Touring the Hole Country

Chris Harvie finds that the roads in South Africa are being opened up at every turn.

Long road trips spark strange thoughts. I have just filled up in Colesberg and given the pump jockey R5 when I start one of those ludicrous calculations: If I drive about five thousand kilometres a month and I fill up every five hundred kilometres, that’s R300/month in tips. On average I leave my bakkie, attended by a car guard, once a day at some point and I pay him R5 as well. That’s another R150/month. So R450/month in tips is R5 400 a year or, in the twenty-five years that I have been driving, that’s R135 000 and it doesn’t include petrol.

Then I wonder what I’d spend it on. There are some baffling creations of God and man for sale along the sides of South Africa’s roads and certain places inspire particularly strange specialities. Middelburg (EC) for example, has twenty artisans selling home-made windmills varying from gnome-size to power-a-small-town size. Outside Colenso in KwaZulu-Natal they sell goatskins on the fence bordering the British and Commonwealth Cemetery at Clouston.

Ficksburg does a good line in Basotho hats, everybody needs a Basotho hat, after all, and the roads to the Kruger National Park are cluttered with wooden carvings of elephants with oversized ears and buffaloes with shrunken guts. And white cockerels. Last year it was giraffes. This year it is white cockerels. Search me. French Rugby emblem maybe?

And everywhere in petrol stations up and down the country, there’s someone trying to sell you one of those outlandishly coloured hornbills on an inadequate stand that sends it straight into a beak-dive when you put it down. I wonder who buys them and thus perpetuates demand. Useless roadside purchases. Good price special price.

Rugs in Vaalwater, mats in Lydenburg, kikois and batik tablecloths in Nelspruit, naff seascapes in Durban, mangoes here, bananas there, avos, cherries, blueberries at Volksrust, birdbaths and bird-tables in Paarl, fireplaces with snake-entwined heads carved into them, tables and chairs, aloes, roses, pot-plants, cold beer (shurely thatsh illegal), owl statues and forel (not trout, you understand, we wouldn’t want an Engelsman’s money, now would we?). And the roadside is home to the ubiquitous South African apostrophe: LITCHI’S. POT’S. POTATOE’S. BUY FOR YOUR LOVELY ONE’S.

A rumble-strip surprises me by running along the centre-line of a road where overtaking is permitted. What is it doing there? It wakes me up until I get to Springfontein where there is a possible one-hour delay. ONE HOUR? I hope that hundreds of extra vehicles per day will one day pass unhindered again through Springfontein, Bethlehem, Worcester, Storms River, Middelburg (MPU), Belfast, Volksrust, Ermelo, the Kei Cuttings and everywhere else that I have been held up for a 20-minutes-or-more Waiting Period in the past three months and I hope they appreciate the work that has been done.

Do we really need a double highway from Springfontein to Bloem? And from Bloem to Ventersburg? And what is Ventersburg doing there anyway? Who built it? What were they thinking? And was it the same Venter as Ventersdorp and Venterstad? If so, he hasn’t got much to be proud of, has he?

The traffic lights are not working, another shed load of load-shedding, no doubt, so it’s a human-operated system. I wave at the flag-wavers. It gives them a chance to wave the other arm a bit and it must be nice for them to be noticed, amongst the caterpillars on the roadsides with their yellow heads dipped like lonely aliens, and it takes my mind off the crosses that make the verges of our highways look like a poignant, poppy-strewn scene from the Somme. There is no terror comparable to that induced by driving the N1 with a VW Toe-rag hanging above your head on a swaying transporter.

A Very Important Flashing Orange Light White Foreman is patrolling up and down in a bakkie and a wide-brimmed floppy hat, ensuring the gentle handling of the theodolite by his low-ranking brethren. You know it’s going to be a long wait.

I play the number-plate game. More and more Botswanan, Mozambiquan and Zambian plates appear amongst the VIKESH-ZNs in their purple Daihatsus (with mags) and the JOE 111 GPs in their Audis (with cupholders). I suppose they have all come down from the Deep North to make deliveries to our roadside salesmen. After all, we are far too busy manning the stalls and digging holes in our roads to make our own mats or rugs, to bake clay pots or to grow avocadoes.

