Broadly East of the Kasteelberg
Shelley-ann makes no bones about the fact that endless wine-tasting is more my kind of thing than hers. It's not that she doesn't like wine, she does. But she knows what she likes and sees no point in pontificating about it for hours on end. So I developed a long running ruse that started out with asking her to base some of her Fauvist painting on wine-related photographs I'd taken ...
The sequel to that, and her hard work, would be to visit some of the places she'd painted sight unseen. Places I'd been but she hadn't. Come to think of it, a large chunk of of the rationale for Around the Cape in 144 Days (AtCi144D) had been to share some of the bits of South Africa we hadn't seen together during the more than 40 years of our relationship.
So part of the plan for this episode, Part 1, of AtCi144D is to (re)introduce four of Shan's paintings. Explanations (where they came from etc.) will be in the second episode. Part 1 is also a sub-plot for yours truly to prepare for (sugar-coat if you like) a bit of more in-depth sampling of wine in the Western Cape.
I hope readers will think this is a bit of fun rather than a Machiavellian scheme by me to ensure that the following episode, Part 2, will be read. Nonetheless, hopefully the four paintings below will whet your appetite to carry on reading:
Hermanus at last
A year late but we got there. We were introduced to Mia, the 2-month-old latest addition to matriarch and great grandmother Judith's growing clan. We welcomed a debrief from Kerry (Shan's sister a.k.a. Kinks, who had been by their mother's side throughout lockdown) and Tim (Kinks' other half) in which we were counselled to allow 92-year-old Judith a good night's sleep before the reunion, Shelley-ann got to see her Mum at last. I am assured that it was an emotional and tearful reunion. Tim and I kept a respectful distance until the mum, daughter, sibling relationship was re-established. We took a stroll on the wonderful cliff path and admired the ocean.
After a week's unwinding, visiting, eating, drinking and reacquainting ourselves with Hermanus, we were ready to resume the trip that had been arranged and rescheduled multiple times since it had originally been conceived and reservations had been made.
The first stop was to be Saronsberg, which encapsulated the parallel missions of our 144 day Southern journey. A Western Cape winery with a magnificent art installation. In the mean time, serendipity had been rekindled by some joint painting sessions with Judy, Kinks and Shan.
So we headed North. Into the mountains. Again.
(Above L to R): We travelled broadly in an anticlockwise loop with a few sticking out bits as the mood took us, broadly West of the Kasteelberg were, in theory where the wine-making heavy hitters resided; as one arrives at Saronsberg, there are pieces of sculpture arranged in the nooks and crannies of the approach to the main building - we did wonder what these two might have been saying to each other - a couple of mature Gumnut Babies about to ascend the gum tree, perhaps?
Apart from combining art and wine, I had chosen to take Shan to Saronsberg for two more reasons: spectacular scenery and the simple but charming cottages providing the accommodation. We had planned to stay there for two nights but we'd come to grief after having to shift our holiday backwards. This actually ended up working to our benefit when we shifted our second night to Tulbagh.
But back to that one night in Saronsberg, the accommodation and views were as beguiling as I'd remembered them from my previous visit two years earlier but the complete lack of any personal touch was not as I had recalled it. When we arrived, our key was in the cottage door and there was wine on sale on the stunningly beautiful patio. But the choice was limited, especially when looking for a white wine that was not Sauvignon Blanc. There was a Viognier that was competent. We ended up buying a bottle of that. The bottle of the flagship Full Circle Syrah-dominated blend was smothered in stickers proclaiming its excellence. That and the price dissuaded me from testing it further.
The gallery itself was worth a visit on its own. Inside and out it is integrated with the surrounding winery and then the landscape ...
We sipped our Viognier contentedly on the little patio at our cottage and marvelled at the truly remarkable sunsets that occur in the Tulbagh valley.
The following morning we dropped our keys in the drop box and headed up the valley until we ran out of road. It didn't take long but did afford us a view of the splendid Twee Jonge Gezellen estate, which now seems to focus exclusively on its Krone range of bubbly. There was a time in my youth when Twee Jonge Gezellen TJ39 was the epitome (to my mind, at least) of posh South African white wine.
But now we were hungry and needed breakfast/brunch. We headed for Tulbagh and happened upon Kole & Deeg.
Once again my propensity for gluttony, coupled with a no-breakfast hunger encouraged by the drive in the country beforehand, mitigated against getting a photo until the meal was half-finished.
"If it's so bloody delicious, why don't you take a photo?" my wife exhorted me once my plate was half empty.
So what you see below is one of the mostest, ultimatest fry ups I've had. Having waited for late brunch may have something to do with it but, judge for yourself.
So as not to repeat the unpreparedness, we repaired directly to the Paddagang (middle below) and obtained a booking. We had heard it was popular. Perhaps the house cat had eaten the cream (and all the frogs1) by the time we got there many hours later. We were the only diners. Actually the grub was lovely - the lunchtime crowd outside when we'd first spied the place had dissipated.
Then we had the afternoon to survey the aftermath of the devastation caused by the 1969 earthquake and the phoenix that arose to become what is Kerk Straat2 today. I have already been berated on social media for exclaiming at the phenomenal restoration of the Cape Dutch architecture that exists in this street today. I do understand why a large sector of the South African population is not as impressed as I was at the rebuilding of this part of Tulbagh to its original specs. I really do. But a street vandalised by Victorian busybodies and then rebuilt to its original assisted by money provided by the Rupert family is not entirely a bad thing.
Check out a few of our pictures if you disagree and have the debate with someone else. Maybe go there too. There's a pocket museum with the details3. In the meantime, here are a few examples of what exists in Kerk Straat today, lovingly restored to its 170-year old glory, previously vandalised by Victorians.
In the same complex there is also a Christo Coetzee art museum that is equally small but perfectly formed.
One of our little excursions out from Tulbagh took us up the valley towards the mountains. There is no way through (by road anyway) the mountains. It's like a perfect amphitheatre with only a few tarred roads in its basin. Determined to explore every inch of it we veered up any road that would take us closer to the Groot Winterhoek range and the source of the Klein Berg River.
There is one main asphalt road with one or two lesser arteries which don't stray very far from the Winterhoek Road.
We were proceeding up this route when we were suddenly confronted with the virtual obstruction below. At first we were tempted to ignore the command and plead ignorance. After all there was a picture of a truck surmounting it and the appearance of the road on the other side was no different from the bit where we'd now ground to a halt.
We were left in no doubt when a large SUV appeared as if from nowhere.
The driver rolled his window down. He was polite but there was an underlying hint of menace.
"Where are you going?" he demanded. He was not smiling.
"We were hoping to go further up the road," I started, looking him in the eye. His face was hardening: "But I saw the sign and I'm now turning around."
He relaxed infinitesimally as I started to turn my wheels slightly resentfully towards the "draai plek". The SUV didn't move until we'd performed our U-turn and headed back from whence we came.
Questions started running through our heads. Look for yourselves. That piece of tarmac beyond the draai plek is maintained by the same authority as the bit we had been on. What was up there that we were not allowed to see? I had wanted to take the photograph above but it didn't seem sensible under the scrutiny of SUV man. Instead I did the unthinkable and ripped it from Google.
Heading for Riebeek Kasteel
With one road in there was nothing for it but to head back the way we'd come and take the gap made by the Klein Berg river South West of Tulbagh. I only mention this in detail because the new Nuwekloof Pass has views of the old pass that must have been a bit spine chilling when there was no other way through. The alternative would have been a one and a half hours detour around the mountains. Of course there was also the terrifying 170-year-old Bains Kloof Pass that probably would've been even slower.
So Riebeeck Kasteel (RK) beckoned. We were to spend two nights in Jacques Pauw's4 guesthouse, now named the Tin Roof Taverna. I had remembered it as the Red Tin Roof when I had last visited for a pukka Sunday roast a couple of years previously. Now it was a Portuguese-influenced taverna, which was fine. What wasn't fine, though, was that Booking.com had cocked up our booking. There was no room at the inn. Not on our first night, anyway.
In fairness to everyone involved, our itinerary had slipped so many times with the pandemic. What was concerning was that there was very little unbooked accommodation left in RK. We didn't really know where to turn. What we hadn't reckoned with was the wonderful Sam Rogers. She and Jacques were partners in this enterprise.
