Tag Archives: Northern Cape

The Siege of Kimberley, or Why you should not piss off engineers

The 1871 discovery of diamonds on Colesberg Kopje produced a stampede of more than two thousand miners to a remote area of what we now call the Northern Cape.  By the end of that year, the Cape Colony had successfully named the territory a crown colony called “Griqualand West,” despite the Afrikaner Orange Free State’s arguments that the area fell within its natural borders.  Within two years, the growing town had been renamed Kimberley after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, and by 1877 it had been annexed by the Cape Colony.  The Cape had stolen the diamonds of Kimberley, fair and square!

The ambitious Cecil Rhodes wanted to control the wealth of the gold mines within the Afrikaner Transvaal (discovered in 1886), and he engineered a raid by forces of six hundred men under Sir Leander Starr Jameson to raise the British-favoring uitlanders in rebellion.  This force of men crossed into the Transvaal on December 29th, 1895.  Within five days, Jameson was compelled to surrender, and the uitlanders remained out of the conflict.  Rhodes’ involvement was exposed, and he was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1896.  The British desire for the wealth of Johannesburg remained, however, and on October 11, 1899, the Second Anglo-Boer War began with Boer forces crossing into British-held areas.


The Hotel Belgrave (now the McGregor Museum)

Kimberley was an obvious target because it was highly exposed and wealthy.  Cecil Rhodes had instigated the construction of a sanitarium for lung ailments in 1895; the completed building had almost immediately begun service as the Hotel Belgrave.  Rhodes occupied two rooms in this Hotel to keep an eye on his business interests during the war.  Almost immediately, the Boers made their presence felt in Kimberley, with 7500 soldiers encircling the city.  Rather than gaining the city as a base, the Boers were intent upon starving out the British population.  The siege line pressed quite close to the Hotel Belgrave, and a Gatling gun emplacement was constructed on the east-facing upper balcony of the hotel.



The entrance hallway of the Hotel Belgrave is particularly lush.

The British forces in Kimberley were led by Colonel Robert Kekewich and consisted of four regiments of North Lancashire Loyal Regiment along with some Royal Engineers.  They were supported by 2000 civilians, most of whom worked for the mining companies.  This allegiance meant that Cecil Rhodes had considerable weight to throw around in the conduct of city defenses.  He and Kekewich were frequently at loggerheads, with Mr. Rhodes arguing that the relief of Kimberley was an urgent necessity while Kekewich argued that the military situation put higher priority elsewhere.


Rhodes and Kekewich (left and right, respectively) experienced a rather contentious relationship.

Militarily, Kimberley was faced with a critical problem.  The Boers possessed artillery that could reach inside the city, but the British forces were limited to 2.5 inch mountain guns that could not answer at this distance.  De Beers Chief Mechanical Engineer George Labram and workshop foreman William Berry decided on an audacious plan to design and manufacture a powerful rifled howitzer from a three-meter billet of steel in the workshop.  He had already worked some minor miracles by designing a refrigerator for perishable foods and setting up the plant to build shells for the mountain guns and to manufacture small arms.

He and his engineers started the project to build a powerful howitzer on December 26, 1899.  They sought a weapon that could fire a nearly 12.7 kg shell approximately 7.6 km (28 pounds for 4.7 miles).  Along the way, the engineers had to solve many problems of construction, such as how to compensate for the metal being lower in carbon content than appropriate for guns, how to rifle and strengthen the barrel, and how to survive direct hits on the workshop by Boer artillery.  The workshop also produced shells for the gun, some stamped “WITH COMPTS CJR.”  Their single focus produced a viable weapon by January 18th, 1900, only 24 days after beginning the project!


“Long Cecil” today

The gun was named “Long Cecil,” in honor of Cecil Rhodes.  The next day, the gun was fired for the first time by Mrs. Pickering, the wife of his company secretary.  The round landed in a Boer laager at a distance of 7.2 km.  After several test shots, the engineers retired to work out the proper elevations and powder charge for a given range.  On January 22nd, the gun was fired by the Diamond Fields Artillery detachment.  In the first days of its use, some minor elements were broken by the strain of fire, but the workshop was able to fashion replacements.

The Boers responded in kind.  On February 6, they were able to emplace a “Long Tom,” a 155 mm Schneider siege gun, to support their shelling of Kimberley.  Three days later, their final shot into the city landed in the Grand Hotel of Kimberley, killing George Labram.  The Boers continued to shell the city, and the British responded by sending over 3,000 women and children into the diamond mines for safety from the shelling.

The siege at Kimberley was relieved on February 15th by British forces.  In the short interval of its military operation, Long Cecil fired more than 200 rounds against the forces around Kimberley.  It was displayed for visiting royalty in later years.  In the end, this one-of-a-kind howitzer was given a permanent home at the Honoured Dead Siege Memorial in Kimberley, right next door to a monument designed by Sir Herbert Baker to resemble the Tomb of Theron in Sicily, featuring a dedication written specifically for the memorial by Rudyard Kipling.


The Kimberley Honoured Dead Memorial

In search of diamonds at Kimberley

In the Northern Cape of South Africa, the Square Kilometer Array has partnered with Sol Plaatje University to produce an annual “Big Data Careers Day” for the undergraduate students in the Data Science degree program.  I was very fortunate to be included in this year’s program (courtesy of the Newton Fund) to explain the field of bioinformatics to these learners and invite them to consider graduate study in the field.  In the late 19th century, Kimberley was a place where we scoured the earth for diamonds.  Hopefully the 21st century will be the era when its young people become diamonds through education.


Vice Chancellor Yunus Ballim (SPU), Bonita de Swardt (SKA), and I were all smiles after a solid first day.

“Data Sciences” spans a considerable number of subjects, ranging across mathematics, statistics, and computer science, to prepare graduates for work in “Big Data.”  Because the Square Kilometer Array is under construction in the Northern Cape, 400 km to the southwest of Kimberley, many of these students hope to become engaged in astronomy research.  Major technology companies, such as Google, IBM, Dell, Microsoft, and Cisco, made their own pitches for the students, as did local Big Data institutions, such as Tracker, the Centre for High Performance Computing, and other universities.  I focused my message about bioinformatics on four key points:

  • We make a difference in confronting public health menaces, like TB and HIV.
  • Our careers let us pivot to new application areas at will.
  • Academics travel to many places in attending conferences and invited talks.
  • Graduate students in the sciences receive funding to cover costs during training.

Even though I was near the end of a long day of presentations, I felt that the students resonated the energy I put into my discussion.  Several of them expressed interest in practical internships or even attending honours at Stellenbosch Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.


What a great group!

On the second day, I went in search of diamonds of a different sort.  I visited the town’s premier tourist attraction: The Big Hole.  When diamonds were discovered in 1871 on the De Beers farm, the area was a small hill.  After thousands of would-be prospectors acquired rights to mine small claims, the soil disappeared quickly.  By the time the mine had closed in 1914, the wealthy town of Kimberley had begun the industrialization of South Africa.  A massive “headgear” had been constructed to haul loads out of the mine.  A staggering 2722 kg of diamonds had been taken from the ground, with tunnels stretching as far as a kilometer below (essentially the same as the height of Table Mountain above sea level).  This is what remains of that hill:


For scale, the distance from the surface of the water to the ground outside the excavation is 175 m.

In the mid-1900s, the city of Kimberley decided to turn this site into a history museum, and they relocated many historic buildings to a preserved village on the northwest corner of the hole.  My walk to that village passed through the downtown area, but I soon saw I had taken the wrong route; a high gate with razor wire surrounded the hole, and the area was heavy with litter and an unpleasant smell.  I turned south to walk through the largest concentration of taxi mini-busses I have ever encountered.  I endured my nightmare without screams and continued on my counter-clockwise route around the crater.  After passing a revivalist church of excitingly modern architecture, I reached the entrance to the historic village.  The headgear still stands above the observation platform.  I was heavily reminded of the structure appearing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 during the final episode.


The head gear dwarfs the buildings around it.

The village itself is an interesting collection of old and new.  I was particularly interested in a church (constructed in 1875) and a modular home that was prefabricated in England (1877) and then ported by oxwagon from the coast to Kimberley.  Inside the church, old recordings of hymns are played.  It’s a little spooky, honestly.


Rapid construction is not always beautiful construction, but these buildings have endured quite well.

One of the biggest surprises for me came from one of the tallest structures in the historic village, with a lovely spire above it.  I saw that it was closed because a class was taking place.  When I peeked through the window, I saw that a Butlers Hotel School occupied the ground floor.  The hospitality workers of tomorrow were learning their skills in a completely up-to-date kitchen!


Electric lights! Electric street cars!

For me, this reinforces one of the key lessons of my trip to Kimberley: the true riches that we have in our cities are the people who live there.  I am excited to see so much effort given to training the next generation of South Africans.


Northern Cape: Ancient rock art in the Cederberg Mountains

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 9, 2016

For the last full day of our vacation, Natasha suggested something special.  We would go over the pass to see the Sevilla Rock Art Trail, a 5 km walk dotted with ancient paintings from the San hunters and gatherers who have occupied this area for thousands of years.  I started out somewhat skeptical.  How much art could have survived outdoors through thousands of rainy seasons?  I was about to receive an education in the subject.

We drove back up the gravel road toward Clanwilliam, then turned away just before reaching the city to follow the R364 east instead.  We had not been traveling for long when Natasha called out “Eland!”  Sure enough, one of the large antelopes was standing calmly in a meadow near the road.  Considering how often we had seen its smaller relatives, it was special to see this massive creature on the last day of our trip.  The eland had particular significance to the San, playing an important role in their ceremonies and trances.  Sadly I could not find a place to stop the car nearby.

The R364 climbs strongly as one drives east.  In some respects, the road is climbing over the rim of a bowl.  The Pakhuis Pass climbs to almost a kilometer above sea level, getting rockier as it rises.  We passed a parking lot crammed full of cars from Cape Town; many people enjoy hiking and climbing at Rocklands Bouldering.  It is quite obvious when you have reached the top of the pass from an awe-inspiring view of the valley beyond.


The afternoon view to the east of Pakhuis Pass

We descended from the pass and kept our eyes open for “Traveller’s Rest” (this name had resonance for me because of a historic plantation in Nashville by the same name).  We found the farm just before a bridge over the Brandewyn River (this name, of course, made me perk up my ears since I am an avid Tolkien reader).  We parked and walked into the farm store and restaurant.  We paid a R40 per person permit fee since the trail is on private land.  We walked across the bridge to the trail head.


The Brandewyn River bridge (the photo is from coming back rather than heading out)

We ducked through a spring-loaded gate, passed through a meadow, and then we were striding across rock.  The San were somewhat inconsiderate, so the first art was at least a kilometer from the highway!  The way was marked with white footprints painted onto the rocks.  The brochure from Traveller’s Rest helpfully includes a silhouette so that the complete neophyte knows what to look for.


We pause before the first painting.

Natasha has experience with the rock art of this area, and she explained a couple of aspects for this site.  First, some rocks are in such a convenient location that they were used by multiple artists at different times.  The red figures represent a hunting party from a different painting than the black ring of spectators, present at a ceremony.  The images at the next two sites showed the spiritual importance of animals in such ceremonies; the shaman was believed to transform himself into an animal, and so therianthrope creatures play a significant role in the art.


Site Five of the trail features a wealth of fine figures.

Although one can see a considerable variety of pigments used in these paintings, the black and red have remained intact for a longer time than the white and yellow pigments.  As a result, some figures painted in bichrome style seem to be missing parts; an empty space on the rock might have been yellow a thousand years ago.  In the figures to the left, the chests appear to be missing above the legs.  This is probably a case where a different color was used for the kaross cloaks.

The art appears to split into roughly three eras.  The first, stretching until approximately 1500 years ago, looks like the above, with finely detailed figures.  Work during the period after that is surprisingly coarser, sometimes even being daubed onto the wall with fingers rather than finer instruments.  Colonial-era art also typically employs a cruder style, but it may feature recognizable elements of the imported European culture. Simple hand-prints are harder to place in time, but they don’t particularly require an artist’s skill.


The eland bodies at the right of Site Nine are harder to recognize without their white legs.


The view from Site Nine.

As we navigated the trail, I learned a bit about rock art.  The people who painted these images had favorite spots that they sought for their art.  A huge, balancing rock was an open invitation to local artists, even if their images below the boulders required some crawling to see.  If a recess in the rock wall was large enough for habitation, smoke from fires would mask art on the ceiling.  The ridge east of the Brandewyn River features recesses of many depths, and almost all of it seems to feature the piled stones that were so attractive.  In some places, it appeared that the artists had incorporated cracks from the stones into their work.  We were happy to find other art near these sites that were not featured in the brochure.

The vegetation in the area was also quite lovely.  We paused at Site Five for lunch and enjoyed the shade of a wild olive tree that had probably been in place for hundreds of years (which would have it begin its life long after most of these paintings had washed away).  Natasha fed me a leaf from a suuring (Oxalis flava).  The plant has been used for flavoring stews.  We saw many colors of small flowers, and of course the view of the distant ridge line was always with us.


What a delightful place to put an art gallery!

