Tag Archives: South Africa

Testing the waters at De Hoop Nature Reserve

March 31, 2018

South Africa features a promontory just east of Cape Town that points down toward Antarctica. This area, reached by climbing Sir Lowry’s Pass over the Hotentots-Holland mountains, combines the high Overberg plateau with l’Agulhas peninsula. Natasha and I set our sights on visiting “De Hoop” Nature Reserve to the east of this peninsula, using the historic town of Bredasdorp as our base camp.

De Hoop is centered on a massive brackish body of water fed by the Sout River that has been cut off from the Indian Ocean by 2.5 kilometers of sand dunes. It draws its name from a farm established in 1739 by Frederick de Jager, a free burgher, on lands granted by the Dutch East India Company. De Jager had “the hope” that this sandy, rocky soil could be coaxed to produce good crops.

Driving to De Hoop, however, is a bit of a challenge. On the map, it seemed straightforward. We would follow R319 east from Bredasdorp and then diverge to the east on the road to Malgas (pronounce the ‘g’ with a good throat-clearing). Finding R319 was fine (it’s the same thing as “All Saints”), and we followed it for a couple of miles before finding our sign for Malgas. We were less than thrilled to discover that our path from that point forward was entirely gravel and rock, leading from one dusty sheep farm to another. Forty cautious minutes on the Malgas spur brought us to the sign for De Hoop, and we followed a rougher road still to the entrance gate.


The view of the reception area from the bluff

I must say, at this point, that I was skeptical of the claims that De Hoop was a beautiful pearl. Natasha’s report that the reserve had been closed for a period in the early 2000s due to a fire, combined with our area’s historic drought, did not fill me with confidence. Just the same, we paid our 80 Rand to a charismatic gate guard, and over the hill we went. As soon as we began our descent from the 200m bluff to the coast, the variegated greens of this coastal plain became apparent.



Natasha and I both caught the thrill of the place as we drove down a side road to the reception area. It lies between two plains, and each featured quite a few groups of animals. The most common type we saw was the bontebok, an antelope that was generally outnumbered by springboks when we visited the Northern Cape. We were particularly excited to see a Cape mountain zebra, but we didn’t have the camera handy until we reached the parking lot. Natasha spied an eland at a distance, too!


We walked on a shelf that mirrored this one.

The reception office had a handy and well-executed booklet available for 20 Rand that supplied a historical, geographic, and biological appraisal of the area. We grabbed a copy since it documented the points of interest on the 3km hike that we elected to follow along the vlei (like “flay,” frequently meaning marsh, but here meaning the body of water). In no time we had started our walk. For much of the path, we were striding along a limestone and sandstone conglomerate shelf, approximately eight meters above the water’s surface, though we did occasionally dip down to meet it.



Where fuzzy creatures were concerned, our hike was something of a bust. The dassies were MIA, though their droppings were not, and our much-anticipated visit with the Cape clawless otter was fruitless, though we did see evidence of their dinners of crab. We did enjoy the little blooms along our path, though. The area is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning to Cape Point due to its wildly diverse fynbos plants. We also enjoyed the touch with the area’s history as “Die Melkkamer” (the “Milk Room”) mansion complex came into sight on the opposite side of the water. The earliest building dates from 1872.


Not a beach for swimming

Eventually, the path dumped us onto a pebbly beach that was covered in some sort of salt-tolerant grass. We didn’t dip a hand in to feel the water. Instead, we turned back to the north to return to the reception center. We passed a long-dusty watering hole, along with a tree that we eyed warily, since it looked like it might serve as a home for baboons. As we approached the reception center, more bonteboks came into view. A scout from the herd kept a watchful eye on us. We loved the massive fig trees (brought here from KwaZulu-Natal) that have graced that drive since the 1950s.


Fynbos, dunes, and tidal pools, oh my!

One must be careful when using the phrase “tidal pool” near Natasha. She was intent on seeing the Koppie Alleen (“Lonely Hill”) Rocky Shores. We drove toward the beach and took the side road heading east to the site. We had once again found a long gravel road stretching into the distance. For an added bonus, this one was limited to half its width for traffic in both directions since the park is paving a new road with strong bricks. We puttered along for half an hour at 20 kph until we found the Koppie Alleen parking lot in good repair.


Looking southwest from the top of the dune wall

Just as De Hoop is separated from the rest of the region by a 200m wall of hills, the hills and plain of De Hoop are separated from the beach by a range of sand dunes. At Koppie Alleen, one can follow the right fork of the path to the to nearest dune top, or one can follow the left fork down to the beach.


Sandstone beach

We started on the beach. We arrived with the tide already high and rising. Many of the pools in which Natasha might play with stars, anemones, coral-worms, and limpets were already submerged by the waves. The rocks were fun to climb on though, and the sandy beaches were as near unspoiled as one can imagine. I shot a few moments of video to remind me of their crash.

I saw some odd bubbles enclosed in a blue membrane in the sands though. Natasha warned me off the “blue bottles” right away. Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish are quite prone to stinging the unwary finger.


Dave, moments before succumbing to sunstroke

At this point, I fell into a bit of a swoon. Natasha coaxed back up the walkway to the food trailer and poured a Diet Coke into me. I had touched too much sun and not enough water today! From there, we climbed to the dune top to get one last look at the beautiful coast.



As Natasha drove us along the endless gravel road back to Bredasdorp, she spotted a female ostrich, outlined beautifully by the declining sun. We paused for one last snapshot.



