Road trips and Remembered Things

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Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam. The grandest old lady in the Overberg.

As we had been looking forward to our weekend away at beautiful Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam for weeks, and also because we are a real-life family and not a TV show, the first thing we did that happy morning was have a huge fight. Not to mention names nor blame anyone, but the fight was around the fact that one member of our family (hint: it’s a man) decided he absolutely had to go to gym before we left. In his defence, he based his insistence on the truism that when we go away anywhere, even for a day, it takes me about 7,5 hours to pack and get ready. He (rightly) reasoned that since a gym session takes roughly an hour he’d be home with 6,5 hours to throw his clothes in a rucksack and pace while the three girls in the family ran around shrieking like panicked banshees.

Only, that morning – fueled by a determination to get on the road early and a hefty dose of righteous indignation (something we women get down to a fine art) – I somehow managed to be ready quite quickly, and it was my turn to pace and simmer and still be hotly simmering when he appeared, sweatily, at the front door, pumping with endorphins and properly pleased with himself and the world. Needless to say, the reception he got wasn’t warm. And even though he took his usual 9 seconds to shower, throw on a short pant and get himself behind the wheel, the rest of the family was of a mind to be Still Be Cross and the atmosphere in the car as we took off down the road was like the coldest night ever recorded in Novo Sebirsk.

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We’d probably have been less grumpy with each other if we’d known that at this hotel fairies come into your room and light a fire while you’re having supper. Then again, maybe not.

It took us all the way to the N2 outside Somerset West, with several men trying to shove straw hats and cell phone chargers at us through the window, for anyone to speak to anyone else and also that didn’t go well because the first topic raised was whether or not we were going to stop at the Wimpy for breakfast. For me, and I think most South Africans, the fact that a place serves just about the worst food anyone’s ever eaten is no reason at all not to eat there. I suppose it’s a nostalgia thing, but a road trip is just not right without a portion of factory-cut chips and that very cheap tomato sauce that comes in a squeezy bottle. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t share our enthusiasm and insists his cup of coffee should actually have coffee in it, so, we told him he could have cashew nuts in the car and that we’d see him in half an hour.

Happily for everyone, things started to improve after we’d eaten (there is something undeniably cheery about those red booths), and by the time we hit Sir Lowry’s Pass we were back to our normal selves. Also, every time I go over Sir Lowry’s Pass I remember the day, many years ago, my parents were driving home from Bonnievale and the brakes on my dad’s old Mercedes Benz failed. I imagine the fear he must have felt as he pumped the pedal and the car didn’t slow down but instead gathered momentum on that steep downward turn and the memory makes my eyes prickle because I love that man more than the world. Using the handbrake and carefully gearing down he managed to get them to the bottom safely, both shaky and white as sheets. And I’m grateful when I travel that stretch of road that they were lucky that day.

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The rugged mountains of the magnificent Tradouw Pass (‘Women’s Path’ in Khoi)  which joins the towns of Swellendam and Barrydale.

And this is how life is. One minute you can be safe in your car on a soggy Thursday, overtaking a truck and Johnny Clegg saying goodbye to December African Rain and the next moment everything can change. As we emerged from the clouds and dipped down towards Botrivier, the sun came out and lit up yellow, sheep-studded grasslands. I think only in South Africa are the ribbons of road this long and this desolate. Past the pink, flower-strewn vistas of the Tradouw Pass I remembered another thing: that the last time I traveled this road was in the back of a Volksie bus driven by the boyfriend of my oldest friend. He died of cancer less than a month ago. Road trips make you think about all kinds of things.

As we pulled into the town of Swellendam the rain had started up again. Kind people from the hotel appeared with large umbrellas which they held over our heads as we hurried to our room. That’s the kind of place Schoone Oordt is, big on attention to detail and the sorts of little touches that make everything better. The bathroom floor is heated (which really, really makes a difference), the bath salts have tiny, fragrant rose petals that make you feel like a bathing princess and while you’re having supper in front of a friendly fire some wonderful fairies sneak into your room and place hot water bottles in your bed. It was only the next morning, which opened bright and inviting, that we realised how pretty this old building actually is, its dining area opening onto a lush expanse of lawn which sweeps down to a blue and sparkling pool.

