I haven’t done a big road trip through my country for years. In fact, since getting divorced 6 years ago, I’ve found the thought of a long drive rather daunting – nobody to share the driving or control the screaming brats, nobody to help make the big decisions, nobody to blame if I got lost… So I’ve tended to fly to Cape Town and rely on lifts or borrowing cars from my friends or family there, which isn’t always convenient. In November, when I decided I was going to take my girls to Cape Town for a holiday, I realised that the cost of 3 flights in high season was going to be excessive. It was too late to search for the usual bargains I find on cheap airlines. And something in me screamed “Road Trip!” I began to talk about driving down over a few days, and possible routes began to materialise. My dad, who used to drive all over the Cape Province (as it was called in the old days, when there were only 4 provinces in South Africa, and 13 “homelands”), suggested that I couldn’t possibly do a road trip without going over the Pakhuis Pass to Clan William. Friends in Hermanus and Knysna said, “Come stay with us!”, and my sister, who is usually out of town for Christmas, was only leaving Cape Town on the 28th. And so dates and places solidified into a plan. I had my car serviced, packed padkos (road food, for those readers overseas) crammed the car full of necessities and my beautiful children and set off.
We left midmorning on the Friday after Nelson Mandela died, the last Friday before Monday the 16th of December, when most companies knock off work for the year. I was anticipating quite a lot of traffic for this reason – most “Vaalies” tend to head off to the seaside around this weekend. The N12 to Kimberly is not the most well-maintained road, but it was relatively quiet. I was quite fascinated to see the changes in mining towns like Potchestroom (traditionally conservative, right-wing strongholds) where roads had been renamed things like Nelson Mandela Drive and Govan Mbeki Street. Also, there are now sculptures on the streets representing things other than old white men on horses. Potch made a good impression by having a massive road block, where a police officer wrote up a ticket for me which said, “Travel safely and Merry Xmas” and a paramedic congratulated me on strapping my children into the car – apparently a rarity in this country.
The road to Kimberly was a little longer than I had anticipated, but we arrived at the Big Hole compound and checked into the Australian Arms Guest Lodge there. It’s great! An old mining house has been partially renovated (thankfully an air-conditioner installed) to make comfortable accommodation right there at the Big Hole. And man! That hole is big! I remember being completely overwhelmed as a child when I visited the Big Hole. How could such a colossal hole in the ground be dug by human hands! The whole compound has had a makeover – much needed, if my memory serves me well. The outskirts still represent the original mining town, but the museum itself is modern and slick, with a suspension bridge-type structure now serving as a viewing platform. It moved a little with our added weight, which was a little bit scary. I think I was much more amazed than my children were, but hey, that’s kids.We had a good night’s sleep there, a decent breakfast (included in the accommodation cost) and hit the road quite early on Saturday morning.
The Northern Cape is stark and beautiful. Clouds littered the blue blue sky as we drove and I continually found myself smiling for no good reason other than the overwhelming sense of happiness I felt passing through that landscape. I left the N12 at Britstown and then it really became rare to see another car. My girls didn’t bat an eyelid every time I pulled over to the side of the road to take another photograph. They were so good and quiet in the car, reading or drawing or playing on iPads. We listened to music (their choice and mine) and sang along and had fun in the car. The frustrating part was trying to get them to take in their surrounds instead of entertaining themselves! Again, I underestimated the distance between one stop and the next. My 6 year old was asleep at Williston, so we pushed through to Calvinia for a late lunch (and freewheeled in on a wing and a prayer because I miscalculated how much petrol we’d need to get there). Just after Calvinia we left the beaten track entirely and took the dirt road over the Botterkloof Pass which led us to the prize at the end of a long day’s travel – the Pakhuis Pass. It was magical! I felt like an explorer on another planet. Again, I think my response of wonderment and awe was far greater than my children’s, but I know that they were loving the journey too. We pulled into the Clan William Hotel in the evening and I thanked the merchants that the Spar and its Tops were still open to grab some snacks and cold beer. We sat at the poolside and observed how different the people there were to Joburgers. When my dad called that evening to check how the trip had gone, he mentioned how wonderful the Clan William Hotel was (he and my late mother had stayed there years before). I had to let him down easy – it was clean, but there were no bedside lamps, and some of the patrons were a little rough around the edges. We had a good night’s sleep there anyway.
On Sunday morning we set off down the N7 and noticed how the surrounds which had been so dry and bare over the mountain had transformed into rich farmlands. Disappointingly, Citrusdal had no breakfast places open, but we found a charming pit stop outside Piketberg. I couldn’t avoid turning off to see Darling, the town made famous by the brave and wonderful Pieter Dirk Uys, perhaps better known as Evita Bezuidenhout, mistress of Evita se Peron, the theatre/restaurant/shop/museum that celebrates the talents of this remarkable performer. Sadly we didn’t bump into him (or her), and we just had a sneak peak into the theatre before hitting the road for the last time on this leg of the trip. I turned into the radio at this point and listened to Nelson Mandela’s funeral and I cried as I listened to speaker after speaker articulate what this great man meant to them. The most poignant moment for me was as the announcer said that the military officers were escorting the coffin to the gravesite, Robben Island came into view on my right. Beautiful moment. We didn’t get a glimpse of Table Mountain at that point because the heavens were sad too, but there was plenty of time for that.
