I don’t know why (though it probably was aided and abetted by the sampling of my uncle’s distinct and varied whiskey collection one fine evening…) but ever since I started planning my South African road trip, my paternal grandfather has been an early passenger. I was only five years old when Jacobus Hercules de Jager died. I barely knew him. However, hearing all the stories and tales by and about Grandpa Koos, I wish I’d known him better.
The journey of a 1000 km starts in my hometown of Pretoria in Gauteng with destination the beckoning red sand dunes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape. On the way I’m sure to cast a wandering and wondering eye towards a handful of nondescript and, weirdly enough, at the same time time infamous settlements.
Heading in a southwesterly direction on the N14 in my Daihatsu Terios and attached travel trailer, I feel I have someone along for the ride. Grandpa Koos has decided to make himself comfortable in the space between my ears since there isn’t much room anywhere else. Not that I mind, I have a ways to go and could use the company.
Just to give some perspective – my grandfather, born in 1898 and spending two years as a small child in a concentration camp during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) – was a no nonsense farmer, oblivious and frankly without a care for the ways of the world. He only spoke Afrikaans (similar to Dutch), with not much love for the British and their language, given the confinement in his early years.
I’m amused and entertained as the stories come tumbling out. There’s this gem from a visit to my parents in the early 70’s, when I was born in Hillbrow, Johannesburg (without one ounce of fear or reprisal I must add). Upon encountering a long-haired hippy in an elevator these actual words were uttered: “If this thing has puppies one day, I want a bitch”. (And of course he uttered them in Afrikaans…)
I take a breather from yesteryear as the kilometres accumulate and the place names flash by – Krugersdorp, Ventersdorp, Coligny – and I wonder what, if anything at all, I would have asked some of their most famous inhabitants if I had the chance to stop for a cup of coffee, or something stronger perhaps. Would I have told white supremacist Eugene Terreblance, the erstwhile leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (a far right wing Afrikaner organization) that I was on Church Square in Pretoria (8 March 1992) as a journalism student when he fell off his big black horse? Or what about former South African high jump queen Hestrie Cloete and her parents? Would they have opened their door for me, given the strained relationship between the athlete, her parents and the media alike?
Regardless, even if I wanted to drop in for a cuppa or a pint, I don’t have the option anymore. ET (as Eugene Terreblanche was ‘affectionately’ known) was murdered on his farm outside Ventersdorp on 3 April 2010 while Hestrie married a local artist (2005) and moved to New Zealand (2008). And she doesn’t accompany her husband on his return trips to South Africa when he performs at supermarkets and grocery stores and announces the daily specials at the same time.
I pass Sannieshof, Delareyville and Vryburg on my way to Kuruman, my overnight stop that will leave me just a couple of hours to go to my final destination tomorrow. As these settlements come and go in the rearview mirror, I can’t help but to start echoing The Boss, given my train of thought…
On through the houses of the dead, past those fallen in their tracks
Always moving ahead and never looking back
Now I don’t know how I feel, I don’t know how I feel tonight
If I’ve fallen ‘neath the wheel, if I’ve lost or I’ve gained sight
I don’t even know why, I don’t know why I made this call
Or if any of this matters anymore after all
But the stars are burning bright like some mystery uncovered…
I decide not to go through the trouble of unhooking my caravan for just one night, so opt for a comfortable stay in a B&B in Kuruman. First something to eat though, it’s been a long road and there wasn’t time for breakfast this morning. The door is locked, but the window is rolled down as I take in the small town smells and sounds.
Suddenly there’s a hand through the opening, immediately reaching for the door lever and then a voice commands: “We are taking your car!” The door is yanked open and I’m grabbed by the arm. I panic, at first not knowing what is happening. Then I’m pleading “Please, please, please don’t!” I manage to close the door, find the automatic buttons for closing the window and locking the door. At first I stall my car when trying to pull away, then I’m off. Nobody stops to help.
