Friday, 23rd August and the first suggestions of dawn’s gentle presence was felt as she caressed my brow. As consciousness pierced the fog of slumber, Dawn disappeared into dreamland, to be replaced by the awareness that Mrs Chips was up already and busying herself with the final preparations for our departure. For a moment there, I bet you thought you were reading the wrong blog. Read on, you might still be correct.
A few moments later, in the kitchen, Mrs Chips was mildly startled by the appearance of a hairy, wrinkly, stretching, yawning, scratching thing (there’s no end to my graceful bearing and lithe virility) asking if I could help.
You see, we were preparing for our trip to witness a mysterious phenomenon in that semi-desert area of South Africa known as Namaqualand. This intriguing event is the staggeringly beautiful display of flowers known as the Namaqualand Daisies. In reality it is not only the daisies that bloom but a myriad other plant species as well.
Namaqualand is an ancient Khoi word meaning interminably long roads, searing heat and no trees if you need a wee. I’m kidding, of course. Namaqualand is named after the Nama (or Namaqua) people who live there; who are the largest group comprising the pastoral Khoikhoi people. But we won’t get into that right now – we’ll be late again.
Before commencing our journey, we need to pay our respects to a fine, long standing tradition in the Chips family that has been passed down from father to son, mother to daughter and shelf to suitcase. This tradition dictates that all departures are dutifully and determinedly fixed at ‘oh early hundred hours’. What actually happens on the day of departure is a flurry of ineffectual activity and advanced faffing, resulting in a delay of anything from a few minutes to a few hours.
Thus it was that our 08:30 deadline was exceeded by a mere two hours. There were two very good reasons for this. The first was a minor problem adjusting the goods on the roof rack, and the second was the purchase of a few fresh victuals (that’s posh chat for buying graze – you skates) for the fridge. Despite this delay, our mood was not dimmed in the least.
Amongst the aforementioned comestibles was a loaf of the most delicious bread, available only at the Kabega Park Food Lovers Market (née Fruit & Veg City). I don’t know who their bread chef is but he/she needs all five stars, a couple of chef’s hats and a Michelin
tyre star or two too. But if you’re in the vicinity, pop in for a loaf of “Portuguese Bread”. If you’re not intolerant to wheat, your tum will say thank you.
While I grappled with the complexities of roof-top packing, Mrs Chips thoughtfully made some delicious ham, cheese and tomato sarmies on sesame buns and filled two large mugs with that life giving aromatic elixir, filter coffee.
Local yokels might agree that leaving Port Elizabeth is quite difficult. It has less to do with emotional ties and more to do with the spread of the satellite towns that make you feel like you’ve only actually left the place after you’ve been past Dispatch and Uitenhage (For my foreign Reader, English speaking South Africans pronouce Uitenhage as ‘you-tin-haig’).
Travelling on this road out of PE, one goes through the townships of Bethelsdorp and Motherwell (Every time we pass this area, I am forced to inflict upon Mrs Chips my incredibly lame, “Good evening Jim. Is your Motherwell?” And the poor woman bears it with silent indulgence – mostly). This section of the dual carriageway has been the scene of many unrest incidents in the past. Even within the last three months, the local cadres have been recording their dissatisfaction with the incompetence of the ANC’s municipal authorities and their non-delivery of services. In their unique fashion, and in addition to tyre burnig, looting and general destruction, the inhabitants have taken to bringing buckets of their excrement with them to the riots (bringing their ‘do’ to the do, as it were), and hurling it at anyone within range – much the same as monkeys do when agitated.
For the most part, however, the place is fairly peaceful and we certainly didn’t experience any drama or tension. There is one thing that you cannot fail to miss though, and that is the enormous quantity of trash and filth that sullies the area for about 20kms. Over a decade ago, the environmentally conscious folks were bleating that the proliferation of plastic bags that were flying around, were as a result of the poor, previously oppressed masses not having a clue what to do with the free plastic shopping bags (paid for by the supermarket and indirectly charged to the customer – this had obviously escaped the eco people) so they lobbied to have us consumers pay extra for them. For at least 10 years we’ve been paying directly for them but the infestation of bags just grows and grows. The only thing that has diminished is the prattling of the government officials because, I strongly suspect, they were in partnership with the plastic bag manufacturers all along, and are laughing all the way to the bank. But I digress….
