And so to Nirvana. Chris Marais told me that he could spend a week in Nieu Bethesda. We had 24 hours. I will find that week at a later date. In any event, 24 hours was longer than we’d spent anywhere other than Calvinia.
There are no tarred roads in Nieu Bethesda. I hope they keep it that way. There are two pubs on the Chris' top 21 list, though, and a highly recommended lamb restaurant called, er, the Karoo Lamb. Culinary perfection for me doesn’t stray very far from a sympathetically grilled lamb cutlet, pink on the inside and with a bit of crispy fat opposite the bone. I hadn’t found one exactly like that yet. Many delicious variants, a few involving curry, but none with the exquisite simplicity I was looking for.
The Karoo Lamb on the left. The hub of Nieu Bethesda
I believed with all my heart that my quest would end at the Karoo Lamb. Remember Nick Broomfield? Well I suppose it’s an added reason to return to Nieu Bethesda. Closed it was. On our one and only night in the place. The owners were dining elsewhere, it being a quiet evening in downtown NB ...
Actually Ian, who owns a lot of the facilities in Nieu Bethesda, was most solicitous and steered us to the fascinating Art Centre (not one of his own) where we learned about /Xam history in the afternoon and had a tasty lamb curry in the evening. The /Xam culture is depicted in a series of stunning tapestries that were enthusiastically described to us by a young chap who worked on the project. My reluctance to display my ignorance prevented me from exploring the nuances of /Xam vs San. Another compelling reason to return to NB.
After our cultural introduction we needed some refreshment and repaired to the Brewery and Two Goats Deli, a short(ish) walk from the centre ville. On our way there we crossed the ubiquitous Karoo dry river bed and were astounded by the sheer width and depth of it, evidencing the amount of water that must roar down its course on rare occasions.
The road to the craft brewery
Walking along the gravel road to the Two Goats we encountered a car racing up and screeching to a halt alongside us. It didn’t actually screech because it was a gravel road but there was some dust involved.
“Are you rich Americans?” a not-unfriendly face demanded.
“Well, we’re not rich and we’re not American but otherwise you have hit the nail on the head,” I quipped. He wasn’t deterred as I had a Nikon dangling from my neck. I’m not sure if he knew it was quite an expensive one but, hey, it was just an excuse for a chat anyway. I just love that about people in remote places and the Karoo is pretty right on in that respect.
Everyone says you have to have lunch at the Two Goats Deli but this was late afternoon. Another reason to return. The beer wasn’t half bad, either. Nor was the seating crafted from old tyres, a kind of souped-up version of the sandals we all envied back in the 60s.
Now we had to go to the Ramstal, the premier joint for a dop (another Afrikaans word that would take a sentence to explain why you can’t just say “drink”). The Ramstal does Karoo shooters including one called “Aardvark’s gat”. I was determined to have one of those after dinner but, come 9PM, the flesh was less willing than the spirit had been at 6PM. Another reason ...
Richard had reached his alcohol quotient by about 6 so he departed from the Ramstal, leaving me to discuss rugby, in Afrikaans, with the barman (the landlord, Ian, had gone out for dinner, remember ... oh I didn’t say that he is Mr Karoo Lamb and many other things beside in Nieu Bethesda).
It was twilight when I left and peace had settled over the village. There was a group of people about 1⁄2 a kilometre away down the main street. Suddenly, a shape appeared from a side street about 200 m away, turned in my direction, approaching quickly. In the few seconds before everything became clear, I in no way felt threatened, just curious. Then two horsemen galloped past and disappeared into the gloom. Later that night, sated from the Art Centre and reneging on the Aardvark’s Gat, I was preparing for bed in my cottage (also owned by Ian) when there was a commotion outside. On peering out of the door I enjoyed the spectacle of a bunch of unaccompanied cows strolling past along the road.
Two pioneering women in the arts
I would have to write a scholarly tome to describe the next morning. The Karoo Lamb having redeemed itself with a guilt-inducing fat-boy-special for breakfast, Richard and I went to the Owl House and Camel Yard. This is the museum of the life of Helen Martins. She was an extraordinary artist who died in 1976. I can’t believe that she won’t become more famous than she already is. There is enough information on Google for it to be a fool’s errand for me to try to describe her and her installation. The only thing I can say is that I spent a couple of hours in a small area and left, lost for words. Anything I would have tried to write in the visitors’ book would have come out trite. So I didn’t try.
There was a small personal note. Miss Martins, being somewhat of an outcast in Nieu Bethesda, did not have many friends but one of them was the sister of a girl I used to date in the 60s. She and Helen were photographed together. I last saw Helen’s friend in the 80s when she came to a braai armed with a fish and a banana leaf. RIP Helen Martins; you certainly had none of that during your time on this earth.
Richard and I moved on to Cradock, another picturesque Karoo town with vestiges of its colonial past adding to its attractiveness. A splendid hotel, the Victoria Manor, with its accommodation supplied by a street of beautifully restored cottages, is the centrepiece. The Albert Bar in the depths of the Manor’s opulent dining area is another fine watering hole.