By the end of our hike, I was getting a bit dizzy from the sunlight.  We shuffled back into the car for our return drive over Pakhuis Pass.  On the drive, though, we passed two pairs of baboons.  They made it clear what they thought of us with their wary scowls.  We had almost returned to the bed and breakfast when we saw a shape scurrying across the road.  Natasha was able to recognize it as a mongoose!  For a day that was about the art of mankind, I felt happy to have seen so many critters.

As we prepared for the drive home on the following day, I was delighted to discover that the bed and breakfast had prepared a bag of navel oranges for us to take with us.  The cost for this heavy bag of oranges was R15, approximately one U.S. dollar.  They have been a happy reminder of our adventure in the days since our trip!


Orange you glad I saved this photo for last?


Northern Cape: Kilometers pass more quickly than miles

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 8, 2016

Occasionally, geography dictates a quiet day for your vacation. We enjoyed our time around Keimoes, but it was time to head south to the Western Cape. We opted for a different route back than we had taken to come north. It would take us west on the N14 through Pofadder to Springbok and then south on the N7 through Vanrhynsdorp to Clanwilliam. What would we see during our traversal of Namaqualand?


Map of our long driving day

Since we had a long day of travel ahead, we arose at 5 A.M. again. By six we had left Kemoies, heading west. After forty-five minutes, we passed the exit to Augrabies Falls and were in new territory. Almost immediately, the speed limit increased to 120 kph, and it was obvious why; the road was almost completely straight and level, and few cars shared it with us. Natasha dozed off while I chewed up the kilometers.


The Strawberry enjoyed its fill-up, despite the dust.

After a total driving time of 90 minutes, we reached our first town. Pofadder is named after Korana chief Klaas Pofadder. Our approach from the east gave us an impressive view of the town from above it on a slope. A grain silo and radio tower rose above the northern half of the town, while a water tower dominated the south. The N14 took us directly to the Pofadder Auto, and we pulled in for gas. The lot for the gas station was simply dirt. When we stopped for a restroom break, we used a two Rand coin for access to the bathrooms while a young attendant filled the gas tank (self-service is not an option at South African gas stations).

When we returned to the road, Natasha pulled out a surprise! She had acquired a roll of Wilson’s XXX mints. I ate three. We had agreed to switch off drivers every two hours, but I felt a sense of adventure, so I continued driving.


Kilometers and kilometers of gazing…

The landscape reminded me of Northern Colorado, to some extent. Natasha explained that we were traversing the Richtersveld; a veld is a scrub land. This area is particularly remarkable for having been returned to its original inhabitants, the Nama people, in 2007 by the South African government from Alexkor, a diamond mining parastatal.

I was a bit surprised to see more animals as we continued on this route. A gemsbok (“hhems-bock”) pointed its long face at us from the left, and shortly thereafter we spied a family of springbok on the right. We began to see more koppies along the way.


Locally, we would call this small hill a “koppie.”

The hills became mountains as we reached Springbok. The city lies in a valley surrounded by mountains (I was reminded of Phoenix). We drove to an upper part of the city, next to a lovely NG (Dutch Reformed) gemeente Namakwaland (community of Namaqualand) church.


Show me a remote South African town, and I will show you a beautiful church.

We decided to walk through the town to find a coffee shop.  We walked down to the main street (the R355 is also called “Voortrekker”) and turned north to walk into an area with a furniture store.  We turned east onto Luckhoff Street, where we found a an art framing shop / hair salon / coffee shop.  I enjoyed a hot chocolate while Natasha drank some tea.  I noticed the art on the walls; Natasha liked a couple renderings of quiver trees.

Soon, though, we left the shop and began retracing our steps.  I was behaving like a tourist, taking photos along the way.  As we got closer to Voortrekker, Natasha signaled me to put my camera away.  Later she explained that we had been followed by a street person who appeared to be high.  I was entirely clueless.


By the end of this street, my camera was in potential peril.

Once we were back on the main street, we circumnavigated a koppie in the center of town. It was covered with plants from this semi-arid area. it was clear, though, that this site had once been some sort of memorial; a brick structure at the front walk appeared to have been stripped of two plaques. Instead, a single sign near the top of the mound simply read “Namaqualand Uprising, 1792-1799.”  We later learned that the stone work at the top represented a British fortification destroyed by J.C. Smuts.  The plaque points to an earlier event, a conflict that began when a group of Khoe attacked five farms in the area.  Several commandos (armed groups of Boers) soon fought a large force of Khoesan along the Buffels River, near present-day Springbok [from The Struggle for Liberation and Freedom in the Northern Cape (1850-1994), p. 18].


This botanical treasure divides a major road in Springbok.

We had been in Springbok less than an hour, but the road was calling to us. Natasha slid behind the wheel, and we were soon headed south through a mountain pass on the N7. She definitely drew the short end of the stick for driving. We ran through approximately seven road maintenance areas. Since the highway had only one lane in each direction, the traffic in one direction was stopped while the queue of cars from the other direction was allowed to pass through the single open lane. We encountered several ten minute waits on the road south. The other factor came from the mountainous terrain south of Springbok. Because she was driving, Natasha experienced less road-sickness than might have been the case if I were steering!


Once you pass out of the hills south of Springbok, you will see miles of scrub.

The N7 passed near towns on the way south, but in most cases the highway did not become a main road for those towns. We paused at a roadside stop to eat some lunch. The table featured a central mound of bird droppings, sadly. I took over driving after Natasha had invested three hours behind the wheel.  In the distance, we could see the edge of the escarpment we had ascended to enter the Northern Cape.  At Vanrhysdorp, we paused for gas, and then we cruised for the last 45 minutes to Clanwilliam.

We passed through Clanwilliam on our first travel day, but we planned another day to enjoy the town of 7600 inhabitants properly.  The name of the town is attributed to two different origins.  In one case, it was named after the endangered Clanwilliam Cypress.  In the other, the town is named after the father-in-law of governor Sir John Craddock.  As we climbed to the east of the small town, a lovely panorama presented itself to our eyes:


To the left (South), we can see the township and new RDP homes. To the right, we can see the more formal parts of the city.

Our longest driving day was over!

Northern Cape: When giraffes are necking, tourists beware!

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 7, 2016

The alarm went off, but the room was completely dark. A muzzy-headed Dave stomped off to the shower at five A.M. What would stir this man from his rest at such an hour? Read on and hear my tale of our epic safari at Augrabies Falls!

Our first day at Augrabies Falls coupled a look at the cataract with a seven kilometer hike. This morning, Natasha and I resolved to enter the park at opening time: 7:00 AM. We had considered catching an open-bus safari tour at 7:30 AM, but with too few people for the bus ride to take place, we were left to our own devices. Instead, we drove The Strawberry on a jolting 67 kilometer route into the park. The entrance to the game area required us to drive through three areas where the road was submerged beneath running water, but given that the road had been cleared for sedans, we passed the obstacles with only a few heart palpitations.


