I mentioned when I started the blog that I would post the occasional light hearted article. This is one of them. Peter Sullivan, former Editor-in-Chief of Independent Newspapers and one of our contributors, is someone who is particularly adept at living a portfolio life (click here to read “Life Can Be Good in a Portfolio Life”). He is retired but is as busy and active as he’s ever been (have a look at our recent article “Rethinking Retirement”). He recently celebrated his 65th birthday by going on a cycle tour through the Karoo with a group of friends. Here he describes the joys of the experience in a letter to his daughter, Helen, who is working in the United States…
My darling daughter Helen
What a pity you couldn’t join my 65th birthday cycle ride through the Karoo. You would have loved it. Happy as you are in New York, South Africa is still special to you I know, and the Karoo a very special part of it. Your great-grandfather was born there. Cycling is the best way to see it, specially with friends.
Good food, great company, superb scenery, beautiful accommodation surrounded by that special big sky silence the Karoo creates: all ingredients of an awesome few days.
Yes, I know you haven’t been on a bike for years, but that matters little. This was more Tour de Fun than Tour de France.
Yes, I know getting there from Johannesburg is a serious drive. Eight hours in a car. But we cleverly broke the journey in two, stopping at an undiscovered nature reserve near Bloemfontein on the Bultfontein road, for a delightful night in a chalet overlooking the Modder River. Herds of Zebra and Springbok were running across the Free State veld as we took a slow afternoon drive in the reserve.
That first night braai under the Free State stars was a good start to our adventure. It was a little over four hours from my home in Melville yet seemed a world away.
Soetdoring is a jewel of a reserve. A fully equipped chalet for four cost R540 for the night, microwave and Weber, cutlery and bedding, all spotless and friendly, including a Familiar Chat chirping free and wing-flicking on the verandah.
Don’t tell anybody about Soetdoring, trees of that name give the place such a Bushveld feel I’d like to keep it secret from the hordes. Birding there is spectacular, another secret you should not share.
But I digress, let’s get on with the cycling trip, which we now felt was a success before it started.
Bloemfontein to the Gariep Dam, over the dam under blue skies and on to Steynsberg, as green mieliefields give way to Karoo shrub land. About 45 kilometers from Middleburg we turned into the farm Melsetter, owned by the Southeys.
What a welcome. Tea, scones, drinks, warmth, laughter. Most importantly, that quiet change of pace a farm brings to frantic city folk.
As the afternoon settled I read some history, stroked the dogs, watched the birds, sipped a sundowner. I shook my head disappointedly at the two who rushed onto their bikes to cycle to the next farm and back. As you know, you can take some people out of the city but can’t take the city out of them.
Still, I understood their eagerness to put bum on saddle: motivated by a justifiable anxiety, that peculiar worry that when we cycled the next day they might not be fit and might hold us all up.
Myself, I had that small Klippies and Coke before dusk. When in Rome …
At dinner Mike, the farm manager, gave a lengthy history of the Southeys and other old Karoo families, I made a short 65th birthday speech highlighting some of the luck of my life, we quaffed some champers, ate some lamb, predicted the election results and reminisced about youthful foolishness.
We woke to the champagne air of the Karoo. After an excellent and too hearty farm breakfast we clambered onto our iron steeds and challenged the Karoo roads – for about 15 kilometers, before stopping for a splendid lunch under the trees on a neighbour’s farm, the lunch prepared by a Silwood-trained chef.
Magtig, you could have walked there faster than we cycled but we really enjoyed it. A gentle start. A splendid lunch. A visit to an original English roundhouse fort on the farm, a silly corrugated iron rondawel-like thing they used with portholes for rifles. They must have cooked inside as they waited to ambush Boers. Served them right, verdomde Engelsmanne, come to subdue our nation. But let me not get onto that subject because you know I’ll then start on the concentration camps at Bethulie and that leads to tempers and heartburn, fish hooks and ground glass.
A gentle cycle back to Melsetter, dinner of roast leg of lamb, up early to cycle to the Princess’s farm, Bergplaas.
Tougher cycle today, up some hills, but then we came to our lunch in the middle of the veld, a most unlikely looking place with heated swimming pool, big fire, armchairs and a view that goes on until next week. Splendid food, a tour of the impressive farm house, and we were whisked off to Bergplaas, where another Karoo welcome awaited.
I could fill a book with the story of Bergplaas but suffice to say the Princess Arena of the Netherlands bought it to restore the farm to the Karoo. Big farm, many animals.
We went though a herd of Black Wildebeest, some Springbok and then half-a-dozen imperious Eland, king of all antelope. Well they are in my book, anyway.
We hiked up a koppie to get a better view. Farm manager Wayne made us close our eyes and be silent in the sunset, cameras put away, to contemplate the deep beauty of the place.
A superb supper, some cards, wine, drowsiness … and the next thing I remember was a hot bath in the morning before breakfast, and then a hot scone which rendered a surprise when opened: a melting chocolate!
We walked past the farm dam before hitting the pedals. Spectacular Sneeuberg views surrounded a fabulous mostly downhill cycle through running herds of about 100 Blesbok and Springbok, who crossed the road just in front of our cycles.
We cycled with big eyes into the Owl House town of Nieu Bethesda, through the town to the Brewery, where home-brew Honey, Karoo (bitter) or Black Beast beer accompanied Karoo Kudu salami, pickles, cheeses and bread for lunch.
Oh, the breads of this trip! They deserve a chapter. Hot, tasty, buttered for the hungry. We all ate more than we should.
Another downhill cycle to Weltevreden, our final farm. Beautiful, splendid, superb. I have run out of my allocation of adjectives, but it was wragtig mooi. That old fashioned charm of things well made, of a past wealth written into the furniture and fittings.
On our bikes for the final 60 km ride to Graaf Reinet, we had a picnic on the side of the road and then pedalled to a glorious downhill, a delightfully steep downhill on the first tar we had seen since leaving Melsetter, tar which took us at great speed into Graaf Reinet.
A wander around the town, dinner at a restaurant famed for its meat, and a rather muted celebration of a cycle tour of the Karoo completed. We have the T-shirt.
Ja, Bells. You should have come.