Road trip Calvinia

Awake to the sounds of the weaver birds starting their incredibly busy day and watch the dawn filter through windows after an extreme sleep in extreme dark, just delicious. My room is surprisingly warm considering  there is no heating and the night has been very cold, thundery, a storm has grumbled and grizzled in from the coast and the morning while sunny is water coloured and wet. Breakfast is on the verandah, a feast of mealie porridge, breads, pastries and a collection of jams, cheeses and cold meats and then eggs and all the trimmings. The LP lads appear and Mark is toting his very large and very speccy camera taking photos of the manor house and garden and as we drink coffee and eat steaming porridge the mist rolls in, plonking in the garden and valley and visibilty that was a moment ago over the valley is now stuck at 50m. A lot of mumbling about light and what the day holds and Julene, the manager, tells us that the mist may well settle in the valley for the rest of the day but over the crest of the next hill the sun will be out and shining.

Yeah, right, whatever, being poms we know better and this country reminds me so much of Scotland, especially in the mist, that a mist is likely to hover for  a while or several hours. Lingering over coffee and hoping for the sun the burn off the mist it’s time to move off as the LP minder is a little startled by the distance I plan to travel today including the detour to the National Park to see the daisies and succulents. Loading up the car realise that while parking near the weaver birds was a great idea initially they have unloaded an evenings and early mornings worth of poo on the  roof and windows in neat conical piles……isn’t that lucky?? or does it have to be on the person?? Anyway after paying the bill and back out with a pack of goodies for the day find the car has been de-pood and washed, now how cool is that!

The retreat as well as it’s simple Cape Dutch house has three matjieshuis a few minutes drive from the retreat itself and designed along the lines of Nama dwellings, a basic framework of bent branches covered with reed mattings or more recently sacking cloth. I see them on this misty morning in their setting amongst the huge, rounded, red granite boulders and they blend so much into the landscape it is difficult in the mist to distinguish the dwelling and the geology. Just beautiful and a must , the retreat is a must, for anyone who is lucky enough to spend some time in this lovely part of the world….oh and spend at least a couple of nights in this special place as a base for the area.

Reluctantly leaving with instructions to head to Kamieskroon and the  Namaqua National Park  it’s out into the mist and within seconds of creeping along the road in the limited visibility an ambulance appears behind and sits right there and then overtakes into the misty blue yonder which a minute or two later over the crest of the hill opens into a sunlit valley making a lie of the previous 10 minutes of driving. Springbok and it’s township glow white and pastel coloured in the now blazing sun and determined not to be ‘lost in Springbok’ again it’s on the Calvinia road via Kamieskroon. I realise  by driving into and out of Springbok that towns and cities, regardless of where they are, seem to have a pattern.  There is the town itself which is primarily where business is conducted and there is a seperate place where people live. The townships vary as to what is available to the inhabitants and within them there may  government housing, a long slow process but at least still on the move, and ‘shanty’ housing as we would picture it, water, power but at the heart of all this is there is no  social security which coming from a country where social security is a linchpin, however meagre it’s deemed to be, that’s a huge revelation.

Definately wildflower country the information posts are well signposted and armed with a wildflower map,  shaken heads and tutting about where I’m heading to and the time already but the park is possible it’s off on 27km of dirt road ‘but it is graded’ to the blankets of daisies and succulents that have transformed the country during these few quenched months.  Lt D J Larter’s grave is also on the outskirts of the town and is  one of those pieces of England in a foreign land where the grave of a British officer killed during the Anglo Boer war is recognized as the smallest piece of foreign land registered in South Africa. Anneliese at the information ofice tells me it’s not accessible as the landowner is reluctant to have tourists trek through his property but believes it should be as it is actually British territory..would one need a passport??

Corrugations are a plenty, enough to rattle the teeth to say nothing of  the under carriage of the Getz and we pass a white knuckled driver and equally white knuckled passenger clutching the ‘jesus’ bar who do a u turn and head back for the tar. Two small water fordings and at 20kms watch a landrover pass wheel deep through a third water course and decide the getz would be window deep and a salvage job so it’s turn back and no park and no flowers. However having said that the scenery was spectacular, lucious lumpy red granite, patches of incredible green crops which looked like rice…surely not though it’s wet enough, blue tipped lupins and lakes and ponds brimming with water.

