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Monday, 30 July 2018

Bookman on the Zambezi
  Some twenty kilometres along the good tarred road to the Copperbelt, north of the town of Sesheke in Zambia, which in turn is just across the border of Katima Mulilo near the eastern point of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, you would pass the scattered huts of the village of Makusi. A few dozen thatched huts are dotted among the scrub mopani, kiaat, rosewood and other subtropical hardwood trees; a small school and clinic are situated a few kilometres further on. It is winter -  the maize has been reaped and summer-fat cattle wander through the dry stalks; the granaries are heaped with white cobs of corn and the only people to be seen are pedestrians along the road - on their way to who knows where.
The Plunder of the Forests - Logyard
A greenish rock barely marks a faint roadway disappearing into the bush, towards the great river that we have had odd glimpses of during the drive from Sesheke. The twin tracks wind through the shades of brown forest, past a clearing which is stacked high with huge squared-off cants of rosewood. A container acts as an office for the Chinese supervisor, who ducks behind the timber when we stop to take photos as a tractor-trailer unloads another instalment of loot destined for the fine mansions of the East. Hundreds of container loads of precious timbers leave the country every year to feed this insatiable demand; at best the locals get a few kwacha in wages; the bulk of the proceeds are siphoned off higher up in the tiers of government.
Entrance to Likaka House

We arrive at an imposing gateway. Within the fence two giant baobab trees flank the track on either side. A hundred metres further on the forest grows lush; lawns appear, then buildings - and the kilometre-wide expanse of the great waterway that drains  sub-equatorial Africa: the majestic Zambezi. It is just past the full flood and yet the waters are lapping underneath the deck of my cottage, one of three tucked away in the riverine forest, where my hosts install me. A hippo grunts nearby and the distant growl of rapids is ever present. The main house consists of a long, lofty room which encompasses a pub, the lounge, dining room and kitchen flowing into each other; a bedroom suite towards the river and scullery, pantry  and laundry on the west side form a T shape. A deep veranda faces the river across a shaded lawn. This is Likaka House. Adjacent, next to a giant rosewood tree is another small building in the same style - the library. The reason I am here.

Likaka House
 Some thirteen years previously, David Moir, CBE, a retired bank executive with roots in several countries of central Africa, as well as Britain and Asia, decided to realise his dream and create a little piece of Old Africa in the Barotseland bush. David was born in Zimbabwe, raised in Zambia and schooled in South Africa. He began his banking career in Livingstone and worked his way up from being a clerk to a main board director of the bank in London. Having worked in Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, in a career spanning 50 years during which time he experienced all the changes from Colonial environments to white outposts and finally black rule in Africa. He and his wife Jean were married in Livingstone, a mere 200 kilometers stone throw downstream. Their children were born in Zambia and raised in some of the out of the way places and many holidays were spent camping in the great outdoors. This is the environment the Moir’s wanted to create in part when they decided to build an “Africa House” in Zambia.

The Library
During his working life David had built many lasting friendships with people from all walks of life, among them  being the Royal Highnesses the Litunga or King of Barotseland and Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta of the Barotse Royal Family, who rules the southern region. So he began making inquiries about securing a piece of riverside by contacting the local Induna Sihole. Central African etiquette being what it is, many intricate negotiations followed to include all the persons in the tribal/royal hierarchy who needed to be consulted in the matter, but finally the Senior Chief gave his blessing to a 50 year old renewable lease on some 16 acres of prime riverside for a reasonable sum. Since he and David were friends, he did not see the necessity for any documentation, saying "you are one of us, it is for the grandchildren of your grandchildren." But the latter, being a canny banker, pressed for the need for some concrete proof of stewardship, to which the Senior Chief finally acceded, telling him to write the document himself - which he would then countersign. The only clause that was inserted was one which stated that if the property was sold, the Senior Chief reserved the right of vetting the new owner.  

Veranda with a View
David and Jean then met with the locals and identified a plot in the middle of nowhere by marking four trees with blazes, one at each corner. Then the real work began. Locals were employed to clear the undergrowth; many loads of earth had to be imported to fill and level the site. Then building materials were trucked in - the nearest source being Namibia across the border for bricks and cement; while most fittings, frames and porcelain had to come from the Cape or Johannesburg, almost 4000 km south. The architect who was entrusted with the project, designed buildings that were to be cool in the heat of summer, and cosy in the temperate winter. Ceilings were high and well insulated. The walls were mostly french doors to maximise the view through the trees of the river flowing only some fifty metres from the front door, but deep verandas and trees shaded the interior during the heat of the day.  While the building work progressed, the pair camped in a clearing a short distance upstream for long periods, an idyllic existence for people who loved the bush as they did. Sadly, Jean passed away a couple of years back, but she enjoyed their yearly winter stay in the tranquility of Likaka house for almost a decade.
Lounge Interior

Finally the edifice had to be furnished. The extensive built-in cupboards as well as some of the loose items were made from local timbers by an Indian craftsman, other things were bought in the distant Cape, or came from David's other homes. Three chalets were built to house any number of visitors, children and grandchildren. These were spaced at roughly sixty metre intervals along a meandering pathway through the forest. Each had a deck which cantilevered over the water when the river ran high, and one was warned to beware of grazing hippos at night, when these massive beasts came up into the dambo which always has long grass growing in it. The staff quarters, garages and generator, as well as solar installation were tucked away a little further inland, but well within call. A fully enclosed vegetable garden (to deter monkeys and birds) was also laid out, but this had been completely flooded a few days before my arrival, so everything was dead - except the crocodile that was found in it on one fine day not long ago. 

David Moir, CBE
The master of Likaka ( the Lozi word for guinea fowl) is a local historian of note. He was inspired to a great degree by that great missionary explorer and humanitarian, David Livingstone; his travels, the places he visited and the people he came in contact with. After the explorers came the pioneers; the Europeans who arrived to exploit the supposedly fabulous riches which lay scattered about in the soil or walked through the bush on two or four legs. Then the inimitable Rhodes came on the scene with his grand vision of a red streak from south to north across the continent; the British South Africa Company reigned supreme for over thirty years. Then the British crown stepped in and ruled from Whitehall until 'the natives got restless' and demanded - and got - their independence back in 1964. In the meanwhile, Barotseland had been a separate Protectorate, but for a number of reasons, they were reluctantly incorporated into the new republic of Zambia - with guarantees of special treatment, a larger measure of independence and the right to continue their culture and traditional rulership. All these privileges were to gradually disappear, causing smouldering secessionist sentiments which linger on to this day. All this history makes interesting reading, so David proceeded to amass a probably unequalled library of works dealing with Barotseland, Zambia in general, as well as the neighbouring states of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia. These books, booklets, ephemera and maps, numbering close to 2000 items,  are housed in the library at Likaka House. He has a never-ending font of stories, anecdotes and biographies about the history ancient and recent, the people and politics of the region. Get him started and he can keep you enthralled for hours. If his encyclopaedic knowledge falters, there are all the reference works at hand. The problem that has arisen is knowing what is already there; where is it, and how can the information be found - as well as catering for the next generation of curators. David is a hale 78 years old; a man with wide-ranging dreams of travels and further experiences, but one has to think of the future and very few people have enough random access memory to recall 2000 items, so a little help was called for. The now retired bookman from Africana Books, yours truly, packed his bags in Port Nolloth at the Namaqua Archive, drove up to Oranjemund and caught two flights via Windhoek to Katima Mulilo, where David and his good friend, Rose Hunt, collected me for a two and half week working sojourn on the banks of the Zambezi.
Bookman and Twambo at work
A simple task lay ahead: catalogue each item by author, title, date of publication, publisher, ISBN, subject speciality, if any, region and period covered, and an indication of value range for older, more valuable books. It doesn't sound such a big deal; as an antiquarian bookdealer I have had over twenty years experience doing just that - but never before continuously on this scale. To assist me, David had engaged a young lady, Twambo Mebelo, who was studying for her A-levels, to be my legs (climbing up ladders and fetching books), hands to hold open the covers at the relevant places to enable me to read the information, and eyes, to spot the most glaring typos as I made them. In all three these tasks she proved to be invaluable. It would have taken me several weeks longer without her help. 

