Home sweet home. Day 15: Ceres to Somerset-West

The Cederberg morning is fresh and open and after a good night’s rest the road back seems less daunting. Just before Ceres we see a rainbow perfectly arched over the road. It seems a fitting end to a wonderful trip.   The rain starts again as we pass Paarl but the prospect of milktart and hot tea waiting in Somerset-West spurs us on.

Our Kalahari adventure has ended but we have the good fortune of returning to Amma’s (my children’s grandmother & my mom) house where the warmest of welcomes always awaits us.

The next four days will be a mix of cleaning and packing away the camping katunda so that it is ready for our next trip and spending family time together before we return to London.

Thank-you for joining me on our wonderful adventure and I hope to share more stories with you very soon.

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The road to hell is a beautiful one. Day 14: Augrabies to Op die Berg (Kagga Kamma)

We’re stuck in a stationary queue of traffic, the third set of roadworks since Brandvlei, but this time it isn’t moving.

We’ve been sitting here for the past twenty minutes watching the cars back up behind us further and further up the hill. My bladder is bursting after ten hours of driving and only a very brief toilet stop earlier. I have no option but to squat in the little gap between the trailer and the Landcruiser, a vain attempt at modesty since the car behind us is a pantechnicon truck affording the driver a bird’s eye view. Nothing he hasn’t seen before, I figure.

Ten minutes later, hubby runs out of patience and we decide to turn back in favour of a dirt road which apparently runs alongside the one we’re on, up in the mountains. Reversing a 4 x 4 trailer and doing a three-point turn hemmed in by lorries and impatient drivers doesn’t really appeal to me, especially as in the absence of anything else to do, we will be the main sideshow! So, we do it together. Hubby takes the wheel from the passenger seat and I manage the gears, clutch and accelerator. Reversing a trailer of this size is totally counter-intuitive and the chances of me ‘jack-knifing’ it are pretty high… at least this way I will be sharing the responsibility. Much to my surprise, we do the thirty-point (three was ambitious!) in no time at all and hit the open road again.

The track hubby has found is a good road, recently scraped, and we make good progress through beautiful citrus groves, the Clanwilliam dam on our right. The sun is dropping towards the horizon, setting the oranges, naartjies and lemons alight against the tawny sky. It’s a living David Hockney painting.

And then as dusk gives way to night, the bucolic scene disappears and we hit the Middleburg Pass – a steep incredibly narrow gravel road cut into the side of the mountain which pushes up and up and up into the black – the mountain on one side and a sheer drop into the void on the other side. The Landcruiser seems to be groaning as it pulls the trailer and its cargo up the pass. My stomach is knotted tight as I play the gears between first and second to creep up the mountain and keep the car on the road through the tight hairpin bends. The trailer has no brakes and I know that if I misjudge a bend by taking it either too fast or too slow, it could pull us over the edge. Every now and again, I crunch the gears and I can hear hubby’s sharp intake of breath. He is holding on to the dashboard with both hands, the children are completely silent; probably praying I think somewhat wryly.

An hour later or so we reach a plateau, or is it? I relax a little and ask everyone to look out for signs to Kagga Kamma. The lodge is in the heart of the Cederberg Reserve. We opted for it for the treat of overnighting in cave rooms, carved out of the mountainside; a last hooray for the children.

But just as I start to allow my mind to dwell on a glass of ice-cold white wine, we cross a single lane bridge over the Riet River and I see another sign. Katbakkies Pass (cat’s cheeks ). And the mist is coming in. It feels like doomsday has come. I cannot believe that I have to traverse another cliffside in the dark.

The pass traces over what was once an old sheep-trekking route and joins the Koue Bokkeveld with the Ceres Karoo. I have been told that the pass is frequently covered in snow in the colder months. That’s all I need! The road immediately starts climbing up the foothill of the mountain hulking ahead. After about a kilometer it veers sharply right into a very stiff climb, the gradient at least 1:5. I can feel the power drain from the engine as we climb. An elevation gain of almost 300m makes it one of the steepest passes in South Africa. I can see no further than the reach of my headlights which are being sucked into the fog.

No one says a word, it’s deathly quiet in the car, the only sound the chug-chug of the engine up the incline and the odd grind of the gears as I ram the beast back into first for more control. Suddenly out of the silence comes a deadpan voice: ‘This is the road to hell.’ Big brother has spoken.

The pass is just less than 3.5km long but when we reach the top, I feel as though I have just finished a marathon session of Spintires. It’s almost 7pm and we have been on the road since 6am. We pass the a sign saying that Kagga Kamma is 15km away, and then we pass it again and I feel like I’m in In the darkness and cold of the Long Night. The sandstone rock formations lunge out of the dark and mist at us, like White Walkers.

