Sunday, September 29, 2019


On Instagram, in late August, my cousin Andrea posted a picture of a place. It was beautiful, and she sounded happy. I had just booked a last-minute ticket to Cape Town to see my mom. She sounded sad. I had plenty of work to do but all of it could be delivered remotely. Walks, talks, and classes requiring my physical presence only begin again in October. The Frenchman was very understanding. He always is.

The ticket gave me a month to be home with my mom and Selina, and I decided within hours of seeing Andy's picture that I would like to spend a couple of days at her spot, too. With friends or in silence. So in Brooklyn I tapped a touchpad and booked some Karoo emptiness, thousands of miles and two hemispheres away from teeming New York City.

A couple of weeks later my friends Jacqueline and Willemien, biologist and artist, were driving with me in Mogashagasha, the beloved Landcruiser, heading north into the edges of semi-desert Karoo from spring green Cape Town.

After leaving the N1 - the artery that connects Cape Town and Johannesburg - opposite Matjiesfontein we steered west on dirt roads, each smaller than the last. Several opened and carefully closed gates later we saw some sheep, and knew we were in the right place.

The biologist opened the last gate, and we were there. Almost. We passed neat staff quarters and our hosts' unoccupied stone farmhouse, and then bumped and rocked our way up the final narrow track.

Snyderskloof Cottage. The feathered branches of pepper trees (Schinus molle) blew in the afternoon wind.

Every inch of crushed shale and earth around the cottage was neatly raked.

A hammock rocked under the trees. A dipping pool and outdoor shower called, but the weather was too cold for them. We would be building fires, and I had ordered wood ahead of our arrival. Camelthorn stood stacked neatly in bags near the outdoor fire.

For a three-night, two-day stay we had come over-equipped with food, and could easily have opened a (really very good) pop-up cocktail bar with our collection of wines and hooches. We made ourselves at home.

The cottage has no electricity. This was part of the appeal, at least to people spoiled by the ease of switches and heat and floods of instant, effortless light. The kitchen had an efficient little two-burner gas range as well as an indoor fireplace large enough to cook on. There were many fresh candles in candle holders (I hate it when an old, melted candle greets you - very depressing) and polished oil lamps. And lots of back-up candles. There were plenty of matches. In fact everything we could have needed was there. Even the knives in the kitchen were sharp. This is unusual.

There was a lot of red. It could have been a disaster, but somehow it wasn't.

Two roomy bedrooms, good (and beautiful) linens, and lovely light. 

Willemien's digs were part of the living room or voorkamer - more like a sunroom, with the large fireplace at the opposite end. Somehow I missed getting a picture of Jacqueline's room. She had a particularly fluffy white duvet.

The traditional stoep was a deck with a wonderful view of the endlessness. In the mornings and evenings we watched interesting local rats scamper back and forth with bundles of bedding (grasses and leaves, not our sheets) in their mouths in the field below - Karoo bush rats. We saw some striped mice. We met the local birds: a tame robin chat,  a pair of southern grey tits, a posse of black headed canaries, and bulbuls. Naturally I set up a feeding station. At night we could turn on tiny, twinkly solar-powered fairy lights, not quite as bright as the Milky Way in the starred blackness above our heads.

We settled in. I worked on my local mixing skills. Jacqueline identified plants in her field guides.

The artist worked on a commission.

And I made fires. This simple trivet is brilliant.

We counted bunnies. This is just a fraction of the bunnies. A very small fraction.

There were bunnies everywhere. On the last day we saw bunnies we had not seen on the first.

                                                      We went for walks. 

                         The shale was incredible. Ancient mud. It built the cottage. 

From a distance the low Karoo shrubs are monotonous. Up close there is a lot going on. Pelargonium crithmifolium.

Cocktail hour came round again. I loved the pepper trees' fragrant leaves. The trees are synonymous with the Karoo, even though they are South American imports. They are often the lone tall green thing shading a roadside picnic table beside a road that ribbons into the shimmering horizon.

