Continuity in change

It was a fashion trend that transformed the Oudtshoorn district into one of the richest in the Colony. From the 1880’s, women’s hats were worn large and elaborately trimmed, for which the ostrich feather was the perfect adornment. According to Stein,
‘fashion critics called the feathers sinuous and sensual and noted that, when moored to a hat (fan or boa), they lent the wearer the impression of movement and freedom.’
In a sense, the feather embodied liberation and mobility, both emerging conditions for the modern woman at the time.

A combination of factors had made Oudtshoorn suitable for raising ostriches. The Karoo’s arid climate allowed ostrich farmers to pluck adult birds frequently – every eight months – and high levels of lime in the region’s river valleys presented ideal growing conditions for lucerne, the feed essential to promoting a high density of birds.

Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to £1,000 a pair. Realising that ostrich-farming was more profitable than other crops, farmers ripped up large tracts of wheat and grapevines in favour of planting lucerne. The wealth that ostrich farming brought to Oudtshoorn grew at three times the rate of other rural areas in the Cape Colony, as well as that of the Colony as a whole. In 1878, the district was one of the richest in the Colony; by 1880, the first Jewish immigrants had begun to arrive. Their numbers grew to 30 in 1884 and between 200 and 300 in 1888. It was towards the end of this year that the first of two synagogues opened its doors.

Control of the feather trade was largely dominated by Jews from the towns of Chelm and Shavli in Lithuania. They brought with them a familiarity with textile, tanning, hide and leather, and fur trades, industries that had synergy with feather production. Once in the Cape, they developed business and personal relationships with Coloured workers and Afrikaner farmers, buying feathers from or entering into business arrangements with them. Some of the migrants went on to become key players on the international market, the wealth that accrued from their dealings manifest in the ‘feather palaces’ that became a feature of the local landscape in the early 1900’s.

Many of these immigrants were urbanised small traders and simple craftsmen. Eastern European Jews were experienced itinerant merchants, used to trading between country and town. The transition from European peddler to South African smous or travelling salesman, was an easy one for the smaller feather dealers. Stein reports that,
‘every Monday, itinerant buyers would leave town on foot or by donkey, horse or oxcart to roam the district on feather buying journeys that lasted a few days or a week at a time. Their dealings with Afrikaner farmers were, in general, cordial, facilitated by the linguistic similarities between Yiddish and Afrikaans.

But it was also their shared views on religion that bound the two groups. In The Birth of a Jewish Community, Rabbi Israel Abrahams notes that,
‘the Afrikaner trader treated the Hebrew trader with respect due to a scion of the People of the Book. The Jewish ‘smous’ was invariably made welcome at the farmstead. His horses were outspanned, stabled and given fodder; he himself was invited to have a meal and was accommodated for the night. If his observance of Jewish dietary laws prevented him from sharing the farmer’s meat, he was offered eggs, bread and coffee.’

It was into this world that Sarah Edelman and her two sons stepped in 1881. For the next seven or eight years, this was their environment. Harris Edelman’s previous occupation as ‘hawker’ suggests that he operated more at the level of itinerant feather dealer than in the heady atmosphere of the feather barons. The great leveller was Oudtshoorn’s Friday feather market where all participants, irrespective of scale of operation or social standing, gathered each week. After several days on the road, itinerant feather buyers returned to town on Friday morning to sell their feathers and to spend the Sabbath in town with their families. They were joined by Jewish merchants from the surrounding district and by larger-scale feather buyers who lived and worked in town.

Apart from the birth of three sons and the death of one, the Edelman family left an almost indelible footprint on the town. My inquiries of the CP Nel Museum, CJ Langenhoven Library and various other parties in Oudtshoorn who are in a position to shed light on this, turned up nothing. But some things can be inferred.