Tygerberg Nature Reserve: a conspicuous absence of tigers

With cloudy skies to start this springtime Saturday, Natasha and I resolved to visit the nearby Tygerberg Nature Reserve for a much-delayed hike!  Since the trails do not offer much shade, an overcast day seemed just right for our stroll.  We approached the Reserve from the east, so our path led by the Welgemoed neighborhood, one of the notable security estates in this area.  The grounds of the Bellville Golf Club provided a nice, green background for our drive up the foothills.  As we gained altitude, the property values escalated, as well, with the final row of houses against the Reserve perimeter sufficiently opulent to qualify as micro-mansions.

From my previous comments about the Tygerberg Hills, you might recall that the name of the hills comes from the patchwork of small bumps (heuweltjies) on these hills that become visible in summer time.  After we parked in the Reserve’s tight parking lot, we entered for a mere R15 per person (approximately one USD).  A signboard we found upon entry explained the layout of the trails in the Reserve.  I was keen to see the highest point of the hills, and so Natasha and I headed uphill to the Watsonia trail (2.7 km).  We joined the trail at its southern end, a small grove of pine trees creating a shady spot with picnic tables.  I’ve seen these trees from the N1 a hundred times, so it was a treat to rest there a moment.  This grove offers really nice viewing for my place of work, the Tygerberg Hospital campus.


The white complex is SUN FHMS, where I work. The yellow brick building is Tygerberg Hospital.

I was sad to see that the trees had been affected by the pine pitch canker.  As non-indigenous trees, the pines are not the best option for this Reserve, but I always feel sentimental about dying trees.


They cannot muzzle me so easily!

In no time flat, Natasha had charged up the hill to the highest peak in the Tygerberg Hills (it’s quite close to the Southern end of the Watsonia trail).  Once we reached the top, we found a canon that dates from 1723.  It had been used to call Western Cape forces to its defense on four different occasions (twice in 1781, once in 1795, and once in 1806).  Because of the overcast, the view from the peak was not quite as clear as it might have been.  Assembling a 360 degree panorama is not really possible due to the large radio masts at the crest.  As we gazed toward Table Mountain, Natasha observed that the city must be getting plenty of rain from the clouds blanketing the plateau.

We followed the Watsonia trail toward the north, taking a swing to the east as it descended the slope.  On the northern face, we saw massive meadows of tall grass.  Natasha reminded me that the hills had been preferred grazing grounds for the Khoi people of the Western Cape during the early years of the Cape Colony.  One can certainly see fynbos in the Tygerberg Hills, but the plants are a different selection than one would see on the slopes or top of Table Mountain, in part due to less rain.  In fact, Tygerberg is one of the largest remaining areas where one can see the Swartland Shale Renosterveld.


The Watsonia trail came to an abrupt end at its intersection with the Honey Badger and Grey Rhebok trails.  We decided to follow the latter as it would loop back to the main drag after giving us a chance to explore the eastern slopes.  This walk led us down dirt trails that were considerably less established than the wide Watsonia.  Natasha was delighted in the tiny blooms she spotted next to the trail.  One flower she identified was the endangered Chincherinchee.  This one’s blooms had not fully opened.



We continued down the slope to the boundary fence.  We paused beside a little pool abutting Kanonnier Crescent.  I realized I was not far from the home of my friend Gerard!  As we were walking past the back yards of many homes, we considered their landscaping.  Some homes in this area have made little English gardens, and others have created water-wise plots that use indigenous flowers.  We saw cottages and more modern designs along the boundary.  We were concerned to see swimming pools without covers (not permitted under our water restriction conditions).


Reserve meets suburban neighborhood

My energy was flagging, but I tried to keep up with Natasha’s stalwart pace.  The hill back to the Watsonia trail was steep going.  As we returned to the visitors’ center we opted for another alternative path, named after the caracal, a wild cat one can find here.  Happily we were done with the steep slopes of the Grey Rhebok!  With that, we were finished with our adventure at the Tygerberg Nature Reserve.

Bloemfontein the Beautiful

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

When I first mentioned to friends that I was planning a trip to culminate in Bloemfontein, several of them asked why I wanted to visit this city. I would summarize it this way:

  • Bloemfontein is one of the three national capitals for South Africa.
  • It was previously the capital of a Boer Republic.
  • It was the birthplace of one of my favorite authors (more in the next post).
  • It is the 8th biggest city in South Africa.
  • To be a city known for flowers in such a dry land is remarkable!

In person, I see that Bloemfontein does not disappoint. When I drove up President Brand Street, it seemed that every other building should qualify as a national monument! During my last full day of vacation, I visited several of Bloemfontein’s historical buildings, and I was very glad for the opportunity.

When I visited Pietermaritzburg, I commented that the Voortrekkers founded the city only to have it forcibly annexed by the British five years later. Bloemfontein was the same process except in reverse! In 1846, Major Henry Douglas Warden, a British soldier, acquired a farm belonging to a Boer couple, and he began recruiting other British people to build a town he called “Fountain of Flowers.” The town began growing quickly, with the First Raadsaal (city hall) constructed in 1849 (although it was first used as a school). The area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers was declared as British territory. In 1850, a church on the site occupied by the current Anglican cathedral was constructed. The Boers in the area, however, were not thrilled with these developments, and they began a whisper campaign casting aspersions on the way in which Warden had acquired the lands for the town. By 1854, the Boers had won, and the Orange Free State was named as a Boer Republic instead!

I was very happy to talk with Shuping Moeca, who opened the First Raadsaal museum to me. He helped me to understand why the first years of the Orange Free State were so rocky. The first state president, J.P. Hoffman, lasted only a year in office amid taunts about members of his administration needing crutches to walk and because of a scandal involving his gift to King Moshoeshoe of a barrel of gunpowder. The second president, Boshof, lasted four years, fighting a war against the same King Moshoeshoe and being torn between the English (who wanted to be part of the Cape Colony), the burghers (who wanted to become part of the Transvaal), and the republicans (who wanted the Free State to remain independent)!


