Johannesburg – City of Contrasts

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Virtually any place in the world can be ‘home’ if you have your loved ones with you. Humans are incredibly adaptable in this regard. This week marks five years since I made the arduous move from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without some observations about my adopted city. Many have asked me whether I prefer Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg. This question always seems impossible to answer. It’s a bit like comparing a good steak to a scrumptious crème brûlée – you know you like both, but for very different reasons. After a baptism of fire involving vehicle theft, separation from family and much confusion, Johannesburg slowly started revealing itself in the months and years which followed. In that time the primary thing which has struck me about the city is that it’s a city of sharp contrasts. Contrasts which seem to be prevalent in all areas of life and living.

The first contrast that strikes one is the weather, which isn’t immune to this theme. Never in my life have I seen a complete 180 in weather conditions in the space of 15 minutes, from torrential downpour to calm sunshine. The short, intense bursts of rain itself is somewhat symbolic of the Johannesburg ethos of firm decisiveness, and getting the job done quickly and efficiently in a bold, no-nonsense approach. The general stillness and beauty of the weather always seems the perfect antidote to the buzzing, bustling and grinding city.

Before you know it, you start noticing other sharp contrasts, primarily economic ones. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than the neighbouring suburbs Hillbrow and Houghton. A mere couple of blocks separates one of the most affluent, status orientated residential areas from one of the more infamous suburbs on the continent. This always seems a little absurd to me. Drug lords and their subjects living literally a few football fields’ distance away from CEO’s and directors in their mansions.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in Braamfontein, basically an area which is an extension of the old CBD, which has gone through something of an urban renewal over the past few years. I say fortunate, because it’s allowed me to understand this place so much more, and dare I say it, become more cultured in the process. Here the Johannesburg contrasts confront you even more intently. There have been many times when I’ve walked past sleeping bodies on the pavement outside coffee shops where hipsters sip R35 Cappuccinos and where suits and ties discuss profits and bottom lines. R45 craft beers are drunk in sidewalk cafés while beggars roam looking for the next slice of bread or handful of change.

The contrasts go deeper than the surface. I think the loneliest, most isolated moments I’ve ever felt in my life were in the throngs of Joburg people or traffic. I’ve realised that even in the middle of one of the world’s biggest sprawling masses of people, it’s still difficult to find like minded individuals you can relate to. In a city connected to everything, human connection is still elusive. It’s still difficult to find the ‘real’. A bigger city has made people in general even more of a mystery to me. The more I see of society, the less I tend to like it. I see more from people here that I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try. Perhaps big cities aren’t conducive to uncovering humanity’s big questions.

Then there’s the South African question. Nowhere else in the country will you see the good and bad quite this clearly. You see what South Africa is capable of – The Gautrain, the business innovations or the cutting edge architecture of Central Sandton are prime examples. You unfortunately see all the problems with the country, accentuated and more in your face than anywhere else. A great example is when drive on the N3 northbound, at one point you can look to your left and see the towers and brilliance of Sandton glittering on the hill, while closer to you in the foreground are the shacks of Alexandra. More importantly, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how the media and politicians are have distorted and misrepresented the racial moods situation in the country. Johannesburg has shown me that South Africans are generally very good at just getting on with each other and getting on with it. The average Johannesburg person is just here to make a living, support his/her family and live a little. This is such a hotbed of cultures and ethnicities that I think the average Johannesburg person doesn’t even notice ethnicity that much anymore. There are of course unfortunate exceptions.

One thing the Eastern Cape does have firmly in its favour is an ease of access to natural beauty. You can drive for an hour and be as the most picturesque beach or game reserve far away from anything. An hour’s drive in Johannesburg merely gets you to the outskirts of the city. Other than the Parks suburbs of Johannesburg and the Eastern regions of Pretoria, most of the urban area of Gauteng is unattractive, to say the least. The outlying areas of the city are largely industrialised, dusty expanses you just want to get through as quickly as you can. When you combine this with the continual concern over crime that seems to seep under your skin, you sometimes wonder what exactly you’re doing here. Are you part of the problem? But there is a positive to all of this. Things that I might have taken for granted in the past are now a great deal more special. I appreciate life more. Living for today is now far more sacred to me than it was five years ago. Beaches are that much more majestic. Open space and quiet are things of beauty. Mountains are more alluring and mysterious. Wide open vistas are like some form of instant medication. Quiet, open roads are cherished beyond words.

