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Travel: East vs. West – Part 1

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Introduction Francois Huysamen, Words & Images Richard Van Ryneveld & Nick Yell

As an editor, you often get jealous of your journalists – they get to traverse the country while you are stuck behind a desk. But life on the road is not always an easy one, and the recent trips I planned for my writers proved not to be for sissies!

So, Toyota was giving us a Fortuner and a Hilux. The plan was to get to the “middle of South Africa”, then take the Fortuner on a trip to the east, and after this the Hilux had to journey to the west. We had two tough vehicles, one pulling an Imagine Comfortvan, the other with a Conquerer Comfort trailer. Perfect for a lekker guys’ trip.

With the help of Richard van Ryneveld and Nick Yell, I carefully planned their destinations. The first leg of the journey was themed “Berg and Beer”, as they were to head out from Bloemfontein, go around the north of Lesotho to the Drakensberg, and then go searching for some craft beer breweries to the east.

On the second leg of the trip, the manne would head west from Bloemhof Dam on the “Hooks and Heritage” mission (coming in the September edition).

The more we spoke of the trip, the more excited we all got… but things don’t always go as planned. Their trip started with having to get up at 3am for a flight to Joburg. The cold winter had set in hard, temperatures dropped below zero, and both Richard and Nick were hit with bronchitis. By the end of the two-week journey, we were a man down.

I thought these guys would never speak to me again after what I put them through! But I don’t want to give their stories away; over the next two months you can read all about it – in the words of the two brave journalists.

Nick Yell:

A 06h30 morning flight to Johannesburg is anathema to me at the best of times. And because Richard van Ryneveld and I both live about two hours’ drive from the airport, we had to get up at 03h00 to ensure a timeous check-in for our flight. To add insult to injury I was seated next to a serial sniffer — ah, the joys of travel writing!

Richard’s Diary:

Gleaming counters stretching as far as my eyes could see. Each stacked with row upon row of sweets. Each bin had a gleaming silver trowel to scoop this bounty into a bucket. A flipping bucket, I tell you! I was 13 years old and had just arrived in Durban, straight from the bush in the highlands of Kenya. Khaki shorts and shirt; only sissies wore longs. Or so we believed. My boet and I must have stood out like sore thumbs.

This anecdote is a flashback to about 50 years ago when I arrived in Durban in our battered Holden station wagon. I had never seen an escalator, or doors that seemingly opened by magic. Where we came from, the “shop” was a rusting corrugated iron shack with a few grubby bottles of sweets on the wooden counter. You can imagine how excited I was to see the OK’s gleaming counters stretching as far as my eyes could see: each stacked with row upon row of sweets.

Well, I had a déjà vu moment walking into Trappers in Fourways recently. (I moved on from sweets to camping gear a long time ago.) Now I had a gift voucher to spend in one of the biggest and most well-stocked camping shops in the country. It beat the hell out of staring at piles of fairytale-looking sweets…

I was on a trip with fellow photojournalist, Nick Yell, and the whole mission had a bit of a wacky feel to it. Our editor was sending us on a 2 000km journey, just for some beer. I can see your puzzled look, so let me explain: Francois had found an unofficial “craft beer route”, and wanted us to test out some of the microbreweries in the hills and dales of the eastern Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. Look, I am up for anything that promises a cold, handcrafted frosty at the end of an exciting day’s travel. And to cap it all, the boss promised to pay for our first two beers. But there was also some “work” to do, including checking out some lekker camping sites.

So, after stocking up at Trappers, we collected a spanking new Toyota Fortuner 2.8 GD-6 RB 6MT, plus a battle-hardened Imagine Comfortvan to roll on behind. I have been extremely blessed, working mainly for outdoor and travel magazines, and having been able to crisscross this beautiful land many times. I knew that our route from Bloem to KZN (in a wide sweep around the towering Drakensberge, Ladybrand, Ficksburg, Fouriesburg, Clarens, and on to the Golden Gate National Park,) would offer us some awe inspiring scenery. I also had a couple of secret places in the areas I wanted to check out; including Sandstone Estates just outside Ficksburg, which I had not been able to visit for years.