After establishing a range of subject headings, as well as the four periods of history in which the books were to be organised alphabetically, ie Pioneer (pre 1890), British South Africa Company (1891-1924) Colonial (1925-1964) and Independence (after 1964), I was ready to start. Sunrise over the Zambezi; a wonderfully peaceful way to start the day, sitting out on the deck, coffee in hand, listening to the gentle gurgle of water, its distant groan over the rapids and the calls of a myriad of birds. Seven o'clock, and work calls. Twambo is awaiting and we get on with it. The hours fly past. Stacks of books grow on the tables; then wane. David pops in; then Rose calls to breakfast. Back to work. It is hard, concentrated effort; my eyes water from the bright light that my aging eyes need to read, even if aided by a Sherlock Holmesian magnifying glass; my back hurts from sitting in the same position for long periods and my feet swell under the table. But it is never boring. Many of the volumes are familiar; I am tempted to type the titles from memory - but that is fallible, as I discover. Better to painstakingly read, then write. The endless, flowery Victorian subtitles, while giving a fair idea of the contents, are wearisome after a while. One soldiers on; Twambo is up and down the ladder - she never complains. We are called to lunch. A quick sandwich on the lawn under the majestic trees; a cold drink, then an hour's lie-down to recuperate. Back to the salt mine until dusk. On my first full day I have catalogued 200 books - the most I have ever managed in one day - so I am well-satisfied with our efforts. At least I know what to aim for so as to be able to complete the job in the budgeted time.
Jetty & Cruiser
We go off to visit a 'neighbour', one of some five or six European households along the river between Livingstone and Mongu - nearly five hundred kilometres. This is Makusi Island, dubbed Zambelozi by the lessors, a couple running a luxury fishing camp. All very swish with crystal chandeliers, white linen, deep sofas and hot and cold running servants. The part that interested me most was the ferry crossing: two pontoons with planks across them; a loop of wire onto a cable stretched across the river to the bank, and a single oar - that was all it took for one man to steer the ferry halfway across the current and 'sail' the boat through the swift current to the island. Ingenious! We share a delicious meal with the couple and a brace of fishing outfitters who have come to sample the tiger fish - which are biting well. We hear of a seventeen-pounder that has been pulled from the river above the falls recently. That must have been quite a fight.

Back home I can't wait to get to bed. The next few days are all pretty similar. Up at seven; finish at six. Have a drink in the lounge with my hosts, watch a little inane television, which I don't normally do, have a late supper and fall into bed. There is a bit of a commotion during one night: a pair of  hyaenas attacked some loose cattle in the village and killed two. The villagers retaliate by poisoning what is left of the carcases. During the previous couple of years two village women who were washing their clothes in the river behind a makeshift screen of a few thornbushes chucked into the water, were taken by crocodiles. Yet the locals bathe in the river, though they tend to prefer rapids where the monster reptiles are less likely to be looking for lunch. Latest word from the river is that two marauding lions are causing havoc among the cattle herds just across the Zambezi. This is still the wilds of Africa.
We go for a sunset cruise on Likaka's own pontoon. The captain is major domo Edwin, an engaging local lad sporting his yachting cap and a broad grin. He takes us up to the Ngambwe rapids upstream; almost an hour's trip against the current, but the river flows so swiftly that we make it back in ten minutes. Over the weekend we drive a hundred kilometres to the village of Sioma through the autumnal countryside and on to the Ngonye Falls - which we never get to see as the river is too full and the path to the falls is flooded. We have a look at the little museum and curio shop, but most of the items on sale are too bulky to fit into my limited luggage space, so I decline. We drop in on a fishing lodge/restaurant called Whispering Sands and meet the new owners who hail from Pretoria, of all places. Lunch? No, afraid not, but you can have oxtail for supper. We can't wait that long for sustenance, so we have a cold and very welcome beer instead and make our way back to Likaka House.
Capn' Edwin

Another day we need to go and buy some bread. The nearest bakery - only twenty kilometres down the road in Katima (the Zambian version - not the Namibian Katima Mulilo). We pop into Sesheke to have a look what the south-western capital looks like. There is a main street; there are shops, mostly of the informal type - very informal, but at least there is a hospital - of sorts, a bank, and a proper filling station, as opposed to the few plastic bottles stacked at the side of the road elsewhere, where you can purchase fuel in very small quantities if you're desperate. The town reflects Central Africa; vibrant, noisy, somewhat dirty and poor, but the people are friendly, unthreatening and polite. I am struck by the greater number of pedestrians everywhere along the roads in the countryside; much fewer cyclists than we encountered in Malawi. Cars are also quite scarce outside towns; at times you drive ten or twenty kilometres before seeing one. During the week, much heavy traffic crosses from Namibia en route to the Copperbelt as this road north is the main supply artery.
Work progressed well. The Zambian book section was completed, then came a few hundred bits of ephemera; copies of articles, booklets, souvenirs - mostly very difficult to categorise, but Twambo and I ploughed through the mountains of paperwork. Then it was the turn of Namibian stuff; mainly works dealing with the Caprivi Strip; then Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana. After some ten days we had beavered our way through all the bookcases, we were left with a table full of maps. Now I bade Twambo farewell as her work was completed and all the books were back in their correct places. This is where I decided that David had better learn the rudiments of catalogueing himself so as to be able to add any future acquisitions to his library. David, Rose and I sat down together at his computer and I urged him to open his browser.
"What is that?" He asked. Oh dear, this was going to be a long session. We persevered and by lunchtime we had completed the job to our best combined capabilities. I took a day to proofread the best part of two thousand entries. They are not perfect, since I am not good at spotting errors, but they are vastly improved. Then I had to write what is unflatteringly called an 'idiot's manual' (no reflection on my host - since I write these all the time as aide memoires for my own use as well). David and I spent a further morning working our way through that - and then the job was done. We took another sunset cruise upriver, and this time I dangled a lure in the water, half hoping an errant tiger fish would swallow it. One did and almost yanked the rod out of my hands, but then he thought better of it and spat out the spoon. We returned in the gloom and then sat out on the veranda watching an unbelievably beautiful full moon rise over the breadth of the majestic river. Next morning the bookman of the Zambezi took the bookman of Namaqualand to the airport over the border. A memorable stay in the spell of this great African artery, where its own bookman is the temporary guardian of its written history and traditions.
Likaka Baobabs

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Great Mzanzi Roundabout Roadtrip - Votes & Views #42



 Note: Mzanzi is the Xhosa word for South Africa

Our Route




For the best part of sixty years I have harboured the secret wish to make a journey around the entire border of my country. Modelling myself on Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a donkey…) this would ideally be done in very leisurely daily instalments, utilising an affable donkey, whom I would cajole along, and a small cart to carry my camping gear and food. The whole trip should take a year or two – or so my youthful imagination pictured it. As I entered the adult world, the stark realities of having to earn a living, as well as the cost thereof became rather apparent. As one does when no other course presents itself, one gets on with working life.  During the first few years, I managed to graduate from public transport and hitch-hiking to a Lambretta scooter. Except for having the tendency to topple over, being rather chilly/wet to drive in the Highveld winter/summer and prone to being disregarded by four-wheeled traffic, it was motorised transport. Certainly not fit for a lengthy journey. I started scheming to buy one of these three-wheeler contraptions of the same make, once so beloved by retailers as small-goods delivery vans. It would have a loading space, a little protection from the elements in the form of a windscreen and something more of a macho persona on the road, which would encourage other motorists to acknowledge its presence. I sat on that dream for a number of years.

