Of mountain passes and wheat fields


The quickest way to reach Oudtshoorn from Cape Town is to fly to George, then drive the 60 kilometres to Oudtshoorn.  This will take under two hours, excluding the time spent in getting to and from, and idling at airport terminal buildings.

The time-rich traveller can choose to drive.  There are several permutations of the route, the quickest of which will take a little under six hours.  They all start in Cape Town – of course – and the one with which I’m most familiar travels along the N2 highway, the coastal road between Cape Town and Durban, across a series of mountain passes and through regional districts. As Cape Town recedes, the Hottentots Holland Mountains loom, the first barrier to the hinterland.  On a clear day, a quick sideways glance from the summit of Sir Lowry’s Pass reveals the full extent of the Cape Peninsula’s backbone, with the gentle folds of Devil’s Peak at its head and the sharp edges of Cape Point at its tail.  Like many parts of the colonial world, this pass takes its name from a British governor, Sir Lowry Cole, who was in office when the present route of the pass was laid out in 1828.  It wasn’t the first; almost a century before, Dutch farmers had driven their livestock across these mountains, not far from the present-day pass. At the summit, the traveller has a last glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean or, if one subscribes to the view that it is at Cape Point where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, then one can include the latter ocean in the foreground.  Most Capetonians, and I count myself among them, grow up believing that Cape Point is the demarcation line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  For evidence, we point to substantial sea temperature variations that can occur on either side of the peninsula.  The western side of the peninsula, firmly ensconced within the chilly realm of the Atlantic, is washed by seas whose temperatures rarely rise into centigrade teens, whereas it is possible to bask in 20 degrees in False Bay, on the other side.  The more accepted view is that the two oceans meet at a point 170 kilometres south-east of Cape Point.  This is at Cape Agulhas, the most southerly tip of the African continent.  The cold Benguela current that comes up from Antarctica, flows up the west coast of South Africa, meeting the warm Agulhas current streaming towards it from the country’s east coast.  The warmer waters of False Bay are most likely explained by the Agulhas current extending its reach and the corollary is probably true of the Atlantic’s influence.

My first trip across Sir Lowry’s Pass was most likely in my mother’s black Cadillac, a beast of a car with average petrol consumption of seven miles to the gallon.  The back seat of this car holds special memories for me; it was from here that I tumbled onto the footpath, victim of a door half-latched after having been collected from kindergarten.  Unhurt, I picked myself up from the kerb and waited for the Cadillac to slow down, stop and reverse, for my remorseful mother to inspect her youngest for scratches and broken limbs, apologise for her mistake and shamefacedly take me home to the meal of my choice.

If there are two things I remember about my mother’s driving, it was her fondness for using the clutch pedal as a footrest – a habit that would develop when she switched to manual transmission cars – and her infrequent use of the rear view mirror.  As the large back window receded from view, I started to run, waving my hands.  It probably took less than a few minutes for her to realise that she’d lost her passenger and she did come back for me.  My attendance at this kindergarten would soon come to an end, hastened by my recent discovery of the missile-like properties of pine cones.  I have terrible aim and am known to miss a target from less than a metre away; but for once I was accurate.  The teacher-target issued the expected and unequivocal verdict. ‘Please take your daughter away and don’t ever bring her back.’  I started school shortly afterwards.

From Sir Lowry’s Pass, the road passes through the Elgin valley with its orchards of apples and stone fruit, before reaching another pass at Houw Hoek, or ‘cattle corner’.  The Houw Hoek Inn, dating from the late eighteenth century and the oldest hotel in South Africa, is visible from a bend in the pass, nestling under a canopy of oak, poplar and blue gum trees.  It was the first coaching inn to be built and is located on the spot where the toll gate stood in the days of the Dutch East India Company.  The Cape Wagon Road passed directly in front of the inn and all animal-drawn traffic – mail-coaches, ox wagons, horse-carts and riders – stopped there.

As the N2 descends the Houw Hoek pass, apples and stone fruit give way to wheat fields: wide-angle landscapes of short or tall, green or yellow wheat, depending on the crops’ growth phase, punctuated by service towns named for former governors, topographical features, European towns and local clerics.  Their names echo in my memory: Caledon, Riviersonderend, Riversdale, Swellendam, Heidelberg, Albertinia, all of them necessary obstacles to reaching the coast and places I willed to pass quickly.  I probably slept through a few of them.  At Swellendam, one has the choice of crossing the Langeberg Mountains into the Little Karoo and continuing to Oudtshoorn; this section is part of the quicker route, but is not one I know.

By the time I reached my twenties, Albertinia, a town of a few thousand souls, had become something of an exception.  I was travelling in the district with a group of friends when one of them mentioned that the town’s butcher was worth looking up.  He made biltong and droëwors, ‘padkos’ – which literally means ‘road food’ – staples, to be carved and chewed on long journeys to stave off hunger pangs or relieve boredom.  Or both.  My memory is fuzzy about the exact location of this shop, but I recall that it stood alone at the end of a driveway up a small rise and was slightly to one side of the town.  Beyond the weighted fly screen door at the shop’s entrance, that uniquely hybrid smell of sawdust and fresh meat greeted us.  A small choice of beef and lamb peered out from behind a glass counter, and sticks of biltong and droëwors were suspended from hooks above.  As we pondered our choices, the proprietor, a taciturn man with a limited command of English, looked up.  For a moment we forgot about the meat and focussed on his face, or on his eyes, in particular.  The left eye pointed outwards while the other, bulging from its socket, drooped towards his right cheek in a permanent downward cast.  It was a horrifying look, something that the friend in the know – who had also chosen to stay in the car – had not mentioned.  What he lacked in looks, the butcher made up for in the quality of his meat and I remember at least one more visit to the ‘Phantom of Albertinia’.

The prospect of a dip at Mossel Bay, a harbour town and gateway to the Garden Route, sustained me through hours of wheat fields.  Years later, I would learn that its beaches were – and still are – patrolled by great white sharks, a species feared by swimmers and known to venture into the surf zone.  We swam, blissfully unaware and unafraid.

The hour or so trip between Mossel Bay and George was marked by the distinctive smell of khaki bos.  This native South American plant was introduced by the British during the second Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902), as hay for their horses.  It contained the seeds of tagetes minuta, a member of the marigold family, which quickly became established in areas that saw action during the war.  It was the Boers who assigned the descriptor, ‘khaki’, to this plant species, named for the colour of the British troops’ outfits which, by then, had replaced the red coats that had identified British soldiers as easy targets in earlier battles.  I don’t know of any skirmishes fought in this part of the Cape Colony, but it wouldn’t have taken long for this invasive species to have spread there.

Our path of travel passed through the town of George, noted for its vehicle registration identifier, ‘CAW’.  We would joke that this was a deliberate reference to the area’s climate, which is distinguished by high rainfall.  ‘Cold And Wet! Cold And Wet!’ I would shriek as we drove down George’s main road, expecting the skies to turn leaden on demand and drop their load on us.  Often they did.

Most times we continued along the N2 into the Garden Route district and beyond.  It was on only one occasion, in the 1960’s, that we turned off at George to travel north to Oudtshoorn.  The journey would have taken us over the Outeniqua Pass, built by Italian prisoners-of-war between 1943 and 1951, before levelling off into flat land on approach to Oudtshoorn.

I remember almost nothing of it.