing, and old-style decor. I felt a little like I was in The Shining. The hotel was also happy to cater for our diet and we were served a delicious bobotie and salad.

lamberts-bay-hotel

Day 5: Clanwilliam, Pakhuis Pass, Louis Leipoldt's Gravesite, and Ramskop Nature Reserve

If there was ever a small town I would choose to live in, Clanwilliam is it. Set in a picturesque valley amongst the Cederberg mountains, it is the home of Rooibos tea, which can only be grown in this area. We visited Rooibos Ltd, which is one of the biggest suppliers of dried Rooibos tea, teabags, and tea extract to suppliers such as African Secrets and Ten 'o Clock Rooibos Tea. We were hoping to have a tour of the tea plantation, but I suppose Rooibos tea manufacture is a closely-guarded secret. Instead, we watched a presentation about the discovery of Rooibos tea and had a chance to sample the latest products and purchase items made specifically for the company or by the company. The glass cabinets around the room were filled with examples of international packaging that Rooibos Ltd's tea leaves were used in. We also stopped at the Strassbergers factory shop - not particularly appealing for vegans - where I thought we would see some shoes being made. Obviously these secrets are also closely guarded. Handstitched leather Strassberger shoes have been made in the region since 1834.

rooibos-ltd-strassbergers

We then made our way up Pakhuis Pass, with a beautiful view of the little town in the valley, to visit the grave of Dr CF Louis Leipoldt. I knew he was a famous South African Afrikaans poet and writer, but discovered on this trip that he was also a keen cook and botanist, and is remembered for his contribution to the knowledge of the Cape Floral Kingdom, as he wrote about and drew examples of flowers found in this region, the only place in the world where these flowers grow.

louis-leipoldt-gravesite

Ramskop Nature Garden was my favourite trip of the day. The community of Clanwilliam reserved a little spot near the Clanwilliam Dam to create a botanical garden of flowers found in the region. It was a treasure trove of flowers, odd plants, and insects and I was so bedazzled I would sit for minutes at a time watching the insects feed on flowers swaying in the breeze.

ramskop-nature-reserve

That evening, we had dinner at the prestigious Bosduifklip Restaurant. The property is absolutely stunning, with a house overlooking what was once a rocky outcrop but which has been turned into a unique venue, so much so it won the 2016 Wedding Awards prize for most unique venue. It was a bit chilly so we unfortunately did not sit outside, but there is a sort of enclosed lapa which we ate inside. The owner, Kobus, made very certain that we were aware of the fame of his restaurant and kept us entertained with jokes and speeches in his rolling Afrikaans. He and his wife, Aletta, do all the cooking in a traditional coal-fired kitchen. They were very kind and made a magnificent vegan meal for us - in fact, they overcatered and some from the rest of our party also enjoyed our meal options over and above their own.

bosduifklip

Day 6: Succulent Nursery and Springbok

Today we left the coastline and headed into the interior, visiting Kokerboom Nursery, the largest succulent nursery in the world, located in Vanrhynsdorp. Who knew there were so many amazing succulents!

succulent-nursery

Thereafter we made our way through Garies and Kamieskroon to the Goegap Nature Reserve in Springbok in search of the famous Namaqualand daisies. We were to be disappointed, however, as the drought has struck the area hard and there were hardly any daisies to be seen - so much so that we didn't even bother to stop.

Kokerboom Motel is out in the middle of nowhere alongside a highway. It also offers camping facilities. We got a room with two single beds as there weren't enough double bed rooms on offer. It wasn't a problem, except moving the two beds together was an absolute nightmare: they were on loose wheels and when you moved the bed the wheels fell out. Eventually we put the mattresses on the floor. Dalene, the manager, bought Fry's meat replacements for us, so we had schnitzels, sausages, and nuggets. Hey, we appreciate the effort!

kokerboom-motel

Day 7: Kakamas, Augrabies Falls, and Upington

Today was filled with short stops, as we had a long drive to Upington. We visited an original Persian (supposed-to-be-) working water wheel in an irrigation canal in Keimoes. This is actually a national monument. It's one of only a few left in South Africa and was designed by Piet Burger. It is a well-known landmark and stands in front of a vineyard. It's a pity it wasn't working, as one of its pipes was leaking. It is supposed to fill up a fountain to the left to show tourists how the wheel works.

