South Africa

Johannesburg to Cape Town, July, 2008

John Cooper lived in S. Africa for many years and when I asked him about driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town he politely suggested that it was a dumb idea. “Nothing to see for 1400 km” as he put it.

The Road
For the first few hours after leaving Johannesburg you could be in the States except, for all the hitchhikers waiting at the gas stations and on ramps. In a few hours the suburbs of Gauteng fade into open country, and the road devolves into one lane in each way.

Trees are a scarce commodity but the textures of the bush are always changing. Heading South the views open up. Distance between towns increases,
and you start to think about how much gas is in the tank, and if there is any water left in that bottle. The Yaris develops a wobble above 160 kph so I keep to something more reasonable, and learn to drive on the shoulder while being passed by the random BMW or Audi in more of a hurry. The distance no longer seems absurd to drive in 2 days.


I arrive a bit before full dark at the former home of an early diamond baron. Being winter, they give me the Best Bedroom, I know because that’s what the sign next to my door says. Even the teddy bear on the bed is antique, and the 18’ ceilings would be even more impressive but for making it even harder to keep the room warm. Still, a hot bath in the claw foot bathtub does the trick. Dinner is local lamb chops and a Greek salad. I send compliments to the chef, who brings out the desert herself and blushes to hear her meal compared to the best NYC can offer.



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The Big Hole

Kimberley exists because of the diamond rush that started in the early 1800’s, after some kid found a shiny pebble on the banks of the Orange River. It was eventually seen by a geologist who noticed it was a diamond. The result is the Big Hole, now well over a mile in diameter and probably half a mile deep. Dug by hand, mostly by native Africans in near concentration camp conditions. This is where Cecil Rhodes made his name, and you can see the barber chair where he had his moustaches trimmed. As monuments to greed go, the big hole is high on the list; a ton of diamonds were extracted, from 14 million tons of rock.

IMG 009 alt=”The Big Hole, Kimberley”

The mine tour involves an elevator ride into the depths. It takes about 3 minutes in a cramped elevator, while sounds of clanking chains, pickaxes and explosions are piped in. The punchline is that the simulated mine is all of 10 feet below ground, but you do come out with a sense of just how hellish it must have been. The hole is flooded now, the mine’s been inactive since WW1, but it would be an amazing scuba dive.

Drive away after giving the obligatory tip to the Car Watcher in the car park. It’s a job throughout SA. Gas station attendants get tipped too.

The lake outside Kimberley is half covered in flamingos, they cluster near the sewage treatment plant. A dried lakebed with dust devil whirlwinds. Random flocks of bovines, ostriches. The grassy veldt turns into the drier Karoo, not quite desert but close. A high altitude plateau, the air is very dry and clear and you can see mountain ranges for hours before entering the passes. Almost no radio stations, and forget about cell phone towers, it’s no wonder the gas station attendants check your oil and water at every fill up.

IMG 028.JPG alt=”In the Karoo”

I arrive at the night’s destination at dusk, racing to check in in time to catch the evening light on the hills.

IMG 033.JPG alt=”In the Karoo”
IMG 034.JPG alt=”In the Karoo”


This town is a hotel resort built 100 years ago by a railroad worker who made his fortune supplying the gold and diamond miners. It’s complete with mounted heads, marble statuary, 4 poster bed, and uniformed servants. Trust a gay man to make hotel reservations for you.

IMG 047 alt=”The Lord Milner, Matjiesfontein”
IMG 071 alt=”The Lord Milner, Matjiesfontein”
IMG 059 alt=”The Lord Milner, Matjiesfontein”

The dinner uniform includes the most stupendously ridiculous headwear I ever hope to behold.

IMG 058 alt=”The Lord Milner, Matjiesfontein”

I drive out into the hills after dark. No sound but the wind, and even with the half moon high in the sky the milky way is out, with the Southern Cross in the middle of it, as high in the sky as I ever expect to see it this side of Antarctica. Feels about that cold.

The Bedpan Museum

The hotel complex has several museums about which not much can be said.

IMG 091 alt=”The Bedpan Museum, Matjiesfontain”

Home to Cape Town

The road into Cape Town is spectacular. You pinch yourself at how gorgeous the scenery is, snow covered mountains, lucid skies, grazing land, then wine fields that could be in the alps. The occasional shanty town looks even more incongruous with postcard mountains behind. The White Knuckle Highway, with long stretches of switchback, truck crawler lanes and admonitions to go slower than you’d image plausible until you see the steepness of the downhill u-turns.

IMG 099 alt=”Downhill to Worcester”

Crest a hill and there’s Table Mountain hulking, over Cape Town like an old friend, and I feel like I’m home. Soon I’ll run into my companions from last time, the drunk mercenary who spent a bit too long in Angola, the Brazilian nut case, my gay hotelier who organized this trip, and the regulars at the local. It’s good to be back home, such as it is.

Photos from Other Travels

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