In that darkness the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.

Old Nan[src]

Not long after, I finally feel the gravel change to sand and the lights of the Lodge draw us in. The relief in the car is palpable.

The few guests left in the bar when I collect our keys are wide-eyed to see someone arriving so late. ‘Hey lady, did you just do Katbakkies in the dark?’ a burly South African, beer in hand, asks.

‘Oh yes siree, I sure did!’  I am a hero for a nano-second and it feels good.

 

Rocks and Flowers. Days 13: Augrabies last day

‘When I die, I want to start all over again,’ my seven-year old says, ‘life is awesome.’

We are walking back from the Augrabies Falls viewing deck. The sun is sneaking down towards the horizon, slipping behind clouds plump with rain to throw long shadows and golden flares onto the rocks. Even though this is practically the only ‘alone time’ I have had with my two youngest all day, it’s precious and near perfect. They gambol across the rocks, one singing the anthem from the Lion King at the top of his voice and the other ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from Wizard of Oz. I field a million questions as we walk (knowing the answers to surprisingly few, must read more or invest in a few ‘bluffers’ guides) and wish that the boardwalk would go on forever.

 It’s been a long, pretty hard day. Up at 6am to leave for Kakamas Hospital by 6h30am. The x-rays are fairly quick but we wait for hours to see a doctor. We sit next to a tall Nama woman wearing a long white broderie anglaise skirt and a brown faux leather patchwork coat. She is reed thin with the kind of face that tells a million stories, her bearing regal, her eyes sad. She has placed an orange next to her on the wooden bench; clearly having anticipated the long wait. A lady with an orange and legends in her long fingers.

Endless packing when we get back. Hubby directs, leg propped up on a pillow the doctor now having confirmed a fracture and three weeks in plaster. Big brother lugs bags on to the roofrack and trailer. The little ones make a chain to help pack the smaller things but soon get bored. Feeding the masses. Washing up, more washing up, and then washing up again. Last bits and pieces, and then of course the very last bits and pieces that somehow manage to turn up once everything is stuffed in and locked up. Everyone helps but I still drop into bed at 9pm tired and a bit ratty. On the plus side the car is packed and the sandwiches are made and we’re in good shape for an early morning getaway.

Outside thunder rolls in towards camp and every now and again a flash of lightning flashes through the venetian blinds covering the narrow windows. I fall asleep as the first fat drops clatter on to the roof, the noise and restlessness of the coming storm familiar and soothing.

On the river & the return of King Kong. Day 12: Augrabies National Park

My husband has broken his foot. Thankfully this is atypical of an otherwise fantastic day spent on the Orange River, courtesy of Kalahari Adventures and an enthusiastic family.

Everyone is up, daypacks packed and ready for adventure by 7h30am and on the river an hour later. It would be disingenuousof me to suggest that I am not a little nervous about hurtling down the rapids with a four year old and a seven year old. The reality is that this is just the start. I know in my bones that we’ll be doing far more ‘activity and adventure’ type holidays in the future as the boys get bigger, so I may as well just accept it and get on with it.

Despite the rather scary safety briefing and the rather small-looking rafts, once we’re on the water, I find myself rather enjoying it . Hubby and I have the obligatory “left isn’t left it’s right” fractious conversation, before we manage to settle into a passable paddling rhythm. Admittedly, hubby does shout directions from the back but the point is that the boat is going forward (most of the time) and I’m not too worried about it when it doesn’t.

My youngest and middle son are in boats with the pro guides and big sis and big brother are sharing a raft and healthy arguments upstream. The first weir is gentle and just enough to let my stomach flip a bit. The guides have promised me mostly flat water with just a few eddies, bubbles and a little white water while the boys are on the river. The plan is for us to leave at lunchtime so that the bigger ones can get on with the adrenalin rush.

Laughter, sunshine and exercise – the best combination!

After lunch on a sandy island in the middle of the river, we leave big sis, big brother and hubby on the river for the’real’ white water and head back to camp for a quietish afternoon. The boys and I are disappointed that we have to cancel our planned rock climbing afternoon as a horrible wind is throwing dust around like a two-year old having a tantrum.

In our chalet I am talking to the boys to figure out a new plan for the afternoon when I have this weird sense that there is something behind me. When I turn round, I see King Kong sitting on the worktop stuffing his face with dried penne pasta straight from the packet. He is not happy to see me and I am even less charmed by his presence.

I send the boys to their room and tell them not to come out until I call them. They scurry off and it’s King Kong and me, eyeball to eyeball. We’ve been told by the rangers to watch out for him as he is pretty aggressive and apparently particularly delights in intimidating women and children.