Back on the N7 and it’s driving, driving and yes driving and realise that it will be pretty straight through if I’m to get to Calvinia by nightfall.  It’s still misty, clouds curling around the granite like smoke dribbling down into the valleys with their tiny farmhouses peppered on the landscape surrounded by big trees and winding red roads.

Through Garies and passing tiny towns announced by the spires of the central church, now a very common and enduring theme, the road becomes straigher as it passes through more undulating, gentler country with sheep grazing  in scattered groups, the famous Karoo lamb that I will learn about……..and eat………later in the evening. The flowers are very evident in bright, startling patches and clinging to sharp cut rocks through which the road runs.

My map shows that the town of Vanrhynsdorp as a little dot from which Calvinia is just another dot on the map.  In the folds of the Matzikamna and Gifberg Mountains  it appears as a ribbon of white buildings highlighted as always by the central spire in an oasis of green and in the shadow of a HUGE plateau, tabled mountain that as I approach realise is part of the route to Calvinia. And so it proves to be, the Vanrhynspas 300m straight up on a road zigzagged up the mountain side, dotted with crosses and obelisks to mark those who didn’t make it up or down, only route for  trucks and roadtrains and a viewing spot to see a family of mountain goats who teeter on craggy outcrops and no doubt make it up and down the mountain without the gathering sweat and doubts that are gathering like a cloud over me. As I begin the ascent as an Audi TT swooshes pass with driver and fixed grin and can’t decide if it’s G force, relief or a huge 007 buzz. We grind our way up in first gear with the occassional leap into second and back to first and after being stuck behind a truck for the last 100ms or so dread the thought of having to descend. However there is no descent and it’s onwards across the plateau of pasture, undulating gentle hills, an abundance of sheep and 150kms of straight road and telegraph poles with a new population of nests. Gone arer the groaningly heavy sociable weaver bird nests replaced by accumulations of sticks and what looks like red baling twine still built around the white ceramic pods on the poles. Can’t work out what inhabits them as there are kestrel looking birds that hover and perch and big white and black birds that do the same and see both in the nests. Perhaps they share the nesting spots.

Calvinia appears as another ribbon of white with a cental steeple and instructions to the ‘ Die Blou Nartjie’ are brilliant…. ‘Calvinia is very small, you can’t miss it’..mmm well got lost in Springbok so hey, who knows. I learn later that what is now the B and B and restaurant, oh and in translation a nartjie is a Mandarin…as in the fruit…so the Blue Mandarin… was the family home and shop  of a three generation Jewish family and was/is part of an amazing history of a tiny little town in the Northern Cape that takes it’s name from John Calvin the reformer but was originally named Hantam after the Khoi word meaning ‘where the red bulbs grow’…what is the go with all this name changing. Hantam sounds much more appropriate!! Situated at the foot of the Hantam Mountains at almost 1000m above sea level..hence the hike up the pass I guess… in winter it can get to -8C and sometimes with snow! Was certainly very brisk and windy the evening I arrived and  the rooms at the BN are based on the design of  the very simple accommodation offered by a number of the old homes for farming families who came in to buy supplies decades ago. These rooms are amazingly well designed accommodating a shower, toilet, cooking  and very spacious sleeping area in a small area……….on and with dstv which is a cable telly thing too!

The Getz has done a stirling job and she and I have long conversations en route as to how well she is doing as I know if we break down it’s going to be a long wait as I’ve reliably informed on several occassions since starting this trip that NO-ONE will stop regardless of how helpless we look. With her bedded down for the night it’s dinner at the restaurant and a table against a wall clad with a HUGE skin of a very large and battle worn mountain zebra. Dinner is a bobotjie which is a spicy, fruity, curryish lamb mince with lots of yummy potato and vegetables and an equally spicy glass of house red. None of the huge glass filled to a minimally drawn white line on the glass this is a huge glass filled to the brim………..alrighty then. The B and B is run by a family who seem to do everything from band b duties to cooking and the restaurant is packed, some of us visitors but the majority locals it would seem.

Another beautiful bed after a hot, hot shower and with a cup of rooibos tea……..don’t get me started it is DELICIOUS, this is the tea of teas and as Lillian, A and E’s housekeeper tells me is what you must drink for good blood……..and a couple of hours watching World Cup Athletics… Calvinia settles in for a cold night and I am very happy to be here in another tiny, but very special dot on the map.