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Our daughters were partial to the miniature dressing-gowns (a very thoughtful touch) and quickly discovered a taste for Malawian mocktails by the pool.

That afternoon, while the spring sun played dodgems, I found a pool lounger which offered just the right amount of shade for reading and rays for warming and was aware of a feeling of deep contentment as my husband and children enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek amongst the guava trees and I dipped in and out of a book which wasn’t good enough to hold my attention. And it was one of those moments in life where all aggravation is temporarily stalled and you can’t remember one annoying thing about the world which, for a time, has become the sound of your children laughing and clouds gathering and dissipating and an awareness that, at that exact moment in time, there is nothing you need and nowhere you would rather be.

For the next 48 hours we drank tea, took a walk, dozed, played scrabble, shared bottles of very good wine and had a hard time choosing between the delicious items on Schoone Oordt’s menu. My personal favourite was the rump, tasty and done to perfection, served with stywe pap and a smoky smoor, but the pork loin with sweet cabbage and green beans got a big thumbs up from everyone too. On our second evening we were getting hungry but weren’t quite ready to leave the fireplace or our Scrabble board (and were sipping a mighty fine bottle of red and also I was winning) so we ordered a cheese platter to share. A cheese platter is always a happy moment, but this one was a thing of rare beauty with warm, handmade biscuits and a homemade tomato relish off-setting a generous serving of some seriously delicious Overberg cheeses.

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Breakfast in the sunny dining-room is a deeply civilised affair. That morning, a spiced poached pear with Greek yoghurt and homemade granola was the precursor to a splendid stack of black mushrooms, crispy bacon and perfectly poached eggs.

I was a bit bleak about leaving the next day – there is something deeply wonderful about arriving at the pool and within seconds being met with fluffy towels and the offer of a cocktail – but we were due in Barrydale at the Unplugged 62 music festival. Honestly, I was a little trepidatious about attending this event as camping and roughing it are not really for me, but I needn’t have worried because this was glamping at its finest – a comfy double bed with extra pillows, thick blankies to keep out the Karoo chill and – wait for this – while we were stomping in the dust some good and kind people snuck hot water bottles into our beds. This seems to be a tradition around these parts, and it’s a very good one. Also, it’s not quite what you’d expect in a campsite, but the Cherry Glamping people know a thing or two about creature comforts. They also provided bottles of water since the (a-hem) dancing builds up quite a thirst, and early next morning a kind man was up bright and early making tea and coffee and homemade rusks for whomever was in need of sustenance.

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The kind of ‘camping’ I like to do. Please note the Nguni rug and the extra blankies and water. There were also comfy camping chairs set up outside and little lamps to guide us home.

The festival turned out to be one of the nicest I’ve attended, probably because it’s smaller than the others and therefore less hectic. You know, for us older people. And the music line-up was impressive. I’d kind of expected a few local farmers with guitars, but my 12-year-old daughter’s eyes were like saucers when one of her favourite bands, Slow Jack, kicked off with their hit single, Love to Dream. It’s the first time we’ve taken our girls to a live music event and it was really fun being there with them, dancing up a storm on the haybales. The vibe was great, with everyone in the mood for letting their hair down and I remembered what I love about music festivals – how happy and chilled-out everyone is, and how many friendly, cool people exist in the world. And there something wonderful and uniquely life-affirming about dancing like lunatics under a star-studded Karoo night sky.

It was way past our usual bedtime when made our way across the dewy veld to our waiting tent, giggling like teenagers as we looked for the zip in the dark and tried not to wake our sleeping kids. The truth about this thing called life is that you discover, at some point or another, that whichever way it unfolds it is seldom the deal you expected, and being a grown-up can be harder at times than you ever imagined possible. Which is why it’s so necessary to grab hold of the moments that retain beauty and magic. None of us knows how much time we’ve been allocated on this planet. As I get older I begin to realise that the here and now is the only thing that really matters. Tomorrow it could all look very different, so we can’t take anything for granted. We must hug our children, appreciate our friends and notice the kindness and abundance that exists all around us if we choose to see it. And most of all, we must dance like lunatics as often as we possibly can.

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Karoo cocktails and happiness.
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