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…

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…

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.

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…?

Dark nights

My last night in Kimberley – this town actually is so amazing. There really is so much in this town and it is so enjoyable. Then again, my company was superb beyond measure. Also, the girls of Kimberley are probably the hottest in the country. No seriously – I heard that guys from Jozi come to party in Kimberley just because of this. The agenda for this last night was to see the flamingos of Kimberley. The flamingo thing never did happen. I found myself being left outside some mall in the middle of town. The town has quite a few of these mall things. The one thing I have noticed about towns is that malls are like these standardised models placed all over the country. In an attempt to make your town more Jozi-like, insert a mall with the usual chain stores. It is great for marketers as setting trends and controlling consumer habits can be done countrywide whereas before, if a town didn’t have an Edgars, penetrating that market with your merchandise was pretty difficult. It can be seen as a good thing but I don’t know, I love the quirkiness that towns without chain-stores have. Maybe I’m just a romantic.

My purpose for visiting aforementioned mall was to meet an old friend of mine. Meeting my friend was really awesome. It’s quite amazing how people have ended up in corners of the country that you never would believe. Kimberley ain’t too bad – my cousin was in Ermelo for a year which is not the epicentre of “happeniningness.” Yet it does allow one to see the country and experience what you never would normally experience. In some cases, the quite country life might end up as something you want. Or instead of sticking to the metropolises of Jozi, Cape Town or Durban, you find the quiet hustle and bustle of Port Elizabeth, East London, Bloemfontein or Kimberley more appealing. Anyway, here’s to the next meeting. 🙂

As I waited outside said mall (without a name), a Corsa Diesel speeds through the parking lot with A-Team music blurting out the windows. Two masked men jump out, bundle me up and throw me into the car. In an instant, they have left the parking lot, speeding away to an undisclosed destination. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen. They got the A-Team music right and I was handed a dop. I think that makes it alright.

The destination was an undisclosed though – a spot south of Kimberley on the desolate N12. Drive twenty kilometres out of town and you experience vast openness with pure nothingness all around. The lack of industry means a clear as glass sky. Tonight was cloudless. Tonight we saw every bit of the Milky Way and then some.

Armed with a lot of brandy and some KFC (I ate chips – I found out that they actually make a MOERSE sized chips if you ask. Sweet!), we crowded around a rather empty bin at the rest stop. We lacked fire. The bin looked perfect. We started a fire out of the KFC packaging. After a while, we realised that this was not going to be a sustainable fire without wood. Using my MOERSE flashlight which can be used to signal to aliens if required, we looked around and found a lot of twigs and dead branches on the floor. We chucked these in. These, however, weren’t working. We ventured further. We found bigger branches. Not satisfied, we jumped over the fence in search of wood. We found a dead tree. And then we found another two. A friend phoned us. We told him where we were and instructed him to bring wood. He brought these several tree stumps 30cm in diameter. Man, that fire was great. It got so hot that the metal was glowing red. The paint on the outside of the bin melted away. The bottom of the bin actually threatened to break away because of the intense heat!

The night was darkened by an event which actually taught me something about myself. I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded and open to experiences of the alternate kind. After all, how would I be going around South Africa by road if I wasn’t? Two of the guys took the car back to town leaving three of us, as I saw it, stranded on the N12. I freaked out completely. To me, this is a national road and your only safety net is gone. If anything happens out here in the wilderness, there is nothing you can do. That’s how I saw it. I lost my nut and took off with the guys worse than I have ever done in my entire life. Their argument was that this is Kimberley and they have done this for the last ten years – incident free. The thing is, as I saw it, I can fully understand that aspect but…It’s the, “but,” that stands out – anything can happen at anytime no matter where you are hence the constant vigilance.

What is right? I still don’t know. I can’t fully accept that my losing my marbles was the right thing to do. Neither can I say I was wrong to go that berserk. Small town life in South Africa is a completely different ballgame to big city life with all the issues that come along with it though. Which “life” you choose to lead is up to you. It did show me that I am that city boy with the city boy mentality. That mentality does mean you are intrinsically safe in all situations because you make sure you are, but it also means the tranquillity of the small town life eludes me. It’s something I need to correct before I get back to Jozi.

Meanwhile, in the distance, the jackals keep barking…

Starry, starry night

It’s late in the day – so late that in human terms, the day will soon become a new one. In cosmic terms, this passing of the time is insignificant. Looking up, this cosmos speaks to me in its ancient language of energy, light and awe. Standing alone in the Karoo, I look around seeing darkness in its purest form. Our lone fire dots the ground a few hundred metres away. I tread the N12 walking over the extinct cat-eyes. They provide guidance to those travelling this road but in this darkness, they’re just like the fossils that scatter this arid landscape. It seems that every star is out tonight. Never have I seen the Milky Way shown of with all this splendour. I look away and then stare again at this glittering sky. When you look up again, more stars appear out of the nothingness. Silence is broken by the cry of the Jackal. In ancient times, the diamonds that are scattered across the world were thought to be products of the stars. At least fifty million carats of diamonds have been unearthed from Kimberley alone in the last hundred or so years yet the sky’s still painted with so many of these glittering dots. It shows us how insignificant we are as individuals in this universe of ours yet we’ve rape, pillaged and killed so many just to show someone else that one man is better than the other. But tonight, I look at the stars and only the stars.