When I began to consider places to stopover on my road trip after Cape Town, Clanwilliam turned up on the map as a good option. It fell on the route to Tankwa Karoo, the national park I wanted to visit, and its attractions were not of the sort that draw scores of tourists. There was a dam nearby, a wilderness area ideal for hiking, and a few rock art sites. Clanwilliam’s modest size caught my attention too: I was curious for a glimpse of small-town life in South Africa.
The rental car, a 4×4 Nissan X-Trail, was delivered to my hotel on Monday morning. Waiting for the car in the hotel lobby, I read in a book guidelines for driving in South Africa:
- The faster you drive through a red light, the smaller the chance you have of getting hit.
- Indicators will give away your next move. A real motorist never uses them.
- On average, at least three cars can still go through an intersection after the light has turned red. It’s people not adhering to this basic principle that cause the big traffic jams during rush hour.
- Under no circumstance should you leave a safe distance between you and a car in front, or the space will be filled by two Golfs, a BMW and a Getz, putting you in an even more dangerous situation.
- Never, ever come to a complete stop at a stop sign. No one expects it and it will only result in you being rear ended.
I had noticed that South Africans drive on the wrong side of the road (in Germany we do the right side), so I stayed alert within city limits. After Cape Town, driving north on the N7, factories and barns and small settlements gave way to a flat, dry, and mostly uncultivated landscape. Two hours later the road climbed over a line of hills and wriggled back into a valley. I stopped at a service area to withdraw cash, and in the shop, which stacked unfamiliar biscuits, chocolates, fizzy drinks, and newspapers, I asked for a map of the area. At first the lady at the counter seemed not to understand. I repeated myself.
“We do not have maps here,” she said.
She meant the shop, but it could have been the country: after Cape Town I did not find a map anywhere.
I reached Clanwilliam shortly after noon. The town is a small settlement spread around the main road — Hoof Street — and driving down this street I crossed small supermarkets, banks with ATM outlets, restaurants, a hotel, a law firm, a church, and a few houses behind low walls. Parked cars occupied both sides, and despite the heat (the dashboard read thirty eight degrees celsius) the locals looked busy, carrying bags in and out of stores, loading a vehicle, or chatting together. They were all coloured people, short and round-faced men and women of caramel skin tones. I looked for black faces but there were none, and as I registered this I remember thinking, this isn’t the South Africa I’ve heard or read about.
The Yellow Aloe guest house, where I was booked, was at the end of Hoof Street. Inside I met Michel, a middle-aged Swiss with a friendly but business-like mein. He showed me the room, suggested Dam’s Bistro for lunch, and left me with instructions to always keep the outer gate locked.
Dam’s Bistro, at the other end of Hoof Street, was closed. But a fast food joint next door was open, and I was relieved to spot a cheese and tomato sandwich on their menu. The previous evening in Cape Town I had dined at an Indian restaurant, but on this road trip my expectations were low. I drove back to my room with the packed sandwiches. It was too hot to walk outside, and I spent the afternoon watching the World Cup cricket highlights on TV, checking mails, and sleeping. In the evening I drove out of town to the Traveller’s Rest, a farmhouse where the Sevilla Rock Art Trail began.
The trail followed a series of rock art sites on the banks of Bradewyn river. The art was attributed to the San tribe (In the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the tribal who discovers an object from the outside world — the Coca Cola bottle — is a San), but its age was disputed: the paintings were anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand years old. A brochure listed nine sites in all, and said it took two to three hours to cover them. I was keen on this trail, but weather presented a problem. On the two days I had planned for Clanwilliam, mid-day temperatures were expected to touch forty degrees celsius. An early morning hike was the only option.
The Traveller’s Rest farmhouse was across the Cederberg Wilderness area, a sparsely populated region of hills with striking sandstone outcrops. (The Cederberg is also known for Rooibos — it’s the only place where Aspalathus linearis, a plant used to make the tea, is found.) In the evening light, as the shadows crept down the hills into the valley, the landscape acquired an otherworldly glow. The road all the way was empty. I stopped at will, got down, took photographs.