A baboon in my kitchen is one thing, a chauvinistic one is a totally different thing! Once again I do my best impression of a thunderously mad baboon (albeit female) and stomp towards him but all he does is grab an unopened packet of my beloved muesli rusks and proceed to chew his way through the contents, scattering chunks of it and half-eaten pasta everywhere. Now I’m cross. I grab a chair for cover and stomp it towards him, growling and grimacing. Finally it seems he realizes that I mean business and hops off the counter to walk crab-like towards the door to the outside (I am relieved that the boys are staying put).

But then we both realise more or less at the same time that the door has blown shut in the wind. King Kong is trapped and that is so not a good thing! I have to urge him away from the door but this is also in the direction of the boys’ room , and he is looking highly agitated, so I’m feeling a little nervous. A cornered wild animal, no matter how habituated, is no-one’s playmate. I take a different tack and lob an earlier discarded rusk to the side of the baboon. He shows some short-lived interest in the food, but its enough time for me to swing the door open. I back off to give him some breathing space and hope that he will do the gentlemanly thing, admit defeat and exit. But no such luck, he is annoyed and pushes towards me baring his teeth….canines that are so much longer than I would have imagined a baboon to have. I stand my ground (I know I have limited time before the boys’ curiosity forces them out of their room and the unpredictability of two young boys and a menopausal male baboon strikes me as a particularly bad combination). He gives me one last challenging stare and then walks out, very slowly, more rusks tucked under one arm and two oranges under the other.

The boys charge out of their room as they hear King Kong exit, babbling excitedly. I am officially a superhero! We opt for a dip in the pool (that’s the Victorian we obviously) and it’s not long before the others are back from their river adventures.

And just then my day seems to start all over again….

… the wild water trio return and big bother is supporting hobbling hubby. He can barely walk. The children tell me that he jumped onto a submerged rock in the river (don’t ask!).  I drive him 40km back to Kakamas to find a doctor on a Sunday afternoon in one of the sleepiest towns of the Northern Cape. As is the way in this part of the world, we find a fantastic GP who gets up from his Sunday afternoon nap to pop on a plastercast, and magic up some brand new crutches and a handsome stash of painkillers.

X- rays at the hospital tomorrow but for now, we drive home into the sunset.  I find myself counting the palm trees and life is OK.

 

One small step for King Kong. Day 11: Augrabies

We have made a slowish start to the day and so decide to drive to Moon Rock and walk from there. The last time I climbed the dome-shaped rock was with my mom on her birthday. Somehow we managed to get lost and I wonder now as I look over the vast rash of red rocks how we ever managed to get back to the rest camp all those years ago.

It’s a strange and different world out there and I still can’t shake my sense of unease. I think a storm is coming, After a reasonable little hike we driver to the Ararat viewpoint and then head back.

A large insouciant male baboon is strutting through camp this afternoon, terrorizing the womenfolk. I hear someone screech and swear as he runs out of a chalet nearby clutching a Tupperware container under his arm. Doors slam further on when fellow guests glimpse him coming. It’s not long before he is at our chalet rifling through the bin outside. I shoo him away with my best impression of gruff-like baboon speak and fully expect him to go as I have seen so many baboons run off before. But not this one, he fixes me with a hard stare and vaults up on to the verandah wall looking unfriendly at best, menacing at worst. I take a decisive step towards him grunting all Tarzan-like (this strategy has worked very well for me in the past I might add) but he lunges off the wall in my direction, clearly intent on zipping through the open door behind me. I lose no time in stepping back rather smartly and putting the glass door between us and am amazed to see him come right up to the door so that his breath fogs the glass. I take a photo to show the children, who have gone to the swimming pool, but am relieved when he takes off having realised that there is no loot to be had here. Well not today anyway.

He doesn’t give up though. An hour later I hear the ladies next door scream as he thuds into their kitchen looking for grub. He may just have met his match though because minutes later, the baboon exits the chalet (full plastic bag in hand) ahead of said lady number one brandishing a stick and swearing at the thief, demanding that he return with the stolen goods. She careers after him continuing her non-negotional stance but he’s long gone. My daughter tells me later that she sees both ladies comb the underbrush for said culprit, to no avail. 

Our day ends round the campfire with a pinprick on-velvet star canopy.

At bedtime, my four-year old says he wishes the universe were a playground. And I tell him that it can be.

Memories. Day 10: Augrabies National Park

Leaving the Kgalagadi leaves one feeling strangely bereft. For a place with seemingly such a huge expanse of nothingness, it seems to fill each part of you so that without it, you feel empty.

Aside from the natural wonder of the place, being forced to be without technology has been both liberating and restful for me. I resolve to try and be less of a slave to it all. I resolve this and a few other things. The Kalahari has a way of wanting one to be the best version of yourself that you can be. Perhaps it is because it and its people are satisfied with so little and yet have so much.