Sadly, when I eventually get moving again, I can’t afford The Best Biltong in the World from Jaapie se Jag roadside stall because it’s time to fill up. I get to wondering again. How many stalls erroneously claim to sell The Best Biltong in The World when we all know that it comes from Snowy’s in Charlestown?

Prawn again in Maputo

When the Komatipoort border reopened in the 1990s after the Civil War, we Lowvelders were invited to Maputo to take part in a culinary competition. The list of items to bring with us puzzlingly included ‘one lemon between two’ which was to be cut in half and used for bath plugs. Such luxuries were not available in the Mozambiquan capital at the time but nowadays you can get just about anything.

In the Baixa, the streets are lined with vegetable stalls and Ronaldo shirts, whereas up on Avenida Kenneth Kaunda, maids’ uniforms hang from the trees along the roadside and you can buy fresh-cut flowers or a Mont Blanc pen outside the embassy of your choice. Everywhere they are flogging cheap cigarettes, Police sunglasses for ‘good-deal special-price’ and Che Guevara T-shirts.

I have stayed at The Polana many times. The perfect, multi-coloured gardens; the giant swimming pool; the huge view over the sea. All of this more than makes up for fact that, on this visit, the lavatory won’t flush and the bath plug has to be wedged open with the box from the soap, which is only marginally better than using half a lemon.

The Polana Mar, the more recent section, built into the hill below the original Herbert Baker building, looks down the ridge to the ocean. Most of these rooms have sea views (although mine didn’t), wireless Internet and all the other stuff you can’t live without like a sewing kit for burst buttons and a miniature bottle of mouthwash to deal with all the garlic in the prawns.

This was why we had come, after all. For prawns, and I had been told that, down on the beach, there was a restaurant that was better than Costa do Sol, which I had found hard to believe. I set out to decide for myself.

The Mira Mar Cervejaria lies just up the Avenida Marginal from the Holiday Inn (before the new Casino and the now-destroyed, unfinished Four Seasons). It looks like a couple of bandstands cobbled together and is painted Laurentina yellow. There are scattered wooden tables with a vague red and white theme inside and the menu is priced in a mixture of old and new metecais, knock off three noughts and you’re into the new ones. It’s not difficult, but it is nevertheless a tad confusing when the starters are Mt120,000 and the main courses Mtn300.00.

Our waiter looks like Denzel Washington but he’s never going to be a special agent. In front of us materialise bottles of olive oil, vinegar and some of that killer chilli sauce, cunningly disguised in a Portuguese mineral water bottle as if you might not realise that the stuff is obviously strong enough to run your car on.

The tuna rissois are perfect and the hidden chilli suitably astonishing. The clams, however, are disappointingly chewy, gritty and cold, although the sauce is passable. The main course, on the other hand, is a triumph. I seem to remember that Costa do Sol always burn their prawns slightly and that their lulas (calamari) can be a little tough but Mira Mar have them just right. Soft and flavoursome with not too much garlic. Even the rice has been jacked up with some strips of onion and carrot. Again, though, the food is not hot enough. James Blunt is singing “You’re beautiful”. The tennis is showing on the television.

To finish, Denzel offers us a choice from the usual tray-full of gloopy Portuguese mousses and stodges in orange, yellow, red or brown and each with a Marie biscuit sticking out. We demur. Our bill at Mira Mar is presented in four currencies and we pay R228.

At the next table, an octopus-haired blonde shrieks to the three okes next to her that the last time she had been in town she had stayed in the Presidential Suite at The Polana. It was narce big room, she says. Couldn’t really complain. This creeping South African colonialism is turning into an invasion. Nando’s. Debonair’s. Game. Clicks. Woolworths. The guest information book at The Polana is printed in English only.

Returning through the night streets of Maputo, The Polana seems like the American Embassy in the retreat from Saigon. Outside the gates are the poor and the begging. Inside is the high luxury of one of the world’s most iconic hotels, cocktails in the bar and people-swallowing leather sofas and armchairs. A Mariah Carey-lookalike at a piano croons “Another Day for you and me in Paradise” while security guards in kepis keep Maputo’s hoi-polloi out of Paradise. Our espressos and brandies cost us more than our dinner. Mariah sings “When you feel like hope is gone”.