For us, Cradock was almost too much. Having visited Helen Martins in the morning, we stumbled on Olive Schreiner in the afternoon. How many tears can one stem in a day? But the Olive Schreiner museum is a must, if only because the biographical material of her life is a bit hard to pin down. Ruth First wrote a book but it is out of print. How can there be no extant biography of this remarkable woman. She didn’t just write The Story of an African Farm, she was modern woman personified in the late 19th century and would have made many a suffragette blush.
The Owl House can only be appreciated properly by going there. I tried to pick out four photos at random to give a bit of a flavour. It was a difficult task. The entire house and garden is an art installation. By contrast, the Olive Schreiner House was achingly simple with a comprehensive wealth of information inside. The sommelier behind the Albert Bar in the Karoo was most welcoming.
... there remained a cycle race to complete
Where did we leave the Karoo? Tarkastad, Queenstown? Certainly by the time we got to Matatiele in our dash for Durbs, things were getting a lot greener and there was actual water in the rivers.
All that remained was for me to complete the Amashova, representing the Farcycles and resplendent in pink and white jersey emblazoned with cycling pigeon and gothic folly tower. On the starting line in Pietermartitzburg, a few fellow cyclists looked a little askance:
“Far sigh kills,” one of them commented, interrogatively.
“Do you ride a buy sigh kill?” I retorted.
“What are you on about, man?”
“It’s far sick ills,” I explained. “I come from Faringdon in Oxfordshire where everything is a bit farcical.”
“Oh,” he didn’t look particularly impressed.
Farcical but I finished (in a decent time, too
Forming up at the start with my generous host for the event, old school friend Alan Beall, and then a couple of snaps by roadside photographers.
A hundred and six kilometres later, having traversed the aptly named Valley of a Thousand Hills, and now standing by the seaside, my mate Alan and I were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
Coming Up: We're off to serendipitous Scotland in Campy before our brains archive the memories.
 Those who haven't followed this Karoo pub crawl blog from the beginning, Chris Marais provided a lot of the input as to where to go and pubs of interest via www.karoospace.co.za If you would like to catch up on earlier numbers, keep scrolling down.
 Another one of Ian's, with pictures on Instagram
It is Sunday. My family has gone back to Oxfordshire, Fed should be in Rocca Canavese by now and Richard is somewhere between Tugela Falls and Joeys. I have to fetch him early tomorrow morning so that we can continue on to the Eastern Cape Karoo.
Viv is graciously hosting me at her B&B in Muizenberg but there is a catch. She is organiser and compere of the coastal town’s annual Pug races. That’s right, Pug races. Worse than that, she is also a competitor. Or her dog Hazelbridge is, anyway. Would I be Viv’s dog launcher? What could I say? After all I was only going to be the reserve launcher to #1, another guest at Silver Court.
I didn’t have much hanging around to do as backup because “Hazie” and #1 fell out early on, pretty terminally. She didn’t like being constrained away from Viv’s side. Problem was, these races had made it to the big time with a proper track, needing a compere with a public address system.
Viv's daughter, Danjelle, and I ended up being Hazie's minder. Me at the start and Dani at the finish. It was a tough job for both of us.
So it wasn’t long before I was kneeling on the start line holding tightly on to one pug with a new hatred in her eyes. The idea was that I would launch her towards the finish line as soon as the compere shouted: "go."
All the owners would be lined up at said finish, shouting for their dogs. They would all run to their owners and everything would end happily ever after.
Only Hazelbridge ran diagonally off the course at left-field. I was mortified. I had failed in my duty.
Then the truth dawned. Viv was her owner. Viv was dutifully standing at the finish line shouting for her dog. Viv was the compere. As compere, she was shouting into a microphone. The microphone was connected to the public address system located at left-field. Which is exactly where my pooch ran.
Some dignity was restored in the losers’ race when Viv ditched the microphone and Hazie ran directly to the finish.
Back on the road
Monday dawned and I threaded my way through the traffic to Cape Town International to meet my compadre, the drone pilot. We had set ourselves quite a goal for the first day of the last leg of our trip through the Eastern Karoo to Durban. Flat out up the N1 to Prince Albert, across the Swartberg Pass and on to Willowmore where we would retire to another of Chris Marais’ quirky pubs; in other words about 600 km with some dodgy dirt over some meaty mountains in the middle.
Richard arrived at the airport on time, announcing that he had barely slept since Fed and I had dropped him there on Thursday afternoon. Evidently this was partially due to a lot of arguing not entirely unrelated to the merits or otherwise of Donald Trump. As I have mentioned before, my dear friend does not abandon an argument lightly. I had a comprehensive précis while we traversed the stunningly beautiful first stage across the mountains and through the Hex River valley to Touws River. Then the road straightens out for about 160 km and, just when entertainment would’ve been useful, R reclined his seat to the maximum, announcing that he was going to catch up on his sleep. I had a lot of time to ponder on the wisdom of my Pietermaritzburg to Durban bike race (a.k.a. the Amashova) on the penultimate day of my visit to South Africa. I had been reasonably fit when I left the UK but a lot of Karoo lamb and Castle Lager had passed my lips since then, with nary a revolution of a chainring.