At the farmhouse, a heavy-set middle-aged white woman sat behind a cluttered desk fanning herself with a pamphlet. I told her about my interest in the trail.
“It’s too hot now,” she said.
“I plan to start early tomorrow — what time would you recommend?”
“Seven should be fine.”
I ordered a cup of Rooibos tea and sat outside, in a shaded area overlooking the small river that looked like a shallow stream.
The woman stepped outside. Her tanned face was flabby, her grey hair scattered, but her distant blue eyes held my attention. She appeared, above all, bored. There was however a matter she was keen on.
“The walk will cost you forty rand,” she said. “You can pay when you return here after the hike. We open at nine. You can also breakfast here. And if you’re interested, buy a book on the rock art trail.”
“Where does the trail begin?” I asked.
“She’ll show you once you’re done with the tea,” she said, turning to a teenage white girl behind the counter inside.
After I paid at the counter, the girl walked me to the river and pointed at a set of rocks that led across the water. The rocks all bore a sign: a pair of white feet.
“Just follow those painted rocks.”
We turned around. Then she added, casually: “And if you spot baboons, just make a loud noise and they’ll go away.”
“Did you say baboons?”
“That’s right. And watch out for puff adders.”
I must have looked puzzled, because she continued: “Puff adders — they’re snakes.”
“Yes, but just look where you’re going, and you’ll be fine.”
“Will there be others on the trail?”
“What time are you starting?”
“Six-thirty, I think.”
“That’s early! You’ll be the only one on the trail.”
* * *
That evening I walked down Hoof Street looking for a place to eat. Monday evenings, I discovered, is the wrong day to dine out in Clanwilliam. The only restaurant open was Dam’s Bistro, where the waiter said the pizza oven was cracked so I could choose anything but a pizza.
I scanned the menu. All other dishes were non-vegetarian.
“What can you bring for a vegetarian?”
He gave me a confused look, then turned apologetic.
“I’m sorry we don’t have anything vegetarian, sir — but I can get you some vegetables with rice.”
“What kind of vegetables?”
“I’ll have to check that sir.”
“Never mind — just bring the vegetables and rice. But no mushrooms please.”
“Would you also like some chips, sir?”
Back in Germany, answering people curious about food in South Africa, I would recall this evening. A bowl of rice; a bowl of boiled carrots, broccoli, cauliflower; and a bowl of chips — all pushed down the throat with canned orange juice.
* * *
The hike took three hours and I covered six of the nine sites. The sites were well marked, the painted footprints were a good aid, but after the second site I lost my way and spent close to an hour looking for the next white pair. Then, as the sun grew unfriendly, my enthusiasm receded.
The paintings displayed various figures, and the compositions grew more complex with each site. Site two had a collection of dinosaur-like shapes which, given the age of these paintings, was puzzling. Other sites included a zebra-like animal, a group of dancing women with disproportionately large buttocks, and humanoid figures painted in different styles. The hike followed a path roughly parallel to the river, climbing at times over the rocks to an elevation with a broader view. In some places the river widened into a shallow pool ideal for swimming. I had no swimwear, and I used these spots to rest.
At site six, which featured the dancing women, I sat on a rock and looked down the valley. Rocks and boulders were strewn around, and stubbles of featureless bushes added little colour to the landscape. Wooden pylons bearing a pair of wires were the only evidence of civilization. There was a stillness here, a quietude in all the emptiness around, but my mind was distracted by the concealed danger of a puff adder or a pack of baboons. Beyond the river I spotted a group of springboks huddled near a grove of small trees. Heads turned in my direction, they stood fixed to the spot watching my next move.
