An early breakfast, and then Prop is off to the stock fair in Grahamstown and Jacky kindly drives me through the Alicedale poort to the farm road I wish to join. Typical of their generosity, I carry a loaf of egg sarmies in my pack.
My map shows a little dirt road meandering south through de Poort and then west to the main Port Elizabeth-Cradock N10 thoroughfare. Big business and political interest in the Bushman Sands development have since pushed the cash-strapped Eastern Cape Government to splurge an ugly tar highway through the country-side. Efficient for cars and anyone who drives from A to B, but soulless for everyone else. De Poort is still pretty and quiet, but we need to get onto farm roads as soon as possible thereafter. There are old farm roads just below the mountains, but the first section has been fenced off by game farmers and I need to meet with them to find a way forward that would work for them and for the pilgrimage project. I fully accept that they owe me no favours and I don’t have a right to any sense of entitlement. It is only a shared commitment to some sort of bigger picture or cause that will enable us to find any mutually satisfying solution.
I climb over the heavy red chained gate to Glen Rollo and am soon swallowed up by the early morning bushveld. I step back into my childhood holidays on a desolate family farm on the Fish River Rand between Carlisle Bridge and Piggots Bridge, and shed those happy adult tears that come from joyful nostalgia. The road is the kind of invitation that artists try to include in their paintings, the krantz aloes are in full flush, and the birds are singing as if this is their world. I marvel at how it all seems to hang together, as if in a carefully landscaped garden. It sounds so corny, but I have the sudden sense that nature gets it right. I’m also aware that it isn’t done for me; I am just hugely privileged to be able to be witness to it. I recall how my old psychology professor, a fervent phenomenologist, used to describe the essential nature of (hu)man as the place of being where phenomena can, to some degree, be caught and understood. Just like light needs to encounter something to become something, so phenomena need to be encountered in order to become anything. On one hand I feel a huge sense of appreciation to be that consciousness, that place where all this can manifest itself, but on the other hand I have a serious doubt that all this loses its significance if I am not here. This is bigger than me. The only appropriate response is one of reverence, and I quietly give voice to that glorious Scandinavian hymn with the uplifting chorus “Then sings my soul …”
I come upon the farm-house, but the gates are locked, the barbed wire fence is high, and the dogs sound fierce. I phone the owners without realizing they live in Port Elizabeth during the week, and contribute to a rather confusing conversation. I’ll return during a week-end and we can chat in a more informed way.
I can get to the front door of the next farm-house, but there is no response. A labourer in the nearby shed assures me that inkosikazi is here, and disappears. Back at the house the door opens a little, the lace curtain retracts a sliver, and the ghost of a face appears. Shame, the poor lady is sick in bed and has had to get up to attend to some eccentric walking past. I feel like Pip talking to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and we soon part without having made much contact. But another day in another state, and I’m sure it’ll be coffee and rusks and a better connection.
Another rough but unpretentious road of character to the next farm. The farmer matches his road, and over a refreshing cup of tea I quietly enjoy the simplicity of life here. We gesels lekker and rustig, and then we climb into his bakkie so that he can show me a short cut through the farm to the N10. He is a man of few words and drops me in the middle of nowhere, pointing vaguely in a westerly direction. You can’t go far wrong, I reassure myself, and set off in relaxed mood. I soon come upon two ways in the veld, and I take the one less travelled. And it makes all the difference. Badly! I should obviously have taken the one blocked by all the cattle. It’s actually not that much of a problem, though, and I find my way back to the right path and up to the N10.
It’s only about a kilometre’s walk along the busy tarred road, and then I head left onto the quiet Kromrivier dirt road. It’s the middle of the day and I’m getting tired. Time for lunch and a rest on the side of the road. This being winter, I don’t need shade, and any warm sunny spot is fine. There’s absolutely no traffic coming by either, so any place in the road is also fine. Ah, there’s something special about stops like these. No car, no bike, hardly any possessions, far from anyone or anything, just you lying on a lonesome road in the bush, eating your sarmies. The world and time slow down when you walk, but they almost come to a halt on these occasions. No past, no future, just a lazy now.
My phone rings. It’s my old school-pal Jock McConnachie, wishing me well and wanting to come and walk with me for a bit over the week-end. Earlier Mike had also said he’d like to join me sometime, and I’d said no, sorry, this was a very personal walk and I wanted to be on my own. But I suddenly think it could be quite pleasant to have some company for some of the time, and I have plenty of other time on my own. I must learn to be more flexible. So I say yes and suggest he link up with Mike and maybe the two could come together and share driving and walking.
The first Kromrivier farm-house is set in a huge yard of green grass and honking geese, with broad views of the surrounding hills. I’m wanting to find a way up to the nearby Zuurberg ridge, but I know these are week-end farmers and I’ll need to enquire at the next farm. That’s where the Meyers live, an elderly couple who will be able to help me. I’ve also planned to stop there for the night, not that they know it, and I’ll be happy to sleep in a barn or shed on their property. So I move on with much anticipation.
This mood, however, enjoys no sense of fulfillment. The Meyers’ high gate is locked, and although the dogs bark it is the obligatory disinterested bark that dogs give when their owners are away. They know that this stranger is not going to get any closer to this farm-house. I lie down at the gate, not quite knowing whereto from here, and decide to wait for half an hour. After 29 minutes, a bakkie arrives. It’s not the Meyers, but rather a tannie who is very wary of getting too close to this strange Engelsman in their valley. After a bietjie geselskap, however, she tentatively loads me up onto the back of the bakkie and we drive a few kilometres up the road to her house for koffie en beskuit. It is a home just waiting for Athol Fugard to immortalize. Helen Martin’s artistic twin has created a 3-D painting through which one moves and lives. The glowing yellows of the lounge give way to a voorkamer that is camouflaged to fit in with the surrounding country-side. Even the fridge is half-aloe and half-kiepersol that melts into the background, with the upper half-aloe and half-kiepersol reaching completeness on the wall behind. I’m particularly taken with the halo of porcupine quills that radiates from the kitchen light. My generous hostess, however, doesn’t really understand my pilgrimage story, and is worried about my being on my own. Not so worried that she offers me a lift to the next farm which is about 6km further on, but worried enough to say I must come back if there is no-one there. Walk 6km back in the dark? But there is well-meant caring here, beyond comfort-zones, and I appreciate it.
I’m told that a ‘lodge’ is being developed up the road, and that a Spaniard is living there. Yes, he will definitely be there because his bakkie is broken so he can’t go anywhere. My anticipation takes on a Lazarus resurrection. A Spaniard? If anyone will understand my pilgrimage idea, it is someone from Spain, the home of the Camino, the land of peregrinos! Here lies a kindred spirit. Let me meet him.
The late afternoon sun saturates the trees, aloes, flowers, shrubs and rocks with a soft gentle touch, bringing out colours of rich green, red, yellow, brown and orange. Like a cosmic photoshop, I chortle to myself. It reminds me of the time we sat on top of a koppie deep in the Limpopo bush as a complete solar eclipse passed over us. Like a cosmic dimmer switch, I remember thinking at the time.
The ‘lodge’ finally comes into view and I stride through its impressive entrance and up to the main building. No-one. Not a soul about. It is clearly inhabited as there is a crossbow lying on the verandah table and arrows are scattered about. But there is definitely no-one here. Forget any kindred spirit; you’re totally on your own, bhuti. By this time, however, I’ve moved into a space of quiet acceptance of wherever I find myself, or of whatever is happening. It is not a passive resignation to the fates, but rather a simple and sincere trust in the process unfolding around me and within me. Before it is dark I find a big yellow-wood table in a corner of the verandahs, and lay out my sleeping mat and bag on it. I eat some more egg sarmies, drink some water, and creep into bed just as the cold begins to bite. Not quite what I had hoped for, but I love yellow-wood and sleeping on it gives me a good feeling.
I am suddenly woken up by the drone of a vehicle in the distance. Indeed, a bakkie is finding its way up the valley and its headlights spray out ahead of it. A minute or two later and it roars up the driveway. I’m up in a flash to declare myself; the idea of being disemboweled by a crossbow fanatic mistaking me for an intruder doesn’t appeal to me. I shout out ‘Hola!’ and get a surprised but delighted ‘Hola!’ in response. The dream materializes. This is Carlos, and yes of course he knows all about the Camino, and yes I am a peregrino, and yes I must come in for food and wine and sleep! Before I know it we are sitting in front of a blazing fire and wolfing down what Carlos calls ‘za best bilyong an’ dru-vus in za weld’. He can’t understand my not wanting to share his wine, but gives me a coke in good grace. I’ve travelled quite extensively in Spain recently, and we share our experiences and favourite places. As the wine goes down so our conversation goes up in excitement and animation. Carlos can speaka thee bit a of the a English, and my Spanish is limited to hola and gracias, so the evening is a rollicking affair of laissez-faire sentences and lots of hello and thank you from me.
Carlos is getting the lodge ready for a Spanish friend of his who has bought the place, and they are working towards opening in a few months’ time. Carlos has had the enviable opportunity to walk through that treasure house of old furniture called Colonial Antiques in Uitenhage, and wave his mate’s euros around. The result is a lodge filled with exquisite old four-poster beds, cupboards, dressers, etc. Carlos himself is a crossbow expert and has built up a large circle of professional contacts in Spain, and for at least the first while these people will constitute the guests for the lodge.
I eventually go to sleep on the floor in front of a roaring fire. I’m about 100km into my walk, and it’s proving to be quite an experience.