The next part of the trip wasn’t going to help either, if Karoospace descriptions of the establishments to come were anything to go by. I spent a lot of time debating a bowl of soup or a salad for lunch.
Richard surfaced in time for us to turn off the N1 for Prince Albert. We resolved to have lunch there before tackling one of our major challenges, the Swartberg Pass. An attractive balcony of a local hotel beckoned. All of a sudden, soup or salad didn’t seem that appealing. Was a chicken wrap a sensible compromise? It arrived. What I had ordered was a decent size but it occupied about a third of the plate. Alongside it was a mountain of chips to rival our intended post-prandial ascent. Of course, it was stupid of me; nothing in the Karoo (or, for that matter, the rest of rural South Africa) comes without its exceedingly generous portion of potato wedges.
The big pass
The gates of hell? A knot developed in my stomach contemplating what we were letting ourselves in for ...
I’m sure Karoo aficionados are more than familiar with the Swartberg Pass. Its magnificence is impossible to exaggerate. It takes your breath away almost immediately as you enter the narrow gorge at its entrance, with weird rock formations soaring on either side of you. And then, as you begin to climb, vistas unfold of mountains and gorges both regal and rugged and stretching as far as the eye can see. Yes, it does attract some tourists (for the very reasons I have just mentioned) but Richard and I traversed the pass on a Monday afternoon. For the vast majority of the time we could’ve been the only people on the mountain. The peace of it is tempered only by the nervous frisson the driver experiences when contemplating the snaking road ahead supported only by Victorian-built dry stone walls. In some places more than 10 m high.
Ascent from the Great Karoo
On each 180° switchback you find yourself a little dry-mouthed at the thought of someone coming the other way without due care and attention.
When you hit the summit (a.k.a “Die Top”) you are rewarded with a 360° view that stretches from the more arid Great Karoo to the seemingly more verdant Little Karoo to the South.
I tell you what, I’m not taking the Swartberg Pass off my list of favourites; only next time I will do it on a bicycle. Eat your heart out Stelvio.
Clockwise from top left: Looking North to the horizon over the Great Karoo; Descent to die Hel (a choice we didn't make); Although Richard's drone may have had other ideas, complained about the headwind when returning to base and was nearly lost to posterity; Descent to the Little Karoo from die Top.
And ... relax ...
We eventually arrived at Willowmore and were delighted with the accommodation at the Willow Historical Guest House that had been recommended by Julienne and Chris. As soon as we had unpacked the car we set off to the pub. Our slightly bemused hostess gave us directions down the road and we strode out into a peerless evening. We were looking for the Royal Hotel. Every rural town used to have one.
Easily found, the Royal was pleasant enough but completely not what we were expecting. Nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary, down to the banks of refrigerators containing the standard Seffrikken lagers. The landlord was hospitable and had just moved to Willowmore. He and his wife were the only
other people in the bar. Evidently is gets livelier when the bikers hit town. Burnouts have been known to take place inside but only on the floor, unlike the bar top tread marks at the Onverklaar Bar in the Tankwa. The Royal’s skid marks had also been repaired, which was an inexplicable pity as they would have added a modicum of character.
We had a lager, though, and returned to the Willow with a short interlude loitering on the bridge under the “No loitering is allowed on this bridge” sign.
Imagine our surprise when it turned out the bar we had been looking for all along was in the Historical Guest House where we were staying. Known as Pepi’s Bar, it is bedecked with apartheid era memorabilia. We decided that irony was the order of the day and quaffed a few craft beers while delving into our murky past:
The next morning we set off for what was to be a highlight and swansong of our Karoo adventure. It started with an out of world experience. We were between Willowmore and Graaff Reinet on one of those roads that goes in a dead straight line as far as the eye can see, apart from the mountain on the horizon that lures you on. We crested a brow on the undulating road suddenly to be dazzled by runway landing lights stretching to the horizon. Had we been transported into an extra-terrestrial craft? One hears about these things in the hinterland of South Africa. Once we had calmed down a bit, we realised that the spring morning sun was being reflected by the cats eyes in the road, down the middle and on either side.
This phenomenon continued for many kilometres and then faded away as suddenly as it had appeared.
After a craft beer each at the GRT brewery in Graaff Reinet and a delicious snack in the adjacent Meerkat Deli, we repaired to the local club, our raison d'être for being in this charming town, containing as it does one of the sacred 21 pubs. The Graaff Reinet Club’s watering hole is a handsome pub that has a certain notoriety thanks to a number of bullet holes scattered around the place. These were originally supposed to have been caused by some over- exuberant behaviour by the Coldstream Guards while stationed there in 1902. The truth of the matter, we discovered from the charming and informative manager, was that these holes had been repaired. All was not lost, however, as more recent members had misbehaved in a similar way. One of the later holes in the wall has a small frame around it and another, in the floor, we were reliably informed by the manager, had been made by her ex-husband.
Richard enjoys a swift, cool craft beer (L) at the craft brewery while we wait for the Graaff-Reinet Club (R) to open; with further refreshment, a tour and anecdotes from the manager.
