In August 2003, we went on a driving holiday in South Africa, concentrating on visiting places connected with my ancestors who began settling in the country during the nineteenth century. We also saw some places unconnected with my family history. Although the main roads in South Africa were excellent. However, some of the minor roads were adventurous to say the least.
My mother spent the first ten years of her life in a tiny town, Barkly East, in the Eastern Cape. We decided to drive there from Lady Grey, where we had been staying for a couple of nights. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was instrumental in getting the South African government to extend the railway across the mountains from Lady grey to Barkly East. Nelly, a barmaid at the Mountain View Hotel in Lady Grey, told us that the railway no longer ran. About 11 years before we met her, she went on this train along with many other children from Lady Grey on an excursion. Disaster struck. Someone who had had too much to drink took over the running of the train, and it went out of control. She remembers the train coming to a very sudden halt and being thrown forward. She was lucky only to have received ‘skid-marks’ on her skin: three of her young friends were killed instantly. It would have interesting to have travelled on that line, because like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India’s West Bengal my grandfather’s railway negotiated the steep slopes of the mountains by a series of zig-zags with switchback reverses.
People at the hotel at Lady Grey said that instead of taking a new main road to Barkly East, we should go via the longer but far more picturesque via Joubert’s Pass. This was very scenic but quite hazardous. The road was no wider than our car and covered with loose gravel to which the car’s wheels could hardly grip. I would have enjoyed the spectacular views from the winding road on the way up had I not needed to concentrate so much on keeping the car attached to the road (‘track’ or ‘footpath’ would be a better description of the road). My heart sank when we saw a car approaching us from the opposite direction. The road was so narrow that one of us would have to reverse a long way. Fortunately, the occupants of the approaching car recognised us; they had met us at a barbecue party in Lady Grey on the night before. Kindly, and hazardously, they drove backwards at hair-raising speed along the winding road until they reached a passing place. After the summit of the pass, the road surface improved and we descended into farmland, deserted except for a few sheep and cows. The road wound around following a river, which lay at the bottom of a steep sided canyon. Eventually the road re-joined the main Lady Grey to Barkly East highway. In a way, this was our ‘baptism of fire’ as far as South African roads are concerned.
Later during our trip, we headed for Hogsback, a quaint place high in the Amathole Mountains about 40 miles northwest of King Williams Town, where my mother and her siblings were born. Some say that Hogsback was the inspiration for his “Lord of the Rings”. However, this is unlikely as Tolkien, who was born far away in Bloemfontein, left South Africa when he was three years old. Whatever the truth of this, we set out for Hogsback from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour.
My wife, our navigator discovered on the map that there was road – a shortcut, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. On our detailed map, the thoroughfare was marked as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, which we interpreted as meaning that it was suitable for saloon cars such as our hired vehicle. We began driving along it through almost level farmland. We stopped to ask a local whether we were on the road to Hogsback. Somewhat drunkenly, the fellow pointed skywards, and said what sounded like:
“Herp, herp, herp.”
This we understood to mean that we had had to go ‘up, up, up’ the hill. Gradually the road began ascending, at first gently. A post-office van passed coming from the opposite direction passed us. This reassured us that the road was motorable. Soon, the road became amazingly steep.
This road, the so-called shortcut, proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback. The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steep steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or, more often, walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under-surface. Negotiating the car safely over some of these boulders reminded me of performing some of my trickiest difficult tooth extractions. In the dental situation, the operator has to avoid cutting the patient’s nerves or large blood vessels. On the way to Hogsback from Seymour, the driver has to avoit severing the fuel line that runs beneath the vehicle. One false move, and we would have been in big trouble, especially as on this lonely road there was neither a mobile telephone signal nor anyone else around. Hair-raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised: “Road not recommended for caravans”.
Later, when we returned to Cape Town, I was talking to a cousin about this road. He told me that he had driven along it but managed to ground the car on a rock and sever his car’s fuel line. I have no idea whether this awful road has been improved, but, even if it has, I will not tackle it again.
Hogsback was delightful. However, when we arrived snow began falling in a serious way. The temperature dropped. The cottage we had hired was freezing cold. One tiny heater was provided to try to warm the whole place. It was useless. Hogsback like large parts of India suffers from cold during winter months. Yet, in both places, proper heating seems to be considered unnecessary. Apart from being cold, we enjoyed our brief stay at Hogsback, where we were fed with well-prepared food in a restaurant near our accommodation, run by Dion and Shane.
The two journeys I have described were somewhat risky and adventurous. Writing this reminds me of the parting words of a librarian in, Philippolis (in the Free State), the birth town of Sir Laurence Van Der Post:
“Whatever we die of in South Africa, it won’t be boredom.”
Photo taken in 2003 on the Joubert Pass