In this harsh country the San had lived, and, following an impulse, they had begun to paint. Perhaps the impulse was the same that gets us to pick up a pencil and doodle. Or maybe it was more sophisticated, like a desire to document their lives. We’ll never know, and I wonder if this — not knowing why — is a loss. The impulse to create needs no reason. ‘Why do you write?’ Because there is time.
I met no one on the walk back to the farmhouse. When I reached, a little past nine, I was relieved to find again the comfort of shade, and with relief came the awareness of hunger. The breakfast was a combination of fresh fruit with cereal and yogurt, and after finishing I sat reading a book on San cave art. Two young couples were sunbathing on riverside rocks, and we got talking when they came over for breakfast. They were Germans — yes, those Germans again — living in Berlin. Like me they were in South Africa mixing business and pleasure. Three were whites but one had Indian features with dark hair and a brown complexion. Her father, she said, had moved from Karachi to UK long ago and later, in Munich, he had married her German mother. She had relatives in India now, and she liked visiting the country. Munich, we agreed, was a charming city, and the Pinakothek galleries were a treat.
After this promising start, she was led away by the other woman to pay the bill. Then it was time for them to leave. We said our goodbyes. It was one of those occasions, rare and inexplicable, where you wish you could have talked longer, exchanged contact details, kept in touch, and hoped your paths crossed again someday.
* * *
Coping with the heat must have been a regular feature of life in Clanwilliam. Only this could explain the large garden attached to the Yellow Aloe. It was a dense area, packed with trees, plants, pools, arches, bridges, and other objects that gave it an air of mystery, like an enchanted garden with touches of designed disorder. A table set for tea — with a pink teapot, cups and saucers — stood waiting among the plants; ceramic fairies hung from tree boughs; wrought iron sculptures were paired with large cacti; an open chest, filled with junk, sat under a palm tree; the rusted hood of an abandoned automobile lay sadly in a corner; small, dark, silent pools were textured by fallen leaves and half-submerged figurines. And it was surprisingly quiet: no birds, few insects.
I walked around the garden again the next morning, before breakfast, while Michel stood on the cottage porch with Joseph. Joseph was an all-purpose employee, cleaning rooms, serving breakfast, working in the garden, managing guest house affairs in Michel’s absence. A mild-mannered black from Malawi, Joseph had a slight squint in his left eye. When he smiled, it was never clear if it was directed at me or at a white rose nearby.
Michel and Joseph appeared to have an easy-going relationship, but there never was any doubt who the boss was. In the relaxed atmosphere of the cottage and its garden, with Joseph laying the breakfast tables and Michel looking over a file, the scene before me carried an unmistakable imprint of a colonial setting.
A tourism website called Clanwilliam “an old town with a rich settler history”. The earliest settlers were Dutch, who were followed, early in the nineteenth century, by the Irish. In 1814 one of them named the town after his father-in-law, the Earl-of-Clanwilliam. Descendents of those settlers were now among the whites living mainly on the western side of Hoof Street, in elegant low-roofed bungalows with large gardens behind wooden fences. But for the vegetation and the big sky this area could have been a rich suburb in the US. In another part of town, middle-class coloured and black residents lived in cement houses with tin or asbestos roofs and small gardens separated by makeshift fences. Farming had been the local industry mainstay since the beginning. These days tourism had added a new source of income, and there was also a Rooibos factory in town.
When I walked on Hoof Street at night, looking for dinner or to buy something, the coloured locals I passed always nodded in greeting. Unlike those in Cape Town the coloured people here did not speak English, and the ones who did — like the waiter at Dam’s Bistro — came from other places. On one such excursion, I had the curious experience of standing in line at a supermarket for fifteen minutes behind one customer — a burly white man accompanied by a bunch of coloured servants — as his long grocery list was fetched, packed, billed, and then, paid for with a cheque. A cheque at a supermarket: this was, for me, one of the two defining images of Clanwilliam. The other was the set of bowls on my table at Dam’s Bistro: boiled vegetables, rice, chips.