It is Sunday. My family has gone back to Oxfordshire, Fed should be in Rocca Canavese by now and Richard is somewhere between Tugela Falls and Joeys. I have to fetch him early tomorrow morning so that we can continue on to the Eastern Cape Karoo.
Viv is graciously hosting me at her B&B in Muizenberg but there is a catch. She is organiser and compere of the coastal town’s annual Pug races. That’s right, Pug races. Worse than that, she is also a competitor. Or her dog Hazelbridge is, anyway. Would I be Viv’s dog launcher? What could I say? After all I was only going to be the reserve launcher to #1, another guest at Silver Court.
I didn’t have much hanging around to do as backup because “Hazie” and #1 fell out early on, pretty terminally. She didn’t like being constrained away from Viv’s side. Problem was, these races had made it to the big time with a proper track, needing a compere with a public address system.
Viv's daughter, Danjelle, and I ended up being Hazie's minder. Me at the start and Dani at the finish. It was a tough job for both of us.
So it wasn’t long before I was kneeling on the start line holding tightly on to one pug with a new hatred in her eyes. The idea was that I would launch her towards the finish line as soon as the compere shouted: "go."
All the owners would be lined up at said finish, shouting for their dogs. They would all run to their owners and everything would end happily ever after.
Only Hazelbridge ran diagonally off the course at left-field. I was mortified. I had failed in my duty.
Then the truth dawned. Viv was her owner. Viv was dutifully standing at the finish line shouting for her dog. Viv was the compere. As compere, she was shouting into a microphone. The microphone was connected to the public address system located at left-field. Which is exactly where my pooch ran.
Some dignity was restored in the losers’ race when Viv ditched the microphone and Hazie ran directly to the finish.
Back on the road
Monday dawned and I threaded my way through the traffic to Cape Town International to meet my compadre, the drone pilot. We had set ourselves quite a goal for the first day of the last leg of our trip through the Eastern Karoo to Durban. Flat out up the N1 to Prince Albert, across the Swartberg Pass and on to Willowmore where we would retire to another of Chris Marais’ quirky pubs; in other words about 600 km with some dodgy dirt over some meaty mountains in the middle.
Richard arrived at the airport on time, announcing that he had barely slept since Fed and I had dropped him there on Thursday afternoon. Evidently this was partially due to a lot of arguing not entirely unrelated to the merits or otherwise of Donald Trump. As I have mentioned before, my dear friend does not abandon an argument lightly. I had a comprehensive précis while we traversed the stunningly beautiful first stage across the mountains and through the Hex River valley to Touws River. Then the road straightens out for about 160 km and, just when entertainment would’ve been useful, R reclined his seat to the maximum, announcing that he was going to catch up on his sleep. I had a lot of time to ponder on the wisdom of my Pietermaritzburg to Durban bike race (a.k.a. the Amashova) on the penultimate day of my visit to South Africa. I had been reasonably fit when I left the UK but a lot of Karoo lamb and Castle Lager had passed my lips since then, with nary a revolution of a chainring.
The next part of the trip wasn’t going to help either, if Karoospace descriptions of the establishments to come were anything to go by. I spent a lot of time debating a bowl of soup or a salad for lunch.
Richard surfaced in time for us to turn off the N1 for Prince Albert. We resolved to have lunch there before tackling one of our major challenges, the Swartberg Pass. An attractive balcony of a local hotel beckoned. All of a sudden, soup or salad didn’t seem that appealing. Was a chicken wrap a sensible compromise? It arrived. What I had ordered was a decent size but it occupied about a third of the plate. Alongside it was a mountain of chips to rival our intended post-prandial ascent. Of course, it was stupid of me; nothing in the Karoo (or, for that matter, the rest of rural South Africa) comes without its exceedingly generous portion of potato wedges.
The big pass
The gates of hell? A knot developed in my stomach contemplating what we were letting ourselves in for ...