Not in Pretoria, not in Johannesburg, not in Cape Town but in Kuruman of all places, not a metropolis but a mere speck of a mining town on a map, an attempted hijacking! I’m still shaking and through lack of something double strong and alcoholic, I order a triple crunch mac-thingy with chips and an extra large, double thick, super sweet shake. Lesson learned – be vigilant at all times, even in a town with only one traffic light in the main road.
Indeed no rest for the wicked, or the weary I realise as the first signs of another scorcher arrives with the sounds of a new day. A quick check on fuel, tyre and most important of all coffee levels, before I depart on the last stretch of an almost thousand kilometre journey. It is a road of two sides; untouched and unspoilt vs. unearthed and upended.
Then the red dunes of the Kalahari start to appear. 30, 20, 10 km: “Welcome to the Kgalagdi Transfrontier Park. Enjoy your stay!”
There is sand e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e and very little water. It’s the Kalahari. There’s supposed to be a gazillion red particles in this part of the Northern Cape and a far below average rainfall; it’s part of the very fibre of life around here. After all, as long as something “goes bump in the night”, it can also go “crunch when you bite”…
Arriving at Twee Rivieren rest camp, I drive into the camping site, trying to determine where will be the best spot to unhook Gypsy Girl (yes, I named the travel trailer). I go around the big circle once, return to a shady patch that caught my eye the first time and then promptly get stuck. Again, there’s supposed to be sand, heaps of it, but the camping site has a hard substrate with just a thin layer of loose sand on top. Then I manage to become immovable on the only big patch of loose sand in the entire site. I am not a damsel in distress for very long though as two members of the male variety come to my rescue and within no time I’m set-up (apparently a record according to the elderly gentleman…) and enjoying a nice cold one.
I’m eager to explore and discover the wonders of the Kgalagadi and the alarm is set for 05:30 tomorrow morning as the camp gate opens at 06:00. No need for electronic means to wake up though as the anticipation of covering new ground (literally…) has me up and out even before the natural inhabitants. The wind also manages to whip up a traditional Kalahari welcome with a certain kind of comfort.
Then I venture out for my first ever drive among the famed Kgalagadi dunes. I recall reading that according to Bushman legend that once you feel the red Kalahari sand between your toes, you will always return. Add to this the sights, sounds and smells of this natural wonder, my heart fills with contentment and I know it to be true.
But before I know it, it’s over.
The day before yesterday the Kalahari greeted me with a billowing red dune sand storm. Now, barely 48 hours later, it is saying goodbye with precious precipitation from the rolling clouds above.
My heart is aching, I don’t want to leave. This place has done something to me and I want to stay, for as long as I can. But I can’t, I have to turn around and go home. There is no onward journey to the banks of the Orange River and the Richtersveld, no detours off the beaten track, no sunrises and sunsets in newly discovered places. Maybe later, but not now.
The thing is, I got a call from home, that dreaded call that nobody ever wants to get – Dad, Grandpa Koos’s second oldest son, is in hospital, he has had a stroke. My heart sinks to the bottom of my stomach. No, it isn’t possible! Barely a couple of weeks ago we all celebrated my sister’s 40th birthday together as a family and he was fine. Yes, he wasn’t born yesterday and has had his bout with illness, but this, why, and why now?
I am more than a 1000km away, in a peaceful paradise, yet inside me there is turmoil. My family urges me to get a good night’s rest (if that will be possible…) and embark on the homebound drive not in haste and with a clear mind. I slowly rise from the camping chair and start packing up, while at the same time steeling glances at the lit fires around the camping site, people laughing and having a good time.
I wake to the sound of the Namaqua doves and sociable weavers in the tree next to Gypsy Girl. After some help from a friendly fellow camper, she’s safely secured to the back of my vehicle and I head in the direction of the Twee Rivieren gate. My exit permit gets stamped and the boom gate lifts. I drive through and within seconds I’m on asphalt again.
My mind starts to drift forward a thousand kilometres. I hope Grandpa Koos joins for part of the journey, I’m going to need his stories. My other faithful fellow traveler is already here, thank you Mr Springsteen.
I switch on the radio…
Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams