A track in Ireland

ONE OF THE JOYS OF driving a car is that you can go wherever you wish. To get from A to B, you can either take the most direct route or find a more interesting one. We often opted for the latter.

We used to do driving holidays long before ‘satnavs’ and Google mapping were available to ordinary motorists. We relied on maps and atlases, always trying to find the most detailed available.

In Easter 1993, we sailed from Swansea in Wales to Cork in Eire. After a superb breakfast in Cork, which included some of the best black pudding I have ever eaten, we began driving towards Kilshannig near Castlegregory on County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.

Armed with a detailed Michelin road map and with a whole day ahead of us, we opted for a picturesque, but less direct, route.

Two interesting features of Irish roads soon became evident. First, there were bifurcations or t junctions where the same destination was on signs pointing in opposite directions. This was not a joke to confuse but simply an indication that both roads eventually met in the same place, maybe, for example, having skirted around different sides of a hill. The other thing is that we would be driving along a road and spotted a sign saying it was ‘5’ to the next village. Soon after that, another sign would inform us that it was ‘7’ to the same place, even though we knew for sure that we were going in the right direction. Ireland was busy converting its road signs from miles to kilometres, but many of the signs failed to include to which unit of measurement they referred.

We turned on our radio and listened to a programme in which someone was describing how to improve one’s skills when playing the game of curling. Every now and then, the presenter would say something like:
“Now, you hold it like this, see?”
The only problem was that there is nothing to be seen during a radio broadcast.

It was a lovely day and we were driving with the roof open. We drove past a golf course when suddenly there was a sharp clunk on the strip of roof between the car’s front windscreen and the open roof window. A poorly skilled golfer had made a poorly aimed shot. His ball had struck the car. Had it struck any where else, there was a good chance that it neither hit one of us nor shattered the windscreen.

Eventually, we reached Kenmare, having passed through Bantry Bay. Our most direct route would have been to go from Kenmare to Killarney via Muckross. However, my wife had discovered an alternative route on the map. It was marked on the map using the thinnest white line, which on Michelin msps denotes the most basic rustic thoroughfare. It was the road across a mountain pass called the Gap of Dunloe.

At first, the picturesque narrow road, not much wider than our Volvo saloon car, was easy to negotiate. We notice no other cars on it, but plenty of walkers and cyclists.

Soon, the track began to ascend, but not in a straight line. It wound up in a series of tight hairpin bends with very few passing places. After a while, we met a car coming down in the opposite direction. It was clear to me that my driving skills were better than the other. So, I had to reverse around several hairpin bends to reach a passing place.

We made it over the summit of the pass, and reached our hosts, Rober and Margaret at their cottage at Kilshannig, on a spit of land almost surrounded by sea and distant mountains: some of the beautiful scenery I have seen in Europe.

After welcome cups of tea, we told our hosts about our journey from Cork to Kilshannig. When we told them that we had driven across the Gap of Dunloe, Margaret exclaimed:
“But, that’s a footpath. We have often thought of visiting it, but we were worried that neither our Land Rover or our car would be able to cope with crossing the Gap.”

Adventures in South Africa

HOG 5 Barkly Pass BLOG

 

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

FROM WHITE TO BLACK

IT WAS ONLY WHEN WE left our accommodation at Dholavira and headed east onto the causeway which connects Khadir Bet to the rest of Kutch (part of Gujarat) that we saw a truly white part of the White Rann (desert). Until then, we had seen small patches of salt crystallising on the surface of what had once been the seabed, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, before seismic activity rendered the sea into a desert.

As we drove across the causeway, we passed larges patches of what looks like freshly fallen snow. This is the salt that has crystallized after the evaporation of rain, which has fallen on the salt laden terrain. The layer of salt looked to be at least an inch or two deep. What we saw is what gives the White Rann its name. It is a truly white desert. We were also fortunate to spot three flamingos searching in a pool of water that had not yet evaporated. They were silhouetted against the morning sunshine.

After crossing the causeway, we drove for several hours towards the outskirts of Bhuj. We stopped for refreshments at Rapar, which looks like an Indian version of a small town in an American cowboy film. A woman in colourful traditional garb disembarked from a motor scooter on which she had been travelling with her husband and son. A cow wandered past her before she crossed the road with her son. A stray dog took a great interest in various used packages I threw in a bin, and then ran off.

