On the road again

Like many people, there’s little I love more than a road trip. And it’s thanks to our blighted National Party government that South Africa has an excellent system of national and regional roads connecting the major cities and many of the smaller towns – they built it in the 1970s.

As teenagers in the 1970s and ’80s living in Joburg, my friends and I were passionate about road trips. On the first day of the school holidays, we’d pile into someone’s jalopy and head off to what was then the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga and Limpopo) or down to Durban, stopping often at laybys to eat warm apples and soggy tomato-and-cheese sarmies while sitting on grainy cement benches under solitary trees. Then, after a pee behind a bush, we’d hit the road again – hanging our feet out the windows and playing David Bowie cassettes at ear-splitting volume until the tape deck chewed them up.

Tackling the Transkei (now the Eastern Cape) was a real undertaking – because it was a supposedly independent ‘homeland’, it hadn’t benefited from the National Party’s road-building programme, and it was a perilous rollercoaster ride along a narrow potholed stretch of asphalt with plenty of free-roaming livestock to provide hair-raising encounters as you came around bends.

Breakdowns were common, and part of the adventure flagging down a passerby to take a message to the nearest town – where, usually, the only mechanic was drunk, hungover, surly or usurious (and often all four). Then there was the endless waiting at the roadside for him to come and tow you in, and to tell you that your cylinder-head gasket had blown or your engine block had cracked. Then you had to find a phonebox to call your parents…

Today everything is different. Petrol is so expensive that the one-time white middle-class national pastime of rondry (literally, ‘driving around’) is largely a thing of the past; few are the teenagers who can afford the fuel bill for a road-trip, and even for the better-heeled, the cost can be prohibitive. The welter of ‘one-stop’ service stations has put paid to the tradition of preparing padkos (literally, ‘road food’) the night before and eating it the next day at a designated layby; and, of course, to open-air peeing. If you do break down (although you probably won’t – cars are built better these days), help is a cellphone call away. Our national road system is in a state of apparently neverending upgrade and/or repair – there’s practically no stretch of road left that doesn’t have at least one stop/go in place, and some routes have so many that it can add useless hours to your trip. And our roads are far busier now, and awash with maniacs and truck drivers (sometimes, scarily, the two combined), so any long-distance car journey has to be undertaken with a fair degree of caution.

But road trips are still fun. On the recent one I did with my friend Marianne to Nieu-Bethesda, we came across this sign on the road between Uniondale and Willowmore: probably a welcome one in times gone by, when the nearest ‘one-stop’ wasn’t more than 100km away, but now something of an anachronism.


Karoo Gothic

This 1930 painting, ‘American Gothic’, has become an iconic depiction of rural American small-town life. So when Marianne spotted the fork and spade nailed to an outside wall of Aandster, our home-from-home in Nieu-Bethesda, she immediately saw the opportunity for a ‘Karoo Gothic’ pic.

I was convinced I knew who the painter of ‘American Gothic’ was, but couldn’t remember his name, so Marianne googled it. It turned out to be Grant Wood – not who I thought it was (and it’s a name I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of before). It was only days later that I remembered the name I’d been trying to recall – Norman Rockwell, also an American artist, and he did also depict American cultural life. Interestingly, when I mentioned Norman Rockwell to Marianne, she immediately recognised him as the person she also thought was responsible for ‘Karoo Gothic’.

Without google, and with better memories, we would have both settled incorrectly on Norman Rockwell as the artist. So – big ups to the internet.











Google and Come Dine With Me South Africa

I’ve been watching, with mounting embarrassment, the second season of Come Dine With Me South Africa. It’s bad enough that woefully few of the contestants can actually cook; it’s far worse that many of them are demonstrably stupid, bigoted, mean-spirited and drunk. When lawyer Tracey Stewart casually mentioned that having general knowledge is no longer necessary, as we now have google, I worried for the legal profession in our country. But last night, when we were subjected to a trainee schoolteacher with the barest command of English and a frankly terrifying nascent drinking problem, whose repeated squeaks of ‘But I’m young!’ made me want to leap into the TV and throttle her (24 ain’t that young, sweetie), I despaired for our already embattled education system.

I’m a huge fan of the Come Dine series and have loved the UK ones – most of the participants make a real effort to produce a great meal, and the few who fail, do so so spectacularly that it makes for entertaining viewing. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if all the contestants were crap cooks, overly critical or totally trollied. But that’s what’s happening in the South African version. It’s like a cross between Come Dine and the Jerry Springer show.

I sincerely hope our version doesn’t go overseas because the impression it leaves of the average South African is absolutely appalling.


Bad car karma

It hasn’t been a good year for cars in our family. My son wrote off his first car last year, on his first drive out in it. My brand-new Toyota Etios was broken into in August and extensive damage was done to it; because the parts had to be imported, I only got it back yesterday. And last week my daughter crashed my son’s second car – we haven’t yet had it assessed for damage but suffice to say it’s undrivable.

