I’ve spent so much time living and travelling alone in the past few years that it seems odd to share a place with another person. A new place. Places that anchor me, like Grahamstown and Stutt, Stellenbosch and the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, are shared places. In some ways that is what makes them so precious. But new places are alone. This past weekend I had the opportunity to share a new place with an old friend. It was lovely.
After spending Friday evening catching up – we haven’t seen each other for months – we set off on Saturday morning to do something tourist-y. We’d done some research. Well, we’d taken a quick look at the tourism websites on KZN. For the record, the KZN tourism websites suck. But a waterfall north of Howick did catch our attention.
GPS all set up, we headed off. The road was familiar. The first part at least is the road I’ve taken numerous times when headed out to visit projects near Ixopo. Three months in KZN and the sum total of the exploration I’ve done so far is traveling for work. It was quite nice to have an opportunity to travel for a different reason.
After a while, and several GPS mis-directions later, we followed the signs directing us to “Falls”. We stopped in Howick, not two blocks from a shopping centre (including Woolworths Food – which is only a thing if you spent years in the much larger Grahamstown lamenting the lack of one). The directions to the falls had ended here, but we didn’t see any falls, so we were searching for an information centre. Across the road was the Howick Falls Hotel, with a row of little shops on the ground floor – curios, healthy lifestyle, a bookshop. We wandered through the main, larger curio shop. Curio shops in South Africa make me a little sad because they’re so generic. As commercialised and kitsch as tourist money-traps can be, at least they should be unique. There is something that feels a little like cheating about selling “I love Cape Town” t-shirts in KZN.
Beyond the generic curio shop was the equally generic tea garden/restaurant of the type that will rip you off for toasted cheese or slightly stale cake. We didn’t stop to try it but moved on to the next building. This turned out to be the museum. Outside the front entrance, on the path, lay a lazy, old dog. The glass doors were dark. The museum looked gloomy. We nervously pushed open the door. Just inside, to the left of the door, an old lady sat at a table looking through some papers. She fitted the part. She and her dog were obviously fixtures, a firm part of the museum experience. When she spoke, her voice was crotchety and her accent recalled a different time.
Her directions took us further along the road past the musuem. We stopped at the street stalls and picked up a few beaded animals and trinkets. And there, across the road, were the Howick Falls. It’s strange to have falls in town. Quite beautiful, and fascinating to see the people doing their laundry in the pool at the top of the falls. Women, children, laughing voices. The viewing area was crowded. Plenty of other people had also come to see these falls. We wander for a bit, looking at the different restaurants and businesses.
Back in the car, we headed off in the direction of what we thought would be the Karkloof Falls – the falls we were originally looking for. We realised as we were leaving town that we had never actually found the info centre and our GPS didn’t seem to know where we were going. We followed the road for a while anyway, not sure if we were heading in the right direction, until we were distracted by signs to a Mandela Monument. As we drove, we almost missed a sign for Belgian Chocolates. Mmmm… Belgian Chocolates… We drove on to the monument, which turned out to be a brick wall, with plaque, on the side of the road and then returned to the wonder of the Belgian Chocolates. Shops like that are bad for me, especially if I have money on me. The variety was impressive for a little shop on a country road. Everything looked good. I was tempted to gifts for family and friends, until I remembered that I won’t see most of them for months and months. In the end, we each bought on small selection and went away before we couldn’t restrain ourselves any longer. I am slowly, ever so slowly, working my way through a beautiful little box of cherry chocolate delights.
Chocolates stowed in car boot, we went back to Howick and found the right road – the road to Karkloof. The road had no signs for the falls, however. We kept wondering if we were on the right track. And then, with no warning, a small, unobtrusive sign on the right directed us off the main road. We saw it just in time and turned into the plantation.
The road was winding and long and not in the best condition. It was still manageable, after recent rains, in a small rental car, though. A while along the road sat a collection of houses and some sheep. Closest to the road, the ruins of a house with no roof and a sign warning visitors not to get to close to the edge of the falls. The Karkloof Falls are rumoured to have taken the lives of more than 30 people.
Further along the winding road and eventually we arrived. The falls are magnificent. The recent rains probably made them even more impressive. The water drops 105m or more. It crashes and cascades down the rock face, leaping and splashing and thundering. It sounds like a cross between a rushing river and a plane taking off. It is so beautiful and a little awe-inspiring. We walked down and crossed the little stream that flows past the picnic area and shoots out across the gorge, falling in a single stream to meet the rushing, swirling waters below. Through the picnic area and onto the path between the pines. The smell of pines always makes me think of Cape Town and feel a little nostalgic.
Sadly, there was no other spot from which we could see the falls clearly. I’d been hoping to find a place to look down from above, but the brush was too thick. Perhaps if the falls were in a more built up area but here in the middle of a plantation, there is no-one to cut back the brush and clear more viewpoints for. The viewpoints that do exist, and the picnic area and facilities are all well maintained. It would be a lovely place to spend a whole day.
After a while we moved on. We’d headed out that morning, on a whim, to find a waterfall and ended up finding two, the tourist attraction Howick Falls, with all the restaurants and curios a visitor could want and the majestic Karkloof Falls, hidden away in a beautiful, deserted clearing in the middle of a plantation forest. Karkloof is my favourite of the two – a hidden gem well worth the dirt road and the less than ideal directions. A precious moment of thundering water, blue sky, a sparkling stream far below and forest clinging to the edges of a far-away gorge. In the distance a bird floated on the air and the breeze rusted the far-away trees.