Life goes on, thankfully, and I graduated to my first car – a complete disaster. A short trial run to the Lowveld was dogged by mechanical problems before it almost went up in a blaze of glory due to an electrical fault. Wisely I presented it to a friend who was more mechanically minded than I was. Then I settled down to hard work and after a number of years and a stint as a diamond driller in the Namib, I was able to acquire a fine new station wagon, small, but willing. I had many adventures in this little car, but somehow I never managed to take a step back from life to undertake such a marathon  journey. Work, marriage, raising children – all of these took their toll of the time available. Then suddenly there’s a hobble in your step, there are the aches and pains  on awakening to remind you that you are still alive; you don’t hear so well and your eyesight is only just about good enough to drive a motor car. The realisation hits you: you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb – life. Now is the time, if you want to make that journey.

Obviously, as one has matured past three-score and ten years (without falling victim to childlike senility), one has to alter the whole scheme of things. The quadruped and cart is exchanged for a willing, tiny four-wheel drive car; the length of the journey is shortened considerably in deference to old bones and instead of camping, we would hop from game reserve to game reserve and make use of the odd self-catering accommodation along the way. It took a week of poring over a computer to work out our itinerary; another to make bookings as far ahead as we dared, since it was almost a given that we would have a problem somewhere along the line which would cause the loss of a day, and our national parks are particularly unforgiving if you don’t arrive when booked in – you lose the not inconsiderable payment you made up front.

By the last week in August, we had managed to find a reliable, young, local couple, who were willing to house-sit and look after two dogs, an ailing cat and four chickens. Our brave wagon was loaded with state of the art survival gear; a 12Volt compressor, two comfortable folding chairs, a warm blanket, a trenching tool, an axe, a bundle of homegrown wood, a grid, a tiny gas cooker, assorted utensils, some food and a bottle  each of gin and whiskey and about a dozen books. We felt we were prepared for most eventualities. From the internet I had prepared an entire ‘roadbook’ using a website called ‘Plan your route…’. This proved to be invaluable for lighting fires.

Mountain Zebra Park with Bankberg in the distance
So we set off in the dawn of a fine, warm, spring day towards the Mountain Zebra Park near Cradock. We had been there previously and had much enjoyed the quiet of a little unfenced ‘mountain hut’ a few hundred metres along a rugged track off the main route, which included scaling a intimidating granite boulder and the company of a herd of stampeding buffalo during a morning walk to the bathroom. We hoped to have a similar experience this time, but instead we were assigned the other, No 1 Hut, which proved to be in an isolated kloof, much further down a track which traversed over thirty-three of the steepest, shortest humps you could possibly negotiate with a long wheelbase vehicle. Our abbreviated transport had no problems, but it was more extreme than any roller coaster you can imagine. We had been booked in by a friendly young man at reception who had other things on his mind obviously, since he neglected to give us the key to our domain. I left my disgruntled partner reclining on our blanket in the shade of a tree within the fenced area of the hut (there are lions in the park) while I augmented my ‘hump total’ to 99 for the day. We unanimously agreed to call it a day when I returned, had a drink to settle my cerebellum, a bite to eat and then spent some time scanning the incredibly clear skies for meteorites and satellites.

Since we wanted to acclimatise ourselves to the rigours of long-distance travelling, we stayed over another day in the park. During an early drive up onto the plateau, we watched the sun rise over the imposing Bankberg, then  had a pleasant breakfast at the park’s restaurant. The charismatic predators eluded us, but the herds of antelope formed an interesting foreground against the serried ranks of the Karoo hills in the distance. No rains had fallen as yet, and the countryside was dry; the streams barely trickles. We had another short drive that evening, by which time we had traversed almost the entire road network of the park. Altogether a relaxing stay in fairly basic, but spacious and clean accommodation in a lovely environment.

Another dawn departure, as a lengthy stint lay ahead, all the way round the bulge of Lesotho through the eastern Free State. We had chosen this route instead of going through the Transkei towards the Drakensberg resorts, for two reasons: we had both never been to these parts before and secondly the
Transkei route included a very lengthy stretch of what looked like roads of doubtful quality, with no obvious places for stopovers. Since we go quite frequently to Kei Mouth to visit a relative, we could always add on a small tour through these regions at a later date. Our route led north and we passed Hofmeyr – a town named after one of my partner’s ancestors. She duly posed under the ‘welcome to…’ sign, tastefully embellished by a rubbish-heap in the background. This fair city of a few thousand souls, sports a huge hexagonal church in bubblegum pink, a spire added on in front, and further embellished by a pillared façade worthy of the State Capitol, as well as the picturesque ‘Africa Supfe Market’. We debated whether that was meant to be suffer, super or supper.

Although our route planner had assured us that the roads from there to Aliwal North were all good, provincial roads, a rocky gravel road ensued just outside town, which eventually deteriorated into a farm twin-track with the renowned ‘middelmannetjie’ or central ridge for a dozen kilometres before we were reunited with civilization once more, making us doubt that revered facility called Google Earth. We left the Eastern Cape behind and crossed the Gariep River. Almost immediately the topography flattened out and the seemingly endless grain fields stretched emptily into the distance, as the eagerly anticipated spring rains had yet to come. In the northeast an imposing mountain mass loomed, presumably part of Lesotho. The dramatic ridge of the Aasvoëlberg, splashed with a wide stripe of centuries of vultures’ nesting sites makes a dramatic statement on the plains, sheltering the town of Zastron behind it. From there onwards, more and more of these isolated inselbergs pop up out of the cornfields presenting a picture akin to fortified mountaintops, or villages such as found in Europe – remnants of mediaeval days of warfare. The legendary chief, Moshesh of the Basuto, had just such a natural fortress on the nearby Thaba Bosiu, which he defended against the Boers under Louw Wepener, a folk hero who died during the wars and after whom the town of Wepener is named.

Our first bit of drama. The car’s steering becomes sluggish; a passing car signals us with flashing lights just before we reach Hobhouse. I pull over: a deflating tyre greets me. Out comes the trusty compressor and I reflate it in the hope of making the village. We limp into a dispirited dorp with large potholes, green stinking water flowing in runnels down the streets between unkempt houses – a place the New South Africa has forgotten. The men at the garage are most helpful. Several caterpillar-like plugs are forced into the gaping cut in the tread of the tyre, but the hole is too large. Our spare is fitted and we depart in haste towards the next town of any size, Ladybrand, where we were able to obtain a replacement. In the Free State we encountered the first serious instances of the curse of our road infrastructure – potholing. One moment you are barrelling along at the speed limit and then you are suddenly confronted by one, or a series of gaping holes in the tar surface. You don’t dare swerve at speed, since you might overturn your vehicle or hit oncoming traffic, so perforce you subject your car’s suspension to treatment it was not designed to cope with. Another novel invention is the placing of speed humps, entirely unsignposted or marked, at places where the unsuspecting driver is supposed to slow down – in the opinion of the authorities. We hit one of those near a settlement called Vanstadensrus, if I recall correctly, and it could almost have become Schaefersrus, as we took momentarily to the skies.


On the whole, this part of the Free State did not endear itself to our memories. It was very much like we had imagined it to be, relieved only by rare outcrops of scenic beauty. As we rounded the bulge of Lesotho and neared Clarens, first green hillsides, then mountainsides greeted us, as well as the innumerable green roofs of hundreds of houses arrayed in neat lines alike as peas in a pod, where wealthy pensioners could live, secure behind gates and barbed wire, a mere driver’s whack from the nearest golf course and country clubs that seemed to infest the countryside. Drought? There was no drought here, as the lush greens and fairways bore witness to. We wended our way down the valley towards the breathtakingly beautiful cliffs that gave Golden Gate their name, booked into the well-appointed camp and went for a short walk along a burbling brook to stretch our legs after almost seven hundred kilometres of driving.


