Up early in Skukuza, we packed up the Landcruiser and brewed coffee for the road, wondering whether we should go for one last morning drive, but there would have been no way to justify a breakdown anywhere else than on the road home. Our last animal sighting was a family of warthogs hanging out by a stop sign. “That way to civilization,” they seemed to be saying, “Do come and visit us again soon. Oink.”
We drove a few kilometers to the Paul Kruger Gate and, crossing back over cattle grid, we buckled up, stepped on the gas and left the park behind, looking for a peaceful spot to have breakfast at.
The road shadowed the park’s boundary and led to Hazyview, home to a Toyota dealership we had spoken to on the phone. But the plan was now to drive as steadily as possible, with minimal stops and our fingers crossed. From Hazyview, a high-traffic local road took us dangerously fast to White River and then Nelspruit. There were people everywhere and we had to watch the side of the road carefully for pedestrians. This was a major fruit producing area and orchards covered hill after hill.
Not having found a single rest area or picnic place, we stopped at a rather large mall in Nelspruit and, defeated, parked in the shade of a tree to have our rusks and coffee. Many people were wearing the famous green and gold jersey of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. We wondered if a game had just been played on TV, despite the early hour.
Back on the road, traffic increased as we crossed the agglomeration. A large stadium appeared in the distance. As we were exiting town, the flow of traffic converged to an exit on our left, and then we were in the clear. Alone in our direction, we were now facing an uninterrupted line of cars coming our way and we realized that a big rugby game at the Mbonbela Stadium was attracting all those people and explained the jerseys.
We drove relentlessly, stopping once more at the strange Alzu gas station on N1, and once more finding two of the smallest dogs ever, staring at the buffaloes. The weather was definitely clearer than on our way in, but still the horizon lay heavy in smoky sorrow.
Johannesburg was negotiated as swiftly as possible, and without problems. Driving through the city on a peripheral artery without any intention of stopping is very much like surfing, I would assume. You catch a wave, match your speed to its, and ride as far as it will take you.
South of the metropolis, millions of shacks waved us goodbye as we slashed our high-way through the still agony of townships.
We were going to overnight at the Zoutspruit farm outside of Kroonstad. Pressing on, we honed in to the coordinates which my tablet’s GPS had already acquired from its database of Points of Interest. Seldom stopping to keep the momentum up, we took pictures from the road as much nothingness flew by.
Exiting the N1 on a sharp left, we drove down a long dirt road into vast fields. It was late afternoon. A right at the end, cows on the side, a few rudimentary barracks, no one in sight. A gate, an alley leading to a gigantic tree and a couple of low lying houses. We parked under a canopy and got out, stretching. The air smelled like the countryside should, the temperature was mild. A man appeared from within the house. He was wearing a heavy winter jacket and introduced himself as François.
“Ek is Marie Viljoen,” said Marie in Afrikaans, shaking his hand, “en dit is my man.” This is my man. It’s so paleolithic it makes me smile inwardly every time.
He went straight to the point and led us to a small adjacent house looking like an old stable, partitioned and converted into rooms, a few doors opening straight onto the courtyard. The middle one was ours; he pushed the unlocked door open and let us in. The inside was cozy, one long room with a large bathtub at the end, a small window opening onto the fields at the back.
The man briefly showed us around, switching to a slightly hesitant English for my benefit, then asked if we were having dinner. Marie confirmed—she had actually arranged by email for us to have chicken pie, the choices having been bobotie or chicken pie, period. Much like an airline menu.
François then delivered the punch line. Dinner would not be ready anytime soon, he warned us. Tonight was the rugby game. It was being watched on TV. Nothing would happen until seven or seven thirty. Would that be alright?
No problem, we said, biting our tongues. So our host welcomed us again and excused himself. We looked at each other, then at my watch. We were tired, hungry, and it was five o’clock.
We unpacked the Landcruiser getting what we needed for the night, then decided to go for a walk to kill time. There was a fenced semi-forested field behind the house with various species of bokkies, which our host would later confirm were destined to be shot and eaten. We headed back up the dirt road towards the cows, who showed polite interest in us. There still was not a soul in sight. A lone bull was bellowing in a faraway field, longing for company. To the east, the sky had painted itself a frown in a palette of pinks.
We did not last long and came back to our room early. There were no cooking possibilities or we might have skipped the farm dinner. I made instant coffee in a weak effort to wake myself up. A major flaw of the room’s design soon was revealed. The single-room stable conversion plan had not bothered with a separate bathroom and privacy was non-existent. We lay down on the bed, noticing an electric blanket and a heating wall plate, and nearly fell asleep.
At seven sharp, we got dressed and were soon ready to go, but I first went out to investigate whether rugby had ended. The courtyard was dark and not much light shone from the main house, but walking around the corner, I found a small pool and windows into a large dining room. A round table was setup with at least eight covers. I wondered how many people could be staying at the farm since we had seen no one. François was busy in the kitchen. I walked in and asked if we were too early. “No, no,” he said, “come on in.” I replied I’d get Marie and would be back.
A huge dog met me by the Landcruiser. Much taller than a lab but with similar looks, black and fierce looking, it came straight at me, sniffed my leg, and turned out to be one of those beasts Marcel Pagnol described so well as being “enragé d’amour”, rabid with love.