Trust me, this looked more perilous before the sun arose.

Within the first half hour of time at the park, we had spotted our first mammal of the day. A springbok was grazing near the road before sunup, seemingly without fear of our car. Springboks are the mascot for the national rugby team. This one obligingly provided several poses for us.


I feel ready to play some rugby.

The day had dawned quite coldly. The car reported the outside temperature as varying between -3 and 0 degrees Celsius. Natasha suggested that we take a side jaunt to Oranjekom. As we neared the end of the drive, we saw a bird of prey standing in vigilance atop a koppe. He seemed enormous from the ground, almost human-sized. At full zoom on my new Canon EF-M 55-200 mm lens (thanks, Mom and Dad!), he was recognizable as a Verreaux’s eagle.


This is not a bird you want swooping on you.

We took a little hike in the area. We surprised a family of klipspringers, and they evacuated so quickly we were barely able to get any usable photographs. Oranjekom looks over the gorge in which the Orange River flows after cascading down at the Augrabie Falls.


It was beautiful even before the sun rose above the horizon.

When we returned to the main route, we soon encountered a family of springboks.  It had become clear to us that we would see these animals with some frequency on our drive. Natasha and I invoked an “except springboks” rule for the spotter seat.


This little herd was in no hurry.

Just as we had decided this rule, she called out “zebra!” Sure enough, a pair of zebras had appeared on the side of the road the springboks had vacated. The zebras in this park are the Cape Mountain variety, an endangered species. We felt lucky to see them.


He was a standoffish sort, but he did consent to one snapshot.

We soon passed over Swart Rante, which gave a commanding view of the surrounding area. We decided to take another side route that led to Echo Point. After rolling downhill for some distance, including a grating rock scrape on the bottom of the car, we arrived at a rock ledge next to a stream leading down to what appeared to be a lake. The “lake,” however, represented a widening of the Orange River as it passed through the gorge.


The view from our aerie was just spell-binding.

The highlight of our day came soon after we rejoined the main route. In disbelief, Natasha called out, “GIRAFFE!” Sure enough, we had found a family of six or seven of the animals, grazing happily not far from the road. I stepped out of the car and captured photo and photo (no lions or rhinos had been reported for the park, though baboons are certainly dangerous enough). After a while, Natasha noticed that a couple of the giraffes were standing awfully close together. Trees and bushes hid anything below the neck, but their necks were persistently close together. After a while, they came out of the bushes to share a snack with the rest of the family.


Natural fact #73: Necking makes giraffes hungry.

As we passed another ridge in the road, we found ourselves within fifty feet of a pair of kudu. They moved pretty quickly, unlike the rescued kudu I met during my visit to Karoo National Park! Knowing that the beasts frequently appear in herds, we scanned the area for others and found one staring at us across a meadow. We continued on the loop past Volstruiswater (Ostrich Water) on Hartmann’s Loop and encountered a few hartebeest.


These fellows were not enthusiastic about people who appear in a red car.

Suddenly, we saw motion to our left. An ostrich had watched too many Road Runner cartoons, and he was off to the races! He accelerated in no time flat to an estimated 30 miles an hour, jolting across the road well ahead of the car. By the time I could get the camera in hand, he was perched atop a nearby ridge, gloating over us in his victory.


I have never seen an animal move like this one. Powerful birds, ostriches.

With that, our animal adventure drew to a close. We drove back out of the animal area. The giraffes had drawn considerable attention, and three cars were leaving little room for our exit. A little after two in the afternoon, we had reached the rest camp for a bit of lunch and our departure.


The Northern Cape is cold in winter, as the sun is coming up!

Northern Cape: A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 6, 2016

After days of smaller towns, we were ready for a return to city living, if only for a few hours. Natasha and I set course for Upington, a city of 74,834, at the northernmost point of our road trip. Along our course, we encountered a surprising trio who told us about their first-hand experiences of the Struggle against the Apartheid government.

Driving to Upington from Keimoes was a matter of popping onto the N14 and following it east for 45 minutes. The drive was fairly uneventful, and soon we were in the outskirts of Upington. Our first thought was to visit a tourist information center to acquire a map, but the Green Kalahari information center did not appear where a signpost suggested it should. We backed out of the industrial area to visit a butcher, who explained where the city museum could be found. We drove there straightaway.


Yes, it still looks like a church. I took this shot from the pulpit.

The Upington museum is based in an old church next to the Orange River; additional displays fill an adjoining parsonage and a 1945 church building. A feature that we hoped would make the museum easy to spot is an outdoor statue of a donkey drawing a mill, but it was masked by a van on our first drive. We paused to take a snapshot, since mules are a mascot for my home state.


This Missourian felt right at home!

The main building has just a few exhibits: founding fathers, the Upington 26, and printing machinery. A painting of Thomas Upington, who instituted a police force for the area, explains why the town was renamed from Olyvenhoudtsdrift to honor him. The chapel also features a 1970 painting of Scotty Smith, a Robin Hood of sorts from this area. My home town celebrates the bank robber Jesse James in much the same light. Christiaan W. H. Schroeder is also honored as the missionary who first brought western writing to the area by a mission he established at the request of the Korana chief.

The subject of the Upington 26 is a more complex one. During school protests on November 11, 1985, a police officer shot and killed a pregnant woman in the Paballelo township adjoining Upington. Two days later, police officers forcibly dispersed a crowd of 3000 Pabellelo residents with tear gas. A crowd of 300 people subsequently attacked the house of a municipal policeman and murdered him brutally when he attempted to flee the house. The Apartheid government reacted forcefully, charging 26 people with his murder on the grounds of “common purpose,” arguing that the defendants had conspired against public safety and the authority of the state. Twenty-five defendants were found guilty of murder, and fourteen were sentenced to death. In 1991, 21 of the 25 guilty verdicts were overturned. The gallery tells this story through a series of posters that include the laws that established Apartheid, brick by brick. A quotation by defendant Justice Bekebeke from the trial moved me: “We are striving for each and every racial group to live in harmony. But is it possible, in the name of the Lord?” Large wooden ships that had been constructed from clothespins or matchsticks by one of the imprisoned members were on display.


How would you pass the time if you were imprisoned for years?

The museum had a striking display centered on the Korana San people of the Northern Cape. A series of photographs was taken for individuals from the tribe during the late 1930s. These images, used to establish skull “types” by a phrenologist, look very much like mug shots from the front and side. The images of these people were striking, and I felt they retained their dignity despite the foolish scribblings of the person trying to classify them by skull shape. A variety of early tools, ranging from stone cores up to antler-derived spear points were on display, and this large display illustrated the way that mobile shelters were constructed from woven mats up to the late nineteenth century.