keimoes-water-wheel-canal

I am glad Augrabies Falls was in this trip.  Its Khoi name is 'Aukoerebis', or 'place of great noise', and it flows through the Orange River Gorge, which is 18km long. Despite the drought, it was flowing full and steady into the Orange River. The falls are about 65m tall, and the water drops into a large pool thought to be around 130 metres deep. The walk is quite a construction and there are four different viewing points of the river and the falls. Rose Quartz is mined in the area, and there was a massive boulder at the entrance. Some friendly lizards also shared our crisps.

augrabies-falls

In Upington, we were supposed to visit the bank of the Orange River and the Donkey and Camel monuments, but the only one we made it to was the camel. The donkey monument is located at the Kalahari-Oranje Museum and is honour of the contribution of the donkeys who aided pioneers in developing the Lower Orange River Valley. The Desert Patrol Statue, also known as the South African Mounted Police Camel Memorial, honours the mounted police and their use of camels in the line of duty. Camels were a wiser choice in this arid region because they did not need to be fed and watered as often as horses. I mused about what had happened to the camels once they were no longer used and hubby suggested their descendants are probably in circuses now. Kind of a sad thought.

upington-camel-monument

In the afternoon, we arrived at the Desert Palace Hotel and Casino Resort. It was one of the few afternoons we had to relax properly before dinner, which took place in the restaurant. Hubby even did some ill-advised gambling. The hotel reception and restaurant are filled with the most beautiful murals, while there is a casino and an arcade for the children. Dinner at Desert Palace was a full plate of noodles, salad, roast potatoes, and fried mushroom, with canned fruit for dessert. We actually became so tired of canned fruit that in the morning, we quickly had some toast and left before they could give us more! :'D. But the chef rushed out and gave us packages of fresh fruit, which was so useful for our very long journey. The restaurant was a little understaffed for such a large party at dinner.

desert-palace-resort

Day 8: The Long Drive Home

We left Upington as early as possible in the morning, as we had a seven hour drive ahead of us. The most exciting part of our day was seeing a heritage steam train in Vryburg, another disappointing visit as it is in a neglected and sad condition. Otherwise it was just platteland. We took a few short stops here and there, but mostly at petrol stations. We finally arrived at our drop-off point and took an Uber home.

My thoughts about the tour and Maxima Tours:

Maxima Tours has been selling relaxing and unique tour opportunities for 23 years now, and you can really tell. The tour ran smoothly from start to finish, with the only hiccup being a spent tyre on the bus, which was fixed quickly. Our luggage was expertly handled by all the hotel porters thanks to Elaine and Frieda's organised lists. The tour itself felt, as can be expected when on a bus and aiming to see certain sights over long distances, a little full of stops but only because the distances between sights was usually quite far. It is very relaxing being driven around where you and your partner can take in the sights together. For the short amount of time that we travelled around the country, we saw and learned a lot, thanks to the tour company.

We felt a little left out of the general group, but that is probably because we were the only vegans on the tour, and also younger than the general group. I suppose being different will garner that result. Everyone was in general friendly and interested in our lifestyle otherwise.

While Maxima Tours assured us that the hotels in question were aware of our requirements, the first two (Fountains and Hoedjiesbaai) we stayed at denied any knowledge of our dietary requirements. We can only assume that it was a miscommunication between hotel managers and chefs because Maxima had communicated our requirements. At Bosduifklip, Aletta told us one of her daughters is a vegan, so that is why the meal was so good, and at Kokerboom, Dalene said they regularly catered for vegans.

Maxima Tours certainly does offer a very cost-effective and enjoyable tour, and we really had fun. I'd like to go back to some places, though, because I definitely didn't get enough photos (haha!) and I didn't actually see any Namaqualand daisies. Maybe when there isn't a drought.

Are there any places you've visited, too? I would love to hear about them!

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