‘Tis the tribal season

Daisies, fruiting trees, car bombs and road kill are the signs of an English summer. A howling gale and black clouds, with occasional hot sun that breaks through and makes you want to strip down to your boxers and splash around in the puddles on the roadside, more precisely tell you that it is Wimbledon fortnight and the height of The Season.

Luckily for Wills and Harry, most of the new Wembley is undercover for their Gig for Di. The Thames at Henley is on red alert for flooding but Robert Treherne-Jones stoically insists that “The Regatta will go ahead, come what may”. Lewis Hamilton is seeking out suitable tyres for a potentially wet Silverstone and opera-goers are taking swimming lessons in preparation for Glyndebourne; the Tour de France kicks off very unfrenchly in London with a sprint around the capital’s landmarks, whether it is raining chats et chiens or not.

There had been only one South African interest, Rik de Voest, at Wimbledon this year and he had been comprehensively knocked out in three sets by ‘Russian Bear’ Marat Safin on Day Two, having only survived to Day Two after rain washed out Day One. There had been a glimmer of hope when the first set went to a tie-break but it was not to be.

We had tickets for the first Saturday and were on our way to watch Venus Williams play a small, triangular-legged, Japanese girl called Morigami (not to be confused with the paper folding thing). The morning’s newspapers had been crowded with pictures of miserable maidens on Henman Hill bemoaning their hero’s having ‘crashed out’ on Day Four, while Boscastle washed away again and green-field housing developments became alternative regatta venues with flooded furniture travelling up and down the streets in rubber ducks.

Joining a queue of grey, sky-matching cars on the M25 and then passing lines of identical, tired-looking, mock-Tudor semis up the A3, Mr Treherne-Jones stoicism is matched on every face. The English don’t laugh much in public. They set their determined teeth instead and won’t be defeated. The spirit of Agincourt is now pitted against the weather.

In amongst a cascade of yellow AA roadsigns to ‘Wimbledon Tennis’ and ‘Car Parks 7, 8, 10 and 13’ is a similar sign to a ‘Zimbabwean Sculpture Exhibition’ and I am suddenly homesick. Passing around the back of the Ackroydon Council Estate, I wonder what the weather is like in Harare. In the next road, ice cream vans and hot-dog trailers have reversed into the pen-like front gardens of Victorian suburban grandeur and are flogging their calories to footsore queues. Everyone’s driveway is a car park and the palisades are draped with Wimbledon T-shirts. Wise Wimbledonians have gone away and the wombles are doubtless in hiding.

Car Park 10 is a comfortable 15-minute walk through the chaos and “Ek’s jammer, ek verstaan nie Engels nie” successfully shakes off requests for donations to The Save the Children Fund. I am offered a free yoghurt, free water and then, with the Daily Mail, a more practical free poncho. ‘It’s a lovely poncho, one size fits all’. The queues push on, pinched faces muttering that it doesn’t help to complain and that all will be well with the power of positive thinking.

Britain is about conventions and tags. When the obvious apparel is a wetsuit, the knobs are still in panamas, cream flannels and blazers dripping with the badges of rank ‘Members’ Enclosure/LTA Marquee/VIP Guest’ while the yobs wear shorts covered with cagouls and bearing rucksucks. There is a Babel of accents and the occasional orange tan breaks up the mass of white faces and blue legs.

Once inside, there are screens everywhere showing tennis, but none of it is being played today. The rain gets harder. The Pimms-to-go for 6 (R90) includes a lid and a straw so that the weather doesn’t water it down. Ice Cream is 4.50, coffee (more popular) is 2 and strawberries (9 of them, small ones) and cream costs 2.50. That’s over R4 a berry. I am so appalled that I walk straight into Martina Navratilova, breezing past in heavy sunglasses and a very fetching white jacket with brown pinstripes. She smiles at me meaningfully.

Taking refuge in the LTA Advantage Club Restaurant, where my mother is a member ‘God bless her’ we shell out a terrifying 30/head for a (delicious) buffet of Scottish salmon, coronation chicken, quiche, ham and salads, followed by more than 11 strawberries. Through the strange muffled silence of the double-glazed club windows, we look out on the passing brollies of the stewards, the bedraggled anoraks on Henman Hill, the cap-topped uniforms of St John’s Ambulance and the ever-present security officials. There may be no tennis, but the people-watching is magnificent. The convention-bound Englishman looks straight through people who aren’t dressed like him. The crowd at Wimbledon, I decide, is tribal.

An Update from The Referee echoes around the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and all the tribes tune in. The Met Office has advised that a patch of clear weather might possibly pass over in the next hour. Be prepared. My mother decides that it is time for a visit to the Wimbledon Shop, where, against the club’s own rules, they sell non-white clothing, there was even a bright pink range, with a sequined W nogal, and a dinky set of Wimbledon Preserves for 4.

The rain eases off and we head for our seats. What Dan Maskell used to call ‘the patient and good-natured English crowd’ is being just that and making a half-hearted attempt at a Mexican wave. The covers come off. There is a muffled cheer. The officials arrive. A polite ripple of applause. Miss A Morigami and Miss V Williams step into the arena. Louder applause with a few out-of-place (doubtless foreign) whoops.

