Hex River Valley and the stolen grapes

[ The fifth and final installment in the South Africa series. The others, in sequence: Cape Town Weekend, Clanwilliam and the rock art trail, Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot, Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter. ]

Cape Town is four hours by car from Sutherland. The entire stretch was paved, and in the first hour and half, on the R354, the rolling shrubland I’d seen the day before continued. The road was deserted. Moderate traffic appeared on the N1, a single-lane highway where trucks made way for faster vehicles by shifting half their bulk onto the shoulder. The vehicle that passed always turned on its left and right indicators: a gesture of gratitude to the truck now in its wake. The discipline and manners were European, a pleasant surprise.

This was still high country, fifteen hundred meters above sea level. When road began to descend, following a short pass, the scene ahead took my breath away. Set in a narrow gap between two rows of barren and rugged mountains was the greenest valley one could imagine. The transformation was unusual, startling. Beginning at the foot of the desolate mountains, row after row of grapevines filled the entire valley, a pattern broken occasionally by a white barn standing out from the green carpet. A slim line of water shimmered in the sun, and groves of trees wove patches a darker shade of green. It was a stunning aerial prospect, and after several days in the colourless desert I felt the emotion of a weary traveler stumbling upon a vast green oasis.

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Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter

South Africa

[ Part 4 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, continued in Clanwilliam, and had last stopped at Tankwa Karoo. ]

In Cape Town and later, when I spoke of my plan to visit Sutherland, eyes always lit up. It was a place most wanted to visit but few had, and their pupils revealed something of the reputation the town carried. I knew nothing of this character when I included it in my itinerary, relying solely on town’s proximity to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), “the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere”, where visitors on a guided tour look through the instrument’s eye at the night sky. I planned one night in Sutherland, and prayed silently for a clear sky.

The sky was clear when I left Gannaga Lodge on Thursday morning. The evening before, Johann had suggested I follow the Ouberg Pass to Sutherland: this route was more difficult, he said, but the scenery was spectacular. At breakfast that morning Louis had seconded this view, and he gave me directions to get on the route. Following the Gannaga pass into the veld I had crossed the previous day, I turned east after the park office. The gravel track curved toward another arm of the Roggeveld mountains, and soon the track turned narrow and steep. I drove slowly, halting, at one bend, to watch a small pack of springboks saunter downhill.

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Tankwa Karoo and the CIA plot

[ Part 3 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, and continued in Clanwilliam. ]

On Wednesday morning, following two nights in Clanwilliam, I started for the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Named after the Tankwa river that flows near its southern border, the Tankwa Karoo is an arid region at the western edge of the Great Karoo desert. On Google Earth the park terrain looks like a rusted tin sheet with tiny ridges the colour of mould. Few roads are visible, and there is no settlement large enough to merit a mention.

About forty kilometers from Clanwilliam, not long after the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the tar under the wheels disappeared. I was expecting a gravel track on the route, but not so soon. With a hundred and seventy kilometers still to go, I recalled the YouTube video I’d watched the previous evening. ‘Changing a flat car tire step by step’ featured a serious-looking American in a full-sleeved shirt, grey pants, and formal shoes, who used terms such as ‘lug wrench’, ‘lug nuts’, and ‘hub cap’. He made the technique look straightforward but I remained unsure, like the MasterChef contestant who has never cooked a meal, only committed recipes to memory.

The unpaved road, about fifteen feet wide, was sprinkled with small stones and crushed rocks fragments. Avoiding the sharp ones I followed the faint trails of tyres, keeping a steady sixty kilometers per hour, but the occasional bumpy patch of small rock outcrops slowed me down to twenty. After ten minutes or so I settled down and looked at the landscape. The red earth was freckled with dust-ridden shrubs. A brilliant blue sky was patched unevenly with white. In the distance grey mountains rose to meet the sky. There were no trees, and no signs of animal life.

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Clanwilliam and the rock art trail

Clanwilliam Route

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.

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Cape Town weekend

CT view

On the South African airways flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, all stewards were black and the captain was called ‘Commander’. The stewards seemed to be enjoying themselves, laughing as they passed a juice can across, or chatting merrily in the steward area, and their English accent carried no hint of the American drawl or British elocution: listening to them was a pleasure.

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

I want to hear that again.

“Sir, would you like tea or coffee?”

“Tea, please. Do you have Rooibos?”

“We’re South African,” she smiled. “We serve only Rooibos.”

At Johannesburg, following my wife’s advice, I did not stray far from the hotel during the three days the conference was on. When I left the city, on a Friday morning Kulula airlines flight to Cape Town, the only authentic Jo’burg experience I could claim was a petty crime. Perhaps ‘crime’ is too harsh; ‘swindle’ is better: swindled by a smart black waiter at a pizzeria. The bill had come to fifty three rand. Keeping in mind a seven rand tip, I dropped seventy rand in notes — a fifty and a twenty — on the table. The waiter, a thin young man with a brisk manner, collected the notes with a wide grin, said “Thank you, Sir”, and disappeared inside. I sensed what had happened, but refused to believe it. Ten minutes later when I saw him idling in a corner, it was time to get up and leave.

The woman beside me on the flight — white, in her late forties — was traveling with her husband to Cape Town for the weekend. She lived in Pretoria, commuted daily to Jo’burg, worked in the Pharma industry. Weekend getaways to Cape Town were ideal, she said. She could not imagine living there — the city’s pace was too relaxed (Slaapstad, she said it was, Sleepy Town not Kaapstad, Cape Town). When she learned this was my first visit to South Africa, she grew animated and began to list places I must visit in Cape Town, pointing on my map also areas to avoid (black-only neighbourhoods), offering tips on how to stay safe: don’t walk with your camera in the open, don’t talk to strangers, avoid deserted streets — reasonable advice, none of which I had the necessity to follow. We talked cricket, the Hansie Cronje scandal and what money had done to the game, the ongoing world cup (“When you are in South Africa, support our team!”). She bought me a drink, tapped my arm when she pointed at something on the map, and tried, unsuccessfully, to draw her husband into the conversation. With him she spoke Afrikaans, but when I asked if she had Dutch ancestry she said she wasn’t sure. She had never visited Europe. “Maybe I will, someday,” she said.
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