I love travelling down roads that I have never travelled before. I relish the exhilaration of new sights and sounds; the sense of being a ‘foreigner’ in one’s own country. Since the days of Livingstone, most of Africa and certainly all of South Africa, has been ‘discovered’. But with each new journey down unfamiliar paths one can experience in a small measure, some of what these venerable travellers experienced. Ignore the fact that we drive in airconditioned vehicles on made roads, whether tar or dust, whereas those intrepid men struggled through virgin bush. We also whistle along listening to Mozart and eating chocolates! However modern our method of travel, it was in the spirit of Livingstone that we set off with our new tent/trailer hitched to our car, one glorious crisp dawn in April about fifteen years ago. Destination? Cape Town via Pofadder, a tiny village in the desert. (Afrikaans spelling of puff adder.) As the day lengthened, we were well on our way west.
The sun smiled on the whole scene that unfolded before us, as we drove through towering hedges of pink and white cosmos which flanked the N14 highway. The sky was filled with small oval-shaped clouds scudding towards us, looking for all the world like an invading fleet of UFOs! I won’t dwell on the inevitable stops, although when you step into a country shop that is full of every useful item, none of which look like the popular brands found in your local super market, you could easily imagine you are in a foreign country. The curious looks from the locals, lounging around the shady stoeps,serve only to crystallise the sense of being alien.
We had left the hilly country far behind as we surged on through spirit-leveled horizons towards our first destination, Kuruman. This settlement, that was home to the missionary John Moffat, who’s longsuffering daughter Mary married the great David Livingstone. Kuruman is just a tiny platteland (lit. flat land) town and yet it encircles one of the great wonders of the natural world. ‘The Eye of Kuruman’. This is the largest natural spring in the southern hemisphere. It pours out millions of litres of delicious, cool water daily from unplumbed caverns, deep within the secret places of the earth. This generosity has turned the area into an oasis in the middle of the Kalahari with palm trees too, and we were delighted to find that the caravan park was thoughtfully located right next to this marvel.
The water wells up in what is now quite a formal setting, created with stairways and parapets of sandstone and it flows through a small lake before going on to pipes and reservoirs for mundane use. However as we sat contemplating this enigmatic lake, we were all captivated by the stillness and the mystery which is enhanced by the reflection of ancient pines, and sat quietly, awed by its peace.
By the middle of the next day, we were nearing Upington through the Kalahari. One often hears it said that deserts are beautiful. How can this be, I hear you ask, deserts are just limitless tracks of sand! Yet when you see for yourself the incomparable colours and shapes, its endless horizons and its stillness, you realise that the Kalahari sings a subtle song that only the initiated can hear. When we saw it this time, however, the landscape was comparitively green after good summer rains. We stopped a few times just to listen to the quiet that seemed to pulsate against our ears. The veld was covered in beautiful many-coloured grasses and everywhere bright yellow flowers grew profusely. Wonderful we thought, until on closer inspection, we realised they were budding devil-thorn creepers blanketing the grey earth.
The road runs parallel to the Orange river for a way, before you come to the tidy town of Upington. We bought some take-aways and headed off down the road through orderly vineyards. This wine and table grape industry in the middle of the desert was totally unexpected; we had never realised that the delicious sultana grapes we enjoy every summer come from this beautiful place along the biggest river in South Africa. We drove on until we found a well-shaded picnic spot to enjoy our lunch. Even mass-produced fried chicken pieces can taste like a feast when eaten in the open. We rather wished that it was peach season as we drove past Kakamas, the humble former missionary outpost from where one single Kakamas peach tree discovered there, became the progenitor of three quarters of all the trees supplying the South African peach canning industry. On the dusty rutted road to the Augrabies Falls resort, we also saw acres of raisins set out to dry in the sun.
It was late afternoon when we entered the resort and found our campsite. We hurriedly did what we had to do to set up camp, then found the path down the deep gorge to the Falls. The thunder and churning of millions of tons of orange water roaring violently down its cataracts deafened us and one had to fight the primal urge to fling oneself into the raging maelstrom to blend with its compelling flow, to be lost in its energy. At least I thought I would throw in my sand shoes. I didn’t, but the thought was there! I thought recently ,that tornado hunters must experience the same rush of adrenalin I felt that day, being so close to something so compelling and untameable. We were fortunate to have seen the river when we did, because sometimes in drought times the Falls can be a mere trickle. At other times, flood times, the whole gorge is full and we were told that the water threatens buildings high up on the banks. That is an inconceivable volume of water considering the depths of that gorge. Huge tree trunks, positioned at odd angles high up on great boulders, bore witness to the truth of this. Through the night, we were aware of the restless boom of this mighty waterfall.
This was a never to be forgotten experience, one of many on this voyage of discovery. I agree with Tolkien when he wrote:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
The photographs in the next post were taken in 1997 during this trip, on an ancient non-digital camera. Forgive the quality.