After shopping, collecting the Fortuner, and taking in a full rundown of the Imagine Comfortvan, we left Joburg quite late. Our first stop was the River of Joy campsite, right on the banks of the Modder River, where we arrived in the dark!

The next morning we met Oom Kallie Hearn. He and his wife arrived at River of Joy some four years ago and haven’t left. He now acts as assistant to Bertha Niehaus, the owner of the campsite, as she is often busy in Bloemfontein, some 30 kilometres away.

Nick:

Even dog-tired as we were, we had the trailer stabilised, the two tents deployed and the roof popped within around ten minutes, wanting to cocoon ourselves in the warmth of our sleeping bags as soon as possible. But we decided against setting up our flysheets…the insulating qualities of which we sorely missed during the frigid Free Sate night. The disadvantages of setting up camp in the dark are obvious, but probably the most striking one is that it is difficult to select the best site.

Walking around the campsite the next morning, we discovered more desirable sites right next to the Modder River; also quite a lot further away from the hum of the nearby N1.

Not wanting to reach our next destination too late again, it was soon after waking that we headed towards Ladybrand, where we were to stay at the Little Rock Holiday Resort. Our destination was only about 140 kilometres away, so I said to Nick: ‘We have to visit St Augustine.’ I had been told about St Augustine’s Priory many years before by Professor David Ambrose, a mathematics lecturer at the National University of Lesotho in Roma.

The priory was set up by the Anglican Society of St Augustine in 1869. Cannon Beckett, who started the Mission Station, described the beauty of the area as such: ‘…and I never remember in Europe, neither among the Alps, nor in north Italy, to have witnessed the same rich violet and orange tints in mountain scenery, which bathe the whole eastern side of earth and sky within one’s view just before an African sunset… no words can possibly convey the idea of the peculiar glory that the eye then drinks in.’

St Augustine is also the resting place of one of Southern Africa’s most famous seers and prophetesses, Anna Makhetha Mantsopa. A sister of King Moshoeshoe’s, she was born in about 1799 and had an eerie ability to predict the future. But her power so frightened the King he banished her from his territory. She moved into an ancient cave once occupied by the San at Modderfontein. It was here that she came into contact with Anglican missionaries. Mantsopa became a Christian, and was baptized Anna.

The Cave Church and a nearby sacred freshwater spring draw pilgrims from all over Africa. The cave became known as both the Cave Church and the Rose Chapel. Tragically, this sacred place has been neglected since my first visit. I was saddened, but still glad we had made the visit, before we headed on.

Nick:

Richard and I were joined by a boisterous black and white staffie as we walked down the path to the Cave Church. The cave was smaller than I imagined it to be, and the stone floor and steps looked like they had been polished by all the people who had smoothed it with their presences over a long period of time.

I have always loved Ladybrand… the wide streets, the old brown houses built from locally quarried sandstone; yet many of the streets have become badly potholed and there is a general feeling of neglect in parts of the town.

Little Rock Holiday Resort is a large, well-kept site at the foot of the Platberg mountain range. Walking around, I noted the retaining walls of dressed sandstone. This was the work of a master stonemason. It looked old.

‘Yes, you are right. This is a very old Free State property,’ said Elmarie Rossouw, the owner of Little Rock.

‘Back in 1896, this was known as Lelieshoek. It had immaculate gardens and polo fields.’

Nick:

When we got to Sandstone Estates, a large signboard spelt out that visits were strictly by appointment only. The security guard manning the gate, however, was an affable fellow and seemed intrigued, if not mildly perplexed, by Richard’s broken Zulu greetings and my schoolboy-Xhosa attempts at persuading him to let us through; especially as his home language was Sotho. Yet, despite our weak attempts at seducing his sensibilities with the wrong vernaculars, the man eventually left us with a bemused expression on his face and called someone on the telephone in the guardhouse.

