I finished reading Julian Smith’s excellent book Crossing the Heart of Africa which attempting to fall asleep in a guesthouse near Worcester. The book chronicles Smith’s attempt to retrace the steps of an Englishman named Grogan who during the late 1890s and early 1900s tried to be the first person to travel from Cape Town to Cairo on foot. Grogan undertook this arduous journey to prove to the father of a woman from New Zealand that he was worthy enough to marry the man’s daughter. Smith made his trip because of his fascination with Grogan and as a prelude to his own upcoming wedding.
Smith’s book was not as in-depth or as enlightening as any work by Paul Theroux, yet it was a valuable commentary on traveling and the hardships that go with it once you leave the Euorpean-esque security of South Africa and venture into the rest of Africa. Smith began his journey in Cape Town and traveled north. Theroux began the journey for his book Dark Star Safari in Cairo and traveled south to Cape Town. I thought it was most appropriate that I had finished both of their books an hour by car from where one of them began and the other ended their journey.
The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region in the interior of southern and western South Africa. It’s the interface between the vast Namib Desert to the north and the succulent fynbos vegetation that lines South Africa’s southern coast. It’s an extensive area of low scrubby vegetation that will remind North Americans of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. To the average person the Karoo is a vast wasteland with no practical value. To a naturalist it’s a vast cornucopia of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. I wanted to see the Karoo through the eyes of a naturalist.
Travel into and across the Karoo is problematic during the rainy season and without sufficient water it is suicidal in the middle of summer. My visit was during the shoulder period between those two extremes. Locals at the edge of the Karoo told me that although the previous winter wasn’t as rainy as they had hoped I could expect a great display of wild flowers as I moved across the desert. Anyone with an eye for nature that has been in the Mojave Desert of California or the Sonoran Desert in Arizona in spring knows what a beautiful riot of colorful flowering plants can be produced by winter rains. There the right amount of winter rain occurs only once every ten years or so. Conditions were similar in the Karoo and as I drove through it I regularly stopped to visually inhale the enormous beauty of a desert on fire with color.
A bird watching guide to Southern Africa recommended travel across the Karoo on a dirt and rock road signposted the R 355. That same guide forewarns travelers about the condition of the rocky and bumpy road saying that the R 355 is renowned for puncturing tires. The guide went on to recommend that travelers carry with them at least two spare tires throughout their journey.
I intersected the R 355 somewhere northeast of Worcester. From that point to Calvinia, the only place resembling a large town in the Karoo, was 130 miles of horrible road. Its biggest distinction was that these 130 miles were the longest stretch of road in South Africa without a settlement or habitation along it.
Unfamiliar birds flushed from the roadside throughout my journey. My already snail-like pace across the desert was made even slower by the frequent stops to identify birds or simply to look at the landscape. Karoo vegetation has been evolving millions of years since the last glaciation scoured the landscape. Evolving with the vegetation was an entire suite of bird species that had adapted to the unique vegetation. Clearly there were forty or fifty species of birds here that could not be found elsewhere in South Africa. It paid to travel slowly, stop often, and look at every bird I could find.
About thirty miles north on the R 355 I was passed by two 4 x 4 trucks each with a camper top covering the bed and one of them was pulling a trailer. Had I been back in Australia they would have been called a caravan. Both trucks had to be traveling at least sixty miles an hour down this terrible bouncy and rutted road. I wondered what condition everyone’s kidneys would be in after a morning of jarring travel. I was traveling less than twenty miles per hour. Their passage produced huge billows of dust that clogged my view and that of any birds along the road’s verge. An hour after they passed me I found this pair parked by the roadside. I thought they had stopped for coffee.
Pale chanting goshawks, one of the prettiest hawks I have seen anywhere on earth, sat like sentinels on the electric wire poles that paralleled the road. As predicted, the ample winter rains had produced a kaleidoscope of colorful flowering plants. At the start of the R 355 virtually every flower was yellow. However as I progressed north and the soils and the vegetation became sparser the color of the flowers changed from pink to lavender to red. The R 355 began to remind me of the road to Hereford, Arizona along the Mexico border where spring flowers bloom in profusion.
After a long, bumpy, desolate trek across the Karoo, I crested a small hill and saw Calvinia laid out before me. It appeared as a green oasis on the floor of the desert surrounded by massive Utah-like buttes. Two trucks had passed me as I drove north and two others passed me as they drove south during the seven hours and 130 miles that I drove on the R 355.
I checked into the Die Blou Nartige guesthouse near the edge of town. Herman Wick, the owner, appeared from a back room and welcomed me to “the Blue Orange” guesthouse. Blou nartije (blue orange in Afrikaans) is an endangered desert shrub. Herman named his guest house after the plant and did not know it was an endangered species until a Cape Town botanist stayed one night and told him about the plant and its precarious status.