Once you’ve woven the mats, you need only stitch them together over a frame.

Our next destination was the police headquarters, where a statue commemorates the mounted division of the South African Police. Unlike the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, the South African variant employed camels!


This is not Dudley Do-Right.

Natasha and I resolved to visit the monument constructed to commemorate the Upington 26. We had seen photographs of the memorial at the museum. We had an up-to-date tourist map of Upington, published this year. Unfortunately, no location for this memorial appeared on the map. We asked the question and learned that the memorial was built in the Paballelo township, in the soccer fields where the crowd of 3000 was dispersed by police. With a quick look at the map, we prepared to drive into the township.

I must admit that I was worried about driving into a township. This was my first time venturing into one, though I had driven by any number of them. I should explain that the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town is the site of a great many of the murders that take place there each month. It is also a hotbed for the transmission of tuberculosis. In the case of Paballelo, however, I can report that there was very little distinction between the residential neighborhoods of Upington and those of Paballelo. We found the soccer field without a problem, and we parked right next to a minibus van that seemed to be associated with the media surrounding the local elections to take place in a month. We walked to the gate of the memorial only to discover it was padlocked shut. We would not be able to walk through it; instead we could only see the mosaic renderings of each face through the bars.


The gates were locked, so this is as close as I could get.

Something remarkable happened next. Two men were chatting near the gate, and one of them said to me that his image was over there. I did a double-take and asked him if he meant that he was pictured on the monument. He confirmed it, and he noted that the other man was, as well, and the driver of another parked car was also there. Three of the Upington 26 were standing in front of us: Boy Jafta, Zonga Mokhatle, and Neville Witbooi!

I felt that I was stumbling over myself with any question I could ask, but I tried to learn as much as I could. “How did you get pulled into this mess?” They replied that the police had called people to a meeting that the police then dispersed. “What was the ‘common purpose’ justification used by the court to convict you?” They replied that the police claimed that because the defendants acted with a common goal, they could be tried as co-conspirators. “How did the course of your life change after you were freed?” This was a harder question. They noted that one of the 26 became the administrator for the entire Northern Cape. Another completed his college education. As for them, two of these three have found it difficult to keep steady employment, and receiving their pensions (set aside by the Government of National Unity for freedom fighters whose lives had been disrupted by their activism) requires an in-person appearance in Pretoria, which might as well be the moon for the difficulty involved in getting there. It was humbling to be with these men who had faced such hardship in the past and in the new lives they had assembled since release from prison.


I was thrilled to stand with three men who had borne so much in the struggle against Apartheid.

With such a lot of information to digest, Natasha and I headed back to Keimoes. We saw a bright beacon on the horizon as we left Upington, and the bright light continued to beguile us as we drove south on the N14. At last the road approached the sight closely enough that we could discern its identity. We had discovered a concentrated solar power station! A ring of mirrors reflect light from the sun to a central tower, and the light reaching the tower is converted into electricity. It was amazing how much light reflected from it.

With that mystery uncovered, we stopped at the Bezalel wine farm, just a few kilometers from Keimoes. The farm specializes in brandy, but it produces a wide variety of wines. We both decided to try the “highlight” tasting (at R50, or just over $3 USD, for each person), and we added a shared cheese sampler for R80. The sampler featured four different cheeses, a fig compote, a chili jam, and some candied ginger. Our wine selection began with brandy and continued with a colombard, pinot noir, a natural sweet red, a jerepigo (more familiar in America as a gewurztraminer), a spicy port, and a coffee liqueur. Had I indulged in more than a sip of these drinks, I think I might have been deeply impaired. I drove us the last few kilometers home.


The bottle is for photographic purposes only.

Northern Cape: the Lord of the Flies visits Augrabies Falls

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 5, 2016

We awoke this morning with a sense of purpose; today we would visit Augrabies Falls, the highlight of this vacation! We packed our hiking bags with bottles of water, and Natasha assembled some yummy cheese and onion muffins with bacon. Once the Overlook staff unlocked the main gate, we began our drive west on the N14. Within an hour we had reached Kakamas, and we started up the smaller highway to the falls. Here’s the tale of our amazing hike at this wonderful place!


Augrabies Falls in winter

Augrabies Falls are in an unlikely place. The Northern Cape is a particularly arid region, and there’s very little hint of open water until one reaches the Orange River. At Augrabies (pronounced “Oh-hra-bees,” from a Nama word meaning “Place of great noise“), the Orange River has cut a tall channel out of solid rock, plummeting as it heads westward to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the tallest cataract in South Africa! When a flood hits, as happened in 1988 or in 2011, the volume can cause multiple new channels to appear, to spectacular effect.

We arrived at Augrabies around 10 AM. We used our new “Wild Card” passes to enter the park, and we parked at the rest center soon thereafter. At the reception desk, we received our “exit pass” (presumably one cannot leave without one) and our maps, which were poor mimeographs. In no time at all, we were ready to go.

The falls themselves are easily visited from the rest center. A short walk of a quarter kilometer put us at the first of five observation decks. The view is really stunning, especially if you have been in South Africa long enough to become accustomed to seeing little open water. The main channel is just the highlight; other areas near the falls show sign of significant water movement, such as the big sinkholes around which the path guides visitors.


On a chilly winter morning, who doesn’t like to warm one’s belly?

The range of observation decks lets visitors see Augrabies from different perspectives. The visitors must also be ready to be observed by different creatures. As we walked to the viewing platform, we became aware that we were being watched warily by two dassies (rock hyraxes) who were warming their bellies on the rocks.


Don’t look at his eyes!

As we took in the view, a rainbow-colored Broadley’s flat lizard came to investigate us. One tried to distract us from the rocks, while the other two crept toward us along the railing.


Hold on to your backpack!

Our goal for the day was not limited to seeing the falls. Our plan was to take a hike on the Dassie Trail (5 km). To get there, we needed to cross the camping area adjoining the rest center. As we walked through it, though, we spotted some mischievous vervet monkeys playing chase.

The Dassie Trail was pretty easy to follow; small green signs with a dassie silhouette alternated with white painted dots and arrows. The path itself, though, was frequently a challenge. The path led along the gorge carved by the Orange River, at first, but then it cut southward through the dry lands adjoining the river. We soon hit a valley that we needed to cross by hopping from boulder to boulder. I felt a bit intimidated by this trail, but I am no rock-climber!


She seemed so docile, but when she dashed, it was amazing!

Soon thereafter, we encountered a small klipspringer (“rock-jumper”), placidly eating flowers. I was happy that I could capture a few photos before she gave a demonstration of her moves. The name is very apt. She was incredibly fast, and her ability to vault to great heights was incredible.