Rain arrived on our last day (an event in the dry Karoo). The weather turned snow-cold. 

On that last, chilly night, I cooked a lamb knuckle tagine indoors. 

And then it was time to leave. So we got a flat. At the last gate the air came hissing out of a back tyre like an angry snake. And to my disgust I found the tools had been left behind in Cape Town. How stupid. But luckily I had pumped the spare wheel before leaving - we had been warned of sharp stones.

Jacqueline, a veteran of field trips and the things can go wrong in the middle of nowhere, wisely counseled me to turn back toward the cottage, with a farm en route, rather than limping on to tiny Matjiesfontein, further away. We stopped on a ridge and I WhatsApp'd our host, Emmarie, far way in Cape Town. Despite being near nowhere we always had excellent reception. Emmarie immediately called back and then sent a very reassuring message with a set of three galloping horse emojis. Kerneels was on his way.

Kerneels and his wife Zelda live on site and take care of the cottage's needs. And apparently also city guests who can't change their own tyres. About ten minutes later, far in the distance, we saw a white shape with an encouraging plume of dust behind it. Kerneels in his bakkie, and really galloping.

He arrived with Ouboet and the two men got to work. Fast. They even repaired and pumped the punctured tyre - in case it happened again (please god, no).

It was a sobering and embarrassing experience for me. I do not see myself as the stereotypical and helpless female. But there I was. So I have some basic mechanical re-education to undergo. I just wish I could take M'gasha with me to New York to learn on her.

Before reaching the N1 again we stopped at a ridge that we had begun to explore the day before (see my previous post for some of our finds) - Jacqueline begged for 20 minutes - Willemien and I shivered in the car - and she came back with this gorgeous little Hermannia.

Back in Cape Town, friends dropped off,  I washed the 4 x 4 of the red dust and clay mud and vacuumed her.  My father always kept his cars impeccably clean, and the Frenchman and I have similar habits.

I took out her protective blankets and mats.

And then I found the hidden (dusty!) tool compartment. Complete with jack. 

The tools had been there, all the time.

That Brooklyn expression came to mind: 




  1. Ag no man, I cannot even imagine Mogashagasha with a flat tire. I guess it's a sign of times. But the place looks lovely, and beautiful pictures. Oh Karoo, I miss you.

  2. Glad you've grabbed a quick visit with your mother. Hope she is well. Unfortunately, lonely seems to come with the territory for ladies of a certain age. Most of us get to that place sooner or later. Best to you, both. Travel safely.

  3. Oh, Marie, what a gorgeous telling of that magical time. It already feels so long ago...can't believe the tools were there all along – hehe!

  4. Good story, good ending. It reminded me of living in New Mexico, minus the shale. One time I went out to the Gila in my toyota pickup -acknowledged that I did not have my jack (because it was under my other truck), but went with naah, not a problem. As the sun went down on a gravel and rock road in the Gila, miles from anyone, I got a flat. Pre cell phone, whaddyagonnado? Here's how I solved the problem. I found sticks and rocks and piled them under the flat tire's axle. As it happened, I had my tire iron (phew), so I used it to dig down. As the axle bore down on the pile of rocks and I dug deeper, the wheel spun free. I then only to remove the lugs, dig deeper, and remove and replace the tire. By the time I was done I wished there was someone to revel in the problem solving. Alas, there were none. When I got to the first town, Silver City, I went to one, two, then three gas stations to pump the spare up as it was low. But at the first two stations the pump didn't work! At the last station it did not yet again! I got back in my truck prepared to drive the 3 hours back to home with a semi flat tire at night. I looked up at the air pump in frustration as I was about to leave and then I saw it: 75¢!!! All along I had gone on the premise that the air was free (as it was in my home town) and thought the pumps were broken. Mr. problem solver -Whaddyagonnado?


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