The desire to travel – to discover new places and meet new people who live different lives to yours – doesn’t get extinguished by a pandemic. Quite the opposite. That urge to explore becomes stronger.
But what do you do when the overseas holiday you’ve been saving for gets postponed while the world waits for alpha, beta and delta to run their course? You rediscover your own country. That’s exactly what many South Africans have done on some epic journeys during 2020 and 2021.
Each journey needs to start somewhere. Ours starts in Lambert’s Bay. We’re on a road trip with tour company, Live the Journey. The owner, Jurgens Schoeman, decided he wanted to fill a bottle with cold Atlantic water here in Lambert’s Bay and empty it into the Indian Ocean at Morgan Bay, 2000km east. In between are back roads, mountain passes and characterful towns like Victoria West, Philippolis and Bethulie, ready to welcome us with open arms…
The best in the west
My wife Ronel and I meet up with the rest of the touring party for supper at Bosduifklip Restaurant, about 4km outside Lambert’s. To feast at the table of Kobus and Aletta Engelbrecht, surrounded by wind-sculpted rocks, is a world-class experience. The restaurant is on the farm Albina, which has been in Kobus’s family for four generations. Aletta and Kobus have been making food together for more than 30 years: lamb on the spit, potatoes from the Sandveld, tripe potjie, freshly baked bread, seafood…
“My grandmother gave Bosduifklip its name because there used to be a big colony of speckled pigeons that nested in the cliffs,” Kobus tells us between the different courses. “My father built this kraal in 1941 – the one we’re eating in.”
Some of Kobus and Aletta’s children and grandchildren live overseas and they’ve been to visit them. “We miss them, of course,” he says. “But this place is our home.”
I wake to a cacophony of Cape gannets and kelp and Hartlaub’s gulls. After breakfast at the Lambert’s Bay Hotel, we say goodbye to the ocean. Today we’re driving nearly 600km to the historical Karoo guest farm, Melton Wold, near Victoria West.
Real back-road journeys begin when your wheels hit gravel. It happens for us just past the turn-off to Wupperthal on the R364. Lambert’s Bay, Clanwilliam and the Pakhuis Pass lie behind us to the west. A voyage of discovery lies ahead. East.
Your immediate reaction on gravel is to slow down because the surface demands more of your attention. All your senses are engaged. You feel the vibration of stone, sand and corrugations through the steering wheel; you smell dust, plants, farmland fertiliser; you even smell water when you cross the low-water bridge over the Doring River.
Going slower means you have more time to look at all the beauty: the stone cathedrals of the Cederberg; the wide expanses of the Karoo dotted with koppies that had their crowns lopped off millennia ago… You don’t have to hurry. There’s nobody chasing you. Open your window, switch off the radio, allow the road to speak to you.
Even a flat tyre on the R353 between Williston and Fraserburg gives us the chance to enjoy breathing pure Karoo air. (Salie and Lisa de Swardt’s Toyota Hilux suffered the one and only puncture on our whole trip.) Many capable hands make short work of swapping the shredded tyre for the spare.
When we drive through the gates of Melton Wold, the Karoo rewards us yet again with a blood-red sunset.
At Melton Wold, you’re transported back to a more relaxed era. It’s a magnificent sheep and game farm, where parents can read under palm trees while the kids play themselves into a stupor on the trampoline and tennis court. You can try your hand at croquet on the lawn or hide out in the games room with Monopoly and a dartboard. It’s a huge farm and there’s a lot to discover – on foot, on a mountain bike, or in a game-viewing vehicle. You might even be fortunate enough to spot an endangered riverine rabbit that still finds sanctuary here. Old traditions live on, like coffee delivered to your bedroom door and the ting-ting of a xylophone to announce that dinner is served.
The manor house has 23 rooms and dates from 1889. It’s the oldest guest farm in the country and it has seen a lot. During the South African War, Boer commandos would regularly raid the fat sheep of the British owner. Indeed, the scars of that war are still evident across wide tracts of the interior. More about that later – first we have a movie date in Victoria West!
There’s plenty of head-shaking and fingerwagging about the decline of South Africa’s rural towns, due to urbanisation, drought and atrocious municipal mismanagement. There’s a flip side to this coin, though: There are so many can-do people who still love their towns and who are willing to work together to polish old jewels and discover new ones.
In Victoria West, our small group is treated to a screening of the classic cowboy movie El Dorado in the beautifully restored art deco Apollo Theatre. The theatre is managed by Contessa Kruger – she and her husband Louis moved here from the city more than six years ago, and they helped with the restoration of the theatre. They’re also actively involved in a variety of other projects aimed at rejuvenating Victoria West.
“You can’t complain about the platteland if you’re not prepared to jump in and help to improve things,” she says.
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