LST-Part two: Lost in the Free State

The plan was to detour through the Free State to meet my friend, Pops Mohamed, at Rustlers Valley, where he had been in a conference all weekend with the new owners of the former annual music festival venue/farm, Jay Naidoo. I got lost. My GPS hadn’t heard of any of the places I tried entering, soI relied on memory of the general Google map, and got lost. I managed to get my US phone receiving GPS and it guided me along. Eventually, I landed on the dirt road to Rustlers. It wasn’t bad, as dirt roads go. Well, it wasn’t for several miles. And then it got bad. Very bad. I ended up at a guest lodge, and they told me: Go back to the village, and just after the gate, take the road to the left. Follow that to Rustlers.

I stopped at the road to the left, staring in disbelief. Dongas, ditches, and gullies awaited me and my fancy Mercedes, but there was nothing for it. I tried texting Pops, and I tried calling, but there was clearly limited cell reception. If he was waiting for me, there was no choice but to forge ahead.

The scraping of the bottom of my car on some of the worst roads I have ever seen – and the word “road” is used very loosely – made me and my poor car very unhappy. Eventually, I saw a cluster of houses, parked and wandered over to a group of men, sitting around, shooting the breeze. One man pointed me in the general direction, and said he would open the gate for me.

As I drove through, he waved me down, and another man got in the car, offering to take me to the farm. I tossed everything that was in the front seat over to the back, not paying attention to where stuff landed, he climbed in, and off we went, scraping car tummy along the way, as he kept cautioning me to go really, really slowly.

At the farm gate, he stopped me and offered to run to the office to ask for Pops. I waited, hanging with a grazing sheep, until he returned with the news: Pops and Jay had already left.

I didn’t know whether to laugh (hysterically) or cry, so did neither, bit my lip and my tongue, and we drove back to the houses where I dropped off my guide, and continued to hobble over the ditches, dongas, and gullies back to wherever it was I had come from.

And then my phone rang – it was Pops. He had reached Bethlehem, got cell reception, and my multitude of texts and call attempts landed like a barrage on his head. He was in the car with Jay, who offered a free night at Rustlers to make up for the inconvenience of missing Pops. I laughed. Loudly. Missing Pops was one thing – but it was not that inconvenience that mattered. There was absolutely no way I was driving anywhere near Rustlers, ever. Never. Anyone wants me back, they can send me in by helicopter.

I reached a 4-way junction, and my phone had lost any signal. I stopped, not knowing which way to go, and waited until a vehicle came along. I flagged him down, and asked for directions. It wasn’t the road I would have chosen, but it landed me back on tar road a lot quicker than the road I had come in on. And then, there was a signpost: Fouriesburg or Ficksburg. Oh great, I had no clue.

I searched for my mobile wi-fi, assumed it had dropped out of the car when I picked up my guide, tried both my US and SA phones. Tried my laptop. Nothing. No signal, no GPS, no clue.

I seemed to recall that Bethlehem was the road north to Johannesburg, so I picked Ficksburg. Nearly 50km later, I pulled into the gas station, used the loo, asked for directions, and was told to get on the Bethlehem road.

I waved at the Rustlers turn-off as I passed it, again.

Finally, I saw signs to Clarens, and breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I knew where I was going. Through Clarens, through Golden Gate Park, and onto Sterkfontein Dam.

And if I had thought that getting lost around Rustlers was bad enough, getting to the guest lodge at the dam was a sour cherry on the cake.

Without GPS – my car hadn’t heard of Harrismith, and my phones had lost any sense of direction, I drove through Golden Gate, hopeful I would see a sign to Wild Horses Mountain Lodge.

Well, I saw a sign, but missed seeing the road, thinking the sign was a forewarning that the turn-off was coming. I drove on until I saw the sign to Sterkfontein Dam, headed up to it, asked the security guard – who confused me with several turns I couldn’t picture in my over-tired head – and I left, back down past the zebra, and wondering what I should do.

I figured the safest bet might be to head to Harrismith, and take it from there.

Of course, that wasn’t the right thing to do.

Pulled into a petrol station, the attendants pointed me back in the direction from whence I had come, and sent me on my way, cheerily.

Seems the sign to Wild Horses wasn’t a forewarning. It was the dirt road turn-off.

And boy, what a dirt road. Initially, not too bad. And then the turn-off onto the actual road to the lodge, apparently “maintained” by the Parks Board. More dongas and ditches – although honestly, it wasn’t as bad as Rustlers, it just felt like it was because I was exhausted from all the driving and getting lost I had done that day.

I arrived at Wild Horses, no working phones, no GPS, and a locked gate. I hooted. Again. I drove to a gate a few meters away. Then, I drove back to the “official” gate. Hooted again. A man appeared, and told me I had to call the lodge. I replied I couldn’t, so he did it for me, and the gates opened. I learned later the man was the delightful, warm, funny maître of the lodge, aptly named Blessing.

The owner, Trish, was outside to greet me as I drove up, and gathered the staff to get all my luggage into the room (a task more designed for strong men than the maids, and I felt quite guilty about my heavy suitcases). What followed was a couple of days of blissful peace, gentle walks around the lodge, incredible food, and absolutely nothing I had planned on doing.