After our last supper in Calvinia we walked out of town along the road to Nieuwoudtville to view the intense sky without the light pollution from the town. I need to do that again, probably near Sutherland. To lie on my back and stare into the heavens. Essential kit will include an ultra warm sleeping bag. That night the temperature in Calvinia was 1°C. I believe it had surpassed 30°C during the mid-afternoon.
Sad as it was to leave Calvinia with so many unfulfilled plans, the next leg of our journey contained one of its defining highlights: the Tankwa Padstal. This was supposed to be a pub crawl, after all.
If you look at a map, there is only one obvious way to get from Calvinia to the padstal; 167km in a straight line down the R355 to Ceres. Only, when I tried to plan the journey using Google maps, it was determined to take us on any other route than the R355. The preferred option was 223 km via Middelpos. While it was tempting to explore the home of Anthony Sher’s excellent novel about his presumed smous (peddler) ancestors, that would have meant an extra 56 km between us and mecca.
A brief inquiry in Calvinia before setting off suggested that the R355 was “fine” and definitely the best way to get to the Tankwa Padstal.
Three-and-a-half kilometres later, we turned off the tar on to the R355’s gravel. There was a bakkie (ute, small pickup truck; sometimes Afrikaans words are just better) stopped on the other side of the road with its owner flagging us down. My heart sank. Was this an omen?
As I wound down the window the gentleman, who seemed non-threatening, asked: “English or
I professed to having some knowledge of Afrikaans. He asked if we were going all the way to Ceres. The Tankwa Padstal was mentioned and he was satisfied. It turns out there was a “Camino” taking place from Calvinia to Ceres but that the walkers weren’t anywhere near the padstal yet. Our new friend was a benefactor donating some “pampoene” and we could save him the trip. How could we refuse?
He made several trips back to the bakkie to retrieve three large boxes, which we thought was a little
cheeky, given the smallness of our rental car. But we’d agreed. After he sped off gratefully, Richard and I peered into the first box. Fed was standing by baffled. I don’t remember if it was Richard or me that blurted: “These are not pampoene and they are all vrot.”
We had to explain to Fed that pampoene were pumpkins, that these were in fact butternuts and that vrot meant that they were way past their sell by date (you see, the superior Afrikaans word strikes again).
Just as we were setting off again and approaching our cruising speed, a big black 4x4 came roaring past, going in the same direction and drowning us in a cloud of dust. A few expletives later, and having focussed on the gorgeous Bloukrans Pass for the next 20 km, we came across the offending vehicle again, this time changing a wheel at the side of the road. Smugly slowing, we wound down a window and asked if we could help.
“Ag, we’re OK thanks,” the driver replied, adding, “this R355 is notorious for punctures.”
We had gone just far enough for our disquiet to subside and our smugness to solidify when a tell-tale
plop plop plop sound reared its ugly head from our offside rear wheel. Our spare was at the bottom of a tightly packed boot and our luggage was strewn on the side of the road when the 4x4 approached from behind. He stopped and offered help. We had the situation covered and were just about to decline when one of my compadres whispered, “Why don’t we give him the pampoene?”
Somewhat reluctantly Mr 4x4 agreed. As he loaded the boxes into his bakkie he peered in.
“But they’re all vrot,” he complained.
I must say we were a little relieved that we weren’t going to be the ones to palm them off on to the caminoistas.
One puncture down on this “notorious” road and no spare left was a bit stressful. Quite a few kilometres later we came across a bunch of signs. Most of them were a bit knackered looking but one stood out. It was bright, shiny and professional and proclaimed “Tyre Shop”. Our excitement was a little tempered by the less ostentatious sign underneath explaining that it was 7 km and 3 gates away.
We persevered anyway. The road deteriorated dramatically after the second gate and we questioned the probability of a further puncture on the way to the tyre shop.
We were close to turning back when we came over the brow of a particularly difficult hill to see the
Tankwa tented camp sprawling before us. This is the home of AfrikaBurn, the South African equivalent of the Burning Man festival. The Tankwa area is a bit like a moonscape anyway and the relics of burned out sculptures gave this part of it a feeling of the aftermath of Mad Max.
As we descended there was a reassuring sign directing us to the tyre shop and another asking us to report to reception.
We steered straight towards the tyre shop.
This was where the reassurance ended. It was a somewhat makeshift barn filled mainly with detritus including some dead mountain bikes. There was a pile of pretty shredded tyres, though, so we decided not to give up just yet.
We went in search of reception. A sign pointed to a “TV lounge”. There was no one in sight so we walked in to find a collection of old car seats tastefully arranged and looking out at the Tankwa. Sublime blues/rock was emanating from the next room. This turned out to be a rather fine bar, which, in turn, led into the reception area. Only there was no receptionist and, no matter how much we rang the bell, one did not materialise.
Feeling despondent we were returning to the car when a smiling face appeared from the camp on the
other side of what looked like a dusty parade ground.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Can you fix a tyre?” we chorused.
“I can’t but there is a man somewhere around who can,” he replied rushing off in search of this person.
He reappeared not long after with another young smiling person.
“Are you the chap who can fix our tyre?” we chorused again.
