Road Tripping: Free State

IMG_9521As I frantically and frenetically prepare for the second installment of the Road Trip, I have been forced to take a break. My laptop stubbornly put its little laptop foot down and refused to start up (eek!), so has been sent off to the geek to be put right. I’m quite glad, really, as it’s making me write the blog I’ve been meaning to write for the last six weeks, about the first road trip.

I was born in the Free State, with its big skies (this trip filled with looming thunderclouds, the dusty smell of African rain hanging heavily in the air), vast mielie fields, piglets on the pavements of small towns, prolific cosmos-lined lonely roads through golden fields of sunflowers and friendly people. It has the feeling of home for me.

At the Herberg Hotel in Oranjeville, we were the only guests on an out-of-season Sunday night. Both weekend visitors and staff had left, leaving just us on the huge grounds. We bought bread, cheese and avo from the only open shop in the one-tar-road town, which we ate on the river bank as the sun set, using a teaspoon as a knife. The hotel proprietor kindly gave us two beers before disappearing home. The sun showed off, brilliant orange fading to pink as she sank into the Wilge River, the sky turning from that deep blue that makes my heart squelch, to inky black.

Walking back up to the (70’s-style) hotel buildings, I turned back and looked over the rolling lawn to the river. It was like a scene from the Great Gatsby with boats heading to silent Sunday parties, their green and red lights leaving emeralds and rubies in their wake, to sink to the bottom of the Wilge River.

In the Free State, the water tastes like the earth smells when it finally rains on a dust road on a sweltering summer day.

In Petrus Steyn, in a thick stone-walled guesthouse stuffed to the gills with family heirlooms, we were reminded that there’s a lot to be said for air and open windows, that old men tell good stories, that wonderful Gogos who cook regte egte boerekos are bringing up delightful grandaughters, and that no matter how you arrange porcelain dolls, they’re always like something out of a horror movie. And they watch you.

Through dusty towns that felt like the 80’s, we saw empty and abandoned public swimming pools, townships bustling with markets and gospel spreaders, an incredible number of golf ball post boxes. We marvelled at spotted pigs sunning themselves in driveways, watched a little boy at Soetwater Clinic delightedly swoosh the fat drops of rain clinging to the bottom of a pole, saw graceful Basotho women wrapped in blankets as the winter chill cut into the wind.

And then suddenly we were in the town of my birth and first ten years on this earth and it was raining and then it wasn’t anymore and it was familiar and unfamiliar all at once and everything was smaller than it had been in my head and we found the house I grew up in (or where it used to be) and my nursery school and the school my sister and I went to. I wrote about that before.

At the busy public clinics we stopped at, I checked myself, and was reminded at each one, of the enormous gap that still exists in this country. The number of times I have heard people complain at the private hospitals in Cape Town (and I have, too) about the lack of parking in the shiny, tarred parking lot, faces grim. Parking. Here, the rutted dust roads outside clinics are clear. Here, people walk, some of them kilometres, to spend the day in a queue, to get primary health care. Here, the health care workers work themselves to the bone, often with little support. Here, some of the clinics have no phones, intermittent power and water. And at not one of them were we not welcomed with a smile (and plenty of curiosity from the littlies with their moms and grannies).

What a privilege, to travel this country’s back roads, to meet its people. The Eastern Cape awaits next week. I hope to write more.

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