Where there is water, there is life!

The path was not entirely dry and desert-like, however. We crossed streams in a couple of different places. Generally this involved hopping from rocks to rickety wooden platforms. When our path joined a gravel road, we made our way across water flowing across the road by hopping from brick to brick at one edge of the road.

In connection with the water, I should say that I had a very real struggle with the mosquitoes and midge flies that inhabited this trail. From the time we crossed the first stream to the end of the hike, I carried by own personal nimbus of insects. We talked about several possible reasons that I was attracting so many of them, ranging from my bright colors to the flavor of my sweat, but the fact is that the bugs got under my skin. I was so peeved at one point that I began yelling insults at them: “May you never produce maggots!”


I fake a smile at Moon Rock, despite the flies.

The high point of the hike (quite literally) came at Moon Rock, a pair of massive bald, smooth rocks around two-thirds of the way through the hike. Several parties climbed to the summit to take in a commanding view of the countryside, but we were satisfied with a lower-altitude perspective.


Not all is dry outside the gorge!

Shortly thereafter, we found a lovely stream crossing the rocks, and we sat down for a snack. Sadly, the bugs continued nibbling on me as I ate. By the time we had returned to the rest station, the bugs had begun to recede. I cheered up considerably to drink a coffee milkshake at the restaurant there.

Natasha and I felt quite cheerful as we drove back to Keimoes. We decided to go shopping at some of the farm stores lining the N14. The first one we visited was Desert Raisin; we acquired banana chips, dried mangoes, and “medjool” dates. At the second, Die Pienk Padstal, we found some presents for friends and some lovely harissa (hot chili pepper paste). We also resolved to take down mosquitoes who had taken residence in our lodge with some “Doom” spray. We acquired that at the Keimoes Spar.

As evening drew near, Natasha and I played several rounds of dominoes. The sun sank to the horizon, and we munched on delicious chicken in harissa with rice and lentils. I have never eaten so well on the road!


A bit of sherry goes well with the sunset!

Northern Cape: Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 4, 2016

When Independence Day dawned, we had a quick breakfast and swiftly loaded our luggage into the car. Today we would travel to the northernmost hosting on our vacation: Keimoes! We decided to start, though, with a visit to the Calvinia Museum, since it had not been open the day before.


This museum has some serious star power!

The Museum is easy to find, just north of the center of town, though we had somehow missed it on our Sunday morning stroll. The building had served as a synagogue at its founding in 1920. In 1973, though, it completed its transition to be the museum serving this community. It is currently the second-largest museum in the Northern Cape, after the one at Kimberly. The curator, Memci van Wyk, was very enthusiastic, and she explained not only the layout of the museum but also the designs she was holding in her mind for its future. She is working toward her multimedia degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and she has planned some cool music events for the venue.

My first question addressed the town’s name: after which Calvin was the town named? She answered that the settlement had been named “!Han=ami” for the first years of its existence. The name derives from a San word for a flower that was used to make poison. The town was formally incorporated in 1904 at the end of the Anglo-Boer Wars under the name Calvinia, celebrating John Calvin, a major figure of the reformation. Many settlers of South Africa felt strong ties to the doctrine of predestination.


I am glad to see these as art rather than strewn on the sidewalks!

Given the museum’s origins in the Jewish community, the exhibits include a fair number of exhibits from that group. The curator related that many of the fragile blue and white cloths in the center of the main chamber had been rescued from storage in Sea Point, a prominently Jewish area of Cape Town, for display here in Calvinia. The main chamber also houses artifacts from the Anglo-Boer War itself. One curious display focused on some cane art that might be confused for wicker until one looks closely; the subunits from which the larger structures are built are caltrops or “jacks,” designed to jam into the feet of foot soldiers or cavalry.


Who are we to judge, when some of us make art from cremation ashes?

When I first saw the display of this mourning jewelry, I was confused.  Why was this jewelry floppy?  Why was it appropriate for mourning?  Then the curator explained that the Victorians sometimes made jewelry from hair, sometimes from the deceased!


Hero or villain? This British Spy paid the ultimate price.

The museum gives a place of prominence to Abraham Esau, a member of the Cape Coloured population. The Anglo-Boer Wars included more than just members of the white population. Abraham Esau took the part of the British in the wars, and he was murdered by angry Boers. His grave site, just west of Calvinia, has been repeatedly disturbed by white youths. Multiple head stones for his grave can be found in the museum.

Many implements of frontier life, from hand woodplanes to an ox-drawn grain mill, are in the room to the north of the main building. Heading to the south will instead show you a room showcasing the clothing that would be fashionable in the Victorian era. I particularly enjoyed the case of black formal wear for elderly women, but finery could also be seen, such as a hand-made silk vest. Continuing to the adjoining building brings one to a display case of San artifacts, such as rattle-bracelets for ritual trance dancing, instruments such as a mouth harp, and ritual objects such as a shaman’s model bow and arrow. The same room reveals the semi-precious stones of the Northern Cape, such as tiger’s eye, a considerable number of display cases given over to varieties and uses of sheep, and authentic wagons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two adjoining houses, currently under renovation, hold antiques from hospital and dental care and from educational institutions, respectively. Of course, the museum can continue outside, as well! The Calvinia museum features a locomotive and coal car, moved into the town center by bulldozer. They are surrounded by a pretty cottage garden.


This train was received by the city in December of 1977. It must have been hot work to move it here.

From the museum, our course lay north! We steered onto the R27 highway. It had led us from the N7 to Calvinia, and now it continued slightly to the east before turning north for the long drive to the Orange River. I must report that the scenery along this stretch is humble. Buttes rising from the plain gave way to rolling plains to simply flat veld. When a ridge appeared in front of us, we anticipated the pass for many miles before we reached the crest, perhaps a hundred meters higher. On the far side, we saw miles and miles of bloody Northern Cape before us. The wind seemed to be playing a game with us for the whole drive.


The author exemplifies “headwind.”

One feature in particular drew my eye, though. The line of electrical wires to the east of the highway was punctuated with poles at regular intervals. I was surprised to see what appeared to be thatch in the poles. Didn’t people realize that was a fire risk? Upon closer inspection, though, I realized the thatch was haphazardly built, ranging up to two meters per pole, and multiple birds were popping out of holes in the thatch for short looping flights. What I had seen were, in fact, bird apartment houses. For some stretches of the highway, almost half of the poles featured these nests. In large trees more distant from the highway, massive constructions could be glimpsed, ranging up to five meters in size. Eventually we saw an elongated bird nest in a power pole that stood three or four meters in height.


These birds know how to make a lasting thatch!

