The tortoise laboriously crosses a three-way intersection on scaly legs, its head jutting myopically from beneath its shell. It’s not a good place for a human to cross, let alone a lumbering tortoise, but cars stop in all directions. A man leaps out to help the small, plodding animal on its way, placing it safely into the roadside vegetation. “Never put them back where they started,” the locals advise me. “They’ll just want to cross again.”
The tortoise is iconic in Sedgefield on South Africa’s famous Garden Route, a town perched on the southernmost edge of the continent. From here, the ocean heads straight down to Antarctica. There are no con-trails from passenger jets, no urban sulphur stain to blur our stargazing, just a seething wilderness of water, criss-crossed by pods of dolphins, wandering whales and great white sharks.
Sedgefield lies between the tourist-magnet centres of Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, but it has declared itself “Africa’s First Slow Town.” In the summer months of January and February, Sedgefield is where we quickly stop feeling guilty about having no pressing duties, no strict schedule.
“If you can’t relax here, you should seek medical attention,” says the lady in the tourism office. Here, we can get rid of city grit and exchange it for warm sand between our toes. Lots and lots of sand. “Sedge,” as it is affectionately known, has only one traffic light but boasts four town beaches – Cola, Myoli, Sedgefield and Swartvlei – which blend seamlessly into others.
Looking west, we hike the tawny sands for a further 12 kilometres to the town of Wilderness. Turning east, we can stride along 18 kilometres of beach all the way to Buffelsbaai, if we time the tides right. We head for a different beach each morning via paths bordered with sour fig, dune guarri and bushtick berry. Beachcombing becomes a passion as we sift through drifts of duck’s foot limpets, furry ridged tritons, iridescent Venus ears and the occasional giant periwinkle.
If we can tear ourselves away from the beach, we don hiking boots and head out to wander amongst the fynbos, that indigenous mix of proteas, restios, ericas and bulbous plants unique to the Cape and representing one entire plant kingdom out of only seven in the world.
Hiking trails abound near Sedgefield, with whimsical names like Woodcutters and Horse’s Head (Perdekop). We pass 800-year-old giant yellowwood trees and clamber through bowers of milkwood, forest elder and kamassi. Other trails offer the opportunity to bum-slide down silky sand dunes; haul cable-ferries hand over hand to cross tea-coloured rivers, or to sway along suspension bridges above the wild surf.
At nearby Harkerville, signs at the Circles in a Forest trail warn of wild elephants in the murky green depths. A few pachyderms, last of a Cape subspecies, still exist here and the mere thought of encountering an elephant while on foot makes us more alert, more conscious of our surroundings. Despite this we’re overjoyed to find conspicuous piles of elephant dung and tell-tale pushed-over trees along the trail. Here, on the windless forest floor, you can smell further than you can see and elephants are extraordinarily good at being silent, standing still and blending in with the background. Are we being watched?
Another day, we stride out through Millwood Forest, where, for one heady decade in the nineteenth century, gold fever grabbed hold of men’s imaginations, bringing prospectors from as far afield as California and Australia, bundled onto oxcarts filled with hope. First, a scattering of tents, then clapboard shanties and eventually a bustling town with half a dozen hotels, 60 shops and more than 1,000 residents, Millwood evolved with grandiose street names – Main Street, Victoria Street, Park Lane.
Today, we browse the tiny Millwood Goldfields Museum – just one room of a creaking old mine house with the typical corrugated tin roof, whitewashed walls and blackwood floors of the gold rush days – while enjoying lunch at Mother Holly’s Tea Room.
Back on Sedgefield’s Rondevlei and Groenvlei lakes, we delight in watching an endlessly changing parade of birdlife. We canoe the margins of the lake or hunker down inside the shadowy Rondevlei hide, where Cape shovellers, blacksmith plovers, yellow-billed ducks, black-winged stilt, fish eagles and a flock of lesser flamingo – rare visitors – populate the waters. The sleek heads of four Cape clawless otters, a mother leading three youngsters, move through the shallows like a sinuous Loch Ness monster.