We had hoped to have a restaurant meal that evening, but this facility had been outsourced and now consisted of a much-starred ‘lodge’, where some convention involving  local and possibly international glitterati, was in progress. You couldn’t move in their driveway for parked luxury vehicles, and our hopes of a meal were summarily quashed. In the morning we drove around the scanty roads this park has, enjoying the scenery, the several species of large game that roam, as well as the beautiful ‘vulture restaurant’, which unfortunately lacked diners. Then on round the berg, which loomed on our right like a gigantic black ridge of teeth, capped tantalisingly in places with a white topping of snow. A series of man-made lakes, the huge Sterkfontein Dam and its extensions spiced up the wintry landscape and we descended down towards Bergville, something of an antithesis of the tourist haven I had imagined it to be, and Winterton, which had a sort of quaint charm that I did not expect. 

The last part of the road into Giant’s Castle was under construction, lorries, bulldozers, steamrollers and scrapers vying with cattle for space on uncompacted gravel; a surprise, given that the AA road report had ‘nothing to report’ on the stretch! The reserve itself was a delightful find. Our reception was as good as our quarters – easily the best we encountered during the four weeks of the trip.  One of the disadvantages of the park is that it doesn’t really offer anything for people with mobility problems. The big attraction is a 3 km hike from the camp, and the last guided tour into the main cave leaves at 3pm, which doesn’t leave any time to get there for people like us coming in at two.  In addition one is not permitted on the road to their vulture restaurant unless one has booked it ahead. Only one party is permitted at a time, whether it consists of one or twenty visitors. The live feed to the view from the hide was out of order – courtesy of a lightening strike, we heard. Still, a wonderful afternoon and night was spent, in luxurious, comfortable and homely surroundings at a reasonable price.

Ithala Backdrop
Our next stop was the Ithala Reserve, just outside another neglected dorp, Louwsburg in  northern Natal. Obviously not too many visitors, as we received a really warm welcome from the gatekeeper. The reception staff were no less friendly, but we ran the gauntlet of two fighting vervet monkeys who transferred their aggression to us when we attempted to pass. So vicious were these beasties that I feared for my toes as we tried to hoosh them off despite repeated charges. Hunger and desperation – or just footpads on the lookout for a handout? We obtained our keys to a very clean and well-built chalet with the warning to keep all doors and windows closed against the raiders – a warning most credible in the light of our experience. We had a brief rest, the decided to drive a short loop, which started just outside the camp. The exit looked horribly steep and rough, but we consoled ourselves that it was downhill, so possibly it would not be too bad for our valiant Rosinante (also known as ‘The White Auntie’ – a name bestowed on our car by our gardener). The first half of the journey was bad; very taxing driving, mostly not even permitting me a glance into the bush to spot animals. The car ‘bottomed out’ numerous times on the large rocks coupled with dips and holes. The last hour back to camp, I was on tenterhooks. It was getting dark and the road had deteriorated to such a degree that I had to inch over the bush-track littered with boulders, cleft with dongas and if I could have turned around, I might have taken that option. We made it back to camp with a few minutes to spare, where a young ranger in a large parks vehicle that dwarfed mine, was quite incredulous at our having traversed the road as he knew it well.

Pongola Valley
Back at the hut we were greeted with some slight disarray. The kitchen was full of scattered food; the biscuits, fruit, bread and sugar had been raided and there were bits lying everywhere. At first we were puzzled, since we couldn’t find any opening for a monkey to use. Then a half-eaten slice of bread on the bathroom floor gave it away. The culprit must have been a bushbaby (a small, mainly nocturnal lemur about the size of a squirrel) which had insinuated its slender body through a small triangular hole left in the burglar mesh of the bathroom window for one to be able to open the catch. The staff confirmed that these, too, had become a serious pest in the camp. Next morning we tried another road, northwards towards the banks of the Pongola River after being assured that this was in a better state. Not so. It was still pretty awful and the 28 kms took us a good 2 hours to navigate. Despite the lovely scenery and a good diversity of large game, the park was a disappointment mainly because of the poor road infrastructure. In all fairness, with water tankers having to be deployed all over northern Natal to ferry water to the people, one can’t blame the government for paying less attention to conservation and maintenance.

We quit Louwsburg and environs as quickly as possible, but as we had been warned locally that the road to Hluhluwe via Nongoma was dreadful, we took a longer route, north towards Pongola and then back south on the N2. The normally lush canefields along this route were a sickly, stunted yellow fuzz barely covering the ground, in most places. The thick thorny bush was a pale ghostly maze with bare, brown earth underneath – when it wasn’t covered with plastic rubbish. Not an animal was to be seen as we drove through the Pongola Reserve, incidentally the oldest formally proclaimed conservation area in South Africa, dating back to 1894. As we drove towards the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Reserve through the ubiquitous settlements that have covered so much of rural South Africa, the countryside got verdant as a few localised showers had fallen. Inside the park we were immediately greeted by a small herd of elephants and a rhino, skylarking in a freshly filled puddle. Everywhere was young greenery and both browsers and grazers were making the most of it. The Hilltop Camp, where we booked in for the night, looked just like it had on my last visit, sometime in the early 1970’s. The bedlinen had been changed, but that was about all. The very expensive rondavels were still same as forty years ago; cramped, dark and musty, (but with TV) while the ablution block looked like those in a municipal caravan park: cracked windows, dysfunctional taps, lights that didn’t work. The communal kitchens were much better, and while I didn’t test the stoves, all looked a little more modern, clean and neat. Naturally there were also luxurious lodges available for those ‘dollared’ gentry that could afford them.

The park is truly a rhino farm. We lost count of the number of white rhino seen. There were elephants, buffalo and a goodly number of antelope species, as well as lions, which eluded us. We took two drives in the evening and again next morning, before taking to the road once more, back north towards Pongola. We turned off towards Jozini, a town new to me, and ascended the Lebombo Mountains with a lovely, scenic drive. I had been expecting a sleepy little village atop the mountain – instead we were faced with a traffic jam almost a kilometre long. The road was choked with taxis, trucks being offloaded, men pushing handcarts and trolleys, not to mention the thousands of pedestrians and hawkers’ stalls forming a kaleidoscope of colours, while a lone traffic policeman indulged in frantic antics in the middle of the main street, ignored by all. It looked as if all 186 000 inhabitants (as per Google) of the municipality had come shopping on the same day. We inched through for the best part of an hour, then got lost had to retrace and finally made it over the impressive wall of the dam.

