Sunday, May 16, 2010

Golden Gate and Glen Reenen rest camp

The morning after the night before...the remains of our evening's camp kitchen in streaming green sunlight under the old willows of Glen Reenen rest camp.

We had driven ten hours the previous day from Nieu Bethesda in the Great Karoo, had arrived late, and slept like logs.

We stayed three nights at Glen Reenen, in Golden Gate National Park, but we left this first morning to drive across the border into Lesotho, where we spent the night, returning the next day. I'll write a separate post for the short Lesotho jaunt.

The first thing I did in the morning was walk barefoot across the little stream that flows through the rest camp, to look at the stunning flowers growing on its banks. Hesperantha coccinea.

Because I took so many flower pictures here and in Lesotho, I will devote a separate post to them, too [read it here]. I still have to hit the books for some of the grassland orchids which I do not know. So that is (almost) the last flower you will see here.

Back across the clear stream and Vincent had coffee and rusks ready. Just about the best part of any day.

We sat in our camp chairs, leaned back, and looked at our view. Two Piet-my-Vrous were dueling like banjos.

I took our breakfast and dinner things in the plastic basin to the scullery area at the ablutions block to wash up, and met this lady, who was cleaning. Ke a leboha, I said, thanking her in my ancient, school child seSotho. She seemed bemused.

I don't know if it's customary for campers to tip attendants; it would seem not, judging by her reaction. But this place was so clean it seemed surgical.

Then it was time to pack. Dismantle kitchen, fold up the tent, deflate the mattress. Vince was deeply tempted to leave them there in our absence, so we could return the next day to a full set up, after Lesotho. We had nice neighbours, three male birders with three little tents, and couple of Frenchies in a Land Rover, but it was too much to risk.

Then he had to hide our wine.

My dad had called us to warn us that taking wine into Lesotho was illegal and that it would be confiscated. We still had the best of a case that he had packed for us (we drink more slowly than he seems to think!), and didn't want to lose anything, so did as he suggested. Hid them in a bush. We would retrieve them the next day.

And then it was off to Maliba Lodge (Vince's post) in the newly-formed Tsehlanyane National Park in north eastern Lesotho.

Fast forward a night and morning.

And we're back!

This is the R712, which we picked up at Clarens, about 20kms from the park. It is a stunning drive. Disquietingly, we saw many billboards advertising high end housing developments in what used to be farmland. The end is nigh.

Clarens itself is a trip. As bombed-out and post-apocalyptic as Ladybrand had looked, Clarens reminded me of nothing so much as the Hamptons in season. Almost as bad, in an entirely different way. It was packed with people having lunch at outdoor cafes and patios when we drove through looking for an Internet cafe. Many galleries, watering holes, a grassy square, the well-heeled. The streets were lined with parked BMW's, Mercs, Range Rovers, Jaguars. Their plates and their glittery occupants all hailed from Gauteng, the province up north encircling Johannesburg and Pretoria, that Capetonians love to hate.

In the tiny place (which also sold wall to wall carpets) where one computer served as a hub for all who needed it, I eavesdropped on a tattooing operation going on in the back of the same shop.

, he's in prison. But it's not bad there. He asked for it, he should never have donnered the guy like that and then left him

I snuck a glance. A young white guy had his arm extended. His brother sat on a table next to him, watching. A girl tattooed the extended arm. I looked at the guy's shirtless back, pale where the sun never shone. Three round scars marked the left side. I looked. Bullet holes. I can't tell entry from exit, but between his front and his back were a lung and his heart. I longed to know more. But our time was up. We paid our R10 to the friendly black guy who'd set us up and left.

We found a butcher and bought, you guessed it, lamb chops. Vince stood on the brakes at a place where a sign read Fresh Boerewors Rolls. We sat down. Ag, we've just run out, man, said the nice young guy. But come back at four for the game and we'll make more! We left hungrily, but he fully expected us to be back. No one misses a rugby game in Clarence.

...what makes Golden Gate, golden.

Back at Glen Reenen we found a new camp stand at the western end of the camp site, much more secluded than our previous one. I was surprised by how many campers flocked to the middle of the site, to squat on top of one another in garrulous tent villages. Down here we only had two distant neighbours.

After unpacking, and collecting our (warm) wine from the bush, we went for a drive into the park. There are no predators here, and one is allowed to leave the car. Black wildebeest, eland, Burchell's zebra, oribi, springbok, and more famously, the lammergeier (bearded vulture).

The real reason to be here is the landscape.

We knew that this area had experienced massive rains, but to see it translated into this lush grassland was breathtaking.

A 'vlap' (Guy, are you reading this?): the long-tailed birds of my childhood.

These are the Maluti Mountains, and this edge of the Free State skirts their range which dominates the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Below left you can see game trails coming to the water.

When I stood here, in this grass, below, I was happy in a way that is hard to categorize. I was home. I didn't ever really want to leave. I felt as though I had never left.

Themeda triandra: rooigrass, red grass.

Back to our new home. Our camp stands cost R135 ($18) a night after we downgraded from those with power (R145). To access the power one needed a special adaptor which cost as much in the camp shop as the site did for the night.

Made a fire, drank our G&T's while the coals formed. Nobody uses liquid lighter here. It's paper, wood, and charcoal. We lit our Tabard candles as usual to deter mosquitoes, but we weren't bothered by insects north of the Karoo. Lamb chops with rosemary, salad of avocado and iceberg lettuce.

A long, good sleep.

We had to be up early to ride horses into the mountains.

We had booked a ride at reception and I done my best to find out what sort of level of rider they accepted. Most horses exposed to countless bad or non-riders will be awful to ride. Unresponsive, stubborn, they just want to get it over with. And after seeing who and what they put on horseback I really don't blame them.

