The Locust Migrations: Riders on the sandstorm, wonder in the sky
Sky trains over the Klein Karoo, locusts turning cartwheels on the windscreen. The Karoo is alive with wonder and surprises, even on a normal day, but these were two seminal days in this writer’s long life.
It came from the foothills of the Sneeuberg mountains that curve from Aberdeen to Graaff-Reinet. A mighty wind must have careered down the berg and hit the earth hard to churn up such a maelstrom of sand and twigs, now charging towards us across the vastness of the plains of Camdeboo. When I’d first noticed the long, low cloud of dust that seemed to hug the base of the mountains from one horizon in the far west to the other towards Graaff-Reinet in the east, I’d said aloud, “Looks like we’re in for one almighty sandstorm, look at that…”
But sand and twigs were never shaped like this. As the otherworldly storm approached us, the particles of sand had shape-shifted, transmogrifying into orange bodies with empty eyes and vapid intent, like brainwashed soldiers on a death mission. The somersaulting twigs had turned into speckled wings and mini-me lobster legs, flying in no formation at all, each individual seemingly charting its own course from the plains of Camdeboo to the Baviaanskloof, each on its own pluck, swooping in and past one another as if they were in a mass Second World War dogfight, but now losing numbers as their brethren hurtled kamikaze at my windscreen. The greater mass of the endless swarm were oblivious to the fate of their siblings. There is always collateral in battle.
There had been harbingers of all this. We were warned. Nearly everyone who has driven through vast swaths of the Karoo in the past few months has seen them. The black tar ahead would be speckled with crawling red. You’d frown and wonder. My first thought was ants. Red ants. Or could they be leaves being blown across the road? Had the wind churned up red dust? But they were reddish-brown pupae, emergent locusts, finding their fledgling legs and their ability to move, to corral themselves, to aim in one direction, as if of one mind, in training for a future mission.
Was it a signal of what was to come, that strange night four days earlier in the sky over Sedgefield, Retief and I with our glasses in hand while he tended pork neck steaks on the Weber, then looking up with a sharp intake of breath. “Look at that!” He’s pointing upwards like a child who’s seen Santa’s sleigh. It takes some seconds for the penny to drop that we’re looking up in awe at Elon Musk’s sky train, or one example of it, a neatly ordered string of carriages floating from the Indian Ocean and over our heads towards the escarpment and on to soar above the Klein Karoo while farmers on their stoeps and people in their small towns gaze up perplexed. In a lifetime of staring at the impenetrable beauty of the dark heavens in wonder, we’ve never seen anything like this, Retief and I, and our arms are a-bristle with goose pimples, two ageing men suddenly little boys again.
Days later, Di and I are driving through that Klein Karoo, from Montagu and Barrydale, where we pull in to Diesel & Crème for peppermint crisp and lemon meringue pie milkshakes, then on via Ladismith, in Tannie Maria se wêreld, to Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn and De Rust, to stop for the night in a cottage we didn’t know yet but to which we will return, because this was one of those rare occasions when a random booking at an unfamiliar place turns out to be as special as those notable ones you always go back to. It’s called Die Malvahuisie, it’s in the main drag that passes through tiny De Rust near Meiringspoort, and you need to put it on your Karoo itinerary for a stopover, if like us you love the old and the quaint, the little outydse gems that take you back in time to the ways and homes of earlier folk.
But even before reaching Calitzdorp earlier in the day we’d had a taste of what lay in store on that two-day Klein Karoo journey. Barely a hundred metres into the 13 km Huisrivier Pass between Ladismith and Calitzdorp, little swarms of locusts the colour of pan-fried prawns flitted by quite innocuously, in small enough numbers not to feel like a threat. We were travelling at no great speed, this magnificent pass being full of twists and bends, which is perhaps why none seemed to hit the car and we’d forgotten about them by the time we reached De Rust after passing through Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn.
