Kimberley to Uppington, South Africa
AK47s, Armageddon, four minute instant skin cancer and an attempted conversion to the Islamic faith using a wholesome fish curry and Barbra Streisand songs – it’s just another crazy week in South Africa.
Following our unorthodox route across South Africa, we drove to Kimberley billed as "the city that sparkles". It was more a case of the town that glimmers in the heat haze. When we told other South Africans that we were heading for Kimberley and Uppington, they would stare at us incredulously and utter, "but you’re not doing the Garden Route". The pressure on tourists to follow the much hyped Garden Route is overwhelming, yet I wasn’t that keen to rush down to the coast. I suspected that the ‘Garden Route’ was where all the tourists and Baz Bus passengers were hiding, so I was happy to avoid it for the time being. In case you’re wondering, the Baz Bus is a backpacker budget shuttle bus that runs mainly along the coastal route of South Africa, dropping its passengers at the doors of selected hostels.
Kimberley boasts the De Beers operational diamond mine and the ‘Big Hole’. The town lies on the edge of the largest manually excavated hole in the world, dug by picks and shovels, measuring 215 metres deep with a perimeter of 1.6km. In other words, a hole of truly epic proportions. The town has a rough feel to it, probably due to its mining roots and we spent a good hour trying to find decent accommodation. Gum Tree Lodge didn’t accept campers and all its rooms were full. Kimberley Caravan Park was untidy, overgrown and felt distinctly unsafe. This left the Open Mine Caravan Park that had little shade. Apart from the thumping rave music broadcast from a collection of caravans that had erected a series of marquees on the west side, the ablution blocks were clean. There were no kitchen facilities but for R45 we weren’t complaining.
Cooking our simple pasta dinner to a Slim Shady soundtrack, I doubted that our ear plugs could cope with Eminem. Our neighbours decided that the best tactic was to drown out Slim with their own favourite, Barbra Streisand. Even Bab’s "Woman In Love" couldn’t mask a stinging baseline.
We were just tucking into our dinner, when the guy next to us designated himself the task of inspecting our camping equipment, food and tent. Fully satisfied that it was inferior to his own, he introduced himself as from Cape Town, lending us his camping stools even though we protested. In a blink of an eye, he had clicked his fingers and instructed his wife to rustle up some "wholesome, Muslim food". It didn’t seem to matter that we were mid-way through our more than adequate dinner. He was obviously on a mission to convert us to the Islamic faith. Obediently, his wife brought over plates of fish curry and bread rolls, while we hid our mugs of wine behind our Tevas (we didn’t want to be branded as infidels). Already full, we made a pretence of tasting the food, wondering how on earth we would escape his clutches.
Luckily, call to prayer saved us. As soon as his car lights had disappeared into the distance, we bolted for the ablution block, washing up his crockery, brushed our teeth, returned his equipment, sealed our tent and in the nick of time laid deadly still on our sleeping bags, hardly daring to breathe. Our efforts paid off as on their return they thought we were asleep.
Having survived our Muslim friend and the rave party, the next morning we visited the Kimberley Mine Museum. I never realised that the discovery of diamonds was so crucial to the development of South Africa. The Colonial Secretary of Cape at the time of the diamond rush, hit the nail on the head when he declared, "This is the rock on which the future success of South Africa will be built." Diamonds provided a huge influx of money, in 1898 De Beers contributed 50% of income tax for the whole country.
The first diamond was found by a pebble collector named Van Niekerk. A child playing klip-klip (five stones) was using a stone that he found rather unusual and the children’s mother, thinking it was just another pebble, gave it to Van Niekerk. The twenty-one carat diamond was named ‘Eureka’ and sold for Â£500. In 1869, Van Niekerk proved that it wasn’t a fluke by arriving in Hopetown carrying an eighty-three carat white diamond bought from a shepherd for five hundred sheep, cattle and that all important horse. This diamond became the famous ‘Star of South Africa’.
So began a mad rush of fortune seekers and dry diggings that became Kimberley. The museum gives an insight of what it was like to be digger in the late 1800s. Old mining buildings have been preserved with period memorabilia bringing the place to life. By 1914 all mining had ceased; the ‘Big Hole’ had yielded 2722 kilograms of diamonds extracted from 22.5 million tonnes of earth.
Not wanting anymore lessons on how to cook wholesome food, we treated ourselves to a room at Gum Tree Lodge. Cooking our dinner, we met a South African family preparing a traditional potje – a stew that is cooked very slowly in a cast iron pot over a fire. Their pot was a sturdy three-legged cauldron that Harry Potter would have been proud of. They introduced us to ‘biltong’, another South African delicacy of dried strips of game or beef salted or spiced. I have seen numerous small shops that specialise in selling biltong so it must be popular. Despite its revolting appearance, it resembles shrivelled up intestine, it actually tastes delicious.