What Johannesburg unquestionably makes you feel is this sense of being in the midst what’s happening and at the centre of a melting pot. Even if you’re not concert-going or shopping at retail flagships every weekend, you do get the feeling that you’re connected to the essence of SA society. But linked to this, there’s an evil ugliness bubbling under the surface of this city, and I’m not referring to crime. I’m referring to the ugly side of normal people. One example of this is people’s conduct in traffic. You didn’t think I’d write a post about Johannesburg without going into traffic, did you? Traffic has become an ongoing social observation for me. I’ve learned that in the hours of big city traffic boredom (and moments of panic), so much can be explained about human nature. On the one hand, when simple traffic rules are ignored with gay abandon, what does it say about that society? When laws are broken and lives are put at risk in order to get ahead of some cars and save a minute, what does that say about people’s attitude to law and order? What does that say about our attitudes to each other? For me, this is a small, but significant symptom of a society going morally bankrupt.

More perplexing is the irresponsible recklessness that I observe. This element I see on the roads cannot be explained in simple terms. If I do approach it too simply I come to the quick conclusion that people are stupid, which although partly true, isn’t the answer. Henry Thoreau once said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. This quote explains what I see in traffic perfectly. What I see are people so highly strung, wired and filled with tension from pursuing career, status and money, often with their backs to the wall. They’ve learned how to make money and grow their career. They’ve learned how to ‘hustle’. But they haven’t learned to reflect, switch off or let out energy. The result is that all the anger, rage and pent up frustration is forced out when behind the wheel of a car, whether it’s reckless speeding or screaming and shouting, this is their only channel for that energy release, but they don’t know this. In amongst all this you can’t help but confront your own ugliness, question your own views and face your own demons, and while humanity continues to mystify me, the past five years have given me a far greater understanding and acceptance of myself. I also tend to think there’s something about the anonymity of a big city and the sheer volumes of people that leads one to care so much less about what others think of you. I’m far less bothered about how others perceive me than I was five years ago, to the point of indifference. That’s a big city effect.

The contrasts you witness aren’t constrained to within Johannesburg itself. In the times that I’ve traveled out of Johannesburg across the country over the past five years, I’ve taken particular interest in small towns and their surroundings.  What I notice more than anything is this sense of decay and abandonment. While Johannesburg is endlessly filled with construction, building, upgrading  or renovating, the small towns by contrast are blatantly being neglected and deserted.   Driving over the endless plains of the Free State and Eastern Cape Karoo recently gave me the feeling that a great deal of careless disregard had been taking place here, as was evident from what was visible from the road. Countless farmhouses gone to decay, old outbuildings which hadn’t been lived in for years, overgrown football fields with the goals missing and small towns where, other than a couple establishments newly maintained, were generally going to rust and ruin. An image still sticks in my mind from a drive to PE in April this year. About 60km north of Uitenhage, on the outskirts of a small village, I spotted a broken swing, lopsidedly hanging by one rope attached to a rusted structure that was leaning miserably to one side. A symbol of hopelessness and decay – something that was once new and once brought joy.

All of this makes me wonder, does progress and success require the ugly urban sprawl and all the contrasts that go with it? As we move further into the 21st century, will we see more and more of this urbanisation, as rural communities move further and further behind, losing their sense of place, purpose and value? This seems inevitable. Since 2011 Gauteng has seen an influx of about 1,2 million people. To put that into perspective, that’s 240 000 people per year making their way into the urban mass. That’s 20 000 new people every month. According to the United Nations (UN), 54% of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, a statistic set to increase to 66% by 2050.

Perhaps what doesn’t need to be as inevitable is this disregard of simplicity of life. When out of Johannesburg I’ve also found myself marveling at times at the homes and lives of small town or rural dwellers. As I drive past houses where chickens run around vegetable patches in yards free from high walls and electric fences, I think Have we got it all wrong? Was there a more pure way of living that we’re forgetting? Maybe. Have we come to measure individual progress as solely money and career related, at the expense of quality of life? The complex seems to have triumphed over the simple.

So while Johannesburg remains my home for the foreseeable future, my love-hate relationship with it will undoubtedly remain. I’m sure the city will continue to serve me with conflicting visions and ideas. I have no doubt that all contrasts around and within me are a good thing. How else do we come to understand the world, and ourselves?

There is magic in the open road

There is something mystical and beautiful about driving the open road. I don’t know why the idea and act of it has always held such appeal to me.

Perhaps living in Johannesburg the stop-start cramped up mesh of traffic makes you just yearn for the release of just driving freely. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we’re forced to sit away from a screen for a time being and actually confront our thoughts. Perhaps it panders to this fantasy that I think we all have somewhere in us of having nowhere to be and nothing to owe. A law unto yourself. The freedom to roam the roads free of responsibility, deadlines, problem or emails, from dusty petrol stations to small towns forgotten by time and care. Days forged by the sound of tyres on gravel, the aching lower back, the changes of landscape from one hour to the next, mountains dreaming in the distance, wiping the sweat off your brow as you get back into the car from the heat, cold beers in empty hotel bars. At times stopping in the middle of nowhere and after the loudness of the road noise to be confronted with an absolute silence so desolate that it is somehow comforting. A silence broken only by the breeze on the farmlands, the distant bird and the clicking of the car engine. Realising that in the current age a search for minimalism and simplicity is perhaps one of the most noble pursuits.

