The Northern Cape. I expected miles and miles of desert. I even thought it may be a bit bland, somewhat boring. How very wrong I was. While there were indeed, miles of flat, desert-like plains, it was heart-achingly beautiful, with rocky outcrops and lunar landscapes under a bright blue sky that stretched to forever. The people, as warm as warm can be.
Landing in Kimberley, I realise that there’s something about the place… Maybe that it’s named after a woman (I must look that up)? We arrive as the sun sets on an ordinary Wednesday night, but she puts on a show of colour and emits a licentious aroma as we book into the Boy’s Club, I mean Kimberley Club, for the night.
The cigar smoke-soaked wooden-panelled passages and high-ceilinged rooms whisper stories from a town that made its living from sparkling stones, dug from the enormous hole in the centre of town. There’s some kind of conference going on. It’s their ‘conference dinner’, and everybody’s speaking in hushed towns in the dining hall as we explore. I have to squash the 10-year old boy inside me who wants to skateboard past, a beatbox (yes, I’m that old), blaring heavy metal.
Heading north-west to Kuruman along miles of beautiful, tarred road bordered by fields of grass and spring-blooming bushes, we stop in at Gong Gong, a tiny settlement on the Vaal River. Near the clinic, a caravan out of a ‘Roadtrippin’ Across the USA’ movie has retired next to a thorn tree that is split through the middle. Lightning never strikes twice.
A little further up the R31, it’s home time for the school children of Delportshoop, filled with beautiful, old, falling-down houses. A kid at the café makes a zap sign at us, strangers in his town who won’t tell his mother. We don’t know her, so he’s safe.
At Ulco, the air is thick with lime from the mine as we make our way through the village, everything a slightly pale shade, except the trees who are opening their new spring leaves, as yet unpowdered. Rows and rows of identical round-roofed houses, each one trying to outdo the next with his wall paint. The air feels too thick to breathe.
We arrive in Kuruman as the sun is starting to set, driving through its wide, pot-holed streets awash with litter. The air here was not filled with lime, but a strange dilapidation. The Eye, in the centre of town cheerfully spills out clear water into a pond filled with happy fish. It’s the place to go, to hide from the rest of the town.
Sadly, if the Eye could walk and talk, instead of just seeing its fern-filled grotto, it would probably hide its face in shame. By the looks of the streets of Kuruman, Service Delivery left town a good few months’ back, leaving neither a note, nor an excuse.
When a petrol tanker overturns on the N14 between Kuruman and Kathu, closing it completely, it may not be wise to ask Google Maps for an alternative route. You might find yourself at a dead end after 20 km of bone-rattling dust road, where a farmer will tell you that you need to go back and head to Hotazel and then on the back roads to Kathu.
It will, however allow you to meet said farmer – the people of the Northern Cape are friendly and lovely and down-to-earth hospitable – and take a close-up picture of the beautiful flowering bushes that fill the Northern Cape in springtime.
Kathu offered up serendipity by the ton – bumping into family, followed by sweet rock stars and even sweeter shared vodka and Crème Soda from the mini bar, an unexpected fun night out in Small Town, Northern Cape. It’s one of those places, where you expect nothing to happen, and it proves you wrong. Feisty little town.
The cashier in Pick ‘n Pay imparts some wisdom (in case we’d had thoughts of doing some sewing) as we head away from the city lights of Kathu to the quiet of the bush:
“Jy kannie naaldwerk op ‘n Sondag doen nie, jy sal die Here se oog uitsteek.“
(You can’t do needlework on a Sunday, you’ll poke the Lord’s eye out.)
The road from Kathu to Witsand is not for the faint of heart. Seventy kilometres of corrugated dust rewards you with children’s drawing clouds in a heart-piercingly blue sky (see pic at the start of this blog), as your insides rattle and the cobwebs in your head get cleared out.
Witsand is incredible. It’s a nature reserve with some chalets (which are really more like houses in their size!), bungalows and camping sites. The brochure pull of the place are the ‘Roaring Dunes’ – in the middle of pretty Northern Cape bush, these dunes rise above the landscape and roar when the wind blows. They were perfectly silent for us, but that was fine too. Wwe all have those quiet moments.
The thing that makes it so wonderful, I think, is its remoteness. Like I said, the road is a bit of a mission (especially in a non-4X4), so there are few people and there is lots of space. It’s exactly how the bush should be.
Sitting next to the fire, under an enormous Camelthorn tree, I watched tiny bushbuck, mongoose, meerkats and hundreds of birds as they came to drink from the water hole not two metres away. The place has a magical air about it, making you feel as if you’re the only humans on earth.
