“Now, on this road trip, my mind seems to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had had.” (Elizabeth Berg; The Year of Pleasures.)
Everyone has a lot to say about South Africa. And there is certainly no shortage of topics to talk about. Our politics are farcical and sometimes scary, our sportsmen are brilliant and sometimes infamous and our crime statistics are terrifying and draw an unfair degree of publicity. Our wildlife is amazing, our people must be among the friendliest on earth and our future is never certain. And over and above all of this, our country is complex both politically and geographically. The contrasts are extreme and South Africa must be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
We’re just back from a road trip of approximately 3600 kilometres from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back again. Knowing the main route between these two cities, the N1 (1400 kilometres each way) almost by heart, we decided this time to take some of the back and ‘middle’ roads. I’ve often read that travelling is more about the journey than the destination and for me, when it comes to road trips, this is almost always the case.
I have a weakness for the open road. A few months without a road trip and I get withdrawal symptoms. As a city recedes in the rear view mirror so my soul seems to take a long, deep breath.
This time, we took the N12 towards Kimberly but turned off it on the outskirts of Potchefstroom, taking first the R53 and then R59 almost the whole way to Kimberly itself.
On our first day of driving we passed mile after mile of sunflower fields.
Having left the N12, there was a marked difference in the quality of the roads. Fortunately there was almost no other traffic to speak of on this leg which felt like having a dodgem car ride all to oneself as we swung between potholes. The difference between the quality of the roads between those in the Western Cape and the rest of the country is so drastic as to be almost unbelievable. As we passed the ‘Welcome to the Western Cape’ sign on our second day of driving, we might as well have crossed a line drawn across the country. The road surfaces were excellent whether dirt or tar, lines were freshly painted and signboards up to date.
Throughout this journey, snippets of Antony Osler’s writing came to mind, in particular the following from his exquisite book “Stoep Zen”
Apart from beautiful scenery, another big advantage of taking the lesser-known routes, was the almost total absence of the enormous trucks we’ve become used to on the N1. On the roads we chose this time, we sometimes drove for up to two hours without seeing another vehicle. The only disadvantage was the difficulty in finding good coffee along the way…
Having left Johannesburg at about 11:45am, we arrived at the Five Acres Guest House in Kimberley without much time to spare before dinner. Five Acres boasts 3 resident dogs, a cat or two and free roaming ducks and was a perfect stop-over. (www.fiveacres.co.za)
The following morning I awoke on a mission. For some totally inexplicable reason, I have wanted, for several years, to visit the Karoo village of Loxton. On our many trips along the N1, just outside Beaufort West, I’ve seen a sign pointing to Loxton. It points in the general direction of the mountain and radio tower behind Beaufort West that have become something of a landmark for us on the annual trek south or north every summer. I can see the radio tower from miles away and I have always wanted to get to the ‘other side’ of it.
This time, not having real time pressure, I finally had my chance. We left Kimberley straight after breakfast, staying on the N12 until we reached Victoria West. Victoria West has just had the honour of being featured in the June Edition of our South African Country Life magazine so I was curious to have see it again having not been through it in many years.
With the article fresh in my mind, I was sure we’d find a good place for mid-morning coffee but this was not to be. I learned two things about Karoo villages on this trip: It is better to visit them during the week when there is a vestige of ‘work mode’ in evidence and the best times to really appreciate them are early mornings and evenings when the light and the temperatures are mellow. Later in the day, the harsh Karoo sun leaves nothing to the imagination and bleaches the little streets of much of their charm. While on a slightly negative note, one other thing strikes me forcibly about all the tiny, remote towns not only in the Karoo but in other parts of the country. Almost without fail, every one has a burgeoning squatter camp on its outskirts.
They are distressing to see and it is impossible to imagine how their inhabitants exist. Sometimes these settlements are bigger than the villages themselves. There is no way these small towns can provide employment or support for so many people. It’s worrying.
Driving into Victoria West at 11am on a Saturday morning was not to see it at its best. The main street was busy with people doing their weekly shopping and the local liquor store was doing a roaring trade. It’s a very small town though and we quickly found the three or four streets that had been photographed for the Country Life article. They were untarred and boasted some beautiful old Victorian architecture. Unfortunately, although we found some of the establishments specially mentioned for their food, it seemed that they all function as guest houses or B&B’s and none appeared open for business at that time of the day. It would be lovely if they were.