There is magic in the open road.

Dust, Rust and Wanderlust

A lot of people thought I was a little crazy when they learned of my plans to travel across the country for 12 days on my own, leaving my wife at home. It wasn’t in anything they said as such, but more in what they didn’t say. As in no, ‘Oh great’ / ‘That’s awesome’ and so forth. Sometimes you just get a feeling from people that you can’t describe, so I won’t waste time trying to here. Anyway, they didn’t need to understand, or approve. I had a month between jobs (my choice), and due to the fact that my wife couldn’t take leave at the same time for various reasons, coupled with the fact that I’d longed for proper drive across SA for a while meant that this was the way it had to be. Perhaps it was simply a case of Wanderlust – an actual English word describing an unexplained need to wander, travel or explore.

I planned my trip incredibly quickly. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, working through dates, accommodation availability and driving distances. And although I won’t bore you with the details of where and why, I feel I must mention two things. One, Tripadvisor.com is wonderful. Two, for some reason I felt the need to include Calvinia in my journey. The birthplace of my father, and the area where six generations of my forefathers lived and died. Other than that is was just a case of getting away out of the smog, taxis and anger that is Johannesburg.

My day one took me on a journey down the N14 to Upington and then down to Calvinia. A rough estimate had it at 1 100 to 1 200 km’s. The day before I felt anxious, but I couldn’t really explain why. I suppose it had something to do with a 5AM departure and an entire day on the road. I left pretty much on time at around 5:10 and waded out of Gauteng in the dark, waiting for the road to widen, which it didn’t really. I felt I was making good time. By 8AM I was surprised by the fact that I hadn’t put my music on yet – I didn’t really have an inclination to.

If you’re trying to avoid speeding fines while driving cross country, pretty much the only places you need to really worry about are the edges of towns, where the cops prey on that precarious zone between the limit of 60km/h and 120km/h. And of course I never learn my lesson. After a seemingly endless string of red robots in Vryburg and slow drivers who made me feel like the archetypical Joburg driver, the road eventually veered out of town and opened up. Brilliant, I put foot, only to be pulled over about 200 metres later by a stern looking big cop. As always in these situations, I tried to just be nice. If you give cops attitude, you’ll get it straight back. And they do have the proverbial stronger arm. It worked, they were decent enough, but I got trudged over to see my speed and reflect on my accomplishment before being directed to another cop around behind their vehicle where the cop sat in the back seat, and showed me that I owed them R800. But here’s the strange part – just before he showed me the fine cost, he muttered something like ‘Let’s see what we must do here’. That, and the fact that I was around the back of the car made me think this was a bribe attempt, and he was waiting for my offer. I wasn’t having that. ‘Ok, give me the fine’, I said. And I meant it. I just wanted that bloody pink piece of paper and to get the hell out of here and back on the road. You think your fine of R800 shocks me? (Bitch please). The cop proceeded to start the endless process of filling in the fine form. Halfway through he stopped, looked up at me and said ‘It’s fine. I’ll give you a chance’. He handed me back my license, and off I walked. Not knowing if that was a bribe attempt or just common decency, I sped off at the swift speed of 60km/h until I saw the next 120 sign.

I thought the roads would quieten, but strangely they seemed to do the opposite. The roads around Kuruman felt like the N2 at Christmas time. I was starting to get a little edgy, and worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew on this day one drive. No matter how long a drive, I always plan to avoid any driving at night, as it just makes me uneasy. As I kept getting caught behind slow drivers I stressed about how far I still needed to cover. I eventually reached Upington, where I’d branch off the N14 30km later at Keimoes. I’d guess the extent that ordinary South Africans know about Upington is simply that it’s hot, only knowing that from the crazy temperatures we’d see on the TV weather report. “ . . . . . rising to a maximum of 42 in Upington tomorrow”. It wasn’t that hot in Upington though, but strangely enough the temperature did suddenly rise from 23 to 26 rather suddenly as I approached Upington, which I found kinda funny.

The R27 starts in Keimoes and ends in Vanrynsdorp about 450km to the South West. It’s a road I’ve always wanted to travel. Mainly because it’s probably the most remote tarred road in South Africa, cutting over the vast nothingness of the basin known as Bushmanland, a barren, arid wasteland of dry salt pans. Unfortunately it was 14:30, I’d been driving non-stop for around nine and a half hours, and I now faced this road. I still had about 350km to get to Calvinia. Cold beer in Calvinia suddenly sounded very good. It would have been nice to drive it in a better, fresher state of mind. I filled up in Keimoes, and after crossing the Orange River three times due to it forming a delta around the area, I ventured south for the final stage of the day.