“No, but I know a man who can (a bit of poetic licence there), I’ll see if I can find him.”
He set off with us in pursuit. As we rounded a building we came across a third chap simultaneously
donning a trouser clip and mounting a bicycle facing in a direction that would take him away from us.
Happily he saw us out of the corner of an eye and spun around grinning.
“What can I do for you?”
We repeated our chorus and, with no further ado, he whipped some keys out of his pocket and opened a large container standing next to the detritus shed. The door swung open and our spirits soared. The place was tidily kitted out for repairs.
John (for that turned out to be his name) brought out the appropriate tools, a tub of goo and some strips of stuff that looked somewhere between processed dried fruit and dog shit. First he extracted the offending article that resembled exactly the tip of a stone-age arrow. In a trice he had inserted the all-gooed-up strips and was testing the tyre in an old enamel bath filled with water that was standing nearby.
“All done,” John pronounced, rolling the tyre back to the car. I must say that it now definitely looked as if we had run over dog shit. It still did a bit, too, several thousand kilometres later when returning the car to its rightful owners in Durban.
“That road back to the R355 is pretty bad,” I said querulously. “What happens if we get another puncture on the way out?”
“Then you’ll just have to come back,” John chuckled.
Richard, who was shelling out the necessary, very small, amount in payment, asked a little cheekily if we could get a drink in the bar, eyeing up the threesome who had come to our aid.
“Of course,” replied John, “I can do that, too.”
We repaired to what turned out to be the Onverklaar Bar, another of the Karoospace 21. We hadn’t thought we had had time to get there but who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Happily standing with beers in hand, our three most charming hosts smiling from behind the bar, we find that
John is from Zimbabwe and his two helpers are from Malawi.
Everywhere we have encountered Malawians and Zimbabweans, and it seems they are everywhere in the hospitality trade (including the aforementioned Travellers Rest), they have impressed us with their well-mannered eagerness to help.
“Do you want some snuff?” John interrupts the reverie.
“It’s free,” John proceeded to load snuff into two small receptacles in a metal strip atop a Heath Robinson contraption. It was clear that he was going to hit the other end with a wooden mallet he had in his hand.
Richard and I thoughtfully allowed Fed to go first. With his nostrils perched on a guide just above the
snuff and his eyes closed as instructed, John proceeded to whack the mallet down, propelling the powder into our friend’s nose.
Having seen Fed come out of it unscathed, I too had a go. Very pleasant it was, too. Just what the doctor ordered to dislodge days of Karoo dust from one’s proboscis.
Before leaving, John asked us what we thought a blackened indentation in the bar counter top was. We had no idea. He seemed pleased at this and explained that it had been made by a biker doing a burn out with his rear wheel lifted on to the counter.
Such is life in the Tented Camp.
We made it back to the R355 without further incident, now feeling pretty peckish and really looking
forward to the Tankwa Padstal. En route we passed the camino walkers trudging along, some of them
carrying flags. As we sprayed them with dust we couldn’t help wondering how they would be feeling
when discovering that today’s hard earned victuals were to be vrot pampoene.
We should’ve learned not to be smug.
We finally arrived at the padstal for our next Broomfield moment.
It is closed on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday.
Luckily Richard had some padkos (another perfect Afrikaans word meaning road food) that sustained us until Matjiesfontein.
As soon as we got there we repaired to the Laird’s Arms Pub where, drinks in hand, Richard and I were too cool for school to partake in a ride on a red London double decker bus, despite the persuasiveness of the Victorian-costumed, bugle-wielding, local impresario.
Fed fell for his charms, however, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, which included a 100 metre journey up the main street of the restored town and a tour of the Lord Milner Hotel, where we ate in some style a little later.
Between Matjiesfontein and pausing at the airport, we stopped for lunch at one of the Cape's oldest wineries where two of us embarrassed our third podner by posing with frames celebrating Spier's establishment in 1691.
And so to a brief respite in our Karoo travels. Richard to the Tugela Falls to photograph them with his
drone, Fed back to Turin and me to Hermanus to catch up with my gorgeous family. Actually Fed came to Hermanus for a few days, too, and caught up with some whale watching.
Three generations of Eriksen descendants catching the winter sun. L to R Kate, Shelley-ann and matriarch, Judy, now aged 91 and still looking amazing. Kerry (a.k.a. Kinx) took the picture.
Part of the reason for going to Calvinia and spending time there was Chris’s excellent suggestion that we use the town as a base for venturing out into the region. Actually, once you look around the place, it’s a bit like being a child in a sweetie shop. So much to see and so little time to see it.
Cederberg and San Art
Serried ranks of the Cederberg between Calvinia and Clanwilliam.
At this point I need to re-introduce Viv, our hostess in Muizenberg; she also happened to be a tour guide and archaeologist specialising in the Cederberg. She’d been on at me about some San paintings near Clanwilliam.
It turns out we have to go to the Traveller’s Rest on the R364 from Calvinia.
“You can’t miss it, it’s just after the bridge,” Viv instructs.
