We have just returned from a mind-boggling, eye-staggering, neverrrrrrrr-ending, bloody unbelievable, eight-week, 6 000-kilometre trip to the Australian Outback of northern Queensland. I am not a travel writer’s backside, so please excuse my unbalanced, oblong sentence.
How was it, you might ask? Well, I’m still collating the infinite collections of impressions driving around in my head.
At a small town with a big pub called Boulia near the Northern Territory border, a sign pointed directly east and read, ‘Alice Springs, 1 000 kilometres, the world’s longest short cut’. (This would have been on a gutted track through the North Simpson Desert.)
Dreams followed, depression lifted
On arrival back at Cape Town International Airport, I was once again overjoyed by our country’s haphazardness, happy beauty and sad brutality. However, a glance at a newspaper headline filled me with dread. It highlighted that Table Mountain National Park has almost become a no-go zone for tourists and advised that security guards should accompany hikers and climbers. My ‘Happysadland’ had become my, ‘Just-shake-your-head-land’.
I slowly shuffled my depression to the rather glamorous tourist information desk and asked in a gruff voice how our iconic World Heritage Site and top tourist attraction had become a no-go zone? The pretty informant kept her lovely smile stretched and then just slowly shook her head. Right, okay, got it, get in the car, drive home. Home. You know, where the heart is.
My photographic studio was exactly as I’d left it. Untidy. In the far corner I have constructed a partitioned area that, well,
we can call it The Confession Booth. This is where thoughts are evoked, dreams followed, depressions lifted and journeys planned.
Being a man of extremes and contradictions I just sat there breathing, percolating thoughts. This sitting, I must point out, is done on a beauteous, old wooden chair. I look at it for a long while, when the African light makes it painterly, graphic, obliquely lined, like a song. It holds the memory of one of my greatest icons, Elvis Presley. Here then, for old times’ sake, for long ago, is a verse from his Jailhouse Rock.
Sad Sack was sittin’ on a block of stone, Way over in the corner weepin’ all alone.
The warden said, ‘Hey buddy, don’t you be no square,
If you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair.
Sparkled by the Tsitsikamma light
Right, got it, get in the old Isuzu bakkie and drive, up the pass, through indigenous Afromontane forests, to a place where Elvis and Marilyn Monroe live. Lekker, vibrant I’d say, follow that dream, blast my visuals, rock my heart, turn the key. Jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra-jirra. Nothing, the old girl wouldn’t start. Quietude. Just the distant roar of our nearby Autobahn (the Indian Ocean) and the koerkoering of the Speckled Pigeons on our roof. So I went back to my chair, rocked up my equipment, charged my mood and my bakkie’s heart.
The next day, sparkled up by the Tsitsikamma light, we drove the Grootrivier Pass, over the N2 toll road and down into the Bloukrans Pass, which has been closed for a number of years now. Just remember, Africa seems simple, but it can be hugely complicated. On this pass, at the Bloukrans River, we cross from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape.
So, in the sigh of a little cement bridge, the Eastern Cape roads department, instead of repairing any damage on the pass, has simply closed the road, probably forever. We just shake our heads and, like true local Africans, ignore the sign, come rain, laughter and shine, and drive it anyway.
The old pass then joins the N2, direction Port Elizabeth. Just four kilometres after the Storms River Mouth turnoff, flicker to your right, watch for hurtling taxis, and turn onto the road to Storms River Village. I have often noted that many South Africans bypass this village, doing an ‘Oooohah’ at the Big Tree and another ‘Oooolala’ at Storms River Bridge.
So here we are, where I wanted to be, having photographed two opposites, the Queensland Outback, and a village crammed into the Tsitsikamma coastal landscape.
The first, enormous, wide, and this one, steep, dense and forested. To quote the words of local artist and gallery owner, Johan Brink, ‘Storms River… the very name conjures up images of mystery and suspense, adventure, drama and romance. Of primal forests where the ghosts of woodcutters and long-gone elephants roam. Where, on a moonlit, star-filled night, one may hear the ring of a pick on rock in salute to long-dead road builders. Of ladies in Victorian dress and men in hunting jackets preparing for the buffalo hunt.’
We stayed at the Fijnbosch Cottage, which has a fine view of the rolling peaks of the Tsitsikammas. (The word Tsitsikamma originated from the Khoikhoi and is generally interpreted as meaning ‘Place of Much Water’). The owner looked like Donald Sutherland, but turned out to be Chris Heunis. I did a slow reconnoitre drive down our road, which was pointedly named Assegaai Street. Sharp, my brother, sharp.
Within a few metres I saw a couple cutting down an Australian alien called a wattle, with a chainsaw. The man was somewhat old, like me, had long, grey hair and wore a bandana on his forehead. “Hello, Willie Nelson,” I shouted with my windgat-lean-out-window pose. They motioned us closer and it turned out that they were actually Charlie and Adele le Roux. Charlie had worked at the nearby Boskor sawmills for 18 years as a fitter and turner. Later, talk revealed that Adele was a dedicated nurse. Wood-of-the-earth-people.
A bustling little place
Just a little further on, I stopped to photograph a handsome young Zimbabwean man leading three horses. Many of the immigrants in this village are either from Malawi or Zimbabwe. Then I wondered out loudly why there were no Zambians? Songezo Lusu shook his head with a laugh and said, “Many are working with the South African farmers who have immigrated to Zambia.”
