Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

Sancho picked me up on Friday. We drove from Cape Town to his home in a small town some 180 kilometres away. We spent two nights there gathering ourselves for the trip. The brief description of the journey is: on the first day we drove to De Rust on the edge of the Karoo; on the second to Nieu-Bethesda; then on to Lady Gray on the Lesotho border; our final night on the road was spent in Clarens in the Free State; and finally, we drove down to Durban. It was a wonderful trip. We drove more than 2000 km, over six days, and were in the car for over 21 hours. Although we tried not to do too much car time on any one day, the road conditions operated against us.

The highlights were seeing old friends, excellent accommodation, spectacular sights and outstanding food and drink. The Cape wines are quite breathtaking. Before we set off on the main journey, we spent a day visiting two vineyards in the Stanford area. The Raka Wines were quite magnificent.

On day one we stopped in Swellendam to visit David and Felicity Schlapobersky at their pottery. We last saw each other in 1970 at Waterford School in Swaziland and they had no notice that we were going to stop by. Felicity saw us arrive and called David who walked out and said, “Alan Whiteside, how long has it been”. I think I too would have recognized him despite the years. It was amazing to simply catch-up as though it was yesterday, although we are now white beards.

Alan and David

Whiskers, Alan and David (Swellendam, June 2022)

A Dassie or Rock Hyrax

More whiskers: a Dassie or Rock Hyrax

Although the meeting with Mike Schraam in Lady Grey was supposedly for business, we had a great time. He is the managing editor and owner of the African Journal of AIDS Research and I am the editor-in-chief. We have worked together for many years, and it was great to connect with him. The reason we met in Lady Grey was he was on holiday in the area. He travelled over from his retreat in the little village of Rhodes. What would have taken weeks using email and the telephone was done and dusted in a one-hour business meeting hour. Mike then took us for a traditional boozy publisher’s lunch, except, of course, it was in the evening. The little bar had no customers for food apart from us, but there were many large white men in the bar. I felt the young woman behind the counter was just waiting to be discovered and whisked away to fame and fortune. Of note was the snow flurry as we sat at breakfast! That part of the country can be very cold. Fortunately, the rooms were relatively warm.

On the drive round the Lesotho border, my cell phone informed me that it was connected to the Lesotho network. In Clarens we stayed in the guest house run by a former colleague and his wife, they treated us to a tasty supper and plenty of wine. It was a most comfortable and luxurious place, built around the original farmhouse – the walls are huge sandstone blocks. It was delightful to catch-up with these old friends on the many events in their lives. We last met over 15 years ago.

There were numerous spectacular natural wonders on the drive. I will mention just three. The Tradouws pass from Suurbraak to Barrydale is a cavern in sandstone. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, beside a river. It is a gateway to the Little Karoo. Outside Graaf-Reinet we went up into Camdeboo National Park to gaze down on the Valley of Desolation, as someone who hates heights this was a stomach-turning sight. The spectacular mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park are also sandstone, but a paler colour, and absolutely glowed in the sunshine, gold indeed.

Tradouws Pass

The incredible Tradouws Pass

Desolation Valley

Desolation Valley near Graaf-Reinet

We visited a museum in Graaf-Reinet with an extremely interesting exhibit. There were pieces of glass from the honeymoon suite windows of a now demolished hotel. It seems at the end of the 1800s the new brides would scratch their names into the glass with their rings, at least they did if the stones were diamonds. The consequences if they were not gems was not recorded, but we can speculate.

The village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape is at the foot of the Sneeuberge. The name is biblical and means “place of flowing water”. It has the Owl House, the home of artist Helen Martins (1897-1976). It is difficult to describe this. The Wikipedia entry says “she turned her house and the area around it into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated with ground glass and containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, peacocks, pyramids, and people. She inherited the house from her parents and began its transformation after they died.” I include a few photographs. She was a tormented soul who committed suicide by drinking caustic soda!

The guest house hosts were generally unusual. In Nieu-Bethesda at The Ibis Barbara had spent 15 years in Tanzania where she met her husband, a South African conservationist. At the House Martin Guest Lodge in De Rust the hosts, Jan and Teresa, had spent years in Dubai, she in the corporate world and he, among other things, a rugby coach. The food in all the guest houses was exceptional, and as might be expected there was an emphasis on the dish of the district – lamb.

Decorations at The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Golden Gate National Park

The Golden Gate National Park

Parts of the trip were arduous. We drove into Nieu-Bethesda in the dark on a dirt road. It was not pleasant, but this paled into insignificance compared to the forced detour to get into Natal. In general, many of the roads were in an appalling condition. The drive through the Eastern Cape and Free State involved negotiating numerous bone jarring potholes. Those in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were largely marginally better, but the detour was hell. South African truck drivers are protesting against the employment of foreign drivers by blockading various key roads and we fell victim to this action. Of course, this was familiar, various Canadian American border crossings have been blockaded by angry truckers in recent months.

The main route from Johannesburg to Durban is the N3 and we joined it, briefly, just above Van Reneen’s pass, where it drops over the escarpment in KwaZulu-Natal. The xenophobic drivers had blocked the pass and we were directed onto a dirt road. We set off with trepidation. The detour was just over 20 kilometres, but it took over an hour. There was a line of slow-moving traffic, and the dust was ghastly. A number of drivers, especially those driving expensive, low-slung vehicles – think Porsche – turned back, as it was too bad. Others, the ones in four-wheel drive vehicles, behaved atrociously, overtaking the line of drivers and throwing up stones, I feared for my windscreen. There was however no option for us, so we kept going. We eventually arrived in Durban just after dark, experiencing really bad and impatient driving on the motorway over the last 50 kilometres. It was a relief to get there.

Writing this blog, I am reminded that I thought of the journey as something of a farewell tour. My companion, Sancho, was easy going, we shared the driving and generally chilled out. All the people we met on the way were interesting and unusual, except of course for the old friends who were expected to be interesting and unusual and did not disappoint. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity.

I have been in Durban for a few days now, and have had the chance to wander around, indeed I have done two very long walks through the neighbourhood. It is a city with problems. The rioting and looting in July of 2021 scarred some areas. The shopping centre down the hill was ransacked. This is not very visible as most of the damage has been repaired. The same cannot be said for the effects of the flooding in April 2022. It was estimated 435 people were killed and devastation is very visible. Almost every manhole cover has been washed away. There has been a huge amount of soil deposited on the roads, visible as drifts of red sand on many corners. A number of people have told me how dreadful the situation is and how poor the city government response has been. I have to be fair and say that I think it is not as bad as everyone says. One of the signs of this is the city council workers busily cleaning up the mess. South Africans are good at talking themselves down!

Monkeys in Glenwood, Durban

In Glenwood, Durban

And finally, on the flight to Cape Town, I watched three films. Belfast written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is the story, clearly biographical, of a young protestant boy in 1969 Belfast, at the beginning of the troubles. It is described as a coming-of-age drama film. I found it both moving and informative, perhaps because I remember these times, although they hardly touched us in Swaziland. City of Angels was released in 1998 and stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in a romantic fantasy film. Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a female surgeon and becomes human to be with her. I won’t say how it ends, suffice it to say it was a tearjerker. Richard Says Goodbye, also titled Professor, was an odd film. It was released in 2018 and may be one of the last films starring Johnny Depp. It tells of an English professor who learns he has stage 4 lung cancer, which is terminal. He might live six months without treatment, but 12–18 months with aggressive and painful cancer treatment. He decides against treatment. We follow him over the next few months, his interactions with family, students, colleagues and friends. I don’t think I would have gone to see any in a cinema, but they made the journey pass.

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