Tag Archives: Free State

Free State town, dead-end world

You’ve got heart of glass or a heart of stone, either way you can’t wait to go home

I had breakfasted with a clergyman in George, and arrived here just after dark. The Free State town’s roads were empty, thanks to the truck strike. It was drizzling.

My chosen hostelry was poetically misnamed after a rambling, bougainvillaea-clad Spanish villa. The giant concrete edifice loomed above an Engen garage, off a potholed roundabout. A demented mesh of cement masked the windows and forbade the murky street-lamp half-light from permeating the building.

Reception was down a dark grey corridor along which studded dusty pillars were wound with purple polyester netted scarves. A poodle-haired Granny greeted me through a speaking-hole in her cage. Behind her, a wooden grid of post-boxes was stuffed with keys and unpaid bills.


I nodded in Afrikaans and filled in a card. There were no computers. She handed me a key fob, a receipt, an aircon control and a TV remote; I lugged my bags to the clunky lift, which let out loud explosions on its lurching ascent towards the third floor.

Nothing had changed here since the Nats lost power, I thought. The shampooed receptionist was probably still unaware that they had and, from the many pigeonholed envelopes, there might even be some dead clients in the rooms dating back, undiscovered, to that era.

The bedroom’s swirly curtains were adorned with mauve plastic beads like the headdresses of Indian dancers and tied up with red, brown and russet cord.

On the plywood table stood a trimphone and tea tray with a brown shiny mat. The kettle had to be moved to the floor in order to boil water. Once the aircon and TV had been unplugged.

The bedhead was cushioned with studded white plastic. The furnishings were fablon-covered chipboard. Half the cupboard was padlocked and marked DANGER WATER PIPES PASOP WATER PYPE HOLOKOMELA POMPO YA METSI.

A television was firmly enclosed behind an iron grille and offered three blizzarded Channels.

There were no windows. A glass door led out onto a viewless balcony too small even to stand on and enclosed by a wall perforated with clay pipes through which a light breeze was squeezing itself.

There were four wastebins in the bedroom and two in the bathroom, alongside a vast cast-iron bath with solid taps squirting brown damp-smelling hot water. The lavatory seat sported a fluffy cover in green, brown and purple, crowned by a polyester-crafted rose with a button at its heart. High up, goose-curtained louvre windows opened out onto the corridor.

There was a toothmug, a tissue holder and one of those drying lines that wind up into a bell-push above the bath. Also above the bath, interestingly, at just above head-height, was a bottle-opener. Two facecloth-sized towels, embroidered with the hotel’s initials, hung on the back of the hollow door, which had a punch-mark and kick-hole in it.

With the enthusiasm of a depressed monk, I left my cell and headed for the windowless bar. The walls were obscurely decorated to show crenelated castle fortifications. There was painted bougainvillea. Two likely lads where chatting up a sun-starved barmaid, smoking up a storm and drinking beer by the neck.

I ordered a dinky of red and lit a small cigar. It seemed that the rules of the world didn’t apply in this concrete mausoleum. The Eagles’ apt Hotel California gave way to a selection of Bles Bridges.

Ons is moeg” said a tired waiter to a tired waitress and started to slam doors. I was also moeg. An SMS sent by the Georgian priest asked how far I’d reached.

I texted: I AM IN HELL.

He replied: GOD BLESS.

I slept well. The benediction must have clinched it. There was nothing else here that was sleep-inducing.

French Kissing in the RSA

From “love” signs at the local market to swooning over the view, Chris Harvie falls head-over-heels for Parys

Wandering up the N1 on a Sunday afternoon, we were looking for the Vredefort Dome.

It is 300km wide, so it shouldn’t have been hard to track down, but our first two attempts led us onto badly corrugated gravel roads where, in French style, we surrendered. On the third gravel road, however, we recovered our pluck and pushed on, ending up, to our surprise, in Parys. Very French.