I’m standing straight, but the building is slumping!

Imagining these arguments taking place in the First Raadsaal is entertaining. The clay walls were not “cooked” quite right, and the street side wall has a significant slant to it. The floor was made of cow dung, much as the Basotho have been doing for years. At least the thatched roof would allow cool temperatures. The museum also features an interesting assortment of ox and horse wagons. I was very impressed by the stagecoach until Shuping mentioned that this wagon would be a temporary home for its riders for twenty days to get to Cape Town!


Shuping also enlightened me about a mystery concerning two hills in town. One that offers an imposing view of the entire Bloemfontein skyline has been named “Naval Hill.” An eight-meter bronze statue of Nelson Mandela appears at this scenic point (the year after it was unveiled, Pretoria unveiled a nine-meter statue). Why would a landlocked capital have a Navy? He explained that the Free State government sought favor with the Dutch, and so they used the name Orange Free State.  Naval Hill borrowed its name from two guns that had been placed there by the British, actually!  Similarly, the Free State government copied a Scottish hill by laying out a horse outline on the hill to gain favor with the Scots. The “Signal Hill” district of Bloemfontein seems quite flat, by comparison. Apparently, the citizens demolished much of the hill but retained the name.


Bloemfontein panorama from Naval Hill

Bloemfontein has cycled through several Raadsaals, over the years. The current National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Sesotho Literature Museum are housed in the third Raadsal (1875), featuring a beautiful tower.


Third Raadsaal

The Fourth Raadsal immediately draws the eye. I wandered in through its gate and was taking a photo when security guards stopped me. The hall is now used for meetings of the provincial parliament. They explained that I could take photos outside the gate, but not inside; the building is a “National Key Point.” Oddly, the building adjoins a massive equestrian statue of General Christiaan De Wet (1854-1922), who performed brilliantly in the Anglo-Boer War but rose in rebellion against the government of the Union of South Africa when it decided to join forces with the British in the First World War.


Be sure to take your photos outside the fence!

One can certainly have mixed feelings about another son of Bloemfontein, J.B.M. Hertzog, an ardent Afrikaner nationalist. Serving in the Parliament for thirty-three consecutive years, Hertzog bedeviled both Jan Smuts and D.F. Malan. He even served as the Union of South Africa’s prime minister during 1924-1939.  Under his leadership, South Africa adopted its prior national flag (1928), promoted Afrikaans as the nation’s second official language, approved women’s suffrage, and denied black citizens the right to vote.  His support of the gold standard and of the German side in both World Wars also hindered South Africa.  I wanted to visit his house museum on Goddard street, but the museum didn’t open at the time stated on the sign out front. Instead, I looked at his statue near the National Museum. The fountain below is entirely dry, and street people have been using it for a garbage dump. The plinth on which his statue rests carries graffiti. Like several other white politicians of South Africa’s past, Hertzog is being forgotten.


Hertzog’s plaza is now entirely derelict.

I mentioned that Bloemfontein is the judicial capital of South Africa, and with that role, it is home to two different courts. The High (Appellate) Court is located in a very solid-looking building opposite the Fourth Raadsaal, and the Supreme Court of Appeal is not far away; repairs to offices were underway when I visited.


Appellate Court

Certainly, anyone with an interest in institutional architecture will enjoy a stroll down President Brand in Bloemfontein. Whether the buildings have dung floors or sandstone facades, they speak to the centrality of Bloemfontein in Afrikaner history.

Bloemfontein: in praise of troublesome women

An index to this series appears on the first post.

Augut 12, 2017

I arose with a sense of anticipation and excitement about returning to South Africa, the country where I feel at home. My vacation had been so tightly scheduled that I was feeling a bit worn and ready to head back. Just the same, I was curious about Bloemfontein and determined to learn what made it remarkable. I waited through a growing line of people on foot to get my entrance stamp in my new passport, and then I hit the N8 heading west.

I am always concerned to see pedestrians standing in the middle of the driving lanes on a national road, but something unusual struck me about the figure ahead of me. I had encountered a police roadblock! Along with a few other drivers, I maneuvered my car to the side of the road. A police officer greeted me and asked a few basic questions. Had I been in Lesotho? What was my citizenship? Was I really using a paper map? I resumed my westward course in no time.


After a tasty breakfast at Wimpy in eastern Bloemfontein, I followed the M13 to get south to the Anglo-Boer War Museum, but it was incredibly busy on a Saturday morning. Pedestrians, taxis, and other drivers seemed in no mood to give the others space.  It seemed ominous to realize that my turn had directed me toward massive cooling towers for a power plant. I was a bit rattled from the chaotic neighborhood, but I managed to reach my destination shortly thereafter.

I realized I was close when I saw the top of an obelisk pointing out of the trees behind a massive gateway inscribed in Afrikaans. I had reached the Anglo-Boer Museum and Women’s Monument! I was not sure what to expect of it. A museum glorifying the war that erupted along the fault lines between Boers and British would seem quite beside the point in today’s South Africa, but the museum is far from glorifying battle, as it focuses on the tragic losses to all South Africans due to the war. Of all museums I have seen in South Africa, the Anglo-Boer War Museum has adapted to the changes in South Africa since 1994 the best! Rather than throw together a side gallery themed “oh, black people got hurt, too,” the curators have worked to integrate the stories of non-white South Africans into all parts of the museum. This evolution is most apparent in the person who is my emphasis for this post.


The word Agterryer (“squire”) refers to a person of color fighting in the South African War.

Emily Hobhouse was a highly contentious woman, and she is my hero.

Photo from http://www.kapstadt-net.de/pages/home/geschichte/kriege/emily-hobhouse.php

Emily Hobhouse felt this statue made her look sickly and old.

