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?