Location: 181 kilometers from Nelson Mandela Bay, on the N10 towards Cradock, in the Eastern Cape you’ll find Somerset East.
Date Visited: 13 – 15 July 2012 (winter)
Where we Stayed: On this trip we stayed in a beautifully renovated cottage in Paulet Street in the old part of the town. It featured everything we needed, three bedrooms, kitchen, lounge, dining room, bathroom & fire-place.
What we did: The Biltong Festival is an annual winter festival. We browsed the creative food & craft stalls, enjoyed great music by South African Artists, spent time talking & laughing in front of the fire-place & went snow hunting.
What we Drove: The Dodge Journey, complements of Maritime Motors
Recommendation: Somerset East is a beautiful little town with amazing architecture, nature, activities & people, often missed on the tourist-itinerary. It is the heart of what is known as the Blue Crane Route. On our weekend we spent time on very seasonal activities, but left with the resolve & conviction that this is a part of the Eastern Cape that we would love to explore.
Winter is biltong time in South Africa.
If you don’t know what ‘Biltong‘ is, it is a South African delicacy. You could describe it as narrow strips of dried meat, but that wouldn’t do it justice.
It is part of our culture.
It is a rich experience.
So when we heard the ‘Biltong Festival’ was coming up, we made plans to spend time with friends celebrating it.
The weather forecast wasn’t very favorable.
The worst winter rains of the season was expected.
Floods reminiscent of those experienced in 1968.
But we are the Traveling Tribe & if we had to cancel or postpone our plans every time the weather did not play along, we would never do any traveling.
Waiting for perfect weather is like waiting to save enough money so you can get married, or have children. One of those things people often do, which I could never understand.
How can you save enough money to get married?
Or have children?
As if it is something to be purchased?
On Friday we collected the perfect vehicle for this trip from Vaughan Robertson at Maritime Motors.
The Dodge Journey with its powerful 3.6 litre engine & luxurious interior.
Seven seats (heated for driver & front passenger).
Precisely what we needed to make this journey.
It was raining hard and on this Friday I was stuck with meetings & work which kept me busy till late afternoon.
Rather than braving the storms & floods as darkness fell, we decided to wait till early Saturday morning, then make the easy two-hour drive on well maintained black top.
It was still breakfast time when we arrived at Somerset East.
We booked in at our accommodation. Had a quick cup of coffee. Stretched our legs & then made our way to the festival.
The sounds of music beckoned us as we parked.
And the smell of roasting lamb.
We were hungry from the journey & found a spot to sit & eat & talk.
We devoured roosterkoek with jam & succulent lamb.
Alan, who joined us with his family, went biltong hunting & came back with sliced biltong & an arm full of coffee.
We pecked at the biltong while listening to the music & taking in the crowds.
A photographer came past, asking me who the people are I’m sharing a table with?
I make up a story of Alan being a celebrity psychologist & Tania a well-known designer.
It’s not too much of a story.
Tania’s designs have been featured in many design magazine’s & the design company she & her partner run do set the tone for innovation in creativity.
And Alan does have a daily radio show, has been on 702 & has some celebrities as coaching clients.
The photographer profusely takes pictures of our friends, greeting, talking & doing everything except ask for signatures.
Maddi & I watch from a safe distance.
Maddi, our 3-month old, youngest member of the Tribe, is a real people magnet.
Teenage girls come to greet her.
Hardened farmers & more refined business-men types all walk past, just a bit closer. So they can share a smile with her or touch a hand.
Amazing how babies attract people.
Probably not everyone.
I’m sure there is the grumpier of our kind who do not like babies, or children or ice-cream with chocolate sauce.
Magriet with beautiful big hair & a vivacious loud voice hugs me & Maddi all at the same time with a warm heart & big personality. Her bright red lips droop with wildly loving words. She stands close to me & Maddi. Right up against us, actually. Touching me & Maddi, both, with equal earnestness while telling us how she came to live in this little bit of world. How she goes to the ‘old people’ to do their hair & just loves children. Her warmth, her voracity for life is contagious.
We start browsing the stalls.
Tania with her keen eye for design discover three young ladies who create exquisite work from magazine pages & recycled plastic bottles & clay.