Born in Cornwall, U.K., Emily Hobhouse spent her entire life in service to others. After her father’s death, she moved to the United States to improve the welfare of miners in Minnesota. In 1898, she returned to the U.K., but after the outbreak of hostilities with the Boer Republics in 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee, and she sailed for South Africa in 1900. The British Army began using concentration camps to relocate Boers (essentially women and children) and others who were dispossessed (approximately 350,000 people in all) by their “scorched earth” policy to beat the guerrilla Boer commandos. Having gained permission to visit the concentration camps, Hobhouse discovered inadequate sanitation and nutrition for the prisoners and indifference among the administrators. (by the time the concentration camps were ended, 50-60,000 had died from these conditions; as many as 28,000 black South Africans may have lost their lives). Having observed that British leadership in South Africa was ignoring her, she returned to the U.K. with a scathing report that the Government confirmed through a separate committee. British policy changed, and conditions began improving.

Emily Hobhouse was turned back to the U.K. after taking ship once more to Cape Town because she was a disruptive influence. She was able to return to South Africa after the war, in 1905, when she established spinning and weaving schools for Boer girls in poor areas of the country. In South Africa, she is considered something of a saint! Hobhouse was not finished, however. During the armistice after World War I, she sought to help victims of a famine in Germany, fundraising and collecting food for the German people. For the second time in her life, Hobhouse was called a traitor for relieving the suffering of people against whom the U.K. had fought.


The National Women’s Memorial, Bloemfontein, contains the ashes of Emily Hobhouse.

It seems natural, then, that when in 1913 South Africa unveiled the 36.5 meter obelisk for the Women’s Memorial at Bloemfontein, they invited Emily Hobhouse to give a speech. She accepted, but her failing health prevented her attendance. Her speech was read instead by Mrs. Rachel I. Steyn (wife of the last president of the Free State). Despite their long friendship, though, the organizing committee had committed an injustice to Emily Hobhouse. They omitted from her speech this key phrase: “Does justice bid us to remember to-day how many thousands of the dark race perished also in Concentration Camps in a quarrel that was not theirs?” As Afrikaner Nationalism grew in power, sympathy for non-whites was silenced. In his diary, Sol Plaatje noted that “The Imperial Government may be as good as we are told it is, but one thing is certain, that (it) does not care a hang over the lives of its distant subjects.”

I was thrilled with the Anglo-Boer War Museum, and yet it was only lunch time! At the restaurant, I watched as two young people were counseled by a gentleman my age to join a program that sounded much like Amway. When I said hello, he tried to convince me I needed to be part of the company. Well, I hope that their joint venture turns out well.

The National Museum

I continued to the National Museum. Remember that Bloemfontein was the capital of the Free State, so the town is filled with monuments and soaring buildings to celebrate that glory. The National Museum had previously been held in the original city hall (they’ve progressed through a series of buildings for that purpose), but it is now held in a building constructed explicitly for that purpose. I was helped in my appreciation of the place that they had listed these highlights for their guests:

  • A complete fossil skeleton (with skull!) of a Melanosaurus,
  • The Florisbad skull from an archaic human (~259,000 years ago),
  • The Malvern meteorite, a rare stony meteorite from 1933,
  • A fiberglass replica made from a genuine adult bull elephant,
  • A model street scene to represent Bloemfontein in the early 20th century, and
  • The largest selection of live animals on display among all SA museums!

From the exhibit, you might not think this meteorite is special!

In other words, the museum was a bit scattershot in its focus. I must say that their evolution exhibits (everything from the Permian-Triassic extinction event to why the Great Karoo is such a bonanza for fossil finds to the route from primates to modern humans) were top-notch. The Melanosaurus was a bit confusing because it had been billed as a Euskelosaurus in the handout, but it was subsequently renamed. The Florisbad skull was actually a bit hard to find, and it’s not very complete. The Malvern meteorite is smaller than my fist, and the handout’s claim about a Mars origin didn’t make the cut for the exhibit including it. I’m still not sure why the elephant cast is inherently superior to one that is sculpted (except that the hair on the fiberglass model is the hair from the original elephant– shudder). The street scene was a little weird when I was in there by myself. The drug store played chicken noises when I walked by.


“It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.”

Their room devoted to the history of Bloemfontein was a collection of many facts and artifacts (including a “Liger,” born from a male lion and female tiger); it was a bit randomly tossed together for my tastes, but I did really like their model of Bloemfontein 1851. The gallery of architecture from the city was very nice indeed (some were even accompanied by scale models), but it seemed that every other structure had a sign marking that the building had subsequently been demolished to become a parking lot. The live animal displays were a bit of a bust. From the handout, I could expect bees, snakes, fish and crayfish, and cockroaches, but the bees colony had collapsed, and I didn’t see any live cockroaches (my feelings aren’t hurt). I did, however, enjoy seeing a live African clawed toad (Xenopus laevis) and a terrapin in a tank!


Xenopus laevis: important to research and cute, too!

I would emphasize some other things that the National Museum does well. They’ve sought to complement their recreation of a 20th century street with reproductions of the Batho community, a township that actually had some thought given to its design. I thought the blue jeans that had been patched with shweshwe fabric (donated by a Batho resident) were quite stylish! I was also very impressed by the African cultural anthropology exhibit, which explained the defining features of the different cultures of southern Africans that derived from populations on this continent. Their images from the colorful artistry of homes in the Ndebele culture made me want to see the real thing, in person!


Bespoke jeans!

Every museum in South Africa was faced with significant changes in the aftermath of true democracy. Some have taken real steps forward in the population they serve, and others are still struggling to navigate that change. I was very pleased to see that these two Bloemfontein museums understand how to be relevant to today’s South Africa!

