We braced ourselves for the eleven hour road trip across the country from the Eastern Cape to Boksburg in Gauteng. ‘Brace’ is the operative word for, until one reaches the flat Free State roads, one has to dodge one pothole after another – in one particularly bad section of the road we came across a large hand-painted sign warning motorists of a BIG POTHOLE that stretched dangerously across the road ahead!
A small herd of cows were grazing peacefully in an open park of our suburb when we set off on our journey shortly after six in the morning.
The narrow, potholed tar road wound out of our valley, twisting and turning ever upwards, taking us through troughs between steep hills while cutting its way perilously through the side of them. Itwould gradually flatten out for a stretch then provide an undulating ride up and down the folds of the landscape. For much of this early section there is no verge to speak of. Instead, the road is flanked by tall grass, clumps of blue flowering Plumbago, and stands of spekboom or scrubby bushes of Acacia karoo. In several places a perilous precipice is separated from the edge of the road only by stones or grass – no safety barriers or rails in this part of the Eastern Cape!
The sun rose as we were winding up the hills, highlighting the tall wooden poles of the first of many game fences we would come across, some early blooming aloes, the ripening fruit of the ubiquitous prickly pears, and the interesting shapes of cabbage trees – many of which are in bloom. As we drove up the steep, winding, Hellspoort Pass, we came across small troops of baboons ambling across the road and vervet monkeys sunning themselves from every vantage point, be it a rock, a fence post, or a tree.
The sky clouded over as the landscape flattened out benignly en route to Bedford. We passed the entrances to several farms, some of which were names Dikkop, Dikkop Flats, Salisbury Plain and Goba’s Hope.
A herd of springbuck stretched across a grassy plain as the road descended towards Carlisle Bridge. This once thriving farmer’s club, now lying in a broken ruin, used to boast tennis courts, a cricket pitch and a friendly brick clubhouse. In a sense this epitomises the breaking up of close-knit farming communities as farms have become absorbed into the myriad private game reserves, nature reserves and hunting lodges in the area, causing people to move away.
The open, grassy veld was livened up with splashes of yellow flowers here and there. We spotted herds of blesbuck, hartebeest and zebra grazing behind tall, trim game fences. On the opposite side of the road farmland stretched to the horizon behind a tired-looking, slack, rusty fence – the only barrier for the goats, sheep or cattle grazing in the veld.
An albino springbuck stood out among a herd of normal coloured ones on a farm near Bedford. A little further on a duiker paused on the verge of the road to observe our approach before turning to run into the veld in the opposite direction.Swallows were gathering on telephone lines, perhaps waiting for that mysterious signal that will send them on their migratory journey northwards.
To our relief, the surface of the road improved on the way towards Cradock along the N10. Some of the farm names we passed along this stretch of the road included Uitsig, Mount Prosper, Daggaboer, and Voordag.Game farms gave way to maize, lucerne, cattle and sheep farming. Road signs, however, continued to warn of the danger of wild animals, especially kudu, along the road. This is particularly true of the crepuscular times of the day.
Having passed through Cradock, we found !Gariep Dam a good place to stop for a leg stretch. I watched several birds there, drinking from the drips coming from an overhead irrigation hose. These included Cape White-eyes and Redeyed Bulbuls.
The dam itself twinkled in the heat of the bright sunshine.
It was on the N1 towards Bloemfontein that we began experiencing a build-up of traffic – especially large haulage trucks. Closer to Gauteng the more cars, trucks, boats, caravans and trailers jostled for positions (at speed) on the highway. In sharp contrast, it was a delight to see communities of mud swallow nests clinging to the undersides of several bridges that cross the highway at various intervals.
Having seen large herds of cattle in the open grasslands near Bloemfontein, once we were through Kroonstad we saw vast lands of maize, sunflowers and what looked like groundnuts. More cattle country followed. Some early cosmos flowers made their appearance in patches along the road verges.
We entered Gauteng just before four o’clock in the afternoon, the roads now filled with busy, fast-moving traffic that required more focus than any other attractions there may have been in the countryside. A number of isolated thundershowers were easily seen in the distance though – so typical of the Highveld weather. An hour later saw us arriving in Boksburg at last. A shower of rain had sweetened the air and the clouds lifted to make way for the sunset at the end of a long day.
It isn’t easy watching birds whilst on a journey such as this, with no time to dawdle. Nonetheless, the birds I could identify in passing were:
Cape glossy starling
Greater double-collared sunbird
Pale chanting goshawk
Whitebrowed sparrow weaver