I’m sure Karoo aficionados are more than familiar with the Swartberg Pass. Its magnificence is impossible to exaggerate. It takes your breath away almost immediately as you enter the narrow gorge at its entrance, with weird rock formations soaring on either side of you. And then, as you begin to climb, vistas unfold of mountains and gorges both regal and rugged and stretching as far as the eye can see. Yes, it does attract some tourists (for the very reasons I have just mentioned) but Richard and I traversed the pass on a Monday afternoon. For the vast majority of the time we could’ve been the only people on the mountain. The peace of it is tempered only by the nervous frisson the driver experiences when contemplating the snaking road ahead supported only by Victorian-built dry stone walls. In some places more than 10 m high.
Ascent from the Great Karoo
On each 180° switchback you find yourself a little dry-mouthed at the thought of someone coming the other way without due care and attention.
When you hit the summit (a.k.a “Die Top”) you are rewarded with a 360° view that stretches from the more arid Great Karoo to the seemingly more verdant Little Karoo to the South.
I tell you what, I’m not taking the Swartberg Pass off my list of favourites; only next time I will do it on a bicycle. Eat your heart out Stelvio.
Clockwise from top left: Looking North to the horizon over the Great Karoo; Descent to die Hel (a choice we didn't make); Although Richard's drone may have had other ideas, complained about the headwind when returning to base and was nearly lost to posterity; Descent to the Little Karoo from die Top.
And ... relax ...
We eventually arrived at Willowmore and were delighted with the accommodation at the Willow Historical Guest House that had been recommended by Julienne and Chris. As soon as we had unpacked the car we set off to the pub. Our slightly bemused hostess gave us directions down the road and we strode out into a peerless evening. We were looking for the Royal Hotel. Every rural town used to have one.
Easily found, the Royal was pleasant enough but completely not what we were expecting. Nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary, down to the banks of refrigerators containing the standard Seffrikken lagers. The landlord was hospitable and had just moved to Willowmore. He and his wife were the only
other people in the bar. Evidently is gets livelier when the bikers hit town. Burnouts have been known to take place inside but only on the floor, unlike the bar top tread marks at the Onverklaar Bar in the Tankwa. The Royal’s skid marks had also been repaired, which was an inexplicable pity as they would have added a modicum of character.
We had a lager, though, and returned to the Willow with a short interlude loitering on the bridge under the “No loitering is allowed on this bridge” sign.
Imagine our surprise when it turned out the bar we had been looking for all along was in the Historical Guest House where we were staying. Known as Pepi’s Bar, it is bedecked with apartheid era memorabilia. We decided that irony was the order of the day and quaffed a few craft beers while delving into our murky past:
The next morning we set off for what was to be a highlight and swansong of our Karoo adventure. It started with an out of world experience. We were between Willowmore and Graaff Reinet on one of those roads that goes in a dead straight line as far as the eye can see, apart from the mountain on the horizon that lures you on. We crested a brow on the undulating road suddenly to be dazzled by runway landing lights stretching to the horizon. Had we been transported into an extra-terrestrial craft? One hears about these things in the hinterland of South Africa. Once we had calmed down a bit, we realised that the spring morning sun was being reflected by the cats eyes in the road, down the middle and on either side.
This phenomenon continued for many kilometres and then faded away as suddenly as it had appeared.
After a craft beer each at the GRT brewery in Graaff Reinet and a delicious snack in the adjacent Meerkat Deli, we repaired to the local club, our raison d'être for being in this charming town, containing as it does one of the sacred 21 pubs. The Graaff Reinet Club’s watering hole is a handsome pub that has a certain notoriety thanks to a number of bullet holes scattered around the place. These were originally supposed to have been caused by some over- exuberant behaviour by the Coldstream Guards while stationed there in 1902. The truth of the matter, we discovered from the charming and informative manager, was that these holes had been repaired. All was not lost, however, as more recent members had misbehaved in a similar way. One of the later holes in the wall has a small frame around it and another, in the floor, we were reliably informed by the manager, had been made by her ex-husband.
Richard enjoys a swift, cool craft beer (L) at the craft brewery while we wait for the Graaff-Reinet Club (R) to open; with further refreshment, a tour and anecdotes from the manager.