"Go and have some lunch in town and leave it with me," Sam promised. "I'll have some options for you when you get back." Sure enough when we got back we had some options. Good ones. We ended up at the upmarket Cafe Felix. Sam had arranged with the owner to cover our B&B expenses. Did we want to spend the second night back at her taverna? Yes we did. A decision we didn't regret.
(L to R Above): Our palatial room at Cafe Felix; back at the Tin Roof Taverna for a langoustine lunch and feeling contented.
And of course we popped into the unique Wine Kollective that surely has the most comprehensive kollection of Swartland wines.. Owner Anton Espost was in and we grabbed a few bottles of stuff we probably weren't going to find elsewhere (easily and all in one place, at least)
We skirt around the Kasteelberg in search of some wine legends and accommodation that had been arranged in London and been on hold throughout lockdown. Two years later I was hoping to fulfil some of the dreams hatched in Riebeek Kasteel in the Southern winter of 2019.
How many times have you driven along the R62 and passed through Calitzdorp? Maybe you stopped for fuel? Or maybe even coffee? I'd wager that that would be the limit for the uninitiated.
Then a perfect storm occurred for Shelley-ann and me. Being a recently converted Karoophile, I started looking for new adventures in what had previously been a long haul from Outdshoorn to Barrydale and interesting snippets started emerge. At the same time an interest in wine was drawing me towards the activities of Margaux Nel and Leon Coetzee - and then to top it off it transpired that a dear friend had been "trapped" in the town by the Covid pandemic.
More of that later. I'd wanted my life's partner to share some of my recently acquired enthusiasm for the Karoo and wished to break the long haul from Nieu Bethesda (NB) to Hermanus. Recommendations in the general area of Calitzdorp had piqued the imagination. It kind of split the long haul, leaving us with a relatively leisurely run into our destination so that Shan could have time with her sister, Kerry, to gather her wits before visiting her 92-year-old Mum, Judy, after more than 2 years of lockdown. It was going to be emotional and she needed to prepare.
As soon as I spotted this description in the Greenwood Guide1, a collection of "hand-picked accommodation", I consulted my dear wife and we were hooked on visiting Boesmanskop:
"Tinie Bekker’s small ... farm tucked neatly into the Swartberg ... . Tinie is entirely modest about the two guest rooms he built on account of a billiards table (long story), calling ‘simple farm accommodation’ what more arty types might describe as ‘rustic chic suites’. Rustic in the sense of reed ceilings, wonky wood floors and pebble-stoned showers – and the swallows which dart in and out in the evenings – but chic with their fine white linen and cleverly restored old family furniture ... . Wonderfully unkempt gardens are a kaleidoscope of colours with such novelties (in South Africa) as pansies, while the vegetable garden provides much of your evening meal. But he’s modest about his green fingers... and modest, too, about his ‘paint-by-numbers’ cookery skills, which allowed him to conjure ... up freshly-baked bread and a delicious four-course meal in the main farmhouse."
The actualité was pretty much as the guide had stated and we were treated to a unique experience. The food was fit for gourmets and Tinie produced delightful course after delightful course before removing his virtual apron and announcing:
"And now I would like to invite you to join me in my lounge for coffee and conversation."
He led us into the inner sanctum of his house. He seemed diffident at first (Shelley-ann can appear intimidating) but soon warmed to the conversation, asking us about our trip and then providing unique snippets about the area and his involvement in it.
We'd never had anything quite like this and it was an insight into how guests could be made to feel welcome without all the marketing gloss.
The next morning, fortified by a country breakfast that reset the mould, we set off for Calitzdorp itself.
We were to meet and reacquaint ourselves with Adele. Shan had last seen her in 1987 at the Clanfield Tavern in Oxfordshire (below). Adele had been on a a post-Stellenbosch au-pairing sabbatical in Reading and assured us we'd driven her back to her employers' home after our evening at the pub. At the time she was in a relationship with my brother, Paul. Shortly after her return to the Cape they were engaged.
I had last seen Adele at the scattering of Paul's ashes in March, 1988.
Now, more than 30 years later, she was living in Singapore but stuck in South Africa during the severest part of the global lockdown. Her husband, Johan, and she had bought a house in Calitzdorp many years earlier and returned there for holidays from time to time with their musically talented daughters, Frances and Lara. The young women were making their way back to the US to continue their careers but stricter Singaporean rules together with the fact that Johan had recently been clobbered by Covid, meant that he and Adele were stuck for the time being in the Little Karoo.
We were to spend the day with the van Vuurens. Adele had asked what we'd like to do in Calitzdorp. I mentioned I'd be a happy bunny if I could visit the Boplaas Nel-Coetzee co-op. Johan and she set about organising a tasty, tightly-packed intinerary for us, starting at the Boplaas winery where Margaux was the winemaker and Leon her assistant. The subtext was that the Coetzee-Nel duo had a separate wine production operation, The Fledge, where their roles were reversed.
There was so much to see at Boplaas and such generosity of spirit that we wound up distorting the carefully laid van Vuuren plan to a fair degree. I will accept most of the blame for being in seventh heaven but I cannot entirely exonerate Leon. Margaux had given us a winery tour that would have more than satisfied most wine buffs. I was beginning to think we might not meet Leon, even when we retired to the tasting room.
Then you could feel the energy approaching down the corridor. Part comedian, 100% enthusiastic vintner with seemingly boundless energy this was a fellow on a mission to innovate. I lost count of how many bottles we tasted and completely cocked up any photo opportunity and tasting notes. Adele and Johan helped out with the latter but I have Tim Atkin MW to thank for the first pic below, taken a few years previously when this lovely couple would have been transitioning from Young Guns2 to mature winemakers. Happily, although Leon, during a flight of oratory, was a tad critical of most "pretentious" wine gurus, he had only kind words for Tim. Whew. Margaux sat smiling, quietly benignly, having showed us around the winery where Adele, I and Johan can be seen listening intently.
The wine wasn't too dusty either. The most sincere compliment is always drinking a lot of it after one has departed. Johan and Adele kindly presented us with an assorted case at the end of the day and we had to replenish that several times during our sojourn in Hermanus. The Fledge Riesling was a particular favourite3, a bottle of which mysteriously snuck its way into my suitcase for the return journey. Not only is it an Atkin 93%er, it is also a crowd pleaser. Sadly, unless Leon and Margaux have changed their minds, there won't be any more in the short-term.
Johan and Adele finally managed to extract me from Boplaas and treated us to a delightful lunch at Die Bakhuis before leaping back into the car and heading through the spectacular back roads towards the Swartberg. We were to meet Peter and Yvonne Bayly at their wine farm nestling under the mountains. It almost felt as if we'd gone full circle back to Tinie's place at Boesmanskop. Peter had been a somewhat legendary hotelier in Cape Town and was now residing in rustic splendour focusing on wine specialising predominantly in grapes of Portuguese origin. Much like Boplaas, there was a focus on beverages formerly known as Port4 with a by product of some smashing table wine5.
L to R above: Johan and Adele, Shelley-ann and Yvonne and Peter Bayly
The Baylys were welcoming and informative hosts and it was all too soon that we had to say our farewells. We still had a couple more treats in store. I did mention that the van Vuurens had pushed the boat out to ensure our visit to Calitzdorp would be a memorable one.
Next stop was back towards the town at the Axe Hill winery. We hadn't realised that Johan himself was a bit of a winemaker and, as is the way with many boutique winemakers, aspects of his were being managed at Axe Hill. We were to be treated to a preview, which was pre-launch but was definitely showing signs of future promise. We were there for a while and, while the wine buffs were discussing the finer points of Portuguese grape varieties, Shan slipped out for a sneaky vape and to enjoy the setting sun only to be accosted by a woman who claimed to have been a figure model for Vladimir Tretchikoff. My parents had considered his paintings to be the height of kitsch but they are currently enjoying a renaissance. More of the renaissance in a later blog, involving Carla from Nieu Bethesda again, and my daughter, Kate.
Meanwhile, my wife was being doorstepped by Brenda van der Westhuizen, who had recently been featured in the Boerewors Express6 recounting her encounter with Tretchi back in the day. The pair of them entered the warehouse and we left Brenda enjoying a glass of wine with Mike the winemaker.
We had had a fab day, which was to be crowned with a remarkable meal of KFC. Courtesy of Gary who seems to run a popup restaurant a.k.a. Under the Pepper Tree7, which sports the sign "Books & Bites", giving no indication that you are about to eat like a gourmet in Eastern fusion food. We were the only guests as Johan had requested that Gary opened specially.