The R27 delivered on its promise of nothingness. A stark, haunting landscape amplified by its remoteness. To the South West the clouds made beautiful dark, hazy shaped against the sky. It disturbed me slightly to see absolutely zero phone signal whenever I glanced at my phone. I passed through the tiny settlements of Kenhardt and Brandvlei, probably the two most isolated little towns in South Africa. Towns seemingly forgotten by time and the world. I wondered what on earth these people actually do here? Where’s their income? How do these desolate and destitute economies survive? As people continue to flock to the big cities for prospects, jobs and livelihoods, what role will the small town have in the future? So many of them seem to be in continual states of decline, with not enough self-generating income or business mindedness to make them self-sustainable. I can see a future where many small towns disintegrate to become simple outposts, manned by a select few needed individuals. The small towns that thrive will be the ones who can harness the power of tourism, find their quirky uniqueness, and attract/retain the right community of small business entrepreneurs.

The R27 between Keimoes and Calvinia

The R27 between Keimoes and Calvinia

The barren dry salt pans of the Bushmanland / Lower Kalahari area

The barren dry salt pans of the Bushmanland / Lower Kalahari area

My amazing Hyundai

My amazing Hyundai

Just after 5pm I rolled into Calvinia. After a trip like that, finally reaching your destination leaves one feeling quite emotional, probably through sheer exhaustion. I was staying at a place called Blou Nartjie. I didn’t know where it was. I just pulled over on a random street, got out and looked around, smelled the air, listened to the sounds. My welcoming party was a scruffy old street dog that ran over to come smell my jeans, thankfully not peeing on them. I found my accommodation, which I found out later on is actually a renovated Jewish church from the 1800’s. I settled in and went around to get a well-deserved beer. I was so keen I was tempted to order two at once, but thought better of it.

My welcoming party in Calvinia

My welcoming party in Calvinia

I found Calvinia a really nice town, and that’s hopefully not showing bias. I should know too. I drove though some proper shithole towns to get to Calvinia. Towns where you’re actually in a rush to get out. Where hundreds of people mill about slowly on the street without purpose, like a bunch of zombies. Where the streets are sprinkled with litter and dirt as if someone has purposely scattered the litter about like they would sow seeds.

Calvinia on the other hand is actually a place I could live. Although I need to be careful when I say that, because as I often say to my wife, for me to live in a town it needs two things: A Woolies Food and a pharmacy. Calvinia definitely doesn’t have a Woolies Food, and I never saw any Apteek signs around. But it’s able to find that elusive middle ground between inhospitable dump and arty tourist town. i.e. You can live there, and not have to put up with continual tourists, endless coffee shops, craft beer and some hipsters.

That night I had dinner outside on the veranda of the establishment. I looked out across at the small old house called the Hantam Huis across the road, and fittingly at the Hantam Mountains beyond that. I’d spent the day in an unemotional state and a dogged frame of mind, on a mission to get the drive done. But here, now, on the veranda I was finally feeling good. No doubt two beers and glass of wine had something to do with it, but I’d found that whimsical state of thoughtfulness and that I’d missed all day. I asked my waitress, a young woman, what it’s like to live in Calvinia. “It’s nice. Sometimes not nice. And people talk.” Hmm, she wasn’t going to be much help. I suppose deep down I’m looking for that little town that my wife and I can retire to one day in maybe 25 years or so. And even though Calvinia might not be it, I felt good that it wasn’t a town I would cross off immediately.

The next morning I was determined to visit the Calvinia museum, where I’d heard my great great great grandfather was displayed. Not the man himself, but a wall honouring his life. Nicolaas Salomon Louw – the first Calvinia resident to live to 100. (He incidentally died at 100 too. A bit like a batsman that’s just made his century and loses concentration). I don’t know, but the idea of anyone living to 100 through the 1800’s seems pretty damn impressive. The door was open at 8:30 as I drove past. I rang the bell. A lovely woman called Memci Van Wyk answered, and after I’d told her what I’d come to look at we quickly established that that we were distantly related. She knew so much about the Louws, their Calvinia history and the stories around it. Incredible. I was expecting some illiterate fool employed by the government to just let me in and get my R10, but instead I’d found someone who genuinely knew the family history, and was passionate about it. The museum itself was another eye opener. Betraying appearances, it seemed to go on forever. Who knew that up to 1920 there was big Jewish community in Calvinia? Or, more interestingly, that the Louws were known for their writing. This was very pleasing to know. Stemming from the family of the 100 year old Nicolaas Louw were writers NP Van Wyk Louw, WEG Louw, Anna M Louw, George Louw, Peter Louw, Rona Rupert, Willem Steenkamp, Johnita le Roux, Nico Louw and Pieter Strauss, all within the last 150 years or so.