Road trip Springbok

Earlyish start from Augrabies and surprised to find the road roaring with cars and people on foot….. then realise it’s Sunday and folk are on their way to church. The vineyards in this area are partly in the open and partly under netting or in huge shadehouses which cover acres…alongside of which are cement pads on a slight angle radiating out from a central point on which the grapes are dried. The local church is bustling with people competing with a boom box from the settlement and  I put on Enja which seems somewhat appropriate with her echoed chants and layered voices.

First stop is Pofadder, named for the Koranna leader Klaus Pofadder around which farms and land are grazed by sheep. A little ribbon town boasting a church, Dutch Reformed in this instance, and a petrol station around which life seems to happen. A small, toothless woman Margaret  dressed in layers of many colours sells cloth, metal sculptures…..some enormous and lifesize equivalents of the warthogs and ostrich they depict…., soapstone and wooden carvings and is in charge of the loo at the garage which is a complicated structure of metal grids which require a rand coin to open. Margaret is also very religious and delighted to hear I come from Australia where she has ‘many christian friends’ and praises the lord for the fact that her very pregnant daughter Winnie who sits perched on a small stool unpacking carvings is about to produce her first grandson. Refreshed and refueled……garages here come with full service and the Shell attendants wear red Ferrari shirts and puffy jackets and welcome you in to the pumps with lots of hand pointing and waving akin to going into the pits at a F1 race, and about as fast for some.

Onto Pella which I’m really looking forward to though with a little trepidation as the map indicates a dirt road aka gravelly and corrugated and thrilled to find it’s tarred until the last km or so. What an amazing little place and it shimmers on the horizon, white buildings in a green oasis under very big and very black mountains. Founded by the London Missionary Society in 1814, the Moffat lot who settled Kurumun, it was set up as a sanctuary for Khoisan driven out of Namibia and named for the Macedonian village who gave refuge to Christians in biblical times. The mission was closed down because of drought and reopened in 1878. 

The cathedral was built over 7 years by two fathers who used a page from the encyclopedia!! as their guide. Today it’s being repaired and rennovated as a part of the ceiling recently fell in. As I arrive there is a crowd of happy folk posing on the steps with arms outstretched mimicking the statue of christ in an alcove half way up the scaffolded spire and a bishop in all his purple gear and green tasselled hat is there too posing for photos with, I learn, new converts who have piled into assorted vans and trucks and come in from kakamas for a special mass to celebrate their conversion. The church stands in a big, dusty square, sand puffing up with gusts of wind and building rubble adding to the dust and  a white habited sister wearing a green gingham pinnie ushers me over to meet the bishop. Sister is a font of knowledge and the underground water that is the mainstay of the date and pomegranate orchards that are the mainstay of the town are also the downfall of the church have silently eaten away at the foundations resulting in the roof collapse. repairs are slow and costly and all in the area have contributed R30 to the fund. I give some monies to sister and receive a blessing from the bishop and think what a surreal moment this is.

Sister opens the museum and it is a treasure trove of beautiful embroidered vestements, hand painted stations of the cross which will be returned when repairs are finished, piles of the wedge shaped bricks made at the Orange River and transported by ox cart and the carved statue of christ on the cross carved by one of the priests out of a piece of wood using a penknife. Also behind glass is the page for the encyclopedia with the internal drawings and sketches of a cathedral somewhere in the world from which Pella grew. This..the statue… is almost life size and very fine and intricately carved, guess it was a way to while away the very quiet evenings. The data palm plantations are huge, dark, brooding and rustling and enclosed by walls and wire behind the church. During the South African German war the sisters nursed wounded German soldiers in what was the mission school and dates came as part of the care packages sent from germany. In good old fashioned ‘spit the pips’ into the bush hey presto they took seed and the rest as they say is history. Harvested in March the fruit is boxed and sold all over the country and much prized. The Bishop is returning to Kakamas and sister is returning to the convent house in the grounds of the church along with the primary school and priest’s house. Her home is white with blue trim, surrounded by verandahs and geraniums in pots and a painted wall depicting scenes of almost two century of life in Pella. As I leave a young lad comes rushing over toting a huge block of quartz which he wants to ‘give’ me for R20 so he can play in Sunday’s soccer tournament. There’s a small pile of quartz tucked behind a white bin painted with the AIDS ribbon symbol and he points over to it and asks if I’d like some more.

By now Pella is well into siesta mode. The metal and wooden shanties and more substantial block buildings sit stark and small shadowed in the afternoon sun, a goat or two chew cud under the occassional camelthorn and washing hangs very still, colours bleaching in the heat. 

