Words and images by Pieter Oosthuizen
Forget the N1. Ignore the tar. Driving gravel roads and tracks from Joburg to Cape Town uncovers a world where the sky expands and time seems to last much longer.
When Oom Jochemus van Tonder slowly lit another cigarette, having pulled his packet yet again from a breast pocket labelled “Landbou Wepener”, I picked up my notebook, assured that his story about the bridges of Jammerdrif was not going to go up in smoke. We were having tea in his house, and in this part of the world, the pace of life is a little slower. If one cares to sit down and listen to Oom Jochemus, you may also start to believe that, yes, indeed, “A holiday in the mountains of Lesotho is much more enjoyable than a vacation by the sea”.
While I listened and drank tea, I got another anticipatory rush of excitement about the rest of my planned journey: 2 500km without crossing a border. The previous day, on a clear autumn morning just near the Vaal Dam, where the road south ran out of tar, I had suddenly been filled with a profound feeling of happiness. Of freedom. As dawn broke, I had slipped away from Gauteng like a cricket escaping from a huge spider web and hoping to disappear into the undergrowth. The plan was to resurface here and there, temporarily − using only the back roads to get to Cape Town.
My first target was a place 10km short of Ladybrand. As I was approaching the small village of Modderpoort in the late afternoon sun, the absolute beauty of the location showed so much promise. I was not the first to have noticed this. Way back in 1869, when the Mission Brotherhood of St Augustine had started out here, Canon Beckett wrote: “I never remember in Europe, neither among the Alps, nor in north Italy, to have witnessed the same rich violet and orange tints in mountain scenery, which bathe the whole eastern side of earth and sky within one’s view just before an African sunset… No words can possibly convey the idea of the peculiar glory that the eye then drinks in.”
The Brotherhood, whose graves are still here, started out in a rock shelter known as the Cave Church, and later rolled rocks down from the Platberg to build their chapel. The railway station was built at the time of the Anglo-Boer War. It is now disused, and a tweespoor leading to the station runs through a new dumping site, while the forlorn old building serves as a makeshift residence. It’s a tragedy, but worse was to come − which we will get to, later. After a cold night in my tent in Ladybrand, I stopped at the local Pep Stores and bought a thick horse blanket. At the counter, a despondent elderly Modderpoort resident of the past 16 years told me that more and more houses were being abandoned. The trains have stopped. Life has moved on.