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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Bethulie

Patrick Mynhardt did something incredible – he introduced the world to his hometown in the one-man show, “The Boy from Bethulie.” Obviously, I had to go check what this place was about. Armed with a lot of history, and established around the countries most important water source, this town, well, disappoints. Driving into town, the town’s façade is dreary – the main street has the eerie feel of a town with so much potential but doesn’t know how to show this to the world. Maybe my expectations were too high!

Bethulie houses two extremes of humanity. Two kilometres north of the town, is a wire sign in Afrikaans reading: Bethulie Kampherhof. To the uninformed and those not fluent in Afrikaans, this would be one of those signs you see on a road and forget it a few seconds later – just like those hand-painted signs for painters and tree-fellers that adorn many robots. To those in the know, this is home to South Africa’s worst concentration camp…

Concentration Camps were not solely Nazi run for the non-Aryan. These camps have been utilised in war long before World War 2 as effective tools to control the enemy. During the South African War that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the British set up several concentration camps where civilians were placed and tortured – most of the times, to death. The camp at Bethulie was the countries worst. Here, mostly Boer women and children were brought (concentrated) and kept in subjection. Countless names adorn the walls of the monument signalling that this was not just a camp for control and work – it was a death camp. Overall, 26 000 Boer women and children and about 15 000 Blacks were killed in these camps. In contrast, about 3 000 Boer soldiers were killed in battle…

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Whenever I attend funerals, visiting the cemetery is always a real hard experience. This is not even done at night when most of your “scaredy-catness” comes out. Places of death hold so many stories – lost to this world. Places of mass-murder are worse. The founding name of the town was Moordenaarspoort… Okay, I really can’t put more words to this…

The amazing thing is that the victims here had no connection to me whatsoever. Nor could I relate to their suffering and oppression. Yet that feeling persists…

Two kilometres from the Bethulie turn-off in the OTHER direction is one of the greatest feats of South African engineering. The Bethulie Bridge connects the Eastern Cape and Free State. It is 1152m long concrete structure spanning over the convergence of several rivers that drain into the Gariep. Viewed from afar, it’s immensely huge. Driving across it, it doesn’t fell like it though. In this desolate region, your car is the only automobile for miles. You drive onto the bridge doing 120kph and 30 seconds later, you’re over the bridge. Only by peering over at your odometer will you notice that a whole number has changed because of this crossing! It’s also a very boring looking bridge – typical late 60s/ early 70’s South Africana.

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Both these monuments are of extreme importance and showcase our humanity. The bridge showcases our local engineering brilliance in its most extreme form. The camp, a showcase of the inhumanity and disrespect humans can have when interacting with other human beings. However, both these monuments have no awe surrounding them. As I mentioned, if you don’t know the history behind these two and you are on your way to Oviston or Burgersdorp on the other side of the dam, you probably won’t even notice the camp and after 30 seconds, the bridge will be just another bridge that you’ve driven over. I don’t know – my opinion is that these two are important to all South Africans and should be made so. There are so many less important monuments in the country that have such fanfare and hype built around them that when you see the actual article, like an 18th century kitchen knife, your mind tells you that you should be in awe because this is really important. Maybe the Free State authorities will, one day, realise this…

Bethulie has the vibe of an artist’s town. It is full of inspiration – it’s perched on the banks of a great lake, the koppies around it are magnificent and there is untouched greenery at the end of most roads. Even the litter bins are hippy-inspired, multi-coloured spectacles.

Adjoining Information is an unmanned book-shop. The wall has several cut-outs and photocopies detailing the history of the town. Small towns always have these second-hand bookshops where you can pick up so great literary pieces. I found Olive Schreiner’s “Story of an African Farm. “ I felt that I had to get this book here in the land she wrote about – well, not really but I mean, buying it at Exclusive Books in Sandton is just so bland. The Honesty Box was a great touch – the sign that this is not Jozi.

I stayed at a new Bed & Breakfast called Old Watchmakers. Again, I surprised the owner with my Indianness but she really tried hard to make me feel welcome. It is a new place and in time, it should be a really great place to stop. Rates were very affordable and they also make excellent cakes for your afternoon tea.

I spoke to a local antique shop owner about the town and the hospitality industry. Small towns like Bethulie rely heavily on the city folk coming through town and spending their corporate Rands here. The economic recession has hit the smaller towns that normally got alternate holiday traffic. He told me that I was probably the town’s only visitor on that particular day whereas normally, most of the B&B’s in town would be at least half full with this changing to fully occupied during the high season. With less money being available for people to spend, their holidays are either forfeited or they go to the traditional centres where they either have a holiday home or family. The thing is that coming to this town (except for the petrol costs!) is very reasonable. The prices here are not inflated and staying in the accommodation is the fraction of the cost of any traditional holiday centre and the hospitality is orders of magnitude better.

The problem with this town is that my first impression still stuck. It’s really a great town. It’s welcoming and has so much to offer – I only touched on a few elements of what the town has to offer. However, the town needs to really show visitors the personality it has. Maybe it’s just me! I still recommend this town. Do take a visit – you will be surprised 🙂