What looked like giant waves crashed relentlessly against the orange rocks beneath the steely sky. I squinted at the Indian Ocean and imagined tiny wooden ships searching through storms for safe harbour. Behind me the stone face of Lindsay castle stands heavy and immovable against the inclement weather.
Noetzie is an isolated beach cove just outside of Knysna on the Garden Route. The name is taken from the Khoisan phrase Noetziekamma meaning “dark water”. Inside the castle our family huddles around a fire-filled stone hearth and we look around the dark room with its heavy wooden furniture and shiny brass sailing paraphernalia. We are here for a three day break and the weather tomorrow is expected to be gorgeous.
The Garden was Burnt
We all read the headlines and heard the stories. Knysna was burning, 10 000 people had had to be evacuated, 7 people died and the 22 separate fires required over a thousand firefighters to bring them under control. But nothing prepared me for the sight of the once emerald green Garden Route.
After Wilderniss, on either side of the N2, the hills rise up naked with red earth. It is the first sign of the devastating fires that were extinguished nearly a month ago. As you drive further you can see the scorch marks reaching down to settlements, sometimes stopping meters away from homes and other times leaving the wreckage of dwellings in their wake. The devastation is horrific. Brown, red, black. Pockets of miraculously spared green.
We passed quickly through Knysna with its charred edges eager to get to our holiday destination and turned right, onto a dirt track through the township that rises with the rolling hills. We drove through blackened plantations of pine trees and teams of men mending broken fences. The electric gate leading the castle lay twisted, control box melted, and useless on the side of the drive way. Away in every direction the fynbos was black.
Castle by the Sea
The descent to Noetzie beach should come with climbing gear! I hung in my seatbelt as we edged down the precipitous driveway and, once parked, stepped gingerly out of the vehicle. We climbed down another two flights of steps before arriving on a green and manicured lawn. The stone of the castle blends in against the backdrop of the sea and you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world.
One of our porters also happened to be one of the firemen who had battled the recent blazes and he shook his head at mention of the weeks of battling the blazes. The entire area had been evacuated while the fires blazed and our host described the relief on finding that the castles had survived. Later on, down on the beach and looking back you could see exactly how close the flames had come.
Castles in Africa
Finding castles in Africa seems anomalous. But standing on the sea’s edge and looking back I count no less than four. Four stone and mortar castles complete with buttresses nestled into the hillside and invisible unless you are on the beach. It is strange to think that we are just 10minutes east of Knysna.
While archaeological excavations have shown that it has been a popular destination for over 3,500 years Noetzie, rather than being steeped in a forgotten medieval history, is indicative of a spirit of fun and relaxation. The hidden cove has been used as a getaway since way before cars navigated the winding roads. Families would pilgrimage here from Outshoorn, George and Knysna, loading their ox-wagons and horse drawn carts and heading for the simplicity of beach camping by the sea.
The castles, dating back to the 1930’s almost never came into being. Herbert Stephen Henderson began using the abundant building materials at hand, the stone and rock that dots the mountainsides to build his holiday home. When a well-known local, one Rex Metelerkamp, joked that all he needed to do was add turrets and it would look just like a castle that is exactly what Mr Henderson did. The trend was set and more castles sprung up during the 60’s and 70’s.
Harmony with Nature
Surrounded by nature reserve and conservancy areas Noetzie today maintains its pristine environment. Sinclair nature reserve is a haven for nesting seabirds and we were lucky enough to see no fewer than three pairs of the near threatened African Oyster Catchers, a pitch black bird with a bright orange beak and eye.
We were also visited by a troop of baboons. The small non aggressive group made their way down to the beach and spent an afternoon frolicking on the rocks and in the rock pools. So engaging were their antics and the uncanny resemblance they bore to our own leisure activities that I forgot to take any pictures!
On all three days we watched whales offshore. The first sighting was a mother and calf, the second a mother and young adult and the third a pair of aquatic giants that spent the better part of an hour exposing and slapping their fins. at the back of the beach there was a whale bone (left over from a beaching earlier in the year) that really gave an upclose idea of just how big these guys really are!
Buds and New Life
The scarred earth and trees were a stark reminder of the power of nature and fire. Sandwiched between these scars and an ocean full of heaving waves on a rugged coastline really underlined how precious life is and what a jewel of a planet we live on.
In amongst the charred rocks bright yellow flowers bloomed star-like and vivid against the black veld and I found tiny buds growing along the trunk of a devastated Milkwood tree. Nature works in mysterious ways and to see the beginning of nature’s recovery alongside our own human rebuilding was really a rather magical experience.
Always Worth a Visit
I wouldn’t say that I’m an advocate for disaster tourism but I’m glad that I have seen the effects of this fire first-hand. It is an extreme of the larger cycle of life and I am certain that the next time I visit the Garden Route it will be equally unrecognisable; a lush and green recuperating paradise.