Sunday, May 2, 2010

The R26 to Golden Gate

We drove a long way that day. Even now, it makes me tired.

We left the farm Doornberg, and our Vleihuisie (it's everyone's Vleihuisie, I think), and joined the big, arterial N9 again, northbound. Coffee in a flask, rusks at hand.

We were headed for Ladybrand, where we hoped to find accommodation for the night at a B&B or campsite before our trek into Lesotho the next day.

From the N9 we turned east onto the R56, refueled at the one horse town of Steynsburg, and turned north again onto the R391 to Aliwal North on the banks of the Orange River which is the border between the Eastern Cape and the Free State, province of my birth.

Below, outside Aliwal North. 

Town itself. We stopped at the Pick 'n Pay and bought lamb chops and charcoal.

And then crossed the bridge I remembered dimly from my childhood, which we crossed on our way to and from the sea in December every year, over the big, brown Orange River.

Now, after the orderly infrastructure of the Eastern Cape, with its road crews out in full force, we hit the Free State and the R26. And we hit it hard.


I didn't take a single picture of the R26. Kind of like the flood in the Drakensberg. I regret both now.

The R26 is the worst South African road I have ever traveled on. Make that the worst road, period (I have not been deep into Africa or South America or SE Asia). Pot holes, sometimes seconds apart, sometimes rippling, dozens on top of each other. For hours. We slowed to just under 60km an hour. The road is narrow, so that if another car or truck approaches - and there was plenty of traffic - you have to stick to your own lane no matter what, without straying when necessary onto some nice, solid tar on the other side. Forget about passing slow traffic. The sickening crunch as you hit yet another crater is nerve shattering. This road hugs the border of Lesotho, on the scenic Maloti Route. It is marketed as a tourist drive and the scenery is beautiful, bucolic, but...the road. It is a disgrace, a joke, a barometer. It speaks of corruption. To me.

We passed through the small, sleepy town of Rouxville. I had never seen it before. But I knew about it. Selina, housekeeper and friend to my parents for 27 years - her brother had been the postmaster here. In the bad days, the very bad days, his wife had been hacked to death by a mob in Rouxville, in front of their children. Ideological differences. Her brother still lived here, but we passed through without stopping to call Selina to find out where. As it turns out we drove right past his house.

We entered Ladybrand, where we hoped to spend the night. It looked bombed out, post apocalyptic. The tarred roads were ripped up. The dirt that remained wasn't flat. Just ridges, holes and trenches. Nothing speaks more loudly of financial mismanagement, of corruption, than bad roads. Something is wrong in the Free State. The heart had been ripped out of this town. The pot holes had just been leading up to it. The tourist office was closed at 3.30pm. People were begging on every corner and sidewalk. The Internet cafe I used to look for accommodation was managed by a large, chain-smoking woman, who, when I asked, What happened to the town? said, Dearie, don't you long for the days of tarred roads? - and put an empathizing hand on my arm. The roadworks had stopped before Christmas and they hadn't started again.

Sure, Dearie longs for tarred roads, too. But not for the days of, dearie. We might miss the same things but we miss them for different reasons.

We drove on. We stopped a couple of times for pee breaks and driver switches, and this lovely land stretched away on both sides of the pitted road. Rain, much rain had passed this way.

We had abandoned Ladybrand, avoided the campsite in the light of extreme poverty all around (which makes me nervous),  and the hope of a bed for the night and put our feet down on the gas to reach Golden Gate National Park by sunset. The drive east beyond Clarens in the Eastern Free State became spectacular, and the road, the R712, had turned civilized. I'd never been here, and the views of Lesotho to the right and the rolling fields and rock formations to the left were stunning.

One checkpoint later and we were at Glen Reenen, the campsite we'd booked a couple of nights hence, and asking to swap this night instead. A very unhelpful lady refused our request bluntly at check in and we capitulated, said, Whatever, paid, and headed for an open site under a stand of typically Free State-ian weeping willows, bending greenly over a stream at the foot of magnificent red and cream cliffs. The clipped grass of the campsite was emerald green, the tall, wild grasses at its edge four feet high and waving softy. In the huge willows, two Piet-my-Vrous (red chested cuckoos) vied for vocal supremacy, their distinctive calls bouncing off the rocks and filling my tired and rattled heart with happiness.

700km and 10 hours after leaving Doornberg, we had found a new home.

On the other side of the shallow stream I could see red flowers growing by the water's edge. I splashed across to see them. New and exotic to me, they are Hesperantha coccinea, scarlet river lilies, belonging to the iris family.

Vince set up the tent, pumped air into the mattress, made the bed. I made a fire, and got dinner ready. Lamb chops from Aliwal North, iceberg lettuce (it travels really well) and tomato, and fruit salad. Beyerskloof Pinotage.

We fell asleep to the sound of running water and woke in the middle of the night to noisy, multi-racial Christian teenage campers (they had formed a prayer circle earlier, so I knew) having a party. I went to shout at them in my best Afrikaans and they Ja en Nee Mevrou'd me and then we all went to bed.

It had been a long, long day.


  1. Hello! Read the article about your garden in VISI. Think you've done something really amazing! Very inspiring.

  2. Wonderful. real travelling, not tourism.

  3. Awesome, I am traveling through your posts without leaving my home, I love it...

  4. that bridge is still being used? we had the best ever ham sandwiches on brown bread and tea in Aliwal North on the trip from Bloemfontein to Cape Town.. I love your pictures, they make my heart remember

  5. Hi Cornel - thanks for visiting!

    Rachel - tourism with the bumps? I am pretty sick of PC, sugar-coated everything when it comes to 'reviews'...

    Anyes, I'll try to put them up a but more frequently. I may need a travel blog beside the Food blog!

    Judi, ha, you remember it too?? It brought back a flood of memories. Brom brom die Vrystat kom! - chanted int he back of the Kombi, coming home after holiday. Long ago and far away.

  6. Great idea! Traveling and Food blogs and quite a combination. Awesome :-)

  7. A barometer road, I like that... Well told!

    Funny how one forgets details. I'd forgotten about the Pick 'n Pay stop and other things.

  8. Hi! Really like the blog we did the same trip this April in Reverse Drakensberg => Golden Gate => R26 => Kenton On Sea what a beautiful journey but you are right the road is very badly maintained I eventually managed to break my iron grip on the steering wheel to take a quick snap of the road albeit on my phone which doesn't really convey how bad the road was

  9. HI
    Read your blog - and just wanted to inform you that Ladybrand now has tar roads where the torn up ones used to be! The town is not exactly in good shape yet, but it's getting there...


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