After a comfortable night’s kip and another scrumptious breakfast at the Ruth Avenue B&B we settled up and pointed the ve-hickle in the direction of Port Elizabeth and placed Johannesburg in the rear-view mirror which, if you’re not really a city sort of chap, is a very good place for it.
The plan was to make directly for Port Elizabeth and not inflict ourselves as we normally do, on exceedingly kind family members in Bloemfontein. Thus it was that, with plan in place and foot on pedal, a tiny speck of a vehicle containing two not-so-tiny specks of human beings moved southward.
As the day warmed, the gently undulating hills of Gauteng (or the Old Transvaal, as I prefer to call it) gave way to the mind-bending endlessness of the Orange Free State. The midday haze glimmered and shimmered on the fields and distant hills. The occasional farm animal stood somnolently in the sun, chewing meditatively on what precious little was offered up in the way of food by the Free State soil. Fences, pylons and windmills reflected brightly in the African sun. Every so often a dust plume would rise lazily behind a tractor as it tirelessly tilled the soil in the desperate hope of a good crop.
Landmarks passed in predictably familiar sequence. The Vaal River bridge, Kroonstad – cosily concealed next to the False River or Valsrivier, dusty Ventersburg, the Verkeerdevlei toll plaza and as the sun began its horizon-wards descent, the charcoal-black freeway into Bloemfontein rolled out before us.
A quick stop to fill up and grab a drink, and we were on our way again. Almost imperceptibly the seemingly endless plains began to rise up into mesas, buttes and spitskoppe as we drove past the little dorpies [villages/towns] of Trompsburg and Springfontein.
After leaving Bloemfontein, the road deteriorated markedly, but the authorities appear to be addressing the problem with considerable road works (funded directly or indirectly by the Chinese, no doubt). These ‘stop/go’ interruptions made significant inroads into our schedule and we became concerned that we’d approach PE through the satellite towns and outlying areas (which have a notoriously lively criminal community) in the dark. It was also hunting season and it is not unknown for a spooked buck to be in the road at night. Hitting a Kudu at 100kph will almost definitely ensure a fatality for an occupant of a vehicle.
Approaching the Orange River (aka Gariep, Senqu etc) we made a decision to find a place where we could bed down for the night. But where? Now this is where my cynicism (brought on by 20 years of disillusionment with the current dispensation and its mitosis-like spread of regression). I have fond recollections from my youth of experiencing Colesberg as a quaint, peaceable town, its neat streets, well manicured public places and pretty gardens reflecting a humble pride of the resident population. Staying in even modest accommodation establishments, one basked in the warm hospitality of the locals, making friends with people who were genuinely pleased you visited them.
Now, if you know a bit about South Africa, you might be familiar with Sir Lowry’s Pass. But did you know that Colesberg was named after the same Sir Lowry Cole who governed the Cape between the years 1828 to 1833? Hmmm? It was one of the most remote frontier outposts of the time and was a commercial hub for missionaries, hunters, farmers and explorers. It also played an important role in the Anglo Boer War. For a town so historically significant, it is interesting to note how the current government has put in so much effort to obliterate its past.
Today Colesberg more closely reflects the paradigm of the current leaders. The places we have seen when driving through the town are dilapidated, many are abandoned and the public places are either overgrown or devoid of vegetation altogether. Almost everywhere you look, litter fouls the sidewalks and nearby fields. To remind us that poverty and social degradation is never more than a stone’s throw away (literally sometimes), the outskirts of Colesberg have the in-your-face low-cost housing or shack settlements glaring depressingly and accusingly at you. This is not to say that there is no acceptable accommodation in Colesberg. There may well be, but it’s all about probabilities when you’re travelling, isn’t it?
With all these thoughts bouncing around in the skull we kept the eyes peeled for an overnight place. A few kilometres after crossing arguably South Africa’s most important river we happened upon a sign that read ‘Orange River Lodge’. Turning off the tar road and onto a farm track our trepidation began to dissolve. The reception and dining area, which used to be the front portion of a very impressive old farm house, nestled in the shade of a few stately trees.
Lynn Basson, owner of Orange River Lodge came out to welcome us with such warmth that the decision to stay over became a no-brainer. We were shown to our rooms which were converted stables. As it was the middle of the week, we were the only guests in this part of the building – no neigh-bours y’see (stables, horses – neigh-bours? Geddit? Oh never mind). With the kit transferred to the room, we took off to explore the property.
The farm is deceptively large and although we spent a couple of hours walking and driving around, we learned that we’d hardly scratched the surface, thus providing an ideal excuse to return one day soon. Before it dipped below the horizon, the golden Free State sun made the dry grass tufts almost glow on the veld. As we walked through some of the farm lands, we could see Springbuck in the distance keeping a wary eye on us.
After sunset the farmlands took on that uniquely tranquil African appearance. The sky to the west of the sunset turned from carnelian to pearl pink then to dove grey towards the western horizon. Even the grasslands took on a pinkish hue for a few moments in the fading light. The evening chill heralded the start of the nightjars’ and crickets’ symphonies. I was hoping to try out my newly acquired astrophotography techniques but supper was ready at 7pm and we didn’t want to be rude on the first date.
Arriving back at the farmhouse just in time for supper, we were shown to our table by Lynn. Supper consisted of a first course of soup; entrée of roast lamb, chicken pie and vegetables; and a finale of malva pudding and ice cream. A word of advice if you stay at Orange River Lodge; forget any thoughts of dieting. Rather think in terms of eating (and exercising) like a horse. The food was absolutely scrumptious dear Reader, and the temptation to eet sommer agter die lekkerte aan [eat more simply because it’s nice] was great. Decorum, however, prevailed and with only a moderately straining belt, we called it a day.
The room was adequately appointed and comfortable. Because it was late winter, the nippy night temperatures justified the use of the supplied heater. An hour of mind-stunting television offered by the lame DSTV bouquet (hardly the guest farm’s fault) caused me to give up and go to sleep.
Dawn broke irreversibly over the farm and the first beams of sunlight peeked through the cracks in the curtains. The miracle of digestion ensured that we viewed the breakfast table hungrily and Lynn didn’t let us down. I can heartily recommend the culinary offerings at the Orange River Lodge! It is not haute cuisine, but it is delicious, high-quality and well prepared – in short, typical South African farm food.
It was with some reluctance that we bade farewell to Lynn and Orange River Lodge. That’s the trouble with the great accommodation establishments; you want to stay longer instead of getting on with one’s journey.
Well, we did the sensible thing and got back on our southward journey. From Colesberg the number of large articulated trucks was mercifully reduced (because most of them remain on the N1 to and from Cape Town) so it was with a more relaxed frame of mind that we rolled southwards. Noupoort came and went without incident and just after Middelburg we turned off towards Cradock.
Now if you’re on this road and you suffer the ‘pangs of peckishness’ then I have an incredible tip for you. Just north (about 10km outside) of Cradock is the headquarters of the De Wilge Butchery (winner of the Cleaver Award 2009). Do yourself a flavour and visit the place. It would be dishonest of me to say that ‘everything’ is incredibly good there because I didn’t taste ‘everything’. But, as we were close to our destination, we bought biltong, boerewors [world famous South African sausage], mince and beef fillet and THOSE were of outstanding quality – no superfluous fat, added moisture or gristle. It’s the sort of quality that makes a chap plan a trip to Cradock just to buy their meat.
And on that scrumptious note, I believe we can end the series on the Johannesburg travels. See you next trip.