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