The family was in Oudtshoorn when overproduction caused the first market crash in 1885. The misery that this inflicted on the townsfolk was compounded by severe flooding which washed away the newly constructed Victoria Bridge over the Olifants River. The industry recovered slowly, but it wasn’t until 1902 that a much larger feather boom would start to take shape.

A small one-room school opened in 1858 and a boys’ school was erected in 1881. Harris Saltman and his half-brothers may have received instruction at the latter. More substantial educational establishments would come later.

Statutes passed in the Cape in 1883 and 1887 required all persons carrying on a trade or business, including feather buyers, to purchase a licence at a cost of £5. Feather buyers were also required, by statute and under threat of fine and hard labour, to record details of the provenance and characteristics of feathers purchased. No such records for Harris Edelman survive. But correspondence to the Colonial Secretary about a 1903 application for a distiller’s licence in Bloemfontein hints at his attitude towards compliance.
‘He now, for the third time in six months, ignores the law and, for the third time, pleads ignorance. He is not, in my opinion entitled to any consideration if – after two warnings – he still neglects to comply with the requirements of the law relating to his business. PS: the Civil Commissioner informs me that he issued a licence to Mr Edelman by mistake last year, and took it back from him on discovering the error, informing him that he would have to apply for a licence at the December meeting of the (Licensing) Court. Mr Edelman’s plea of ignorance is, under these circumstances, still more incomprehensible.’

A second and larger feather boom peaked around 1913. The following year, the market crashed, for the same reason that had given birth to the booms: a change in fashion. As European and American women entered the workforce in greater numbers, demand grew for a more utilitarian look, including that for hats. The rising popularity of the motor car also called for more practical attire. The elaborate, deep-brimmed hats of the preceding three decades gave way to more austere options such as the toque or cloche.

The impact on Oudtshoorn was devastating. Farmers and feather buyers who had been millionaires one day, were poverty-stricken the next. Liebl Feldman, whose Yiddish-language book, The Jerusalem of Africa, was published in 1940, wrote of the effects of the crash:
‘The (ostrich feather) dealers, speculators and exporters were reduced to poverty, feeling as hard done by as the ostriches had formerly felt after being plucked. Their poverty grew so great that they found themselves literally without a crust of bread. The majority of Jews in Oudsthoorn were reduced to starvation. The Oudtshoorn shopkeepers formed relief organisations. They obtained wagonloads of fish from Mossel Bay and collected donations for other food. Jews no longer went out to buy feathers. Instead they wandered the streets of Oudsthoorn in dire straits like victims of fire, dejected and desperate. The prosperous town of Oudtshoorn lost the glitter of its former wealth and the winds of poverty began to blow from all sides.’

The Edelman family were spared the ignominy and hardship of the second crash. By 1914, some of the older boys, including Harris Saltman, had moved away from home to forge their own lives and careers; the younger ones had returned to Britain with Harris and Sarah Edelman in 1911.  The older Edelmans spent their remaining days in Edinburgh. For someone who’d had a few careers spread across two hemispheres, it was the years in Oudtshoorn that left their mark on Harris Edelman. His death notice in 1924 states his occupation as ‘(retired) feather dealer.’

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the ostrich trade recovered and expanded to include skins, meat and tourism. In 2011, almost 100,000 people were living in the Oudsthoorn district, of whom more than three-quarters were Coloured. The Jewish population has largely spread to other parts of South Africa or the rest of the world. Bernice Kaplan, a long-term Oudtshoorn resident with whom I corresponded a year ago, summed it up thus:
‘This is what happens in all the small towns. I get quite heart sore when I read this (about Oudtshoorn) as in those days there were so many (Jewish) families that lived in Oudtshoorn. When I came to Oudtshoorn there were about 600 families and now we are so few of which most of the families that are left are old and sickly. A lot of our community have moved (overseas) and are staying there with their children, or moved because their children are there.’

