A journey by car
For some time I’ve been wondering why just infront of The Union Buildings in Tshwane there is an obsolete cannon aimed at the suburbs of Sunnyside and Arcadia. Who did the founders, builders and later defenders of the city hope to fire at just incase that enemy attempted to capture Meintjieskop? I've been wondering why did we have Jan Van Riebeek on our old banknotes before Tito Mboweni occupied the grey marble skyscraper in the middle of the city. Also, why even in these days of new everythings nobody ever suggested that the Voortrekker Monument (Thaba Tshwane) be closed to the public since it is celebrating a distorted history that is painful to some people. If you have been wondering as well, do so no more, it cost them quite a lot to get to Tshwane, or Pretoria as they call it.
I took that torturous journey (but not exactly to the Cape Point) just so I should understand why some blancs found it difficult to let go of their spoils. My journey started in Tshwane and climaxed more than ten hours later in East London, which the locals adoringly call iMonti. Most of the Gauteng part of my excursion was a typical boring affair with lots of lights, shopping malls, traffic jams and the hustle and bustle that has attracted many people from outlying rural and semi-rural areas to what was once known as the City Of Gold.
It only became interesting after the infamous Grasmere Toll Plaza, which sets you back R9 when traveling on a Class One vehicle (a motorbike to a kombi), the Vaal Plaza which robs you of R29 and finally the Verkeerdevlei Plaza which extorts R26. That’s R64 off your budget before you even get to Kroonstad. I’m not going to mention the 60 litre full tank that you will need to comfortably make it to a very interesting sleeping town in the heart of Eastern Cape named Stutterheim.
The journey officially starts two hours later when you get to Kroonstad in the Free State which is already 240 kms away from Tshwane. Don't panic and think that maybe Afrikaans is the medium of instruction here. You are most likely to meet one or two acquaintances from home since they brew the best black coffee in this part of town. The beauty of Kroonstad is boosted by its scenic "a river runs through it" surreality. Truck drivers, for a reason only known to them which they are reluctant to share just love this town. Is it the coffee, the fast food outlets or the extra-extra many truck drivers are rumoured to love?
This is FS and you don’t expect to get cutting edge technology or anything you’ve never seen in Jozi. That’s until I saw a machine they call Mr. Info at Bloemfontein’s 1-Stop a mere ten kilometers before the city centre. The technology allows a traveler to pinpoint any location in Southern Africa and get instant information about it, with sound bites nogal. This is the perfect stopover if you hate the city glitz and the suspicious hooded nocturnal characters that are usually attracted to ATMs. Instant cash, instant information, but instant coffee is a luxury. A waiter here resembled what some less cultured mouths call "a bad ass". It took the man more than twenty minutes to serve me 200ml of black coffee sans muffins.
From Bloemfontein the route to take is the N6, a 560 kms long stretch of freeway. It is a Pass Your Learner’s Driver’s License textbook. Almost every conceivable road sign is here. Next time someone wants to attempt for their Learner’s Driver’s License, N6 is the route to take (have a teacher with you), then apply for a test when you reach EL. Traveling the N6 is like watching an episode of Murder She Wrote, seen it but not exactly the one you’re watching right now. There’s lots of stuff to see that you have already seen along the N1, unless of course seeing stretches of empty land is your ideal afternoon pastime.
The next stop is Aliwal North, which doesn’t mean that there is an Aliwal for every compass point. Actually the North could have been Rouxville, a one street town of quite life which you should have driven past twenty minutes earlier. If there is a tourist attraction in this bundu it should be its age. The buildings proudly give away the secret that they are old. It is an ideal place for sleepovers with its welcoming guesthouses and serenity that seems to say, "Uyamukelekile apha" ("You’re welcome here"). There’s no way one can enter the town without driving over the long bridge that borders FS and EC provinces. At Aliwal North the language changes as well. The muffins and the coffee speak volumes about this Eastern Cape border town's friendly embrace.
It’s an embrace that is felt even through the empty wasteland that is either filled with hundreds of sheep or large herds of cattle. This is sheep territory, icy cold and arid with rocky hills stretching for kilometers on end. Another common feature of the landscape is a windmill or two every ten or so kilometers. The postcard scenery is punctuated by sleeping Jamestown. Poor Jamestown, sandwiched between a rock (Aliwal North) and a hard place (Queenstown) is a perfect ruskamp for a seasoned bundu basher. It does not try to be like its two toasts but rather sticks to the role it was casted, a transit point where a guest house or two can provide a silent night of honeymooning, especially if you eloped to marry. It also resembles some Karoo town whereby families spend Sunday afternoons watching traffic lights change from red to green.
