Research road-tripping alone: the phrase is life, endured and known. It’s also one of the best ways of getting away on the spur of the moment when the Academy has just gotten Too Much.
And so it was, early one Wednesday morning, that I hit the road and left the green hills of Natal for the Free State, research on the agenda, files and notebooks filled with nacky tarradiddles and preliminary readings in the boot, and one thought on my mind: to garner information about a man long-dead, and to gain some much-needed existentialist perspective on my own life.
I left Pietermaritzburg with Brandfort in the Free State as my ultimate destination, although my base would be Bloemfontein. One forgets how big South Africa is until one hits the road: this trip would take me through the Midlands of Natal and on a gentle left curve around the mountains of Lesotho into the Free State. Planning on sticking to the N3 in order to get there as quickly as possible, I also wanted to get a feel for how my research subject, John Weston (1873-1950) must have felt travelling through this region, so many years ago.
The N3 – the main national road to Johannesburg for us Natalians – is one I have travelled many times before, and there is some comfort in looking for one’s favourite roadside landmarks: the spurting fountains at the foot of the Wagendrift Dam wall (named after a drift through the Bushman’s River used by wagons on their way to the Witwaterstrand Goldfields), crossing the Tugela River, and Van Reenen’s Pass which climbs the Drakensberg Escarpment, eventually spitting one into the grasslands surrounding Harrismith. Van Reenen village is home to the Llandaff Oratory, the smallest consecrated Roman Catholic church in the southern hemisphere (it seats just eight), and I fleetingly wondered whether Weston ever visited there: was he a religious or spiritual man? And what would he think of it today, when it punts itself as the church who will “marry anybody, any time day or night. We are the Vegas of chapels” (sic)?
Stopping briefly in Harrismith at a small café proclaiming “Best Biltong!” (it wasn’t bad), I asked how long it would take me to get from there to Bloem on the N5. “I think about two hours,” said the gap-toothed youth. “Try our ostrich, Tannie!” An hour later I still hadn’t gotten to Kestell: the maniacal road works between Harrismith and Kestell took an extremely long time. (Actually, most main roads in the province have road works: legend has it the money for the roads is depleted). Kestell nestles in the foothills of the Rooiberge in the Maluti Mountains and is really beautiful: from the road you can see the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church designed by the famous architect Gerard Leendert Pieter Moerdijk, who produced over 90 South African churches and is best known for the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Sandstone gives the village a pinkish tinge. I consider a library stop, but the road is calling.
Mountains to the left of me, undulating hills to the right. The cosmos begins: verges and pools of pinks and whites, begging to be bunched. Then the golden fields of sunflowers, promising riches as they lift their heavy heads to the midday sun, and then the rolling mealie fields, tassels whispering in the wind. I stop under a willow tree, just to gaze, next to a grey-haired businessman on a Harley. He is looping from Cape Town around the Free State and back again: Mossel Bay, Knysna, Port Elizabeth, East London, Mthatha, Kokstad, Underberg, Mooi River, Harrismith, Bloemfontein, Kimberly, Vryburg, Upington, Pofadder, Springbok, Clanwilliam, Citrusdal – places he thunders through or sleeps in, depending on whim. “This is how I rediscover time,” he tells me. “This is when I think.”
I, too, am thinking. Bethlehem passes, Paul Roux announces antiques, Senekal blurs by. Winburg flashes past and I know Bloemfontein is not that far away. So many people have walked or driven these roads in so many ways for so many years; the road is straight, the fields stretch away into the horizon on either side, interrupted every so often by a small koppie. What drove Weston here?
I discover later large parts of the Free State and the Northern Cape provide perfect flying conditions, to the extent that international gliders flood the area from November to January each year. Weston was a pioneer of aviation in South Africa, founding the South African Aeronautical Society in 1911, as well as an engineer, farmer, soldier and philosopher. He took his family around the world on fanstastical caravan trips: “Our system of education is altogether wrong…Children are crammed to become glorious gramophones, and end in being failures in life because they cannot think.”
I think about Weston’s words, and the importance of critical and creative thought, in my strange accommodation in Bloemfontein. The hotel – with around fifty rooms – is virtually deserted. Outside decorations consist of plaster models of bovine skulls, and a koi pond completely fenced in and over with wire and large padlocks, and all dinners consist of indistinguishable stews. The electricity fails every evening and the generator doesn’t work: I continuously expect Norman Bates to knock at the door and offer me a candle.
It rains every day, and my foray into Brandfort begins with my taking the wrong turn-off and ending up lost in the middle of nowhere. I drive 40kms of dead straight dirt road without seeing a live being other than birds and one guinea fowl. Not even Google Maps will help me… my very own Hitchcock movie. The sense of melancholy is overwhelming. Suddenly a koppie appears on the horizon, and my navigational skills kick in: it has to be a town!
Indeed, it is Brandfort, an intriguing and very pretty tiny village with hidden depths. Everyone has a garden, and everyone seems to have a story. There have always been stories here: the Anglo-Boer war saw the British incarcerate both Afrikaans women and children (15,500 of them died here), and black people in (separate) concentration camps; ANC freedom fighter Winnie Mandela was exiled here in 1977 and remained for nine years; Crystal Palace F.C. midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi was born here; apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was schooled and matriculated here; former president CR “Blackie” Swart farmed here; and Cornelius van Gogh (Vincent’s baby brother) died in a field hospital here in 1900 after being captured by the British during the Anglo-Boer War. Local legend has it that six of Van Gogh’s paintings are somewhere in the village…
And, of course, there is Weston. He lived here for many years, in a house still standing: the Admiral John Weston House (locals call it the Vlieghuis). It is a restaurant and coffee shop now, quaint and colourful, and an excellent amateur museum. Weston’s workshop – the site of the first aeroplane assembled in Africa (1911) – has been rebuilt as it was burned down (allegedly by German sympathisers) in 1913. Turns out he moved to Brandfort because “it’s the right place in Africa to fly”, and because the silence appealed to him.
These first two days launched me on a research adventure: my interest is deep, and the narratives involved are extremely complex and very human. The rest of my Free State road trip was spent chatting to people, taking copious notes, and spending much time in archives and libraries, needing weeks, not a couple of days. Weston assembled his plane and took people flying over 100 years ago: he was a fascinating man by all accounts, and I’m hooked for all sorts of reasons. So, watch this space!