As we crunched up the path to his tiny restaurant, Gary appeared in the doorway, leant against the doorjamb with his arms crossed and a big smile.
"Well He-llo," he grinned.
My wife was instantly smitten: "Well He-llo," she responded.
Gary seated us at a table on his verandah. It was a suitably balmy evening. With drinks out of the way, our meal was next on the list. Adele had cautioned us that menu options were limited.
"What have you got for us?" Johan asked our host.
"Well, there's KFC," offered Gary.
He could see that Shan was looking a bit crestfallen. Apart from anything else she was starving and the idea of waiting for a delivery was playing on her mind.
"Korean Fried Chicken," he quipped, sensing her disappointment. She was sold. I was determined to have the dumplings Adele had recommended. Living in Singapore (when Covid-free), she and Johan were well qualified to judge. No-one was less than effusively satisfied
What a full, happy day. We returned to Tinie's place with smiles on our faces and gratitude towards our wonderful hosts for the day. We hoped that Johan would be able to recuperate suitably from his Covid after working like a Trojan to ensure that we had a good time in Calitzdorp.
The Swartberg is a difficult place to leave and Tienie's place deserved a last lungful of air and a draught of the incomparable surroundings. The last frame is of the red stone hills of the Rooikrans that we travelled through as we set off for the coast.
But not before another splendid breakfast from our Tinie, which included a brief chat and that ephemeral sadness that you are left with on road trips. New horizons beckon but the old ones are necessarily left behind. Sensual greed, perhaps?
Last lap to Hermanus
Now that our destination was in sight, we were on familiar territory for the last stretch. We had planned to travel due South from Calitzdorp, traverse the Rooiberg Pass before a brief photoshoot in van Wyksdorp. We had been recommended to do this by several people including Marschant Escórcio, a fellow photographer whose work I'd admired, and Francois Louw, a Calitzdorp local we met in a chance meeting in Elbé van Heerden's restaurant in Nieu Bethesda.
The trick was to find the correct exit from Calitzdorp on its Southern side. Our satnav wasn't being particularly helpful. All it wanted was for us to return to the R62 so we resorted to the age old method that had served us well for most of our travelling lives: ask a local.
We found a likely person who immediately pointed at our Toyota Corolla sedan: "You're not planning to go over the Rooiberg Pass in that," she exclaimed. "You need something with proper ground clearance." She had a point so I decided not to tell her about previous escapades in Corollas in the mountains surrounding Lesotho. Maybe the old Toyotas had been developed and tested in a different South Africa.
Discretion got the better part of valour and we turned back to the R62. There was a small consolation in a short detour into Swellendam for lunch. Neither of us had been into the old colonial town before and it is mightily handsome. Worth a proper visit one day.
And then we were in Hermanus. Beside the sea and with family to hug and relate our exploits to. Tomorrow we would visit Judy, the Deale and Eriksen family matriarch. Shan wanted to do that properly with a full day ahead.
A trip to the Swartland beckons.
Whether staying in modest quarters or €500-a-night glitz, it is always the initial little things the hosts do that leave a lasting impression of hospitality. Although there are also some grand entrances that can melt a traveller into being instantly receptive when checking in.
With the latter in mind, and because I had travelled the road to Nieu Bethesda (NB) on a previous occasion I could barely contain my excitement as we drove through pretty spectacular scenery for 18.5 km. I wanted Shelley-ann to take it all in and share my love of the place. There was a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing going on from her (which was most gratifying) and a fair number of "just wait"s from yours truly. Because the best was yet to come.
And then: BOOF, we round the bend into the paradigm shift below. The promise of arriving in a very special place. We stopped the car to take it all in. The excitement when we resumed our journey was palpable.
Of course, in my excitement to get to NB that morning I had neglected to ring ahead as requested to provide an ETA. We rocked up rather early, too, found the house, the Oude Pastorie, and regarded it with approval. Wasn't that difficult as it was the first house in the town proper. But it was deserted. I rang the the number I had been provided with and got hold of Carla (Smit). She explained she was looking after the house for the owner and was apologetic that she would need a short while to get back to her own house where she would welcome us. Carla's house was a couple of 100 metres up the road and pretty splendid. She invited us into her guest lounge and gave us the most comprehensive welcome to Nieu Bethesda imaginable. While she ran through the delights of the town on a map, adding some of her own embellishments, it occurred to us that we would need to stay for 4 weeks rather than 4 nights to get the full experience.
When I had been to NB almost exactly five years previously the town had seemed to be the personal domain of a gentleman named Ian Alleman. A lot had happened in the intervening period and now the tall, striking Carla was she-who-had-to-be-obeyed (in the nicest possible way). Breakfast was to be at her and Ludolf's Pizzeria, Bruno's. There's more to follow about Bruno a little later on.
Our accommodation was a short walk away in a converted wagon house (waenhuis) at Die Oude Pastorie. We unloaded our car and then Shan went outside to torment the local tortoise. On this occasion he was just wandering around our capacious garden minding his own business but during the following days he developed a romantic interest in a demure female. She must've welcomed his advances because tortoise coupling is pretty clumsy and involves complicated plumbing. My wife seemed determined to observe this process and did report some grunting on the part of the male, which suggests the couple weren't averse to a bit of voyeurism.
Top row L to R: Our wagon house sparkles luxuriantly in the sun; being part of the Oude Pastorie complex with a huge garden at our disposal; the bath was also huge and met with Shan's approval. Middle row L to R: Every superior property in NB seemed to have a pool converted from an old water tank; This was not the sleeping accommodation but a selection of sun beds depending on how much sun or shade you preferred while lounging by the pool; el Tortosio eyeing Shan suspiciously while chewing on a frond and practising his approach for the next few days. Bottom: there is almost always some sort of passeggiata going on on the roads leading to the centre. We could only believe that this was encouraged by the peaceful setting created by the unmade roads.
Carla had recommended a restaurant and we wandered over from our waenhuis, encountering the evening strollers en route to the superb Die Waenhuis. There must have been a few wagons in NB back in the day.
As was the way in this town, people were gregarious and after dinner conversation with other diners was all but obligatory. We met Fred, his wife and her Viennese mother who was having a whale of a time in the Cape. As is the way with most evening meals in rural South Africa, restaurants close quite early. Shan and I hadn't travelled too far that day that we didn't fancy a dop1 before turning in.
"I was here five years ago and there was an amazing bar called the Ramstal but it seems to have closed?" I queried Fred conversationally.
"Oh yes," he replied. "Boetie ran the bar there and the good news is he's got his own place across the road from the Ramstal now."
Top row L to R: Five years ago the pub beckons in the early evening; inside the Ramstal is functional but caters to your every need. Bottom row L to R: Now a very much closed The Venue???; But, hey, who cares when Boetie Bester is there to welcome you across the road.
Emotional few days
In the previous episode I mentioned that we were in for an emotional few days and now the time had come for two more insights following on from Oliver Schreiner's. The morning after being reintroduced to Boetie we strolled up to Bruno's (Carla and Ludorf's) for breakfast and contemplated our morning. For those readers who've not yet encountered Helen Martins and the Owl House you would have to be hard of heart not to be moved by your first visit. and your second, and your third.
This was my second visit and I had the privilege of seeing it through someone else's eyes. A person with a parallel but different emotion set honed by many years working as a professional counsellor. There is the art and the story behind it that ended when Ms Martins took her own life by drinking caustic soda and dying three days later. I have many many photographs of the Owl House, her home for the vast majority of her life and now a museum to her art. Each one tells a story. I'm going to pick out a few and maybe you can add your own conclusions to the followers and academics who have largely avoided any definitive judgement on what set her life on the course it followed2.
It is difficult not to draw conclusions from the vignette depicted in the second picture in this series. Perhaps there is something in the photo of the stylish clothes and shoes in the closet, contradicting later portraits of the artist as almost a hermit.
So, two homages to two extraordinary white women who left their indelible but very different marks on South African history. And now we were going to cap it with The Bushman Heritage Museum.
When Richard and I first visited the museum five years ago it was named the San museum. If you'll forgive the pun, this might have been a coy3 reference to the ethnicity of the people the museum celebrates. The name has gone from being slightly defensive to being overtly proud of the heritage.