Onto Springbok driving through yet more spectacular country, big open plains against backdrop mountains and perspective that is softer and gentler than that in Australia where the bright is so bright and sharp distances seem much closer. The famed namaqua daisies are starting to appear on the land, at first small patches of colour then around a very gentle bend that seems to take several kilometres to happen it’s as though pots of primary coloured poster paints have been tipped  and thrown amongst the clumpy green bushes and lumpy boulders. There are 4000 species!! a mixture of succulents, aloes, daisies, bulbs and herbs some huge and mighty like the elephant foot which looks like a huge, grey scaly elephant’s foot and during spring sprouts a chaotic jumble of green leaves and tendrils. Daisies are tiny and delicate and more robust and painted and the colours appear in batches which overlap as the season continues. The display depends on the rains and this season has been low on rain but for all that seeing big splashes of colour spreading and running like spilled orange juice is quite spectacular….oh and I overtake my first car at 2.45pm! This must be one of SA’s few Sunday drivers out for a leisurely drive.

The road to Concordia which I had planned to travel to see some orbicular granite and the granite ore bins built by Cornish miners who arrived in droves to take part in the copper mining, now a dying and distant relic of boom towns is horribly corrugated and pitted. A bakkie travelling in the opposite direction is bumping around like a boat in a storm and with all of about 25cms clearance and three days to go i decide not to hit that particular road and stay on the tar driving through increasingly cooler winds and into more dramatic landscape. Springbok appears nestled in a valley over the summit of a steeply winding road and once again it’s the spire of the central church turning orange as the sun descends that catches the eye. Set in the copper rich granites of the Klein Koperberge it is the capital of namakwa and it’s history is closely related to copper mining and like so many towns in the area has a close connection with the Anglo Boer wars as testified by war graves and a small koppie in the centre of town that the British claimed during the war. Now a display o some of the multitude of plants to be found in the area it acts as a twon centre and a reasonable place to get bearings from. I still manage to be confused by the road signs which have lots of numbers and no place names and can’t see Naries anywhere so ask at the local book shop where the owner says ‘lost in Springbok, well thats a first’ and points the way.

Naries namakwa retreat is just that and 27kms down the now pointed out road and up hill and down dale through yet more granite and flower coloured hillsides the ochre stripes on a white gate indicate home for the night. Originally a cattle and sheep farm it’s now acres of wildflowers, springbok and oryx and a lovely cape Dutch style house and three  tucked away matjiehuis base on a local building style of domed shaped buildings of a wooden frame covered by literally straw matting. I’m staying in the house but drive up to the matjieshuis hideaway in the mist the next morning and there they are blending perfectly with the granite boulders, tucked away amongst aloes and succulents…the scene is like something from a Star wars movie. Back at the homestead and it’s a greeting with a pot of fresh coffee in a big comfortable sitting room loaded with books and art. fires are being lit as the cold creeps in and my room is dark timbered and cosy with a split door opening onto a verandah of lavender bushes and old grapevines and a cacophony of industrious weaver birds busily building new nests, patching up old ones and in various courtship displays. The girls poke their heads out of already occupied nests and the life of hese birds seems to hinge on an ability to hang upside down, thread grass into intricate designs and fluff and puff feathers at the appearance of a rather dowdy female who may not have picked the ideal nest. Judging by the scattering of blue eggshells on the ground gravity must play a part too in the interior of the nest though I can only assume there must be a nest ‘room’ of some sort where the eggs are laid and babes raised as it can’t be all upside down, surely.

Back in my little nest with gravity in it’s right place it’s a BATH!!..eeeeeeeeeeee luxury…….and drinks in the sitting room before dinner. An obvious pom is sitting having a beer and madly scribbling notes and turns out he, Andrew, is on a Lonely Planet story assignment about a little chunk of the Northern cape for the new LP magazine. We talk about travelling in the NC and where he’s been and vice versa. He and a photographer Mark are here with a minder Steve have been exploring the copper and mining connection and the flowers and undecided as to where to go the next day or so, possibly Augrabies?? I go to dinner..sweet potato and banana soup, goulash and vegetable pie and more saucing chocolate pudding, noooooo the ks again….. and he waits around for his mates who have been making the most of last light and then have pudding and some wine with them and learn a little about the life of travel writer and photographer and seemingly how much falls in the hands of the ‘minder’ who in this case is bonkers about the region. 

