Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Driving to Rhodes

On the road again. Unbelievable as it may seem (to me), I have still not finished telling the story of our South African driving and camping trip.

So here we are, on Day 10, leaving Himeville in Kwazulu-Natal, having crossed Lesotho and the Sani Pass the day before - after our mosquito-ridden night at the Himeville Arms (suggestion: mosquito nets!) now heading for the village of Rhodes, nestled in the gentle foothills (so I thought) of the Drakensberg. By the end of the day my impression of this part of the country had been altered drastically, as reality corrected imagination.

After a delicious cup of Illy coffee in Underberg, we headed due south on a pretty blue and fluffy cloud day, on an excellent tarred road, the R617. The Landcruiser purred along, resting after the long, long Lesotho day of mountains and rough roads.

A stranger to this part of the country I was surprised by the fields of sunflowers on all sides on the dirt road shortcut we took to join the R56 west. I had always associated sunflowers with the Free State. We were driving roughly parallel to the curved border of Lesotho, whose real border was the mighty range of the Drakensberg, always a presence on our right, towards the north, though obscured by those lovely, fluffy clouds.

By this time we were kicking up some dust and slowed down to pass the few people who had to rely on their feet for transport.

We were in what used to be called the Transkei, a so-called independent (with a puppet government) homeland, where the families of workers in towns and cities in South Africa eked out some kind of living on plots of land, and waited for the wages to be sent home.

Mount Fletcher. We did not stop, as we were not sure how long our day's trip would take. Easy enough per the map, but we were aware that small cute parallel green bars indicating mountain passes might be a little different in reality. One of those bars had taken us four hours to traverse the previous day...

Beyond Mt Fletcher we turned right onto a smaller dirt road to head past Belgrave, instead of taking the longer route down to Maclear.

A beautiful storm was brewing on the horizon. The map said that we were headed for a pass called Pitseng.

There was evidence in the lush greenery of plentiful rain, and I think that the Nguni cattle in these parts live a good life. The road became quite rocky and heavy-going where on wet days streams had crossed it and washed all the soil away.

We still seemed to be pointing straight at that storm, but were not sure whether we would turn off ahead of it and miss it.

Quite soon some heavy drops started to spatter onto the windshield.

Rather than missing the stationary storm we were driving straight into it.

Clearly the cell had dumped a lot of rain ahead of us: rushing, mud-red rivulets beside the now climbing road tumbled down past us.

We climbed that hill in the picture below, and then picture-taking stopped for while. I was driving.

We turned that corner, met some more water at the roadside, and then reached a swift-moving brown stream about twenty feet wide, covering the road beside a green, inclined field where a herd of wet cattle stood. A man in a rain poncho stood at the gate, watching us. I waded the car through the water, slowly, in lower gear, and we stopped on a firm patch near him, the water rushing behind us. Rain pelted down. I am so sorry we don't have a picture of it. It is so vivid in my head.

We rolled down the window and greeted him. We asked about the road ahead, because at this point it seemed that it might be in the process of washing away. He called out above the water, The road is strong...and then added a little disquietingly, But I cannot guarantee! He asked where we were going, and we said Rhodes. His eyes widened a little under his hood. You must cross the Drakensberg to get to Rhodes, he said.

I suddenly felt like a fool. Just where did I think I was?

He continued, reassuring us: There is a police station on the way, you can stay there.


We thanked him, and had a brief council of war. We had come a long way. If it was really awful we could turn around. We moved forwards again, leaving the streaming cows and their minder in the rear view mirror.

The first few hundred yards were fine, below.

And then for while it became so bad that Vince refused to take pictures when I yelled at him to do so. Yelled because I was so tense, but part of me really wanted that water captured. It wasn't really real-seeming. He is about the most level-headed, good-in-a-crisis person I know, and the fact that he said, Now is not the time, should have made me more nervous, but I didn't think about that at the time.