Late afternoon in Calvinia

Late afternoon in Calvinia

Late afternoon in Calvinia

Late afternoon in Calvinia

Late afternoon in Calvinia

Late afternoon in Calvinia

My great great great grandfather Nicolaas Louw. Lived to 100.

My great great great grandfather Nicolaas Louw. Lived to 100.

The farm Groot Toren was owned by my direct Louw descendents for roughly a century. It’s about 45km North West of Calvinia. Groot Toren – directly translated from Dutch as Big Tower – was named because of the high mountain that sits alongside it. Memci told me about the murder on the farm, the Toren Moord, which I was actually unaware of. When I put the pieces together later on that week I suddenly realised how critical that murder incident actually was to my entire family history. A fascinating story. Forgive me now for re-telling it in a couple of paragraphs.

Petrus Pienaar came north of the Cape in the late 1700’s to find good land for his farming. He settled on the beautiful farm speckled with flowers, called it Groot Toren and for 15 years developed it, and along with his wife Jacoba became a prominent member of the local community. They had a daughter named Hester Josina. On a night in 1795 their farm foreman, Jager Afrikaner, a man of bushman origin, appeared at the door of the main house at Groot Toren. Following a short exchange of words, Afrikaner shot Pienaar and then killed his family. History will have different sides of the story as to why Afrikaner shot Pienaar, and I need to read further into it before giving any opinion.

Afrikaner thought he had killed all of them, but the thirteen year old daughter Hester Josina played dead until they had left. House servants the next day found her alive. She recovered her health and eventually left the area to go back to her remaining family in Tulbagh. Afrikaner fled up towards the Orange River, and established himself in what’s now Namibia.

In the Tulbagh area Hester Josina met a man called Willem Petrus Louw, a wine farmer, and if my calculations are right, my direct descendent six generations ago. They settled in the Swartland area and farmed there. After a couple of decades, for reasons I don’t know, Hester Josina insisted they go back to Groot Toren, which was obviously still in her name, and in 1830 they made the trip back and settled on the farm. And that’s how the Louws established themselves in Calvinia. Hester Josina, at the age of 13 somehow survived the attack that night in 1795. If she didn’t I wouldn’t be here. Neither would my father or his father.

I circled around in the town for a while. I had to get to Beaufort West but I felt like I didn’t want to leave. When I did eventually leave Calvinia it was in a daydreaming state of wonder. All this extra info. And wouldn’t the whole Groot Toren story make a great book, merging fact with fiction? It made me think of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and how he’d taken family history and added a couple of fictional characters and a plot to it. I’m no Steinbeck, but it did make me wonder if it was doable in a sort of five year plan as a side project. And Jager Afrikaner. What a name for a villain. If he even is a villain. Maybe complex figure who’s actually good?

Leaving Calvinia. Hantam Mountains behind the town.

Leaving Calvinia. Hantam Mountains behind the town.

The vast Karoo. This taken between Carnarvon and Loxton.

The vast Karoo. This taken between Carnarvon and Loxton.

It took me about an hour’s drive from Calvinia to notice for the first time that the road was exceptionally quiet. I must have passed two cars in that time. It was fine by me. Quiet, open roads are lovely. It had taken more than 1200km to get to a dead quiet road, but eventually I’d reached one. My next stop was Beaufort West, but after a petrol attendant back in Calvinia mentioned a water issue with my car, I stopped at each town to keep checking. In Carnarvon the petrol attendant who checked begged me not to continue. He directed me across the road to the mechanic, a respectable guy called Jaco. Jaco, in his broken English told me that the reserve water tank was broken, but I needed to just keep checking the main water supply. Phew, I didn’t feel like being stuck in Carnarvon for a few hours, or God-forbid overnight. He asked me if I’d hit anything to break it, and I said no. Afterwards my mind did wander back to a crazy ramp over the central pavement of Empire Road in central Johannesburg about seven weeks prior to this. From there I went through Loxton, Victoria West, and eventually got onto the N1 at Three Sisters, a ‘place’ that always confuses me. All the signs tell you how far you are from Three Sisters, but when you reach it there’s nothing. No town. No buildings (other than a Shell station). No shacks.

In Beaufort West I stayed in a place called Lemoenfontein, stuck right up on the hill about 6km out of town. It was a gritty little 5km gravel road to get there. I hate gravel roads. They leave me feeling all apologetic to my car, which wasn’t built for gravel roads. It’s like asking James Blunt to sing heavy metal. I could only imagine what it was thinking. A bust reserve water tank, and now THIS!!