Just a hundred metres on, my flat chest barrelled out pictorially, for there, in a row next to the road, stood 53 old wheelbarrows potted with succulents. Within a minute, Oom Callie Müller embraced us with a warm welcome. Oom Callie looked like an Oom Callie should look, so I asked him to pose beneath a tree. He also told stories as all the Oom Callies do – lengthy, with verve.
He was one of the biggest Angora goat farmers in the whole of the greater Steytlerville district and beyond. I tell you, it took quite a while to count all of Oom Callie’s goats.
Wonderful isn’t it, to have time like this? I had an itchy Canon so we carried on to the next corner where my eyes picked up an old VW Beetle and a Kombi. This was one of the backpackers in town. Inside a rustic bar area a dreadlocked young man asked me for some form of identity or a press card, otherwise I wasn’t allowed to photograph on the property. As we hurriedly left without a shot, my Canon said with a sarcastic grin, “If you miss it, you miss it.”
At the end of Assegaai Street is Mario Hildebrand’s house. He works as a builder in Nature’s Valley and drives the ‘closed’ Bloukrans Pass six days a week. He was obviously away enjoying the fruits of the Western Cape, and I left him a note that can’t be published in any decent magazine on Earth. Especially those that attempt to publish the real heart of the country.
By the end of Assegaai Street my depressions had been stabbed, punctured, my spirits lifted and my enthusiasm for South Africa was soaring over the village. I tingled up there like a drone, buzzing visual delights.
So let us just be honest, Storms River Village is a bustling little place, made vibrant by international tourism. In my opinion, it’s not the bulky mass tourism that stokes me up, but a delightful, healthy, adventure-seeking traveller’s tourism. Life among nature matters here, and it radiates from the faces of the locals and visitors.
Indulging in what I came for
If I want to stake my claim as one of the worst travel writers in the Eastern Cape, here follows my long-winded attempt. Top quality accommodation in the village is suited to just about all tastes; just let your fingers take a stroll over your computer keys. As for adventure tourism, there are the Canopy Tours, kayak and lilo adventures, mountain biking, trail running, bungee jumping, Segway riding, zip-lining, tubing, horse riding, and a dozen more mundane pleasures like eating and drinking.
When I was finally beamed down to Earth again, Wunderfrau (my wife Lynn) and I did a simple thing like go for a walk in the Tsitsikamma forest that surrounds the village. Well, correctly said, a strip of Cape fynbos lines the northern parts of the village and further, till the mountains become pine plantations. On the southern and eastern section lies the Tsitsikamma National Park.
The quietude of these Afromontane forests seems to bring ancient blessings; the greenness of it hushes the shafts of light that pierce through in pockets from above. Like a young boy with his first camera, I kneel to photograph pockets of moss and fungi that brag about their own brightness on the decaying forest floor.
Only on the second day do I indulge in what I came for – Elvis and Marilyn.
All along Darnell Street Storms River, giant eucalyptus trees stand tall, and, like Elvis, they have what it takes. Here, too, is the wonderful Tsitsikamma Village Inn. The owner Irma de Villiers shows us around. She’s one of those go-getting, bouncy, totally efficient, attractive women. Here is one of my only good and bad points – I can tell if a woman has a nice figure by looking up at the ceiling. Pure, dedicated, and practiced, let me tell you.
Her partner and co-owner is Chris Sykes, who isn’t at all henpecked and is super-enthusiastic about history, and his microbrewery and coffee roastery attached to the inn. He’s one of the only people I’ve ever met that can throw a broad smile while talking all the time.
Then Irma interrupts our beer-drinking, coffee-roasting interlude and tells us that she also photographs. This makes me want to me to go back to the Outback and drive the longest short cut on Earth. I mean, the woman has these lekker, big, searching eyes and her brown hair is streaked with purple.
I tell her that using the additive colour wheel, RGB (Red, Green and Blue light) overlaps to make YMC (Yellow, Magenta and Cyan light) and these, in turn, overlap together to make white light. I look up at the ceiling while she rolls her big eyes. Then I add that the colour of her purple streaks is made up of two parts of blue and one part red.
Outside, the huge bluegums (Eucalyptus radiata) sigh high, a dog barks and a group of Germans cycle past. Next door in the diner, Elvis sings Blue Suede Shoes. So you know what she tells me then? “The colour purple brings independence and liberation of one’s mind and feelings.”
Marilyn and Weiss beer
We walk into Marilyn’s 60’s Diner in Storms River village and I am overcome with pleasure and delight. I just stand there, frozen in time, overwhelmed by the real-time that has passed, the sounds and sights of yesteryear. Marilyn, on posters and pictures, looks as sensual and sexy as she did when I first saw her as a teenager. I stroke a 1961 Dodge Lancer, let my hand walk the curves of a 1950s jukebox, and smile at a photograph of James Dean, still giving the world that up-yours look.
Chris brings me a Weiss beer brewed with imported malt from Bamberg. The old eucalyptus trees move together in waltz-like harmony, four Chinese visitors battery past on their Segways, as Miss Purple slinks her body towards the jukebox.
“What shall I play for you?” she Marilyn-like oozes at us, “Elvis, I guess.” I shake my head again, this time full of glee. “Yea. The one with the wooden chair and the purple gang.”
Spider Murphy played the tenor sax
Little Joe was blowin’ on the side trombone
The drummer boy from Illinois went crash,
The whole rhythm section was the
Let’s rock everybody let’s rock
Everybody in the whole cellblock
Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock
Storms River Village www.tsitsikamma.info