Jozini Street Market
At present this dam seems to represent the lifeline for the entire region. Fleets of tankers cart water to distressed municipalities, game reserves, lodges and settlements hundreds of kilometres distant. It must the only source of stored water in the region, but the level is falling rapidly and is now under 40% full. We head north towards the Mozambique border. Some fifty years have passed since I last drove through this region. Then the roads consisted of two faint tracks in loose, sandy soil, interspersed with mud pools hundreds of metres long. In 1959 our expedition needed a three-ton truck and a one ton van to get through towards Kosi Bay; the two vehicles alternating with getting bogged down. Five or six years later it took me 24 hours to negotiate the flooded track from Ubombo to Sodwana on the coast in a baby Renault – admittedly not the ideal vehicle for such a trip. At that time, Maputaland, as this strip is known, was sparsely populated and you would see the odd kraal every few kilometres, interspersed with ‘topless’ nlala palms, which were being tapped for palm wine. There were few cattle, due to the area having been tsetse-fly plagued and malaria was rife. These have all but been eliminated by shooting out the game and spraying with DDT. The game is back, so is malaria, but humanity has also arrived with a vengeance. We drove along a (slightly potholed) tarred road right up until the gates of Ndumo Game Reserve.  The entire hundred-odd kilometres of road were lined with one long settlement on both sides of the road. There were many DIY building projects, certainly, but an astonishing number of beautiful, tiled-roof villas, mostly adorned with porches framed by Doric, Corinthian, Ionic or Tuscan columns – obviously a growth-industry in these and other parts of the interior that we later traversed. We marvelled at these ‘country estates’ that were being built by our up and coming previously disadvantaged countrymen. One does wonder though, how will the government supply electricity, water and sewerage connections to these widely-spaced new urban dwellers – not to mention other infrastructure like schools and hospitals. We did se a huge spanking new sports arena at Ndumo village though. Possibly a progeny of the 2010 World Cup. Quite a revelation about rural conditions in our country.

Drought at Ndumo
The reserve, at most times a wetland paradise of waterfowl and hundreds of other species of birds, hippos and crocodiles, now resembled a thorny desert. Our reception was cordial and our chalet quite reasonable, though the distant ablution block could have done with a little sprucing up. We were invited to partake of lengthy walking tours, game drives and the like, which we thankfully declined. Our own venture into this graveyard of the drought, along badly rutted, rocky and dusty tracks brought very little joy. Animals were extremely wary and with the exception of unexpected giraffe, dashed off the moment we appeared. The normally huge Nyamithi pan was a vague shimmer of blue rimmed with a few pink flamingos, almost a kilometre from the viewing point. The Maputo River, normally a hideout for hippos and crocodiles, was a bed of sand, with one small puddle of water and a dispirited stork huddled on a sandbank. We could have walked dry-footed across to Mozambique. We saw and heard probably the least number of species of birds of any park we visited on out trip. A dawn drive next day was not much more productive, though we almost ran into a large, dehorned rhino on the road, as well as seeing a handful species of antelope – all shy, nowhere frequent.

Friendly Locals
Back towards Jozini. Thankfully this time no traffic jam, and we left Maputaland and crossed the border into Swaziland at Golela/Lavumisa. Except for being dunned a small fee for using their potholes, this was relatively painless. The route up the eastern edge of the country was new to me, so quite an interesting drive. It was obvious that the Swazi king’s predilection for Rolls Royce motor cars and other luxuries has impacted considerably on his subjects’ general prosperity. Nowhere did we see any of the ostentatious country estates and lavish houses that we had encountered in our own country. The dun countryside reflected drought and poverty alike, though the people were smiling and courteous. We dropped in for a warm welcome at the Hlane Royal National Park for lunch. This is really a tiny series of fenced camps where you are ‘guaranteed’ sightings of most of the ‘Big Five’, but the attraction is at the main camp, where there is a neat little shop and restaurant, as well as numbers of comfortable chairs scattered under shady trees at the edge of a waterhole (dam). We opted for a couple of cool beers and to have our picnic at the dam. It was delightful sitting there, watching the languid antics of a few hippos, impala, a lovely selection of bird species and a rhino sleeping under a bush about 80 metres away – all separated from us by one strand of wire. All too soon we had to leave this oasis of tranquillity (though the entrance had a towering display of miles of confiscated wire snares on a series of poles).

Kilometers of Snares at Hlane Gate
The northern Swaziland canefields were a little greener than their southern counterparts, and new plantings had been made near Mhlume, probably with irrigation from the Komati River. We exited the little kingdom uneventfully and after some kilometres travel, turned off onto a road decided on by my computer, which was to lead us directly to Hectorspruit, from which we had to do a short dogleg along the national road before driving straight into Marloth Park, where we would meet up with my son. In no time at all we were in the middle of another endless conurbation. Houses, shops, businesses – a city called Tonga had sprung up unbeknownst to me. It was nowhere to be found on even a modern map – but we can vouch for the fact that it exists. In no time at all we were hopelessly lost. Our only solution: to head for Malelane, the only town signposted – but about a hundred km in the wrong direction. When in doubt, ask a taxi driver or phone a friend. My son entered our presumed location into one of these satnav thingies he has and gave us some advice as to which road to take. A little later we saw a road sign pointing to Hectorspruit, and we took off on another dire dust-track in pursuit of the Holy Grail. A few more twists and turns, and more by luck than design, we arrive and enquire at the local garage as to the whereabouts of Marloth Park. 

“Just down this road – just go straight” sez the lady. Ten minutes later, after many turns, were are in the middle of another suburbia and phone my son again. He consults his crystal satnav once more and tells us that we are about twenty kilometres from where we are supposed to be. More directions follow and finally we get to the lodge on the banks of the Crocodile River. A pleasant surprise, not only my son and his fiancé appear, but also a very grown-up young lady, my granddaughter, and her boyfriend.

We spend the next two days getting acquainted/reacquainted and have a most pleasant drive in an open vehicle into the Kruger Park. Our game-spotting team is formidable. Driver/guide Solomon knows his business, as does my son, who is a professional guide and natural history lecturer, ably assisted by the ladies – no slouches. For once I can just sit back and have lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo pointed out to me. By morning teatime we have bagged the ‘Big Five’ and had the privilege to watch a leopard working his way along the riverbank in search of prey, before finding a shady spot among the rocks. Our time together is all too short since my family members have to return to work, and we get on with our itinerary. The north beckons and we depart through the park to Olifants Camp. Again we are in luck, and manage to see all the iconic species, including a leopard with his kill in a tree. The region is dry, but nowhere as bad as in Natal, though we do see rotting carcases of hippo – a species very badly affected by the drought.

Our camp experience was similar to that at Hluhluwe: high-priced at Olifants, but cramped, dark and forty years past their sell-by date. Not even a kettle to be had in the hut and the kitchen nowhere to be found in the dark. The restaurant a franchise of the faceless ‘Murg & Been’ as we dubbed them, where I almost came a cropper in the dark as I slipped on a potentially lethal layer of fallen figs on the unlit ramp leading to the huts. The Punda Maria camp, on the other hand, was charming. The bathrooms were clean and new, the longdavels were freshly renovated and had parking right outside and the shop was bright and had a good selection of wares. The floodlit waterhole was the source of much excitement and the trumpeting of squabbling elephants accompanied our supper. Speaking of which – we might still be standing there trying to fry some sausages if an obliging fellow-guest had not share his coals. The antiquated hot plates in the communal kitchen got barely warm enough to start cooking some onion rings in the space of an hour.

Punda Maria Longdavel
We traversed the entire Kruger Park from top to bottom; something I have only done twice previously, the last time some thirty-five years ago. As always, it was a good experience. We did not find other visitors more intrusive and disregardful of the rules; the drought did affect the animal numbers, but we saw plenty, including a spectacular elephant bull and a very rare wild dog. We left the park from the Pafuri gate, this time equipped with ‘Charmin’ Carmen from Garmin’ the satnav to lead me home along the straight and narrow – courtesy of my son, who couldn’t bear to have his aged parent adrift without the gizmos of modern technology. We were to bless and curse this electronic lady and her insistent reminders to mind the speed limits, bends, cattle crossings and non-existent dangers, but she came in most useful when trying to extricate ourselves from an unknown town, as we were about to find out in Musina and later Rustenburg.

Mapungubwe Park Offices and Museum
Musina is a city in the making – or rather of the making of our northern neighbour, since it supplies all the consumer goods as well as durables that the poverty-stricken Zimbabweans can afford to purchase and lug across the border. Instead of a sleepy border town propped up by an almost defunct copper mine, it has become a town of shopping malls and all the emporia so beloved by the citizens of the subcontinent. After a few hurried purchases, we left for Mapungubwe National Park, which straddles Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. A relatively new addition, this park celebrates the ancient hilltop kingdom that was uncovered in the 1930’s, and whose gold and artefacts proved to become the stuff of legends. I had read about it for decades and now my bucket list was about to have another item ticked off. 

