The picturesque, mountain-framed town of Swellendam is our launch pad for an epic road trip in South Africa. Ahead lies a sojourn through South Africa’s Klein Karoo, an area known for rugged landscapes and quirky characters.
We get an early start, heading northeast from Swellendam on Cape Route 62 toward our destination, the town of Oudtshoorn. A dozen kilometers outside of Swellendam, we round a corner to find a large troop of baboons crossing the road. The apes pass in front of our car in a leisurely fashion, completely indifferent to our presence. At the end of the primate parade is the dominant male, walking upright in an alarmingly human fashion. He stops to retrieve a discarded Orange Crush can, tips it to his lips, and then tosses it aside. He casts a look of disdain in our direction and ambles across the road. Feeling evolutionarily enlightened, we continue onward across the Klein Karoo.
It is mid-morning when we stop in the quaint bohemian town of Barrydale, home of the notoriously funky Karoo Art Hotel. We enter the hotel lobby and explore the common areas. The ambiance is, to put it mildly, unique. The place looks like it was decorated by a hoarder on acid with a Viagra chaser. We make our way to the bar where we find the proprietor seated alone, doing paperwork.
“Hello. We’ve come here all the way from Texas to see your chairs”, I say. “ Can you show them to us?”
He smiles, escorts us to the lobby den, and points to the corner. There we find the infamous Karoo Art Hotel chairs. The backs of the chairs are fashioned to resemble nude torsos, one male and one female.
“May I?”, I ask.
“Be my guest,” he replies.
I lift the strategically placed pillows on the seat of each chair and peek at the anatomical correctness that lies beneath. The chairs are novel and naughty, and I really want one.
As we depart the Karoo Art Hotel, I can’t help wishing our schedule allowed for an evening stay. I bet they throw one hell of a party.
Back on the road, the landscape turns arid and desolate, except for a few hardscrabble farms. We come upon an isolated building with signage that prompts a double take: RONNIES sex SHOP. Of course, we pull in and park the car.
We enter the ramshackle structure to find a watering hole that seems transported straight from a Caribbean beach. There are panties and bras hanging from the ceiling, and business cards plastered to the walls. Despite the early hour, a few hardy customers are clinging to the bar like shipwreck survivors to a life raft.
Upon request, the bartender readily reveals the story of RONNIES sex SHOP. Years ago, Ronnie, a local farmer, painted “RONNIES SHOP” on the side of his roadside shack with intent to open a produce stand. Some prankster friends punked Ronnie by inserting the word ‘sex’ on the sign. Immediately, passersby began arriving in droves. Ronnie ditched his plans to sell produce and opened a bar. RONNIES sex SHOP has remained a Klein Karoo landmark for seventeen years.
Resuming our journey, we notice a most unusual form of livestock foraging in the passing fields. They are ostriches, signaling our approaching destination, Oudtshoorn, the ‘Ostrich Capital of the World’. Think about it. Is there any more improbable looking creature than an ostrich?
That said, reflecting on our road trip in South Africa’s Klein Karoo, the sight of huge flocks of ostrich almost makes sense. After all, we’ve witnessed convincing proof that the evolutionary distance between a baboon and mankind is not that far. We’ve seen two anatomically correct arm chairs, and learned how a three-letter word of graffiti can transform a produce stand into a gold mine. Being welcomed to our next stop by legions of six-foot tall, flightless birds seems oddly fitting.
The Klein Karoo, When You Go:
Bloomestate, Swellendam: Bloomestate is playful, quirky, and infinitely stylish. Each guest room is individually decorated in bold color schemes, with a wall of windows framing the view to manicured gardens garnished with fanciful sculptures. From every angle, Bloomestate looks like the set for a photo shoot for Architectural Digest. You will not want to leave.
Pictures Guest House, Oudtshoorn: Who would have known that a 23-year old Frank Sinatra was arrested in New Jersey in 1938 on the charge of seduction? The proof is in the mug shot, one of many fascinating vintage pictures gracing the walls of the Pictures Guest House. All the creature comforts are provided at Pictures Guest House, including lavish poolside lounging nests and creative cooked-to-order breakfasts.
Cango Caves, near Oudtshoorn: This is your big chance to be a spelunker for the day. Opt for the Cango Caves Adventure Tour and you will crawl, climb, squeeze, shimmy and dive headlong through various tight spots, like the aptly named Coffin, the Chimney and the Tunnel of Love. Be forewarned, the Cango Caves Adventure Tour is definitely not for the faint of heart or wide of girth.
Swartberg Pass, north of Oudsthoorn: The Swartberg Pass is widely considered one of the most spectacular mountain crossings in the world. The twisting, turning gravel road is both an engineering marvel and a geological journey. Our rented Chevy Spark barely survived the Swartberg Pass. Please don’t tell Avis.