Later, we brought the meat out to braai and three naughty striped genets snuck through the shadows to try and steal our chops. We slept like the dead in the noisy silence and fresh air of the bush.
Heading toward Upington, it’s almost impossible to describe the unbridled joy and freedom of driving through the Northern Cape under an enormous blue-that-squeezes-your-heart sky, with Dave Mathews loud loud, the Orange River, with her green shawl, zig-zagging through the dry and rocky landscape. It is achingly exquisite.
I must stop now, and I’m only four days into the ten day trip – so much to wax lyrical about. Part two to follow. If you want to see more photos, you can see my album on Stalkbook.
I have missed it. The filtered sunlight, the iridescent, aromatic green, the smell of vegetation decomposing, creatures burrowing in the deep, dark, earth, the canopy above enveloping me, a lush, emerald embrace that clears the head, fills the lungs. Bare foot on cool, fertile soil, beautiful roots of ancient trees, impossibly clear streams. Exhale.
Inhale the forest. I have missed it.
Then I visited KwaZulu Natal, and there, miracle of all miracles… Wheelchair-friendly walkways beneath that canopy of green, through that earthy aroma, beside the fern fronds, earthworms busy-busy beneath us. What bliss.
uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk, iSimangaliso
iSimangaliso Wetland Park was our first experience of it. Following a narrow two-track road through quiet bush, we parked next to the start of the uMthoma aerial walkway, warning notices of elephant, hippo and crocs. We were entirely alone, the loud, chirruping quiet of the bush the only sound. The elephant, hippo and crocs hid behind tree trunks, breathing softly, watching us pass on the path, as I breathed and breathed, that emerald air filling my lungs.
Reaching the viewpoint, a postcard vista across the St Lucia Wetlands, metres above the earth, in the canopy, in the Syringa tree house of my childhood. I can breathe.
Estuary Boardwalk, St Lucia
Then to St Lucia, and a wooden walkway through the coastal forest, all beset by crocodiles, hippos grunting over there in the estuary. This one is different to uMthoma (but still lovely). It’s human-busy with Sunday afternoon strollers. A grandson walks with his Granny, slowly, carefully.
Just across the river, a huge crocodile suns himself on the shore, seemingly unconcerned by the human noise floating across the water. I imagine, though, that he’s listening to the conversations, his Sunday radio soapie.
Dlinza Forest Aerial Walkway, eShowe
A few days later, we’re lucky to have the Dlinza Forest entirely to ourselves again. It’s deep green, mossy, lichen-filled forest, huge strangler fig trees whisper as we walk. Staying at the first lookout as GM heads on in (it’s fairly hard work, wheelchair-wise), I sit happily in the birdsong-filled air, 10 m above the ground. This is what it feels like to be a bird, to sit on a branch, to just breathe gently and listen.
Thank you, iSimangaliso and KZN Parks and everybody else who was involved in creating these beautiful walkways and allowing me (and my ilk) to get back into the forest, to breathe in the emerald, damp soil-filled forest air. Sigh.
***Anybody in a wheelchair wanting to visit these spots, drop me an e-mail and I’ll let you know the nitty-gritty. Some of the paths have fairly steep climbs and some shaking boards along the way, but with a willing helper/strong arms, it’s do-able.
When people talk of the exquisite quiet of the African bush at night, it’s not an actual silence they’re talking about. It’s a peacefulness, a calmness, a joyous dark solitude, for sure. Uninterrupted by streetlights or the white noise of the city, the night gets to flap its cape about, turning everything to a deep blue, flecked with a gazillion stars. The bushes wiggle and dance in your eye’s periphery, as the night creatures wake.
It’s not really quiet, though. In truth, it’s incredibly loud, a night in the wilds of Africa. At Leopard Walk Lodge, in northern KZN, I sat on the huge stoep of the main lodge, privileged to be the only one there at the time, looking over to the waterhole as shy buck came down to drink in the deepening dusk. And listening, to that raucous silence. As the sun set, prehistoric hadedas shouted their day’s news at each other flapping heavily across the sky, returning to their roosts after a hard day of hadeda-ing about.
The sky turned deep blue (that shade so startling that it squeezes my heart tight each time I see it), the full moon rose above the thorn tree in front and the Evening Star showed herself. The insects whirred and cackled, hissed and giggled, as I made my wish on that first star I saw. The same wish I’ve been making since March, each time I see the first star light up in the night sky. A plea to the universe.
And then the crickets start up, ‘n groot geraas, and the frogs begin their croaking chorus, as the full fat moon climbs higher in the darkening sky. A slight movement on the sidelines as more buck pass by, a buffalo, so quietly they could be tip-toeing. Maybe they are. They’re quiet, for sure, those creatures (and, probably, hopefully, a leopard or two, silently hidden in a tree nearby, watching me not seeing them), but the African night itself is the most silent, soothing, cacophony one could wish for.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, wish upon this star tonight.