After Uitenhage was a distance behind us, we felt we were really on the road, and we could almost taste the tang of adventure. In actual fact, it wasn’t the tang of adventure so much as the scrummy sarmies. Besides, it was almost time for elevenses. Who in South Africa still uses the word ‘Elevenses’, I ask you? (Strike that from the manuscript Chips… Yes sir…. Good. Carry on).
A short while before Jansenville, at a trading post called Wolwefontein we turned off towards Steytlerville. Wolwefontein literally means Wolves Fountain – or more accurately Fountain of Hyenas (any mental images containing great geysers of Hyenas shooting up from the bowels of the earth are entirely from your alarmingly fertile imagination – I worry about you lot, I really do). In the days of old, before fences and national parks were invented, Hyenas would be plentiful in this area and perhaps they would gather at this fountain at eventide for a drink or two and a hysterical giggle with the girls (they are, after all, a matriarchal species), and to swap stories on how the day’s hunting had gone.
We decided to visit Steytlerville because of Mrs Chips’ maiden name, and we determined to renew familial relationships with any declining but generous Steytler millionaires who might inhabit the place. Not a sausage. And hereby hangs a warning to travellers on this route. Keep well below the speed limit and don’t engage in any demanding conversations or activities because as sure as nuts you’ll miss the place while you were taking a breath or something.
The town of Steytlerville was established in 1875 by the building of the Dutch Reformed Church. The minister (or dominee) was one Abraham Isaac Steytler, after whom the place was named. The town has a population of about 3000 and to give you an idea of the scale of Steytlerville, the most notable building in the town is the abovementioned church and a museum that opens on request.
I actually don’t want to appear condescending because these rural towns struggle mightily for survival. When they’re not enduring climatalogical extremes, they’re battling governmental indifference, ineptitude and non-delivery; yet if you pop in for a visit and perhaps stay at a place like the Noorsport Guest Farm (http://www.noorspoort.co.za/index.html) I’m pretty sure you’ll receive a warm welcome and have a pleasant stay. As much as we’d love to have bathed in their hospitality, we had to push on.
Between Jansenville and Steytlerville we were most heartened to see hundreds of Blue Cranes. At this point of the trip, I think we might just pull over and have a quick picnic while I tell you a little something about this bird….. You may go and make a cuppa now.
Oh good, you’re back. Now the Blue Crane, or Anthropoides paradiseus (aka Paradise Crane, or Indwe) is South Africa’s National Bird and a symbol of peace. It has graced our 5 cent coin since the implementation of our decimal currency system in 1961 and plays a prominent part in the Xhosa culture. The Blue Crane is fairly large, averaging 100cm to 105cm in height and has blue-grey plumage with a pinkish beak. Conveniently, it is found almost exclusively in South Africa.
Because it makes a nuisance of itself to the farmers eating the pre-harvested wheat, the numbers dwindled and a decade or two ago the species was on the endangered list. However, as a result of stout effort on the part of the conservationists and farmers alike, their numbers have swelled in a most gratifying manner and they’re now only on the ‘vulnerable’ list..
According to isiXhosa tribal custom (unfortunately there is no documentary record of this as they had no written language until the arrival of the settlers – so historians and anthropologists have to go on anecdotal evidence) the Blue Crane was highly regarded. If you killed one of these ground dwelling birds, a family member would shortly die – so the bird was viewed with some reverence.
Also, and these customs date from the early European settlers, the feathers of the Blue Crane were used by the Xhosa as decorations for bravery. During a battle (either tribal or against settlers) the bravery of the soldiers was observed and noted. A ceremony called ukundzabela took place and the chief would bestow upon the brave warrior a Blue Crane feather, which he would henceforth wear in his hair. Such feather bearers were known as ugaba or uqaba [trouble] and as loyal, brave warriors, they would be used to quell rebellion and restore order. So now you know a little more about South Africa and its people.
I do believe we can pack up the picnic and get back on the road… Stay chooned for the next episode.