Appetites sharpened by our activities, we are spoilt for choice in Sedgefield’s restaurants: popular Montecello’s with its wide menu; Trattoria da Vinci for great Italian food; the Fresh Bean Café for sinful pastries and hearty lunches; or the Sedgefield Arms for casual pub grub. Then there’s Mr. Kaai’s for fish ‘n’ chips: his sign simply says "We're open when the door is open": his fish comes straight off the boats and their timing is not always predictable. But the one food experience we cannot miss is the Wild Oats Farmers’ Market each Saturday morning.
It’s an event that draws people to Sedgefield from the entire region and it’s wise to be there early. We’re tempted by fragrant hand-made soaps, farmhouse chutneys, buckets full of magnificent proteas, Amarula fudge, locally produced olives and olive oils and all manner of South African treats like biltong (similar to dried jerky), bunny chow (spicy stew served in a bowl made of bread) or bobotie (ground beef spiced with curry, baked with a golden egg topping).
We sit on upended logs licking fingers sticky from samoosas and chilli bites from the Indian stall. Across the grass, an outdoor kitchen turns out a full English breakfast, South African style, with boerewors sausage and scrambled egg overflowing from huge buns. Over coffee, we tap our feet to live music, then examine woven baskets, carvings, caftans, jewelry, and hand-painted tablecloths at the adjacent craft market. Here, the Scarab store produces hand-made paper from elephant dung: despite the image that may conjure up, the art prints and stationery are exquisite and you can watch the entire paper-making process.
“I’m going to do this right now,” declares our 67-year-old friend George. He means paragliding, and marches off to speak with the instructor at the Cloud 9 jump site. He believes he’ll have the kudos of being the oldest participant this morning, so he’s mightily miffed to learn that a 75-year-old granny is crossing paragliding off her bucket list today, as her birthday treat.
But George is committed now, sitting in the lap of his tandem partner and rushing the few, awkward paces downhill before soaring off into the blue. We catch up with him at the landing site where it’s high-fives all around, and wonder (briefly) whether we should also try the experience.
In fact, for a “slow town,” Sedgefield seems to have a split personality, being perfectly located for adrenalin-rush activities. Within an hour’s drive, we can windsurf or abseil, whale watch, ride an elephant or ride a quad bike.
For shopping, we can be at the huge Garden Route Mall in half an hour, or on Knysna’s trendy Waterfront, buzzing with tourists, galleries, boutiques and activity. From the Waterfront, we can take a paddle steamer ride out to the narrow, wild-water opening between the cliffs called the Knysna Heads, or be ferried over to the Featherbed Reserve for a tractor-ride up those cliffs to glorious viewpoints.
For day trips, we drive up and over the Outeniqua Mountains on passes that are engineering marvels. Inland, the landscape changes abruptly to arid scrub, where huge flocks of ostriches are farmed like cattle around the town of Oudtshoorn. Fortunes were made and lost by the ostrich barons of the nineteenth century and, today, we visit the farms to watch ostrich races, pose on their huge, unbreakable eggs, envy their luscious eyelashes and buy all manner of things ostrich, from feather boas to handbags to fanciful eggshell carvings.
Nature should be well pleased with her work along the 140-kilometre Garden Route, for she has created one of the most distinctive of all African landscapes: fynbos, Afro-montane forests, lakes, dunes and lagoons. Visitors may come for the adrenalin rush of diving with great white sharks or bungee jumping.
Others may seek out January’s flower shows, Knysna’s great oyster festival in July or Sedge’s own “Slow Festival” at Easter. But we come here to be rejuvenated by the area’s more tranquil corners, where life moves at a languid tempo fostered by the sun and those wonderful Cape wines.
We come to stride the sun-baked beaches and to sprawl on the patio in the cool, inky darkness watching the southern stars revolve above us. Locals say that the tortoise sets the pace in Sedgefield and they mean this quite literally – those “tortoise crossing” road signs are strictly obeyed. But there’s a deeper message in these signs: a town with meandering tortoises, four glorious beaches, but just one traffic light? Now that’s what we call good planning.
AUGUST 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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