|"Our nation has lost its greatest son," President Jacob Zuma
May former president Nelson Mandela Rest in peace
“MUM, Dad is using the number two word again,” my daughter shouts to my wife.
“What’s the problem now?” my wife asks.
“I just phoned Tony and he said the brake pads alone cost R2 500,” I grumble to her.
“Well, why don’t you just miss this meeting for the literary festival?” she asks.
Miss the planning meeting? How can the chief organiser of the festival not be present? What kind of example would that set?
Later that day, I send out an SOS to my network of friends asking if they know of anyone travelling to Cradock or Richmond in the Karoo. If I can arrange a lift to Cradock, the Antrobuses of Die Tuishuise will take me to Graaff-Reinet the next morning, and Peter Baker will pick me up from Graaff-Reinet.
“Let’s hope someone phones me, otherwise lots of people are going to be unhappy with me,” I tell my daughter.
“I’ll be happy if you stay at home. Why do I have to go to school?” she grumbles.
Early the next morning, my cellphone rings. A gentleman with a heavy Afrikaans accent says he is going that way. If I am prepared to share the travelling costs and the car with his Alsatian, I am more than welcome to join him, he says.
And, so, four days later in the summer of 2009, I leave for Cradock with a total stranger, a Mr Le Grange. We meet at Southgate Shopping Centre on our way to Richmond, Ixopo and Kokstad. The first two hours of a nine-hour journey.
When I arrive in the car park, my blood pressure begins to rise at the sight of Mr Le Grange’s car — an old Chevrolet, like the one my grandfather had … 30 years ago.
“Say hello to Bliksem,” Mr Le Grange says. “His bark is worse than his bite.”
I greet Bliksem who turns out to be a real teddy bear seated on a mountain of blankets on the back seat.
Halfway to Richmond, Mr Le Grange has to brake suddenly to avoid goats running on the road.
“Bliksemse …,” he mumbles something in Afrikaans under his breath .
The Chevy is going surprisingly well for such an old car. Things are not so good in the back seat for Bliksem, though. All the blankets have fallen off the seat .
If you can call that a seat. Mr Le Grange must have detected the horror on my face, and says : “Ag, don’t worry about that. I’ll tell you all about that after we pass Richmond,” as he fumbles nervously for something on the floor.
“Can I help you,” I ask worriedly, just in case Mr Le Grange veers off the road.
“Nee, I’m just looking for my biltong.” My mind is distracted from this last statement by a strange sound emanating from the back of the car. As I turn around, I see Bliksem tearing at the upholstery of the back seat. “Ag, just leave him,” Mr Le Grange says nervously as he bites rather frantically on his biltong. As we approach Richmond, Mr Le Grange and Bliksem seem to be getting more agitated. “What have I gotten myself into?” I think to myself.
As we leave Richmond, Bliksem settles down once more. Must be the tranquil countryside. This is the epitome of Africa, I think to myself on the road between Ixopo and Kokstad. Just up the road, I see an old VW Kombi that now functions as the local spaza shop. “Mr Le Grange, would you mind stopping so that I can take a photo of that VW upfront?” I ask. “Okay,” he answers agitatedly as he winds up his window, “but we have a long way to go.” When I get back into the car, man and dog are frantically biting on biltong and seat, respectively. By now, Bliksem has chewed off virtually the entire back seat. Mr Le Grange, however, is making little progress with the biltong. Must be a really tough piece.
Very close to Kokstad, I can bite my tongue no longer. “Mr Le Grange, why does Bliksem bite the seat?” I ask.
“Man,” he says in-between a few bites, “I will tell you the whole story after our turn-off to Tsolo.”
My daughter calls. “How far are you, Dad?
“He’s at Kokstad,” she shouts to my wife.
“I’ll talk to you later, girl.”
After filling up at Mount Currie, we resume our journey. I hate this stretch of road. The taxis are a law unto themselves. My co-travellers seem to concur. A biting frenzy if ever you saw one. Near Mount Frere, I hear a strange sound behind my ears. Bliksem has now started on my head rest. Luckily, the roads are quiet today, and the Chevy makes light work of the windy inclines. However, you still lose time in the towns.
“Why didn’t you take the N1?” I ask Mr Le Grange. “It would have taken us more or less the same time.”
“Son, I am heading to the platteland to die. This will be my last journey through Natal and the Eastern Cape. Bliksem and I wanted to see this green stretch of country one last time.”
“Are you sick,” I ask worriedly.
“Ag, no, nothing like that. We are just going to the Karoo to spend the autumn of our lives. My wife passed away a year ago. There’s nothing left for us here, so I thought I would return to the world in which I grew up. Besides … Ah, there’s our turn-off to Tsolo,” Mr Le Grange says as he puts his biltong away. Surprisingly, it seems no shorter than when he took it out.
What a beautiful part of the world. Scenery to take your breath away, this stretch of road between Maclear and Dordrecht. I am developing respect for this old Chevy. Goes as well as my car, minus all the creature comforts … and the back seat, of course.
“You know son, I was in the police force for almost 40 jirrs, Mr Le Grange says. Most of that time with the dog unit. Bliksem was my last dog. They let me keep him when I retired. Isn’t that right, ou man? You must be wondering why he bites that seat,” he says.