The water was now rushing across the road at frequent intervals a few feet part. And we could not turn back. Stopping was not an option. Nor was a three point turn. It was impossible to tell where the dirt and rocks under the water had been washed away, so we had no idea of where the most solid part of the road beneath lay. Stalling or getting stuck would be very bad. We were in our lowest, most powerful gear, and my father's words about how utterly reliable and powerful this 4 x 4 was kept reassuring me. The engine growled along, each wheel getting a good grip, independently of its partners. Even so, I felt we needed the juice to keep up momentum against the roaring water, and at one point we bounced through some submerged potholes so hard that we hit the roof. Cataracts poured off the mountain on the left, swept and swirled around us and to the right they disappeared abruptly into an alarming void. I did not want us to disappear into that void and stayed as far from the uncertain and crumbling edge as I could. It was wildly exciting and very frightening, too.

The picture below was snapped after the worst was well behind us and we felt that we were safe. We could see dirt again. And while we could physically turn now, we knew we could not go back.

Once on the green, rolling uplands the rain held off, and ironically, my real troubles began. Mud.

I asked Vince to wade into the pools that blocked our way, to check for depth. The earth up here had turned to mud as adhesive as thick cream icing sugar that just wrapped in successive and never-ending layers around the wheels, making the steering wheel slip like butter through my hands with no corresponding grip from the wheels and no change in direction. After topping a gentle rise I turned the wheel, felt no response, and then felt the helpless slick sliding motion of the heavy 4 x 4 sliding gently sideways and coming to rest in a ditch beside an embankment at the side of the road. The wheels had inches and inches of slippery mud packed on them.


I swore. I was so mad at myself for not knowing what to do. Vince pulled rank and took over, having decided that my stress levels were not helping, and citing a technique of braking and accelerating at the same time, to clean the brake discs.

He drove us out, braked and accelerated gently at the same time, and the mud flew off. Where did you learn that? I asked grumpily. In the snow in Montreal, he said.

Huh. Freaking boy scout.

A few miles later the white bakkie of a farmer appeared on a rise ahead of us. We stopped. He stopped. Then he came on, fishtailing wildly. The young driver stopped beside our open window and we exchanged greetings. He said the road ahead was better. We told him the road behind was worse. We parted, all of us smiling foolishly.

We were safe.

And we still had one pass to go.
We stopped for flower pictures. It was unbelievably beautiful: rich, rich fields of grass and flowers. I think that this, above and below, is Gladiolus oppositiflorus...except I don't see the described 'blotches in the throat.' [Elsa Pooley, Mountain Flowers]

Below, Gladiolus crassifolius (ingangulazi, in Zulu)?

Echium plantagineum growing thickly in the ditches on Eland's Heights.

The road started to climb again. And then we were in the clouds.

We knew we were heading for Naude's Nek, reputedly the highest public road in South Africa.

Mist. Oh, great. Just when you think it's over.

We drove for what seemed like hours in the mist. If it was the highest road we couldn't see, so perhaps it was just as well. We hoped against hope that the rain and the washed-out road would not be repeated. Up here it would be worse. We were thoughtfully quiet. Vince sounded the horn before corners.

We passed one other car in the cloud, a family, a curt wave from the driver, a daughter sleeping in the back against a pillow. I wondered if they did this every day. I felt like asking whether this was normal for them.

At last we were out of it and we could see again. The road descended in a series of tight brown hairpins, and across each hairpin a family of four dassies (rock hyrax) raced us down the mountain. I have never seen dassies running like that. Like fat, stretched out, earless grey rabbits.

We were very tired and again did not take enough pictures of the road into Rhodes. Beautiful rivers, clear water, ploughed earth like dark chocolate, steep mountains all around. In winter Rhodes is a skiiing village.

We had planned on camping at a site where we knew the facilities would be very basic. When we found the field, it was in a grey drizzle, at dusk. We would have to set up the tent, light the fire, cook fast. Vince got out to look at the ablutions block. He came back to the car and shook his head. I didn't have it in me. So we drove to the Walkerbouts Inn, pub, B&B and restaurant, and enquired about self-catering. We were given keys to a house, and had a drink at the bar. I had a whisky. It was an interesting place - I'd like to go back, to hear some stories...

In our modest little house (one bedroom had a plastic shower stall right in it - we chose another bedroom) I hauled out the fixings for dinner that I had retrieved from the back of the car. The black cat talisman greeted me as I lifted the blanket that covered all our supplies. He had served us well.

We had mac and cheese with a confit of duck shredded into it - a leg insulated in duck fat for these past ten days, made by my mother. We bought a bottle of overpriced red wine from the inn. We were down to white in our own collection and it was no night for white wine.

