LST-Part Nine: Lost In A Moonscape

I set off after a lovely breakfast from Pumulo Lodge, driving through Knysna and instantly regretting not exploring the town more. The idea of driving unnecessarily was always on my mind, and I avoided it like the plague. Once parked, I could either walk, or relax, but driving locally seemed too much of a chore. As a result, I missed out on a lot, and if I do the road trip again, I'm taking someone who can share the driving duties. Anyway, it was a gorgeous day, and I headed to the stunning Outeniqua Pass.

It may seem like I'm whining here, but on one of the most beautiful mountain passes, possibly in the world, there is no place to stop and snap memories if you're heading towards George. Driving east, there are plenty of places to pull over and admire the view. Heading west? No way. I wouldn't actually recommend taking pictures while driving a curvy mountain pass, but I did it anyway.

 

After the gobsmacking wonders of the Knysna and Wilderness region, George is something of a boring wake-up call and I got through it as quickly as possible, roundabouts notwithstanding, and headed north towards the Swartberg Mountains and the Karoo.

I chose the long route into Cape Town because until that point, my drive had mostly been through the lushness of the Garden Province, and the coast, so including some desert in the mix seemed logical.

About 200km outside of Knysna, Musician-singer Wendy Oldfield replied to my text, and invited me to stay with her. Really bad timing! A little earlier, and I would have been happy to do a U-turn and head back to the coast, but instead made my apologies and pressed on. My car's GPS, as usual. had no idea where it was, so I relied on my hand-drawn Google map. Not that many options existed - the road stretched out empty and straight ahead, mountains in the distance, dryness all around. The stark beauty of the Karoo is magical. There is nothing for miles, except for an occasional rusty windmill, and random bushes that look as parched as the earth. The road, as always, perfect.

After Oudtshoorn, I took a left turn onto the R62 and headed for Calitzdorp. About 20km of nothingness, and a building appeared. I pulled in to the delightful Bella Karoo - a farmhouse plonked in the middle of nowhere, offering "plaas kos". I couldn't resist. Freshly baked farm bread, or "Roosterkoek", with cream cheese, figs, and biltong, washed down with a homemade ginger beer. Gourmet, mouthwatering, and delicious. I sat and lingered over the very rich food, watching chickens peck around the garden. It took a lot to make me leave, since afternoon tea, dinner, and their breakfasts all sounded rather tempting. But, enough.... I had to reach Matjiesfontein before sundown, and that was some distance away.

Blew through Calitzdorp, and my map said Ladismith, so I stayed on track until then. Ummm. Wrong. I should have taken the turnoff to the R323, which was some distance before Ladismith.

So, I drive through Ladismith, following the signs.... until suddenly the tarred road ended, and I bumped onto gravel. Not bad gravel, and a few kilometers on I passed road works, so I figured this was just par for the course of SA's development, and kept going... and going. It dawned on me that this may not have been the right road, so the first signpost I came across, I stopped, got out, and tried to figure out where the hell I was. The sign pointed to Laingsburg to the left. Excellent. Montagu to the south. Also correct. and Ladismith back there. Clearly, I was where I was supposed to be.

Of course, I wasn't.

Let me say here: Anysberg Nature Reserve might have gravity, but that is all it has. Sandy, rocky, mountains, occasional things masquerading as plants, and in one spot, a huddle of cattle under a windmill/well. Otherwise? Nothing. No people, no cars, I tried to look out for a tortoise or even a puff adder, but nope. Nothing. For about 2 hours, although it seemed much, much longer than that. And doesn't it always? Whenever you're driving to an unfamiliar place, it seems to take a really long time? I knew I was reaching somewhere civilized when I saw a white car in the distance. As it came closer, I saw a couple of entrances to farms, and I breathed a sigh of relief. As much as I enjoyed heading off the beaten track, the idea of being in the middle of nowhere, with no signs of life at all, conjured up the prospects or: what happens if I hit a rock and my tire blows? Or I walk around and get bitten by a snake? You know, all those things that make you want to find the nearest coffee shop and breathe in civilization? Nothing happened, I found the tarred road, and was back on track to Matjiesfontein.

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

still in the middle of nowhere

still in the middle of nowhere

guess where i am? yep. middle of nowhere.

guess where i am? yep. middle of nowhere.

if there are signposts, does that mean i'm still nowhere?

if there are signposts, does that mean i'm still nowhere?

grand canyon? seriously? did i drive that far?

grand canyon? seriously? did i drive that far?

I thought it was closer to Laingsburg, and when I missed a road sign, for once I turned around and drove back to see whether it was one I was supposed to have missed. Turned out to be Sullivan, so another U-turn and back on the N1. Another trick of memory, and I had thought Matjiesfontein was on the right, so when it suddenly showed up on my left, it was almost as much a surprise as the place itself.

