SA11. Karoo. Where Earth meets Sky

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South Africa pretty much had me head over heels so far. Still, from all that superb variety that left me open-mouthed every too often emerged one place that I was finally not so crazy about: the small, almost horrifyingly perfect little village of Clarens in the Free State province. The taste of the wilderness still fresh on our lips, we are being dropped in Barbieland.  Now, I wasn’t very fond of playing with dolls’ houses as a kiddo either, but coming straight from the unspoiled nature, this looked too blatantly touristy, exclusivist and posh-European. Takalani is the sole black figure in the middle of this artificiality, but he is not the only one who does not fit in. I want back in the bush, me thinks.

It’s a short stop, so hopefully we clear off before we actually bump into Ken. The good thing about Clarens, though, is that there are lots of carriages. Hence horses. I pass the time by going to the local supermarket to buy apples for me and whatever horse was at a standstill. After a fancy lunch, it’s time to jump back in our dusty, rusty vehicle and feel a little dirty, sweaty, African and adventurous again.

South Africa_Drifters on the table

Tonight we rest at a farm near Ladybrand. With a wake-up call scheduled for 4 a.m., by far the earliest during this tour. We step into the B&B and the storm bursts right behind us: thunders, wind, and the violent rain start to lash the dusty roads and the horizon: I decide to be the contrast of this tormented view and install myself calmly on the hotel’s porch to just sit and watch. It’s the day before the End of the World, the 2013 edition, so dinner conversation turns mainly around the topic. After the storm, the sky takes a vivid pinkish-red-orange colour, a very unusual one, to say the least. Takalani, which has now completely recovered from the Drakensberg hike, is in high spirits again: “I’m telling you guys, something’s cooking. I’ve been here in Africa forever, never seen a sky like this.” While I was exploring the house, I came across a pretty nice wine cellar. I know where I’ll end up, if the Mayas leave me no other option.

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I almost fell asleep when the alarm clock went off. We get into the truck sleep walking, much before sunrise, which is usually early enough in Africa. We are the 21st December 2013, the D Day when we are all programmed to die, but before, we all want some decent sleep. The sun breaks through the clouds and the last day on Earth officially begins.

Lullaby atmosphere in the truck; Takalani drives in silence, rocking us gently as he goes. We have a long driving day today to the Karoo desert. A peaceful, uneventful ride.

Or not. Takalani makes the first stop, only there’s no gas station or anything that could justify it. To the left, field of cows . To the right, the highway. This means no coffee yet, so Takalani will have to put up with at least one grumpy passenger. Still, he might have a reason. And a good one to that: the truck is having some issues. Issues that prevent us from moving further at the moment. Takalani  makes use of his multiple talents:  after the driver, the guide, the hiker, the cook, the storyteller, etc., here is Takalani, the mechanic.

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We, on the other hand, do a good job at being the tourists. Some of us cluster around the truck as if staring at the engine would put it back on the wheels. Takalani is ordinarily not very talkative, but now he’s deep into a disapproving kind of silence. Whatever he is in the middle of fixing, it will not last long, I suspect. After some kilometres, it breaks down again.

The trouble with South Africa is that between points A and B there’s usually a wide distance. On this lovely summer day, out truck has evidently a serious problem. Implicitly, so do we. An expert’s intervention is required, only they don’t grow on the side of the road in South Africa either. Whoever is capable of repairing this truck needs to take a flight from Johannesburg and somehow reach us in the nowhereness we’re currently waiting and stewing. But first, that person would need to pick up the god damn phone.

Finally, Takalani manages to make contact with the mechanic: the latter cannot make it before the next day, of course. Whatever Afro-magic spell Takalani whispers to the engine, he throws himself behind the wheel again and drives, slowly, very slowly, starting to sing – a stress-related impulse, I take it. For all the numerous qualities that Takalani has been endowed with, evidence hit me upon hearing him that the man ain’t no singer. The end or not the end, he is capable of causing a calamity by himself when he sings. Thank God I charged my iPod.

Slowly, extremely slowly, Takalani covers the hundreds of kilometres that take us to our final destination, the Karoo Lodge. So this is where we will spend the last hopefully happy moments: in the desert. We look around at 360°: there’s absolutely no one but us in that area. Apart from some springboks, impalas, ostriches and certainly some snakes and scorpions. And our three hosts. The closest village is 40 km away. It feels like being in the middle of a gigantic plate: all is flat, wide and…desert.

South Africa_Karoo_Drifters lodge

The probability that tomorrow might not come drives us all into the bar, which also happens to be the only attraction in town. The hosts do their best to keep us entertained with music and drinks: we are indeed their only clients. Jake, the all-rounder of the business, is a very gifted guitar player. As he warms up his fingers to touch the strings, Takalani explodes in contagious laughter. We have a hard time finding the root cause.

“My brother, I have never seen a white man with a guitar before,” comes the answer to the riddle. Takalani is bent in half, laughing his head off, hitting the wooden bar with his palm. Jake used to play in a band, so he’s truly amazing and Takalani is caught into his music. A lot of supposedly famous SA songs happen. We obviously cannot know the texts. Takalani, however, is in perfect command of the lyrics and slightly less of himself, which gives way to a spectacular performance. Never before have we seen him in such an elevated state of mind. Nor will we ever again. Because I left my camera in the room.

One particular song excites Takalani above average. Come the refrain, the lyrics of which I have a hard time distinguishing, since it’s in Afrikaans, my guide gets uncontainably passionate and sings from the top of his lungs. There’s some passionate head moving involved, too. Clearly, this touches a sensitive chord with him. I focus to understand what it says, but all I get is something similar to “dia- rhee” repeated over a number of times. After a lot of research on the possible combinations of sounds that I thought I heard, I managed to find, back at home, the song that got my Takalani so out of himself.

Little did I know about the polemics that the song fuelled in South Africa and abroad. Here’s an interesting read that might shed some light and certainly some understanding on the “De la Rey” revolution: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/feb/26/music.southafrica

Glad that we made it till dark, I leave the team and go to bed, head torch on. The next day was a relaxing and a funny one. Relaxing because in the desert you can only become good at one thing and that is doing nothing and funny because that was how some of us looked like as a result of too much singing. As the evening was falling on the desert plain again, another show was being put on, this time at a distance.

As far as the eye can stretch, there’s nothing but sky and earth, a view occasionally dotted by hopping springboks and impalas. The wide screen of the sky makes room for several meteorological phenomena one next to the other, which we look at as if in front of a TV: on one half, we can see how the rain is actually pouring down and on the other the sun continues to shine on its blue backdrop. The gradation of colours creates an absolutely stunning visual effect. It almost overshadowed Takalani’s take on “De la Rey”.

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As for the lightning, I never knew that it could strike for so long and so often. For almost half an hour, we all played at catching the best one on camera.

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And after a rainy night, we were blessed with a bright day and the outline of the perfect rainbow. The quality of the light in the desert is divine:  backed up by the clear blue of the sky and reflected by the bright yellow of the sandy soil, it is manna for the photographers.

Time to put Karoo behind and go back to civilisation.South Africa_Karoo1

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