In retrospect, we should have had several days here. This is too beautiful a place for an overnight, and apart from the houses we saw, I have no sense of it at all, except as a beacon in the dark. But we were thinking of where to go next, and Vince wanted to see elephants, while I was thinking about the Karoo again or the sea.

In the morning we would be off again, to parts unknown.

If you are interested in what came before, the posts are listed below:

Day 1 - Cape Town to the Karoo National Park
Day 1 - Tortoises- a sad story
Day 2 - Karoo National Park - a thief in the night
Day 2 - Traffic Cops in Beaufort West - how the law won
Day 2 - Coffee and a Rusk
Day 3 - Karoo National Park to Nieu Bethesda
Day 4 - Doornberg, the farm of our dreams
Day 4 - Nieu Bethesda

Day 4 - Sneeuberg deli and Two goats brewery
Day 4 - Flowers on Doornberg

Day 5 - The R26 to Golden Gate - the worst road in the country?
Day 6 - Maliba Lodge, Ts'ehlanyane National Park, Lesotho
Day 6,7 and 8 - Golden Gate and Glen Reenen Rest Camp
Day 6, 7, 8 - Flowers of the Free State
Day 9 - Sani Pass


  1. THAT is absolutely the prettiest cow I ever saw! Neat.

  2. Level-headed or not, I'm really sorry I didn't take those pictures or let you do so. The fact that I was slightly worried about the road washing off from under out wheels should never have superseded the quintessential need for proof and a record of our adventures. I need to get some journalistic daredevilness in me.

    Regardless, well written, superbly photographed and such good memories!

  3. About halfway through this tale I felt like I needed to take a xanax.


    Great cow, lovely glads, scary travel story.

  4. Huh, I need a Xanax and a DRAMAMINE!

    But, gosh the pictures are perfect.

  5. Palpable!

    Thank you for reminding me the time I got stuck in the mud, post rain storm in the desert. A shovel, 100 yards to go, and a bull!

    Wonderful stories.

  6. Riveting! (And I'm with Webb on the prettty cow :-) )

  7. I spent some months of my gap year in SA and completely fell in love with the Drakensberg area. We had scary times there, crossing swollen rivers, dodging baboons and puff adders, but it is the most awe-inspiring, breathtaking place. Your amazing tale took me right back, beauty, fear, the works!

    I'm sure Vince enjoyed his heroic moment, right?

  8. Marie

    Rhodes is definitely worthwhile spending some time in. We were there years ago and went horse riding for a day on the farmlands surrounding the village.

    You really know how to tell a story! Wow! My child called me away from the laptop halfway through the story(storm) and I couldn't get back soon enough to finish reading...

    Is the orange flower (Gladiolus oppositiflorus) not a Watsonia?

  9. ripping good tale! and i did not know about the braking & accelerating to spin snow off. not enough here in boston, i guess. happily.

  10. webb, if you like that cow you will love this book by Marguerite Poland, one of my favourite South African authors. The Abundant Herds: a celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People


    Beence, we'll have to go back and wait for a storm?

    Jane, xanax, whisky, xanax, whisky xa xa xa xa xa

    Karen, just the mention of dramamine makes me seassick....ew
    and thank you :-)

    Frank that sounds like a pretty good story, there! Our bulls were too wet to care.

    dinamow, see webb's response, above for the book. You may know about the author. She wrote/writes the best - bar none - stories for children (big and small) about South Africa, through animals, birds, insects...

    Belinda, wow. Yes, we need to return, it was awesome, literally, country.

    Ansie, dit mag wees, maar ek dink nie so nie. Ek sal weer kyk in my boeke. Hoekom skryf ek Afrikaans? So yes, I'll check again, though the flower itself looked like a glad to me.

    donna, try it in an empty parking lot, one snowy day!

  11. Marie, being South African you will understand this. SANBI (SA National Biodiversity Institute) decided in their wisdom(????) to radically downscale the State's environmental education and stop all field publications.Very sad and shortsighted indeed!I normally don't pass things like this on but have a look.
    (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/186/640/241) Very sad and shortsighted indeed!

  12. fantastic! recently went up Sani on my motorbike! what a laugh!I think you will understand the panic!http://www.bmwmotorcycleclubcape.co.za/solo-sani


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