The Northern Cape also features some trees that are well adapted to the dry conditions. “Quiver trees” seem to come from a different world. The name comes from their use by the San to make quivers (since the branches are frequently hollow).  They have distinctive trunks that look almost like papier mâché, and they seem to have branches that are very similar in length, so they can have an almost spherical bough. The leaves themselves look almost like those of an aloe vera.

Soon enough, we reached Kenhardt. This wasn’t our destination, but it was the first town of significant size that we saw on our northern trek. At the very least, the town featured a gas station! The signs of civilization (such as wine farms) continued as we pushed to the north. Suddenly, we came upon a striking sight. We crossed four bridges. The first three were for the Orange River 3, Orange River 2, and Orange River 1 (in this river valley, the river splits to different channels), and the fourth was for the Friardale River. For people in the United States, it might seem entirely unremarkable that a highway bridge crosses a large river; I grew up in Kansas City, so crossing the Missouri River (or the Mississippi in St. Louis) was a reasonably common occurrence. In South Africa, though, crossing a major river is hardly an everyday occurrence. The rivers of the Western Cape, such as the Liesbeeck and the Salt River, have been directed into canals. The major rivers retaining their natural forms are the Orange and Fish Rivers, quite some distance from Cape Town.


This panoramic photo of the Orange River, facing east from the R27 bridge, spans six portrait images from my EOS-M2’s prime lens.

After arriving in Keimoes, our stop for the next few days, we stopped at a local hotel to acquire some tourist information, but their information manager was out on a break. We retrieved a copy of the “Toerisme bylaag tot die Gemsbok,” (tourism supplement to the Gemsbok) a color newspaper offered each season of the year covering tourist sites throughout the Northern Cape. I enjoyed a cream soda ice cream float. I could tell it was genuine cream soda because of the deep green color! We drove past a church erected at the close of World War II, and we enjoyed the classic water wheel at the center of town. We stopped by the Spar grocery to acquire some lamb and a 5L jug of drinking water.

Then we headed in for the night at our self-catering lodge, the Overlook. True to its name, the lodge is at the top of a ridge above the town of Keimoes. I must imagine that in summer the grapevine fields to a great distance would be verdant and lush. This winter, though, the green stripes across our view marked the location of rivers we had crossed.

The Overlook features three lodges, each for a couple. The outdoor patio is treated to the view I showed above. The living space includes beds and a table along with a compact kitchen and refrigerator, along with a bathroom behind a half-wall. This would be our home for the next four days!


Yes, modern construction in South African can also use thatch roofing.

Northern Cape: Strolling Calvinia

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 3, 2016

A brisk morning dawned, with powerful gusts pushing frigid air through every chink. My toes curled when they hit the chilly tile floor. Just the same, it was time for today’s walkabout: we would see the streets of Calvinia!

The town is not very large, so we simply walked from our guest house. Although I had remembered our drive across town as taking a while, we saw that it was actually very compact. Our route reminded me that our street name was a jaw-breaker; Jaagvlakte Weg (“yahhflockteh vehh”) translates as “Chasing Flats Way.”


Say it with me!

We walked past a very pink house, and then we had arrived at the downtown! We hiked to the far side of the downtown to reach the tourist information bureau. It was firmly closed at 10 AM on this Sunday morning.

Nearby, some beautiful homes caught our eye. A lovely yellow building from 1896 was apparently a private home, but the lovely gray building next door had become a bed and breakfast; frankly the town center is ringed by hotels and lodging houses. We imagined the joy of time spent on the deeply recessed porches that were commonplace among these older homes.


These two homes, built in 1896 and 1904, had lots of frontier-time charm!

Our walk took us to a sign that directed us (in Comic Sans font) to the “Street of Art.” The road took us past an apparent pottery studio (closed) and then several homes that had been given over to art constructed from classic vehicles. Had any of it been open, we might have enjoyed a closer look (even at R50 a person!). When we arrived at a puddle on the pavement, we were surprised to see a thin skin of ice; the temperature had apparently reached a low of -2 C last night. I was glad for my winter coat.


Automotive art is interesting.

I enjoyed a series of painted tiles on the post office from 1934, depicting frontier life in the area. This region, far from Cape Town, was populated by settlers pushing north and east, with much the same spirit as the “Westward Ho!” of the American frontier.


Calvinia’s church is lovely, but it was lonely this Sunday morning.

Nearby, a 1938 sculpture celebrated the century anniversary of the Great Trek. Celebrations of this time were held throughout the Union of South Africa (not yet a Republic), leading to a unifying of Afrikaner Nationalism. Statues of this sort present today’s South Africans with a bit of a conundrum; they are part of the heritage of the country, and yet the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism is inextricably linked to the policy of Apartheid. Student movements have led to the storage of many monuments rather than leaving them on display. In a sign of more recent South African politics, a flapping poster featured a hammer and sickle! The South African Communist Party continues to throw its support to their governing partners in the African National Congress.



At last we came to the church near the town’s center. We had assumed that services were taking place there, but instead we saw padlocks on the gates. The church struck us as Anglican architecture, but we learned that it was a Dutch Reformed Church, instead.

A giant postal box at the center of town (made from an old water tower) provided a perfect tourist photo opportunity.  The garden surrounding the box had many lovely species. I had enjoyed the company of Edgar, a jade plant from my time in an undergraduate botany course at the University of Arkansas (1993) to the time I left the United States (2015), but his “trunk” after twenty years of life could not compare to that of a massive specimen in the gardens.  Some of the plants we saw have medicinal value. The bulbine, for example, produces leaves that can be squeezed onto cuts.  The Afrikaans word for “OW!” is “EINA!” It comes from a Khoi term to describe this type of tree, covered in impressive thorns.


This plant says “ow!” to me, too.

In the afternoon, we decided to drive north of town to the Akkerendam Nature Reserve. A smiling guard waved us into the reserve. The roads were gravel and dirt, and I was strongly reminded by the veldt surrounding us of the entrance to the Karoo National Park. Unlike Karoo, though, there were no antelope grazing to stare at us as we bounced down the road.

After a few minutes, we came across a car parked at a fenced area. The road leading onward seemed to have even higher and lower extremes, so we pulled aside the other stopped car. The closed gate, we learned, led over to the nearby reservoir. Once we climbed a little ridge, we were able to look at the water trapped behind the dam, and we were reminded that South Africa’s drought has been extreme, despite the recent rains in Cape Town.


South Africa is dry as a bone.

As we walked through the scrub, Natasha was delighted to discover some miniature flowers growing in the space shaded by some boulders. I loved the rocks, themselves; lichens of many colors had colonized the surfaces. We walked up a dry wash, pausing by a koppie to watch a curious bird bobbing its head up and down to follow our movement.


The stillness was a delight after weeks in the city.