It’s not surprising that I can’t remember, it’ll be twenty years, in December, since the accident. Twenty years. It’s hard to believe, but there it is.
I had been back once since that fateful day, a couple of years back. That time, I made myself go along the road, to where I estimated that it had happened. The sky was just as vast, just as blue, just as beautiful. The road, still beautiful too, stretched ahead as we drove with Florence & The Machine blaring through The Silver Unicorn’s speakers, making conversation impossible. I had no words.
I’m not sure what made me go back, it just seemed important. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Hollywood movies. Mainly, I think I wanted to prove that I could still go down that road, that even though it broke me, it hadn’t scared me away.
This visit was just to Cradock, not via that road. It was part of the work road trip and I’d included it on purpose. They were lovely to me there, at that little hospital, on that bright, hot December day in 1996 when I was brought in by ambulance.
‘I’ve been in an accident,’ I remember saying to my Mom on the phone in Casualty. ‘But I’m okay.’
The doctor took the phone from me ‘You need to come. We’re transferring her to PE.’
That conversation? That phone call? That, too, I’m not sure if I remember it right, or if it’s just my love of a good story. It’s too long ago, the details blur.
Back to this visit. We drove into Cradock and stopped, as always, in awe of the hugeness of the big church, it’s spire piercing the blue Karoo sky as the sun turned the surrounding hills pink.
Driving up the hill looking for our accommodation for the night, I burst into tears, snot streaming, huge fat teardrops rolling down my cheeks.
GM was horrified. ‘Let’s drive on. We don’t have to stay here. It’s too much.’ She stopped the car on the side of the road, exactly opposite the place that had elicited my outburst.
‘I can’t remember,’ I snuffled.
‘What can’t you remember?’
‘I can’t remember if I went to the loo there.’ Sob, sniffle.
We were parked opposite the garage where we’d stopped to fill the car with petrol, to stretch our legs, that morning, almost twenty years ago. It was the last place I walked: the forecourt of a generic South African petrol station in a small Karoo town. And I couldn’t remember what I’d done with those few, precious, last steps. And that broke my heart.
I looked back up at the garage and the wide road leading down to the bottom of town, to the surrounding pink hills and felt myself calm and laugh.
I had just had a good, hard cry because I couldn’t remember if I’d gone to a grimy garage bathroom? Yip, that’d be about right.
And off we went, down to the peaceful old Anglican churchyard to look for Great, Great Grandpa Gilfillan’s grave, the church cat eyeing us suspiciously, and then on to the welcoming Tuishuisies and the old Victoria Hotel, filled with ghosts and stories, and I was okay.
I am okay.
There is something delicious about visiting a place you visited as a youth. This makes me sound old. I guess I am old. I’m certainly older than I was when I last visited.
Hogsback in the early- to mid-90’s seemed so far from our small university town, a magical faraway land atop a hill shrouded in fog. The first time I went, I went with my boyfriend and his family (all of whom I still adore). We stayed in a lovely lodge and the mist swirled and the fire roared in the hearth and we were young and in love.
The second time, I went with the same boyfriend, also in the early-mid-90’s. We drove in my 1975 deep green Ford Escort (as old as me) and camped in the campsite. The emerald green car became almost completely camouflaged in the delicious-smelling forest. We were the only people there and we walked and walked and swam in icy rivers and frolicked next to waterfalls, then huddled next to the fire and then in our tent as the rain came down and whipped around us, dripping on our heads and forcing us to sleep in the car. The next day we fought, and left in a huff, a day early. Only on getting home and eating did we realise it was just because we were hungry. I’ve never been good at being hungry. He neither.
The third time was for a friend’s 21st, still in those heady ‘varsity days. A bunch of us in a house on the forest’s edge, beset by fairies. Wandering the paths through magical woodlands, filled with the freedom of being young.
Twenty year’s later (how did that happen?), I returned, older, wiser (but that’s arguable) and able to buy food to ensure I didn’t get hungry and mean.
And it’s still as emerald and magic and filled with esoteric beings as it was (and a good few more restaurants/pubs and a chocolate shop!). Reading the community notices wall, we were blessed with gratitude and authenticity and plenty of potential tarot readings, including one promising that she worked ‘with fairies for wisdom, insight and joy’.
The spectacular road in and the view from the edge of the cliffs was all I needed to grow my wisdom, and bless me with insight and joy. No tarot, eco-shrine or yogi-humming necessary. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, and made me think of this:
As 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.