There is an explanation for this process and it rests with the restored pride of the people involved. Richard and I had an emotional realisation 5 years ago. Shan and I had an epiphany that resulted in having to press pause after our introduction to museum. There wasn't a dry eye and that included our sympathetic guide, Gerald, who had to retire to restore his composure.
When he returned, his story had us going again. The restoration of pride had reset his life from feeling apologetic for his existence and resorting to crime to scratch out a living to the erudite museum curator we saw in front of us showing off the spectacular art.
And make no mistake, it is spectacular. The museum asks that the public does not photograph the exhibits. We totally understood that but, if you're interested, please, this is the centrepiece of Nieu Bethesda. Visit it. If you can't get there, there are other centres. This is a positive quiet revolution guys, and you won't be disappointed by the magnificent art, either. The pieces are huge colourful tapestries with an impact all of their own. So you do need to see them "live".
Helen Martins and the Bushmen. The Misunderstood. Helen won't benefit from restoration of understanding but the Bushmen will, if you let them. And the installation in NB is not resting on its laurels. There is a restaurant, separate cafe and unique accommodation on site. This may sound like a commercial puff but, believe me, our view was entirely based on the tenacity in restoring a right to exist that we witnessed. And the guys who make it happen are positive and proud of what they have accomplished. Delightful experience even if it started out with snot en trane4.
L to R: The Enterprising Bushman Museum incorporates this tower on its property, housing the cafe and panoramic accommodation; now we needed to cross the dry river (which occasionally becomes a raging torrent) via the suspension bridge; there was some urgency to visit the lav at another NB treasure.
Antidote to an emotional morning
Seriously, there is no better place to detox than the Two Goats Deli. Officially the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli (SBaTGD; I think?), it is an oasis of craft brewery and a scrumptious cheese lunch created by André Cilliers and Yolandi van Zyl. Total detox from a day's travails. So laid back it is difficult to gird one's loins to resume life in the fast lane. Not that there is such a thing in NB but you get my drift. You rush to get there and then you take your time getting back, absorbing the peace and scenery.
We went there twice for lunch. Heaven knows how many hours were involved and memories merge between a first and second foray and long conversations with a young couple, Dannelle and Warren, who were on a bit of a sabbatical helping out in the SBaTGD. Warren was a bit of a machinery buff and managed to explain some of the niceties of the rusting iron scattered about by collector, André.
Many of these itinerant citizens were also habitués of Boeties Bar and/or Die Waenuis, so we kept bumping into new and then increasingly familiar friends. Others included Charl, who worked longer term at SBaTGD and helped us with useful information. There was also a local sheep farmer and Molly the Collie, George from Florida (the one in Joburg) whose girlfriend had been at school with Shan and then a lovely, friendly retired couple from Hout Bay who cropped up everywhere we set foot.
Above, Clockwise from top left: Dining al fresco under the trees; tucking in so enthusiastically to our abundant cheeseboard, it was all but gone by the time we remembered to take a photo, enough for two unless you've had a seriously physical day, home made ginger beer to accompany the craft beer; clear mountain water delivered to the town via open aqueducts; fancy a hammock for two after a satisfying repast;
Below, left to right; savouring the peace in a patch of sunshine, we always seem to attract local dogs; repurposed iron, beds and food trays for sundry livestock; Warren approved; Definitely dead but what were they when they had flesh and skin?
Strolling back from lunch pre-gloaming
There is plenty of opportunity for serious hiking in the Nieu Bethesda area but sometimes only strolling will do, especially when returning from lunch or taking part in a pre-dinner passeggiata. Sometimes these two things run into each other, maybe punctuated by a snooze (if you failed to score the hammock at SBaNGD) or perhaps a cheeky half in Boeties.
The thing about the town is it encourages casual conversation while promenading. From people walking in the opposite direction to the plentiful stoeps attached to dwellings and restaurants. It is unlikely you'll make it past unless you have a dark scowl arranging your face.
Often the greeting is on the flimsiest of excuses and almost always it is more than just a nod and "evenin'". I have mentioned this is in a previous blog, my first occasion of strolling back from SBaNGD, a venerable Mercedes skidding to a halt and its occupant demanding, in a friendly way, "are you guys rich Americans?"
"What makes you think that," I replied. "We are neither rich nor American."
"The expensive camera around your neck," he said
There are many places in the world where this might have been bowel-clenchingly intimidating but on a balmy evening on Pienaar Street, Nieu Bethesda in a settling cloud of dust, we just grinned back as he accelerated away with a cheery wave and a renewed plume of fine sand.
Time to exercise the "expensive camera" with a picture peering down Pienaar street at a patch of fading sunlight and the stately, omnipresent Kompasberg preening itself in the background (below)
The Mercedes departed and the dust settled, Pienaar Street was quiet for a while but soon you're around the corner and in the town centre.
The thing about Nieu Bethesda is that people gather and then disperse. One moment the main crossroad on New and Hudson streets is entertaining a small crowd, Some people you've never met before come up to confront you smiling, ask what you're up to and dispense some advice. On a particular occasion, two women walked up to Shelley-ann and me and, after the greeting, one of them suggested we should eat at her new restaurant. She'd just opened. Turns out she is Elbé van Heerden and the new proprietor of the Village Inn. We ate our last, tasty meal there before leaving NB.
But, no sooner has there been a crowd (a crowd means maybe 10 people) than everyone has dispersed. Into Boetie's Bar or to freshen up for the evening. Then the stoeps are empty and maybe a random horseman and his dog glide past in the gloaming.
Of course, horses are part of the fabric of this town and share the roads, unsupervised and apparently without molestation, with other users, including motor vehicles. And there wouldn't be a Two Goats Deli without a tribe of goats nibbling at the suburban hedges. And, of course, the poor tormented tortoise in our garden.
There must be incidents from time to time but, for the most part, symbiosis prevails.
Our ticket for the Owl House had had a hidden benefit, included was entry to the Kitching Fossil Museum. We had been feeling a bit slack after the activities of the week and the temptation was to chill out. The what appeared to be fibreglass replicas of dinosaurs didn't exactly sell it to us. Perhaps a recommendation from our Hout Bay friends had tipped the balance because we decided to give it a go.
Well, how stimulating was that? A couple of morning hours, first learning about one of the world's top palaeontologists, James Kitching, who had grown up in NB and discovered his first fossil at the age of 6, went on to be an internationally eminent scientist, working on a number of facets of his domain including contributing to the understanding of continental drift and its various stages ending up to the global map we have today. The material was comprehensive and presented by a local man who was a student completely immersed in the world of studying fossils.
When he asked us and another couple if we'd like to find a fossil of our own, we jumped at it and, after a being shown the tool-kit consisting of a squirty water bottle and a fossil template we sallied forth to the dry river bed. I won't say we found our first fossil on our own but we were sympathetically nudged in the right direction. It was seemingly miraculous that a squirt of water on to a suspect patch immediately highlighted a fossil that matched the template.
Using water is ideal because it evaporates quickly and the fossil becomes camouflaged again5. The first two pictures below are of the model dinosaurs outside the museum and of the fossil template alongside the real thing.
In the beginning (of our sojourn in NB, at least) there was Carla. On our last morning we were enjoying our breakfast at Brunos and then settling up with our hostess. Shan was having a customary post-prandial vape outside when we noticed an unusual wrought iron gate leading seemingly towards the middle of the earth. We asked Carla about this and it emerged that Bruno, a previous owner of their guest house, had one day decided he wanted a cellar. As had been the way with Bruno, if he had had a whim it would soon be acted upon. So he dug out the cellar and built a substantial underground gallery, vaulted ceiling and everything. Shan can be seen above marvelling at this hidden gem. After emerging we quizzed Carla further and she gave us a bit of background, including a bit about how Bruno had memorised where the individual wines in the collection were located in the cellar.
So, when there was the inevitable flood and the cellar became ostensibly inaccessible, Bruno would find specific wines, ordered by diners from the wine list, by stripping down to his underpants and diving through the sludge to produce the desired item.
Carla also told us about Bruno building a light aircraft in the shed (another wagon house, surely? ed) and then having to partially demolish the building to get it out to fly.
I mentioned this to Jules du Toit and she confirmed that she and Chris had known about some of Bruno's eccentricities but not all of them (I think the cellar included). I do hope the intrepid Karoospace team will revisit NB and Bruno's role in things. It was Chris, after all, that sent me to NB in 2016 because it had TWO top 21 pubs in the Karoo.
