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…

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.

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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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…?