Boardwalk on the Limpopo River
Alas, this was not to be, since the Parks Board had craftily engineered it so that no tourist should actually be able to see the hill after entering the park – unless they paid another couple of hundred to get a short drive and conducted tour, walk a half a kilometre and climb 150 steps – none of which I was about to do. Instead we took a circular drive round the eastern section of the park; spent some time on a lovely boardwalk at the intersection of the Limpopo and Shashi Rivers, watched elephants bathing; picnicked at another very picturesque viewpoint, and visited the beautiful museum, housed in buildings of exceptional architectural merit – at an extra cost, naturally. Our chalet proved to be the best SANParks accommodation we encountered on the trip. The light, airy and spacious building was prettily furnished and extremely well-equipped – everything worked, and the outside (screened) shower was a delight. We spent a happy evening on the huge patio, savouring the stark scenery, dotted  by elephantine baobab trees.

Since the park manager had informed us that the road south was tarred (and potholed), we tackled the next section with enthusiasm, driving through the scenic bush, interspersed with rocky outcrops and grotesque trees. The settlement of Alldays didn’t even register, but the ensuing road did. 

Road Hell
It was just the most horrendous travesty of a tarred road I had encountered in a long while. About eighty percent of the tar had disappeared, and the roadway consisted of huge potholes interspersed with sharp ridges of tar. The next hundred-odd kilometres was the only time I have been ever forced to drive in first gear on a tarred road.  Thankfully, some twenty kilometres south of Swartwater, the road improved considerably. On towards the Waterberg, which loomed on our left. The Marakele Park was another we had never visited before and where I had hoped to meet an old friend, who had been the head of the park (before we left home, I found out that he had transferred just prior to our visit). Expectations were high, but the ongoing drought and a paucity of animal sightings was added to a howling, hot bergwind, which flapped our safari tent accommodation so much that we had two restless, if not sleepless nights. 
The Waterberg in Marakele
The added bonus of having a deck overlooking a dam, where we saw a lonely elephant, a few zebra and impala, was tempered by the presence of thieving monkeys, who thought nothing of zipping into your tent, or kitchen, almost between your feet, to try and grab a spot of nourishment. We left as early as possible the next morning, unusually relieved to depart.

A long drive ahead: all the way to Kuruman. First we had to negotiate a maze of detours outside Rustenburg. Here Carmen the Garmin came up trumps. She negotiated us seamlessly through bewildering switchbacks, suburbia and provincial roads with complete equanimity. On to the towns of Lichtenburg, Koster, Delareyville, Sannieshof and Vryburg. We had swapped the dramatic Limpopo scenery for the endless steppes of the old western Transvaal; dusty, barren mealiefields interspersed with grain silos – exclamation marks on a purely horizontal brown landscape. The only noteworthy feature was the growth of these dorps, like a flush of mushrooms after rain, a testament to the fecundity of our nation.  Amazing what can happen in near half a century since I last frequented these parts.

Kuruman had also been transformed, naturally. It was hard to find the famous ‘Eye’ in amongst the frenzy of taxis, shoppers and their beloved retail outlets. In the end we asked a pedestrian for directions. We had driven right past this spring, unnoticed among the traffic and the lineup of cars being washed – presumably with its water. This wondrous fountain in an arid landscape provides millions of litres of water every day for the thirsty town, and has rightly been fenced off.  Unfortunately this does not mean the flying rubbish of civilization cannot land in the pristine pool. We decided not to swell the municipal coffers by entering the park, and instead dropped in at the nearest garage, where my partner accosted the nearest local, a middle-aged woman in a small car, with a Doberman bodyguard which was ready to rip your face off. On being asked if she could give us a hint to find a reasonable B&B, the good lady insisted on taking us through suburbia herself and deposited us on the steps of the Oude Werf, where the stunningly handsome Khoi lady, Charon,  took us into her tender care.  A very pleasant apartment was supplied at a most reasonable cost, and as we had a long day behind us, we sampled their restaurant and cold beers that evening – both most acceptable.

Another dawn departure; to Hotazel (pronounced ‘hot as hell’ – which it can be), the hamlet which managed to confuse our Carmen to such a degree that she had us driving in circles, imploring us to go back to Kuruman until I flagged down a motorist for directions to enable us to escape the clutches of this confounded place. The next village, Van Zylsrus, lay at the end of a rocky stretch of road, and this at least had a hotel with a little outpost charm, something Askham (the only other vestigial burgh in the region) lacked. Still – if one came back in fifty years, all these would most likely be developed beyond recognition! Just short of the Kgalagadi Park we drove into the similarly named Lodge, atop a red dune. 

A supercilious emu wandered about outside and looked askance at us, but let us into the building. Astonishingly the reception and shop were modern, sparkling clean and well-stocked with all sorts of foods, drinks and the like. The young local receptionist booked us in most efficiently and we quickly offloaded in an outstandingly equipped and decorated chalet overlooking the red riverbed, far into Botswana. Then off for an afternoon drive into the park, only five kilometres distant. At the elaborate new reception buildings we were informed that due to ‘reorganisation’, there was no petrol to be had – though diesel was available. I edged a little closer to a coronary. As we were at the park for two days, we would need a refill somewhere. Mata Mata camp was too far away to make it there and back that afternoon. We opted for the shorter triangular route through the dunes, after which I faced another 150 km evening dash to Askham in quest of fuel for the second day.

Although dead-tired after thirteen hours in the saddle, we made a fire in the braai outside and were joined by a charming little Jack Russell terrier, who after getting acquainted, made herself at home under the braai in the reflected heat of the coals while we did our thing. She hesitated a little when offered a bone, but then accepted daintily and munched through the remains. She even joined us on the bedside rug as we prepared for bed – then hopped in as well and burrowed underneath the blankets – where we played blind man’s buff until we regretfully evicted her. Though the Kgalagadi lions eluded us, we had a splendid sighting of yet another leopard, as well as seeing the uncommon ratel, Cape fox as well as the several handsome species of antelope and smaller mammals and birds. Always an interesting experience.

Our next stop brought us south towards Upington on a fine road. As we neared town, a large tower peeked up over the horizon, with a blinding light-source atop. We were extremely puzzled by this but speculated that it must be a solar furnace for electricity generation. This was proven correct when I researched it later: the blinding light was the collector for the heat directed towards it from an array of hundreds of mirrors on the ground – out of sight for us at the time. A new technology for our country, and one that is vastly overdue, given the amount of sunshine some of our desert regions get. 

On towards Aughrabies, one of my favourite National Parks, of which I have many happy memories. It did not disappoint this time either. Our reception was cordial and efficient; the chalets were as good as I remembered, while the walkways had been refurbished and fixed after the last floods which had destroyed sections just prior to my last visit. Also in my sights was the Riemvasmaak area, where some hot springs bubbled out of the bed of the otherwise dry Molopo River. Although this is partly a track for 4x4 vehicles only, we trusted it couldn’t be worse than those we had already negotiated in Ithala. The drive proved to be an absolute delight. We crossed the Gariep over a brand new bridge and after passing through a little village, we were amongst really rough, rocky terrain, with impressive, stark panoramas and views everywhere. The track was rough and steep in places, but our Rosinante took it all in her stride. We met a whole bevy of cyclists and their support vehicle coming the other way. Brave people, pedalling up slopes I would hesitate to walk even with the aid of a cane! The warm water springs were fairly unexceptional and lacked a changeroom, but all the patrons just changed behind the little (locked) building there. A further ice-cold pool was some metres further downriver in a natural pothole scoured out by the occasional floods – very idyllic among the hundred-metre high cliffs surrounding it. We ate our lunch at the roadside on the way back and my partner ended the day with an enchanted moonlight walk to the floodlit falls.

