They told us not to drive after dark. But given the distances involved as we drove between Johannesburg and Cape Town, on at least two evenings it turned dark with an hour of driving still ahead of us. Our initial trepidation gave way to awe at the blazing sunset sky as we drove, and the even more spectacular view of the stars once it turned inky dark. This was the Karoo we were driving through, desert country that sprawls across the middle of South Africa.
Now I’ve seen books that get poetic about the charms of deserts, the Karoo too, and those books invariably leave me cold. Yet when we stopped somewhere with no man-made lights in sight in any direction, when we emerged from the car and gaped in wonder at the night sky, at the Milky Way like an ethereal scarf, at a myriad stars arranged in unfamiliar southern constellations—I could well have turned poetic myself. And we had long forgotten the warnings about driving.
Down the Karoo: (from left) The endless road with no man-made installation in sight; the Piet Retief statue of the Voortrekker monument outside Pretoria. Photos: Thinkstock
This is gorgeous country to drive through, vast and sparse, the occasional small town—Beaufort West, Three Sisters, Hopetown—only underlining the great emptiness. One, Britstown, lies almost exactly halfway between the two cities: 700-odd kilometres from Johannesburg, 700-odd kilometres from Cape Town. We looked at the map and stuck a figurative pin on Britstown: That’s where we would stop for the night, at the Transkaroo Country Lodge. Darkness fell before we reached, but buoyed by the stars, we pressed on. On the phone, the lady at the lodge gave us instructions to find the place, but she had clearly not bargained for the poor spotting capabilities of Indians used to great crowded cities. We swept into Britstown in a rush, we started to slow to look for her landmarks, and just like that we were through to the other end of town. We made the U-turn and returned, passing the “Welcome to Britstown” sign for travellers in the other direction, and just like that we shot back out again.
Also See Trip Planner/South Africa (PDF)
No, we did find the lodge. Within minutes we were checked in and gasping at dinky appurtenances everywhere. In the charming room they gave us, the furniture and fittings were like vestiges of an earlier, curvier era: pink striped curtains, and a rack of elegant cups and saucers on the wall to serve tea in. In the lobby, a rather solemn, rather fat white cat that sat stolidly below a chair, staring unblinkingly at us.
The lodge has been around for over a century. It was originally a way station for fortune-seekers en route to the diamond mines of Kimberley, 250km north-east. After the mines closed, it drew largely Jewish vacationers searching charms in the desert, far from the city. Adlene Potgieter, the lady on the phone, and her husband Rian bought the lodge in 1973, renovated it extensively and, at some point in the intervening years, installed the resident cat.
Adlene was all charm and warmth, just as we might have expected. But the real reason I remember her name was because I later learnt it had a long pedigree, and a connection with travels in this desert. Starting in the 1830s, bands of Boers—whites in South Africa of Dutch descent, speaking Afrikaans—left the mainly British Cape and roamed through the heart of South Africa, searching for somewhere to live in security. These were “Voortrekkers” (“pioneers”), and this was their “Great Trek”, the legendary quest for, even a statement of, Afrikaner identity and purpose. The brutal battles for survival they fought with Zulu and Ndebele people—the slaughter, treachery and victories on both sides—shaped a people for generations to come. Afrikaner nationalism found expression in the states they carved out for themselves, and then their governments began pushing blacks into barren “homelands” and the misery of apartheid.
In a real sense, the tragic future of South Africa was forged in both the bloodshed and the promise of the Great Trek.
One band of Voortrekkers set out from Cape Town in 1836, led by Andries Potgieter. No, I didn’t find out if he was an ancestor of the Britstown Potgieters. But the name echoed through the years. The flag he first used (the Potgieter Flag) was adopted as the Voortrekker’s own. His son Piet, commandant to Paul Kruger—another Great Trek hero—was shot dead during the Voortrekker siege of hundreds of black tribespeople in Makapansgat in 1854. The imposing Kruger monument in Church Square in Pretoria has a mural featuring both Piet and Paul. Outside Pretoria, Andries’ great granddaughter, K.F. Ackerman, helped lay the cornerstone of the stern, hulking Voortrekker Monument on 16 December 1938.
(from left) Ostrich farms dot the Karoo; and the night sky can make you forget warnings about driving at night. Photos: Thinkstock & Dilip D’Souza
It wasn’t a randomly chosen date. It was the centenary of the hopelessly one-sided Battle of Blood River, so named because the river ran red with the blood of 3,000 dead Zulu warriors. That date was observed for years as the “Day of the Vow”, one the Voortrekkers took before the battle. This was the vow:
“Here we stand before the holy God of heaven and earth, to make a vow to Him that, if He will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a sabbath, and that we shall erect a house to His honour wherever it should please Him, and that we also will tell our children that they should share in that with us in memory for future generations.
For the honour of His name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.”
Of such strands of felt honour and divine righteousness, of heavenly invocations against the enemy, were woven the fabric of repugnant 20th century apartheid.
Yet in the 21st century, apartheid exists only where it should: in a museum. On the sunny day we visited, Church Square was overrun by crowds of cheerful black South Africans, several actually sitting for photos next to Paul Kruger and his Afrikaner mates: surely the ultimate repudiation of what Kruger, Potgieter and the Voortrekkers trekked and stood for. They still observe 16 December in South Africa. But since 1994, it’s no longer the Day of the Vow; it’s the Day of Reconciliation.
Somewhere outside Britstown one night, with no lights in sight, we stopped again, looked up in wonder again. White stars, inky black night sky, thoughts aplenty.
Apartheid grew in this land of great beauty. But so did the still-fledgling idea of reconciliation. For me in South Africa, that’s promise enough.
There’s plenty for children to do and see. My 11-year-old loved abseiling down the side of Table Mountain, Cape Town.
People are solicitous and there are always ramps for seniors to avoid taking the steps. But there are a lot of climbs and walks, some of which are hard for older tourists.
South Africa has legal and NGO support for LGBT people, and levels of prejudice are low, especially in cities.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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