Great Trek

We’ve been in Prince Albert in the Little Karoo – 400k from Cape Town and 40k from the main road.

This is Afrikaaner country – part of the vast, dry interior of South Africa.  The Afrikaaners tired of the English settlers of the Cape, left them sipping their sundowners and took their rigorous approach to religion and culture out into the empty wilderness in the Great Trek of 1838 – 15000 of them in all.  The English, one suspects, were probably glad to see them go.  Until they found gold and diamonds.

Prince Albert sits just the far side of the mountains from the Garden Route – across 40 kilometres of the Swartberg Pass – precipitous and unsurfaced.  It’s a sort of model village of Cape Dutch architecture – laid out like a town in the American mid-west.  As the Rough Guide says, the silver spire of the Kerk reaches up into the endless blue sky.  For some reason – surely not love of the British Crown – the residents decided to name their town after Albert.  Queen Victoria responded by sending them a copy of Albert’s published speeches and writings – a work of such stultifying boredom that they put it in a glass case in the museum where it has remained ever since.

The charm of this place is the population of significant people and eccentrics – and sometimes both at the same time – who have chosen to live here.  We decided to give Cannibal’s Restaurant a miss and settled for the Karoo Kombuis – bring your own wine.  It’s run by a group of former staff of South African Airways – now probably slightly more wide-bodied than they were.  For the past 8 years, they have only had three items on the menu.  If you can’t choose, you can have all three.  Dinner for two – 186 Rand.

Meanwhile, back where we were staying – a beautiful house – we could discuss politics and world issues with our host and with the charming German Professor of Microbiology and his wife who were staying.  I tend to see life in fairly broad sweeps – his expertise has been in discovering and classifying microbes which can exist at temperatures above boiling point.  And not all ivory tower stuff either – he spent some time on a North Sea oil rig as part of his research.

Poverty not so much ‘in your face’ here – but it is still the subtext of every conversation here.  It’s the fear that the growing lawlessness and criminality which grows from the desperation of the poor will overwhelm this country before it has had a chance to solve its problems.  Of which more another day.