We resolve to see if we can’t help them bring their creations to Nelson Mandela Bay for the Homemaker’s Expo at the end of the month.
At Guru Girl‘s stall we each buy a happy hat.
She explains that it is a bit ridiculous & just wearing something like it lifts your spirits.
I feel it as I slip it on, the copper bell jingling on my shoulder.
The the kids want to do some exciting rides.
And we oblige.
And before we know the morning has dwindled into afternoon with early evening looming.
As well as a bit of drizzle.
We decide to head back to our cottage.
Do some supper, then come back to the festival for the headline show.
Zahara would be performing & we’ve not seen her live.
Alan gets the fire going.
I pour some wine.
Zuko & Tania adore the furniture & garden.
We play backgammon.
The kids play hide-and-seek.
And checkers & dominoes.
Then they go drawing on the road outside with colored chalk they found in a cupboard.
Alan & I page the newspaper.
The drizzle transition into rain, into thunderstorm.
We put more wood on the fire.
Transition from the lounge to the kitchen.
Alan fries the perfect steak.
Zuko & Tania do vegetables to match.
Share our dreams.
A bit of our disappointment.
A lot of our hope.
And for each other.
It is precious to have friends who dream great dreams on your behalf.
Expressing their desire for you to prosper in stories of a beautiful future.
It is precious when laughter shuns the loss of unmet expectations & a life consumed by unrealistic demands.
When burdens are shared.
Not through plaintive words, but rather through companionship.
The savouring of food.
The sharing of a fire’s warmth.
It is essential.
Without it life would be unbearable.
As we finish supper and seek out the fire & coffee, the children find their way to a game filled with exuberant laughter in one of the bedrooms.
Our phones buzz with reports from home about persistent rain, flooded roads & displaced people.
The rain did not give-up in Somerset East either.
Zahara had to do without us.
On facebook we see pictures of snow in Nieu Bethesda.
Our world is gripped by exquisite winter. Opportunity calls.
‘Let’s go snow hunting’, Tania suggests and we all agree without hesitation.
A new adventure suddenly waiting for us on the other side of dawn.
A quick breakfast is had at Hobson’s Choice Deli.
Then we head across Bruinjies Hoogte, through Pearston towards Karroo landscapes painted with crisp white.
In Graaff Reinet we fill-up the Dodge Journey & grab coffee. The children’s excitement is almost more than mine. There was the time, back in ’96 when Zuko & I traveled from Pietersburg to Bloemfontein, via Johannesburg, by train. Then we saw a world white with snow as the train slowly found its way to central South Africa, but being in the snow. Touching it. Feeling it. That is something I’ve not done.
There is a difference between being a spectator & being a participator.
An immense difference.
I prefer the latter.
At the petrol-station we meet another family who is snow hunting.
They’d driven from Nelson Mandela Bay, early that morning.
They want to be participators too.
On the other side of Graaff Reinet a que of cars greet us.
The road is closed.
Too much snow.
Half a metre deep.
Trucks already stuck & emergency services denying us entry to what we’d hoped to touch & feel & taste.
It seems nothing good comes easily.
We are resilient.
There is another road to Nieu Bethesda.
A less known one.
A gravel road which approaches the little village from another side.
We decide to go and see if it is accessable.
And just as we are about to give up a pick-up approaches from the Murraysburg side of town with a huge snowman on its bonnet.
Excitement explodes in the Dodge Journey.
We follow the road & on the border between the Eastern Cape & the Western Cape we find magnificent snow.
40 centimetres deep.
The snow hunters found it.
The children run.
A snowball fight ensues.
Pippa goes off to the side & starts making a snowman.
The others eventually join her.
Until I interrupt them with a snowball fight of my own.
Which was a mistake.
One adult is no match for a tribe of children when it comes to snowball fights.
Laughter glides over the open white plains.
We take turns with Maddi in the Journey.
The cold is too much for her.
But first she feels it.
Better to be a participator.
In snow hunting.
And in life.
It is dark when we get back to our homes.
The power is off.
The roads are flooded.
The radio is filled with reports of thousands of people displaced.
The calendar full with appointments & responsibilities.
Our hearts filled with hope & happiness.
Which cannot be found when we are alone.