At De Rust that evening, we left the little Malvahuisie and its many charms to have supper at the village’s newest attraction, a restaurant cum art gallery called Pluim (Afrikaans for feather, recalling the ostrich feathers of the area’s famous boom years). The combination of the Malvahuisie and Pluim make for a compelling pair of reasons to visit De Rust. At Pluim, owners Andries Schoeman and his partner Jan Badenhorst have created a venue that would be quite at home in the big city. Filled with beautiful sculptures and paintings, which are for sale, it is gorgeously fitted with top notch finishes and has a mellow, refined air for coffee, breakfast, lunch, supper and, when their pending liquor licence is approved, drinks too.
The food at Pluim was not the obvious fare of lamb and skilpadjies and the like you might normally expect in the Karoo. We enjoyed sweet and sour pork, made from scratch with exquisitely crunchy crackling, after starters of peri-peri chicken livers with crunchy polenta fingers, and a delightful red fig and feta salad. But it’s the desserts that we wanted to write home about, both the pecan-topped cheesecake and, especially, the plum tart, which was adorned with a sauce made from roasted plums and had a superb tartness to contrast with the sweet pudding-like base. Brilliant, and it should be a staple of their menu whenever plums are in season. What a treat to have a Karoo dessert that is original, no brandy tart or malva pudding in sight. Demand it when you book so that they can be sure to make it (if in season).
The continuation of Route 62 after De Rust soon has you parting ways with the famous strip, to head for Willowmore, one of the gems of the southern reaches of the Karoo near the brink of Camdeboo, and on towards Aberdeen. We stopped at one of the region’s best farm stalls, Oppi-Vlak, 40 km out of Willowmore, for a Karoo lamb pie served with stewed peaches and a sensuously soft roosterkoek, while a plucky bird called Chicken Mayo begged for crumbs and got some. “All our chickens are called Chicken Mayonnaise,” said the fowl’s human boss. “It’s a warning to them to behave or they’ll end up in the roosterkoek.”
We climbed back into the car and were barely 2 km away from Oppi-Vlak when I spotted the low-slung “dust storm” against the far mountains. They hit the windscreen two or three at a time at first, rat-a-tat, splat-a-tat, before the assault began to sound like a machine gun barrage. Windscreen wipers slappin’ time took on a grim new meaning. I grabbed my camera phone, slowed as much as I could within reason, and took some photos with one hand. Consider that we were in one car on a vast plain that must be 100 km wide from west to east, if not more (Beaufort West is 145 km from Aberdeen and it’s the same vast, flat spread, and Graaff-Reinet is another 56 km to the east), and the locusts were everywhere. Quite how far west the plague reached is impossible to know. We were no more than 50 km out of Willowmore (Oppi-Vlak is 40 km from there), and Aberdeen is 117 km from there, so between us and those far mountains was at least 60 km, every square metre of it packed with locusts on the move.
The toll became clear half an hour later when we pulled in to fill up with petrol and get the windscreen cleaned at an Engen in Graaff-Reinet.
Outside Merino Butchery in Graaff-Reinet, where I stopped to buy a brace of thick-cut sirloin steaks and a slim pack of lamb doodvreters, passersby stopped and stared in amazement at the scene on the blue car’s grille, a tableau of miniature orange death. Here and there a leg or body twitched in agony and I forced myself, wincing, to dispatch them and end their misery.
If God told Moses to bring this plague, he must be mightily angry with us. The world’s most devastating pest, in their great numbers they can lay waste to crops for hundreds of kilometres and destroy the very livelihoods of a host of human farmers. It is believed that they can travel more than 80 km in a day. For the individual creature in its agonising death throes, though, it would be inhuman not to have a pang of sadness and regret at the thought of a slow death on the lovely plains of Camdeboo. DM/TGIFood
Pluim is open 8.30am to 3.30pm daily except Tuesday, and open for supper, bookings only, according to the season. Best to enquire in advance for evening reservations. To book, phone or WhatsApp Andries on 082 655 7085.
Malvahuisie, De Rust: Call 060 500 2657. Email [email protected]
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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