On The Road Again

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

St. Augustine of Hippo (345 – 430) [1001 Ways to Live in the Moment]

I’ve always made a distinction between holidays and travel. To me, a holiday, like our annual pilgrimage to the Umngazi River Bungalows on the Transkei Wild Coast, is all about having a relaxing break from work and/or boring day-to-day routines that seem to preoccupy so much of our waking hours. After a holiday, one should arrive back at one’s desk or kitchen sink feeling refreshed and ready to face the next onslaught. I tend to think of travel as a more challenging exercise. It should take you out of your comfort zone, expose you to a different way of life and make you look for answers. A good trip is one where I return feeling somewhat changed, my senses nourished and really appreciating my own bed.

I liked this quote by an Italian poet, Cesare Pavase, in the latest National Geographic Traveller magazine:

Travelling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends…..Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky.

I’ve also always equated travel with visiting foreign countries. However, after our recent road trip to the Cape, I’m revising that notion as we had an amazing travelling experience without crossing any external borders.

Peter and I decided to drive Alex’s car (my 10 year-old VW Golf) from Durban to him, in Stellenbosch, and to take a week to do it. We spent our first night in Clarens in the Free State with my brother, Mike, and his wife, Tana, who own a lovely house and B&B (called Time Out) in this very beautiful part of the world. That evening we walked to the top of their road and watched the sun setting on the Rooiberge, the sandstone range that encompasses the village of Clarens.

Golden Gate, en route to Clarens

sunset in Clarens

The next day Tana directed us to Fouriesburg in the southeast so that we see the mighty Maluti Mountains on the way.

the road to Fouriesburg

sandstone outcrop

We were going to stop in Fouriesburg for coffee but we found ourselves in the middle of a rather tense situation. As the 10th police car whizzed past us into the town and we saw police donning bulletproof vests, we decided to give the place a miss. We read later that 110 people had been arrested for public violence and one woman killed (by stampeding looters).

We were warned that the road from Fouriesburg south (via Ficksburg) was in a very bad condition, so instead we headed to Bethlehem and took the rather dreary national road past Bloemfontein to spend our second night in Graaf Reinet. We hadn’t booked any accommodation in GR but were too tired to look any further than the Drostdy Hotel on the main road. It wasn’t the best value for money (the room was very cramped) but it was clean, had air con and a comfortable bed. However, what the room lacked, the hotel restaurant more than made up for. We had the most delicious grilled Karoo lamb chops served with fresh and perfectly cooked vegetables. And hanging from the ceiling were several enormous candlelit brass chandeliers.

Once we left GR, we decided to head towards Prince Albert. There is nothing quite like driving through the vast open and rather desolate spaces of the Karoo. There is little sign of life other than sheep grazing on the wild fynbos, which is what gives Karoo lamb its wonderful aromatic flavour. Although the landscape is bleak, it seems to lift one’s spirits. Perhaps it’s because we find it reassuring that places as uninhabited as this still exist.

what's a picture of the Karoo without a windmill?

We stopped for lunch at the Plough in De Rust and had very tasty toasted sarmies and salad. And to quench my thirst, the chef rustled me up a Pims. It was all very suitable! From De Rust we drove through the incredible Meiringspoort Pass and into the beautiful Prince Albert valley to Prince Albert, where we looked no further than the Swartberg Hotel. After we had cooled off in the pool, we had a late afternoon stroll through the one of the prettiest small towns I’ve ever visited in SA and both of us fell in love with it. That evening we had melt-in-the-mouth roast Karoo leg of lamb on the veranda of the hotel.

The next morning, we had an excellent breakfast at the hotel’s coffee shop (really good coffee) and I shopped ‘till I dropped in the hotel’s food store (all local produce and goodies made by the hotel staff – good idea I thought). We got chatting to a couple of elderly widowed sisters from Durban who, instead of moving into a retirement village had bought a house online in Prince Albert a few years ago. They have never looked back and in fact the younger sister, who is 80 years old, has just bought another property and intends renting it out. They gave us their phone number and the name of a “reputable” estate agent in case we decide to retire there, and I must say that the idea is certainly very appealing. We shall definitely be visiting Prince Albert again.

Before we left Durban, Alex  gave us strict instructions not to take his precious car, with its fancy new rims and set of thin Pirelli tyres, on any dirt roads. Of course we swore we wouldn’t, but then we weren’t to know about the Swartberg Pass. At this point I must add that Peter set off on this trip without a clue where we were going; he relied on me totally for directions and all I had was a very out-of-date map. Neither of us had done any research on where we were going so it really was a bit like the blind leading the blind. A friend of ours phoned us while we were in Prince Albert and said that we must go over the Swartberg Pass; all the locals took one look at our car and said we should go back the way we came, through Meiringspoort. Peter and I agreed that if the pioneers of old could do it, so could we, and we did, very slowly. At one point it took us 2 hours to do 6 kms, which did include stopping to take photos and Alex’s car (my trusty old steed) handled it magnificently. And it was well worth it, what an amazing feat of engineering. According to the blurb that we read in the hotel brochure, to break the rocks they lit fires on them and when they were hot, they doused them with cold water to shatter them. For anyone who intends travelling to the Karoo, the Meiringspoort and Swartberg Passes are a must.

