South Africa Tour 2015/16

Ostriches at the Valley of Desolation

Lofty was not in a great mood today.

After missing out in his ancestry quest we now faced a very long drive north to a small karoo town called Graaf-Reinet.

For the last 200 km we motored through featureless Karoo desert terrain on the N9 motorway.

As usual Lofty was treating the overtaking of other vehicles, especially caravans, as a Darwinian struggle for survival, and stressing out. He touched 150km per hour on occasion at his stint behind the wheel.

I asked him to pull in at a small town called Aberdeen.

Lofty shot right past Aberdeen at 140km per hour, but this time I insisted that he slowed down and took us back into town. This town has the tallest church steeple in South Africa, the Chesterfield of the Karoo no less, and I wanted a photo.

If possible this made Lofty even grumpier. Despite the fact that we had been driving for over four hours, he refused to get out of the car for refreshments, and then started quizzing me on Graaf-Reinet, where I had arranged for us to spend the weekend.

"I bet there's f*ck all to do there as well. There had better be a good bar where I can get pissed, I'm fed up with all these early starts!"

Barmy Travel Andy Thompson, Howzat Bob and every other cricket tour manager, you have my full sympathies.

On arrival at Graaf-Reinet, the first signs were not good.

Our bed and breakfast, The Avondrust, was hidden behind a very large, locked gate and we were told via an intercom that we would not be allowed to check in until 2pm.

So we went for a little walk in the blazing desert heat.

The tourist information office, and most of the shops, seemed to be shut, and I had a dreadful feeling that I was about to receive both barrels between the eyes from Lofty for planning this weekend.

Then at 2.05pm the electronic security gate at Avondrust opened to allow us in and we got a glimpse of what lay within. A virtual Paradise on earth. Beautiful gardens with all kinds of tame wildlife. Ornate fountains and a tempting swimming pool.

Best of all the centrepiece, a fantastic mini-stately home built in 1911. Our rooms were equally well appointed and I can state categorically that this is the nicest place I have ever stayed at.

Mind you, it has all come at a cost. £48 per night each!

Whilst the town of Graaf-Reinet itself is an oasis in the desert one of the main attractions is the Valley of Desolation, a spectacular rock formation at the top of a mountain about 14km outside town. We drove there on Saturday evening, because the best times to visit are sunrise and sunset, and sunrise is obviously not an option for Lofty.

As usual he was driving at Kyalami speed and after we had paid at the entry gate and been given a brief safety lecture, he pressed the pedal to the metal once more.

We overshot the entrance to the Valley, and instead sped down a dirt road to nowhere in particular. That was enough for me. As the anchors were slammed on:

"Lofty! For f*cks sake! Will you bloody slow down - the speed limit here is 40km per hour!"

The evening light had an eerie effect on the rock pinnacles and in addition there were spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the town below - well worth the trip.

On the way back down, a family of ostriches casually crossed the road in front of us clearly oblivious to the fact that Lofty was still behind the steering wheel.

That reminds me, I hope Wycombe got home safely!

In the morning we both enjoyed a walking trip around this lovely town, which I guess must be one of the safest and most pleasant in South Africa.

In the evening we hoped to eat in the Graaf-Reinet club's famous Coldstream Restaurant which was established in 1875.

The restaurant was so named because the Coldstreams were billeted here towards the end of the Boer War. When the lads were told they were finally going back to blighty, the celebrations became a little too exuberant, and several rounds were fired off in the bar.

The bullet holes are still visible in the wooden bar top today.

This all sounds depressingly similar to a certain pub in East Manchester near where I used to live, but without a single scrap of historical context of course. And when we arrived at the Coldstream, just like the Manchester pub, it was closed.

So was nearly every alternative in town.

We eventually washed up at Pioneers for what can best be described as sub - Wetherspoons pub grub, which was an anticlimax to our visit to this lovely town.

I will come here again, but it won't be on a Sunday!

SA Rummy Challenge latest. Midnight 340 Rand up. Lofty 340 Rand down.

No ruined carpets or other damage to report tonight.

An extremely early start for Lofty next day, because we had a killer drive ahead.

Mind you, breakfast at 8am for most people would probably mean they were already late for work!

Even so, Lofty was exceptionally crabby today and also slow moving, as if the early hour had somehow impaired his life support mechanism. Think the first grey victim slowly turning to stone in the hilarious Hammer horror film "The Gorgon".

I had the first stint behind the wheel, which meant I would be subjected to "Now that's what I call Lofty" music for the first hour or so. Sure enough, Leo Sayer, more Steve Earle, f*cking Coldplay, and Del McCoury (Paddys on the beat).

As I politely expressed my distaste for the latter track, Lofty piped up:

"You would be no good in Ireland, would you?"

"I'm not in f*cking Ireland, am I! I agree it would sound better if I had drunk 15 pints of Guinness!"

I spent the next thirty minutes evilly searching for a 'delete' button on the car sound system.

After 100 km of speed driving over the Plains of Camdeboo, we reached a desert town called Middelburg, which was an example of what can happen if misrule and mismanagement take over. Rubbish strewn everywhere, a guy casually urinating in the main road, and a woman using an old oil drum on wheels as a shopping trolley.

The antithesis of Graaf-Reinet, in fact a shithole, and we didn't hang around.

Lofty got behind the wheel at 10.15am, and I climbed into the passenger seat, tightened my seat belt and got out the sick bag.

At least some decent music now, the best of The Doors. Strange days have found us.

Colesberg was our next port of call, now over 200km out of Graaf- Reinet. A nondescript motorway town.

At Gariepdam, which is a lakeside resort, we stopped for our next changeover. Given the drought conditions the water level was very low, and Lofty reckoned the various boats floating far below us were stuck. To help them out we left two small deposits of additional liquid of our own before leaving.

The next 200 km were sheer driving hell over a featureless, disconsolate terrain.

Dust hung everywhere in the air, and when we entered Orange Free State state both the land and sky took on a greyish orange hue.

This post-apocalyptic stretch made the M6 seem like a Himalayan wonderland in comparison, with Birmingham becoming its Shangri-La.

One of Loftys tracks summed it up perfectly. "Broken Land" by The Adventures.

As we drove through dirty, dusty Bloemfontein, even better.

"Don't come around here no more" by Tom Petty.

Don't worry, we won't!

We filled up and changed drivers once more at a motorway service station called Tom's Place. Newspapers were on sale, and just to prove that The Sun is the same the world over, today's headline screamed:

"My fifteen minutes in the jaws of a croc! Deliwe attacked as she washed clothes in river!"

Hilarious. The people of Merseyside don't know what they are missing!

If anything, the N8 east towards Maseru, Lesotho was worse. Instead of M6, read M1. Road works for nearly 60km out of Bloemfontein, slowing down what had already been a tedious and arduous drive.

We neared the Lesotho border and the road works continued, but to liven things up a large cow ambled slowly across the motorway, unaware of the bovine Highway Code.

Even Lofty slowed down this time.

Road kill of that size might scratch the car paintwork!

Eventually the road works came to an end, and with 580 km on the clock for today's trip, we rolled into beautiful Ladybrand at around 3.20pm.

Over six hours in a Ford Fiesta.

The stereo was playing "Peaceful Easy Feeling" by the Eagles.

Im relieved that we have made it. Next blog from Johannesburg!

Regards, Midnight

Click here for other tour diaries