Flowers to Vleisfees

I don’t really do flowers. I could walk into a room full of dead flowers and not notice – and I felt the same about veld-flowers until I saw Namaqualand.

We were there in a good year. That was the talk at the bar of the rather alarming Masonic Hotel in Springbok, along with the weather, which on that Thursday afternoon was definitely not playing ball. We were gathered around SABC2 to find out the forecast for Friday. “Dis en lang pad van Pretoria om reen te krye” was the ongoing whine of the ladies from the Le Roux Toere bus, “en mere sal dit weer r’en.” Oh dear.
Fortunately, contrary to the predictions of Johan Schutte, Friday dawned clear and lay-bys at especially colourful vantage points filled up early with enthusiasts climbing onto their vehicle roofs better to capture the scene.

They greet one another, these flower-spotters, with wild floral enthusiasm. “Is julle van Mpumalanga? Dis en ander woreld, hierdie, nie?” They lie in the sand – oblivious to the primary bladder-relieving purpose of a lay-by out of flower season – to get a side-on-in-amongst-it view of the radiant verges. Flower fetishists will go to any lengths to get the best angle of dangle on a daisy. Pancake stalls open up on the roadside to fast-feed the followers. It is another world indeed.

At Vanrhynsdorp we turned east up the escarpment and onto the Bokkeveld Plateau to Nieuwoudtville, where proud boards told us we were in the Bulb Capital of the World. Correctly presuming this to be a reference to flower-bulbs, not light-bulbs, we were dazzled. There are a few regions that might dispute it, Belfast, Mpumalanga for a start, not to mention Amsterdam, Holland, but how fantastic that it should be true enough for Nieuwoudtville to claim this title unashamedly. And what a lovely town.

Still we were surrounded by veld-flowers. By the time we got to Calvinia where, by chance, we arrived at the opening of the Vleisfees, my jaw was tired from wowing like a goldfish.

You could tell immediately that there was something going on in Calvinia because there were people awake on a Friday afternoon. A police combi, emblazoned with the SAPS badge and the words Booze Bus, blocked the main intersection. I was liking Calvinia even more if the cops were selling dop until it dawned on me that this vehicle was for performing blood tests on suspected over-limit drivers. Calvinia came back into focus.

The khaki-clad, side-armed booze-bus driver signalled that we should turn left but, emboldened by my certainty that I was sober, I ignored him and carried on down the main drag, pulling into a petrol station. Thus it was that we had the best possible pump-jockey’s-eye view of the show that followed. This was Calvinia dressed, like the rest of the Karoo, in all its finery.

It started with a classic car or two and it wasn’t until the first float, a low-bed truck with a few strings of tinsel and couple of laaitjies in the uniform of the Primore Skool, that we woke up to the fact that we were witnessing a carnival procession and not just a couple of Ooms coming in from the farm in their jalopies for a brandewyn or two.

It got better. A string of old tractors followed the children, steered with great effort by lined, old men clenching their teeth to stop their cheeks wobbling as they bumbled down Hoop Street. The tractors were spotless, dated back many decades and had obviously been lovingly restored and polished for this annual outing.

Next, centre stage, ahead of the Senior School float, came the Queen of the Vleisfees, MEJ CALVINIA 2006 emblazoned on her blue sash. Perched on the back of a bakkie, she was flanked by her two princesses, one blond like her queen and the other smaller and somewhat darker. (Calvinia is nothing if not politically correct). These girls were keenly accompanied by an escort of about thirty teenage outriders, mounted on quad bikes and delightedly leering at their monarch-for-a-day whilst simultaneously revving their oupas on the tractors.

It lasted all of five minutes, this microcosm of Karoo life. The pump jockeys cheered loudly and suddenly it was over. As we pulled out of town there was a strong smell of burning meat. There was going to be a groot opskop, and that’s for sure.

We hadn’t been able to find anywhere to stay in Calvinia – the town was fully booked as if for Nagmaal, and it’s a long road to Williston at dusk, especially when you’re sober, but the rivers were running and the flowers went on for ever. We could cope.