Once, coming back home from a long trip overland, we stopped overnight at the Karoo National Park, near Beaufort West. It was mid-June, and early winter.
We had saved a bottle of Champagne for this night, our last on the road. In true SANParks style we bought a bag of ice at the park shop, found a metal basin in our kitchen for the bubbly, and put it to chill on our chalet's stoep.
We braaied in the giant fireplace that night and chatted with our neighbours who told us that the previous winter they had been snowed in here for a few days, before being dug out. We hoped (we did not want the trip to end), but in vain. No snow fell that night.
In the shivery morning a lion roared us awake.
We left the park on our last leg home, and said goodbye to the gemsbok.
The Karoo winters are dry.
We sipped thermos espresso and nibbled rusks a few hundred kilometers down the road.
And watched sheep.
The ewes were shorn in an interesting way.
And then it was more road. This is the N1, the black vein of tar that connects Cape Town to Johannesburg.
We slip easily back into a dangerous South African driving mode, pulling over at speed into the yellow median line when a faster car approaches from behind, to allow it to pass. Flashing our brights to say you're welcome, after they've blinked their emergency lights to say thank you. Cursing the cars who do not acknowledge the vehicular politeness. Often, this practise makes sense. Often it is a source of pressure and stress, especially when cresting a blind rise.
But in general the driving is a pleasure, and we take turns religiously; he drives one day, I the next, because we love it equally. And most of the roads are beautiful, by Northeastern US standards.
Cruising into the Hex River Valley, famous for its grape production, we were met by snowy mountains.
Autumn colours were rich in the vineyards and the verges were green with winter rain. The climate had changed.
There is great contrast in this farming valley. Workers live in very small cottages, and seasonal poverty hangs in the air.
The appearance of strappy-leafed geophytes in the few undisturbed road edges reminded me of spring in the Western Cape. Verges, in general, are the suprising last foothold for many species, which cling to life here even as they have been ploughed up and under in the planted lands.
Below, no idea. Anyone?
And my old friend, wild rosemary - Eriocephalus africanus. The herb not enough people know.
And then, past Worcester, through the mountains in the Huguenot Tunnel, past Paarl, onto the wide, wide freeway, we were home, and Table Mountain brought the old lump to the throat.
If you would like to know more about the Karoo, its people, traditions and food, I recommend - highly - Karoo Kitchen (Karoo Kombuis, in Afrikaans), by Sydda Essop, who grew up in Beaufort West. It is published by Quivertree. My friends Johan van Zyl and Peter van Noord edited the book.
I have cooked from Karoo Kitchen over the last year-plus, baking pies and poring over potbrood recipes. But three weeks ago I started reading at the beginning and went straight through. Essop has taken what amount to affidavits from a broad range of Karoo inhabitants, from every possible background. They are not editorialized, so one is not reading an opinion, but the words of the folk who live Karoo lives. Some of them are devastating in their simplicity. Many paint portraits of the invisible South Africans, the farm labourers, the shop workers, and all are connected by the common need to eat, revealing what is eaten, and what could never be eaten. It is a cookbook only in the sense that there are recipes. It's really the story of place, inside and out, illustrated by wonderful photography (a Quivertree trademark).