Hurtling through Space and Time in the old Garob
Old wagon tracks led to strange bredies and inquisitive strangers in the land the ancients called ‘Garob’: dry, uninhabited, unfruitful. But in the Karoo, then and now, there is always life, drama, and mystery.
The Karoo, wrote Lawrence Green, “is a wide term covering more than a hundred thousand square miles in its widest meaning”. That’s in excess of 250,000 square kilometres or “the most spacious plateau region in the world outside Asia”, an area so large it is impossible to fathom any more than we can picture how massive the infinity of the Universe is. Yet we do try to picture its extent even with our puny ability to comprehend more than the little we can see in front of us; the tiny bit of twinkling black sky we regard as massive, mysterious, wondrous in its impenetrable extent.
Under this endless sky, we feel as small as we are, in our four-wheeled temporary homes rushing us to our families and back for Christmas, dodging death-tempting taxis with trailers the drivers seem unaware of, as koppies and windmills whoosh by, unseen by most of the eyes glued to every other car, truck and careless motorbike. Every fifth driver ignores the double lanes up every rise, racing past us as a truck hoves into view from beyond the hilltop, charging at him; somehow he manages to edge back into the left lane seven cars ahead, centimetres from a catastrophic smash. Just to get there faster. It’s a foolishness as impenetrable as that night sky; how many lives is he happy to risk to get there before we do? His, ours, those people in those seven cars up ahead…
It’s at the point where the Hex River Pass narrows into a single lane that I make my decision never to do this trip at this time of the year again. We will fly to Cape Town and Uber everywhere. In the right-hand lane, cars in front are slowing with 30 or 40 vehicles almost stationary up ahead, so I am crawling now as two lanes become one, but the driver of the massive truck to my left, forcing his way into the narrowing single lane and so close to our passenger side that you can almost smell his breath, is oblivious. He’s barely slowed at all and seems happier to push us off the road than concede that he needs to slow down, fast. I hoot like a mad thing because we are millimetres away from a crunching death, and he slows in the nick of time, the driver in front of me edging forward to make more space for us. Short of that, I may not be writing this now.
The true depths and nuances of the Karoo are rendered meaningless in the sweltering chariot race, its arid beauty devolved into a giant obstacle to get through and survive. But this Karoo was not always a terrifying, frantic challenge for a driver. Green, in his seminal and simply titled book Karoo, first published in 1955, my year of birth, told how he was a reluctant child of the 20th century, “the century of atomic uncertainty”, and painted a canvas of a Karoo very different to the one we know today.
“I have a high regard for the pace of the ox and I think wistfully of the great hush which reigned before the coming of petrol engines,” he wrote. Let’s try to understand that Karoo, the one written of in the early 1950s by a journalist before my own time, who was even then writing of an earlier Karoo, the one that existed before he discovered it. He writes of “someone” having distilled a motor fuel from prickly pears, and he being part of a small crew hired to drive from Cape Town to Bulawayo to punt the new product. “So there came a happy day not long after World War I when a 1916 Overland car turned northwards on the hazardous trek after being cheered out of Cape Town by the shareholders.”
There were no roads, only what we would call a farm track; and a bad one at that. “We had to call at farm after farm, especially at night, to ask the way. ‘Mense!’ someone would shout in excitement as the car rumbled up. People! The women remained silently in the background, peering over the kitchen half-door, while the farmer recounted every detail of the landscape he knew so well. I can visualise many a hospitable voorkamer adorned with Biblical texts and portraits of either Oom Paul or Queen Victoria.”
With an entreaty to “vat die groot pad”, they’d be on their way again. “It sounded easy, but the main road across the Great Karoo was no more than a wagon track. Cape carts and wagon drivers whipped their teams off the road to make way for us. Sometimes they failed to hear our feeble motor-horn, and then our driver blew a police whistle. Motorcars seldom came into sight. The approach of another car from another village was a noteworthy event, and usually we stopped like pioneers in a wilderness to exchange news of our adventures.” Imagine us doing that in the mad melee on the national roads today; everyone stopping along the N1 to exchange pleasantries about where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. I know what I’d say to that death-defying overtaker.