But there was one wonderful highlight. As with almost all the little Karoo towns, this one has its large, imposing Dutch Reformed Church, dominating the main street and driving towards it, it could be easy to miss the perfectly proportioned little Anglican church on the right hand side of the road. It just so happened that I had recently attended a lecture in which the speaker had talked about Sophie Gray, the wife of an early Bishop of the Cape. Although not an architect, Sophie was passionate about design and drawing and was responsible for the design of many Anglican churches in the Cape. As we passed this beautiful old building, something resonated in me and we stopped. Sure enough, this was one of Sophie’s churches, built in 1869. Sadly, is was locked and getting in to see it required some advance arrangement. But my appetite has been whetted and I’ll be going back. It was also in a rather sad state of disrepair, despite a notice stating it had been ‘restored’ in 2009.
Finding this unexpected little treasure made stopping in Victoria West worthwhile and then it was finally on to Loxton.
I loved Loxton although once again, arriving early on a Saturday afternoon was not to find it at its most characterful. It’s a pretty little town with only one tarred road and someone is taking good care of the village. There was very little English spoken there and only one place open for lunch but that was fine. Fast service is not on the menu in these little places.
As in all the villages we visited, the Dutch Reformed Church is at its centre. Diagonally across the road is the rather beautiful Four Seasons Guesthouse.
From Loxton we headed in the direction of Beaufort West on a gravel road (R381) that took us over the lovely Molteno Pass and right past the radio tower that had beckoned me for so many years. We eventually emerged onto the N1 just North of Beaufort West, directly under the very same Loxton sign I had always longed to follow. This was for some reason enormously satisfying.
From Beaufort West we took the N12 again before turning off along the beautiful R407 which runs parallel to and just north of the Swartberg Mountains. This led us to the town of Prince Albert, our stop for the night.
I was enchanted by Prince Albert with it’s exquisitely restored Victorian houses. It deserves a whole post of its own.
The house above on the left is typical of the town and one on the right is named ‘Skuurtjie’, meaning ‘Little Barn.’
Arriving in the late afternoon and being able to enjoy a long walk early the following morning meant we saw Prince Albert at its best.
From there, feeling the need to reach Cape Town in reasonably good time, we rejoined the N1, the trucks and the traffic and resisted further detours.
Cape Town needs no introduction and although it is officially winter, we had sunny mild weather and I enjoyed visiting my favourite haunts. Below are views of Fish Hoek beach.
All too soon we had to start the return journey. From Worcester we took Route 62 but found the Montagu Pass closed for blasting just as we reached its base. This meant taking an alternative route which took us over the Tradouw Pass, one we had not experienced before and which turned out to be beautiful in its own right.
We rejoined Route 62 at Bonnievale, following it to Calitzdorp where we took an unmarked, narrow dirt road through a hidden, beautiful valley to the Swartberg Pass. I was unable to find a route number or marker for this road on either of our maps and had it not been for a petrol station attendant waving us vaguely in the right direction, we might not have found it. It was lovely with a secretive quality and I hope to go back one day to visit Groenfontein Guest house (below) which we past along the way.
The Swartberg Pass is magnificent. Unfortunately there had been a fairly recent fire which left the landscape black and charred but which gave it, in a way, a unique, pared down appeal.
Like the Tradouw Pass, the Swartberg Pass was built by Thomas Bain, using convict labour and it was completed in 1888. It is spectacular.
We emerged on the far side of the Swartberg at about 5pm and stayed over night at the Karoo View Cottages. (www.karooview.co.za)
Our destination the following day was a small town called Douglas, on the banks of the Vaal River, close to its confluence with the Orange. The cloudy skies under which we’d crossed the Swartberg did not disappoint and we left Prince Albert in steadily falling, desperately needed rain. We reached Douglas earlier than expected and it was not promising. One look at the B&B which I’d booked was enough. I took fright and flight and insisted on pushing on to Kimberley where we returned to the tranquil grounds of 5 Acres for the night. The best part of Douglas that I saw was the beautiful sunset in our rearview mirror…
Doing this drive again, I’d avoid the N12 between Kimberley and Johannesburg if possible as it takes one straight through the middle of mining towns. There are lots of 4 way stops and traffic lights to negotiate and the route cannot be described as pretty by any stretch of the imagination. We’ll know next time. There doesn’t seem to be a scenic route into Johannesburg from any direction really, so once you’re nearing the city it probably makes sense to stick to one of the major routes for the last hour or two.
We’re almost home…
Despite all the bad press, it’s always lovely returning to the thickly wooded suburbs of Johannesburg. Like many big, inland cities, its full of surprises if you get past the business hubs and busy roads.
Arriving home, I spread out the map, dog-eared now, and trace with my fingers the distance we covered – a few thousand kilometres of freedom, open spaces, friendship, optimism and extraordinary beauty. All the way there and all the way back, we had not one negative experience and I am reminded once more that this is a remarkable country and, more importantly, of how much I still love it. Sometimes I need the space of wide open skies to see this up close.