Thursday, April 1, 2010

The road to Nieu Bethesda

So...picking up where we paused:

...having camped two nights, we headed out of the Karoo National Park, left the suicidal tortoises, the ablutions block kleptomaniac, the sunset zebras, the bombarding night insects and the last dry Karoo we were to see, our destination the farm of Doornberg, outside Nieu Bethesda, about 250km and change from Beaufort West (scene of the plate change).

My cousin Andrea had said, "You must stay with Peet van Heerden." Doornberg is the Van Heerden farm, and would be a one night stopover on our way to Lesotho, or KwaZulu Natal...or the Eastern Free State. We were not sure where we were headed next, except that we had a date in Lesotho on the 19th of February, and had to be there by then.

After interminable stops and starts on the R61 between Beaufort West and Aberdeen, where roadworks were in progress, we hit the N9, an artery between the coast and the interior, and sped towards Graaff Reinet. We didn't really speed - we were conserving diesel and were getting great mileage at a disciplined 100km/hour. At twice American prices, gas was our major expense (*see comments).

Near Aberdeen we started to see fields of white storks. Their other home is in Eastern Europe, where they drop babies down chimneys. I think.

As we drove, the Karoo became greener and greener.

For nostalgia's sake I drove through the streets of Graaff Reinet looking for the Drostdy Hotel (above and below). When I was little, our family would overnight here on the way from Bloemfontein to Plettenberg Bay for the long summer holidays. I remember twilit walks in the almost tropically warm air, the swimming pool across the road, the water milky with chlorine and a feeling of suppressed excitement, to be swimming in the near-dark...

My heart started to twitch around this part of the Karoo.

I had not seen this land since childhood, and then every year. Memories live in our muscles without us knowing they are still there, and when the remembered landscape reappears, the muscles contract and release, breathing again after an interval of suspense. It feels a lot like pain. It is joy, accompanied by the sorrow of a long separation, whose impact had been underestimated.

These straight roads, these tall summer grasses, these familiar hills.

We turned left in the middle of that plain, at Nieu Bethesda Road, crossed the train track, and drove towards the mountains on a dirt road whose ditches were rain-filled. This seemed momentous and we stopped the car many times to take more pictures, to see flowers. The soil of the road was spongy under our feet.

It is a summer rainfall region, but it is the Karoo. Dust, drought, survival. Yet the grass waved for miles and miles. The clean air was like a drink of clear water after a thirsty day.

Above, Euryops annae, a shrub that appeared more and more often beside the road.

Below, usually a tenacious, ubiquitous weed, this plant was in lush, minute flower. I have no name for it, even though (because?) it was everywhere, growing up.

And here, here is Antjie Krog's rooigras, red grass: Themeda triandra. I'll post her poem tomorrow. The grass of home.

I love the Cape. I love fynbos. But I remember the grasslands. For some reason grass moves me. Not lawn. Grass. This grass. I am looking at this grass and crying. Explain that.

Another bend in the high road, and Nieu Bethesda lay below us. We came here because I had always wanted to see it, because of Helen Martin, who drank caustic soda to end the pain of life, because of Athol Fugard, who wrote the play, because my cousin told me to stay with Peet van Heerden.

As we drove down the steep slope to the village a bakkie (pick up truck) came roaring out of it, driven by a white woman, alone in her cab. On the back, standing and holding on tightly, was a black man. I started paying attention to bakkies after this.

We were tired after a long drive, and drove through the beautiful little village with its wide, soft streets and tall, old trees, to the road that led to Doornberg, up into the hills again, always climbing.

Brunsvigia striata, candelabra flower, grew here and there, a sudden red flower skeleton in the grasslands.

And Aloe broomii, whose flowers never open all at once...

Below - we didn't know it yet, but on the Doornberg farmlands, behind those dark trees in the middle of the picture, was the little Vleihuisie we would later not want to leave.

It does not happen often, but sometimes you arrive in a place and feel that it is good. Not just beautiful, or peaceful, though obviously these are important, but good. Through and through. Like waking up in a soft bed and feeling sleepy, and saturated with serotonin, and having the luxury of being able to close your eyes again, and fall back asleep.

I would like to be there now.


  1. I feel like I am on this trip with you, including experiencing all the nostalgia you evoke. How can I be remembering a place I've never been to? I was bemoaning the absence of a map, then clicked on the link to Graaff Reinet, and voila! I was there.

  2. How beautifully and evocatively you write. This country is held in your heart, and we are privileged to share it through you.

  3. Marie !

    At the current exchange rate, gas (petrol) is only about 1,6 times more expensive than in the States. A litre is not a pint. So, you could have travelled at 120kph if you wished.

  4. Laurrie - Topeka maps, very helpful :-)

    Thank you, Rachel

    Guy!...*sigh* why do you only ever leave comments when you see something wrong here? A litre is a quart, je sais. I just did the sums again. You are right. Gas costs only twice as much in the SA. Incredibly, we should still have traveled at 100km an hour because, lacking a trust fund, we still only had $x to spend.

  5. I think waving grass is beautiful and heartening. Grass greening up is the first sign of renewal and spring. When it is long and waves at us by the slightest breeze, we can imagine (and find, if we look) all kind of creatures and bugs and other green stuff taking shelter there. Like memories in our heart.

  6. Grasslands, waving grass - you were born in open spaces and your aunt has theory about one's birth place. You love open spaces

  7. Here's a little poem I learnt as a child in SA and it has stayed with me since.

    African Grass

    by Shimmer Chinodya (Zimbabwe, b. 1957)

    Grass grows here, enough
    To thatch a thousand roofs.
    Tall khaki African grass
    Two heads taller than I, laden
    With beads of dew
    In the early morning. Shove armfuls aside
    To pass.

    Grass caressing my bare thighs
    Sweeping past me, rustling softly
    like lovers.

    Adam and Eve once walked here
    Naked and innocent in this wild savannah;
    When the world was young
    And there was no one else to watch.

    It’s hard to think that this tall crop
    Coarse in its maturity
    Burst out of October’s black burnt plains
    Green and succulent, and savouring the mellow sun
    Green to this height.
    But its harder yet to think
    That this crop will crumple
    To veld fire ashes;

    Fruitless growth!

    This whispering
    Shall be


  8. oh, one more thing! There is a book out in May you may be (or not) interested in:


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