The sadness – yearning? – for a period passed, is palpable. But the circumstances that shaped that time have changed forever. As communities come and go, pulled and pushed by economic, political and social imperatives, our towns rearrange themselves accordingly. Nor are cities immune to these forces. In my lifetime, I’ve seen inner urban areas transmogrified from working class suburbs to industrial estates to trendy high-rise for wealthy professionals. Ethnic groups that clustered around schools in the suburbs, started to disperse once their children entered university or the workforce. I can’t remember which philosopher of my undergraduate days remarked about the existence of ‘continuity in change’, but this has stuck with me ever since.  There is an inevitability about change, a rapidity that has never been more so than now.  While change involving conflict can make us miserable, adapting to innovative change can make us grow.  And one doesn’t have to leave town to do so.

 

Notes:

  • Chelm is part of Poland; Shavli is still in Lithuania, but now called Kaunas
  • Texts consulted include Sarah Abrevaya Stein Plumes: Ostrich feathers, Jews, and lost world of global commerce, Yale UP, 2008; Coetzee, D Immigrants to Citizens, civil integration and acculturation of Jews into Oudtshoorn society MA Degree in History, University of Cape Town, 2000; Derrick Lewis The Sanders Story: a family saga
  • The term, smous, derives from the Dutch, probably after the Yiddish shmues – talk, chat.  South African for peddler; obsolete – Jewish
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Inverted knees and stalagmites

A little while ago, I wandered into a shopping mall in Sydney’s CBD for a bit of late-afternoon window-shopping. Prowling malls is not something I do on a regular basis, but with fifteen minutes to spare before attending a seminar in the adjacent building and with nowhere else to go, it seemed like a good idea. Among the designer stores was a handbag shop that sold animal skin products: crocodile, snake and ostrich, painted in garish colours and wearing price tags that would never tempt me beyond the threshold.

As I looked at them behind the glass barrier, I thought about my ostrich-skin wallet. The distinctive figure of the bird on the card holder section showed a ridge of wear; above it, the word ‘genuine’ was still detectable, but all that remained of the word, ‘ostrich’ below was the letter, ‘o’.  The coin purse was held together by staples.  By rights, the wallet should have gone years ago. But such is our attachment to things, especially those that have acquired meaning through association with people or place, that we are loth to part with them. Sentimentality is often associated with a shallow emotional state, but I think this underestimates its range. Objects which belonged to deceased family members, people who were special to me, have provided strength, insight and comfort through the simple of act of being held or gazed upon. Like my late mother-in-law’s beads which she’d seen me admire; or the hard-backed 1937 edition of Gone with the Wind, presented by a bank manager to my then 22 year-old mother after he’d agreed to her request for funds to refinance the family business.

Ostriches, and farms dedicated to producing these birds, can be found in many countries and in some of the least-expected places. Like a mountain-side garden overlooking the hilltop tourist town of Sapa in northern Vietnam, where we found a pair of birds languishing in a fenced-off area in 2008. They seemed as out-of-place in this environment as the hearth our hotel proprietor had installed in the reception area, modelled on one he’d admired while studying in Dunedin, New Zealand.

These birds prefer sandy and arid areas, and open country. Savannas, woodlands, desert and semi-desert, dry grasslands and scrub areas are typical habitat. And it is Oudtshoorn – where my wallet was sourced – that meets a number of these criteria.  Less than 300mm of rain falls annually, and long, hot summers alternate with short, often cold winters. Thickets and succulents rub shoulders with Cape fynbos – a rich and varied floral kingdom – making this area unique botanically as well as ideal for raising ostriches.

According to my brother, our family visited Oudtshoorn twice between 1960 and 1965, occasions related to exhibition and swimming competition. I can remember only one childhood visit and I have no memory of the pool.   I carry an image of the central timber staircase of the hotel where we stayed, but nothing else about the accommodation.