Bed…with electric blanket….. and a big night of sleep and thunder and storms as a cold front stretching the length of namibia and down the SA coast makes it’s presence felt. Julene, the manager of the retreat…it seems the place is primarily run by women..makes sure there are NO external lights at night and i lie in bed watching a starry dome vanish and re appear as the storm staggers it’s way inland from the coast. This is a magical place and somewhere definitely to stay longer in and explore the area which is heaving with history, geology to say nothing of the flowers.

Road trip Augrabies

The Getz and I leave Kathu early Saturday morning with big plans, even bigger maps and accommodation booked to head to at the end of every day. Driving in South Africa seems to be in two gears, either neutral and parked or flat out in top gear. The roads are long, very long and usually straight and not that populated  and  scant notice is taken of white lines, brows of hills, slight bends in the road etc in a concerted effort to keep the foot flat to the pedal and tailgating is a national pastime. There are a lot of police on the roads, usually driving faster than anyone else talking on phones or squished in the front seat with what looks like the entire family..also an amazing number of ambulances. Decide music will be the order of the days and have a little collection of cds and play lots of Dido in particular. The sweet rhythms seem very appropriate with the rhythm of the roads and kilometres of landscape that roll by and every so often there are heart clunking chord changes or just a note or phrase that resonate with new scenery, colour change or distant steeple that heralds a village in the far distance.

Upington, a sprawling centre  announces the Green Kalahari fed by the Orange River the life blood of the area that gives existence to a grape, wine and table, industry and commemorates the donkey and camels in  bronze monuments as beasts of burden that enabled development of the area. As always the bronze donkey looks as eyore like as they do in life and on the side roads are a number of ‘scotches’ with similarly morose looking creatures peering solemnly at the road. 

Destination on this first day is the Falls Retreat B and B just outside the gates to the Augrabies Falls so it’s through Keimoes and Kakamas and a stop at a padstal a road side farm shop selling whatever grows in the area. The Pink Padstal at Kakamas is and has all things pink, and if they weren’t really pink in life they are now. Buckets of rose quartz, packets of pink sugared almonds, bikes and motorcycles painted pink and a brilliant loo, also pink and decorated with covers from old sewing patterns…I buy a strawberry fanta to keep in the mode. The vineyards continue all along the river valley and come to straight lined halts when the granite koppies take over. New fields are taken from what looks like kalahari sand and labour is obviously not an issue with teams of blue boiler suited men driving bulldozers and picking up stones.

The Falls Band B is a treat, four porched selfcatering chalets with white sheets and duvets, persian rugs, gold plated taps and heated bathroom floor! I have booked dinner at ‘the house’ so no pots and pans or braiis though the kitchen is incredibly self contained and well supplied. Off to the falls through Augrabies itself, a tiny little town on the edge of the kalahari which takes it’s name from Khoe word ‘aukurbis’ meaning water that thunders. And thunder it does, the Orange River crashing through gorges and cataracts and over the falls themselves into a misted, carved granite canyon whirling in a rainbowed pool before heading on it’s way to irrigate and ultimately find the sea at the South African Namibian border and diamond town of Oranjemund.

Walkwyas around the edge of the falls and canyon get one near enough to have that heart stopping effect again and viewing platforms are built out over the water and it’s a long way down. I take photos for a young couple from Upington who pose and lean against each other looking misty eyed into the misty water and later back at the B and B discover we are neighbours for the evening! They crank up a brai and music and when I return from dinner later that evening she is beautifully dressed in flowing robes sipping a glass of wine and he is wearing a rugby jumper and boxer shorts.

Meanwhile back at the falls and the hot rocks are alive with multicoloured lizards, the Augrabies Flat lizard and endemic to the area, that skitter around raising feet in a little wave to keep them cool and dashing up rock faces and into small cracks and crevices. First time I’ve been aware of flies and these are more like little black midgies which along with Namaqua figs are favourites of the lizard. Beer at the cafe, it’s searingly hot out of the breeze, and back for dinner at the main house which is a quiet affair as I’m the only guest and sit at one end of a table that seats at least 16 and feel if there was someone else at the other end we would be sliding the salt and pepper backwards and forwards. The family home is gorgeous, lots of wood, light, space and glass and with four jack russels for company I eat roast karoo lamb and a sauced chocolate pudding with a glass of Orange River pinotage and promptly ask to change breakfast from full english to continental either wise squeezing into the getz may prove harder and harder with all the ks, kalories and kilometres taking a toll. It,s now getting very cool and bed awaits along with Orlando.