Unloading my belongings from my car I noticed that the left rear tire was quickly going flat. The R 355 had struck again almost as if it had been selected to so in the South African birding guide. I was lucky it was a slow leak that didn’t get worse until I was in Calvinia.
While there was still some air in the tire I drove quickly to the nearby "Supa Quick" tire repair shop. This being a Saturday afternoon the shop was closed. However I laughed as I drove into the parking lot because the two 4x4 trucks that had passed me going north on the R 355 were parked in the same lot waiting for repairs. One tire, on the truck driven by Jan, was flat. When I had seen this pair pulled to the side of the road they were not having coffee as I suspected. Instead they were fixing a flat tire. Once the flat was replaced the spare tire was quickly punctured and was rapidly losing air.
“We passed you on that god-awful road,” Neels began. “And then you passed us a little later.”
Neels, his brother-in-law Jan and their wives were from Ceres, South Africa, not far from Worcester where I spent the previous night. They were enroute to Bushmanland for a week of four-wheeling in the desert. At least that was the plan once Jan’s two tired were repaired. Neels had called the emergency phone number for the tire shop and learned that the owner was in the middle of eighteen holes of golf at the local course. He told Neels he would be there to help us once he finished his round of golf. After introductions and an explanation of my trip to South Africa they told me about their regular 4-wheel drive adventures in the desert. “Namibia. You have to go to Namibia, Craig,” I was told by Neels. “Namibia is where it’s still wild.”
Jan then recounted a story about a recent camping trip to Namibia. “We parked in the middle of nowhere and put our tent on the top of the 4-wheeler. It must have been midnight when we were jolted awake by the roar of a Namibian lion!”
“I looked out the tent flap,” Jan continued, “and there not sixty feet away was a male lion in full mane. He had with him a female and two youngsters. They just stood there looking at our truck and the male kept roaring.”
Jan and his wife stayed awake until past two o’clock. “We were shivering and it was 99 degrees out! Finally the male tired of roaring and they all just walked away.”
Jan then said, “I think we just pissed them off camping in the middle of their area and that’s why they roared so much.” Jokingly I asked if they took any pictures of the lions. Jan’s wife smiled and said, “The camera was down below in the truck and there was no fucking way I was going to go get it.”
One desert animal that I really wanted to see in the wild was the honey badger. It looks like a large skunk and has an attitude like ten wolverines with steroidal rage. There are several documented records of a lone honey badger coming on to a group of lions eating an animal they had killed. Undaunted and outnumbered the lone honey badger scared them all away and took over the kill. Imagine an animal smaller than a Labrador retriever. Put white stripes on it and give it the personality of a wolverine and that is a honey badger.
“Oh, you want to see a honey badger, huh,” Neels asked. “They are scarce but they are out there in the desert. We see one or two a year.” I asked if the stories I had heard about their ferocity were true.
“Damned right they are true,” Jan said. “If I was a male lion and I came onto a honey badger the first thing I would do is put my paws over my nuts and run away hoping that crazy fucker wasn’t hungry.”
We talked more about Namibia and then switched to the wildness of Botswana and from there came back to South Africa. The country was a major discussion point with about every South African I met. I recounted some of my experiences so far in South Africa and mentioned that everywhere I went people were worried about crime. Yet the only time I felt the least bit concerned for my safety was very briefly in Johannesburg.
“It’s all tribal,” Neels started. “If your great grandfather hurt someone a hundred years ago, the black South African population remembers it. That means today if you are a descendant of that person you are a target.”
What Neels described was reminiscent of the Arabs and the Jews at each other’s throats in the Middle East. Only there the memory goes back two thousand years not merely one hundred. It is also the same story with the ridiculousness of the North and the South standoff that continues today in the United States. At least here only the South remains bent out of shape because they lost the “War of Northern Aggression” nearly 150 years ago.
“I think it’s in their genes to be violent,” Neels said. “Just look at what the early explorers found when they arrived in Africa. Nobody had any interaction with the blacks before yet when the whites arrived the blacks attacked them.” Grogan, the explorer who walked across the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo commented similarly more than 100 years ago. It didn’t matter where Grogan was on the continent, the local residents robbed him blind when they saw an opportunity. Grogan also described some brutal interactions between blacks. It had nothing to do with honor or personal defense or anything else. It was the nature of the locals to be violent.
“When we were under white rule in South Africa we had crime but nothing like we have now,” Jan said. “If you are in Johannesburg and you cross a street in a way someone doesn’t like they kill you. Go to a crowded area and your pocket will be picked. Leave your car window down and someone will steal whatever they can grab.” Neels continued, “It’s almost never white on white or white on black. Its black on black or black on white.”
