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