“Wide roads,” Green wrote, “turned away deceptively from the groot pad and led us to farmhouses secreted behind flat-topped koppies and guarded by famished, leaping hounds. Unexpected twists in the road brought us suddenly into dry riverbeds where heavy sand held the high-pressure tyres. But it was an intimate journey, never so monotonous as the modern rush along the tarred national roads [and he’s writing in the early 1950s, remember]. You could never sleep at the wheel in the old days. The romantic old road twisted past every kraal and dam. Sometimes even in the karoo [which Green wrote lower case], there was a shady tree and an uitdraaiplek where the radiator could be filled in comfort.” And you have to wonder how and where they filled the tank; jerrycans of fuel must have been stored in the boot.
Five years after Green published Karoo, I was a little boy in the back seat of a blue 1960 Ford Zephyr driving on those roads. My fascination with the old plains was born then and there, peering out of the window at sheep and windmills, unkempt old farmhouses and the occasional abandoned Boer War blockhouse. White-painted stones marked 30 MILES or 10 MILES punctuated every journey. Wide little-boy eyes would stare fascinated at rusting car wrecks down passes with the terrible stories they held; they’d remain in the boy’s mind and come to front of mind again one day. Now. Strange: on this past December’s journey to Cape Town I counted three car wrecks abandoned on the N1 roadside; they’re usually removed by vulture truck.
In his platteland perambulations, Green would find the old hotels that I would find in later times, with similar fascination. “Most of the wayside hotels were of the type in which gin bottles served as water carafes, rooms were cheerless and the only impressive piece of furniture was the enormous richly-carved dining room sideboard. Some of those hotels remain unchanged to-day. Others serve as annexes, crouching behind modern buildings.”
Remember the annex to a small-town hotel? That was where there were more likely to be cockroaches, the beds creakier, the paint peeling. You’d go round the side of the hotel and down an alley, or through the courtyard and be ushered through a strange door leading to who knows where. The dinner gong was barely heard from the annex and you’d have to move closer to the hotel proper before dinner time. But it was cheaper, daddy said.
And the bar, the inevitable hotel bar. “Before leaving each village there would be long discussions in hotel bars, maps spread on the counter, while our learned advisers argued among themselves over the best route. Once we went in despair to a police station, only to find that their latest road map bore a last-century date.” That’s the 19th century, of course. Imagine having to stop at police stations to ask the way from Richmond to Three Sisters.
My preoccupation with derelict farmhouses touched Green long before it haunted me. “One abandoned farmhouse lingers in my memory. The upper storey was in ruins and the remaining windows were shuttered. It must have been a fine place once; but now it was a scene of mystery and decay. Under a huge weeping-willow tree stood a broken-down wagon. I thought of the ghost legends of the karoo, and I was pleased that we did not have to spend the night there. A solitary coloured man was living in a pondok close by, and I asked him the name of the place. ‘Moordenaar’s Bosch,’ he replied.”
In lighter mood, and often quoting the German epicurean Lichtenstein, Green wrote of “Karoo Skoff”, the anglicised “skof” that described the fare that would be served at the end of a long trek through the region. This was far more homely, he wrote, than the “intricate spiced and aromatic Dutch-Malay dishes of the old Cape districts; it was meaty and simple, the campfire cookery of people who were always on the move. Woodsmoke was the dominant flavour, rather than saffron or tamarind”.
After your day juddering on wagon tracks in the 18th century Karoo, you might tuck into a supper of fried cockerels stuffed with their own livers, Namaqua partridges, “so abundant that sixty were brought down in three shots”, wrote Lichtenstein, or the kelkiewyn potjie stew that Green swore was the finest meal he’d ever eaten. [Kelkiewyn: Namaqua sandgrouse.] Eland would be shot, dissected and salted. Mutton bones and tough cuts would be turned into soup, wild goats roasted; gourds baked and turned into kalabasbredie and served alongside pigeon pasties and suckling pig, with preserved fruits and atjars on the side. Lichtenstein had written in yet earlier times, and you can imagine Green shaking his own head when reading the German epicurean’s descriptions of the older ways in the Karoo. “During the meal, slaves waited at table while others stood behind the guests with bunches of ostrich feathers keeping off the flies…”
Green once found a description of a Karoo farm breakfast at the end of the (much later) 19th century. “It started with hot springbok fry, followed by cold springbok haunch, cold korhaan, steaming coffee with goats’ milk, koekies of boer meal, springbok biltong planed thin, wild honey, stewed peaches, tomatoes and lettuce.”
At the end of our insane rush through the Karoo in the run-up to Christmas with family, we no longer expect kelkiewyn potjie and fried cockerels, Namaqua partridges and kalabasbredie, happy instead to find a simple braai of tjoppies and wors waiting for us. And to still be alive. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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