We make good time to Upington and decide to continue on to the Augrabies National Park rather than to overnight . The landscape changes quickly. The white sand and arid scrub of Twee Rivieren is soon replaced with vineyards on either side of the road which peter out as we near Kakamas back to gravel and dust. Augrabies turns out to be much closer than we think and by 6pm we are standing at the main viewpoint overlooking the gorge and the magnificent falls. The children are awed – the place of great noise delivers!

I am rollercoasting through a whole range of emotions. The last time I was here was with my mom and dad when I was a child. I have a very bad memory in the classic sense of the word, in that dates and places often elude me. So, without checking in with my mom I am unlikely to be able to tell you exactly how old I was when I was last here or how long we stayed for but I do remember feelings with a sharply drawn clarity most of the time.

Being here without my father now all these years later, is suddenly almost crippling. I have heard people say that one gets over losing someone but this is not my experience of loss. Losing my father left a massive gaping hole in my life and all I have managed to do is live with and around that hole, but it’s there and I imagine it will always be. The ‘living around and with it’ can be done happily most of the time but his absence is very much a presence in my life, particularly now that I have children.

The challenge for me is to try and let my Dad be a real part of my children’s lives even though he isn’t physically here anymore. So, as we stand on the viewing platform together I tell them how he used to hold the back of my mom’s neck, so scared that she may fall. I tell them that he knew the all the names of the different types of rocks around us and we talk about the dreamer that he was.

The place has changed so much since I was here last, the few simple huts have been replaced by basic, but rather nice, chalets. The reception area is a smart building with a welcoming little restaurant, aptly called The Quiver Tree. Since we’ve arrived late, we elect to’ eat ‘out’ tonight. My eldest honours his grandfather (a gastronomically adventurous man) by eating garlic snails for the first time. My Dad would have been delighted.

The children are all tired after the long drive today and so bedtime becomes a rather  harried, fraught affair. I collapse into bed soon after, leaving any unpacking for the morning; more at home in chaos than ever before.

I do feel emotionally unsettled though and even though Augrabies is starkly beautiful by anyone’s standards, it all feels too civilized for me, and I wish I were back in the Kalahari.

Soulfood. Days 8 & 9: Xaus Lodge

This I am lord of the Desert Land,

And I will not leave my bounds,

To crouch beneath the Christian’s hand,

And kennel with his hounds.

– from Thomas Pringle’s Ephemerides

Oupa Kalahari, also known as Oom Sakkie (Isak), tells stories in the old tradition – a slow lyrical meander of words which gently draws you through the tale. His hands wrap his words in the air and he gently passes them to you, almost through you, without you even realizing that you have hold of them.  We are listening to this bushman elder speak in a small recreation of a Bushman village just below Xaus (pronounced ‘Kaus’) Lodge.

It’s a complex thing this; how to preserve the Bushman way of life without compromising their very existence by getting stuck in the past. The team at Xaus Lodge have tried various approaches, some have failed outright and others are proving marginally successful at bridging the gap between the old and new ways. Lodge manager Richard Ilett tells me they are now pinning their hopes on helping young Bushmen to train as safari guides in the hope that job creation in the home environment will encourage them to stay and to re-engage in Bushman family life and culture. It’s a subject for another blog or piece of writing, I think, but one I will return to in some way or another. Richard’s enthusiasm and commitment to the people is encouraging. I have seen similar projects thrive with the Masaai in Tanzania and Kenya, and so I am optimistic.

I wish I had a day, no a week, to spend with Oom Sakkie , just listening at his feet, like a disciple. Here is a man on a salt pan in the middle of nowhere that has so much to tell us and teach us, with his liquid amber eyes and old wizened face.

We are in the land of the Khomani San and the Mier people where water is treated like gold and the horizon encircles us. Built on Dune 92, the lodge – a row of twelve chalets connected by wooden walkways which blend in seamlessly with the landscape – overlooks a giant salt pan. The welcome letter on our bed cites the The Kalahari as an open, honest world, which readily shares its riches with whoever seeks with an open heart.

According to the lodge managers, the Khomani San and Mier communities reached an historic land settlement agreement with the government of South Africa and SANParks in May 2002, which restored a large tract of land to the communities that had once roamed or farmed this area. The agreement saw the transfer of ownership of 50 000 hectares of land from SANParks, to the two communities who then leased the given land back to SANParks.

Lovely food, sunset drives, night drives and dune walks are all on the agenda but it’s the moments in between that I really value.

The pause,

the sucking of air into the lungs ,

the burning of the stars

and the silence as it hums in your ears.

I hope my children’s hearts are flung open to these gifts and that their racing minds are able to quieten a little. Certainly I feel humbled, even silenced and so, I think I’ll write more on another day.