The Golden Gate of the Free State

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 10, 2017

Having navigated from the beach to the edge of the Drakensberg, I was ready for a move to the high central plateau of South Africa. Today I crossed from the KwaZulu-Natal province into the Free State!

I ended yesterday at the Lilac Lodge in Winterton, South Africa. It is a quiet town, but its position on the R74 made it convenient launching point for my run to Golden Gate Highlands (the highway runs almost directly to the park). Something I didn’t understand before the drive, however, is that Winterton is more than 800 meters lower than Clarens, my final destination for the day!

Crossing the Border


View of Kilburn Dam reservoir from top of Oliviershoek Pass

I launched into the drive before 8:30 in the morning. I decided to stop for breakfast on my way, and each time I passed a town I had to ask if I was hungry enough yet. At first I passed through rolling hills, but by the time the road turned almost directly north, I was downshifting to keep Litchi moving forward! I am not accustomed to needing third gear for a climb in Strawberry, my Honda Jazz. The car had climbed for an eternity when I reached a lookout point. I discovered that I had climbed Oliviershoek Pass. I now stood at the boundary between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State!

As we see with borders within the United States, the provinces of South Africa are sometimes separated by geographic boundaries and sometimes by historic boundaries. As I mentioned in reference to Pietermaritzburg, the Boer Republic of Natalia was rapidly absorbed by the British. The Orange Free State and Transvaal, however, maintained their independence from the British for a longer period, falling only through the difficult Anglo-Boer Wars.

Most people pass between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State via the N3. It uses Van Reenen’s Pass, instead. I was quite fortunate not to have used the N3 on this drive. I learned that multiple fatalities and many miles of “tailback” had resulted from a multi-car collision on the N3 at this pass.


Sterkfontein Dam Reservoir

It seems rather odd to me that mountain ranges in South Africa, whether big or small, are always associated with water, but many of our principal fresh water reservoirs are contained in our mountains. I passed the Kilburn Dam, which can hold up to 1.3 million cubic feet of water, fairly early in my ascent. At the top of the pass (half a kilometer higher), however, I saw the massive Sterkfontein Dam‘s reservoir. Its reservoir is nearly 233 million cubic feet. Even so, this is only the third largest dam in South Africa. I only wish we had that water down in the Western Cape!

I paused at Harrismith for breakfast. It was the largest city I saw all day, with just 28,000 people. I saw another beautiful city hall, another pretty church, and a few miles of frustrating construction. Just the same, I was grateful for my flapjack breakfast. The server who brought my food said, “this is a weird breakfast. Flapjacks are for dessert!”

Basotho Cultural Village


A model of the typical Basotho home, circa 1600s, before European contact

Now well fed, I drove westward into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. I will say at the outset that this is the wrong direction. The park’s reception is all the way at the western edge, and so it was my last stop. Nobody was manning the east entrance, so I just drove into the park with no admission fee! Before long, I sighted the Basotho Cultural Village to the south of the highway. Litchi got me up the hill without complaints. The reception desk was pretty frosty. What they made clear was that they wanted R80 ZAR ($6 USD). I forked over the money, and one of them became much nicer, showing me where to join with the tour that had just started.


I would not have thought horse dung would be so useful for building shelves!

The Village is designed as a living museum, intended to show how the lifestyle of the Basotho has changed since the 1600s. The marked changes in the types of houses they build, the way they dress, and the way they eat were all demonstrated. Happily, they even fed us some sweet porridge, some traveling maize powder, and some salty corn (corn from the New World was one of the revolutions they experienced through contact with the Portuguese). I looked around the gift shop a bit afterwards, but I was still too full from breakfast to visit the cafe.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park


A panorama from a scenic overlook in Golden Gate Highlands

I continued on my trip west, and I began to encounter some signs for park trails and for scenic lookouts. If an American were teleported to this park, he or she would probably conclude that the surroundings were from the high desert in the Southwestern United States. It’s quite lovely.


The Vulture Blind

I could not resist when I saw a sign directing me to the “vulture blind (SILENCE!).” Litchi moaned a bit on the steep ascent, but I was able to photograph a herd of antelope at some distance. When I reached the parking for the blind, my first sight was of a trash container that had been upended, with some mostly intact egg shells right on the path. I navigated around to enter the blind. The window was around ten yards from some carcasses that looked several days old. I had been there five minutes when a group of five young people whooped and hollered their way into the blind, toting beer bottles. They then enjoyed noisily shushing each other for several minutes. Then they excused themselves and walked back out. Then a quiet couple from the Netherlands appeared. We whispered hellos to each other. In all this time, the only birds I saw were tiny songbirds. When I returned to the parking lot, I saw that someone had righted the trash can, but the egg shells had been firmly mashed into the pavement.


Mushroom Rock in the afternoon

Arriving at last at the registration desk, I was sad to learn that rock art was not available at this site, no matter which hiking trail I followed. (I think I had confused this site with the Drakensberg World Heritage Site.) Instead, I followed a relatively short trail to Mushroom Rock, which is a large rock formation with a cap wider than its supporting face. As I trudged to the top, I realized that I was once again meeting the couple which whom I had shared the Basotho tour. We took pictures for each other, and then I had a few moments of silence at Mushroom Rock. I decided to write a short poem for a friend of mine (more tomorrow). With that, I descended back to Litchi and headed west.


I saw a picnic site that looked like a great option, but then I realized the site was absolutely overrun with baboons, perhaps a dozen in number. I kept going. I saw a grave site for members of the Van Reenen Family, but I was still too close to the baboons. Finally, I saw a scenic site where police cars were parked. I stopped there, and soon I saw the police and their company in canoes on a small reservoir from a dam. They seemed to be having a wonderful time. Suddenly a gust of wind pulled my hat off my head, and down the slope it rolled! I tried to navigate down the slope to retrieve it, but right away I lost my footing, and a thorn pierced my hand as I tried to keep my place on the slope. I carefully worked my way back up. I thought I would once again lose a hat I’d purchased on holiday (see the 1994 Europe blog), but a police officer was kind enough to walk over to the hat from below and return it to me!