The last time I had visited, Parys was still on the highway to Cape Town and consisted of a long road filled with warehouse antique shops. Nowadays, it is a charming backwater country town with a range of stores selling both quality and tat furniture and collectables, some fine restaurants and – when we were there – a very good NGK kersmark (Christmas market) with everything from smoked olives to those ubiquitous “peace” and “love” signs. Where do people put those things?

Anyway, we unsuccessfully trawled the riverbank for somewhere to sleep. The lines of abandoned guesthouses were all evidently closed, so we crossed the bridge into what was now technically North West province. And what a revelation.

Here, we were in conference-and-wedding-venue country and endless possibilities emerged. We could, for example, choose The Home of the Lion or Stonehenge in Africa Lodge. Why, I wonder, would anybody want to get married at a reconstruction of an English prehistoric monument, built here in a crater formed by a 10km-wide meteorite that struck over two-billion years ago?

For this, we discovered, is what the dome is all about. The meteorite was twice the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

However, not wanting to get married, to confer, to meet a lion or to hang out under artificial caveman rock arches, we pushed on and, a couple of kilometres later, stumbled across SunWa River Lodge. Like all the other places, it is designed for team-building, but it’s just as good for weekenders.

With a wooden walkway over rock pools full of ducks, the lodge scatters along the bank with a restaurant and bar at its heart. Our room was on stilts, with a view over the river and the mountains that rim the dome.

There’s both a swimming pool and a pool table. There’s volleyball, paintball, quad-biking, rafting, kayaking and a climbing wall. More surprisingly, there’s also a ski slope – and how about some pole-fishing or blindfold-soccer?

For the more sedate of mind, there’s a game drive, up close with giraffe, zebra and a variety of antelope, including a sable with horns so long they touch his back when he walks.

We opted for a gentle drift down the Vaal. The river was fairly tame, so we took the rapids backwards to liven things up. The scariest part was at the drinks spot, where we disembarked on the riverbank only to be charged by a couple of St Bernards.

At dusk, we settled on a bench and watched the sun go behind the distant koppies. A troop of whinnying horses came down to the river to drink and below us a pair of otters splashed into the water as the last of the rafting groups came home to roost. Another peaceful night on the riverbank lay ahead of us.

Before heading home the next morning, we indulged in a bout of bargain-hunting and then lunched at Ruby’s restaurant, where the food was unforgettably delicious.

The view outside Ruby’s was bizarre. Opposite, a pink Chevy stuck out of a diner’s roof. It was a weak impression of the Champs Elysées’ Hard Rock Café, but Parys, Free State, is about as far from Paris, France, as you can get. No Eiffel Tower. No Notre Dame. No River Seine.

But there’s the Vredefort Dome, the NGK and the Vaal. And it’s a great place for a weekend.

So forget “Vive la Paris!” Viva Parys Viva!

WHERE IT IS: On an open stretch of the Vaal River, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.

WHY GO THERE: For a fun-packed weekend with a bunch of mates or just go on your own. You’ll have just as much fun.

WHAT IT HAS: 68 vaguely Swiss-looking rooms and the most bizarre selection of activities imaginable. Imagine you are on Survivor.

AND THE FOOD: A stonking breakfast to set you up for your energy-sapping day and plentiful and tasty carvery to refill you when it’s all over.

RATES: From R400 per person sharing. Dinner R136. Breakfast R80. Rafting R280 for a half-day.

GETTING THERE: From Parys, cross the Vaal, turn left and travel 10km past the lions and the not-so-ancient monuments. SunWa is on the left.

WHAT THERE IS TO SEE ON THE WAY: More antique shops than you can shake a stick at.

CONTACT: SunWa Lodge: Phone 056 817 7107, visit www.sunwa.co.za or e-mail goraft@sunwa.co.za. Ruby’s Restaurant: 37c Bree Street. Phone 056 811 5080 or go towww.rubysparys.co.za.