Many South Africans and tourists have either passed by Matjiesfontein, stopped in Matjiesfontein, or heard the song about the train to Matjiesfontein, but I'd never met anyone who had actually spent any time there. As I parked, I noticed the famous Blue Train at the station and several people milling around, relaxing at the bar, generally loitering.

the magnificent lord milner hotel, matjiesfontein

the magnificent lord milner hotel, matjiesfontein

Checking in was easy enough, and a porter walked me through the hotel and the back grounds of the estate, to my motel room. By the time I reached the room, I was in love with Matjiesfontein. The place is simply beautiful. The town is basically a tourist attraction/hotel, but instead of being "touristy" in a way more familiar to American attraction where it becomes commercialized to the point of losing all the charm, Matjijesfontein is charm itself. The estate is lovely, and a walk across the dried river bed (which my room overlooked) to the swimming pool, and pond was only slightly marred by the signs warning visitors to watch out for snakes.  I saw none, but potential snakes make me as nervous as the real thing, so I cautiously explored the grounds before heading back to my room.

At 6pm, I was ready for the tour. Shortest tour in the world, according to our adorable tour guide, who blew loudly on his trumpet to summon all visitors to the old London double-decker bus, held together by love and gum by the clearly long-suffering Zimbabwean driver. Major regret: the driver disappeared after the tour, leaving Johnnie to collect all the tips. I hope he shares them.

While pointing out the house where he was born, the venue of the first international cricket match between SA and England (SA won) and a surprisingly long list of interesting things in a very small town, the bus dropped us off at the hotel again, where we were ushered into the private suite of the Lord Milner. A lovely suite of rooms with the main attraction being a specific point where you can photograph a ghost. No, really. Johnnie positions himself in a comfy old chair, holds up his hand, and invites people to snap away. The photograph shows a bright light that is obviously a lost spirit who just never wanted to leave the town.

site of the first international cricket test match - south Africa vs England, 1889.

site of the first international cricket test match - south Africa vs England, 1889.

johnnie, matjiesfontein born and bred, and leader of the shortest tour in the world

johnnie, matjiesfontein born and bred, and leader of the shortest tour in the world

I didn't really want to leave, either. I cannot express just how delightful the place is.

After the Milner suite, Johnnie directed us to the Lairds Arms Pub, where he sat at an old piano, and while playing what seemed like the same tune repeatedly, sang many popular songs, for which we were required to join in, and drop tips in the jar. Looking around at the lovely antiques, old photographs, and long history of the place, I had a momentary lapse of reason when I looked up to see a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Completely incongruous. I nearly choked on my G&T. I caught the eye of someone in the room, who clearly didn't see the joke, and gave me that blank stare that reminded me I was supposed to be singing "Bobbejaan klim die berg", not giggling over a disco ball. Fuck'em. I thought it was hilarious.

lairds arms: antiques and disco ball

lairds arms: antiques and disco ball

an abundance of signs throughout the town, imploring guests to refrain from spitting

an abundance of signs throughout the town, imploring guests to refrain from spitting

Some years ago, I had been to a Bob Dylan concert at Mac Court in Oregon. The sound was dreadful, and nobody could actually make out what he was singing. Not least because every one of his songs were sung exactly the same way. I'm not exaggerating. Every song was identical. The only way we could figure out what we were hearing was to try and make out some of the lyrics - no easy feat when the sound was so bad. When we caught a few words, we'd play "telephone" and pass it down the line. "Just Like A Woman!" And everyone would nod, enjoy, and then revert to confused position. After 10 songs from Johnnie, deja vu was setting in, so I headed back to my room to shower and change for dinner.

Sadly, I couldn't get any hot water, so tolerated as much cold as I could, dressed, and went to the ancient dining room in the hotel.

Do you remember when formal dinners were served with Melba toast? I remember that as a kid. The ultra thin toasts made their appearance next to me, as I ordered. My entrée was a Springbok Wellington - a perfect blend of English and South African tradition that made me want to sit around for a while, and then order another. The waitstaff are delightfully old-fashioned, and some very old. Johnnie had told us that there was zero unemployment in Matjiesfontein: everyone had a job to do, and the number of people ready to serve dinner outnumbered the people who were in the dining room. Satiated, I headed to the verandah to enjoy a coffee and watch the night fall over this little gem. There are no TV's in the rooms, so one is required to relax. There really isn't anything else to do. Would putting in a spa bring more customers? I think so, but that does seem like a very "modern" thing to install in a little historical village with enough charm to satisfy even the most seasoned traveler.

Breakfast the next morning, and I had no appetite, so settled for a croissant and coffee, cursing myself for passing up what would have been a superb spread. The next table was occupied by 4 men in police uniform. I struck up a conversation with them, and learned that their job was to inspect police stations, make sure everyone was doing their jobs, cut any corruption, and do any training required. I left them with a friendly, "I hope we never see each other again", and went to explore the museum at the train station. Some exceptionally old artefacts taking up two floors, including a basement, and this trip down through the annals of time was accompanied by a soundtrack of Swedish pop group, Roxette. It was bizarre, and quite honestly, I moved through the place a lot quicker than I would have if the music hadn't been so obnoxious.

From there to pack the car, and be on my way to Cape Town. I was certain I would not get lost again.

there is a mountain in them clouds, ma'am.

there is a mountain in them clouds, ma'am.