On their veranda the panoramic view stretched over Beaufort West below right to the Swartberg mountains over 100km away. As I stood there, I thought this is why they call it the Great Karoo. Because it is truly great. Great open space. Great landscapes. Great fresh air. If you’ve never been to the Karoo you’ll never understand the incredible sense of space you feel there. The politicians and government that irk me so much seem incredibly distant here. They’re not applicable here surely??

Beaufort West from the hill. The town below, and the Swartberg far in the distance.

Beaufort West from the hill. The town below, and the Swartberg far in the distance.

A Jack Russell friend making me feel at home

A Jack Russell friend making me feel at home

The next morning, because I was in Beaufort West I decided once again to visit my grandfather’s grave. And once again I couldn’t find flowers in the town to put on the grave. I had to content myself to clearing away weeds and dusting the headstone. It’s a strange thing paying respects at a grave. You want to make the most out of the moment, and yet you don’t really know what to be thinking. I tried to find a mindful state of ‘in the moment’, but even that was tough. Nevertheless I left feeling good.

Towards the end of the novel Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, the character Geissler alludes to his view on the meaning of eternal life. Speaking to the young man Sivert, destined to take over the family farm, he says, ‘Tis you that maintain life. Generation to generation, breeding ever anew; and when you die, the new stock goes on. That is the meaning of eternal life.’ Those couple of days made those words ring true. Eternal life is then surely the obligation to sustain life? Spending time in the land of my ancestors made me truly feel like my life was in some way a culmination of all the lives that had come before it – the same goes for all our lives. And as I gazed back down the centuries in awe of time I felt a bit like the soft wave that that tamely laps the shore, with time like the mighty ocean behind it.

My journey then took me from the Great Karoo over to the Klein Karoo, passing through the incredible Meiringspoort Pass, which never ceases to put me in a state of awe. From De Rust at the end of Meiringspoort I went through Oudtshoorn without even knowing the KKNK was on. My next stop was a small boutique wine farm outside Ladismith called Mymering, owned by the wonderfully hospitable Andy and Penny Hillock. A short, easier gravel road got me there, and I found myself in a beautiful valley stuck between two hill outcrops to the East and West, and in the shadow of the majestic Swartberg to the North.

Mymering Farm

Mymering Farm

The Hillocks have a unique, personal way of hosting by insisting that you sit in a big group for dinner, along with them. I’m sceptical of these things, but I rolled with it, and found myself enjoying it. I met a German couple, quite unlike the stolid German tourists we’re used to – these two were actually really great. I met an old eccentric couple who own a hilltop mansion in Plett. I met a young couple around my age from my old hometown PE, who were unfortunately extremely uninteresting. I also met two UK tourists who are Dutch citizens but had grown up in Malawi. He’d just driven across the Karoo and arrived in black work pants, a navy work short tucked in and a pen clipped in his pocket, like he’d just walked out of a hard day at the bank.

On the second evening there was a power outage and my phone had died on me. On the first night I’d used my Samsung phone’s torch app to see where I was walking, but on the second night I had to navigate the cobbled roadway down to my unit in the absolute dark. I have a paralysing fear of snakes, and I was in prime Puff Adder country. Someone once told me that snakes liked to come out onto the roads at night because the roads retained the heat of the day. That may be rubbish, but it’s rubbish that has stuck in my mind, clearly. I made it to my unit without incident, but it’s strange how danger never materialises when we’re thinking about it or fearing it. I almost think that if I strolled down there thinking about football or cars, I would have tripped over a curled up, angry Puff Adder.

I even managed to get some wine tasting and education in, facilitated by the head chef and manager, who was in the process of moving back to George, or as he pronounced it, Dsords. After two nights there I was ready to go. My next stop was my main destination, Paternoster, where I would stay for six nights. It took me to the end of Route 62 and then up towards Worcester and then up through searing 35 degree Paarl heat and bustling traffic. To get to Paarl on the N1 I had to go through the Hugenot Tunnel. The tunnel is one of those things that completely amazes me and restores my faith in human ability. To dig this tunnel under some of the highest peaks in South Africa. The tunnel took 15 years to complete, between 1973 and 1988. The story goes that the tunnel digging started from both sides, when the two sides eventually reached each other they were just 3mm out of position. South Africans are capable of some great things. Unfortunately those great things seem to be becoming more and more rare.

Early morning on Route 62 between Ladismith and Barrydale.

Early morning on Route 62 between Ladismith and Barrydale.