It is easy to reflect on a well nigh perfect holiday in an unspoiled location and hope nothing will change, and especially that it will not be bombarded by a phalanx of tourists. Become a victim of its own success. Nonetheless, that is essentially a selfish view in that it (a) potentially denies others the pleasure and (b) potentially denies the businesses providing facilities such as accommodation, food and entertainment their right to a decent living.
If history has taught us anything it is that nothing is static and often the alternative to forward is backward. I guess we'll just have to leave it to the honest burghers of Nieu Bethesda who've done a pretty damn fine job so far.
Just PLEEZ don't tar the roads in the town centre and the peripheral access routes. Ever.
(Oh, and OK, the lack of street lighting is also a good thing, too).
Skirting the Swartberg down towards Calitzdorp, punctuated by a superb dining experience, and then Swellendam and Hermanus. After that, a trip to the Swartland beckons.
If there was one place I wanted to share with Shelley-ann it was Nieu Bethesda. For selfish reasons, I also wanted to spend some quality time there, my only previous visit having been for one night while storming in a North-Easterly direction to meet a deadline. I wasn't to be disappointed but, more importantly, my wife was delighted.
So that we could get the best experience possible, I'd booked premium accommodation for 4 nights. This had been pandemically1 postponed twice so we were pretty excited to find whether it still passed muster.
But first an important pit stop for a night
It was a pleasantly short(ish) drive from Gelykfontein to Cradock via Hofmeyr on the first leg of the middle stage in our journey (see below):
The second stage of our first road trip - A total distance of 731 km
The road from Venterstad to Cradock is punctuated by a few small towns that are pretty much run-of-the-mill (unless you are Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais, whose business it is to dig out fascinating nuggets) and then one suddenly happens upon Hofmeyr with its town centre that sticks out its chest with a row of medals on an immaculate uniform. It has its fair share of characterful Karoo buildings but there must be a reason for the clutch of grandeur at its heart. I know it's the centre of a municipality within the Chris Hani District but the immaculate Victoria Boutique Hotel? Although the magistrate court is rubbing shoulders with some more typical company for the area. Would a harsh or lenient sentence be most likely to send a defendant reeling or dancing into the Blue Whisper?
Wouldn't have minded sticking my head into the Baboon Tavern, though ...
A brief pause before continuing to our destination for the night: Cradock, a town that has much to recommend it. We were to be billeted for the night in the Die Tuishuise and Victoria Manor hotel. Over time the Victoria Manor has acquired most (if not all) of the characterful period houses on both sides of the streets on its block. There are many things to commend Cradock and we were there for three of these.
Our primary reason was to visit Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. They had been the inspiration for my (and now our) fascination with the Karoo and I had ordered a few copies of what had been their latest book before the pandemic rained on everyone's parade. More of that later. First on our agenda was the Olive Schreiner museum.
We were in for an emotional few days and this was the first of them. It is rather sad that Ms Schreiner's fame is receding into the past. For any of you out there who might dismiss her as some Victorian white chick, I'd suggest you start by reading The Story of an African Farm. Do NOT read a precis. This was such a remarkable human being she remains relevant to this day, having been a feminist contemporary of Emmeline Pankhurst long before the suffragettes came to be recognised. I'll tear myself away from writing an essay on her life's ambitions and achievements. Visit the museum if you can. Like many other South African gems of its kind it is free but I bet you'll want to make some sort of contribution when you leave.
Our accommodation was the third attraction. I'd stayed there before, in one of the cottages and I wanted Shan to experience the love and care that had gone into this restored street.
Clockwise from top left: Our house in the middle of the street; the hotel awaits for dining; but first a quick sketch I knocked up of Shan with an aperitif; the splendid dining room
So, Chris and Julienne
There was a time, a little less than 10% of my life ago, when a holiday in the Karoo wouldn't even have crossed my mind. My Dad loved it ... getting away from the urban hurly burly for a while and into vast expanses in the landscape with stars at night going on forever.
Enter Chris and his book, The Journey Man. As a one-time journo myself, I devoured it voraciously and started looking for more. Luckily Chris and his wife Jules had by 2016 established a web site that encapsulated most (if not everything) Karoo. Called Karoo Space2, it has all kinds of tempting nooks and crannies that just make you want to explore further. And I did, starting with the laddish attraction of a trans-Karoo pub crawl with two friends. I shan't go into that any further as you can read all about it in previous blogs3.
Now was the time for one of the highlights for me of our current road trip, meeting Chris and Jules in person. More than a year previously they had been launching a new book, Karoo Roads, which sounded like just the thing I'd like to have for our book collection and also share around with like-minded friends. I ordered a few copies and asked that I could fetch them in person from Cradock.
Somewhat belatedly (like a year), we agreed to rendezvous at the Victoria Manor (I had been there once before with Richard at the tail end of our Chris-inspired Karoo pub crawl) and the handover was achieved, the bunch of precious signed copies. In the mean time, demand and additional material for Karoo Roads had been pouring in and there was now a Karoo Roads II, the copies of which had all been recently despatched to booksellers. I did manage to snaffle some from retailers in Nieu Bethesda and Hermanus and the pair made welcome gifts to appreciative friends with urges to travel to and through more obscure and often exotic places.
But now was the time for the four of us to settle down to tea in the splendid Victorian lounge. We never stopped talking and there was much left to say when our new friends eventually had to depart in haste for fear of being eaten by dogs overdue their dinner. What a happy interlude. Maybe we can have another some day.
We repaired to our cottage for the glass-of-wine-on-the-verandah we'd promised ourselves before returning to the hotel dining room for traditional table d'hôte posh nosh.
Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit from a random picture nicked from their web site4 and a 1975 Ferrari photographed by me at Earls Court in 1975 (explanation in text below).
After another hooj fry-up for breakfast we set off from Cradock in a generally westerly direction. As soon as we parted company with the heavy traffic on the N10, which essentially connects the N1 with the industrial coastlands of Gqeberha, there was not a car in sight. This boded well for the increasingly scenic road to Graaff Reinet. We sat back and relaxed for a short while before we suddenly noticed something like 20 red blobs approaching us fairly quickly. They soon proved to be elements in a convoy of vintage Ferraris. I was driving and there was no time to stop so I entreated Shan to take a few pics. About a nanosecond before she pressed the shutter for the first time, a vulture shat on our windscreen. Well, we can't be sure it was a vulture but it was very difficult to see through the glass in the aftermath. Hence the stock picture above of a venerable Ferrari standing still in the centre of London. I think that was the first year that the exhibition recognised that it wasn't entirely acceptable to have semi-naked women draped across the cars.
By the time our car's screen washers had removed the offending splodge, my dear wife announced that her FitBit had just informed her that she needed to complete 4 more steps in the next 5 minutes. Of course I pulled over on the next verge so she could take two steps forward and two back to the car, culminating in a tiny fireworks display on her wrist. It didn't even feel that abnormal. We were headed for Nieu Bethesda, after all.
I'm going to park Nieu Bethesda for now. Not sure the time is ripe to pop that serenity bubble and have all of the rest of you lot shooting off there to spoil the peace. Conversely, perhaps burying it in the generalities of the road trip won't do it the justice it deserves either. Y'all will just have to come back for the following episode to see which way the wind blew.
On the other side of Nieu Bethesda, just a bit to the South, is in the eyes of some, the "fifth oldest town in South Africa." It is certainly a handsome place and well worth a visit but, like most of the claims made by South African towns to being the nth oldest, it should carry the qualifier "post colonisation".
We drove slowly around the town appreciating the architecture. There had recently been a significant fire in the magnificent, notorious club and it was still boarded up. We decided to move on to our next destination but not before posting some photos I prepared earlier5.
Legend had it that the club (photos 4, 5, 6 & 7 above) had bullet holes in the walls and floor of the bar area. These had not been "war wounds" from the Anglo-Boer conflict 120 years earlier but allegedly the result of far more recent bar brawls. Richard and I could not possibly comment (him being a city lawyer and all) but evidently the holes had been filled in in a recent redecoration, making verification difficult. We had a beer instead.
Shelley-ann and I headed off for a lunch destination on the other side of Willowmore.
These eclectic and much-loved haunts are scattered all over the Karoo if one keeps one's eyes peeled. We had 190 km to go from Graaff Reinet to Sophie's Choice, a converted set of farm buildings. This one was delightful.