The Town of Clarens


A shop at Clarens, with a sign shadow from the setting sun

I kept thinking as I drove west from the picnic site that I would encounter a rock formation that would obviously represent “the Gateway,” but this turned out to be a hotel! I kept going, right out the western entrance to the park. There was a line awaiting entry, but nobody was trying to leave. I continued just a few miles to Clarens, the town where I was to stay the night. I was really interested to learn that the town was named after a town in Switzerland where Paul Kruger (president of the Transvaal Republic) spent the last days of his life. The town is obviously very active in the arts. I wandered through several galleries and was happy to see the prices were considerably lower than what I had encountered in Cape Town or in Stellenbosch.  After diving into a medium pizza, I settled into my bed and breakfast, right off the main road through the town.  I was pleased to discover it had a heated carpet on the floor, which kept my chilly toes warm as I prepared for bed.

Chasing Churchill and Singin’ a Song in the Central Drakensberg

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 9, 2017

Table Mountain is nice, but it’s not huge at roughly a kilometer in height. For big mountains in South Africa, one must look at the rim of mountains surrounding Lesotho; the eastern arc is called the Drakensberg. The very highest mountain in South Africa is Mafadi, at 3451 meters. It doesn’t get much attention, though, because it is more of a shelf than a proper peak. My day’s travels would take me into the central Drakensberg for my first encounter with this massive range.

To get there, though, required a couple hours’ drive from Pietermaritzburg. When I charged Litchi west onto the N3, though, I was doubtful. The hamster under the hood did not like the steady climb that was required of it, and it made quite the howl, in response. After the first hour, though, the road leveled considerably, and I began driving through undulating hills. From place to place I encountered areas that had been burned, I think intentionally.  Lara, who ran the bed and breakfast at Pietersmaritzburg, had mentioned the “Midlands Meander,” directly to the west, but I was headed north of that route.

IMG_0050At Mooirivier I had another adventure with a toll booth. This was was more expensive, at R46 ZAR. I handed the attendant R51, and she looked back at me and said something I couldn’t understand. When I stared at her uncomprehendingly, she shouted, “IT’S UP!” and pointed at the gate. I automatically shoved the car into first gear. I was a hundred yards away before I realized she hadn’t handed me any change.

Winston Churchill becomes a POW

An obscure fact from history had struck me the night before. In the days before Winston Churchill was prime minister during World War II, even before he had masterminded the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, he had been captured as a prisoner of war in South Africa! Churchill had finagled his way to South Africa as a journalist, and he convinced the military leadership to let him ride on an armored train running north to Colenso. When the train was derailed, he acted with great courage, but he was captured and handled as a POW because his actions were clearly partisan.

Finding the monument relating to his capture, though, was quite a problem. I knew it was near the intersection of the N3 and the R74 (this was, coincidentally, my turn-off to my next destination). I drove east from that intersection but saw nothing like the monument’s description. Continuing for about fifteen minutes, I saw no match, so I pulled into a farm store. The attendant knew nothing about the monument, but one of her coworkers said, “never mind her; she’s from the Free State.” The coworker then drew me a map. She emphasized that the only tar (paved) road leading south from the R74 (just east of the N3 intersection) was what I wanted. I found that road and headed south for ten minutes: nothing. I looped back and consulted Google Maps on my phone. This time, I saw that the little pull-off on the tar road I was following was within sight of the R74! I found it at last and took a few photos. I paused in the breeze, thinking of a young man who begged to go to war, and I said, “Churchill, you were a crazy man.”

IMG_0057Having scratched my history itch, I shot northwest to Winterton. I was able to confirm the location of my lodgings for the night, and so I headed south on the R600 into the area of Cathkin’s peak, where a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains is notable for a birds of prey center, an arts community, excellent hiking trails, and a very unusual school for boys. The R600 is one lane heading south and one lane heading north, and essentially all traffic into the area uses the road. From place to place I would encounter a group of small children dancing by the side of the road in hopes of earning some cash.

Ardmore Arts Farm


A grandfather indicates a direction with his spear for a young Zulu.

My first stop was an impulsive one. Natasha had mentioned Ardmore as an interesting arts community with an international reputation for creative ceramic artwork. I was hungry when the sign for Ardmore appeared, and the sign indicated that they had dining options! I headed east for a visit. I was dismayed when the tar road soon became gravelly dirt. I bounced along the road and stopped at the first place that appeared to be open for business. They had an antique shop and a shop that qualified as an antique (and was now billed as a museum). I visited the antique shop, bought a ladle, and continued down the road until I had arrived at Ardmore. A woman named Fée Halsted-Berning had been “retrenched” from her position as a ceramics lecturer in 1985. She moved to her soon-to-be-husband’s farm in the Drakensberg and asked her housekeeper if she knew any local artisans who would like to be trained in ceramics. Bonnie Ntshalintshali soon became her fast friend, and others joined in to create a studio of more than one hundred ceramic artists, with worldwide sales to not only collectors but museums. Today the Ardmore Farm is owned by a new couple, but this change has led to an expansion to hand-woven fabrics, under the label African Loom. The original pottery studio has become a series of rooms for the bed-and-breakfast business; the ceramics studio has moved to a different location. I loved the light and greenery of the property, and I loved the peculiar silo-shaped multistory homes that a couple of the employees inhabit!