Jan then asked me about the United States. “Where is the most crime in your country?” I told him that Detroit has the highest murder rate in the nation. “And what is the dominant ethnic group in Detroit,” he asked.
In the United States there is continual mention that seventy percent of the prison population is black. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and other black leaders claim that the prison population is dominated by blacks because of a prejudiced judicial system. However nobody, and especially no politician, has ever come out and asked the rather obvious question – Could it be that seventy percent of the people in prison are black because seventy percent of the crime is committed by black people?’ My guess is that it is. Unfortunately nobody will ever conduct research to confirm or disprove that point. Until then we will continue to hide behind the curtain of white rage and not confront the obvious. There were many more people than Jan and Neels who said essentially the same thing wherever I traveled in South Africa.
The subject changed back to travel and I mentioned a woman named Susan who was in my life then. “So why isn’t she on the trip with you,” Neels wife Evelyn asked.
I mentioned her concerns about travel in Africa and Neels laughed. “When you come back to South Africa you bring her along. You will stay with Evelyn and me for a few days. Maybe we will take a four-wheeler trip to Namibia or Botswana. She will find out it’s as easy to be in Africa as it is to be in the United States.” Neels was correct however a month to the day later Susan was freaking out in relatively sanguine Nicaragua. She would never survive Africa.
Christopher, the owner of the tire shop, showed up two hours after our arrival. Despite Neels and Jan having about 150 miles of inhospitable desert to cross, and despite the sun quickly being consumed by the western horizon, they insisted that my tire be repaired first. “We just want to wait around to make sure you are ok,” Jan said. Theirs was an outlook that I found commonly among black and white South Africans.
My tire had been punctured in the middle of the tread obviously by a very sharp rock somewhere along the R 355. I was lucky that it hadn’t been more extensive or more severe and I had wound up stranded in the middle of the Karoo. Because of the Saturday afternoon call for repair service Christopher charged me the equivalent of sixty dollars US to repair the tire. The entire operation took five minutes to complete. That certainly beat the ninety cents I once paid to repair a flat tire in Tela, Honduras.
As I prepared to leave the tire shop to continue my exploring, Neels thanked me for two hours of conversation. Jan then said, “You’re not at all like the other Americans I have met.” I thanked him for the compliment and then asked for clarification. “You take Africa on its terms. Most Americans want Africa on their terms.” A bed and breakfast owner in Ireland once told me the same thing about accepting her country.
Akkerndam Preserve is a large nature reserve on the north side of Calvinia. I spent the remaining sunlight hours enjoying a hike through the riotous colors of desert vegetation that seemed even more prominent here. Just before the sun disappeared behind a giant butte, a black-headed canary sang its evening song while perched on a flowering shrub and a Karoo chat chortled out its jumbled song from a nearby patch of small trees. I waited there for darkness to overtake me. When it did I was overwhelmed by the deathly silence of the desert. It was the same in the Karoo as it was in the Negev Desert of Israel and the Sahara Desert of Morocco or the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. Complete silence is one of the most pleasant experiences you can have in a desert.
Rolling up the sidewalks on a Saturday night in Calvinia
Dinner options were limited as I later walked around Calvinia. Whomever I asked on the street told me that the best food in town was at the guest house where I was staying. Calvinia after dark on a Saturday night was like most other small towns. Several people sat at the local bar drinking Windhoek larger beer from Namibia while watching rugby on satellite television. Teenaged boys stood on street corners making the same ridiculous comments to teenaged girls that teenaged boys make everywhere on the planet. Mothers hurriedly left the food store carrying bags of groceries needed to prepare the night’s dinner. Other teenagers in cars were driving up and down Main Street “bombing Main” as we did when I was that age. Then, as has probably happened in Calvinia for ages, the streets rolled up at 7:30 and everyone went home.
Dinner was lamb pie at the guest house restaurant. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes after eight and was the only person present. By 8:15 there were no empty tables. “We’re usually busy but not usually this slow,” said Grace one of the servers. Asking her if she didn’t mean that the other way around, Grace said “We are the only place to be in Calvinia on Saturday night. In fact this is the only place to be on Saturday night.
As Grace asked me where I was staying she also wanted to know if I would like another glass of pinotage to wash down my lamb pie. Telling her I was staying at the guest house she said “Since you don’t have to drive there is no excuse not to have another glass of wine. And because we rarely see Americans in Calvinia let me buy this glass for you.”
Grace returned with my glass of pinotage and then asked if I would be there for breakfast. Answering yes she wondered if I would mind paying for dinner tomorrow morning because she was too busy with the Saturday night crowd to take care of my bill. She then said, “It’s not to worry. We trust everyone in this town. It’s not like Johannesburg here.”
Calvinia really isn’t and especially on Saturday night.