February 05, 2006

Travel Report: A tale of two dorps

Follow-up to Travel Report: Out of the wet season and into the dry (supposedly) from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

1) At the crossroads

The small town of Vanrhynsdorp sits at a cross roads. From south to north runs the N7 highway between Cape Town and Namibia. It is only a single carriageway of tar, and yet is a major route by South African standards. From east to west, the R27 heads through the wine making centre of Vredendal, to the seaside towns of Strandfontein, Doring Bay and Lamberts Bay.

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Views of Vanrhynsdorp

At this confluence of two streams of traffic, I became temporarily sedimented. This was not a bad position to be in. From a brief visit to the tourist information centre, I got the feeling that it would be a good place to stop, with much of interest in the locality. It would also provide access to the doctor that I required.

My plan had been to ride out to the camp ground, recommended by the information people (a friendly man and his trainee, a young black woman). Just as I reached the edge of the compact town, something caught my attention as I passed: a flash of orange, a very specific shade of orange sitting within some kind of workshop. My attention was then drawn to a very nice hand crafted wooden sign announcing Matzikama Backpacker's Lodge.

The flash of this specific orange could only be a row of KTM trail bikes. I stopped to discover that they were lined up within a motorcycle workshop belonging to a man called Bernard. The backbacker's lodge next door turned out to be a single spacious room for three, with its own kitchen and bathroom, belonging to Bernard's mother. A perfect combination.

After a brief demonstration of the facilities, I unloaded the bike, removed my still muddy boots, and lay down on the bed. I would stop moving for a while.

There was something quite attractive about this town.

2) Drifting around town

My assumption was that towns that are closer to the popular tourist routes are a little more cosmopolitan and modern. The English language is certainly at home in Vanrhynsdorp. All of its inhabitants seemed to be at least bilingual. I would not be surprised to find that some of them are fluent in several languages – this is often the case in African tourist areas, especially amongst the black Africans, who often have a real talent for languages (I once met a safari guide who could speak English, Italian, German, French and Setswana).

The fluency of the inhabitants became obvious, as it seemed that everyone wanted to say hello. I got the feeling that word had got round that there was an English motorcyclist in town. Even the small group of people sitting in the dusty shade of a tree outside of the Dutch Refored Church building were friendly new acquintances. They looked small and dark in front of the stately towering white wood of the church, but proved to be both bright and cheerful. I bought some provisions at the small supermarket, and again was met with smiles and chat.

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After a small lunch, I walked out to the local garden centre, which also hosts a large exposition of the succulent leafed plants that predominate in this region. This classification includes a range of desert adapted species, including aloes and cactii. The sandy entrance was lined with big quiver trees, of the kind that I passed whilst riding through the Karoo. These spectacular trees are like nothing that I have seen anywhere else, with the thick juicy crown of leaves supposedly used by the San to hold their poisoned arrows. I walked into the small office and tried to pay the R5 entrance fee, but the attendant told me not to bother paying. Perhaps this was due to their surprise that anyone would want to walk around in the extreme heat of the afternoon. I managed to wander around the displays for five minutes before having to retreat to the little cafe for a cold drink.

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On the one kilometre walk back into town I managed to drink another two cartons of fruit juice, such was the dehydrating effect of the sun. On the way past some nice bungallowed houses, I saw how the younger inhabitants deal with the heat: a group of small children playing in a paddling pool arranged under a shady tree. This looked idyllic. A normal happy scene. But in a South African context, the mixture of races playing together in the water stood out as an extra pleasing detail. A little further, I passed the small primary school at home-time. Again the story is one of a happy assortment of children, walking home in their smart school uniforms, notably bare foot on the scorchingly hot tarmac. In contrast to the current practice amongst most British schools, even the smallest of children were walking home unaccompanied and without the aid of monstrous off-road vehicles.

I hadn't really seen much of either Brandvlei or Vanrhynsdorp, but I rapidly got the sense of them being entirely different places.

3) A David Hockney moment

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South Africa has one of the best developed, efficient and luxurious tourist infrastructures of any country. There are many hotels of wonderfully high standards, as well as safari camps of sophistication. Not only does this provide a reliable source of foreign income, it also acts to raise the rest of the country culturally and socially. In parallel to this a second different but equally fine range of accomodations and activities exists to serve what has always been a thriving home market. The South Africans like their holidays, and really know how to do them well. Of this home market, the traditional guest house should be celebrated. In Vanrhynsdorp I found a perfect example. Despite the fact that I was staying in the backpackers lodge, they were happy to cook me some very nice lunches, all freshly prepared. This included my favourite combination: home made burger, chips with prego powder, greek salad, and a big strawberry milkshake. I've had some very sophisticated meals in the hotels of Cape Town, but I have to say that this beat them all.

Following lunch on my second day, the owner of the guest house invited me to have a look around. Guests are welcome to use the comfortable lounge and garden. There is also an extensive gallery displaying the work of local artists.

Word had also travelled quickly through the town that I was a man in need of a swim. The pool at the backpacker's lodge was out of action, but fortunately the owner of the guest house had a pool, and offered its use to me. But of course I had not come prepared with the appropriate swimwear. This, he said, didn't matter, the pool being enclosed with sufficiently tall walls. And besides, he would not be offended, given that we all have the same apparatus. This was said with a sufficiently Afrikaans rugby player tone to suggest no alterior motive. So i decided to re-enact the classic Hockney swimming pool scene. And I can say that it was as good as swimming in the clear blue waters of a Californian villa, bright light reflecting off the white walls and stone patio. After a while the owner reappeared to chat about a favourite subject of many South Africans, English history, recieved via a dedicated satellite TV channel. I asked if any of the artwork was his. He laughed in response:

"Do I look like an artist?"

This was odd, as he definitely did, with his French painter beard. But his passion, he explained, is opera. So the beard is more Pavarotti than Vincent.

We talked more. I was surprised to find that he is not in fact a local, but rather a refugee from Johannesburg, where his "partner", an anaesthetist, still lives and works. I wondered if there were many more people escaping one of the world's most dangerous cities for a quiet life in the country. Yes, and it seems like a good move. But does he find Vanrhynsdorp to be rather too tame in comparison? On the contrary, he enjoys the freedom and friendliness of the place. With just the right number of tourists stopping by, it offers a good level of variety and interest. That such a man could find a comfortable and accepting home in such a classic Afrikaner dorp, has to be good news. My assessment of Vanrhynsdorp rose further.

After two good nights at the Backpacker's Lodge, and having failed through happy inertia to ride my planned routes to Vredendal and Strandfontein, I pointed the Dakar south on the N7, back towards the Cederberg Mountains. However, this was not before another interruption to my progress. I was again delayed by the weather. It actually rained heavily. This was supposedly the dry season on the west coast, but wherever I go the rain follows. I seem to bring good luck to others, although itís not so fortunate for me.

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Checking the bike at the backpacker's lodge

Part 6, Bathtime in the Western Cape


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