Generically labelled "Padstals6", these establishments tend to have bric-a-brac and refreshments on hand. Sophie's Choice was a cut above the norm. Much of the bric-a-brac could justifiably have been labelled as antique and the refreshments were provided by an excellent al fresco restaurant. There seemed to be stylish seating inside, too, but who doesn't want to sit outside and eat freshly grown homemade grub in the Spring sunshine?
Most of these pics are self-explanatory. It was aeons since I'd last had a Sparletta Cream Soda and the nostalgia was fun. Next one in another 40 years, maybe? The quiche was superb, the salad healthy and crisp and the dressing sublime. Shan arm-wrestled the proprietor for the recipe. Arm-wrestle my wife if you want a copy. Beware, Shelley-ann is a bloody good arm wrestler.
Just another 175 km
Mostly on exceptionally good roads for SA. Even the dirt bit to Kuilsrivier was well-maintained. Finding Boesmanskop was a bit tricky. Never be too proud to stop and ask a local. We could still be attached to the proverbial elastic going back and forth past the entrance had we not done just that on the third iteration. And the access road required supreme care and attention. But the room when we arrived was spectacular:
The next leg of our road trip starts with a gourmet dinner in the main house ...
I received the following story from my cuz, Stuart. Being a capital fellow, he doesn't like to tell porkies and suggested I check its provenance first. My response as a retired hack: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story (especially if one can blame one's cousin if it all goes horribly wrong). A fellow hack who shall remain nameless taught me this ... answers on a postcard. Maybe Jules will restore me to the straight and narrow if it all turns out to be apocryphal:
"I was told a story once about Victoria Manor and the Tuishuise. I was told that a bored farmer's wife wanted to buy the hotel but her husband would not give her the money, so she started growing pumpkins (I think it was) and it became such a success that she soon raised the money to buy the hotel and then continued by buying up Tuishuise and decorating them with antiques from the area. Don't know where I got this from but I suspect it was from someone at the Victoria Manor as I spent many a night there en route to Rhodes when my eldest two where studying there."
I will say this for Stuart, he is exceedingly gregarious and does like to talk to strangers.
Coming soon: More episodes following our adventures and occasional travails during the 144 days
Finally October 7, 2021 arrived. All forms filled, Covid jabs a distant memory (for the time being1), PCR test administered and fit-to-fly documents in hand, we could be forgiven a degree of anxiety. So many unfamiliar steps had been introduced to the mix that missing just one of them could put the kibosh on the whole expedition.
Thankfully one of these anxieties had been removed by our dear solicitous daughter: on previous trips, journeys had commenced with public transport, first from our little market town to Oxford and then from Oxford to Heathrow Airport.
It was a miracle that we managed our last trip that had been conducted entirely on public transport. Not only did I have to lug cycling accoutrements to join my fellow locals in Cape Town but Shelley-ann had done some serious damage to her back while moving our worldly belongings out of storage into our newly renovated house. As you can see from the left hand pic, "renovated" still had a way to go and the snow lay deep and crisp and not so even when we had to get our luggage to the 66 bus to Oxford. Nightmare.
So, this time in 2021, our guardian angel, in the form of Kate, stepped in: "I'm coming to fetch you from your home and driving you to the airport."
No arguments. Phew, what a star. Sheer luxury.
Just before we set off
Before the beginning of Odyssey 2021, however, I have to relate another example of our thoughtful star, aided and abetted by her hubby, Andrew.
In the closing moments of a pretty catastrophic 2020, Shan and I were feeling a bit glum about our 40th wedding anniversary falling through the cracks when we received a phone call from Kate.
"We were hoping to spend your 40th with you but now that we have these @£&%*!? lockdown tiers we can't cross county borders," you could tell she was cross. But resourceful and so so generous at the same time: "So I've booked you into The Summerhouse in Shipton-under-Wychwood."
Her tone was the giveaway that she'd found somewhere special for us. She wanted to treat us with a sense of occasion and was excited, despite everything.
"And because Andrew and I can't be with you, there'll be a bottle of Champagne when you arrive. We can at least have a toast from afar. There's also a reservation for dinner at the Shaven Crown just down the road."
What a treat. I could spend the remainder of this blog cataloguing all the thoughtful attention to detail the Summerhouse's owners had put into the place, and that was before we had the most splendid breakfast of all time.
Clockwise from top left: Our room was that sumptuous it seemed a pity to go out; but aperitifs in the baronial splendour of the Shaven Crown beckoned; the next morning, with the pond and the manor house a fitting backdrop to the morning's repast, our delight at the breakfast was obvious; .
And so the thoughtfulness that Kate and Andrew brought to our missed year continued as our daughter filled their car with 5 months of her parents' luggage in preparation for delivering us to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.
Back to October 7, 2021
With all the what ifs resolved, it was a great relief to sink into our seats on the plane and wait for the trolley to arrive with refreshments.
Reflecting with a G&T in hand, I was saddened by the fact that our final postponement had left us with no option but to abandon the first few plans we had made. The behemoth had been pushed back so many times we were stretching the goodwill of our hosts along the way. Our original itinerary had included a stay over in Johannesburg in which we could catch up with close friends and family. We'd communicated this to those lovely people and proposed an alternative post-Christmas foray back to check on the Vaalies2.
The first leg of our first road trip - A total distance of 1124 km.
And we're off, just about ...
Here I am, one and a half instalments into a blog about travelling around South Africa for 144 days and we're still at OR Tambo airport, reminding me of an epic documentary film in which Nick Broomfield unsuccessfully "attempts" for weeks to obtain an interview with Eugène Terre'Blanche3. You begin to think the full length movie is about Broomfield not actually wanting to get the interview (Get on with it, Ed)
We had booked a slightly larger car than the usual hatchback on the assumption that the bigger version would have a boot in which to conceal our 5 month's luggage, a fair bit of which would return unworn as is so often the case. We soon realised that even a medium-sized sedan wasn't going to hack it but we didn't want to delay any further, so we finally hit the road with a fair proportion of our belongings in full view on the back seat.
The next thing was the route. The most straightforward means of achieving this would be to head out on the highway towards Durban and turn right after we crossed the Vaal River. We were bound for Clarens in the Free State. I had stayed in the very same guest house more than two years previously and headed back in the opposite direction to Joburg. At the time, Grace Irvine from Grace upon Grace had suggested I avoid the route from Frankfort to Reitz because of the roadworks.
"Should be fine now," I reassured Shelley-ann. "That was more than two years ago." Well, suffice to say I should've phoned ahead for some local knowledge.
By the time we found out how extraordinarily bad it was, it was too late. Getting into second gear was a luxury. With few exceptions we crawled along for 60 km. By the time we reached Reitz I was pulling a grateful train and no one wished to overtake me.
"You should have asked me," Grace grinned when we finally reached our destination. The lesson learned from that was: never plan a journey through the Free State without consulting the locals first.
We regained our sense of humour after a lovely dinner at Clarens' most traditional eatery while we planned our next day's excursion into the Golden Gate national park. As an African park it is small but perfectly formed. Being approximately 50 kms from Clarens to the Eastern exit, it has some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. Pictures only begin to tell the story. Just go there.
One of the highlights of the Golden Gate is the Basotho Cultural Village. It is more or less the other side of the Golden Gate park from Clarens and we wanted to get there before the crowds. There weren't any. Not a soul anywhere. It was closed because of the pandemic. We tried to draw some consolation from the extraordinarily scenic setting but that was everywhere around us and we wanted to see the village.
Just as we were preparing to leave, we heard a gate creak behind us and Alfred Tshabalala, the duty security guard peered through the gap. We were a bit concerned that we might have overstayed our welcome in the parking area but no.
"Would you like to see the village?" he asked.
"Is that OK, it says it's closed?"
"I'll show you around." Alfred replied and we leapt at the opportunity of an exclusive tour. He was Zulu with a wife and family in Phuthaditjhaba, the Eastern Free State city in the first of the pictures above. The Basotho community that ordinarily lived in the Cultural Village were quarantining in a village in Lesotho. Alfred was an excellent and knowledgable guide and seemed to find our visit a relief from the loneliness of a remote security guard. We were privileged to have the place to ourselves.
This is a small sample of the village's sophisticated infrastructure, from some of the attractive cottages to more ceremonial areas where councils were held, visitors entertained, medicine dispensed and justice meted out. The fifth and sixth pictures in the sequence are of the village crèche where the matriarch of the community looked after the new arrivals. Shan was determined to have a look; A bizarre consequence of modern chip, pin and tap life was that we had survived two days without needing any South African cash. Alfred had mentioned earlier that his wife worked in the bank in Phuthaditjhaba, so when we wanted to thank him for his generosity with his time, we proffered a £20 note4. He looked at it with suspicion as I tried to explain that a bank should change it for around R400. I suggested his wife might know what to do. It was quite a windy day and he insisted on holding it between thumb and forefinger, looking at it periodically as we completed our circuit. You can just see it in his hand in the last photo in the sequence. I do hope it didn't fly away and the bank gave him what it was worth.
We had mixed feelings as we drove away from Alfred's comprehensive guided tour. It was only when we had been immersed in the village that it came home to us how splendid the experience would've been with the community life in full swing.
One of the things about hire cars is that their number plates are seldom reliable indicators of where the drivers originate from. Except in our case, sort of as we now lived completely outside of the country. Over the 5 months we had two cars, both with ND registrations. Certain parts of South Africa retain an old system where the initial letters indicate where the new car was registered. "ND" stands for Natal Durban (Now Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Durban. Both Shelley-ann and I were born in Durban and spent our early days in the vicinity.
So when we returned to Grace upon Grace from our expedition, and were parking the car, a couple strolling by couldn't resist the inevitable: "Are you from Durban?"
They lived around the corner and had sold Grace upon Grace to Grace. They seemed friendly and a lengthy, in depth conversation ensued. Turns out they were Malcolm Hickman and Karen Evans. And, yes, they were from Durban. How our paths had not crossed is a mystery because theirs had crossed practically everyone's we knew including Shan's brothers Deale, and cousin Leif Eriksen. Also, Malcom had been one year ahead of me at the same school, which means he had no reason to know me but I should have known him. We had many Hilton acquaintances in common.
Karen and Malcolm had built the house we were staying in and then supposedly downsized to another one behind it which, judging by Google earth view was similar but bigger.
It would have been v. lekker5 to spend a bit more time with them but we were leaving early the next morning to commence the next leg of the journey.
Clarens to Gariep and a bit of local knowledge
We were definitely going to listen to what Grace said this time ... what is more, she'd phoned a few friends who were even more emphatic than she was:
"Go back to Bethlehem. Do not pass Fouriesburg."
Sad as it was, I was not going to be able to show Shan the extraordinary scenery on the route along the Lesotho border from Clarens to Smithfield, a distance of about 300 km. And so it came to pass that we had to swap the majestic vistas of the Maluti mountains for one of the most monotonous drives in Southern Africa, the N1 from Bloemfontein to Colesberg.
As if to rub salt into the wound, the sign for Bloemfontein from Bethlehem was obscured by vegetation and we ended up taking a Northern detour along some dire Free State roads and adding almost an hour to the journey.
It was with great relief that we arrived at the delightful Morning Glory Cottages on the south side of the Gariep Dam, South Africa's largest. We had been allocated the honeymoon rondavel.
We were greeted by an oasis in the barren surroundings, had soon unloaded our belongings into the Honeymoon Suite and then ... relax
Thankfully we didn't have to go anywhere else. We'd elected to go the whole braaivleis7 DIY catering route. All ingredients provided, including firewood and tea bags soaked in paraffin that turned out to be the most efficient firelighters ever. Also, there was so much food there was no "eek" in our eking. We ate sumptuously for three nights for what was supposed to have been for one. The braai-place was a little unfamiliar but our hostess, Lynette Henson, was on hand for a few pointers, especially as we were cooking on wood. (see below for proof)
L to R above: (First row) Cooking on a wood fire was a new challenge; Schalk van der Walt and his Nguni bull enjoying a back-scratch; explaining animal husbandry to Shan; (Second row) Shan's heavenly painting spot; desert flower; where's Mark?
On our first full day we elected to mosey around close to home to recover from the tiring journey getting from Clarens to our oasis. We started by meeting the owner of the Gelykfontein Stud, Schalk van Der Walt, somewhat of a legend in the Free State Thoroughbred and Nguni cattle breeding community. His is a fascinating story that readers would best hear first hand. The place is worth it. You can see a wing of the impressive stables in the pictures above, and there's many a story there. The most fascinating of them all is how Schalk analysed the requirements for cattle on the edge of the Karoo and sensibly resolved that Herefords or Friesians would not really fit the bill. Simple things like sunburn are always going to be an issue for cattle normally residing in England or the Netherlands.
So Schalk decided almost 40 years ago to build a herd based on the African Nguni cattle that had survived hot, dry conditions, seared by the sun, for centuries, if not millennia. The farm now has around 600 of them. I'm sure you can read up about the details in the relevant academic tomes but there is no substitute, if you have the opportunity, for tapping into our host's knowledge and passion for the beasts where he can illustrate the subject in situ.
Shelley-ann spent the rest of the day on her passion, painting, while I sought out desert flowers to snap in all their glory before attempting to photograph a rude parrot in the luxuriant foliage of the Cottages' oasis. Unfortunately, while I could hear his insults, I never got a proper look at him, his being a celebrated misanthrope in the area.
We couldn't spend part of our road trip so close to South Africa's largest storage reservoir with a surface area of more than 370 sq km without getting a proper look at it. And because of its diverse aspects, that would mean circumnavigating the perimeter, a journey of some 170 km. Our closest point of interest would be Oviston a town trying its best not to become a ghost town.
It was established in the early 1960s to support the construction of a tunnel diverting water from the Orange River (read Free State) to the Fish River (read Eastern Cape). The tunnel is more than 80 km long, and is bound to have invited some controversy and buzz when conceived. Now Oviston, where the water enters the tunnel, is greatly diminished with relics of its former glory much in evidence.
The Gariep plughole for transferring water to the Eastern Cape is impressive. The other pictures are of former glory.
At places such as Oviston, we were continually reminded of buildings no longer being used and of people clamouring for facilities to use. I sincerely hope that Oviston can make a go of reinventing itself. It seems there is potential to be tapped.
In order to get around the upstream/eastern side of the dam, there is Venterstad to negotiate. That's as much as I'm going to say on the subject. Go a bit further around and there are interesting landscapes with what we imagined were spectacular variations depending on the water level in the dam. The bridge across the Orange is magnificent and at more than 1.1 km is the longest combined road/rail bridge in Southern Africa. It culminates near Bethulie, a pleasant town with the facilities a traveller may need.
(L to R) Downstream into the dam; upstream towards the confluence with the Caledon River; across the sandbars to Bethulie; boots no longer made for walking - Main Street of Bethulie
And to the wall
Much has been written about the wall. If you want the gory details, Google it. It is breathtaking and we went over it twice (there and back) and then crossed the Orange river below to wend our way back to the Morning Glory and a few surprises.
A month after we traversed the Gariep wall multiple times, continuing rainfall in the east of South Africa ensured that the water was thundering over the spillway. The dam was more than 100% full, a fairly rare occurrence that persisted for months. The last picture in this sequence would have been très dramatique8 and possibly even a bit bum-clenching from the low lying bridge in the last frame above.
Not everything is the way it seems
When we returned from our circumnavigation of the dam there was an extra car under the trees at Morning Glory. With a KZN numberplate, albeit from a few kilometres inland from our ND. As we had been the only residents on our last day it would be easy to spot any additional guests, if they appeared.
While we were enjoying our sundowners another fellow did rather diffidently pitch up. He would also be braai-ing and asked what the form was. There were several fireplaces to choose from.
He set about grilling his meat and we continued enjoying our wine. When he had finished cooking, it seemed churlish not to invite him to join our table as Lynette was already sitting with us.
Conversation started with the KZN coincidence and the fact that this fellow had been at school in Pietermaritzburg with my cousin. A few more sundowners passed our lips as we relaxed in pleasant chat until the subject matter (as it often does in South Africa) slipped inexorably towards current affairs.
Shan and I always develop sloping shoulders in these situations because no-one, particularly Saffas9, enjoys anything that even resembles criticism of their own country (even if they secretly agree).
Maybe our evasion spurred him on because he started to tell Shan that he was currently re-reading the bible. Religion is almost as sensitive as politics and we were in the Free State. Perhaps he was irritated at us continuing to keep our counsel because he suddenly blurted:
"I'm thinking of becoming a Creationist."
After some gentle prodding from Shelley-ann it turned out Creationism had fully taken it roots.
