I hadn't had much sleep the night before, due to the fact that I'd suffered an emergency root treatment on one of my front teeth that afternoon. It was supposed to have been just a routine checkup, but before I knew what was up I was surrounded by magnifying glasses and long needles. But at 7.00 AM the next morning, no painkillers were strong enough. In too much pain to lie down, I’d spent most of the previous night uploading music to my Ipod, programming my GPS and messing with my kit. I'd had breakfast with the kids, then knocked back another cocktail of antibiotics, vitamins, etc., before hitting the road. The early morning isn't my given time, but I couldn't think of a reason to look back.
Outside Worcester the pterodactyls hooked up. After that, I opened the sunroof and turned up the music because I was comfortable and wasn’t in a rush. The Jeep has really comfortable seats and pulls effortlessly past slower traffic, of which there wasn’t much. The pain in my upper jaw had slowed to a sullen throb as I headed into the Little Karoo, a small desert where isolated towns hold watch over desolate grandeur. I'm always in awe of how people live simpler lives in these kinds of landscapes. We need so much to get by in big cities.
By now time compression had settled in and the mileage was stacking up as the towns went by. Robertson. I avoided a speed trap there. Ashton. I checked the old locomotive. Montagu. I passed the old British fort. Barrydale. I marveled at how green it was. Ladismith. There's a mountain here that's split at the top like some huge credit card machine. They call it witched mountain. Calitzdorp. Fifty thousand years ago it was a lake. Now it's a dry area, but with more fynbos than I remember seeing before. It figures that it's been twenty years since I was last here. Whatever. It's always different. Some five hours from home, coming out of the green desert, I reach Oudtshoorn. Outside Karoo towns there are often speed traps. I drop to below the speed limit. I’ve been here many times before, once riding it in three hours and twenty minutes on my ’76 Kawasaki Z900, including a stop to fill up. Back in the ‘70’s we used to ride big motor bikes out this way. I still have leathers to prove it.
Oudtshoorn is a large town whose main specialties are the Cango Caves and the fact that it’s the ostrich feather capital of the world. lots of ostrich farms. It's also about halfway to where I'm going. It’s a good place to stop for petrol. Refueling in hyperspace isn’t easy. The pterodactyls are parked, hanging on a cloud somewhere high above. Hopefully, they’re out of site of the petrol attendants, who, nevertheless, eye me warily, some crazy mzingu in a car with wiring all over the place, like some kind of a car bomb. But it doesn't take them long to understand that I'm harmless. This doesn’t stop me from telling them as much of my life story as I can in the time allotted. “…and that’s why I'm here!” Anyways, road trips are like that.
Six hundred rand later and I'm moving again. This time it's into unknown territory. I'd invested in a GPS just for this section. The transition from Little Karoo into the Great Karoo is through the Swartberg Mountains. Navigation gets tricky as you head into the Great Karoo because a wrong turn here could blow your day. Outside Oudtshoorn I drive by a number of poor communities, thinking, not for the first time, how fortunate I am to be able to drive through, while noble folk are marooned out here for their whole lives. Maybe there are even old people out here that have never seen the sea? It's a depressing thought, not one I want to carry five hundred clicks through the southernmost reaches of the Great Karoo desert on my own. The scenery is amazing enough to change tracks. It’s the Western edge of the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, an emerging wildlife reserve and the latest addition to South Africa’s ecological arsenal. I aim to drive through it someday. Hopefully, not today.
I'd programmed an oblique route into the GPS the night before; north, past Baviaanskloof but still parallel to it. The map on my computer had just showed this part of the route as 'road'. Usually the high performance mapping system would've told me if it was 'tar', 'gravel', or 4X4, so it was with some trepidation that I took the indicated right turn past Willomore towards Steytlerville, and the unknown. For some time the road was benign. Moving across a rolling landscape of hills and vegetation, the magnificent Baviaanskloof is ever present on the right hand side of the view. My tooth still hurts but I’m hungry enough to nibble on something from the cooler bag, mostly chocolate cookies and a gulp of raspberry steaze. Some time later the 'road' shrinks into a single lane comprised of concrete blocks with gravel on each side. This means that you have to hang two wheels onto gravel when there's oncoming traffic, otherwise you'll have a head-on. By this time I'm pretty shrunk myself, what with being out on the road since dawn with toothache, painkillers and loud music, but I've barely dented the second tank of gas so I pretend not to worry about getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because I'm a mojolocutus road-warrior with amped circuitry in direct communication with circling pterodactyls for whom time is always in the present. Aaooom! The throb of pain was with me as I drove along the white, single-lane concrete road through the Great Karoo, like some kind of time machine that illustrated what driving to Joburg used to be like in my father's time.