“Stress, my boy. Stress. Whenever he jumps into the car, his body is programmed to expect trouble. Highly sensitive creatures, dogs. What do you say in Afrikaans? Gespanne? Ja, that’s it. But do you notice how calm he is now? Now that die swart gevaar of Mount Frere, Mount Ayliff and Qumbu is behind us.
“Strange thing, that. He was trained to expect the black man, the bantu, the African — call him what you like — he was trained to see them as the enemy. Trained is not really the right word, man,”as he clicks his fingers. “Gekondisioneer, geprogrameer, you know what I’m trying to say? I named him Bliksem because whenever I shouted his name, it sent a shiver down the spine of the criminals. Ne, Bliksem. Man, you won’t believe the kak that went on in Richmond and the surrounding areas. Hot spot? Shit, that place was a bloody inferno. It was war, man, war,” he says, as he gets his biltong out.
“What I saw, Son, no man or dog should be subjected to. Have you ever seen a person being burnt alive? Man, you never forget that smell. The eyes. The helplessness as a crowd prevents you from getting to the ‘traitor’, his hands tied with barbed wire and a petrol-filled tyre around his neck and arms. Ja, that Paton bloke was right: Cry, The Beloved Country. That was Richmond for you in the eighties.”
The black necklace I think to myself. With white hands sometimes as puppet masters, we learnt through the TRC. The first victim of necklacing, according to the TRC, was a young girl, Maki Skosana. Worse still, pieces of broken glass were shoved up her vagina. “Ah, but your land is beautiful.” Paton’s words echo in my mind.
“But Bliksem knows he is entering new country. Only coloureds here. See how calm he is. Man, it has always fascinated me. How can they tell the difference? Bloody intelligent. Look at how he took to you. You have skin that would make a black man blush. But why does he not attack you? You explain that to me. Bloody intelligent.”
“Mr Le Grange, I won’t worry you again, but just look at that beautiful Dutch Reformed Church against that blue sky. I have to photograph it,” I say as we approach Dordrecht.
“Okay,” says Mr Le Grange. “Maybe Bliksem needs a toilet stop.”
“The Afrikaans author Hennie Aucamp lived in this region,” I say to Mr Le Grange. “On a farm called Rus Mijn Ziel.”
“Is that so?” asks Mr Le Grange. “What a lovely name for a farm,” he says to Bliksem as he gives him his hardly eaten piece of biltong. “Rus My Siel. Jaaaa.”
Time flies when you are in conversations like this. Molteno/Steynsburg on the R56 or Queenstown on the N6, says the board ahead. Steynsburg, birthplace of Paul Kruger, says Mr Le Grange.
“Is that so?” I ask.
“Ja, man, everyone knows that. Did they not teach you that in your fancy school?” he asks as he chooses the road to Queenstown.
“Where are you going to, Mr Le Grange?” I ask, changing the topic.
“I’ve decided to go back to Hofmeyr, the town in which I was born. Ja, I heard houses are going for a song there, so I bought myself one, and now Bliksem and I are going to settle down to a peaceful life.”
“Yes, I know Hofmeyr, named after Onze Jan,” I say proudly.
“Daarsy! Yes, I will just do some odds and ends to supplement my pension. I was thinking of starting an upholstery business there,” says Mr Le Grange as I almost choke on my Coke. “In my day, farmers never bought a new car until it was completely stukkend. I reckon there should be a few classics in Hofmeyr in need of a new seat or two.
“Besides, Bliksem has trained me well in the job of upholstery, ne, ou pel.
“And Cradock is just 60 kilometres away. So if I need a hospital, that’s not too far. And, there are only coloureds in Hofmeyr. So I can finally restore this Chevy to the way she was, without Bliksem chewing away at the back seat. And let the men walk past her and envy her beauty. It’s been a long time since she looked like the beaut she was the day I bought her. When I got married, this was our wedding car. It has taken us all over South Africa. Now she too must rest. But she must look beautiful in her last few years. We all are going to die in Hofmeyr. Ja, a man still needs something beautiful in his old age.”
As we approach Cradock, I am sad to leave my travel companions. My colleague Fanie was right, I think to myself. Dis gevaarlik om alleen te reis. Much better to travel in the company of others. Even with those who are about to sign off in that great guest book on Earth.
I wave goodbye to my fellow travellers. I say my hellos to Sandra and daughter Lisa Antrobus at Die Tuishuise. The phone rings as I open the door to Karoo Morning, my guesthouse for the night.
“Oh, I had a wonderful journey with Mr Le Grange.”
“Mr Le Crunchy?” my daughter laughs. “I can’t say that name. What was his first name?”
At that moment, it strikes me that I never got to know his first name.
But if I had to give him one?
“His name was Biltong le Grange. And his dog was Bliksem. From Hofmeyr Stofmeyr.”
• Winners in the True Stories of KZN competition will be announced in early December.
ABOUT THE WRITER
DARRYL David is the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in SA. He is the founder of South Africa’s only booktown in the Karoo (www.richmondnc.co.za ), as well as founder of four literary festivals, among them the Midlands Literary Festival in Howick. He is the co-author of 101 Country Churches in SA.