At another stop, I drank tea from a saucer as the locals do. By pouring the tea into a saucer, the surface area of the liquid increases and the drink cools quicker than if it is in a cup.

At Bhuj, we headed north on a road that eventually ends abruptly at India’s border with Pakistan. At first, we drove across part of the Great Rann of Kutch. This is a very flat sandy area with sparse scrubby vegetation but no trees. We passed herds of buffaloes grazing in this arid area. Unlike the White Rann, the Great Rann is mostly sand coloured although I did spot occasional salty patches that looked like very light ground frost. The Great Rann is classed as a desert but it is home to a few industrial plants.

Somewhere along the long straight road crossing the Great Rann heading northwards, we passed a sign indicating we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

At the tiny village of Bhirindiyara, famed for its fine mawa. This is milk boiled slowly for about four hours and then mixed with sugar. It is a sweet paste faintly resembling vanilla fudge or caramel…delicious but probably not too healthy!

We left the main road leading towards Pakistan and began climbing towards the Black Hills of Kutch. We reached a sign that announced that we had arrived at the “Magnetic Field Area”. Our driver explained that here thrre is a magnetic field strong enough to drag a car. To demonstrate this, he turned off the engine, leaving the gear in neutral. Amazingly, our car began moving uphill without the engine.

We continued on our way into the Black Hills of Kutch, driving through a moonlike, rocky landscape. We drove up a series hairpin bends to Kala Dungar, the highest place in Kutch, 458 metres above the Rann.

The road between Bhuj and the side road to Kala Dungar is the main route to the largest part of the White Rann, where the annual White Rann Utsav (festival) is held in January and February. A huge tent encampment is set up on the salt covered desert and a fairground atmosphere reigns. The Utsav attracts many tourists, both Indian and foreign.

It is interesting to contrast the road from Bhuj to the Utsav with that from Bhuj to Dholavira. The former is highly developed for the large influx of tourists. Unlike many other roads in Gujarat, the one leading to the Utsav has many signs in English and is lined with resorts designed to appeal to visitors. In contrast, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira is like a route into the back of beyond. Apart from a few low-key tourist oriented enterprises near Dholavira, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira makes no concessions to attract tourists. Dholavira, unlike other parts of the White Rann, feels far away from the rest of the world and its few inducements to get tourists to part with money seem charmingly naive. However, in a year or two this is likely to change.

The change will follow the completion of a new road from Bhuj to Dholavira. Unlike the existing road that passes through Bhachau and Rapar, the new road will pass close to Kala Dungar and cross the great Lake of Kutch to Dholavirs on a new causeway. This will shorten the journey time between Bhuj and Dholavira from its present four and a half hours to about an hour and a half. The present remoteness of Dholavira, which is part of its charm, will be lost forever. The area will become much more easily accessible to tourists, and no doubt this will be beneficial for the prosperity of the locals. From a selfish point of view I am pleased that I visited Dholavira before the greater influx of visitors that will surely follow the completion of the new road.

We arrived at our hotel in the bazaar in the old city centre of Bhuj after sunset. After a couple of days in rustic Dholavira and several days in the countryside near Mandvi, the small city of Bhuj seemed to us to feel like a large metropolis.

Animal rights

Driving in India may seem somewhat chaotic to visitors from northern Europe including the UK. It might seem less so to visitors from the southern parts of Europe or from Egypt. However, there is some order in the apparent mayhem that can often be observed on Indian roads.

One unwritten rule is that it is advisable to give way to something bigger than you. If you are driving a car, it is best to yield to a lorry or a bus. If a cow or bullock or even an elephant wanders into your path, it is best to avoid it. If you collide with a large beast, your vehicle might suffer greater injury than the beast. Best to give the creature the right of way.

If you should happen to be an autorickshaw (‘tuk tuk’) driver, you are likely to have superbly fast reflexes, the courage of a lion, and nerves of steel. Drivers of these vehicles take risks on the road that sometimes seem suicidal, but overehelmingly they know what they are doing.

One autorickshaw driver in Bangalore once told me that he had been a truck driver before taking up his present occupation. He said that to drive an autorickshaw it was necessary to employ all of the senses. He said that his whole body had to be fully aware of what is going on around him.

However, even the skilfully adventurous autorickshaw drivers will give way to, or avoid cattle in the street. This is not because they hold the cow to be sacred nor because they are believers in animal rights, but because they have a sensible regard for self-preservation.