Frost on the Landcruiser's spare wheel
Cape Town to Kruger Roadtrip, Day 2:
We stayed overnight at The City Lodge, a commuter-type hotel in Bloemfontein on the busy and noisy Nelson Mandela Boulevard. We arrived in the early evening after a day on the road, the city where I was born obscured by darkness and tightened by a dry chill in the air quite different from Cape Town's grey dampness. New people, new accents, the bar and dining area filled with a very mixed-race crowd: white and black businesspeople spread evenly, SeSotho and Afrikaans spoken interchangeably - something I would never have seen during my childhood, when races were rigidly separated, and when there was no such thing as a black businessperson.
We breakfasted there the next morning, when the evening's cocktail area was transformed to a morning room, with a buffet spread of fruit - all from cans: pears, guava, peaches, and where we were offered stiff eggs, either scrambled or fried to a crisp, with limp bacon and tired sausages. We were unable to fire up our own espresso maker, for real coffee, which was just as well, because we discovered the next morning that we had left this precious possession in Cape Town.
We drove out of the city early, warming the Landcruiser's engine for a few minutes, first; there was frost on the cars' windscreens and a parking attendant for the hotel went to each one, pouring steaming water over the rimed glass. It seemed a quaint gesture. For South Africa this was serious cold, one or two degrees below freezing.
We eased to our cruising speed of 120km per hour, passing the new suburbs unrecognizable to me, and heading north, further than I had traveled since early childhood. The white grasses and tree-dotted koppies of the winter Free State gave way to flatter fields of parched sunflowers and bleached, shorn corn, and after crossing the broad brown Vaal River we entered Gauteng, the province that contains Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria.
The lands on either side of the impeccable freeway were now often blackened by fire, an increasing haze on the horizon spelled massive industry and population. Chimney stacks appeared, leaking smoke, and the brush fires were now sometimes beside the freeway itself, blue smoke blowing the smell of burned veld through the car. Traffic increased, trucks small and large burping black oil smoke became common. Road signs warned of "Hazardous Objects", miles and miles of poverty-stricken accommodation, small square houses in blasted front yards, plastic bags in fences.
The landscape seemed stunned, something from Cormac McCarthy's The Road or J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, post apocalyptic in the sense that The End had been and gone and had been ignored because no one had time to notice.
On the edges of Johannesburg the freeway lanes bloomed into a traffic whose movement and intensity resembled the working of a vast ant empire, every vehicle determined and loaded with goods, no slack given or tolerated, massive mining containers bearing landfill for dumps on the edges of the sprawl roaring beside tiny trucks overbalanced with refrigerators and personal belongings, our CA-registered 4 x 4 foreign in this swarm of goal-driven GP (Gauteng Province) license plates. We were rare holidaymakers in the working heart of the country, the place that pumps money, without which South Africa's economy would come to a standstill. Traffic police in sleek BMW's attended rare accidents and kept the traffic moving with an efficiency I have never seen in America.
The smoke and the dust lasted for hours more, and eventually we pulled over to refuel at a remarkable gas station that resembled an air traffic control tower. Alzu's parking lot was filled with cars and trucks, their occupants gazing at the rest stop's incongruous collection of actual buffalo, de-horned rhinos and occasional hippopotamus. The bathrooms inside were made of polished concrete and floor to ceiling glass beside the animals, and filled with plush, fresh cut flowers. Outside, a guard in a bullet proof vest and armed with a pump action, sawn off shotgun presided over the carpark.
"We don't have anything like this in Cape Town," I told the guy pumping our gas.
"I hear it is more safe, but that the wind blows there," he replied.
We crossed into Mpumalanga, and arrived in Dullstroom one hour beyond the smoke, into rising and falling hills coated with tall dry grasses and peppered with evergreen trees. In the small town we collected keys for our rental cottage, a house so large it could have contained ten of us with ease, all with bathrooms en suite, for $70. It was beside a small cold lake, stocked with trout. Vince immediately changed and ran up the hill on its other side. I sat in a chair and sipped a gin and tonic, trying not to scratch my eyes out (smoke and contact lenses don't mix well) and watched a man cast for trout. Then I pulled myself together and drove back into town and to buy four small fresh trout to panfry for supper.
We slept in utter silence and perfect darkness in a deep, cold night. We were at high elevation, and in a different country.
The Roadtrip so Far:
Day 1 - Cape Town to Bloemfontein