It was a pleasant enough trek around, but the early morning sunshine was deteriorating into a cooler haze. I drove into the hills to look for somewhere for lunch and came across Cranford’s with the hesitant and inexperienced waitress. Striking up a conversation with her was difficult as she seemed intent on asking whether everything was all right. The thunder clouds were gathering above, and as I drove away the first spots of rain fell. My next stop was at a mill. Scattered around the valleys were about twenty craft shops, many making their own wares. I had promised myself a good souvenir from S. Africa and found a little mat printed on both sides. Despite the tourist patter, people were reluctant to talk to me; this new industry was nervously finding its feet, and although it wanted the tourist trade, it was uncertain of how to take strangers, many of whom were critical of the regimes which these people had been part of. Truth and Reconciliation was at an embryonic stage between politicians and key players in the apartheid system, and in the wider community, people were very nervous of being blamed for being part of, or at least being agnostic to, what was acknowledged as an evil regime. I almost wanted to hug some of the people I met and say; it’s OK, we know the past, but you now have the chance to show you are different. But South Africans, of all shades, had a curious pride that found it difficult to look for support from outside their country. They had got along for so long on their own. The pent up tension I felt in that valley was all related to this.
I had planned to do some more walking in the afternoon in the hills, but the weather hovered between storm and drizzle. I eventually ended up at another cafe under the Drakensberg Escarpment and had a cream tea. The man running this place was more friendly; it seemed the further from the main road or city, the less affected people were by the problems of South Africa. Unfortunately our conversation was cut short by a rain shower. It quickly turned to drizzle and as I drove towards Nottingham Road the clouds made it a miserable dusk. After a few hours of driving through somewhere like Britain, I reached Nottingham Road, a most English of names, only to find a bunch of forty or so black workers, waiting for their lifts home after the end of their shift, and I was reminded that I was still in Africa.
I ambled down the old main road before reaching the motorway and rushed back to Hilton. The last hour was totally miserable, a thick drizzle that gave even this beautiful scenery a dark side.
Pietermaritzburg was a curious mix, compared to Jo’burg and Pretoria, it was a civilised, cultured city, but my trip to the Midlands, quite unwittingly, had exposed me to the same tensions that seemed to dominate this country. My last night was great fun, a meal in an Italian restaurant in Pietermaritzburg, meeting a whole bunch of people who were dynamic, enjoying the new freedom of South Africa, but wary that things were more expensive and potentially more difficult for the white population than before.
I headed north the next day, a wonderful drive up that main road to the top of the escarpment. The feeling of driving up and up almost continuously, and the bright sunshine after the storminess of the previous day was so refreshing. Probably for the first time in South Africa, I felt perfectly free of this under riding tension. But it was curious to be back among the wide open plains of the Orange State; after a few days in places like the west and north of England, I was back on the open prairies of the States. I headed into Harrismith and drove into its small centre. Kirsty had described a filling station in the centre of town where she would try and meet me. I saw it, but with my usual lack of confidence in directions, I had to make sure this was the right one, which made me drive right around the block and slowly kerb-crawl back onto the concrete of the station. Unfortunately a police car saw my actions and watched me as I pulled into a quiet corner of the station and stopped the engine. When looked on suspiciously I have no choice but to look suspicious, it must be in my genes. So I fiddled with the car, tried to look inconspicuously out of the car and failed, and prayed hard that Kirsty would turn up before these cops took me in. They drove off just before Kirsty turned up in the Bucky . We drove round to the Hertz rental next to the garage and I have regretfully dumped the vehicle off there – it had been a really nice car. We headed back along the road I had just come along, but as we reached the pine trees that mark the top of the escarpment, Kirsty turned off the main road and along the edge of the escarpment. We stopped for lunch at a rather exposed café on the edge of the Free State, and she brought me up to date with all the terrible things which were going on at her office. She said she shouldn’t really be here, and that there were too many things going on at the office, and that we would have to start real early on Monday to get her back to Jo’burg in time. Her tenseness was palpable, and my relaxedness taunted it; after a few days in Natal I was much more at ease, but the Gauteng girl was pent up. We headed south west, down into some grassy valleys still home to African communities, and once more I felt I was in something akin to the rest of the continent again. The road rose up a valley and faced a wall of mountain. Kirsty said this was the low Drakensberg, the smaller foothills. The high ridge was obscured by cloud, but she told me how awesome it was.