Oudtshoorn, of course, is less-celebrated for aquatics and the facilitation of movement between floors, than it is about other things.  There were two ostrich farms open to the public, Safari and Highgate. I think its name may have tipped the balance in Safari’s favour; I’m sure Highgate would have been as good. A tour guide took us through the life-cycle of the bird, how the feathers were plucked and dyed, and appraised us of the various other uses that ostriches could be put to. Like handbags, shoes, steak and biltong.
‘This egg can make an omelet for twelve people.’ I eyed the oval monster with a degree of distaste. Eggs were something that went with bacon; a taste for omelet would come later.
‘Would you like to come and see the ostriches?’
Yes, I would. He led us to an open pen where several birds were standing. Some had thick black body feathers with the occasional white feather poking out from under a wing or around their tails. They were tall, majestic and beautiful. The others were a dusty brown colour.  Rather dull.
‘The males have black feathers.’
I inferred that the others were the hausfraus of the species.
‘Would you like to ride one?’ he said, pointing to a male.
I looked at the bird’s legs. The knees faced backwards, the feet finishing in sharp claws. Despite these design idiosyncracies, we’d been told that ostriches could run much faster than humans. I declined the offer.  We left with a hollowed-out egg painted with a scene of an ostrich running in the veld.

The other reason to visit Oudtshoorn was, of course, the Cango Caves. These limestone caves, parallel to the Swartberg, are a short drive from the town.  The ante-chambers with their towering stalagmite and stalactite formations were grand places, but they were for old people like my parents. I couldn’t wait to get into the more confined spaces of Lumbago Walk, the Devil’s Workshop and, particularly, the Chimney, a narrow chute at the top of an iron ladder. Once in the chimney, I had to lever my body upwards, getting traction by wedging myself into the sides of the tunnel, before passing through to the next chamber. I was filthy by the time I returned to the entrance chambers.  But I was happy.

I suspect that my father knew as little about a family connection to Oudtshoorn as I did about the anatomy of an ostrich leg. Years later I would learn that the bird’s knee faced the same way as mine and that what I had taken to be its patella had, in fact, been its ankle joint.

I still have the ostrich-skin wallet.  The staple is doing a good job.

Meanwhile, a hundred years earlier…

Autumn or winter was a good time to arrive in the Cape.  A nor-wester may have eased the ship into Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Harbour, giving the pregnant Sarah Edelman and her sons, Harris, five, and Joseph, not yet two, a gentle introduction to the local climate and their first view of the town and its mountain backdrop.  The weather wouldn’t have been far off a Liverpudlian summer, another pleasant discovery after six years in England.  Of course, if they’d arrived a few months earlier, they’d have steamed into the teeth of the ‘Cape Doctor’, the south-east wind that decks Table Mountain’s with its summer ‘tablecloth’ and is capable of knocking the unsteady off their feet.  I grew up with this wind, for me the single defining element of a Cape summer.  It both cleansed and irritated, but mostly it did the latter.  The south-easter rattled windows, laughing at bits of tissue paper wedged between panes and leadlights; it banged shutters, hooted down chimney stacks, terrorised pets and penetrated ear plugs.  I hated it.

The family’s travels weren’t over yet.  There was still a trip to Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo where, hopefully, Harris Edelman had set up house and was making enough of a living to support his wife and growing family.

Air travel was something of a distant future, another 22 years until the Wright brothers would make the first powered flight at Kittyhawk on December 17, 1903, and several more decades before the introduction of air passenger services in South Africa.  Transport infrastructure was rudimentary; until the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1871, the length of rail from Cape Town did not extend past the shadow cast by the nearby Jonkershoek mountains.  From 1872, major investment in rail brought the Cape Colony’s main ports – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London – closer to the diamond fields, but none of these lines went anywhere near Oudtshoorn.  For someone wanting a rail experience from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn in 1881, this was possible to a point.  That point was the tiny outpost of Prince Albert Road, 350 kilometres north-east of Cape Town in the Great Karoo, from where the rest of the journey had to be made by road.

Between Prince Albert Road and Oudtshoorn is one of the finest examples of an exposed fold mountain chain in the world, the Swartberg mountains, which also forms the border between the Great and Little Karoos.  A hundred years later I would cross this pass by car.  When we reached the summit, the engine started to overheat, making for an obligatory stop.  We waited for the engine to cool, taking in the arid beauty of the Great Karoo we’d left behind and the neat farmlands – and civilisation – of the Little Karoo in front of us.  We breathed some of the cleanest air on earth in a silence barely punctuated by an occasional breeze.  For all its pristine qualities, however, this was no place in which to get stuck.

A pass over the mountains would only be completed in 1888, leaving the traveller in 1881 with no option but to circumvent the Swartberg, a distance that would be halved with the opening up of the pass.  For 340 kilometres, our rail fan would have had to skirt the northern base of the Swartberg, finding passage through a series of ‘poorts’ – the word ‘poort’ means ‘narrow pass through mountains’ – on roads that were often subject to flooding and rockfalls.

If one didn’t want to switch travel mode, it was possible to make the journey entirely by road from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn.  Horse and cart, or coach, were the modus operandi of the day, requiring frequent stops for a change of horses and refreshments, maybe even an overnight stay or two.  There were mountain passes to cross and roads that were unsealed.  In parts, these roads were little more than dirt tracks; winter rain could turn them into bogs.

I like to think that Harris Edelman spared his pregnant wife and children the rigours of an overland trek.  That he would have arranged for them to stay on board the steamship that had borne them to Cape Town and would be continuing up the east coast to despatch passengers and mail.  If this gave Sarah and her sons little time to acquaint themselves with Cape Town, that would keep for another time.

Between 1857 and 1977, ships of the Union and Castle Lines transported mail and passengers between Britain and various ports in South Africa, including Mossel Bay, the closest port to Oudtshoorn.  For information on the ‘mail run’, I’ve turned to CJ Harris’ and Brian Ingpen’s absorbing account, Mailships of the Union Castle Line.  I found this and several other literary ‘pink diamonds’ in Cape Town’s Long Street, a road lined by Victorian buildings and populated by bars, restaurants and coffee shops.  One of the most joyful things about delving into ancestors’ pasts is the amount of ‘contextual evidence’ one discovers along the way, much of it out of print and available from second-hand bookshops only.  The search for such material creates the impetus for travel which, in turn, generates its own journeys of renewal, discovery and pure enjoyment.

In 1881, the ships of the Union and Castle Lines were no more than a couple of thousand tons and some of them still retained sail as an additional form of propulsion to steam.  A typical example was the ‘African’, built in 1873; she was a 96 metre long steamer with foresails, capable of 12 knots and able to accommodate 100 passengers in first class, 50 in second and 50 in third.  The ‘Dunrobin Castle’, built in 1876, was 104 metres long, capable of 10 knots and could accommodate 100 first class passengers, 50 in second class and ‘100 emigrants’.  The need to classify emigrants separately and their class of accommodation, is not explained.

From Cape Town, the vessel bearing Sarah and her sons would have steamed out of the Victoria and Albert Basin, giving the five year-old Harris his last view of the settlement and its mountain backdrop for a while.  The ship’s path of travel would have taken it around the western Cape Peninsula and south to Cape Point, tracking south-east past a number of tiny coastal settlements to Danger Point and thence south to Cape Agulhas.  If they had passed this area on a clear night, they may have seen the beam from the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, the most southerly on the African continent, winking at them.

This stretch of coast has been unsparing of vessel and life, its winter storms and mammoth rogue waves having claimed more than 100 ships and the lives of thousands, often emigrants.  The RMS Teuton, a mail steamer of the Union Company bound for Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), struck an object and sank near Cape Agulhas on the night of 30 August 1881.  According to an eyewitness, the ship

‘went down like a streak of lightning…I would have not believed it possible that a vessel could go down so quickly…I am almost certain that the boat with the women and children in it was fastened by rope to the vessel or did not clear the vortex.’

