There is something profoundly agreeable driving, windows down, through the vast Karoo veld. At times like these, one’s senses are heightened, and the soaring joy of being alive in God’s great Creation cannot be overstated. With a kind of detached attention to the endless road ahead, one’s face and arms thrill to the caress of the warm, dry breeze. Perfumes from the Karoo bush invade the bakkie’s cabin; the earthy incense of the acacia thorn, the subtle perfume of the Spekboom’s blossoms and the diminutive but nectar-rich flowers of the Noors, merge to form a sensory bouquet of delight. Even the pungent odour of the Katpisbos (yes, it really is a bush and it really does smell like cat’s pee) seems to harmonise with the other smells. Lifting one’s eyes, the blur of gravel and passing shrubbery begin to solidify into slower passing fences and telephone poles. Distant shapes of windmills and farmsteads glide lazily by under the infinite cobalt canopy. Occasionally a crow or bird of prey will eye one suspiciously from the cross-beams of the telephone poles; or take flight in search of a quieter perch. The roar of the tyres on the gravel and the constant hum of the engine would be almost hypnotic if it weren’t for the occasional ‘klunk’ of a stone on the under side of the bakkie.
It was thus with elevated spirits that we rolled into Klipplaat (meaning Stone Plate); which was a good thing because the place looks a tad depressing. With very little in the way of vegetation, the Karoo winds are able to blow, unhindered across the plains and between the few small houses in town. Besides the low cost houses, the litter and wondering dogs, the first building to catch our attention was the Methodist church. The white painted walls and red tin roof stood out in stark relief against the blue sky. In one corner of the church yard stood a prickly pear around which blew little eddies of dust ruffling the litter at its base.
I cautiously walked around the building in the hope of capturing images other than the run-of-the-mill church building pictures; and came upon a small outhouse at the back of the property, away from the church itself. South Africans, mostly of my parents generation, will remember the bucket system of sewage disposal that was present in most houses in the early 1900s . The concept was that a bucket was placed below the seat of the outhouse, removed when full and replaced with an empty one. The full buckets were placed, with their lids on, in a lane at the back of the houses and during the night municipal workers (known in my family as the “Night Artillery” – and in at least one other family, as the “Jam Lorry”) would move up and down the lanes with a cart collecting the buckets and providing clean, empty ones in their place.
Returning to the front of the church I spied the cornerstone which bore testimony of a worthy by the name of Mr Charles Lee Senior who laid the stone on 1st November 1904. Mr Lee was a prominent businessman in the ares and later established a trading post which grew in population and popularity, and later became known as Leetown circa 1949. Some time after that, it was incorporated into the municipality of Klipplaat.
The stone as well as the church itself have since caught the attention of the diseased whelps who find it necessary to deface anything they did not and could not build; and amongst other things, several brass letters have been removed.
As good fortune would have it, a couple of months after this trip, I met Mr Sydney Lee, grandson of Mr Charles Lee senior; himself a senior gentleman. I was to learn that the Lee family came out to South Africa with the settlers and he has retained an absolute wealth of information on the area, its culture and its characters. Hopefully, in future blogs, we’ll recount some of the anecdotes…..
Another interesting point is that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, then still a Princess, visited Klipplaat in 1947 while on a rail trip around South Africa. In the meanwhile, on with the exploration of Klipplaat.
The denomination of the next church was unidentifiable but, architecturally speaking, the building was eminently forgettable. The structure stood in its own grounds and the customary white walls supported a black roof this time. Mindful of the thick woollen suits for the men and the many-layered outfits worn by the ladies of the time, together with the searing summer heat radiated by the absorbent black roof; one can imagine the minister/priest being sorely tempted to induce a spirit of contrition in the congregation by delivering a graphic sermon on the horrors of hell. Repentance might have come swiftly if it meant a merciful adjournment to the coolness of the stoep of a kindly neighbour’s house.
The next and final stop in Klipplaat was the steam locomotive monument. Now, when I was a child, I remember the steam juggernauts tirelessly chuff-chuffing along the lines near our house, pulling ore-bearing trucks from the mines; I also have fond recollections of being a passenger behind steam locomotives on more than one train journey. I hope you will forgive me then, when I was first told of this locomotive, my mind’s eye conjured up an image of a steel steed of the steam era, standing splendidly in the Klipplaat sun, copper piping shining in its pink glory, brass work burnished to an eye-aching gleam, and black and red paint solemnly reflecting a wonderful era of transportation and a faithful and proud working history.