Miss Morigami is in traditional skirt, laced and fluttering in the cool air. Venus, who had, on arrival, skipped through the court with a pillow-sized gold shoulderbag, is now leaping stridently around in Amazonian proportions, wearing a sports bra and very little else but her sports shorts, where the spare balls bulge alarmingly. Even the umpire ducks at her first few grunts. Her serve is 20mph faster than her tiny opponent who squeals inscrutably as she faces the tense, growling animal that is Venus Williams. The American takes the first set.

Morigami is staging an exciting recovery in the second when I feel a drop on my head. The Union flag on the pole by Court 18 is swirling and the rain begins to pour down again. Heavier than chats et chiens though. More like bears and Amazonians. The Referee informs us that a period of extended rain has been predicted and the knobs and the yobs, as a man, make a bee-line towards the bars for more Pimms at 6 and maybe another strawberry or two. The Red Hot and Blue Jazz Band plays Singing in the Rain from the Tea Room.

There would be no more play but still there were queues to get in. About halfway back to the Car Park another queue was forming, this time seated on deck chairs and drinking soup from a thermos. I ask the steward if they are queuing for the next day. No, for Monday, he said, two days hence.

Sliding through the mud of Car Park 10, I wished I had brought my bakkie over with me in case we got stuck and I marvelled at these people. I reflected that they wisely call this The Season, not The Summer. They still weren’t smiling but they weren’t apparently unhappy. As we headed back down the A3, and the waterlogged wombles remained under deep cover, I took my hat off to the British determination and wondered whether the Zimbabwean Sculpture Exhibition was still open or whether the soapstone had dissolved.

The inside out Chicken

In the land of the head-turning owl, the half-brained chicken is king. Lucky the chicken is testament to this, having survived a mauling by Spooky the dog wherein he suffered a partial lobotomy. Chickens, as Lucky would probably be the first to admit, were he not even more brainless than the average, are not bright creatures and he suffers from what Ian calls motor deficiencies which cause him to peck the ground painfully about half an inch to the left of the seed he is trying to scoff. Lucky is therefore now an ‘inside chicken’, not because he is in the know or a member of a secret society, but because he lives inside and ventures outside only when Spooky is inside (and because he is part of an assisted eating programme).

This was the conversation over lunch at Ian and Katrin’s Outsiders restaurant in Nieu-Bethesda, a haven of sanity (the mental well-being of Lucky the chicken notwithstanding) in a confusing little settlement of eccentrics, hermits and late suicidals. Coming down the hill from Murraysburg, the village presents a quaint field-strewn scene in which the onlooker half-expects Amish okes in braces to be swinging from barns and wholesome giggling children to be apron-stringing their frumpy mothers as they cart around baskets of freshly-laundered linen on their hips.

A study from closer up presents a rather different reality however. Although the furrows are running, it seems that not much else is. There’s a mild smell of dagga in the air. Almost-sober locals loiter in the streets selling succulents dug from the surrounding veld and cement owls modelled on the work of Helen Martins who famously committed suicide here just over 30 years ago but whose dotty avian obsession lingers on like the speculation in London over who Jack the Ripper really was.

I just don’t quite get Nieu-Bethesda. I’ve been a few times now and on each occasion it has been dead quiet and the word on the dusty streets from the 70-odd people who live there has been that you should have been there yesterday. It was heaving and humming yesterday, they say. Today, though, it seems that the galleries and the pubs are closed and the burghers are hiding out on their smallholdings. Two minibuses from Lilyfontein School in East London are parked outside The Owl House. I wonder what the 25 pupils make of it all and next I see them predictably plugged into their iPods and wandering unhappily around the cemetery. Their two vehicles could have carried half the population of Nieu-Bethesda and along with us, the couple from Umhlanga and WANDA-WP and her husband, this quiet day has resulted in a 50% increased strain on the infrastructure.

This unspoilt valley receives somewhere in the region of 13,000 visitors a year, mostly over Christmas and long weekends, coming for the tranquillity, the heritage and the owls. It seems, like so many spots that started out similarly remote but lost their privacy, Dullstroom and Greyton spring to mind, to be a place that needs tourists, indeed survives on them, but secretly doesn’t really like them very much. The price of solitude is being overrun every now and then but when all the kyadaars have gone away the locals slip back into a deep-breathing hibernation.

Ian and Katrin moved to Nieu-Bethesda eight years ago and opened the guest house. They love it and it shows. It’s all very together. Katrin is Swiss after all so you’d expect a modicum of organisation to have crept in. Sometimes in The Karoo you just get lambed out so it was a relief when she told us that the potjie was off. We were able to avoid the countless other variations on an ovine theme and hit the very enjoyable ploughman’s lunch instead, served in colourful bowls and made up of the ingredients lining the shelves inside. Cheese, olives, pickled garlic, onions, marinated pears, excellent biltong and homemade bread washed down with a bottle of Sneeuberg, the fine local beer from The Brewery and Two Goats Delicatessen on the other side of the stream, where there are many more than two goats and where the owners appear to be growing a maze in which to lose the tourists when they become too intrusive.

We got there two days after a long weekend. Nieu-Bethesda had already transformed itself back into a ghost town of closed coffee shops and pubs, houses for sale and staring cement statues. Only Outsiders showed any sign of life at all. As Lucky the chicken would have said, it was Spooky.

Outsiders B&B and Restaurant, Nieu-Bethesda, near Graaff-Reinet
Tel: 049 841 1642 Website: www.owlhouse.info.