Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Road

As we drove north on the N10 from Addo to Mokala, Eastern Cape to Northern Cape, rain came down. In terms of biomes we were leaving coastal thicket for grassland and thornveld, with the Great Karoo inbetween, and all three needed rain. In early October, in this part of the country, we were on the cusp of the summer rainfall season. 

The N10 is a beautiful road that cuts almost precisely north.

For Vince and me, this is the time and space we would like to preserve. Driving, alone, an endless view, a Thermos of espresso at our feet, promise ahead.

I had back issues (too much heavy lifting + genes) so every couple of hours we stopped so that I could walk, jump around and stretch. This allowed us to smell the rain bursting in pockets on the horizon.

We drove through an area of what I call aloes, but I don't actually know what these succulents are. Flowers like cotyledons. As far as the eye could see. The fields were red. So was the mud. My driving shoes were my bright pink Rothy's, bad for slick mud walking, but I can now attest to their washability. Brand as new. [Identified as Aloe striata by my cousin, Kate Webster, who lives in the Eastern Cape]

We made a much anticipated stop (always a dangerous thing). Years ago, traveling in the opposite direction from the Mountain Zebra National Park we had chanced upon the Daggaboer Farmstall and had ventured in, finding warmth, welcome, and some delicious, very fresh roosterkoek (yeasted rolls that are cooked over the hot coals of a fire) being baked in the warm place. I had been thinking about the roosterkoek for days. After our early start it was time for breakfast.

The mysterious succulent grew at the door and I planned to ask what it was.

Inside, black nightshade jam - a South African thing at farmstalls. But the place was very cold, both in temperature and in atmosphere. The door to the warm kitchen shut and everything stank of cigarette smoke. We wandered around the shelves. Three women were working there, an owner in an office, where the smoke was thickest, and a mother and daughter, moving about. No one even glanced up at us. No other customers. In the middle of nowhere. In friendly South Africa.

I greeted the daughter, who was unable to crack a smile in return. I asked if they still had roosterkoek, and she shoved a menu at me. I asked whether it had rained, yet, a dry country question. She replied nonsensically that fillings cost extra. My heart hardened in disappointment. This is not how you run a business. Things had changed.

We bought things. Fancy wool slippers, from allegedly local sheep, for Tipsi, back home. Droƫwors for the road. Preserved green figs. We waited for our roosterkoek to come from the kitchen.

The only warm thing in the frigid place was this little cat, who wanted to come with us.

Back in Mogashagasha we poured the last of the coffee and ate our roosterkoek as we drove. Mine was stuffed with grated biltong, the Frenchman's with cheese. We swapped halfway. They were not the fresh roosterkoek of memory and possibly microwaved. But enough to fill partially the hole that memory had made.

We opened the koeksisters (traditional braided deep fried and syrup soaked pastries) that we bought a few miles further into our drive. Dry as little bones. I looked at their sell by date. Two weeks past.

If we ever pass that way again, we will drive on.

It was a long day's drive, about eight hours, with our stops.

The weather played with us all the way.

We drove into that black storm, through sheets of water and lighting bolts being thrown down at the Karoo plains around us. I closed my eyes, glad the Frenchie was driving. Lightning makes me jump.

At the tail end of the dry season up here every view was still brittle and brown, with white highlights. The last time we had driven through this part of the country, in the middle of summer, it had been green. There is never much rain, here, but when there is the veld responds, fast.

Near every roadside cellphone tower I indulged in roaming data (free with our cellphone plan) and enjoyed my Instagram feed before it blinked out into the vast disconnect, again.

We both like roads, because we both like driving. And roads to me are a sign, too, of a country's health. They are tax money at work, they are civic engagement, they are an expression of a functioning governing body. This beautiful N10 filled me with optimism.

As we entered each town, this optimism was replaced by despair. For non South Africans, a small, dark backstory: During apartheid black and brown South Africans were not allowed to own homes or property within white towns and cities. The Group Areas Act forbade it. And so on the edge of every ostensibly white town grew its mirror image, a brown town, minus the trimmings of a comfortable life - and referred to simply as a "location." Where does she live? She lives in the location.

Apartheid ended formally in 1994, with the South Africa's first free election. But because the infrastructure existed, and because people lived where they lived, and because there was really no material change in most people's lives, these two side-by-side towns continued to coexist, even as the so called locations were recognized, given names, and appeared on maps. They remain historically brown or black, and their size often dwarfs the size of the old official town. While each mirror town has its upwardly mobile or comfortable section, the towns on the edge are usually disproportionately impoverished. From houses with many rooms they shrink to basic, boxy "Mandela Houses"- a promise by the government to provide housing, partly delivered - to scanty corrugated iron and plastic shacks with no running water or electricity or sewage.

Why the poverty? Simple. There is not enough employment. There are too few jobs and opportunities, and education for most South Africans still lags very, very far behind its ideal. And so as we entered every municipal area from the open countryside we were met first with the smell of woodsmoke, as many informal dwellings rely only on fire or spirit stoves for cooking, then by restless seas of plastic bags blowing in the wind, and then by the view of people living their lives. Many toilets are outdoors, and informal settlements share outdoor communal taps to supply water for all their needs. It was cold. And we would drive through and slowly past the outside town and into the inside town, with its dead streets on a weekday, its burglar bars and walls and few businesses (the exodus from the platteland to the big city is ongoing, even as there is a small, wealthy immigration to some dorps by monied city dwellers who relish a country life and possess an enterprising spirit). The contrast was like a wall, every time, and the questions it raised are close to insurmountable. How do you solve this?

This is the legacy of apartheid. One of many. But it is the thing that tips scales.

Within spitting distance of Mokala we became clogged in one of the infamous Stop-Go's, roadworks that close a lane of road, requiring one stream of traffic to stop while the opposite stream goes. A large section of the N12, onto which we had recently turned to head northeast, was being repaired - jobs, engineering efficiency, smooth road, optimism - but it took us a long time to clear. So somewhere just beyond our sixth hour my camera readiness deserted me.

Then we turned off onto a subsidiary road, following my plotted course (I disagreed with Google maps) and onto a relatively short section of dirt road, with some of the most violent corrugations we have experienced (sorry, Google). So we slowed to a decent crawl. But as we rattled and rolled the landscape changed dramatically, and I began to think that my cousin Andrea's suggestion to visit Mokala might have been a very good one: The tired Frenchman at the wheel had pricked up his ears and had begun to smile.


  1. Just wondering... does the rainfall help with the municipal water situation?

    1. For the Cape Town drought? Too far from Cape Town (just under 1,000 miles), whose catchment area is very different.

  2. I love your South Africa stories and photos. Not just the animals, which are amazing, but also the history and results of apartheid. There are always lessons to be learn. Oh, and if you both love driving take a drive across the US or Canada (the Canadian Rockies are amazing) elephants or hippos, but there is the Jolly Green Giant, Mount Rushmore and many a National Park.

  3. A lovely and thoughtful road trip. Can't wait to see Mokala through your eyes.

  4. As an American born and raised, I love hearing your South African stories - especially because you weave such a colorful tale. I learned about apartheid in school, but it's so much more interesting to see the consequences of history in action through your eyes. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Did you ever find out what the red/orange blooming aloe was?

  6. Can't wait for the next chapter!

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  8. Lovely post. "...this is the time and space we would like to preserve. Driving, alone, an endless view, a Thermos of espresso at our feet, promise ahead." How true!


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