OK? A little further investigation reveals that the bridge is over the Brandewyn (er, Brandy) River. Who could refuse? Of course, not even South Africa has rivers that actually run with distilled fermented grape juice. They do, however, have many rivers with brandy coloured water. This is caused by the presence of dissolved organic carbon compounds that are largely produced by plants.
The triumvirate was unanimous, especially as a walk was involved at our destination. The journey was
120 km of slightly dodgy gravel road compensated for by magnificent Cederberg mountain ranges.
Driving, by yours truly, was somewhat complicated by what had started as a desultory Microsoft vs.
Google argument. Note to self: never argue with a smart city lawyer with instant recall of every
document ever written about Bill Gates. Why do I get drawn into these things while negotiating potholes and skidding to a halt near a large, brown tourist road-sign in the middle of nowhere proclaiming an “Englishman’s Grave”?
Another long dusty road punctuated by Bill Gates and an Englishman's Grave.
The Victorian grave revealed that Lieutenant Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes had been killed in action near this spot on 30th January 1901. According to a bit of subsequent research, Clowes’ mother had had the memorial erected after the Boer War and had probably spent more than a month travelling from England to do so.
Still, he goes down in history where so many didn’t.
We did eventually get to the Traveller’s Rest, though and were overcome by the extraordinariness of the site. Extraordinary for me (Viv might disagree) in that it is la San city spread over several kilometres and 9 caves. The artists have also deployed dyes of several hues (purple for e.g.) that I hadn’t seen before. With the extent of it, one can only try to imagine the sociability of the San people who lived and painted there going back 80 centuries – the paintings are believed to be between 800 and 8,000 years old.
The magnificent Cederberg Purple paintings
A bonus was that the caves are accessed via the “Sevilla Rock Art Trail”, a most attractive walk in the mini-gorge created by the Brandewyn. The surrounding cliffs allowed the local baboons to monitor one’s progress from a safe elevation in the cliffs above the caves. There was a little chap up there who had a certain fondness for fondling himself that was a tad disquieting!
Fed and Richard speculate on the Brandewyn before we scramble under huge boulders to discover hidden gems
The caves themselves were all pretty well hidden.
How do people find these things after 800 years? “After 10 years working in that area, you get to be able to sniff them out,” Viv told me somewhat mysteriously, after I'd returned to the UK and wanted to check some details via WhatsApp..
Windmills and a Kokerboom forest
Last day in Calvinia and the three amigos were a smidgeon less unanimous. Being evidently the most dissolute of the party, I had visions of Doppies Bar in Williston and the photographic cornucopia that beckoned in the “mall” there. Readers will have to visit karoospace.co.za to find out what that’s like. Instead, a worthier expedition was proposed 85 km in the opposite direction: a 17.9 km walk
over extremely rugged countryside in the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve, apparently so named because
skirmishes between the Boer and Khoi people took place there in 1739. The promise of a windmill
museum in Loeriesfontein wasn’t going to deter the protagonists.
So, nursing a slightly gammy knee that I was trying to preserve for the bike race in Durban later in the
month, I parted company with Richard and Fed. I drove them to Oorlogskloof before heading up the road to Loeriesfontein with a list of my own: the museum, a waterfall (a “must see” according to Sonja), a Kokerboom woud (forest) and maybe a visit to the Hantam National Botanical Gardens at Nieuwoudtville.
Lunch amongst the Clivias held out an invitation of things to come
The last of these because the town proclaims itself as “the bulb and flower capital of the world”.
The drive from Nieuwoudtville to Loeriesfontein is essential for anyone who loves their road trips as
much as I do. The juxtaposition of desert, mountains and mysterious gorges is particularly atmospheric along this stretch. The terrain seems to be a unique mixture of what appear to be volcanic outcrops, soaring bluffs and a type of scrubby terrain I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
The first stop was the waterfall, just 7 km from Nieuwoudtville. I wasn’t particularly optimistic as, to get
to it, you have to cross the Doring River first. As the river is the falls’ source of water I was disappointed
to find, as I negotiated the bridge, that the river was apparently dry.
Where did the water come from? Upper and lower falls at Nieuwoudville.
Imagine my amazement, then, when finally getting to the falls, less than a kilometre away, there was a steady stream pouring over the top of both drops that make up the spectacle. Things are seldom what they seem in the Karoo. That is a good thing.
In the middle of nowhere on the road to Loeriesfontein can have a bit of frisson.
Next stop was the Kokerboom forest. If you are as much into Kokerbome as I am, this was breathtakingly vast and eerie. These forests are not like our Oak woods in the UK with lush green and deep shade. Go there expecting that and you will be sorely disappointed. This, after all, is a desert and these prehistoric monsters are well spaced and spread out over valleys, the sides of huge bluffs and along the top of every skyline.
They made the hairs on my arms stand up.
Happily, the trees this far South also have green foliage, such as it is. I think I took about 1,356,261
photos, none of which did the place justice.
Spaced out Kokerbome
After tarrying for more than an hour, absorbing the atmosphere, frightening the local sheep by jumping a fence to chase my hat (honest guv), which had been whipped off by a gust, and looking for the perfect specimen TREE, it was off to see some windmills.
