I drove on over the Lydenburg pass, a winding but tarmacced road which led back to Sabie and I travelled the last few miles to Pilgrim’s Rest. After a cold shower and a read, I thought I would go down the bar before dinner. It was almost empty, a small barman in a new leather jacket served me a Castle with hardly a word and I sat listening to the conversation of a couple of “huntin’ and fishin’ Boers. Although they spoke in English, they had strong accents and I could not follow most of the conversation. I was about to finish my beer when the barman said “Weren’t you here last week”. I was taken aback and said I had never been to this part of the world. He said I looked just like a guy he knew from Cape Town that travelled up this way last week. Whether it was just an icebreaker or he genuinely had found my double, I have no idea. But we started talking. He was from Venda up north of Pilgrim’s Rest but lived in the small village with the smoke rising I had seen across the bridge the day before. He enjoyed working in the hotel , although there were many times when it was quiet like this that he thought he should be doing something else. I was travelling during the week, but the place would fill up at the weekends with the rich from Johannesburg and Pretoria. The east was the main direction of escape. Either they would rush down the main road to the border and spend it on the beach at Maputo in Mozambique or go into the park just before the border and dash around trying to find a lion. But the ones who wanted more tranquillity and the kind of open lifestyle many north Americans and northern Europeans want, would turn left just after Nelspruit and come into the Sabie region.
Like most in the tourist industry, and especially barmen and waiters, he was not wanting to continue this job for long and was looking to go up to Jo’burg to seek some more education and a job. I was horrified; how could he leave this beautiful part of the country to brave the expense, depravity and horrors of Get a Gun. But, as he explained, things were expensive in the country too, and apart from barman, there were few other jobs he could do. The city of Jo’burg still sounds like it is paved with gold when stuck three hundred miles away in the heart of the country.
Behind me a heavily made up woman, a young male tour guide and the tall cowboy – coach driver entered and gathered around a table. After a bit of idle chit chat, they invited me down from the bar for a beer and I learnt more about the French coach party. The girl was a rep from the company, out on a tour to see how they work in practice, the man was the tour guide; he was of French origin but had been born in the Seychelles. He had lived in South Africa for about two years and was just doing this to fill in some time before going back to college (everyone seemed to be transient in Pilgrim’s Rest). Even the coach driver, who despite his macho appearance was a talkative and funny guy. He was exhausted by the French trippers – they moaned about everything, they hated the food, the rooms were awful, even the scenery was not up to scratch. They had moaned to the coach driver, they had moaned to the rep, the tour guide and anyone else who would get in earshot. These guys had come in here to get a bit of peace and quiet before the buffet dinner. They had been on the road five days with these people, starting in Cape Town, going up Table Mountain, then to Stellensboch for the wine tasting, along the famed garden route along the coast. Up to Bloemfontein, through the Royal Natal Park and Durban for a swim, up to here. They were doing a day trip to Kruger Park and then back to Johannesburg for the last night, some shopping in Sandton and then a flight to Paris from Jan Smuts the following day – the whole bloody extent of the country in a week. I had come to realise that I had tried to travel too far in too short a time, but when I heard from the Coach Driver what their itinerary my movements seemed parochial. But I had felt I had seen something.
After two beers I can get along fine with almost anyone, so I really was not surprised when they invited me to tack on to the buffet in the restaurant laid on for the French. I was delighted but they had no right, and when the manageress of the hotel found me at the table and I explained I was being hosted in, she said with a sickly, lipstick ridden smile “oh that’s nice” in the most unpleasant way you could imagine. Well, they only saved me thirty rand or so, but it was the gesture that counted, and I don’t care how the French found their food, my dinner was delicious that night.
Pilgrim’s Rest was a wonderful place in the heart of the hills, very friendly staff, a lovely hotel , if a little overdone on the authenticity, and surrounded by fantastic countryside. But, like the tourists, I needed to move on and discover something new. How much damage we do to societies, environment and economies by dashing from one honey pot to another, I do not know, but my holiday in South Africa was coming to a close, and especially on hearing more about the Cape Province that I had not even touched, I realised I was only scratching the surface of this mighty country.