The next day, on a recommendation from the Porter, we go to Cristal for breakfast. There’s a whirly cake machine and acres of patisseries and croissants. The espresso is crowned with the perfect white creamy foam. Outside the taxis belt up and down Avenida 24 de Julho and a shoe cleaner sits on the pavement by the window. Crusty, sunburnt Portuguese men and their strapping women wander in and out of the cafe, smoking rancid cigarettes. The roads and pavements are full of new cars; I cynically look for my stolen bakkie and then remember that, according to a phone call from the police a few months earlier, it has already turned up in Harare.

Monster potholes loom out of nowhere as we drive around the city. They say that Maputo is the only capital in the world that you can get to in a Ferrari but you need a 4×4 to get around. They also say that if you see two ears sticking out of a pothole, it’s not a rabbit, it’s a giraffe. The Cinema’s showing Bambi 2, O Grande Principe da Floresta and they’re selling Gelati next door. As I am offered a Rolex watch cheap-cheap, an open bakkie flies past, filled with eight policemen in helmets and light grey-green uniforms, sitting back-to-back on a bench and wielding machine guns, but you’ve got to love a city where the British Embassy finds itself in Vladimir Lenin Street.

Outside Costa do Sol at lunchtime, a cigarette-seller is wearing a Bundaberg Rum shirt and touting Palmar Azul. The restaurant has a Cuban air and proudly announces in its menu blurb that it has hosted such dignitaries as Tom Jones, the Swazi Royal family and any number of spies. Exalted company indeed. Competition has been good for them, though, and they’ve sharpened up their act. Looking out, through the waving coconut palms, over the fast-returning tide, we tuck into prawn cakes, samoosas, soft juicy prawns, crunchy calamari peri-peri chicken livers, gizzards and chorizo. It costs the same as Mira Mar and it keeps on coming. Our waiter, Tembe, doesn’t look a bit like Denzel Washington. He looks like all the other waiters who have been a part of this fine establishment over nearly one hundred years.

Recuperating back at the Polana, I stretch out in the shade by the swimming pool. It’s more peaceful than lying in my room where the piped Kenny Gee permeates the door, the walls and even into the dysfunctional bathroom. A telephone rings in the corridor outside at irregular intervals, day and night, the room is unnaturally dark and the lights are too dim to read by.

The previous day’s tea in the Saleo de Cha had offered a memorable range of cakes and scones, spoiled only by the long life milk in the Five Roses, so we decide to have dinner in the hotel. The waiting staff are dressed in baggy white uniforms and look like over-Jikked prisoners. Their sleeves are too long and are covered in food. One waitress splits her pants picking up a fork at the next table and walks away in embarrassment clutching the pieces together.

Our first choice of wine is not available and the second takes fifteen minutes to arrive. A Villiera Merlot and one of the least expensive on the wine list, it costs R400, which seems heavy given that it can be bought in the shops for about R40. The lamb is perfectly OK but I always think cloches are laughable especially when the waiter can’t remember which dish is which and has to peep before whipping the lids off with a grandiose flourish. I pass on the dessert trolley and the rum and ‘raising’ ice cream. A bit too sixties for me.

Leaving the next morning, considerably less well off, I look at my dirty replacement bakkie parked in front of the magnificent edifice that is The Polana Hotel and mull over what has happened to Maputo. The city has an increasingly lively, cosmopolitan first- and third-world buzz to it, a mixture of Lisbon, Lagos and Rio maybe, and the espresso is always excellent but my informant is wrong about Mira Mar. Costa do Sol is still the best restaurant and, although it is tired, I still love The Polana. Next time, though, I’ll bring a torch, a hipflask, earplugs and half a lemon.

Polana Serena Hotel, 1380 Avenida Julius Nyerere, Tel 491001
Cervejaria Mira Mar, Avenida Marginal next to Holiday Inn, Tel 487573
Cristal Saloo do Cha, 554 Avenida 24 de Julho, Tel 497595
Costa do Sol, 10249 Avenida Marginal, Tel 450115