Rugged Molopo Country
Our Namaqualand itinerary had included a stop at Springbok. However, the flower season had been something of a flop this year and a hot bergwind had parched the remnants into insignificance. As we reached the town early, we did a quick shop and pressed on towards Port Nolloth, en route to the Richtersveld National Park, a rugged mountain desert which I had only visited once before a score years back. As we had not booked anywhere ahead at this stage, we started by checking on accommodation and the possibility of a tour company to take us into the park. To our surprise there was neither available. The tour operators were either booked up with large parties of people in multiple vehicles, or they had quit for the summer season and were elsewhere occupied. 

Riemvasmaak Hot Spring
The lodgings situation was overbooked for that particular day as well, but in a flash of inspiration I booked for the following night anyway. Inside the park nothing was to be had either – this had filled up very suddenly in the past three weeks since I had last checked. Now we had perforce to press on towards Alexander Bay, the most northwesterly point of the country. Dark clouds moved in as we drove into town and stopped at the security boom. We were delighted to find a ‘tourism person’ there as well, but less delighted when we discovered that her extent of local knowledge was almost as poor as ours. We declined historical and diamond processing tours and drove around the unrestricted part of town, looking for a park or viewpoint where we could have our lunch. All in vain, since these facilities don’t exist in that section near the river. The best we could do is to eat our bits and pieces in the shade of a few bluegum trees on a busy road that seemed to have a half dozen cars, including a police van chasing each other round and round at a leisurely pace. After the first few circuits, we started waving to each other every time they passed. Our quest for lodgings continued. After a few unsuccessful phone calls, my partner decided to confront the landlady of a signposted boarding house in person. We found out that due to new mining and infrastructure developments this moribund town had recently received a new lease on life. Contractors were pouring in, hence the shortage of available beds. No, there was absolutely nowhere in town two weary pensioners could be accommodated.

Spogplaas
Said landlady did however point us towards the Richtersveld Park and told us about an establishment, Spogplaas, just 18 km out of town, which might be able to help. The owner was unreachable most of the time due to poor cellphone reception and no fixed telephone lines, so we decided to go anyway, since the alternative was to go back to Springbok at this stage. Near Grootderm (literally – large intestine – there are some very interesting names in the region) we beheld a sight for sore eyes. 


A cluster of houses and wooden mini-chalets lined up on a terrace fronted by a garden made of the oddest bits of painted scrap ironmongery one could imagine. Here were barrels with bucket heads and legs, painted black and white like Frisian cattle; there were smaller pink drums, equipped with paint-tin heads and curly tails, purporting to be pigs; there were better than a dozen rusted wheelbarrows – some filled with flowers; chamber pots galore, old bathtubs, half a dozen sewing machines, a rotary diamond sieve that had seen better days and so on. All interspersed with succulents and rocks. I was charmed with this multicoloured kitsch in the monotone landscape. 

We alit and went in search of the fair Salomie we had been told of. She appeared from the rear of the house and invited us into her parlour – a large roofed structure with canvas sides, which held a number of  couches, chairs, tables and benches, as well as several fridges and a bar. This looked promising. We explained our plight as well as the steps we had already taken to find beds for the night. Salomie was most sympathetic but then she said no, unfortunately she too was booked up for the night. We were then treated to her tale of sorrows, which included having no electricity for the past seven months (this while the Eskom power lines passed into Namibia within spitting distance of her property) – no fixed land telephone line, and only very occasional cellphone reception. Nonetheless, she and her man had ‘made a plan’ with solar panels, batteries and a generator and they had solved the problem of getting water up from the river somehow. Still, the all-pervasive contractors had also filled her available lodgings. We asked if there were any other establishments further upriver, but except for a campsite a few hundred metres further (which had no water and only incomplete buildings) – no there was nothing she could think of.

“But wait – let me just check again to see whether my visitors who have booked the main house in front for tonight, are going to make it”. With an angelic smile she disappeared, leaving us rather mystified as to how she was going to accomplish that, seeing she had no phone and presumably no computer. Possibly a direct connection to above – I mean per satellite, of course. Some minutes later she returned beaming. “Do you want the good news or the bad?” We opted for the bad news first. “The visitors are not coming tonight. The good news is that you can have the house for the night.” We were not going to argue with her about the matter. In no time we had sorted out the finances and were led on a conducted tour of the premises. Aside from the fact that there was only going to be a hot water supply later and there were only dim LED lighting strips in the rooms, running off the batteries, the house was in good shape considering that a cloud of dust blew over it every time a vehicle passed. We made ourselves at home, thankful for small mercies and thirsting for a drink. 

As soon as we had unpacked, we wandered through the scrap-garden once more towards the tent where we found our landlady talking to a man who holding down the bar with a beer – one of her lodgers. We asked whether it might be possible to buy a couple of cold beers from her fridge, but she regretfully refused, since all the stuff stored there belonged to her lodgers. She did not have a license, so could not sell any. No matter, we said, we had our own whiskey. She hastened to offer us a large bag of ice instead, which we accepted with gratitude. However, the lady was not going to let us get away so soon. Obviously starved of company, we had to have another half hour of spirited discussion on a variety of subjects. I then found out to my delight that she was the daughter of one of the pioneer farmers in the Richtersveld, one Reuning, after whom a local mine is named. In addition her stepfather is a man I had been wanting to get hold of for years, since he published two books on the Richtersveld and West Coast shipwrecks. He had just disappeared off the map some ten years ago - and here I was sitting chatting to his sprout by marriage. He was obviously a man of mystery, like his stepdaughter, since he regularly took off for parts unknown, and she hadn’t seen him in a while – he might be in Europe or Singapore or somewhere, she told us!

Richterveld Scenery
An early start on a grey, blustery morning. The road became worse as we neared the park – much worse. Corrugations  were up to 15 cm deep, sharp stones littered the road and we were slowed down to a crawl at times. The scenery became more dramatic as we got closer to Sendelingsdrift (Missionary’s Ford), and the stray beams of sunlight gave the near and distant hills an almost mystical and dreamlike aura. The few huts of the staff at the entrance of the park had become a village. 

The Pont
A few dozen staff houses, a lookalike of a German fort housed the reception and function rooms, a small while a caravan and camping ground was fenced off against prying eyes. There were also a number of small rustic huts and some timber chalets that we didn’t see ourselves. The countertop at reception was graced by a small stuffed crocodile – a somewhat enigmatic choice, since that is one reptile that doesn’t occur here. We booked in for a day visit and gave the lady our expected itinerary – something they needed to know in case we did not reappear within a reasonable time. As a warning, we had already seen one recovery truck on the way in, loaded with a spanking new luxury 4x4 that didn’t make the grade. As we left reception, I suddenly remembered a long time wish I’d had to have a trip across the Gariep on a pont. 