Our room wasn’t equipped with a mosquito net and we were plagued by persistent, fast moving mozzies all night. As Kimberley is so dry I’d assumed that there wouldn’t be any wretched mosquitoes. The buggers bit me on my nose and forehead.
Back on the road to Uppington, the detailed weather report told us to expect temperatures in the region of hot, very hot and possibility of a meltdown. Unusually hot temperatures were expected in Uppington of 38Â°C. By 9:00, we could feel the intense heat invading the car.
Uppington and the surrounding area is full of contrasts. I never thought a barren landscape could support the vegetation but the vast stretches of sand and scrub are interspersed with vivid green grape vines. Home to the Orange River Wine Cellars, these wineries form the largest wine co-operative in the southern hemisphere, the second largest in the world. Raisin production is the other major money spinner in the region. A five litre wine box at the supermarket set us back a breathtaking R37 (approximately Â£2.50). At that price it would be possible to remain comatose for the rest of our trip. Tempted by the ridiculous low cost and knowing that my duty as a travelogue writer entailed testing it, we purchased a box of white Stein. The range and quality of the wine in South Africa is excellent; our wine was an easy drinking white with heady undertones of blossom and citrus flavours. Actually, I’m making that up, but rest assured it didn’t taste like paint stripper.
We chose to stay at the deserted Yebo Backpackers that provided us with shady camping, information on the nearby attractions and kitchen facilities including that all important feature, an ice box.
We were just unpacking our cool bag when an American, who had been working in Namibia for eight months, introduced himself. I’m beginning to develop a theory that extreme heat warps the brain as he was full of the joys of spring.
"Been travelling round Africa, huh?" he asked while scratching the ginger stubble on his chin. We filled him in on our route. "Dangerous," he sighed and then added in an authoritative tone, "You must have had trouble at the borders and checkpoints. Did they pull their guns on you?"
He was clearly disappointed when we reported that we had encountered no problems whatsoever. "You’ve been extremely lucky, very lucky indeed. I know lots of people that have been gunned down by AK47s in the blink of an eye, the police won’t hesitate to shoot, they just pull the trigger regardless. You should never stop for anyone, not even someone in uniform. You should keep driving." Had he been watching too many Dirty Harry films? By this time he was quite agitated, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Not wanting to mince words, I stated that I was sceptical of the so called travel myths i.e. the ‘someone I know or met’ stories but this didn’t have the desired effect of shutting him up. Instead, he changed tact and gave us a lecture on why the world was doomed. I sensed half an hour in his company would leave me contemplating whether I should slash my wrists or not. Armageddon was coming, World War III was just around the corner, AIDS is a judgement from God, Africa is God’s chosen country which is why he’s here and if you stay out in the sun in Windhoek for more than four minutes, you’ll get instant skin cancer. Cheery thoughts!
Concluding he was as mad as a hatter, I smiled sweetly and made no comment. Next time he caught me unawares, I was scribbling away in my diary. "Catching up on your journal, huh? I bet you could tell some interesting stories." I ignored him, continuing to write, and thought if only you knew what an ‘interesting’ subject you are.
The temperature dipped to a sultry 28Â°C in the night, so most people would judge hiking in Augrabies Falls National Park as foolhardy. The heat must be finally frying my brain cells. A 100km drive away, it is remote enough to deter the coaches and is not on the Baz Bus route. Most tourists that visit, merely stop to see the main attraction, Augrabies Falls itself, get back in their cars and drive on.
I’m not a great admirer of waterfalls, but the sixth largest waterfall in the world was a more rewarding experience than Victoria Falls. Numerous dramatic view points overlook the 56 metre falls. The Khoi people called it "Akoerabis", the place of Great Noise. This is a fair description as the Orange River thunders downwards through a ravine and into a pool walled by sheer granite. The swirls of mist from the tumbling water form fascinating patterns that can mesmerise for ages.
To explore the unique riverine ecosystems, we followed the aptly named Dassie Nature Trail. This delightful walk winds through the rocky gorge over craggy outcrops dominated by scrub dotted plains, crosses babbling crystal streams and weaves through six foot river reeds. There is also a chance of seeing a Kokerboom (quiver tree), the silent sentinels of the park, as you plod across the small sand dunes. Dassies scurry here, there and everywhere, scampering over large smooth outcrops of rock, where they can find shady hiding places. These creatures resemble cute hamsters on steriods and provided us with great entertainment.
There are only two drawbacks to this trail: the heat and bush flies. Luckily, we were equipped with head nets (a shrewd investment we purchased in Australia, the land of the bush fly) so apart from looking like complete prats, we weren’t annoyed by flies trying to crawl up our noses, into our mouths and ears. If you don’t relish eating flies for lunch, bring a net.
Next stop Namibia and no respite from the heat for the wicked Westerners. Must be a judgement from God!
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