Fresh Karoo Mutton

I really love Graaff-Reinet. Seriously, I do. It’s such a quirky town with just so many little anecdotes that make you love life in South Africa. It is not a small town and has enough of the modern niceties to make living there pleasurable. But, it has not been swallowed up by corporate South Africa. Stopping by the Information office one morning, I proceeded to park my car on the main street and walk into the office. After being hit on inside by the rather attractive young receptionist, I go to the bookstore next door which is pretty well equipped. A sign proudly notes that all proceeds go to some animal shelter. Uh…yeah ok. I found Mario Puzo’s “The Family” for ten bucks. Good purchase. I emerge to depart on my daily travels. As I’m about to start my car, a lady points some space-age device at my window which silently prints out a little till slip. I start getting scared wondering if this is my death notice and I ready myself for assimilation by some alien spaceship. I lower my window and she smiles, shows me the slip (uh, oh) and tells me, “That will be R1.” That’s when my mind went, “kapweeoissh,” because it blew up. Behold the all-knowing device in the hand of a Graaff-Reinet local. It was undoubtedly the coolest device I have ever encountered in my life, ever.

If you ever take the bus down to George from Jozi, you’ll stop at the Engen on the main street in Graaff-Reinet. Here is a 24-hour shop. It probably is the coolest shop ever. Instead of some bland Garage Shop with prices that make you cry, it’s a typical corner shop with everything you need and then some with prices that will make you cry with joy. I picked up a soda and popcorn here. The soda is a locally brewed drink called Bashews (well, it’s bottled in Cape Town) that tasted pretty good. The popcorn was about double the size of the biggest cinema popcorn box. Together, these cost R5.50. Down the road is a supermarket NOT run by Checkers, Spar or Pick ‘n Pay, Here I get wine in a one litre milk container. It cost me R12. Yeah…

In my lodging, which is bigger than my present place of resident yet costs about half as much, I came across a little relic from the past. We once had a plastic bin purchased in the late 80s. It was pretty awesome but it disappeared. My mum did relay the story of its disappearance – an older cousin came to visit and my mum told him to take out the bin assuming he would take out the plastic bag and dispose of it. Instead, he took the entire bin outside for disposal…Its pretty odd how when things from your past pop up, the objects bring back a crystal clear memory and that warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia yet you will never be able to just bring up the memory under normal circumstances.

I love the town but I want the sea. The sea is a few hundred kilometres away but I have spidey-sense you know! My parents loved the ocean and its blue calmness. This has been passed down to me – a holiday is not a holiday if there is no sea involved. I set off down the N9 – sad but happy at the prospects that lie ahead. I enter the real Karoo.

It is a mystical land. Similar to the Free State, all one sees is rolling fields of nothing. This is the land of the Karoo sheep and the black crow. The romantic Camdeboo and Sneeuberg Mountains are but a memory. The wind is harsh and so is the sun. The sun is surprising seeing that it is mid-winter. It’s a landscape that tests your sanity. You feel like you are on a never ending journey that has no destination whatsoever as there really is nothing that looks remotely interesting that pops up at all. The drive, though, did bring back memories of those Binky books I read in junior primary school.

It must have been an hour and a half when I see the undulating mountains of the Grootrivierhoogte – the only blip in the landscape. I stop on the side of the road to peer at, well, this difference really. After seeing nothing for an extended period of time, it’s great to actually see something! I do spot a buck grazing…

At the foothills of the Grootrivierhoogte is the Beervlei Dam. Built in 1954, this dam stands completely empty and in disrepair. The authorities are so confident that this dam will never be used that the N9 is built through the catchments. A period of 55 years is not a long time when it comes to infrastructure and I was amazed that this skeleton graced the landscape. It does show us what a precious commodity water is in this land. The Karoo, Highveld and Lowveld are what characterise our country – not water. We need to respect this. The great Gariep is an anomaly in this land of drought. I do meet some road trip buddies that are on their way to Cape Town via George…

Another anomaly is the town of Willowmore. I drive into Willowmore in desperate need of some sustenance. I happen upon two quaint little eateries on opposing ends of the street. On the left is a pretty establishment called Sophie’s Choice. On the other is a more traditional place – a corner café where even the menu is made of meat! I opt for Sophie’s Choice. Apparently Sophie liked an antique shop with a very colonial vibe with a fire going in the fireplace even though it’s the middle of the day. The antique shop was ostentatious. Out back, however, was a fairy tale like garden. It seemed a bit out of place at the foot of the Baviaanskloof. But hey, they made some good quiche!

Willowmore is known as the gateway to the Baviaanskloof. Recently declared a World Heritage Site, this wilderness is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of South Africa. I’m tempted to take this route but the route is taxing. It is a complete dust road. Several sections of it require a 4×4 to cross. It is on top of my to-do list though…

I soldier on and am greeted by the unmistakable rock formation of the Outeniquas as I traverse the Potjiesberg Pass. It’s a quiet beauty broken only by the calls of an unseen bird.

Clouds and mist kiss the mighty Outeniquas as I snake down the N9 towards George. It is a drive of spectacular beauty. It is familiar territory – I’ve been up and down this magnanimous pass several times before – but it still leaves me breathless. I sit on a rock, gaze and smile…

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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 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…?