Not so this locomotive. This one stands less as a monument to what was widely and internationally acknowledged as one of the best railways in the world, and more as evidence of a cancerous culture, led and endorsed by the ANC leadership of thievery and thuggery. Now, this train stands alone, mute, undignified in its dotage, frail, unable to defend itself from the vandalising hyenas who have torn from it almost every vestige of its once glorious history.
After alighting from the bakkie, I stood for a moment just looking, taking it all in; a strange combination of sadness and pity welling up inside me; as one might look upon a friend for the first time after he’d been horribly disfigured in a motor accident.
Almost as an apology on behalf of the savagery of my countrymen, I climbed up the driver’s ladder. In an almost insane act of anthropomorphisation, I caught myself wanting to explain that I didn’t want to steal from it, I wanted to thank it; I wanted to honour it by immortalising it in a camera. Regaining a tight grip on my emotions (and sanity), I made a few images and returned to the bakkie. In silence, we turned onto the road that led out of town. As if to underline my sentiments we passed the local police station – a fine old stone building veiled behind double protective fencing. It was only after several kilometres that your writer was able to see the bright side again; and on an even brighter note, it would be some months later when he and Mrs Chips would meet the personable proprietor of Klipplaat’s Charles’ Hotel and some more local farmers who did a lot to brighten up the area.
In the meantime, Aberdeen was the next dorp (small town) on our route. On the R338 it was a mere 75kms away and by then we’d cheered ourselves up considerably. One glance at the outskirts of the place, though, and we determined we’d not stop and get depressed all over again, but we wisely continued towards Beaufort West.
About one hundred and fifty kilometres after Aberdeen, keeping on the R338, we spied our destination on the horizon. I’ve written at length about the mind numbing boredom of the straight roads in this area before, so I shan’t burden you except to say you might be stopped by a cop – but mostly because he’s lonely, so obey the speed limits won’t you. There’s a good chap.
A few kilometres before Beaufort West, we spied a farm stall which advertised, good biltong, fresh meat, cool drinks, braai wood and roosterkoeke [griddle cakes]. This was too good an offer to pass up so we pulled in. Slowly getting out of the bakkie with a stiffness brought on by the long ride and advancing years (I do wish you’d stop reminding me) gave the proprietor time to come out and greet us.
The man’s welcome was as warm as it was genuine and, politely declining his offer to sit and have a meal, we stood on the enclosed stoep [verandah] and listened to his story of the stall, its produce and its history. He had apparently been farming for most of his life. His first wife had sadly passed away some time ago. As the years went past he teamed up with another woman and had courted her for several years. She was an employee of the South African Post Office. A few years ago he, by way of a proposal, invited her to make a life with him and he said he would build her a road stall with a tearoom in it for her to manage. She left the post office and started at the road stall; but tragically, a week and two days later, she too passed away, leaving the farmer to run the shop. With the stoic acceptance, common among Afrikaner farmers, he accepted his lot and now combines his farming with the stall, assisted by an able and most genial employee called Hester; of Nama origin. Together, they’re turning a decent trade and producing high quality (and delicious) products.
As a quick aside dear Reader, supermarket meat cannot hold a candle to choice farm meat (I don’t care which celebrity chef has sold his soul to tell you otherwise). Whether it is beef, lamb or game, genuine farm meat is just far and away a better product. Grabbing the opportunity, therefore, to stock up with high quality produce, we bought a heap of provisions, including firewood, cool drinks, meat and delicious roosterkoeke made by Hester.
After bidding a farewell to our friendly farmer, we made for our destination which lay a few kilometres on the western side of Beaufort West; and at about 15:30 we pulled up at the gates of the Karoo National Park.
[Before I end this chapter, I felt you’d appreciate this invaluable traveller’s tip.] This is not a region of South Africa in which vegans will feel totally at home. This is your definitive meat eaters region. If you offer a local farmer a roast chicken he will in all probability decline it with the explanation that he is not a vegetarian. The better eateries do offer vegetarian/vegan dishes, but you’ll have to look for them.
If you do have a carnivorous bent, then you’re in for a treat and a half. If you’re anywhere in the Karoo, do treat yourself to Karoo lamb or mutton. And if you can’t do that, then sample Karoo springbuck. They are local delicacies of note and the people of the Karoo have generally gained a fair amount of expertise in preparing the most memorably scrumptious dishes.