"What does creationism mean for you," she asked.
Paraphrasing his answer, the world had been created in 6 days, 4,000 years ago.
"That's particularly interesting in this area where palaeontology is of such great interest," she responded. "How would you account for carbon dating10?"
"Carbon dating is a myth," was his answer. "A conspiracy by anti-religious so-called scientists."
We made a valiant effort to change the subject.
"Oh, and by the way, I am a keen supporter of Donald Trump: he's much more liberal than you think."
At this point Shan and I made our excuses and retired to the Honeymoon Suite.
The next morning we all came together at reception again. We all had long journeys ahead.
Our new friend thanked me for the previous evening's conversation:
"You know, Mark, we are more alike than you think. We are both liberal thinkers at heart."
Coming soon: More episodes following our adventures and occasional travails during the 144 days
Five months, 20 weeks, a gross of days. However phrased, it is a lot of time to be holidaying a long way from home. Truth is, this story should have emerged about 15 months ago after a vacation lasting a mere two months. Even that would have been a pretty epic break had it gone to the original plan. And then along came Covid and Johnson Jail. Quite a parameter shift.
In the naïve and heady days of early 2020 Shelley-ann and I were poised on a wave of optimism. This was the year for 60th birthdays and ruby wedding anniversaries.
“Do you have any special requests for your birthday?” I asked my dear wife of almost 40 years.
“I just want to spend it with my Mum,” she replied. We had royally celebrated Mum Judy achieving nonagenarian status in Hermanus in the Western Cape in June the previous year.
“No big parties,” Shelley-ann assured me.
“just a small celebration including Mum,” she stated emphatically.
Nothing like the extended Eriksen gathering around the matriarch a year previously, with four generations in attendance.
Itinerary grows as wine rears its head
Our itinerary for 2020 swiftly grew. I had been desperate for my life’s partner to accompany me on a road trip to revisit places we had not been together: a slow meander from Johannesburg to the Cape and majoring on the Karoo. Add to that a rekindled interest in South African wine on my part. Lit by an extraordinarily talented and comprehensive gathering of New Wave SA winemakers in Soho in September 2019 and culminating in a WSET2 qualification with distinction for me in London at the beginning of March. The cherry (Pinot, surely, Ed) was securing a place on a WSET3 course to be held in Stellenbosch in November.
Tickets were booked to fly to Joburg at the beginning of October 2020, returning to Oxfordshire two months later. An encounter with winemaker Hanneke Krüger at the 2019 Swig do had ended up with 4 nights secured at the Badenhorst ranch in November, adjacent to the WSET school session.
In Soho, I had been hoping to get a few words with Adi Badenhorst but the crowds around him were impenetrable.
“You’ll just have to come and stay with us on the farm,” Hanneke smiled, handing me a delicious taster of a perfectly crafted Steen (Chenin Blanc). “Contact Semma, who handles our bookings.”
I made a mental note and moved into another room with other New Wave/Young Gun superstars to talk to.
Three young guns in Soho. Hanneke Krüger, Jasper Wickens and Ryan Mostert enjoying the evening
Towards the end of the evening I noticed that there was a chink in the group around Adi. It was a quiet moment and the adjacent Mullineux table was quiet, too. Hanneke had returned to base.
I approached Adi, gestured towards Hanneke and said, I thought sotto voce, “your daughter suggested I come to stay at your farm to get some quality time with you.”
“My daughter!” Adi exclaimed, only to be drowned out by the mirth from the assembled grandees at the next table.
I have been known, occasionally, to put my foot in it. I retired as gracefully as I could but it didn’t stop me getting on to Semma the next morning and securing that farm booking. After all, I had read accounts of wine fundis pitching up at Jackalsfontein and finding Adi expounding while flinging slightly tidied up whole bunches of grapes over his shoulder into a vat behind him. The man was a legend. Well worth destroying a car on the ruthless roads leading to his inner sanctum.
Soon a pretty impressive itinerary had evolved. Exotic guest houses and B&Bs, a hire car, road maps, the lot.
And along came Covid ...
We did have some concerns about the effect this would have on our trip but were reassured by British Airways when we received the “Preparing for your trip” email in mid May 2020. There was no suggestion of flights being cancelled. After all, our “honourable” Prime Minister, no less, had stated that everything was under control after the government’s swift action in bringing about the 1st UK lockdown. Plans were announced in early May that commencement of lifting restrictions had begun.
They never really did, though. Our Johno spaffed around with his willing cheeky chappies, Hancock leading the pack through the misery of the 20/21 winter. BA dropped us a friendly email on the 10th of August with the title “Your BA57 flight to Johannesburg on 28 Sep 2020 has been cancelled”. The new date they’d allocated us was 30th November. Our outbound and return flights were scheduled to cross in midair.
Brief intermission for a 60th
Almost to the day, we both got Covid a month before Shan's 60th. We weren't hospitalised or anything but the two of us were pretty much basket cases for most of that fortnight. And now the country was in a severe lockdown1. The Mater was being extremely brave about her big day that should have been happening with family2 in the Southern Hemisphere.
There was a bit of a recovery period for the two of us between the end of our own bout of Covid and November 163. Daughter Kate and I stealthily conferred on a cunning plan. I would make a clandestine trip to a Michelin starred restaurant, the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, where they were doing fine-dining takeaways. Little Bedwyn was en route from our house to Kate's. We would have a virtual dinner party on Zoom. Identical meals and wine on either end. There was an unexpected benefit, too. All participants could enjoy the wine without having to drive home afterwards.
Sue and Roger Jones the Harrow owners had instituted the utmost propriety in the pick up cycle. It felt a bit like prohibition. Masked actors at a distance with two large brown paper bags sitting on a table at a safe distance in between. In each bag were 7 course meals for two and precise and copious instructions as to how to prepare the repast. Kate and I repeated a similar process at her end before I returned to base.
Coming up to 60 yrs: A bit of a timeline, mother of the bride a year earlier and a stoical painter making the best of the days leading up to her birthday ...
The whole celebration went pretty much like clockwork once the Zoom was established. I know it wasn't perfect but a lot of fun was had and Shelley-ann knew she was loved. And she got to have another virtual 60th a year later ...
Return from intermission ...
Talk about Ground Hog Day.
Except this time the Spaffmeister had introduced a new piece of skullduggery into the mix … the Heathrow Jails. Basically, if you were unlucky enough to time your journey to return to the UK at an “inappropriate” time he received a bonus of £3,700 (approximately per couple) while you languished in the makeshift jails dotted around the country. A kind of lottery, then.
And this time it was all but impossible to telephone BA. We eventually “secured” a holiday a year later than our original booking, in October and November 2021. Surprise, surprise, the outbound flight was cancelled at the beginning of August 2021.
Every time this happened, BA left the return flight alone. At one point, we were actually booked on a return flight that preceded the outbound flight and the only way to resolve the situation was to get BA on the phone.
Normal people might have given up at this stage but a major imperative for us was Shelley-ann’s mother, now 92-years-old and suffering the strains of Covid-isolation. Sister, Kerry, was extraordinary, a saint, but her communications were, understandably, cause for concern.
After an extraordinary number of attempts to contact BA (I’m talking weeks of quite a few dropped calls a day) I got through. Thankfully S-a was in the room with me. It was difficult to be angry because the people on the other end were doing an all but impossible job and were most gracious every time we got to speak to an actual person. This particular person was sympathetic to our plight. We wanted to push the return flight as far back as possible to mitigate the risk of the outbound flight overtaking it again.
“More than two months after the outbound,” I requested.
“I’ll need a specific day,” she responded.
I had no idea of an appropriate specific date but mindful of the difficulty getting through to the call centre, I quickly consulted my wife. She didn’t hesitate for long.
“The 28th of February next year,” was her half-joking response. It meant 5 months in South Africa. “Maybe Johnson’s Jail will be a thing of the past by then?”
Sounded about as feasible as anything else to me. I repeated the date to the BA representative. She didn’t seem fazed.
That’s how we came to stay in South Africa for 5 months.
The irony, for there always seemed to be one, was that Joker Johnson’s Jail requirement was abolished the day we arrived in SA at the (slightly later) date in early October.
There were compensations for our mêlée: we were around to collect our awards for our voluntary work in cycling and to spend more time with our rapidly maturing delightful granddog, Georgie.
Coming soon: A series of episodes following our adventures and occasional travails during the 144 days