EASY: farm roads outside Swellendam.
EASY: farm roads outside Swellendam.
FOOT OF AFRICA: The forest camp at Platbos Forest, the ancient indigenous forest.
FOOT OF AFRICA: The forest camp at Platbos Forest, the ancient indigenous forest.

Melissa Andrews and Christopher List embark on an epic adventure through southern Africa on scooter.


Winds of 65 knots, a deluge of rain and a blanket of mist welcomed us as we set out on the first day of our trip. Fortunately the roads were empty, as the wind seemed hell-bent on knocking us off the tar, a persistence that would have met with success were it not matched by our determination to stay on it.

We’d also managed to visit Macassar High School, the first of more than 60 projects we’d be assessing for Food and Trees for Africa. We rode to the township, followed by a cacophony of barking dogs and the covert stares of loitering teenagers. In stark contrast to the surrounding beauty of the Helderberg Mountain, the township is characterised by a set of socio-economic challenges that most would buckle under.

Not so for Jusuf Abrahams, the school’s principal. Together with dedicated gardener Henry Langenhoven, he has established a food garden and indigenous garden that he hopes will inspire pupils to create their own gardens.

“Teaching is not only about learning A, B, C and 1, 2, 3, it’s about instilling values and morals as well. The lifestyle and environment of these kids is not great, so I want the school to be their haven,” Abrahams tells me.

By supplying plants to nearby households and offering free advice and assistance, he hopes that more people in the community will start gardens.

We left brimming with inspiration and positivity, traits we’d need on the long, cold and wet drive to Grootbos Nature Reserve, made particularly unpleasant by the dawning realisation that our gloves were not, in fact, waterproof. On arrival, we warmed our numb hands at the fireplace, feeling as out of place in the five-star luxury as a trance-head at a metal party.

Grootbos runs two lodges and a luxury villa, which support the foundation’s social upliftment programmes, including the Green Futures Horticultural and Life Skills College and the Growing the Futures project, which provides training to unemployed people in the community.

Lily Upton showed us around the reserve, which boasts some of the world’s most distinct plant, animal and bird species. We walked along the fynbos trail, spotting the rare Erica irregularis, and visited the Future Trees Programme, which has planted more than 1 500 trees in the reserve’s stunning milkwood forest, one of only 10 of its type in the world.

Our next stop was the Koedoeberg Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology (Cart), where most visitors are students or like-minded souls wanting to learn, sharing skills in exchange for knowledge, food and accommodation.

Cart forms part of Farm 215, which promotes responsible tourism, offsetting their guests’ footprints by planting more than 2 000 trees. These came from the nursery at Platbos forest, Africa’s southernmost forest, hidden in a valley that looks like a flat green belt of fynbos. Of course, the minute we heard about Platbos we had to go there. We raced against time as the sun lit the sky in a beautiful but ominous warning of the approaching night. Surrounded by centuries-old gnarled and twisted trees, we slipped and skidded along the forest floor’s dank wetness, our headlamps sending forth a faint orange glow that saw Chris narrowly escaping a close encounter with a tree.

Equipped with safari tents, a teepee and even a forest cabin, Platbos was such a magical retreat I had to fight the urge to keep it to myself. Completely off the grid, with compost toilets, solar power, and the Trees for Tomorrow re-forestation programme, the project is ecotourism at its best.

Next up was the southernmost point of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. We stopped for the obligatory photo before heading to Swellendam via De Hoop Nature Reserve. Little did we know that our route comprised more than 180km of gravel alternating between bad and worse. Finally, we arrived at De Hoop, known as the jewel of the Overberg for its rare flora and fauna and enviable status as a premier whale-watching spot. We stopped for a picnic, vowing to return.

There’s something incredibly special about riding single file on a gravel road, immersed in the surrounding beauty variously interspersed by farmhouses and the wide-eyed gawking of intermittent herds of cows. My reverie was rudely interrupted by a cloud of buzzing blackness and the thud of tiny winged insects as they hit my visor, windscreen and jacket. I ducked low and came to a rapid stop, hurriedly brushing honeybees off and hoping we hadn’t damaged the endangered creatures.

Driving on, we encountered a flock of sheepishly shorn sheep, looking naked and rather embarrassed. A short ferry ride across a river, more gravel and we were in Swellendam, back on smooth-as-silk tarred roads just 13km from the Xhabbo ecovillage project at Jakkalskloof Farm. Completely self-sustainable, the project would be an inspiring example of large-scale permaculture in action, were its future not uncertain.

Last, our next stop was McGregor, where we met natural building expert Jill Hogan at the McGregor Alternative Technology Centre. Jill lives in a large loft-style cob cottage, renting out the smaller cottage to guests, introducing them to permaculture, alternative energy and natural building. In fact, nearly half of the world’s population live or work in buildings constructed of earth without even knowing it. We attended an inspiring workshop with local kids from the township, who were making a miniature cob house of their own, before taking off to the next project.

And with more than 100 destinations still to go, it’s fortunate that we’ve scarcely even touched our seemingly endless supply of wanderlust. - Cape Times

l Andrews and List are on a 7 500km carbon-neutral scooter safari to document SA’s environmental projects. See www.eco-friendly-africa-travel.com or www.facebook.com/EcoFriendlyAfricaTravel