A river runs through it

I like Port Elizabeth for specifically one reason – the freeways have a speed limit of 120kph. As much as this may seem quite a weird reason to like the town, this speed limit is not a given in other major cities. Just as Melrose Arch comes into view on the M1 South in Jozi, you have to drop 20kph. The drive into Cape Town as you approach the mountain on both the N1 and N2 are excruciating as the speed limit drops to 80kph. It’s the same with Durban – the Ridge signals slow driving across a glorious, five-lane freeway. This is coupled with men and women in blue out to prove that you are just a common criminal that deserves to part with a handsome sum of money. But no – Port Elizabeth completely rocks. The N2 through the city stays at the glorious speed of 120kph. It probably is like that because you really should be leaving the city limits as soon as you can…  

I don’t actually hate Port Elizabeth. But today, there were greater treasures awaiting me as I would be traversing the R72. The earlier road works on the N2 derailed my plans and instead of a leisurely cruise on this route, it would be a mad dash to make it to my destination before sunset. Luckily for the first 50km, which takes you to the town called Alexandria, I had a “marker.” He had obviously traversed these roads before as he set a pretty blistering pace through the spectacular curves that the road possesses. This marker pulled off in Alexandria and I thanked him with my hazards and sped past. I love the fleeting beauty of meetings like that where for around 30 minutes of your life, this unknown individual is the most important person that exists but once they’ve served their purpose, they leave your life never to cross paths with you ever again.

The R72 is called the Sunshine Coast. It’s a brilliant precursor to what the beauty that the Transkei section of the Eastern Cape holds. The beautiful browns and greens come alive as the sun paints over this magnificent landscape. You can’t help but just feel happy when you drive through this.

Nestled in-between the Kariega and Boesmans Rivers is the town of Kenton-on-Sea. South Africa does not have a Kenton elsewhere but I think the “on-Sea” part of the name does work. It’s serene. The main road is the epitome of laid back. Most private shops close at 13h00 probably because the owners want to chill on the beach for the afternoon. The town did not even have an ATM – to withdraw cash, you go to this swipe card machine thing, enter your details and the guy at the till gives you the money. I’m assuming they use this simply because maintaining an ATM affects the chilled out vibe. When you get to the beach, it all makes sense. Your mind drifts to a most beautiful place.

My accommodation is the Bethshan B&B. The couple’s grandkids are visiting in a few days so strewn around the lodging are little trinkets that would make a grandkid giddy with excitement. It is slightly weird yet homely and refreshing. The mementos of love add something special to the place. That and the DSTV.

This is my first taste of the wonderful Magnesium and Calcium rich hard water. Yummy! I do miss the lather effect though. I feel like such a spoilt city boy – I can’t live without my precious foaming liquid soap! My bath companions just laugh at me…

The fresh winter breeze slaps my face as I wake up, yet again, to witness the sunrise. But, yet again, the town’s orientation does me in. The beauty compensates for this. The morning peace is violently broken by the crashing waves and transforming sky. From a deep and dark blue, the horizon melts into this magma glow which gently softens as the day breaks.

Television can teach you many good things. Joanne told me that the Big Five is now the Big Seven and includes the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark. I always prided myself on seeing the entire list in their natural habitat (thank you Kruger National Park) but now, I’m missing the Great White Shark. I think I need to ready a chum bucket and go out for a swim. I also learnt, from the local paper, that a girl named Jerusha Govender won Miss Port Alfred. I didn’t even know Indians lived there! I know all this as Kenton-on-Sea had these spectacular, gale-like winds that made walking difficult. There goes my hike on the beach.

The two rivers that enclose Kenton-on-Sea are behemoths of rivers with seriously wide river mouths. The Boesmans is the second longest navigable river in South Africa. It is navigable for 32km inland and the Kariega for 16km. During the summer months, this is exploited with lazy boat rides up the river. When you view these rivers, it doesn’t make sense to see signage around town telling you to save water as this area is water scarce. But water is scarce here and around the entire country. Once again, the importance of saving water in our magnificent country is brought to the fore. Anyway, perched on the banks of the Kariega is a floating restaurant called Sandbar. The geographical location means it is sheltered from the gust on the coast. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a beer and the glorious afternoon sun.

Towns like Kenton-on-Sea bring into perspective this rush of life. The quick-turnaround, busy life of the big cities is necessary to keep the world ticking. It drives modern life and innovation. Other towns in the country such as Vereeniging, Gariep Dam and Mossel Bay exist to feed this every hungry economy of the country. Existing parallel to this is a life based on quality and bliss. That’s what you get here…

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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…

Why does the back seat keep falling down?

There are portions of the Gariep Dam where one can stand and look to the horizon and all one will see is water. But it somehow doesn’t have the grandeur associated with the ocean.

My brief stop at the Gariep Power Station has made me rather hungry and I stop at the hamlet of Gariep Dam (as I said before, it’s a town!) for some kos. The town is so pretty. Originally built as a temporary establishment for workers building the dam wall and power station, the town survived and now is a quaint little outpost offering accommodation for those intent on exploring the wonders of the dam. To cater the tastes of the out-of-towners, a marina has been developed where you can park your catamaran.

