Sunrise is some hours away. Beside me, my travelling companion and closest friend is slumped in her seat, asleep – she’s never been a morning person. We are two young women in an overloaded car, following the national road north-east to see what we can see of the slab of land we call home: South Africa. We’ve been rolling on through the darkness for a time when we pass a fire. It’s caught in a vineyard: vivid funnels of flame swirl upwards with grey smoke in an otherwise black landscape. The scene is haunting – yet only I witness it, driving past in the pre-dawn while my friend sleeps. Encapsulated in a tin-can-like car, no sound but the road unwinding beneath the wheels, my eyes the only ones awake to see the world, I feel wild – I could go anywhere, set my sight on any beautiful scene I’ve ever wished to see. And that is exactly the plan.
The first day takes Claire and I through the winelands of the Western Cape, into the arid semi-desert of the Eastern Cape, where we stay the night in an off-the-beaten track town, Graaff-Reinet. It’s a pretty town with an over-abundance of B&Bs, so finding accommodation here was a matter of a quick Google-search before arriving. Apart from being a suitable distance away from Cape Town to stop for the first night, Graaff-Reinet is on our list for one reason: the Valley of Desolation (although our helpful land-lady seems to think that being South Africa’s biggest producer of cacti is Graaff-Reinet’s major draw card). The Valley of Desolation is a conservancy area, renowned for the rocky valley cutting across its side. You may wonder why a rocky valley would be an attraction in any place, let alone Graaff-Reinet, but you’ll stop wondering that when you stand at the valley’s ragged lip at dusk, peering down into a cathedral of stone, listening to wind sing in the cracks and birdcalls echoing up the walls to reach you. If you are a believer in the church of nature, the Valley of Desolation is a place you need to see.
One spiritual commune with the arid land, a delicious dinner at local restaurant Polka , and a night of stone-like sleep later, Claire and I are back in our little car (already beginning to smell ripe from the kilogram of sweet, dried apricots her grandmother gave us), chugging our way to Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein – a clean, friendly and inconsequential city – is on our route for two reasons. The first is that I have family there, who I’d like to visit and will put us up for a night for free (tip: take shameless advantage of offers of free accommodation when travelling on a budget). The second is that, being a large city, Bloemfontein is a useful place to stock up before venturing into the quieter parts of the eastern Free State, the first province of South Africa that we are set to stay awhile in and explore.
Our first stay is for three nights, in a picturesque town called Clarens. We opt to take the slow route there, leaving the national road to wind through the rising sand-stone hills that border Lesotho instead. A worthwhile stop along this route is The Cabin Farmstall & Deli, where we add some tasty farm treats to our peachy stock of padkos (literally: road food). Despite it being small (and unnecessarily cold in winter), Clarens keeps us busy. By busy, I mean we spend the better part of a day beer-tasting and gorging ourselves on platters of bread, cheese, pickles and cured meats at the Clarens Brewery – a woozy spot to while away a crisp afternoon. (It’s possible we stagger back to our hostel loaded down with boxes of brew, too!) The following day, recovered from our introduction to the local hops, we poke about Clarens’ astounding array of galleries, boutiques and craft shops, eventually collapsing at the Artichoke Restaurant, which offers perhaps the most spectacular view in town of the yellow and orange cliffs in which Clarens is nestled. It also has a bath-tub prominently displayed on its porch – which we naturally have to sit in while admiring said vista.
Leaving Clarens, we make the short hop over to the Golden Gate National Park, a reserve area in the Free State in which South Africa’s famous Drakensberg mountains begin, and a haven for hikers and twitchers alike. Because we are budget-travellers, we camp (a decision we come to bitterly regret the following morning when we wake up on frozen mattresses – seriously). Feeling self-righteously chuffed at our prime pitch directly beneath the sandstone buttress after which the park is named, we settle back into the car to drive a loop through the reserve. It is difficult to explain how beautiful this park is to someone who has not visited. The best I can do is to say that, despite the frozen-mattress incident, the evening we spend sat in our car, watching the sunset colours melt against a rolling expanse of sandstone and veld, sipping red wine, is soft and perfect. It is the moment I began to breathe the city out.
The first few days of any road trip are about letting go. It takes a little while for the city buzz to stop rattling about in your body, for the rhythms of the road to take hold of your bones, of your mind. Your busy thoughts need to unspool, to make space for what you are going to see and learn. As Claire and I rumble our way from wine-country to arid semi-desert to the rolling grasslands of the eastern Free State in the first few days, I think a lot over how this trip of ours might be measured. In the changing landscapes. In the borders we cross. In days (35), or kilometres (5000). In two girls, one Toyota Tazz. All of these are true, but as we sit in Golden Gate at the end of our first week and gaze across a blazing view that has always been there but which I’ve never seen before, I wonder if the real measure of this trip will not be in how much more we will learn to love this country, our country.