The original Ardmore pottery studio

Monk’s Cowl


My next stop was intended to let me touch a mountain. From Ardmore I had seen the “Champagne Castle” area dimly in the distance, but I wanted to get closer. I reached the Southern end of the R600 at the trail head for “Monk’s Cowl.” My lower left leg was still giving me troubles with a pulled muscle and a blister, but I simply gutted it out to wander down the trail toward nearby pools. I took some advice from the guards and donned my cap again and grabbed the bottle of water. I had not walked more than fifteen minutes when I encountered a lovely vista of the mountains. I snapped several photos, moved a bit further, found another view, and shot more photos. Then, looking at my watch, I realized it was time for me to turn back for my only planned event of the day!

Drakensberg Choir Boys School


I had realized that my day in the central Drakensberg was a Wednesday, and the Drakensberg Choir Boys School has weekly concerts on Wednesdays at 3:30! One of my last coherent thoughts in Durban was to purchase a ticket so I wouldn’t have to worry about the concert selling out (this Wednesday was South African Women’s Day). I arrived at the school right on time, and a school teacher gave us some orientation about the institution as we stood in the first room that the school used for these weekly performances. Since 1967, the school has been hosting boys from ages 9-15 who want to become excellent musical performers. The children have very full school days since they practice music for hours in addition to the normal school requirements. The school has three performing choirs. Their two most experienced choirs had recently been on tour in Japan, and the group we heard today had just returned while the other continued for a few more performances in that country. He estimated that the three school choirs produce a total of around 85 performances in the course of a year!

I was really happy with my seat; I was in the second row, quite close to the middle. For the first half, the boys were wearing formal outfits, with a white ruff of sorts over a blue shirt. I was close enough that I could hear individual voices. The quality of individual singers was most apparent when a boy would feature as a soloist. It makes sense to me that individual boys are able to move successfully to music careers after such intensive training. Having participated in a number of choirs throughout my life, I am a bit “judgy” on music. I wanted to know if these boys, submerged in music, rose to the level of the Tygerberg Children’s Choir, probably the best choir I have ever heard perform before. I was a bit frustrated by the show’s opening with an Eric Whitacre piece. In my view, you use the Eric Whitacre somewhere mid-show, when you are ready to wow an audience that has settled into complacency. I really appreciated the excellent showmanship on display, even by some very young boys (featuring as sopranos). It was nice to see the not-ready-for-performance-choir boys serving as ushers and stage setting. The second half opened with a special performance by the Ulm junge blaserphilharmonie (youth wind philharmonic). It was a huge group, and their play was very evocative. I learned to love a piece of which I hadn’t heard before, celebrating the “Red Rock Mountain” of Pennsylvania, and they did an amazing job with Shostakovich. The Drakensberg choir then closed the show with a multi-part paean to the receding animal life of Africa. I believe the piece spanned approximately a half hour, and the dancing, singing, and drumming on display were stunning. The boys were sweating a fair amount by the end, but I know I would have been passed out if I’d tried anything as audacious. It was quite the way to close the show!

It had been a very full day.  I returned to Winterton, and I checked into the Lilac Lodge, a bed and breakfast spanning several buildings.  I was delighted to discover eight cats occupy the property.  I could not, however, tempt any to visit me.  Actually, a few of them seemed to be locked in a titanic struggle of wills!  I sent a few messages via WiFi, standing outside to get a signal.  The room was comfortable and quiet, and off I went to Dreamland.

A few hours in Pietermaritzburg

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 8, 2017

The size of Durban made it a bit overwhelming for me, but gladly, I was able to drive to Pietermaritzburg to continue my trip. This city of a half million is the KwaZulu-Natal provincial capital, and it ranks after Port Elizabeth in size. My drive from Durban was mostly uphill, since “PMB” sits at almost 600 meters elevation (more than halfway up Table Mountain). I dodged through the construction to hop onto the N2 heading south, and miles of Durban unfolded before me.  The shoulders were lined with all the greenery one would expect of a subtropical area.  At long last, I hit the intersection of the N3 and headed inland. For the second time since arriving in Durban, I paid a toll, this time of R11 ZAR (still less than a dollar).  The plants on either side of me began looking more like those of the high plains.  The road kept rising, and Litchi-Car was barely able to stay above 80 kph; I soon learned I had been climbing Cato Ridge! The car’s struggle didn’t bode well for later days of this trip, in more mountainous areas.

I took an early exit from the N3 to approach the city from Alan Paton Ave (many Americans may first have learned about Apartheid from this PMB-born author’s book Cry the Beloved Country). I continued on Chief Albert Luthuli St. (1960 Nobel Peace Price winner and former President of the ANC) into the heart of the city. When I realized I was quite close to where I wanted to start my tour, I began spiraling through the mid-town in hopes of finding a parking lot. I made several frustrating orbits before parking Litchi-Car along Luthuli. A sign noted that I needed to display my receipt in the window, so I needed to find the attendant. She was about a quarter of a mile uphill, and she would only be on site until 1PM, so I paid R9 to cover that period. Now I could get down to business!

20170808-Pietermaritzburg City Hall

The 1893 City Hall showcases the red brick architecture for the city.

Pietermaritzburg has experienced two key revolutions in ownership over time. It was founded in 1838 by a group of Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief between the Umsunduzi River and the Dorp Spruit (Piet Retief was killed by Shaka’s successor Dingane in 1838). One will frequently hear that the “Maritz” part of the name comes from the leader of the second Trek into the Natal region, Gert Maritz, but apparently there was bad blood between these two men; one history I’ve read suggests that the city name is instead a garble of the first two names of Pieter Mauritz Retief! PMB served as the capital for the Boers who were gathering east of the Drakensburg mountains, and they formed the Boer Republic of Natalia. This republic didn’t last very long, because the British annexed it in 1843 to their Natal Colony. The Boers had started their Trek because they didn’t want the British making their rules, so many of them headed further north and inland from the city they had founded.