I stop at Lance’s Coffee Shop for a quick bite before I head south. It has a real good feel but somehow the food here lacks the love of the tannie from Cheeta Padstal. I hope that this love that’s put into purchased food doesn’t die of with these old tannies. The whole production line approach to food works and is what makes KFC and Steers such popular franchises. But the love, they lack…

The N9 towards Graaff-Reinet has been christened the Camdeboo Route. Starting of as a potholed bore, the road sucks you into the Suurberg, Sneeuberg and eventually Camdeboo mountain range. Camdeboo is an ancient land forming part of the Karoo Supergroup – more particularly, the Beaufort Group. Before the dinosaurs were even thought of, ancient pre-reptiles and pre-mammals roamed this beautiful land and they have subsequently died here. More recently, the Khoisan lived off these lands. The name Camdeboo apparently means, “Green hole,” in a Khoisan dialect. The settlers merely took this name and applied it to this area even though, this being the gateway to the Karoo, there is not a lot of green around. Nevertheless, the name evokes such mystery, splendour and awe. Just before Noupoort, you encounter Table Mountain. I wonder if this fooled travellers of old.

As you drive through Middelburg, the roadside is home to several vendors selling metal windmills. At first, this site is rather strange with the immediate thought being, “This is not Holland. Oh wait, are we in Holland? I knew I should have stayed away from that weed.” Actually, South Africa is home to, I think, the most windmills in the world. I probably am making this up but this simple contraption is responsible for life out in this thirstland. Using a simple mechanical concept, these extract water from boreholes and provide the famous Karoo Mutton with the precious commodity called life – well, that is until they’re used to make Lamb Shank in some fancy Melrose Arch restaurant.

I stop at one of these stalls and am greeted by a friendly old man, a few friends of his and his son. I have a soft spot for windmills although my interest lies in the three-blade contraptions that provide electricity. Nevertheless, I have a little chat with the man and I purchase a small windmill. I bid his son and him farewell as I go on my way. They both smiled and saw me off. It felt right.

I find it so weird that people insist on bargaining with roadside, flea market or robot vendors but don’t bargain with Spar or Checkers. These vendors livelihood is based on a per-sale basis. To them, an extra R10 means the entire world to them and could mean that their family won’t starve for that night or that their family can be clothed properly and won’t freeze that night. Yet, when people (the type that don’t really worry about where their next meal or Reebok sweater is coming from) encounter these vendors, they must bargain with them even if it saves them R10. What purpose does R10 serve to one these days? Will parting with an extra R10 cause one any harm? As I’ve shown, that extra R10 WILL cause a world of good for the recipient. If one does feel like saving that extra few bucks, why doesn’t one bargain with the chain stores. These stores definitely don’t need that extra money. Yet, I don’t think anyone has ever gone to a Pick ‘n Pay and told the cashier, “Ah, the bill is R320. How about I just give you R300?”

My next stop is a padstal at Jachtpoort. This might have been an old train station though, from the sign I saw outside. It seems to be just a legend fabricated by the owner – like Lost City or the Phantom Ship at uShaka Marine World. I purchase something called Honeybush Tea from this store. It’s similar to Rooibos but instead, is made from the Honeybush plant endemic to the region. I get some dried peaches as well. I wonder if dried fruit is the vegetarian equivalent of biltong.

YAY! My first mountain pass! The Lootsberg Pass is an old South African pass which doesn’t climb very high but does have a great view of the Karoo at its summit. I go up the wrong way and, well, it’s pretty boring. I have a special regard for mountain passes – the triumph of man to conquer a mountain, one of nature’s greatest weapons.

The Naudesberg Pass is next – a much heftier adversary with its gentle switchbacks set on steep inclines. Again, I do the pass from the wrong way around but on the other end; I’m greeted by the majestic Karoo. 🙂

Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth oldest town – behind Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam. I guess this explains the “ff” at the end of the first part of the town’s name. It is an extremely pretty town – even the townships of uMasizakhe and Kroonvale on the outskirts of the town have a weird charm about them. Nestled on the U-bend of the Sunday’s River in a nook beneath the Sneeuberg Mountains, the town has a grandiose church with its towering steeple as the centrepiece. All the roads are wide avenues with ancient trees adorning its verges. About 250 buildings in the town have been declared as National Monuments adding to the prettiness of the town.

I stay at a supremely well-equipped, self-catering house called, “The Red Geranium.” In true kitsch fashion, there was a red geranium in a pot on the wall outside and it was in bloom! It’s run by an old tannie that has seen every type of individual that this world has to offer so she really wasn’t that interested in anything I had to say. Granted, there was cricket on but hey, it’s cool. It must be noted that her rusks are probably the tastiest in the world. I was quite excited about being in this marvellous town. Who knows what adventures lay ahead…?