These car dramas have been very expensive in money terms: I’ve now forked out almost R100 000 on used cars for my kids in the last couple of years, about R70 000 of it lost in crashes and unrecoverable because of limited insurance – ironically, I can’t afford the comprehensive-cover premiums! And I lost my no-claim bonus on my new car, which is comprehensively insured, with just weeks to go until it was due. But it could have been worse…

My son’s accident last year involved a Land Rover, which obliterated the little Golf he was driving – but my son walked away without a scratch, and with a very valuable lesson having been learned about driving in city traffic.

A little South African PS to this incident: when my son phoned me to tell me he’d been in an accident, and after I’d established that he was unhurt, I immediately told him to keep an eye on his valuables – his wallet, ID book, etc – because I know how quickly these things disappear in the chaotic aftermath of a car crash. While those valuables were in his pocket and so safe from theft, we did discover that someone had stolen the keyring off his keys (which were still in the ignition) while he was talking to the driver of the Land Rover!

The second accident, last weekend, was every bit as lucky: my daughter was driving my son’s car too fast in wet weather, and lost control at – ironically – the very spot where there’s a warning sign of slippery roads. The car went into a skid, crashed through a wooden fence and ended up on its side in somebody’s* garden. When I went to have a look at the damage, I had to assume that her guardian angel had been flying as fast as she’d been driving: the car had miraculously missed the metal-in-concrete fencepoles on both sides of the fence panel it went through, and although the passenger side was completely destroyed and the back and side windows smashed out, the only injuries my daughter sustained were a few nasty bruises.


*Meeting Morne du Plessis by accident

My friend Marianne and I had to cut short our Karoo holiday because of the car accident, and on our helter-skelter (but safe, I assure you!) 900km drive back across the country, played word games to keep, well, me from completely freaking out.

We began with 20 Questions, a car game that everyone knows: whoever’s ‘on’ thinks of a famous person, and the other/s must, within 20 ‘yes/no’ questions, guess who it is.

Then Marianne got creative: ‘Why not do places?’ she asked.

So we did. Her first one was the Voortrekker Monument. Mine, second, was Paarl Rock. Both easy-peasy.

Marianne’s, third, was… Well, let’s just say that after about 15 questions I’d narrowed it down to ‘in Riebeek Kasteel’ and ‘bigger than a car, but taller and narrower and probably longer’.

It was Morne du Plessis’ garden fence. Because that’s whose fence my daughter crashed the car through.

Interestingly, when I said to my daughter, ‘Of all people whose fences you could have crashed through, did you have to choose Morne du Plessis’?’ and she said, ‘Ja, but who’s he?’

Another generation, clearly.

(For the record, Morne du Plessis was incredibly gracious about the incident. It can’t be fun waking up in the morning to find your newly constructed garden fence obliterated and a car crashed into your vegetable garden, but he was cool about it. Thank god he’s also got kids – he knows what it’s all about.)

So why DID you come to Nieu-Bethesda?

The Owl House is without doubt what put Nieu-Bethesda on the map. Without it, the town is just another little Karoo village, unique for its location at the end of a winding road and down a switchback pass, but otherwise a not unusual motley collection of dwellings on dirt roads and (latterly, anyway) people seeking an alternative lifestyle far from the madding crowd.

So it surprised me when Katrin, our host, told us that she’d been asked more than once if the R35 entrance fee to the Owl House was ‘worth it’ – ‘What,’ visitors ask her, ‘is there to see there?’ Her answer – and it’s a good one – is that it can’t be described; it has to be experienced.

Marianne and I wondered why people would come to Nieu-Bethesda if not to visit the Owl House (excluding, of course, those with family or business connections in the town). And some of the comments in the visitors’ book were revealing: one, for instance, had nothing to say about the Owl House or the Camel Yard, but did complain about the toilet facilities; but this one (above left) really took the cake: ‘Very nice but maybe a gardener should be employed once a week to tend to the weeds in the Camel Yard and the flower beds.’

‘Weeds’ in the Karoo? If we use the term ‘weed’ to mean ‘any plant that grows wildly and profusely’, then the Karoo after the rains is one giant weed patch. And this is no English country garden: Helen Martins didn’t plant pansies and buttercups and there are no ‘flower beds’ (although she did have a grapevine over the small back courtyard).

The comment below the ‘weeds’ one is also interesting: ‘Her garden is full of creatures but without life…’ Although it’s hard to envisage now, over 30 years after her death, Miss Helen’s garden was indeed full of life when she lived there, with live birds sharing space with the stone owls in her aviaries; and she would fill the pools with water every morning in the dry season (these mermaids’ pools, above, had been filled by the rain when we were there).

Similarly, the house itself, which today may feel, to some, lonely and rather spooky, was Miss Helen’s jewel box: her placement of mirrors, for instance, was carefully planned and very specific (as can be seen if you peek behind them – she marked out the spaces for them on the walls before beginning her colour-and-glass impasto), in order to bounce light through the entire house. Her ritual of lighting her vast collection of lamps and candles after dark was experienced by only a lucky few, but it was a wondrous sight they would remember forever.