A few minutes later, our host greeted us inside and said he was finishing dinner. He asked if we would like something to drink. There was, he said, sherry and beer. Hesitating only a second, Marie opted for a glass of sherry and I, a beer. She was looking around her with what I sensed was a mix of puzzlement and unease. François was switching back and forth between Afrikaans and English and I did my best to keep up.
A table against a wall already contained various large dishes, buffet style. Our host said he was cooking mutton shoulder. Chicken pie was never mentioned. We still had not seen another living soul on the farm apart from him. I politely inquired about the rugby game and it turned out the Springboks had won against Scotland, but he wasn’t happy about the game. We were invited to sit at the table. Unsure of what the seating arrangement would be, we chose seats and I asked politely if he or others would be joining us for dinner. He said he would.
We had wondered whether to bring wine to dinner and concluded against it, thinking it probably would be provided. But sherry and beer turned out to be the only beverages available for dinner, along with Fanta and milk, so we accepted a second round. We helped ourselves to the hot dishes. With the meat were potatoes cooked in mutton fat, sweet potatoes, rice, vegetables and a few other things I forgot.
François eventually helped himself to a plate of food and sat opposite us. He was still wearing his jacket and started eating unceremoniously. We had by then concluded nobody else would join us and the table must have remained set for a full house all the time. The conversation was awkward. We did try our best, asking questions about occupancy. They had been very busy, but tonight was quiet.
The dogs were introduced to us. The large one I had met outside was called Raka. He was a cross of labrador and boerbul. François described him as “a freak”. He explained the dog had been the runt, raised on colostrum, a cow’s first milk, and had grown out of control. He was a failure as a guard dog because he was so loving. Another very small dog sat in a basket on a small chair. Named Daisy, she was the house dog and while she was not allowed to beg, she got her share of meat.
Eventually, after a dessert that called itself bread pudding but wasn’t, we said good night while arranging for a seven o’clock breakfast. We would have liked earlier but it was not possible.
The night had turned cold. We slept with the blanket plugged in.
In the morning, we packed up the Landcruiser and emptied the room even before our scheduled breakfast so that we could hit the road as soon as fed. We walked into the large dining room and found a black lady cooking breakfast. François was nowhere in sight yet. The Sesotho-speaking cook was rather silent as is unfortunately often the case when colors are involved, so we sat down at a smaller table. Our host eventually showed up and invited us to help ourselves to breakfast, served buffet-style once again, with the exception of eggs that were ordered to our liking.
Encouraged to feed Daisy, but only in her basket, Marie gave her a piece of sausage. François appeared disapproving of the small portion and turning around, he fed her an entire boerewors. I was unable to grasp the subtleties of the situation but sensed Marie’s extreme discomfort and assumed that his attitude somehow did not fit the picture. We had not felt at ease a single moment since our arrival. Were we too complicated to appreciate simple things or was the place just off?
François asked if I had ever had krummelpap, or crumbly maize porridge, and he strongly encouraged me to try it. I asked how to accommodate it and he said it could be eaten by itself, or even with gravy to accompany the boerewors and eggs. Yes, there was boerewors for breakfast. Civilization prevails. When I came back to the table, having helped myself to some krummelpap and poured gravy over it as instructed, François was shocked and took control. He discarded my plate and served me a normal ration of it with milk and sugar, obviously remorseful of his own extreme advice.
It didn’t taste half bad. We initiated a hesitant conversation as before, and got him to talk about his cows. Soon, he was more lively and milk became the center of our chatter. We tasted it and asked many questions about production, volume, collection methods, schedules, cost and what the local market was like, and other things one cannot ask when buying a jug of milk at a Brooklyn grocery store.
Eventually, François ran out of adjectives and disappeared in the adjacent open-air room. He came back carrying a large plastic bucket full of smooth, unctuous whitish liquid. It was his milk. Raw, unpasteurized, unbleached, unprocessed, unbottled and unmessed-with milk, straight out of a cow, and kept in a fridge for daily consumption. He handled the bucket with reverence. It might have been plastic but this was the 21st century and plastic was all around. This was a practical farm, not a politically correct one.
Still. The substance, which he showed us with the manner of an archaeologist revealing his treasure map for the first time, was his white, liquid gold.
We had finally found an anchor point in an otherwise rather disconcerting environment. The wife had never materialized. The farm appeared devoid of activity. An enormous failed guard dog and tiny doll-like one were eating breakfast boerevors with us. The winning Springboks had delayed last night’s dinner. We had slept under an electric blanket in a reconverted stable next to a field where people shot antelopes for sport. A dim warning orange light had glowed ominously for thousands of kilometers as we slowly headed this way through predators and wild flowers. We felt like fish dropped out of the bowl.
Yet gluing it all together, fluid cement constructing an otherwise puzzling reality, François’ milk had appeared in a plastic bucket and we now thought we understood.
Maybe it was that simple after all. The man just loved his milk.
«Slingshot to Kruger» Series
Want to read the entire series of stories? Start here
Already reading sequentially?
Previous story: Slingshot to Kruger, Part 9 – False Alarm on the Exit Road to Skukuza
Next story: Slingshot to Kruger, Part 11 – Lion Roar on a Quiet Karoo Evening
Marie’s recount: Kruger National Park