After Paarl I ventured North into the Swartland, an area directly North of Paarl. I have much family history here, as I’ve recently learned. The first Louw in the cape was a chap called Jan Pieterzoon Louw, who came over in 1659 during Van Riebeek’s time. Because the Dutch settlers and the Khoikhoi didn’t really get on in terms of trading, the Dutch released a select few workers from their contracts and permitted them to farm land in the area. They were called ‘Free Burghers’. When Jan Pieterzoon arrived at the Cape, only 12 of the original 23 ‘Free Burghers’ remained on their farms. Jan acquired a piece of land on the banks of the Liesbeek River that he called Louwvliet, which nowadays makes up the suburbs of Newlands and Claremont. (I should be like our idiot politicians and put in a land claim and try to own the stadium). Jan was bound by Dutch contract to cultivate the land for 14 years. In fact, he was eventually the only Free Burgher of Van Riebeeck’s era who actually remained on his farm for the required period, and over that time acquired two other neighbouring farms. An interesting co-incidence is that when translated to English from Dutch, Louwvliet is Louw’s Creek. For the last 20 years outside the front door of my family’s home in Port Elizabeth has been a wooden plaque with the words Louw’s Creek.

From there the Louws ventured north, first to the Drakenstein (now Paarl), and eventually further north to the Swartland, where my direct ancestors farmed for a few generations, before Hester Josina came down and won the heart of Willem Petrus Louw (Of course I’m being a romantic now).

The Swartland is in many ways nothing like the Cape we know. It’s flat, dry, and grassy with the only mountains being the distant Cederberg in the East. At times it feels like you’re in the Highveld, but with a lot more rustic beauty. The area got its name from Jan Van Riebeek, who on his first venture through it called it “Het Zwarte Land” because of the Renosterbos that turned dark in the winter months. It extends from Malmesbury in the South to Piketburg in the north. From Darling in the West to Riebeek Kasteel in the East. One of the less famous and under-appreciated wine areas in South Africa, it’s also the best wheat growing area in the Cape, although I speak under correction.

In the Swartland between Malmesbury and Darling, looking down to the peninsula and table mountain.

In the Swartland between Malmesbury and Darling, looking down to the peninsula and table mountain.

I couldn't resist stopping in at some of my favourite wine brands.

I couldn’t resist stopping in at some of my favourite wine brands.

I’d never been to Paternoster before, but it seemed like the right kind of place to kick back, relax and spend six days. Small enough to not have the bustling crowds, and yet nice enough to be very enjoyable. At least that was my perception of it. As I neared the coast I could smell it in the air. It’s an incredible thing when you haven’t been to the coast in a while – even if you can’t see the sea, there’s an almost tangible feeling in the air. Whenever I land in Port Elizabeth, the first thing I do when getting out the plane is take deep breaths of the inevitable breeze, and I can always pick up the salty scent of the sea.

A sea mist covered Paternoster as I entered it. The kind of mist you’ll only ever get on fairly desolate coastlines. A drifting cool greyness that seeps in during the afternoon, usually on the back of a gentle breeze, diminishing visibility to 20 metres and dropping the temperature. My perceptions of Paternoster weren’t far off. Having been to Greece in 2014, this was the closest thing I’d seen to Greece in South Africa, obviously with a whole lot of South African elements thrown in, with all the positive and negative that come with that. The side I stayed on was around the corner from the main beach on a wide cove of beach set between two rock outcroppings about 400 metres apart. Beautiful. The weather was perfect every day, and the sun set directly in front of my window. It was really too nice to experience alone, but that’s the way it had to be. When you experience things alone you have no one to back up your perceptions and share in the memory later on.

I’ve never been self-conscious of eating out alone, particularly in Johannesburg, and indeed it’s something I do quite often. If my wife happens to be working on a photoshoot on a weekend morning I think nothing of popping into a place on my own in between visiting a shop or two. Even at night you wouldn’t get a second glance dining alone in Johannesburg, not that I do that. But on my first night in Paternoster, which happened to be a Friday night, I went to a beachside restaurant called Voorstrandt and felt slightly awkward for the first time ever. Here I was at close quarters with either families or couples. In a place like that they must have either felt sorry for me or thought I was a serial killer. I was missing my wife. I was tired of asking for a table for one.

It’s a funny thing dining out alone. In a few glances at a table I feel I can sometimes pick up the key social dynamics there. The couple who are unhappy with each other. The husband who’s having to put up with in-laws. The exhausted look of parents of young kids. You also unintentionally get to hear snippets of conversation around you. You get to listen in to the ordinary lives of others, and what you realise is that their lives are precisely that – ordinary.

It’s also amazing the number of couples you find in restaurants who don’t seem to have the ability to talk to each other, and sit there in a solemn state of silence. My wife and I can’t keep a conversation rolling the entire meal (believe me, after living together for six years it isn’t possible), but we talk. We communicate. Even if it’s talking shit (usually me), or telling each other some whimsical pipe dream.

