Fairy Tales

I don’t really enjoy driving on dirt roads. But they’re oh so much fun. That being said, until fairly recently, most roads were dirt roads. Driving to Kruger National Park would mean a few hundred kilometres of dirt road. If you decided to take a slight detour, you probably would have had to get out the car, open a gate, drive the car through the gate, get off the car, close the gate and only then drive off. Cars actually were developed to work on dirt roads. And cars actually do work pretty well on this surface. The key is to know how to drive your car on these surfaces. That being said, the vibrations can wreck your car if the vehicle is not in tip-top condition. Anyway, it’s quite an amazing experience driving at close to 100kph and attempting to move the steering wheel and receiving no response at all from the car. I had 25km in each direction of this today. Furthermore, this included a rather steep mountain pass. Talk about fun…

Nieu-Bethesda is magical. Perched at the end of this 25km dirt road that begins around 30km North of Graaff-Reinet on the N9, it’s probably the most beautiful town in South Africa. Earlier on in this trip, I was told the town is like a Gilmore Girls town. It’s actually so much more amazing. The town is vastly inaccessible. The dirt road I took in getting there is the “good” road with a back-entrance being another dirt road that’s 30km from the N9. This seclusion has resulted in the town developing an aura that I honestly can’t properly write about in words. Unlike the clinical office blocks of Midrand which are cleaned on a weekly basis, the beauty of these buildings exists in a symbiotic relationship with the environment. The weather adds to the charm and the vegetation wonderfully accentuates the town. Inside you feel as if someone has removed you from the stress of the world and placed you into a dream. It’s a town best explored on foot. I naturally, and because I saw a few dogs walking around, explored it by car.

Being a guy, there was no ways that I was asking for directions and the first thing I did was search for the brewery. Instead, I found two unmarked labyrinths. These did freak me out just a little…

Around 80 million years before the dinosaurs, the Karoo, and particularly this portion of the Karoo was home to mountains higher than the Himalayas. Dicynodon and Aulacephalodon roamed the forests, dominated by Glassopterii in the valleys below. The towering mountains allowed for a lush eco-system beneath it bathed by meandering rivers. The sediment of these riverbanks provided the ideal climate for fossilisation. Any animal that got stuck or died on these banks invariably ended up as a fossil. The mountains around Nieu-Bethesda are teeming with fossils from this the Permian Age. The town has its own museum, the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, which has an amazing selection of fossils that have been found in this, the Karoo Supergroup. Most fossils were unearthed by the renowned palaeontologist Dr. Robert Broom (who later unearthed the fossils of early humans in the Cradle of Humankind) and James Kitching. Kitching had a knack for identifying fossils and as a result of him finding a Karoo Therapsid in Antarctic; he established the notion of continental drift – something that has vastly helped mankind to understand the planet. The museum also has a step-by-step guide on how to become a fossil – something you should take heed of it you would like beings that in 250 million years time to dig you up and display your bones in whatever display cabinets they use then. The highlight of the tour, though, was an actual demonstration of how a fossil is recovered from rock. Using a pneumatic dentist’s drill, excavating fossil from rock is a painstaking job that could take several years. And yes, these palaeontologists have to sit and use this tiny drill on a rock the size of a football to recover a bone from rock that has the exact same colour as the bone. One slip up and well, the fossil is destroyed…

The town’s centre piece is the world renowned for the Owl House. Although from the name, one would think that this is a sanctuary for these magnificent birds, it actually is an entrancing artwork created by one Miss Helen.

Born in 1898 in the town, Helen Martins returned to Nieu-Bethesda after a messy divorce to take care of her ailing parents. Upon their death, she experienced depression until one day; she embarked on a single-minded mission to bring light into her life once again. Using meagre resources, she and a local sculptor transformed her dreary house into a magical playground with owls, colour and beauty. Outside her house are the cement sculptures depicting owls, people, far away lands and the nativity. The beauty is intense yet eerie. These enchanted figures protected Miss Helen in this universe that she created for herself.

Inside, the house sparkles in a cacophony of colour. Crushed glass has been applied to every wall making the house sparkle. This is amplified by the strategically placed stained glass murals, lamps and mirrors.

I leave the house in awe. Outside, I purchase a little concrete owl made by a ten year old boy to mimic the creations of Miss Helen. Nieu-Bethesda took my mind to a world that you don’t believe exists. It’s exquisite. And I say yet again, it’s a town that has a beauty that I cannot explain. Do yourself a favour and visit this town – it will make you believe once more…

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Because

So, I’ve encountered a bit of a problem. I’ve not finished the rest of my blogs about the trip (there’s about 10 outstanding) and I start exams this Friday. What this means is that I will be studying and I cannot complete these blogs, at least, for the next month. Yes, it does suck. I will now leave you with a few ellipses…

The spirit of Robert Sobukwe

I like Patricia De Lille. Okay, that’s a complete lie – I actually like her party’s ideologies are pretty good and if put into practice, they have the ability to do a lot of good. I still wouldn’t vote for her but that’s not the point of the story. Patricia came to prominence as a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, better known as the PAC. Nowadays, this once important party is reduced to, I think, a single member in parliament. This party though did a lot during the struggle that eventually ended Apartheid. It was started by a man named Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe.

Born in Graaff-Reinet, he was a man of high intellect and could be called a founder of black consciousness. His workings influenced Steve Biko and the movements in America. The 2010 World Cup is actually VERY influenced by these principles of having Africa stand on its own two feet thereby gaining the respect of its peers and the world.

Sobukwe has a lot of history behind him – if you don’t know much, I suggest you do a bit of research and learn about this important historical figure. He passed away in 1978 and was buried at the Kroonvale Cemetery in Graaff-Reinet. Additionally, his family lived in the uMasizakhe Township, also in Graaff-Reinet. Seeing that I am IN Graaff-Reinet, I really needed to see these monuments and pay respects to a great man that never did get to see his dreams of freedom realised.

Kroonvale is accessed via the main road of Graaff-Reinet. Go down the road and turn left into Middelstraat. I am guessing this is the centre of town. I must commend the designers on this. Anyway, I drive into Kroonvale with a rudimentary map, knowing my general direction around. Seeing that he was a rather important historical figure, you would expect at least a sign signalling the importance of such a site. No such luck. I drive past the cemetery, which is not in the most accessible parts of this suburb, and struggle to find even an entrance. After driving around (and doing powerslides on the dirt road) for a few minutes, I admit defeat and take solace in the fact that at least I will be able to see his house.

The short story: I didn’t see the house.

The long story: I drive into uMasizakhe, again with a rudimentary map. The map has a few significant points yet I seem unable to locate any of them. Driving along the road that Sobukwe lives, I pass many houses – now brick dwellings made as a result of the low-cost housing scheme. I look around for some sign that a hero of South Africa stayed here. Nothing…

Later that day, I decide to go to a museum in Graaff-Reinet. The town has a LOT of museums showcasing the illustrious history of the town and the surrounds. After being let down by Sobukwe’s shunting, I was in two minds about visiting any of these museums. The museum was the Old Library Building. In one wing, the Karoo Supergroup is showcased. Around 250 million years ago, just before the Permian extinction, the Karoo was home to a myriad of pre-mammals and pre-dinosaurs. A tremendous amount of fossils have been unearthed in the Karoo (and all over South Africa) showing us how life was eons ago. Evidence of enormous Glassopteris forests (that’s a fern) has also been found and these are responsible for our abundant coal seams in Mpumalanga, Northern Free State and the Waterberg.

The other wing is dedicated to none other than Robert Sobukwe! A brief rundown of his life is told through photographs, pictures and personal belongings. Along with this is a picture of his gravesite in Kroonvale Cemetery and a picture of an ordinary white house in uMsizakhe township. I didn’t go back to see them. I still do believe that this country has so many important monuments that are not properly showcased. The monuments of Bethulie were just as badly marked. I hope one day the people in these municipalities realise what they do have there…

After this tour of the museum, I take a drive north on the N9 to an unmarked white building with a security fence promising death to everyone who happens to breath in and around the vicinity of the property. The Karoo is the new home of another legend – tequila.

Actually, just as Champagne cannot be used when describing the stuff JC Le Roux makes, Tequila is a Mexican trademark so this drink has to be called Agave Spirit. Mexicans do speak Spanish and it’s a much more intimidating sounding language than English of Afrikaans so we don’t want to mess with them. The actual company has been formally liquidated but through the protection schemes offered through liquidation (of which I understand absolutely nothing), the company has been “saved” and is soon to be in production again, albeit smaller. At peak, they were producing thousands of litres. I never did ask why they liquidated when production was so high. I think I rather not know.

The gates promise one a swift and speedy death upon unauthorised entry. After dodging a few landmines and killing the level’s boss, I save the princess who gives me the golden key and I’m greeted by Dennis who has been working for the company for nine years. He’s extremely knowledgeable about the entire process and he gives me a very technical overview of the distillation process and about the Blue Agave plant as well. The plant is pretty nifty in that it lives for seven years, then “shoots” out a stalk with flowers that then pollinates others and then this huge plant just dies.

The tour ends with a tasting. The company make three products:
Agava Silver: normal clear tequila
Agava Gold: oak aged tequila
Agava Premium: oak aged for two years
I have a taste of all three. Yes, I TASTE three shots of tequila – not down them and go WOO! Agava Silver tastes better than Olmeca. Agava Gold tastes amazing akin to a medium-aged whisky with the tequila bite. Agava Premium tastes out of this world. The brewing, distillation and aging process means this is smoother than all but the most mature whiskies. I do believe that one could serve this to whisky drinkers and they would compliment you on the great whisky you have given them. I told this to Dennis. He smiled and gave a knowing look. Deep in his eyes, one could see that the stigma behind non-Mexican brewed tequila has meant that this world-class drink has not been given the recognition it rightfully deserves. I get a bottle. All of these cost less than any of the inferior Mexican brands we get here.

I get back home and wonder. In a single day, I’ve had a chance to experience two South African legends – one in the form of a human and the other in a drink. Neither has been given the respect and honour they deserve. It is sad. I then realise I had three tequilas meaning I should be ready to hit the floor. Good times.

Camdeboo

Groenhol. Somehow, the Afrikaans equivalent of this does not do it justice. The Plains of Camdeboo are magical. Placed in the middle of the Karoo, this is land of legend and splendour. In ancient times, our ancestors trekked the land and saw the future in the stars that paint this sky. In more recent times, Pauline Smith and Eve Palmer documented life in this beautiful landscape in their classic South African novels. More about Eve a bit later…

After a brief sojourn on the R75 Mohair Route, I turn east onto the R63 Blue Crane Route. This road takes you down through the real Plains of Camdeboo. It’s a desolate road of bleak Platte land with the Camdeboo Mountains to the north and nothingness to the south. It’s a landscape that tests your mind at the sheer beauty that this desolation provides. This land, however, is not desolate and is home to many a South African that lives his or her life in this solitude.

Pearston lies about 70km south-east of Graaff-Reinet and, well, it’s a town that characterises the nothingness of this land. To call the town laid-back would be wrong – it’s just so much less. It had the vibe of a town that has long since died but was just not buried. It’s obvious that poverty is the main industry of this town – something that saddened me. While Jozi grows from strength to strength, economic strides taken by South Africa do not permeate this society.

I couldn’t find a place to eat in Pearston. That is partly my problem – I never enter establishments that have a dog outside. I leave the town with a bit more sadness than I entered it with. However, every town has a story and as I left, I encounter the strangest site. Standing outside a house, much like a Janda pole, is the flag of Cyprus happily dancing in the wind. Sometimes, you really can’t explain things…

“The Plains of Camdeboo” by Eve Palmer is one of South Africa’s great novels. Detailing life through several generations, this book is a quintessential South African novel. Beautifully written, Eve details life here on these exquisite plains. My pilgrimage took me to the Cranemere Farm that provided her with the basis of her novel. Generations of Palmer’s have lived here and descendants of Eve still inhabit this oasis in the Karoo. I’ve seen the book at several second-hand bookshops – it is a highly recommended read.

Musings on the Valley of Desolation

I recently read an article in Wild Magazine – the magazine to accompany the Wild Card that gets you entry into all the National Parks for a year. It had a picture of a baboon eating an animal it seemingly killed. I knew that baboons are omnivorous and are capable of murder when the need arises. Most people do think they only eat fruits and berries but the reason why we are told to keep away from these animals is exactly because of this – they ARE capable of killing!

My last post about the Valley of Desolation was just pictures – the stunning beauty of this geological formation required it. Getting those pictures was quite a mission in itself! The drive up to the valley – the actual “valley” is at the top of a mountain meaning the Valley of Desolation is actually what is below – is amazing. It’s a mountain pass cut in the 1920’s for the cost of around R2000. I’ve had arguments with people on the value of infrastructure especially roads and the way used to determine how much money a piece of road has generated. Seeing that since the 1920’s, several millions of people have driven up to the valley, I think it’s safe to say this road HAS made the municipality a fair share of money. Back to the road, it’s a breathtaking drive cut as close to the mountain as you can get. On the one side of the road –sheer rock face. On the other – a verge-less sheer drop. Put one tyre wrong and you are no more. No correspondence will be entered into. Luckily, the road is well-kept tar but yikes, the hairpin bends on nasty inclines test every driver. If you have no care for natural beauty, I suggest going up the mountain just for the drive.

Reaching the summit, I had the normal task of sun-chasing. I crave sunsets and well, I didn’t want to miss this one! The Valley of Desolation has several lookout points and a hiking trail that takes you to most parts of the summit. The summit is pretty big and the hike would normally take you almost an hour to complete. Seeing that I got there late, I ran up this superlatively rocky hiking trail with my off-road sandals that aren’t really meant for off-road use and my short sleeve t-shirt worn in the middle of winter. I got to the first lookout point, and was frozen in awe. I took quite a lot of pictures there and spent a great deal of time just sitting in silence admiring the wow. Oddly, for maybe 20 minutes, I was the only person there. I guess you could just call that perfect. However, the viewpoints’ placing meant that I would miss the sunset – a cardinal sin punishable by death. The hiking trail appeared to go to the far end of the summit. I ran. I approached a fork and took the path less travelled as the other led to the parking lot. Well, it appeared to be a path. I ended up with a magnificent view but alas, it was a dead end with thick tree cover with many crevices and no real view of the sunset.

I stood for a while admiring the view and figuring out what to do next. The quiet is pierced by the unmistakeable bark of a baboon. I’m in awe, yet again. That awe is interrupted by a second bark by the same baboon. This time, it’s closer. My brain jolts and I wonder whether there is a reason for the bark getting louder. The third is unmistakeably MUCH closer than the other two. A large grey speck appears in my field of view. It hits me. I bolt! I keep running through the non-path through undergrowth and low branches. I can hear the barks following me! At this point I am freaking out and going over situations in my mind. The baboon has the advantage of living in this wonder of nature and does know the area better than I do. I keep running whilst the baboon barks from the shadows. However, the intermittent barks aren’t getting louder – which is a good thing. By this time, I am on the path and my odds of escape are better. I get to the other side of the trail as the barks trail away. I encounter some people and everything is safe.

I did trespass on the kingdom of the emperor of this valley. It has been his to rule for many years – and before that, it was his ancestors that saw over this glorious land. When one enters his kingdom, one must respect the kingdom and its way of life. I got away and perched on a rock on the other side of the valley. In the distance, he still barked – signalling to all those in earshot that he is the true ruler.

You can’t leave the summit – especially whilst witnessing the extraordinary palette that the sky presents to you. The winter sky, however, erases all light with great swiftness. My new found friends and I make our way to the car park. Well, except, this doesn’t go as planned and we veer wildly off-path. The light disappears faster and faster but we eventually find a path. Jumping into my car, I face the splendour of the mountain pass with more failing light. Moreover, the scenery on the descent marvels the mind even more – the panoramic view of Graaff-Reinet at night was truly stunning. I reach the bottom safely – but by then, it is night. I think to myself about my horrifying experience (it was for me – don’t judge me!!!) at Hluhluwe a few years ago where we were in the park after dark with buck jumping over the car. All of a sudden, a magnificent Eland crosses the road in front of me, then another. I’m in awe, yet again. Two others are scared away by the light and I use this opportunity to get to the gate, which I got to just in time.

Why I hate National roads

Leaving Gariep Dam, I had the choice of taking either the N1 or the R58. Seeing that the detour to the power station was scheduled later than I expected, I took the National route from Gariep Dam to Colesberg.

This stretch was a meagre 44km in total. And, I mean, even though it is the country’s premium National Road, how bad can it REALLY be? Here’s my list. It is that bad!

• It sucks.
• Traffic!
• No real scenery.
• You are speed restricted. Not that I condone travelling over the legal limit but on a National Road, you can have three lanes and the speed limit will be 80kph. Furthermore, traffic cops are everywhere and even if you aren’t travelling fast, you always end up braking when you see one of them meaning a less efficient drive.
• It sucks.
• There is no risk travelling on a National route. Everything is shown to you like a pre-schooler. There is no chance of you hitting a cow as the freeway is fenced off with electric wire that can make a medium-well steak out of said cow in seventeen seconds. Every hazard has a sign warning you about the hazard and a sign warning you that you are going to see a warning sign. You don’t need to calculate how much petrol you need seeing that there is a garage every five kilometres.
• Caltex Star Stops, Engen 1-Stops, Shell Ultra Cities, Total Petroport and whatever they call those Sasol jobbies. Excuse me whilst I go puke.
• You can’t just stop in the middle of the road and look around in awe at nature’s beauty.
• Construction never ever ends.
• It sucks.
• Rest stops are designated. It doesn’t matter that there is an exquisite view of a dam and mountain at one point – the freeway dictates that you must stop 2km down the road with a marvellous view of a koppie with half its side levelled out.
• BMW X5’s – these don’t take R-roads. It will damage their 4×4 suspension and there is nobody on those roads to cut off.
• You can’t travel at 80kph when you want to enjoy the view because said BMW X5 will have its bright lights, fogs and stadium-strength roof-mounted spotlights glaring at you if you do.
• It makes you sleep.
• It sucks.
• If you are on a single-lane freeway and encounter a truck, you’re screwed. The traffic means that you are following that truck all the way to Beitbridge (even though you just got out of the Huguenot Tunnel!)
• Too many sign posts telling you everything you don’t need to know and more.
• Mountain passes are WAY too tame. Van Reenen’s Pass is easier than driving up my driveway and the Tsitsikamma Toll Route, um, it bypassed SEVEN mountain passes.
• Did I mention it sucks?
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