The scenery was spectacular. But our four fellow riders were a joke. A fat Gautenger wearing gold chains, with his plump wife and two rounded daughters wearing little heel-less shiny pumps on their feet. I nearly cried.

Our guide, John led the way up a series of switchbacks.

At the top, after the worst of the climb was over, Daughter #1 had a tantrum, couldn't go on, too scary. Said we must all go back. Earlier, at a walk, on the flat, she contrived to fall off. Her mother laughed and said she had a hangover.


The parents said that poor John must sort this out. So the guide at the back had to tether her to his horse and on we went.

At this point I threw myself off my steed and snapped this orchid picture: Habenaria caffra.

We rode for a couple of hours in some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. On a grassy flank of the mountain we saw a herd of eland, the largest antelope in the world, moving through grass up to their bellies. I would go back in a heartbeat. And pay double to go alone. Or triple.

Vince swapped horses with me, sacrificing his lively one for my dolt who would only walk with his face in the leading horse's butt, resulting in many well-aimed kicks at my knee caps.

Back at the stables the horses were turned loose to join their friends in a large herd. They had a good life, apart from the people they had to carry.

We went back to camp, walked up below the Brandwag rock to look for flowers, and found many.

..and returned to catch up with some laundry, and to de-horse our clothes.

Time to chill. To bitch about Gautengers, remember horses past, cowboy dreams ('cowboy' was my first career choice), to love being there, to start another fire.

To make bread dough for potbrood, bake the bread in the dying coals for breakfast next morning, when we must leave early for our trans-Lesotho trek to the Sani Pass, back into South Africa, into KwaZulu-Natal.

What a day that would be.

We watched the stars, and watching, saw two big, bright globes streaking across the sky, one following the other, coming from behind and disappearing over the black cliffs ahead of us. The space station and the shuttle. Small humans watching the night.

Pic: Vincent Mounier

Early next morning, potbrood with butter and my mother's apricot jam. Coffee.


Ready to go. Lesotho-bound.

The trip so far:

Day 1 - Cape Town to the Karoo National Park
Day 1 - Tortoises
Day 2 - Karoo National Park
Day 2 - Traffic Cops in Beaufort West
Day 2 - Coffee and a Rusk
Day 3 - Karoo National Park to Nieu Bethesda
Day 4 - Doornberg, the farm
Day 4 - Nieu Bethesda: owls and fight
Day 4 - Sneeuberg deli and Two goats brewery
Day 4 - Flowers on Doornberg

Day 5 - The R26 to Golden Gate


  1. Wow. What a trip, I was wishing I could smell the country as I was reading about and looking at it. How does it smell?

    This is why I get up early and alone on Sundays. To have a moment like this.

  2. Ja, Marie, dis 'n Langstertflap. Or in English, a Long-tailed Widowbird.

    It is a wonder that these birds are able to fly with their ultra long tails.

  3. My sister is coming to visit this summer and she rides often. I've been thinking about booking a ride with her at a local stable, but now I fear my lack of skill will queer the outing! You have left me craving potbrood and apricot jam.

  4. Flashbacks, many of them. Of sandstone in the afternoon sunlight, frozen vleis in the morning. The smell of grass, the gnarled ouhout. Evening fires, the air crisp with faraway snow.

    And the flap brings back trips across the Highveld, with Newman's Birds on my lap. The tail make it so recognisable, you can safely identify it at 120km/h.


  5. The combination of pictures and story really makes me feel like I am there. Thanks.

  6. I would first like to point out that I read this wonderful post of yours while having coffee and rusks, as one should.

    Me going across the stream: hilarious! If I'd know you were spying on me, I would've hidden them better!

    So many great memories! And the Shuttle and Space Station separating! I'd forgotten. I'll have to add something to my own story, it was so incredible to see them there, and so clearly...

  7. I understand why you Love it so much back home, what a gorgeous countryside. Great traveling stories, between yours and Vince's recollection of South Africa, I feel I've been there already or at least I'm starting to get a better feel of it.

  8. First off, I need a copy editor, as I am lousy. I am sorry about my typo's.

    flwrjane - how does it smell? It smells green. It smells clean. If you crush the willow leaves as you walk beneath them it smells like being seven years old again, swinging from their branches in a garden with high white walls :-). In the morning it smells like fresh water, from the dew. In the late afternoon, it smells like campfires and then like grilling meat.

    Thank you, Guy! Langstertflap.

    Ellen - well, Vince told me he couldn't ride but he was a natural. I was astonished. I think he's a horse whisperer. He just had a short talk with my nasty horse and it behaved. Maybe you are too (a whisperer, not a nasty horse...). Where would you ride? btw, in PA, or the park? I still haven't ridden here...

    jvdh - ja, winter memories...yours are beautifully written. Dit was en is my plesier.

    pam - thank you for reading...

    Beence - yes, that was incredible, so much so that it seemed to fit perfectly into the scenery, to be taken for granted.

    Anyes - immersion-traveling :-)

  9. incroyable. gorgeous travelogue. i want some brood.

  10. What wonderful photos! Thank you. It's a long time since I was in that part of the world but I did spend a few childhood holidays thereabouts. I'm inspired to plan a trip. Can't wait to see your flower pics.

  11. Love the Drakensberg!!
    The unidentified white orchid is Habenaria caffra.

  12. Orchidchef - thank you! I eventually had it pinned as Habenaria dives - I don't have caffra in the book I'm using (Elsa Pooley's 'Mountain Flowers')nor can I find it online - can you direct me to a resource? Hmmm, maybe I can pick your brain on the other orchids (?) we found?

  13. Ahem, Orchidchef, a bit more looking around your site and Flickr and I see you ARE the resource!


Comments on posts older than 48 hours are moderated for spam.