When I read parts of Miss Helen’s Will, which can now be seen at the Helen Martins Museum in the town, I felt sad for her: one of her instructions was that nothing was to be removed from or added to the Owl House or the Camel Yard. I personally know of at least one person who, between the time of Miss Helen’s death in 1976 and when the house was taken over by the Owl House Foundation in the 1990s (a gap of about 15 years, during which the property was neglected and people came and went through it at will), visited the house and removed articles – an act of casual vandalism that so disturbed him that, years later, he returned to Nieu-Bethesda and put them back.

I think it’s important for people to realise that the Owl House and Camel Yard, although now being preserved (and restored – not always to everyone’s approval), doesn’t look like it did when Miss Helen lived there. What remains is a shadow of her vision and only a sort of sketch of what it once was, with the colour and, yes, the life significantly drained.

Still, it’s more than enough of a reason to visit Nieu-Bethesda, and if you actually do go to the town and leave without experiencing it, you’ll have missed a remarkable piece of Africana.

• For information about accommodation in Nieu-Bethesda, email Katrin at nieubethesda@gmail.com

The Karoo is a searing-hot semi-desert, right? (II)

On my last trip to the Karoo, in winter, it was a surprise to see snowdrifts in the streets of Nieu-Bethesda, and have to scrape ice off the car windscreen in the morning. This time, the spring weather was interesting, too – my friend Marianne and I drove through rainstorms all the way from Barrydale, and arrived in Nieu-Bethesda in a blustery storm. It was cold, with a bitter wind, most of the time we were there, and the river was in full and impressive spate. And when we left on Saturday morning, it was once again in very wet conditions, and again we drove through rain all the way to Beaufort West.

Fortunately, Aandster, the guest cottage we stayed in, is fabulously tricked out for chilly weather, with luxurious duvets, electric blankets and mohair blankets, hotwater bottles and heaters. And there was enough sun to enjoy a little time in the gorgeous back garden.






• My loan car from Toyota, ‘The Tank’ (pictured, left – this is the view from one of the front windows of Aandster), turned out to be a fabulous touring car – it’s amazingly light on petrol and very comfortable to drive for long distances.



• More information about Aandster here or email Katrin at nieubethesda@gmail.com

Back to Nieu-Bethesda: a South African colour row

When my friend Tanya (who was my travelling companion on my last trip to the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda) forwarded me this article from the SA Art Times, I wasn’t madly worried. I live in a village myself, and I’m aware of how town politics can skew situations. But I was certainly interested to see if and how the Owl House had been turned into a ‘garish amusement park’.




Short story: it hasn’t. Yes, some of the colour restoration is very bright – but, first, Helen Martins herself only ever used spot colour, and it’s this spot colour that’s been ‘restored’; and, second, if you look at photographs of Helen’s Camel Yard taken in the 1970s (shortly before she died), it’s immediately clear that she did, indeed, use bright colours.

In my opinion, the colour restoration hasn’t affected the ‘ethereal quality’ of Helen’s house and garden – it remains a unique installation, an intensely moving example of Outsider Art that all South Africans should have on their bucket list.

• Thanks once again to Katrin and Ian for accommodating us in ‘Aandster’, their spacious and charming guesthouse. There’s more information about Aandster here or email Katrin at nieubethesda@gmail.com



This has been a big year for reunions for me, as regular readers of salmagundi and paradysville know. Many of them have been with friends from long ago, and in almost all cases the reunions came about as a result of happy coincidence. Last Friday’s was no exception.

In separate arrangements, old friends and colleagues Neville and Pippa both picked that Friday as the day to make the trip to Kasteel. The coincidence here was that all of us have at some stage worked for Struik Publishers (and Pippa is still there), but we’ve kept only very sporadic contact, and Neville and Pippa haven’t been in touch in many years.

Pippa and I are both off gluten, so my menu was gluten free. For dessert, I paged through Jane-Anne’s new cookbook, Scrumptious, and hit on Frozen Lemon Cream with Summer Berries. The recipe called for Amaretti biscuits but I just left those out.

It was scrumptious (of course!), and while we were eating it, Pippa mentioned that she had a similar ‘old favourite’ recipe – a lemon-and-ginger tart, made by crushing ginger biscuits for the base, and with a similar condensed milk, fresh lemon and cream filling. Left: Struik natural-history publisher Pippa, and Struik alumni me and Neville, tuck into Jane-Anne’s Frozen Lemon Cream with Summer Berries, from her cookbook published by Struik.

And here’s the next coincidence: when I called Jane-Anne (yet another Struik alumnus) to tell her what a hit her dessert had been, she said it had actually been inspired by Pippa’s ginger-and-lemon tart, the recipe for which Pippa had shared with her many years ago. Pippa didn’t even remember passing on the recipe, and I had no way of knowing that when I chose the dessert.