The second key revolution took place in 1994, when South Africa extended its franchise to all citizens, regardless of race, and this has led to considerable change in the administration and housing patterns of South African cities. Cape Town, where I live, has a continued tendency to segregation, even if it now takes place along economic lines rather than explicitly racial lines. PMB’s downtown, however, reflects the ethnic diversity of the people who live in this region. Many sidewalks are crowded with booths for people selling cell phone accessories, clothes, bootleg DVDs, and local art. (I bought a Zulu-style beaded collar for a mere R50 ZAR.) I hardly saw a monument with a shelf in the memorial garden next to City Hall without at least a couple of people perched atop it. The sidewalks were bustling with people. It reminded me that I am part of an ethnic minority in South Africa.


High Court

I felt a bit uncomfortable about pulling out my camera.  I must say, though, that the city center is quite gorgeous! Much of the architecture is linked by the use of locally-manufactured red bricks. City Hall, Tatham Art Gallery, and the Provincial Legislature all feature the use of these bricks, and the Victorian and Edwardian architecture is really something to see. As I walked around the center, my map showed an entire block marked “Capital,” and I was confused because the sidewalks seemed to be getting even more congested with informal sellers as I approached. When I arrived at the block, I realized my error. The block was the Capital Centre shopping mall. The informal sanitation of those streets was problematic, perhaps in connection with the nearby taxi rank. I could hardly get the smell of urine from my nose.

I settled upon my plan of attack for my tourist day. I wanted to see two museums; the Natal Museum emphasized natural history and cultural history, and the Voortrekker Museum discussed the city’s past. Happily, both were an easy walk from City Hall.

Natal Museum

IMG_9991The Natal Museum is pretty old-school. The ground floor is all about natural history, and the presentation is based around large collections of taxidermy animals. I was particularly taken with a musk deer. Did you know they have tusk-like teeth? It’s like Bambi got bitten by a vampire! A particularly sad exhibit was the skeleton of the last elephant shot in the wild in KwaZulu-Natal (1916). He was 55 years of age, based on his fused molars. I won’t say more of the stuffed animals, but I did notice something else on the ground floor. Since this week features Women’s Day, I was very glad to see that local students were learning about women who have been successful in science in the auditorium!

Upstairs, the Natal Museum is going in a different direction. They had a whole room in the mezzanine devoted to prominent Indians in Pietermaritzburg; what the exhibit said of the Neo-Vedanata sounded almost Unitarian Universalist! Moving further up, I saw that the museum had invested considerable effort in exploring ancient, medieval, and more recent traditional culture in Africa. I particularly liked their exhibit linking the Zhizo (AD 900-1000) to the Kalanga (AD 1000-1220) to the Mapungubwe (AD 1220-1300) to Great Zimbabwe (AD 11th-14th century). That last culture produced the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. Once I left that exhibit, a marimba and drum set took center stage. The museum had thoughtfully left the music for anyone who wanted to play “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which constitutes part of our national anthem.


Voortrekker Museum

20170808-Voortrekker-MuseumMy next stop was a different kettle of fish. I would explain that the Voortrekkers are thought of as the predecessors to the Afrikaners, and the rise of the Afrikaners led to Apartheid. To leave the Voortrekker Museum as it was before the 1994 democratic elections, then, would leave that museum with a bad odor in the modern political climate of South Africa! The museum, correspondingly, has rebranded itself the Msunduzi Museum, changing its scope to the entire municipal area. This transformation has been partly successful. All exhibits are given in three languages (English, Zulu, and Afrikaans), so the amount of text that appears on any topic is necessarily limited. Most of their collection is associated with the Voortrekkers, though they have included some impressive specimens from outside that group. My favorite was King Dingane‘s chair. The furniture was carved out of a single piece of wood rather than being nailed or screwed together! (Photographs were not allowed.)

IMG_0029The grounds of the museum are one of the best reasons to visit. They contain the Church of the Vow, a chapel built to recognize the Battle of Blood River. Fewer than 500 Voortrekkers (plus 200 servants) faced thousands of Zulu warriors in December of 1838, one week after the Boers under Andries Pretorius had vowed to build a church if they were granted victory. More than 3000 Zulu warriors died, and only three Voortrekkers were injured. Massed firearms made all the difference. Blood River was the first of two battles that ended King Dingane’s power. Quick-eyed readers may have noticed that 1838 was also important for the founding of this city! This church, then was one of the first structures of PMB, being tied to the battle that made occupying this land safe from its former guardians. For years white South Africans celebrated December 16th as “the Day of the Vow” or “Dingane’s Day,” but now South Africa celebrates that day as the “Day of Reconciliation” instead.

Missed opportunities

The two museums I visited in PMB have some nice starting materials, but I felt that some of the themes I would have expected to see covered in their exhibits were bypassed.  For example, PMB is the nearest major city to many of the battlegrounds of the Anglo-Zulu War.  I might have expected to see the Battle of Isandlwana and the subsequent conflict at Rourke’s Drift highlighted.  While the Voortrekker Museum has added a room of information about the Zulus, the interactions between the Zulus and Boers or between the Zulus and the British are less well described.  With more time, I am sure the curators will find the best way to integrate their old and new material.

The abundance of government buildings in PMB demonstrates that the town has a considerable history of its own.  At present, the Natal Museum emphasizes natural history and cultural history.  I hope that they will tell the story of PMB’s emergence as a capital, as well.  I didn’t see any exhibits in town, for example, that explained that the site was chosen in part because the two watercourses could be linked by ditches that ran parallel with streets, providing natural irrigation and sanitation.  Some of these rivulets are still visible in the modern town.  I was reminded of the bächle that I saw in Freiburg.

I was glad for the comforts of PMB, since my next stop would be in the mountains!