The idea had been to drive to the Drakensberg the next morning, see if I could tackle the climb to Tugela Falls up the chain ladder, and visit the cave where my father died.

Instead, I walked up the little koppie behind the lodge, and even at that altitude, it was obvious a Berg hike was a fantasy. No matter. It was a lovely rest, with great company – two couples from England who traveled extensively, occasionally as a group, and were simply charming people.

The chef was standing in for the regular chef, and if there was any reason to spend time in Clarens, it would be to stay at his B&B there, and eat his food. I have had some good meals in my life, but Francois was undoubtedly the best chef I have ever come across in my lifetime. No exaggeration. THE best. I started to understand why some people take photos of their food at restaurants, as I took out my camera and snapped a picture of our breakfast fruit salad. no really, he even made a fruit salad that was worth dying for. Or at least embarrassing myself taking a picture of it.

But, driving to the Berg was not going to happen – not on that road until I had to leave. And I had to leave, sadly. The road out was bad, but I realized that part of the awfulness of driving in had been due to my terrible day driving to Rustlers, so while reaching tarred road was a relief, it wasn’t as bone-jarringly awful as I’d anticipated.

As much as I would love to visit Wild Horses again, many times, until those roads are repaired, I’m sorry. And the same goes for equally lovely places – like Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. Local government has decided that the people who earn their living in these places are recipients of “white privilege” and therefore the roads aren’t worth fixing. I would like to ask these decision-makers how they like to get paid? If these areas are not supported by tourism, residents will leave, and rates and taxes will go away. An alarming story: my host in Hogsback had her rates raised dramatically, and her property of 8 acres valued at almost R1 million. Her neighbor, whose 28 acre property was valued at R8,000, is black. Explain that.

Anyway, leaving Sterkfontein Dam behind me, I chose not to drive by Harrismith and see the farms where I once lived, but to stick to the alternate route through Bergville and Winterton, to the Midlands Meander. I had booked a B&B in Lions River area, and was looking forward to a quiet night on a farm.

The roads were fantastic, through the extraordinarily beautiful Drakensberg mountains. I passed Bergville, drove through Winterton, and was a few miles outside of that town when I had to make a choice.

The road narrows over a river, and the mostly weed-covered kerb juts into the road. A large truck was bearing down, filling up a little too much of his lane for me to comfortably stay entirely in my lane – and the next thing, I felt my tires blow out. I pulled over immediately, flashed my hazards, and noticed a car pulling up in front of me. A man got out, and rushed over to check on me.

I was fine, but the two left tires were destroyed. It didn’t look like any real damage to anything else, but it was hard to tell without crawling under the car.

Possibly the most excitement these cops have seen in a while

Possibly the most excitement these cops have seen in a while

The purple house, winterton

The purple house, winterton

interior, the purple house, winterton

interior, the purple house, winterton

back in the day when kids were allowed to fall and scrape their knees, without the fear of a lawsuit.

back in the day when kids were allowed to fall and scrape their knees, without the fear of a lawsuit.

The mural outside my room. 

The mural outside my room. 

My good Samaritan turned out to be Dave, a financial planner who spent his days travelling the province. He promptly got on the phone to his contact in Winterton, who called the local tow truck, who came and got me. Dave handed me off to him and went on his way. Dean took over the role of kind helper, got me back to town, dropped the car off at Mark’s Tyres (who had to drive the half hour to Ladysmith that evening to get tires to match), and then checked me into the local B&B – The Purple House.

An old, charming, family home, filled with heirlooms and memories of days gone by. It was delightful. My room was small, clean, basic, although the towels were a particular brand of skin scourer. Certainly got the dust of the day off me, plus exfoliated at least another layer.

I wandered around town, finding “Nightshade Jam” – bought some, figuring if Winterton was going to fail at killing me by car, I may as well take a chance on poisonous jam. I still haven’t opened it.

The one place that seemed to offer food was "The Bridge". I ordered a gin and tonic, and ordered what seemed the most likely edible option on the menu: calamari salad. I think the heat and the accident had fried my brains. It was disgusting. I nibbled at the calamari, tried to force down some warmed lettuce, and then claimed to not really be hungry, and settled for another gin and tonic.

I made my way back to the Purple House after calling Dean to find out how much I owed him – R1850. Cash. Ouch.

My room was stifling, so after figuring out the ceiling fan, I started opening windows. I opened the kitchen window, and heard a crash. I peered outside, and the bottom of the window frame had simply fallen off, leaving two glass panes shattered on the tiles outside.

Another shower, and off to bed. The next morning, I was fed a farm breakfast – yoghurt, muesli, eggs, boerewors, tomato, mushroom, toast, coffee, the works. Quite honestly, at this point in my journey, that breakfast is wearing a little thin. I’m starting to look for pancakes or a croissant, at this point.

The driver from Mark’s Tyres picked me up after breakfast, and after I paid over R4000 for my two new tires, sent me back on the road.

Fortunately, when I got to the bridge the opposite lane was clear and I made a wide berth around the kerb. Once bitten, and all that.