The same can’t be said about Queenstown, a town that author Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o joked that it was the wife of King William’s Town. This is where I started seeing life, many people and taxis. There is a working class buzz that justifies the size of the town, big enough with a hospital and other necessities. Queenstown also markets itself as a religious bastion with crosses at every turn. Here you also find your familiar fast food outlets. It is bad if you want to miss home, the guesthouses are welcoming, but can’t be divorced from the one you slept in the last time you were in the East Rand of Jo’burg.
There is an interesting new development about the ghetto side of the province from here onwards. People who hike for lifts do so by flashing small cardboards with mostly two letters. One seasoned traveler informed me that the two letters are bantustan numberplates of different towns along the N6 and beyond. You need to know the towns to offer a lift, otherwise pity the poor early bird who puts their trust in you because you look decent.
Maybe the early bird was on its way to the next small town of Cathcart which is said to have been founded in 1876. I wonder alone if it was founded or raped in 1876. It’s got beautiful B&Bs for overnight accommodation. I wanted to stay over and ask what was happening on its hundredth anniversary in 1976 when the whole country was burning but I had Stutterheim to understand. A resident of Stutterheim told me that the town is famous for its unpredictable weather. "I promise you, you get five (sic) seasons in one day. It’s hot, it’s cold, it rains, it snows," he said. And it does what? He can’t say. There are some traffic lights and most of the businesses are named Amatola. Property here easily costs way into millions. It is speculated that it is basically because the premier of the province lives here as well. The town is situated at the intersection to King William’s Town, where black consciousness martyr Steve Biko lies buried at his Garden of Remembrance.
Twenty minutes later I arrive in EL after doing 1006 kilometres. Coastal EL, unlike many cities, is truly tranquil with lots of people who mind their own business and shy away from fraternizing. It should look like any other city but it doesn’t, there is nothing of the traffic jam that makes many cities buzz. People live in the city and not on its outskirts. They don’t live in run-down flats but decent guesthouses, B&Bs, townhouses and modest flats. It has its problems though as I realised when I visited West Bank, a predominantly Coloured suburb just next to the harbour. You have your corner dwellers who think that hijacking a BMW is an equivalent of winning the National Lottery jackpot. Spotting bloodshot eyes I never though I’d make it out without being strangled with a guitar string.
However for those who want to take a piece of home with them, leave it behind, this will not be a strange place for you since most of the Gauteng restaurants and outlets have operations here. And the number of churches make the Vatican look like post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad. People here take their prayers seriously.
I now confess that I wanted EL to be different from all other cities I’ve been to. I wanted that synergy that only a camera can capture during one-day cricket at St George’s Park. I however found friendly faces, people who kiss in public and are not scared to flaunt lust. I found women so beautiful they could only have come from one mother (literally).
I also found a dirty beach, an abandoned coastline and an unkosher braai area. My only consolation was that a car we left parked on the beachfront for over thirty minutes was found still spit, which should make EL an ideal holiday destination for all those who have been through the uncertainty of Hillbrow. Plus a car wash here will set you back R15. The hotels and the autobahn are world class. The name East London is found every few metres there is no way you’ll ever think you were in Port Elizabeth.
I had an English breakfast and Irish coffee for far less and wondered what’s the deal with the Irish Republican Army and the English occupiers of Northern Ireland. Here they have own Radio stations to add to the existing national ones. They also have their own newspaper (minus two of Jo’burg’s Sunday papers) and Border Technikon.
After so many hours on such a long wasteland I understood why the Afrikaners would not hand over Tshwane on a platter after traveling such a distance, not in a BMW like I did but on a saddle and a wagon, covering few miles a day. I understood why they positioned that cannon infront of Die Unie Gebou because having traveled so many kilometers into the unknown, they couldn’t risk loosing anything to anyone. If they knew the distance, the Voortrekker would have chosen to fly, not annex any land and later save the taxpayer billions of rands in land restitution. I started to wonder how people ever made the journey before God invented airplanes. You feel the frustration the Wright Brothers experienced that drove their madness. You understand why van Riebeek wouldn’t have sailed the Dromedaries and risked scurvy when an Airbus could have cut the trip by a year. Finally I wondered what would have been drawn on the old R5 banknote had Van Riebeek took a KLM airbus to the Cape. A KLM jet?
I fell in love with EL and felt bad about how abandoned its coastline is. I felt the authorities here could do more to attract people from outside. It didn’t live up to the Sho’t Left promo that drove me to visit in the first place. Maybe they get to read this review and consider me a tourist who would like to come back again, this time to sunbathe.
PS. I’m sorry East London, for the love we could have made that I made to myself.
For more information on East London, Bisho and King William’s Town visit the website: www.visitbuffalocity.co.za Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Or call: 043 722 6015