Via an excellent coffee milkshake on the verandah of a local Loeriesfontein establishment, I ended up at the Fred Turner museum. Just the fact that this collection of wind pumps exists where it does is a phenomenon in itself. I loved the quirkery of it and I’m not even a train spotter. There was no one about to tell me more about it so I wandered around absorbing the atmosphere and took more photographs.
A sample of Fred Turner's windmills. In the Karoo you are really in the gamadooloos if you can do a 360 and not see a windpomp.
There was nothing left but to turn the car around and head back to Nieuwoudtville. The bulb and flower capital of the world beckoned. Along the road it was necessary to stop and take random photographs. The space was just like that.
After a pleasant al fresco lunch (Fed and Richard had texted me to say they were running late clambering through Oorlogskloof) I set off to see some bulbs and flowers.
Here’s a digression: I once saw an excellent documentary, “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife”.
It was quite a long production about renowned film maker Nick Broomfield’s attempts to interview Eugène Terre'Blanche. Actually, it was more about Nick not getting the interview.
And so it was with the bulbs and flowers. I headed out to the Botanical Gardens. At the gate there was
sign saying it would be R20 to get in. The whole place seemed deserted but I found the seemingly unmanned office. After a short wait, a most charming lady appeared, apologising profusely and asking
what she could do for me. I said I had come to pay my R20.
“I couldn’t possibly charge you an entrance fee,” she replied. “There’s nothing here.”
She was absolutely correct and it was my fault entirely. I had been warned that I needed to be there in
late August and it was now early October. I explained that I had an hour to kill before negotiating my way back to Oorlogskloof and she was at great pains to give me a walk that would do just that. Very pleasant it was too, although not a flower in sight.
More Broomfield moments coming soon ...
If you haven't read the previous story proceed no further until you have done so.
This is a bit of a sad story. Well for me anyway. One suspects also for other fans of the art Republic of RusticA and, indeed, others who had been hoping to visit it one day. Those who have read my previous blog in this series will recall my promise at the end: "I am going back to Calvinia. The Republic will be my first port of call."
Well I did. And it was. Kind of.
When we stayed in Calvinia on the advice of Chris Marais in 2016, it was for two reasons: the town is brilliant in its own right and it is central to many of the delights one would want to see in this part of the Karoo. Many of the latter are described in the forthcoming Karoo pub crawl 2016/3 coming out this coming Monday. There was one exception, though. Williston, its Mall and Doppies Bar. We didn't have time for that before turning South again.
Determined not to miss out again, I took the scenic route from the Weskus (Cape West Coast) across the high Northern Karoo (I'll describe this in more detail in a future blog).
In this Afterword the focus is on the art Republic of RusticA. So much so that my hire car developed a will of its own as I approached the town, driving straight to the Stigling Street address. At first I thought I was in the wrong street. Then I noticed the tall telltale ceramic gateposts and stopped and stared. Involuntary tears pricked my lashes.
The Republic is no longer.
I saw from across the road that you could still "Lui die Klok" but all I could think was: "Bastards!"
The epithet was not intended for Sonja and Dirk but for the other residents of Stigling Street who had complained that the art installation lowered the tone of the neighbourhood. I felt so deflated I didn't have the heart to ring the bell so I snuck around the corner in cowardly fashion to ask the friends at Hantam Huis, who had looked after us so well in 2016.
"She's still there but it's called the Magic Garden now," I was informed. "He took all the old metal and stuff off somewhere further North."
I crept out of town up the R63 to Williston where I heard a bit more of the story in Doppies Bar.
TBC another day ...
Next stop Calvinia; although we had to get to Kenhardt first. A long and not-very-winding road. Mostly decent gravel and atmospheric with big skies, red earth and occasional tumbleweed. The trail was further enhanced by sociable weaver nests we had first encountered between Springbok and Pofadder, and by the kokerbome (Aloe dichotoma).
There is a sad story about these prehistoric-looking trees. They are dying in their thousands as the Namib migrates slowly south. The leaves are all turning brown in that area and it is far Kenhardt to see how they will continue to survive there. There is a silver lining, though, in that more and more of them are cropping up further South where they look healthier.
The Kenhardt Hotel is a rather fine example of the sort of hotel one expects to find in such a town. It has a particularly splendid pillared verandah and a bar that could easily be #22 on the Karoospace list, despite the serried Jägermeister bottles above the bar.
Time for another digression. Everywhere we went in the Western Karoo we were struck by the welcoming, polite charm of the local people and their competence. The Kenhardt Hotel exemplified this for us both in its staff and patrons. One in particular, a customer in his early thirties, who had had no advantages presented to him on a plate, was brimming over with enthusiasm to engage us in conversation on subjects as wide ranging as solar power and Donald Trump. It was tempting to pause our journey there, drink beer and jaw jaw all afternoon and evening.
But hey, Calvinia was our intended jewel and we still had to get there by way of Brandvlei. Chris had beguiled us with the promise of … nothing. We weren’t disappointed. Richard wisely chose the back seat for this section of the journey and promptly fell asleep. I was driving and needed something to keep my pecker up so I challenged Fed to guess the distance to the next horizon. He almost invariably underestimated. I think it was 25 km away at one point. In a dead straight line. Slightly chagrined, my Italian friend, a physicist, turned his mind to coming up with a formula to estimate said distance. He produced this a week later to charm my wife, Shelley-ann, during a pitstop in Hermanus.