This eyewitness, a Mr Kromm, could not swim and survived by jumping from the poop deck as the ship was going down.  After being dragged below the surface of the water by the suction of the sinking ship, he managed to grab hold of a piece of wreckage and was later hauled on board one of the life boats.  Of the more than 200 persons on board, only 34 survived.

The port town of Mossel Bay – or the Bay of Mussels, named for the abundance of marine molluscs in its intertidal zone – became a key link in shipping primary produce from the interior to major markets in South Africa and the rest of the world.  By the 1880’s the full force of the ostrich feather boom catapulted Oudtshoorn onto the world stage and elevated the role of Mossel Bay to new heights.  The gross value of the feather trade had increased from around £87,000 in 1870 to more than £1 million in 1882 and, by the late nineteenth century, Mossel Bay had become a major port for exporting ostrich feathers, handling more than 800,000 kilograms of feathers every year.  1881 was a good time to be arriving in this part of the world.

If the value of the feather trade was powering ahead, land transport remained basic.  Derrick Lewis writes of his ancestors’ journey from Mossel Bay to Oudtshoorn in 1885: ‘Lena and her (eight) children travelled from Mossel Bay by horse and cart over the Robertson (sic) Pass to Oudtshoorn.’  He doesn’t say how long the trip took or whether the family needed more than one horse and cart to get them and their possessions across the mountains, but even today the Robinson Pass ranks higher for ‘tourist experience’ than it does against standards of ‘safety’ and ‘expeditious travel’.

The pass was opened in 1869.  Its base is about 40 kilometres north of Mossel Bay and the angle of ascent is steeper on this side, with the road climbing steadily through sweeping curves marked by memorials to people who have lost their lives in accidents along the way.  The pass is often shrouded in mist and the upper reaches can be wet.  Twenty-first century travellers who filmed the experience suggest that ‘if you are fortunate (my emphasis) enough to drive the pass after or even during rain, you will see a lot of water tumbling out of the mountain about 500 meters before the summit.’  Lewis doesn’t describe the weather on his ancestors’ 1885 trip so they may have struck the pass at a dry time.  Even if they did, the road was unsealed and, on a horse-drawn cart, every bump and jolt would have been felt.  Once over the summit, the road descends at an easier gradient through a series of S-bends before levelling off into the farmland district of the Little Karoo.  From what I can establish, the views are spectacular, but I’ll have to experience that first-hand for myself one day.

How much did Harris Edelman tell his wife about the South African odyssey she was about to undertake?  Nothing, I suspect.  The trip was something to be accepted and dealt with, like living in a house without sanitation or being made a widow at the age of 21.  Sometimes I think we know – or want to know – too much about what lies ahead.  The information revolution has given us a powerful tool, but at the same time, it has taken away our innocence, made us more cautious and less spontaneous, and robbed us of the ability to live in and enjoy the present; at times, it even misleads us.  Travel is a good example; we spend hours talking to industry experts and others who have ‘been there’, planning itineraries, mining websites, browsing forums, watching You Tube clips and flicking through Trip Advisor reviews.  We want to know exactly what the accommodation, the beach, the restaurant, the food, the excursions – the experience – will be like.

The toddler, Joseph, would have taken few memories of the journey through a life that would end a few years later.  The five-year-old Harris would have been more impressionable; this would have been one of the few sea voyages, perhaps the only one, he made during his life and the experience is likely to have marked him, as events of magnitude, either on a public or personal level, do.  My father would recall how he remembered the outbreak of the Great War, which occurred when he was two.  At a similar age, my parents left me with an aunt while they travelled abroad for three months; after they returned, I would check on them nightly to make sure they were still alive.

And then there was Oudtshoorn.  About as far removed from Liverpool as one could get.

 

 

 

 

 

Of mountain passes and wheat fields

swcapemap

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.