If the idea of unbridled freedom on an open road appeals to you, I would suggest that you put a road trip in an old school camper van at the top of your bucket list.
I have always felt a strong connection to the open road; meandering off highways to explore small towns filled with big adventures, music blasting, wind in your hair. The road is yours to embrace and the journey yours to define as you travel onwards. And there is truly no better way to experience a memorable journey like this than by taking a nostalgic trip in a 1970s camper van. A friend and I (together with her faithful four-legged best friend, Olive) decided to do just this, so we called up Derek Serra from Classic Camper Hire in Cape Town to check out his impressive fleet of old school VW campers. We decided to venture forth in a 1979 Jurgens Autovilla named “Villa” but which we quickly renamed “Bella” after mishearing her original name and sticking to it.
“Bella”, a very difficult camper to find in such immaculate condition, sleeps four people comfortably, has an upgraded Ford V6 engine (which is great for powering up hills but is as thirsty as a desert for rain so needs to be filled up every 300 km), and is perfect for long trips due to her reliable engine and comfortable sleeping and living space. She is equipped with a built-in gas burner, 220V fridge, and Classic Camper Hire provide all the goodies one would need for comfortable camping such as a table and chairs, crockery, cutlery, pots, pans and, an essential to any camping trip, a braai grid for many meals cooked over the open fire. After taking Bella home, we packed her up and hit the road.
Destination: the most scenic drive in all of South Africa – the Garden Route. Armed with a plan to stop at a few pet-friendly, rustic gems along the way (avoiding any kind of traditional campsite or caravan park), we were also open to taking the road less travelled and letting the journey unfold organically. We were seeking unbridled freedom after all and part of that freedom is allowing for plans to not always work out according to, well, plan. Not wanting to push old Bella too much on her first day, we took a slow 190 km meander to Pearly Beach, one of the longest undisturbed sand beaches in the Western Cape and a remote seaside hamlet with an azure ocean annually visited by an influx of migrating whales.
We covered roughly 305 km the next day, making use of as many gravel back roads as we could to get the best, most untouched scenery we could find, The Doors blasting in our ears and the feeling that we had stepped back in time to the swinging 70s with not a worry in the world. Our next stop was Gourits River Eco-Camping, located on the banks of the Gourits River, about 16 km from the small town of Albertinia near Mossel Bay. This privately-owned farm has six campsites situated right next to a beautiful river with a staggering mountain backrop. We were the only campers there, so we got to enjoy the peace and serenity as well as the night sky, scattered with a mass of celestial bodies, constellations and shooting stars. After two nights of cooking over the open fire, fishing in the river, brewing our morning coffee and enjoying the most comfortable sleep on our big bed in Bella, we hit the road once again.
Approximately 180 km on in Bella, driving like she was born for the open road (which she was) we arrived in Nature’s Valley – arguably the most beautiful part of the Garden Route. Here, we had two things planned: The first, to bungy jump the highest commercial bungy in the world – Bloukrans Bungy run by the incredible team at Face Adrenalin (see the November edition of **InFlight** online for a low-down on that exhilarating experience). The second was to kayak with Untouched Adventures down the iconic Storm’s River, paddling through ocean, then river amongst steep cliffs and an untouched gorge before finishing off with a few cliff jumps. What we hadn’t planned for this leg of the trip, however, was a place to stay. Fortunately, living like a tortoise with our home conveniently situated on our back, so to speak, it wasn’t hard to find some accommodating like-minded folk who were willing to let us park on their premises for two nights – the first, a generous architect named Das with a heart of gold and a beautiful home he built himself in a pine forest in Tsitsikamma, and the second, the gracious hosts at Wild Spirit Backpackers.
Now, half-way through our epic ten day trip, Bella had become more than just a rented out camper – she was part of the family. It was the four of us, taking on the world.
Next we headed inland towards Oudtshoorn and the iconic Route 62. We travelled around 190 km and were greeted by vastly different landscapes as we weaved along incredible mountain passes and were suddenly surrounded by ostrich farms and vast desert landscapes. There is a certain magic in Oudsthoorn and we felt like we were time travelling once again, this time to Victorian houses, ox-wagons and the kind of kinship one feels in a small community. Amber Lagoon was to be our stop for the night – a backpackers and campsite described as a “green oasis” with staggering views of the Swartberg Mountains and Gamka Nature Reserve. The warm German hosts welcomed us with open arms. They have really gone out of their way to make this space a sanctuary. Incredible campsites, indigenous plants, abundant birdlife and again, stars galore at night.
The next leg of our journey was a 270 km drive to Assegai Rest Farm, situated at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains in the Klassvoogds Valley just outside the quaint town of Robertson. Tonight, we would be giving Bella a rest from our snoring and spending the evening in a tipi – a cone-shaped tent, traditionally made of animal skins on wooden poles. The warm and friendly hosts, Jackie and Andre, have built a haven here amongst the mountains. Avid animal lovers, they even went so far as to name one of the two tipis, “Paws”, which is where we stayed for the evening. The tipi’s are great – sleeping up to five people in a private camping area complete with outdoor shower, fully stocked kitchen area and fire pit. Inside the tipi, you can make a fire in the middle of the space and the open top flap acts as the perfect smoke extractor without letting any rain in. This is “glamping” at its best in my opinion and the area is just magical with an abundance of hiking trails and mountain paths to explore.
The next morning, fresh from an extremely cosy nights sleep and outdoor morning shower, we were off again, much to Bella’s delight (she definitely missed our company the previous night), this time to Piketberg. Kruistementvlei Farm is really like nothing you will find anywhere else. Even the drive up Versveld Pass will leave you breathless. Once there, magnificently formed, shimmering boulders with a rich history marked by San paintings, really put things in perspective. This eco-friendly farm has a beautiful camping site set amongst these ancient rocks and lush, green pristine fynbos the natural inhabitants. We spent a peaceful night here contemplating the universe under a blanket of stars and woke to do a little hike in the fresh, dewy, early morning air. We were sad to leave, but had to hit the road again for the last leg of our epic journey: The West Coast.
We had no plans for our final night in Bella and spent the day enjoying her on the road; her natural habitat. We explored small towns and beaches and, finally, settled on a little secluded beach we found along the coast between Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay, about 150 km from Piketberg. We watched the sunset, and the four of us toasted our incredible, insightful, and inspiring voyage on the road. We spent the night on the beach, woke to the crashing of the waves and headed back towards Cape Town, but not before making a stop at the infamous Strandloper Restaurant in Langebaan to feast on endless courses of delicious seafood, cooked on open fires.
We made it to Grotto Bay, watched one final sunset and then headed back to the city, sad to say goodbye to Bella and the road, but invigorated, inspired, and enlightened by the unrestrained freedom that, we realised, is within everyone’s reach. So, go out there, hire yourself a camper and experience it for yourself.
TEXT: Julie Graham
IMAGES: © Derek Serra / © Julie Graham