Illegal Immigrant!
Having nothing to lose, I returned to reception, explained my wish and asked the lady whether it was possible to ride across the river and just to return again. She first gave me prices, then said “Wait, let me ask the ferryman”. A short radio-conversation ensued and the answer was that they were just about to take a Parks Board vehicle across, and that I was welcome to join ‘ met liefde ‘. I thanked the kind lady profusely and we rushed off for the short drive down the steep ramp which breached the low cliffs of the river bank. In no time at all we were loaded and the pont was being steered across the fairly narrow channel by two pleasant young men. On the other side I drove off, did my bit for ‘illegal immigration’ had a few photos taken and nipped back into legality. Another item off the bucket list. 
Halfmens Hugging
Then we were off towards Pootjiespram, a quaintly named camping spot on the river. The weather had turned really cold and blustery; we had brought the first rain of the year with us. We stopped to wonder at an impressive tree that had grown into a crack in an outcrop, and after centuries the roots had cleft the rock, leaving a whorl of roots exposed. Carmen really impressed when I switched her on for a laugh to see how she would handle dirt-tracks in the wilderness. She came up trumps by telling me that there were ‘halfmens’ (pachypodium namaquanum) a hundred metres away on the right. We hadn’t even noticed these primeval-looking plants against the hillside in the dull grey light.  Then down to the water’s edge over a long pebbly beach, sheltered behind umbrellas against the driving rain. A few hurried photos, then back into a warm car and onwards across what I knew as ‘Brown’s Pass’ from 1996. On that occasion I had agonized over getting our elderly Kombi through narrow spaces between rocks, round sharp corners and over clefts in slippery rock plates. This time I breathed a sigh of relief that the road had been much widened and generally improved, though it was still somewhat challenging. Our little car breezed through and on into a sandy river bed where we paused for another photo session at the Hand of God, so named for the huge depression in a rock. As we left, a convoy of outfitters’ all-terrain vehicles passed. Dwarfed by these luxurious monsters, we scooted past, laughing at the expressions on the drivers’ faces.

The weather proceeded to get worse, so we decided to call it a day and to head back to Port Nolloth to our cottage which we had booked. Easier said than done. While negotiating the atrocious stretch on the public road from the park, we slashed a tyre on some sharp rocks. I tried inflating it with my trusty compressor; then rode like the wind while I still had some pressure; but all in vain. After another five kilometres I was forced to swap wheels and drove on, very gingerly now, on my spare. We reached first Alexander Bay, then Port Nolloth, in the pouring rain. In no time we were welcomed into our Beach Cottage No 2 – actually a Victorian prefabricated house with complaining wooden floors which originated in Denmark, we were told. Very roomy, and furnished like someone’s holiday home, with odd styles of furniture in every room, but it had everything we needed. In deference to the weather, we decided to grace one of the local restaurants with our presence, even though we couldn’t get an unambiguous referral from our landlady. Wise woman – we whiled away the long wait with a bottle of wine as we listened to a lot of banging from the galley, then had  undercooked chips and calamari overcooked in oil that obviously hadn’t reached the correct temperature. Still, the pizza was big enough to cover a breadboard, so it served for lunch the next day as well, even if one did have to crunch through the mussel shells and discard the disgusting crabstics (sic). There was no shortage of burly, tough-looking clients, bringing with them the tang of kelp and the ocean, wandering in and leaving with stacks of pizzas, so possibly long immersion in cold seawater does something to the tastebuds.

Hand of God
Next morning, after spending a little quality time in a tyre emporium to replace our trashed spare, we visited the local museum. Just in time to join a group being regaled with tales redolent of local colour – mainly consisting of diamond-related lore, as the curator was an old salt and diver, who had obviously gone through several fortunes in his colourful life. Though the place is very overcrowded and it is difficult to get close enough to make out items, photos and articles near the floor or the ceiling at times, the facility is surely a must for any visitor to the town, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and chat with George and his daughter, Helena. Then the road called once more and we set off towards Springbok, where we did a bit of shopping for the evening meal and enquired at the eponymously named café and informal tourist bureau about an address of a B&B way down south in Vanrhynsdorp – where we wanted to stop. The man was most helpful and we came away with what we needed. The day’s shift was fairly uneventful as there were very few flowers about though the previous day’s rain had been widespread, and the countryside looked unusually green. At our destination we spent some time at the Old Jail, which combines the role of museum with that of curio, antique and succulent market. An interesting combination as always. Our home for the night was a cottage on an olive farm, Bo Tuin, where we had fond memories of having stayed a few years ago. We dawdled over the last few hundred kilometres towards the Cape, stopping in at Piketberg and Moorreesburg to see whether we could have a look into their museums, but as it was Sunday, local mores would not permit these facilities to be open.

Spring Flowers at Bontebok Park
Suddenly we were almost at a loose end. Due to the lack of spring flowers among which we had intended to spend some time, we had gained a day on our intinerary. We had a firm date to attend friends’ wedding in Calitzdorp on the way home, so we would have to stay over an extra day in Cape Town, I with my sister, my partner with her daughter and grandchildren. Finally I was able to get to a working computer and had some fun time with the few hundred e-mails that had accumulated in the meantime. Somewhat rested, we left midweek and wended our way towards Swellendam, where I wanted to test the accommodation at the Bontebok National Park, a place I hadn’t visited for a decade or more. After a pleasant light lunch at a local Italianate restaurant in lovely surroundings, we booked in and took possession of our half timber, half river-pebble chalet - very pretty, and located on the banks of the Breede River. A late afternoon drive provided little by way of game viewing, but a quite unexpected display of spring flowers. For some reason the abundant birdlife I had previously encountered there, was absent, possibly due to the cloudy weather. The park is probably more suited to hikers and cyclists, since it is quite small with only a short road network.

At Ron's Sex Shop
Next morning we were off towards Zuurbraak ( another of these strange names – literally ‘sour  bracken’ which covers the hillsides). Since I last visited it, it had certainly improved in looks, and there were signs of gentrification everywhere, not always harmonious. On through the Tradouw Pass; a spectacular drive, especially since dozens of waterfalls streaked down the green mountainsides and plummeted over precipices. Barrydale, last visited an age ago, had grown unrecognisably large and it has become the ‘in’ place for artists as well as city folks wanting their place in the sun. A charming drive on towards Ladismith and then our destination Calitzdorp. We stopped briefly at the world-famous Ron’s Sex Shop (really nothing more than a Bush Pub in the middle of nowhere on Route 62 – but sex sells). The host himself, an elderly craggy gent with a long white ponytail, sat with us while we had a little refreshment and lively conversation as we shared opinions about how ‘times are a changin’.

As we drove into our destination, we bumped into neighbours and friends, as well as the groom, all assembled for the forthcoming wedding. The inevitable grilling about our trip followed during a brunch session. It rained fitfully for most of the afternoon, and a cold wind gusted over the town – a poor outlook for an outdoor wedding and reception. At least the rain held off for both, held on a local wine estate; pleasant but extremely chilly. An unexpected bonus was meeting up with two of my oldest friends, whom I had last seen more than ten years previously. They had been transferred from one National Park to another, and somehow I had always been a step behind in meeting up with them again – until now - courtesy of the bride. The festivities over, we retired to unfamiliar lodgings for the last time, before heading for Storms River and our home, curiously reluctant and sad that our odyssey was coming to an end.

I had driven some 8500 kilometres during the four weeks we were on the road. We had the good fortune to have sunny, warm weather except for the last part of our journey when the rain brought a little variety Both Estelle and I saw parts of the country we had never seen before; we drove new roads, old roads, good roads and atrocious ones, over sandy tracks and through rocky defiles. We saw the myriad changes that had been made to our villages and towns – but also the timeless splendour of natural places that abound in our country. We saw abject poverty, overcrowding, and urbanisation as well as conspicuous consumption and luxury. We encountered many people, almost invariably friendly, courteous and helpful – none threatening or unpleasant – from reception staff to taxi drivers and pedestrians that we stopped in mid-street to ask for directions when Carmen failed us. We saw hundreds of the many species of large and small game that are conserved in our nature reserves and parks. We also noticed that less and less birds of prey are to be seen along our roads, bar the ubiquitous crows of all four species, which feed on the carrion of roadkill left by speeding cars. In all, it was a glorious experience and with great feelings of satisfaction, I can now say in all truthfulness: “I've been around a bit”.


Finis