I lingered as we drove away from the Nature Reserve around 4:45PM. The sun began passing behind the butte, the features of the butte felt into sharp relief of light and shadow. At one pause, we saw a kestrel float a dozen feet from the ground along a hill, entirely occupied by its hunt. It was a lovely close to a restful day

Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld

mapNorthern Cape Index

  1. Climbing the Highveld
  2. Strolling Calvinia
  3. Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange
  4. The Lord of the Flies visits Augrabies Falls
  5. A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington
  6. When Giraffes and Necking, Tourists Beware!
  7. Kilometers Pass more Quickly than Miles
  8. Ancient Rock Art in the Cederberg Mountains

July 2, 2016

With four weeks left in the high school quarter, Natasha and I began designing a road trip to take place during the winter quarter break. She was excited for the opportunity to show me one of her favorite places on earth. We would venture north to visit the Northern Cape and the Cederberg Mountains!

Our journey started from the Canal Walk Shopping Centre. This huge mall at the northern edge of the city serves as a destination for the entire area. We picked up some last-minute groceries at Woolworth’s and visited the ATM. With those errands complete, Natasha slid behind the steering wheel of The Strawberry (my trusty Honda Jazz) and merged onto the N7, heading north. In almost no time at all, we had left Cape Town behind us.

Since our trip took place right after the winter solstice, the rainy and cold season had begun pelting the Cape. We passed into rolling hills that had become green from undergrowth and the occasional alfalfa field. Like most other national roads in South Africa, the N7 was only a divided highway within the city limits; it settled down to two lanes in each direction or even one lane in each direction as we left urban areas behind.

After a couple of hours on the road, Natasha took an exit to drive us into the town of Piketberg. It sits near a massive gravel processing plant adjacent to a substantial, long mountain. We hoped to find a bottle of sherry or hanepoot (a dessert wine) that is produced locally. What we had forgotten is that we were arriving in this town on the first Saturday morning of the month: it was payday! Pedestrians were everywhere, crossing the highway into town quite haphazardly. The banks were thronged with people in long lines. The Mr. Price market area we pulled into was full to bursting with cars, and the masses of people on foot made navigating quite a challenge. We parked on the street and walked to the “bottle store.” We found plenty of customers, and the shelves were lined with Sedgwick’s Old Brown, a rough, sweet sherry. It wasn’t what we sought, so we returned to the road, and I took the wheel.


This view comes from a rest stop just south of the pass into the Cederberg area.

The next part of the drive brought us into the Cederberg Mountains. This beautiful area will be featured later in this trip, so I will reserve a full description for a later post. Off to the east, I saw a tributary of the Olifants River curving lazily back and forth. Natasha confided that the river is a favorite for a “Nappy Run:” one wears a life preserver upside down (with his or her legs going through the arm holes) while tied to or curled around another person who is similarly following the current. Since the temperature has hovered in the low teens here (that’s Celsius; think of a high of 60 degrees Fahrenheit), this hardly seemed the time to jump in the water.

I pulled off the road at Clanwilliam, which will also serve as the last place we stay on this trip. As we entered the central business district, another massive group of people pulled into view. We parked on the main road near a Super Spar supermarket. I hustled into the bathroom, which was a crowded, unpleasant space. When I emerged, we visited the wine shop at the front of the grocery. In no time at all, we had found a red muscadel and a Medium Cream Fortified Wine (local code for “South African Sherry”) from Orange River Cellars. We bought the sherry for R60, the equivalent of $4 U.S. As we returned to the main road, a “bakkie” drove by. It trailed two over-sized flags for the Democratic Alliance (opposition) party, and a candidate inside used a public address system to make his case for re-election.


This church seemed like an ideal place to pause for lunch. A beautiful tree provided shade.

From there, we drove four or five blocks to a comparatively sedate place. We parked next to a church close to the Living Landscapes Project, a site which had previously served as a field school for the University of Cape Town Archaeology Department. In the past, undergraduate archaeology students came here to learn how to make detailed field notes, recognize stone tools, and sift through talus slopes. We took a walk toward the river next to some real estate development projects that had long since been abandoned. As we walked back toward the car, Natasha spotted a boggy area and wisely doubled back to find a dry route. I thought I could clomp through with my running shoes and immediately gained two socks, soaked right through.


This view looks east from the outskirts of Clanwilliam, across the Olifants River.

Not so much later, the N7 reached a town called Vanrhynsdorp, and we turned east onto the R27 highway, which required us to make quite a few turns to follow it past the square. As we continued east, it seemed the rest of the traffic vanished; it was a quiet, peaceful drive. When we stopped at a rest area, Natasha spotted several weaver birds flitting among their nests in the trees. I collected a few photos of them until one demonstrated his displeasure by bombing poor Natasha.


At the left, a weaver bird. At the right, a weaver bird nest. Caution: do not look at weaver birds from directly below!

In the distance, we could see what looked like a massive ridge in our path. Soon it became apparent that we would be climbing this daunting wall. The speed limit dropped to 70 kph (what one might expect for a commuter highway in the city), and the road angled up, sharply. The Strawberry labored a bit under the strain, but we powered ahead in fourth gear, dropping only occasionally to third gear. The climb seemed to continue for quite a while, when we decided to pause at a scenic overlook that was quite close to the top. A family of Muslims had paused there, too, perhaps for prayers as the sun was westering. I hadn’t realized it yet, but that pass had taken us from the Western Cape to the Northern Cape.  The view was fantastic.


Peering over the edge of the highveld, you feel as though you are looking from an airplane.

We reached the crest in just a few moments more, and I was startled to realize that this ridge was actually an escarpment. These few miles east of the N7 had brought us to the highveld (pronounce the ‘v’ as an ‘f’), a central plateau that reaches a peak near Johannesburg. The lonely road brought us to Nieuwoudtville, a sun-baked town that specializes in indigenous plant bulbs and wildflowers. I was thrilled to find a gas station, as I was down to one-fifth of a tank. We stopped at Protea Motors, even though the Trelidoor across the entrance made it seem closed. A woman trudged over to fill the gas tank. Natasha wandered over to the space that would be a convenience store in the United States. She gasped. She was looking through the windows at a motorcycle museum! On a day it was open, we might have spent some time there, but instead we continued back to the R27 highway and pressed onward.


It is both the only gas station in town and its only motorcycle museum!

Around an hour later, we approached a pair of buttes, and the road curved gently to the left. There, nestled at the base of a butte, was our goal, the small city of Calvinia. We checked into the Tarantula self-catering bed and breakfast. We were delighted to discover a very modern space with a full kitchen, a braai area, an outdoor fire pit, and a bathroom with an epic shower. We also realized that the setting sun was little protection from the howling, frigid wind. We scuttled inside and were soon eating dinner.