By the time I got to Steytlerville the worst was over. OK, two police cars boxed me in as I drove down the main road but the pterodactyls grok that every time my adrenaline levels go up I feel more pain so I’m quickly learning how to be the most chilled-out person on the road. Anyways, the prospect of telling my life story to a local cop over a brandy and coke isn’t something the pterodactyls want to consider, so I keep my eye open for a speed trap. By the time I remember to look at the clock again it's four in the afternoon. Don't really know what happened to my day. The run from Steytlerville to Addo via Kirkwood seemed much shorter by comparison, or maybe I just drove really slowly through the desert? A stretch of road runs from Steytlerville, a town whose main street is adorned by flags each proclaiming the name of a different local family, through a great kloof, then a dry patch until you come out at a stretch where the northernmost reaches of the Addo Elephant Park are on your left hand side. The sun is starting to sink towards the horizon as I headed past Kirkwood's fruit farms and trains loaded with produce. Lot’s of citrus farming in this area. Twenty minutes later, with eight hundred and fifty clicks notched since I’d left home, I'm drinking honeyed lemon juice at Woodalls Lodge, situated a few clicks from the main gates of the Addo Elephant Park. It's just starting to get dark, but already there's a nip in the air. My tooth is throbbing uncontrollably now so I just order a salad delivered to my room to accompany the last of the gorgonzola sandwiches. I figure I need at least that much to keep the antibiotics and pain-killers happy. The room is more like a suite, so I have no desire to move, especially after the painkillers kick in. It's about at this time that I log out.The next day I can’t decide if my toothache is getting worse or just remaining the same but I don’t let this stop me from having breakfast, or from gleefully hitting the road. In a background window I’m really begging the pain to slow down. It’s only an hour or so to Grahamstown from Addo. The scenery is spectacular. The road winds through a series of hills so I kick back and take it real slow to enjoy the scenery. But without really trying, I still arrive way before lunch. It’s cool that the GPS delivers me to the exact street address. I’ve rented a house from a well known artist so the accommodation is suitably impressive. He tells me that it’s built somewhere around 1850 and it’s a national monument. Please not to light any fires. He’s driving to Joburg to have implants. I’m in a similar position so it’s not difficult to emphasize, even though he leaves me a cat called bazooka to look after. Usually, I don’t do cats.
Things are looking up. Shortly thereafter a journalist from Cue Magazine pitches up to interview me. After two days on the road it isn’t difficult to talk to James Loudon, who records our conversation with a neat IPOD recorder. Trevor Steele Taylor, the Film Festival director, is next on my list. Trevor is cool to hang out with. He’s wearing a deep blue double velvet jacket over jeans, the coolest snakeskin boots and looks like he just came off a movie set, which isn’t far from where it’s really at because it wasn’t long before Michael Raeburn and Darrell Roodt turned up. There are now four of us in the Jeep. Zany, even scary. Darrell, South Africa’s most prolific director, makes horror movies, when he feels like it. He’s here because a whole lot of his movies are showing. Michael has just returned from Cannes, where his movie, ‘Triomf’, which is about Afrikaners behaving badly, has just been premiered. I’m South Africa’s least prolific film maker, so I take point, keeping a look-out for AWB snipers. It’s pleasant chaos, surrounded by a crew that knows stuff that I don’t. I try to read their minds, but there are lots of distractions. This is fun because it doesn’t go on for too long. We all get interviewed on radio, at one time or another, sometimes simultaneously. I get asked; “what’s your movie about”, more than a few times. It’s always something different. I’m the only one with a car so I willingly play chauffeur, driving the boys from one assignment to another, which includes picking up flyers for a Filipino sex movie. When they’re done with me, I drop each of them off as requested.
Alone, I ditch the car near the cathedral. Armed with Cognition Factor leaflets, I walk amongst the crowds, handing them out like some mad jester at the Edinburgh Festival. It’s almost as cold. Later, high tea turns into supper and then becomes the opening party, full of celebrities, impresarios, actors and actresses, dancers and comedians. Nothing trumps toothache, so I make an early departure, retreating to the heated bedroom of my rented house. Tomorrow the family arrives and I want to enjoy what solitude remains. Breakfast is at the monument with Trevor, Darrell and Michael. The four of us stare out through the huge bay windows that face out over the valley. It’s a great view and a nice moment. Later, I wonder what they saw. We’re all very different, yet we’re all the same. Things are always different, even though they may appear to be the same.
After nearly a week of Grahamstown insanity with my family, and some friends who’d come up especially for the occasion, we head back home via a private game reserve called Lalibela, where I find myself sitting and thinking about stuff like; “Lions ate my laptop”, because I’m at a waterhole in a private game reserve in the Eastern Cape waiting for a troop of elephants to appear, or maybe the warthogs will put on a show, with their funny antics. All kinds of buck are in the area. We saw elephant, lion, white rhino, giraffe, hippo, zebra, and a host of other creatures. It’s a wonderland with no cell-phone reception so we’re effectively marooned from western civilization, or indeed any civilization! After two nights at the game reserve, I took the same route home, but with Carla and Ariel for company, nothing appeared to be the same. Ariel, my eight year old daughter, managed the long desert stretch between Steytlerville and Willomore quite well, but began to exhibit claustrophobia shortly thereafter, so we stopped at De Rust for the night, before continuing the next day through Meiringspoort, a narrow, vertical cleft in the Swartberg Mountain, where the road crosses the Meiring's River 32 times! This brings us to the Victorian hamlet of Prince Albert where it’s raining heavily, so the route over the Swartberg Mountains is closed and we have to go back the way we’d come. This isn’t a problem as Meiringspoort has got to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and the Swartberg Pass is somewhere I’m hoping to return to. I had previewed my show. I've returned from the desert on a horse with no name. I survived to write this blog.
You have to have a plan!
10th July, 2008