It took me a couple of days to finally find proper relaxation. I’m so accustomed to waking up with tasks at hand, even on weekends. There are some things I’ve got to go get done. Now! Quickly before the shops get busy. Even getting here to Paternoster I was waking up with the task of driving, and usually left establishments at a much earlier hour than I needed to, because it had to get done. There was a task to do and I had to complete it. It took me a couple of days to get out of that, and I quickly settled on a daily routine. Late breakfast, slow drive to the endless open beach other side town for a long walk, back to shower, stroll up the road for a beer at a place with a view, stroll back again for lie down and maybe some reading, saunter down to the beach for a late afternoon stroll, then wait around for dinner. Neil Young sang that “It’s better to burn out, than it is to rust.” Well in those few days rusting felt pretty alluring I must say. My hair was going more blond, my skin was going more brown, and I was worried my mind was going more blunt, which is when I decided to start writing this.

I’ve never stayed right next to the sea like this for as long as I have now. In the daytime the sea is a thing of beauty, changing colour throughout the day in relation to the sun. But the sea becomes a like a formidable, mighty beast at night, lying in wait. The refreshing and calming sound of the waves during the day become a monstrous growl at night, a sound of warning. Although it never happened to me on this trip, when you’re on your own for a while like I was the sound of the sea can, I think, easily become a desolate sound of captivity, amplifying your sense of isolation. Napoleon must have hated the sea on St Helena. Likewise Mandela on Robben Island. The sound of nature’s jail cell taunting them relentlessly, never ceasing.

Enjoying the sea on my feet - first time in ages!

Enjoying the sea on my feet – first time in ages!

Paternoster

Paternoster

Paternoster

Paternoster

My room at sunset

My room at sunset

Sunset over my beach

Sunset over my beach

Late afternoon over my cove of beach

Late afternoon over my cove of beach

Paternoster - main beach

Paternoster – main beach

Fisherman at sundown - main beach

Fisherman at sundown – main beach

My daily lunch ritual - Paternoster

My daily lunch ritual – Paternoster

Eventually it was time to leave Paternoster and my cosy little deserted bay. I always get into a melancholic mood when I have to leave somewhere I’ve been staying, and this was particularly hard because of the beauty of the place. I stood on my veranda on the afternoon before I left and enjoyed one last sunset. I thought that even though I was leaving, the waves would keep crashing tomorrow, the next day and long after that. The sunset would keep coming down over the sea every afternoon. The world carries on – indifferently.

I had a lengthy 900km drive to Colesberg the next day, and my peaceful feeling disappeared somewhat. I woke at 3AM and didn’t sleep again. At 6am in the pitch dark I ventured out of Paternoster. My route took me through a load-shedded Paarl at 8:30 in the morning, halting at four stop-go’s on the N1 around De Doorns, eventually opening up back into the Karoo. The N1 is a soulless, truck infested road that cuts the country diagonally like a long straight scar. I stopped at Laingsburg at 11AM, dismayed that even though I hadn’t got out the car in five hours, I’d only gone 400km. I felt tired, and was even more dismayed to see the distance sign say Colesberg: 512km. I now know why the Laingsburg – Beaufort West section of the N1 is often called the Road of Death. Its long straight stretches have a hypnotic effect on you that leaves you fighting to stay alert. I gulped down Red Bulls and sang along to every word of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Led Zeppelin’s IV, failing to match Robert Plant’s high notes. My 3AM wake up was taking its toll. I’ve driven long distance cross-country many times, but that was easily the worst drive of my life. I eventually reached Colesberg at 5PM after 11 awful hours, but felt much closer to home. I had dinner there and left the next morning, onto a thoroughly unexciting drive home through the Free State and onwards to Joburg, which is where this little account of my travels ends.

I wouldn’t mind the dust of the Karoo staying on my shoes for a while, but they’ll be cleaned. I’d like to know that all my forefathers were watching me on my journey, appreciating it. But they probably weren’t. I’d like the memory of my little beach cove in Paternoster to live on forever, but it will fade. I’d like the brown tone of my face to stay as is, but the Joburg winter will whiten me back to look European. As I said, the world carries on – indifferently.

I hadn’t gone on this journey to find myself, I already knew that. But perhaps I’d learned some things. Some things that for some reasons seemed important. My family farmed wine. I love wine. Louw’s were famous for writing. I love words, and although I’m not a writer I do enjoy it when I get the chance. I don’t believe these are co-incidences. I also don’t think it’s a co-incidence that every time I take a local holiday, I want it to be down in the Western Cape, drawn there like a magnet. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was that life is not something limited to our lifetime here and now, but is rather a culmination of countless lives before that we happen to just be the latest version of. I know much of the above is about myself and family history, but if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading.