Monday, January 10, 2011

Of Heights, Depths and Tortoises

Having travelled the coast from Cape Town to the wilderness we headed inland. We had heard that there was a ‘fabulous pass’ inland from Knynsa (say nigh - sna) and so we decided to travel the Prince Alfred Pass. Fabulously perilous and very long winded but a tremendous experience it turned out to be! It is hard to describe the sheer size of Africa and the African countryside and looking at the photos I took at every twist and turn of the pass I can imagine people saying: Well, it’s just like the Dales/Lakes/Pennines - depending on which is their favourite! But it isn’t!! Or at least perhaps it is in the sense that C S Lewis uses at the end of the Last Battle that everything is just rather bigger than the thing we had known and understood in England - reminiscent, perhaps, but not really at all the same. It took much longer than we had expected to travel the kilometres and so we were later than expected at our next stop in the Klein Karoo.
I had heard that the Karoo was beautiful - but it was raining. We had booked accommodation in a refurbished self catering farm cottage that turned out to be a mile from the farm and reached by crossing a quite deep ford on a gravel track driven at speed by the farmer’s wife in her four by four. In our hired Ford Figo in the rain with me driving (Richard had done the Pass!!) this did not seem like a glorious arrival. Things didn’t look up when we found that one of the two doors to the cottage was locked shut and that was the one from the kitchen to the dry veranda (stoup)! A brief walk in the wet red sand alerted me to the fact that there were biting ants and I was well and truly bitten!!
Too late to look for anything else I said firmly that we might not want to stay 2 nights as booked - but I’m writing this 3 mornings later overlooking some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen to the sound of early morning birdsong. The Karoo is beautiful and so peaceful that yesterday we saw only each other and the wildlife! Initially we had two reasons for stopping here - we wanted to see the Cango Caves and it is a stopping place on the way to Kimberly - when we leave here there will be a long drive to De Aar (I’ve yet to say this for anyone South African to understand) to visit Tom and Emma Moffatt and then another not quite so long drive to Kimberly. Then we shall be still for a while and wait to see what the next stage of our adventure brings.
On our first morning we asked the farmer’s wife about the caves and she booked for us - at noon, showed us the way to travel and suggested we might like to stop at the junction where a photographer/artist/woodworker and his wife (a stage costume designer) had a studio and coffee shop. On the way we waited for a tortoise to cross the road before arriving at the most beautiful oasis type garden where a man was on a ladder doing something to his roof. What a lovely man - and he made fabulous coffee too. His photographs of the people here were amazing - he settled here by choice from Cape Town about 4 years ago and talked about he way that being settled they were being accepted into the community. They have begun to teach the locals to play rugby!!

Of course we had lingered too long and so we belted to the caves arriving just too late for the noon tour. Not for the first time I lamented that tourist Africa is not as laid back as the African people! However they do have more sympathy for latecomers (my kind of country!!) and we were met and rushed through to join our group. Some twenty minutes later the guide said this is where the tours separate if you are going on the ’adventurous’ tour please come over here. We weren’t but we wanted to and the wonderful man allowed us to join. There were moments in the hour or so that followed when I wondered what I’d let myself in for. The tunnel of Love (where you get lots of hugs and cuddles from the rock!) was fine - especially for those of reasonably short stature like myself.
The coffin sounded a bit scary but wasn’t, the ladder looked it but was much less difficult than the Abbey tower staircase and entirely safe compared to the ladders on Table Mountain! But the chimney and the letterbox were turning back moments - not for us but for others and how good did that make me feel!! In the chimney (unless you were Richard) you could only go in one way - right shoulder in first 90 degree turn and feel for the footholds. Feeling for footholds when you have little legs and they are an inch above the point your foot generally stretches to is a bit challenging but I was lucky that Richard had come into the bottom of the chimney behind me and kindly fixed my first foot in the first foothold - another and another and then I was faced with an enormous smooth boulder - how could I get up on this? What would I do - I couldn’t go back? Then slightly below and to my right a passageway - but nobody there - which way? I called out and a face appeared ahead - all I had to do was step down two inches and squeeze around a rock - ascending the 3 metre chimney had been (almost) a breeze and I was upright again.

Suddenly the passage flattened out and I could see the trainers of the person in front - I flattened too and realised that the people in front of me were not only flat on their stomachs but departing head first through a slit in the rocks - the letter box - but I was the next post! Stupid to go down head first onto rock I think and manoeuvre myself so that I can descend feet first. From below the guide says gently but very firmly you must turn around I want you to come head first. Obediently I do as she asks and begin the descent my shoulders are about to get stuck and I’m proud to have moved to the right before she tells me to - also suddenly remember that if your shoulders will go through then the rest of you will follow. As I am wondering whether this is true of the fifty odd year old post Christmas me I hear the guide say… I want you to exhale for me … I know instantly that this will make me thinner … and then I am down perhaps not very elegantly head first into her lap!! Followed rapidly by Richard. We take photos and it is only when I look at the photo of me which has a later person emerging from the letterbox in the background that the similarities between this and childbirth strike home. I am born into a new and braver 55 year old than the 17 year old who never quite managed to pluck up the courage for potholing!

The farmer had told us about the Swartberg (or Prince Albert pass) saying that it was not to be missed. Full of new found adventuresomeness I offered to drive this one. It was in theory more well used than Alfred’s and would therefore be better maintained. It was equally beautiful and equal in all other respects too - the hairpins - the sheer drops just as you were passing people - the landslides and the bizarre signs that appeared very occasionally to say than the road was uneven - normally just before a rather more even patch than you’d covered in the last mile. Another hour and a quarter and in a day I had descended lower and driven higher than in my life before (and its only 3rd January). As passengers Richard and I both acknowledged the sense that ‘I’ll only know the fear of plunging over the side for a few seconds’. Is this a comforting thought or not?? Like the Magi we returned by another route - longer but less harrowing and taking a about the same time.

We had been told about cave paintings in the hill just behind the house so next morning we were up early (don’t go too late as there’s a bees nest there and they are more likely to react to human sweat she advised). It was the most fabulous walk, but we couldn’t find the caves. Then we thought we’d come upon them but perched high up and at the top of a sheer drop. In my new found adventurous spirit I was all for a route that looked possible but Richard was quite determined we wouldn’t try. I resisted the temptation to go it alone and, once again, we set off home by a different route - and found the proper caves on the way. At ground level they were clearly man made (but cattle inhabited from time to time these days) and an intense buzzing came from within a crack above them. (On reflection this has been a rather Winnie-ther-Pooh couple of days - tight places and bees - let the reader understand!) We examined both paintings and caves and departed.

Five minutes later Richard’s voice came from in front of me urgently STOP/LOOK. I stopped and looked having seen a shed snake-skin earlier I was looking for a snake. It took me some moments to spot the enormous tortoise - about 18-20 inches in diameter just to the left of the path. It was so well camouflaged that Richard had only noticed it when it hissed at him. We made friends - his reptilian head popped out in curiosity and he allowed himself to be photographed and we returned to our temporary home for breakfast and bird watching.

(Blogged by Rev Sue Booys on sabbatical in South Africa)

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