incredible rock formations as you enter the Swartberg Pass

the road up

I think I can, I think I can

I knew I could, I knew I could!

wild proteas

tortoise taking cover

When you reach the summit of the pass, a beautiful valley opens up below and it just takes your breath away. There is something very inspiring about how the settlers reached these hidden valleys, conquering seemingly insurmountable mountains in order to establish their farms on fertile lands. It makes you realise that anything is possible if you just have the gees (Afrikaans – it means spirit, for something to have spirit).

the Swartberg Valley

We found ourselves in a place called Kruisrivier and I stopped to get directions at a quaint little cottage in the middle of bloody nowhere. A sign on the gate said “seamstress and costumier”! As I opened the gate, Juliette Binoche’s doppelganger came to the door. As I oohed and aahed about what a lovely place that she lived in, she pointed out a photographer’s gallery on the other side of the road. Here we met Roger Young, a fantastic photographer and, in my humble opinion, a really nice person!

I found this on the internet:  “This gallery is a renovated old school building and houses Roger’s workshop.  Guests can visit the gallery where all his photographs on display.  There is also a selection of unique furniture.  The stoep is the perfect venue to enjoy a cup of coffee and appreciate the magnificent view through the valleys of the Swartberg.  The coffee shop and gallery are situated in the middle of working farmlands with tranquillity of rural life.  There is a beautiful garden with an abundance of birdlife and field mice sneaking the odd crumb.” Go there if you can, it’s a special place and they have a self-catering cottage which is exquisite. We shall be back.

Aloe, near Kruisrivier

From here we drove past the beautiful Red Stone Hills to Barrydale and booked into the somewhat alternative Barrydale Hotel. They gave us a very nice room and knocked R200 off the tariff when Peter asked for a pensioner’s discount! If you are ever in Barrydale, do visit the Magpie Art Collective (across the road from the hotel). Mike and Tana told me about it and their stuff is truly amazing. They make chandeliers out of recycled plastic; each piece is unique and a true work of art. Peter took one look at the price tags (nothing under R15 000) and beat a hasty retreat but I got chatting to Sean (one of the artists) and was so impressed with how full his life is in this little town. He gave me some good advice about retiring to a little town which was to look for one that is an end destination (like Prince Albert) rather than one that you pass through (like Barrydale) because there are more facilities in the former than the latter.

view of Barrydale from our hotel balcony

After we checked into the hotel, some members of the Cape Town Harley Davidson club arrived and the hotel started to hop, especially the pub. We ate at Meg’s Place and, guess what, we had Karoo lamb again, this time Greek style, which was excellent.  At breakfast the next day (which was very good – do have the boerewors, Mike), we overheard the bikers talking about their exploits in the pub the night before. One of them commented that he had wasted his money on a room because when he woke up in the morning he had found himself on the bathroom floor. He said that you know that you’ve had a good stay when your bar bill is 3 times your room rate. Oh, grow up, I thought to myself, you’re a middle-aged geezer! Of course, we hit Cape Town the next day and stayed the night with our friends, Annie and Alec. The wine flowed, and I woke up the next day regretting my judgement of the Harley Davidson oke (and the last glass of red wine). Will we ever learn, will we ever grow up? From Cape Town we drove through to Franschhoek, via Helshoogte and stopped at Hillcrest Berry Orchards. I had the most delicious scones I’ve ever had, crispy on the outside and as light as a feather on the inside – served with clotted cream, nogal. Our accommodation in Franschhoek was the beautiful Klein Waterval Riverside Lodge. That afternoon we attended Peter’s nephew’s charming wedding at the Solms-Delta wine estate. I particularly enjoyed the reading at the wedding:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!

Dr Seuss, Oh The Places You’ll Go

The next day was what I had been looking forward to all week, seeing my boy! As is now a tradition, we took him and his mates for the Sunday buffet lunch at Lanzarac. After a lovely long lunch Alex dropped us off at the Stellenbosch Hotel and drove off in his car. Our road trip had come to an end.

Now I’m happily back at home, reflecting on the trip and really enjoying the comfort of my own bed.

And for the Burl Ives fans, here’s another one to sing to the grandchildren:

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2 Responses to On The Road Again

  1. Adam Rice says:

    You have away of making me miss SA more than I thought possible. What a wonderful trip. I love the sea but there is also something special about isolated (perhaps not too isolated) places that seem to have a magic of their own. One (of my many) dreams is to do some touring on a bike somewhere warm sunny and empty. The Harley boys have the right idea.

  2. Cathy says:

    Hi Adam, sorry for making you miss SA, again! We saw more bikers than cars on this route (Route 62) through the Karoo and I must say I did envy them, going through the passes must be spectacular on a bike. Another route which I thought would be a fantastic trip to do on a bike was from Chiang Mai to Soppong, close to the Myanmar border in the north west of Thailand, near Pai. Let me know if you ever get around to it, I may just join you (on a scooter)!

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