Words and pictures by Sue Hoppe.
It began innocently enough. After years of missing out on all sorts of cool places we couldn’t reach in our platkar, my husband Max had just bought himself a second-hand Hyundai Terracan diesel. We named this vehicle Koos because he’s so tough, and because he has a two-tone paint job very reminiscent of those two-tone shirts.
After some recurring issues with the starter, we had begun to get that sinking feeling that Koos might be a lemon; but a lovely trip to Mountain Zebra National Park over Easter, during which Koos had been a perfect gentleman, restored our confidence.
In preparation for great adventures, Max had done a 4×4 training course and was all set to put what he had learned into practice, teaching me as we went along. Sadly, we couldn’t do the much-anticipated 4×4 trails because there were two solid weeks of rain, which resulted in the trails being closed. ‘Ah, well,’ we thought. ‘Just a great excuse to plan more trips as soon as possible.’
It was around this time that my friend Sandra, an artist from New York, would be coming to help teach art and plant vegetables at a township school in Port Elizabeth; and she had suggested that she and I go on a road trip in her last week here, mentioning that she had always wanted to see Lesotho.
Spurred on by happy memories of previous meanders through the northern part of the Eastern Cape, which is particularly beautiful in autumn, I seized the opportunity with delight. Max generously (although, as it turned out, perhaps unwisely,) offered us Koos for our journey.
Over the years we have developed an aversion to travelling on main roads, and we try whenever possible to go a different way each time we travel in any given direction, as there are so many fascinating undiscovered back roads to explore. But this time, the trip was not about where I had not been before, but more about showing Sandra our lovely underrated province. Given the fact that I had no experience of 4×4 driving, I thought I’d play it safer than usual and take the red roads on the map via Grahamstown, Queenstown, Aliwal North and Zastron to Tele Bridge.
We started in leisurely fashion: cappuccinos at Vovo Telo in the delightful trendy PE hotspot of Richmond Hill, and then the mandatory stop at Nanaga Farm Stall to stock up on roosterbrood and lamb & mint pie. After lunching in Grahamstown, we got back on the road with a mere 211 km to cover to Queenstown, where we thought we could spend our first night.
Perhaps this is where the rot set in. We were on a main road with not too much driving time ahead of us, so there was time in hand to do a little detour and explore some country I had never seen before. It didn’t take much for the desire to explore new territory to undermine my previous decision to keep to the main roads.
So, when we saw a sign showing Katberg Pass to the left, I thought it would be fun to see what views it had to offer. The GPS showed a road over the pass, which linked to a better one heading for Whittlesea and Queenstown in one direction, and Tarkastad in the other.
The first thing we came across was an abandoned farmhouse which, in hindsight, could have been a precursor of what lay ahead. But Sandra and I are both artists and photographers, irresistibly drawn to bizarre subjects like piles of rusting wire and decaying buildings, and the afternoon light was so enchanting that we spent a while clambering over wreckage and photographing it.
Shortly after leaving the farmhouse, we saw an interesting spire peeking over the trees and turned off to investigate. We came across a very run-down Dutch Reformed Church building, and enough rusty fences to attract our photographic attention for a while – in fact, we totally lost track of time.
Eventually we had to move on, becoming aware of the lengthening shadows. Passing the Katberg Golf Estate, the road began climbing steeply and showed signs of deterioration, but we reasoned with naïve optimism that the access road to a major resort couldn’t be too bad. Had we been in a normal car, we would probably have turned back at this point, but we felt sure that, if the road was a little rough, Koos could handle it. We carried on, stopping where possible for photos. The Katberg golf estate was below us, with panoramic views spreading out beyond. We had already climbed a long way from the little church in the valley below.
At one of these stops, I switched off the Hyundai, and when we tried to get going again, the starter motor just gave a sickening click. Through all that followed, this was the worst moment and I went cold, thinking that the recurring starter problem couldn’t have chosen a worse place to reappear. The sun was setting and there was no way of turning or reversing. I tried again and Koos started okay. Sandra and I looked at each other with huge relief and vowed that we wouldn’t switch the vehicle off again until we were safely in Queenstown.