Minutes later he appeared and produced a visitor’s book for us to sign – we were in, and we just hoped that someone would agree to show us around! Thankfully, farm secretary Leigh Sanders took pity on us the minute she saw the pleading look in our eyes, and led us on a tour of the enormous warehouses. Richard and I were transformed into oohing and aahing schoolboys, and snapped away like Japanese tourists on speed.

I took a steep but lekker walk up from the campsite to the sandstone massif that towers over the resort. It was early and the town of Ladybrand was wreathed in bands of mists, but the beautiful Free State still shone through. People from places like Ladybrand, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg and Clocolan will tell you, ‘But it is winter, it is bare and ugly’. I am afraid I disagree. The orange, red, burnt ochre and sienna that seem to glow in the evening light tugs at the heartstrings.

The next day we were finally on our way to taste some craft beer, but first we visited a place that seems to have evaded me too often in the past – Sandstone Estates. Sandstone Estates belonged to the Wille family from 1840 to 1995, when it was bought by the present owner, Wilfred Mole.

Today, the Sandstone Heritage Trust has a Railway Heritage section that includes the largest private collection of narrow-gauge locomotives and rolling stock in the world. There is also a Military Heritage section that includes a Sherman Mk1V tank; and the Agricultural Heritage section has a collection of tractors, including the rare Minneapolis marque. And the best thing about it is that every steam locomotive, tractor, classic car, military vehicle, Sherman tank or airplane actually still works and fires up!

After looking around for a while, Nick and I headed for Golden Gate National Park, and we were so fired up that we spent the whole trip discussing how we could attend Sandstone’s big upcoming event, the Stars of Sandstone, being held from 30 March to 9 April in 2017. Stars of Sandstone is an interactive heritage festival where visitors are encouraged to get involved with the working exhibits, from driving a tractor to being a passenger in a Sherman Tank; and, of course, enjoying the frequent railway trips around the farm. I wonder if my editor would be so kind as to send me on a follow-up story? Either way, I will be there, even if I have to start hitchhiking now.

But, for now, we were heading for our first handcrafted beer at the Highlands Brewery in Clarens. Unfortunately, it was here that things started to get rough for me. My anticipation of a brew was dampened by the fact that I was coming down with what we later found out was viral bronchitis! But a man doesn’t travel thousands of kilometres and not wet his beak. So we bought a few craft beers from a local bottle-store, as the brewery was unfortunately closed by the time we got into town. I first tasted a dark Highlands Brewery stout. It was the right stuff – a thick, creamy head with a hint of chocolate. Then I tried the same brewery’s ale… just as lekker!

The Glen Reenen campsite is in the Golden Gate National Park, just 25km from Clarens. I love this campsite. If you want to really experience the beauty of these sandstone mountains, go for a hike on the Wodehouse Peak Trail.

After another camp setup in the dark, we headed out for a hike in the morning. But I walked only a short distance… I was sweating and coughing like a Texan smoking cowboy. I was coming down with a bad case of flu. The lurgy hadn’t caught up with Nick… yet. So, while he headed on, I drove into Clarens for every drop of flu doepa available in the apothecary!

After creeping into bed early, I woke the next day with full-on bronchitis. Thankfully, out next campsite, Mahai at Royal Natal, was just 100km away. By now, Nick and I had our comfortable home up and ready in under ten minutes. While I made a fire to prepare our pap-and-wors supper, Nick took a stroll up the river path and boardwalk to the Cascades Rock Art site. It was another early night for my sick body, and I swear it felt like minus 16°C inside the tent… not a good environment for me in my current condition!

But a job’s a job, and I think I surprised Nick when I got up so early the next morning and started yabbering to our neighbours – a large group camping in two caravans and an assortment of tents. How small is the world? Here I met Linda Roets, who used to write a column for Caravan & Outdoor Life!

When it was time to leave for distant Shongweni Dam, near Hillcrest on the outskirts of Durban, I was feeling vrot again, and told Nick I was taking a timeout. I slept all the way, wrapped like a mummy in my Pep Stores fleece blanket; and in a haze of Corenza C, Disprin, Vicks Vaporub and Borstal cough syrup.