Calvinia was our oasis. More brilliant advice from Chris. We had rented a snore-resistant 3-bedroomed house for 4 nights from the growing portfolio of the Hantam Huis compleks. Fed immediately announced that it was the nicest accommodation he’d stayed in, anywhere in the world, and, boy, has he travelled.
On Sunday I explored Calvinia while the other two walked in the stately Hantam mountains that surround the town.
It wasn’t long before I found myself on Calvinia’s “Street of Art” and a few more moments before I was standing in front of a car door that served as the gate to the Republic of RusticA, bearing an instruction to “Lui die Klok” (See below for translation).
Before I could yank the rope on the verdigris encrusted bell, an imposing looking woman demanded if she could help. This turned out to be Sonja. I told her I had been advised to visit by Chris Marais.
“Are you a friend of Chris’s?” she exclaimed.
“Well I’ve never actually met him but he did send me an email,” I replied.
“Come in,” she demanded. “Hey Dirk, here’s a friend of Chris’s,” she shouted to her other half, who seemed to be the willowy gentleman in a sarong hastily disappearing around the corner. “Have a look down there,” Sonja instructed, indicating a group of sheds at the far end of the site.
I obeyed and eventually wandered into what appeared to be a private living area with comfy looking sofas and the remains of lunch on a table at one end. I was just reversing out when Sonja wafted in behind me. She ushered me back, into what turned out to be a kind of gallery, exhibiting her art. Well, the whole Republic is an art installation and the gallery housed its crowning glory, Sonja’s own paintings and artefacts. Leading off this room was another comfortable sitting room housing an impressive vinyl collection.
“Dirk also has a huge collection of 35 mm movies,” Sonja pronounced, “if you’re around one evening, he might show you some.”
Dirk collects many things. To a lot of people, much of it might appear to be junk but it had become evident to me that everything had its rightful place in the installation. I was hooked. A sign in the yard proclaimed “RESTAURANT, TOILETS, BAR”. I was determined to return with my mates to partake in this bohemian splendour.
I asked Sonja if this might be appropriate.
“Ja, I sometimes do a braai or make pizza. There’s a bit of a collection of wine here, too, but I’m not licensed. Tonight is Sunday. It’s usually quiet but that would mean we have more time for you.”
Armed with this slightly ambiguous information I was champing at the bit to get Richard and Fed back there that evening. We returned at what seemed like appropriate opening time. There didn’t seem to be anyone about but I led the way to the lounge anyway. Two very friendly ladies were busy extracting the cork from a bottle of red. We assumed it was a house bottle and accepted a glass each. The glasses were of the dimension that meant a bottle didn’t quite go five ways. One of the ladies ended up with half a glass. Anyway, it turns out these two were guests of the self-catering arm of RusticA. The wine was their own personal bottle. They were absolutely magnanimous about us quaffing it, though. They were repeat visitors and seemed confident that Sonja would eventually appear, as would more bottles of wine, together with our host’s personal bottle of whisky. We made appropriate donations in the honesty box.
Lively conversation ensued. Sonja showed up and we were in full flow by the time the gentleman of the house appeared.
“Hey Dirk,” Sonja proclaimed, “these are the friends of Chris’s I told you about.”
“Actually … ,” I interjected.
“Why don’t you take them to Newtown with you?” she suggested.
It turns out the van Rensburgs, a.k.a. Dirk and Sonja, owned a bakery. In fact they owned several but this one was also on the premises of the Republic. Dirk still had to go out in his van to collect bread crates from the small shops dotted around the Newtown township, which adjoins Calvinia.
Fed and I didn’t hesitate. What a positive experience. I’m not saying the people there weren’t poor but there was something not too short of an idyll out there. Children playing free in the streets. Young people dressed to the nines performing what Fed would recognise as a form of passeggiata, a kind of parade with courting not too far from anyone’s mind that is commonly found in Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Big smiles from all the vendors Dirk visited. Of course, it could have been our host’s positivity that encouraged this but I thought there was more it than that.
Then back to RusticA. After a quick tour of the bakery, it turned out that Sonja was cooking pizza, despite her protestations at having a genuine Italian present. Delicious it was, too. We ate it cross-legged in a comfy area until we were all (a few other participants had appeared by this stage) stuffed and Sonja finally agreed to have some for herself.
Back to the lounge for more wine etc. and deep conversation with Dirk. He has a beguiling philosophy. Art and the spiritual goodness of people were core elements. He was a guy any discerning person would want as a friend and he apparently didn’t even drink (apart from fine coffee from a massive espresso machine that is.)
Richard, who hadn’t had the benefit of an alcohol-free tour of Newtown, was becoming tired and emotional so we decided to repair to our lodgings. Upon inquiring as to what we owed for our hospitality, Sonja gestured towards the honesty box.
“I like it that way”, she grinned. “People always give more than I would ask.”
I am going back to Calvinia. The Republic will be my first port of call.