During our 10 days in Cape Town, we experience mostly spectacular weather – perfect blue skies, beach days, warm, long evenings – to accompany much socialising with our friends and family there. We visited Hout Bay, Fishhoek, Kalk Bay, Muizenburg, Gordon’s Bay, Observatory, the “Canal Cruise” to the V&A Waterfront (to be avoided like the plague before Christmas, or maybe even always, in my opinion, although I did bump into a very special person there who I would otherwise not have seen). The wind did pick up for a couple of days, notably the day we chose to ride the Night Bus run by the City Sightseeing company, but it didn’t really affect our trip. I highly recommend taking that bus, which wends its way from the Aquarium at the Waterfront through Green Point, Sea Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton Camps Bay and then up Kloof Nek to Signal Hill. Sunset on Signal Hill while sipping champagne from polystyrene cups in the presence of three of my favourite people in the world was definitely a highlight. There were too many highlights to mention each though.
We departed on Boxing Day (or whatever it’s called now) for Hermanus to spend two gorgeous nights with good friends there. Sir Lowrie’s Pass on the way there is just amazing. In Hermanus, I ventured into the sea for the first time this holiday, and loved it. I’m so wary of the strength of the ocean though. Fear of drowning has plagued me for many years. So I didn’t go too deep but I stayed in long enough to try some boogie boarding – great fun! I also had one of the best massages of my life by wonderful Robyn there, who managed to remove the strain of driving around the country and lugging tons of luggage around.
From Hermanus we set off for Nieu Bethesda, “just 5 hours or so” away. I learnt never to trust locals, who always think they are closer to the rest of the world than they really are. Or maybe it’s just that laid-back Cape mentality, where time really isn’t an issue. It helps that the sun sets later than in Joburg, so there really are more hours in a day. It also helps to be on holiday, with absolutely no pressure. The drive to Nieu Bethesda was more like 8 hours, but it really didn’t matter, because the Western Cape, and then the Karoo, threw out some stunning views. Oh, and we had acquired a cousin by this point, who sometimes sat in the front. This was not so good for sibling relations, and some of the novelty of the road trip started to wear off. Needless to say we were all thrilled to turn off the N9 to Nieu Bethesda, which is a wonderfully artistic and a little bit kooky town. The girls dived straight into the pool and I dived into a beer. We stayed at the Ibis Lounge, which had thankfully had a cancellation which would otherwise have meant there were no beds at all in the town. It’s a beautiful guest house, with lovely features like repurposed road signs and doors as tables. The gift shop has lovely crafts for sale and the restaurant serves very good food. The rooms were charming and clean and we all slept like babies, despite the efforts of a plague of moths.
In the morning we visited the Owl House, which was why I’d chased Nieu Bethesda as a stop. It’s a strange and wonderful place. Helen Martin was undoubtably nuts, but there were so many elements of her creativity that I really relate to – colour, light, using what’s around you… The Owl House is a fantasy made into a weird and wonderful reality. Sadly the sun wasn’t shining so I didn’t get fabulous blue Karoo skies in my pictures, but that worked in our favour for the rest of the trip – which was still hot but not sweltering.
When we emerged from the Nieu Bethesda valley, we tuned into the radio and got Algoa FM which was playing oldies from the 1980 – my heyday! The girls sang along for a few songs and then disappeared into their books while I cruised across the countryside dancing in my seat. I love to dance. My girls hate it when I dance. But they didn’t mind this because it wasn’t in public. We joined the N1 at Colesburg (again, further from home than I thought!) and for the first time in my journey around this vast country I encountered complete idiots on the road. Suddenly, reckless driving became commonplace and there were some real hair-raising moments. There was more traffic on this stretch than on any other roads I had driven put together. Maybe it was the home stretch for most people so they got impatient. Whatever. Overtaking on a double white line up a blind rise in the rain is just stupid. No excuses. Thankfully we didn’t see any accidents at all throughout our road trip, which is rather surprising because at the latest count nearly 2000 people have been killed on our roads during this festive season. And the holidays aren’t over yet. It was a huge relief when the signs started saying it was less than 100 kms to Joburg and we all did a little cheer when we spotted the cooling towers in Soweto.
I thoroughly enjoyed driving almost 3000 kms around this beautiful country. South Africa has such varied and wonderful landscapes, each with their own charms and quirks. I am so pleased that my children got to experience a few places and scenes they might never see again in their lives. I’m so proud of their behaviour on the whole, and their willingness to indulge my whims. And I’m proud of myself for getting back in the saddle again – it’s been an empowering and liberating experience.
(P.S. Today I received a R350 traffic fine for going 77kms per hour in a 60 zone in Wolmeransstad. I didn’t even realise I had passed through Wolmeransstad. Hopefully that’ll be the last I hear from the traffic department for this road trip.)