Nick:

News of my “father-in-law’s” passing the night before put me in a sad and pensive mood. Although I’d been expecting the news, it was still a great shock to the system and I was really sorry I couldn’t be on hand to help my life partner, Annette, through the ordeal of losing her dad, Attie.

But after deciding to take a hike to Mushroom Rock in his memory, I pretty much rocketed up the trail. After a couple of kilometres, I paused to catch my breath; my lungs burning both from the altitude and exertion. In front of me was a rock formation shaped just like the profile of a face. And while it bore little resemblance to Attie, I said a prayer for him and his family, and before I knew it, I was promising him I would always look after his “ou-nooi” (his nickname for Annette), and I knew I would propose to her when I got home.

Somehow I managed to set up camp while Nick went to book us in. It wasn’t long before I was back in bed while Nick was making a chicken curry in the Imagine Comfortvan’s nifty pull-out kitchen; we listened to the haunting cry of an African Fish Eagle and the splashes of some big sounding fish in the dam. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about having a cast, as I knew that Nick had brought a fly rod with him.

Indeed, the next morning I woke up to Nick saying: ‘If only I could cast a whole lot further.’ It seems he couldn’t reach the large rises breaking the dam’s calm surface, just beyond his range. I was feeling worse by the minute, but Nick had a plan – a good dose of hops, malted barley, mixed with the finest filtered water. We were heading for the Shongweni Brewery that was just up the road.

Here, we met brew-master Brian Stewart. This really is a family business – Brian’s son Donn left the corporate world to take over sales, marketing and finances. And Brian is also not discounting rumours that their other son Gary, who runs a successful yacht chartering business, might also come aboard the brewing business soon. We sampled a beer-tasting menu of just a soupçon of Hammer of Thor, a drop of Upright Iron Monkey, and a small swallow of Durban Pale Ale… I was almost feeling better! Unfortunately, even these top-quality draughts couldn’t overcome my bronchitis…

In thirty years of working as a photographer and later as a photojournalist, I have never limped off sick on a job. But I have to admit that at this juncture, I was man down. Not even the thought of more of the marvelous brews that lay ahead on the trip could rouse me into action… I needed a bed badly. Thank goodness my good friends, Barry and Beverley Stapleton, live in Durban.

‘Get here… your bed is made,’ said Bev. That was the best news I had heard in years.

Nick was tougher than I was. The microbes were already gnawing at his system too… I could see them! But after we’d shaken hands at the Stapletons, he was heading on… and he did complete the whole trip of another eight days.

Route highlights

• The drive from Ladybrand via Fouriesberg, Clarens and Golden Gate to Maloti Drakensberg Park
• Hiking part of the Rhebok Trail at Golden Gate
• Seeing the vintage machinery, cars and trains at Sandstone Estates
• Craft beer tasting in Clarens, Shongweni Brewery and Nottingham Road Brewery. Kilometres covered: From Johannesburg to Bloemfontein, then via eastern Free State around Lesotho, on to Durban and then to rig exchange rendezvous at Bloemhof Dam, approximately: 1 800km.

Route cautions

• The road between Bloemfontein and Ladybrand is full of roadworks.
• The road from Henneman to Hoopstad when making for Bloemhof Dam has many dangerous potholes.

Coming in the September edition:

Nick’s Diary:

The craft beer tasting did little to improve Richard’s viral bronchitis and he decided to recuperate at a friend’s place in Durban for a few days. After driving him in, I stopped at a roadside diner and plotted my western course to the geographical centre of the country, near Bloemhof Dam. It was there where I was to exchange my current transport for another rig, and then head out on a western tour of the country. Pleasingly, I noticed I could get off the busy and expensive N3 after Howick and pop into the famous Nottingham Road Brewery en route to Mooi River. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pick up a six pack of these delectable craft beers when on a road trip; especially with enchanting names such as, Whistling Weasel, Pale Ale and Pye-eyed Possum Pilsner?

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