ZA 8: Schwartburg Pass

A is up unusually early, and we are on the road up the valley not too long after the sun is.  It soon winds into a cool defile, towered over by the swirls of red sedimentary rock.  We climb up and up the road, built by African prisoners under Boer control.  (Later, I visit the Boer-run museum, and there is nothing about the workers – all about the white engineers and the bosses, but not one picture of the work being done.  This country, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission notwithstanding, still, like Germany, prefers to forget a lot of its past.)

Unbelievably in this treeless landscape, there is water, occasionally in the central riverbed we cross and recross, occasionally off a rock wall as we ess around a climbing curve.  Finally it opens up on the higher ridges.

This is the world the word ‘primeval’ defines, with its hidden middle word of ‘heave’ for the great tectonic forces that shaped it when all the land was just cocoa skim on the molten center of the planet. As it cooled, the skim thickened, water fell, laid down great sediments, which were piled upon pressure producing slates of shale, itself upended, and water worked again.  The folding is of giants; the air has ancient smells hidden in its dust.

In the desolate area near the top, we come upon a couple of new houses, Boer style – they must be a research station or something, no one could live out here.  In Switzerland it could be the last cattle chalet, but here there’s been nothing but bad dirt road for miles.


Just above is a picnic ground, but inexplicably it is littered by tree stumps with blackened roots.  How can this be, with no trees visible down thousands of feet of slope? Further investigation finds other sawed off stumps still in the ground – this was a stand of trees, and they have been cut down for lumber, I guess, and the stumps left to attest to this silly – doesn’t matter, black or white, this is sad and disheartening – waste of a desert landscape’s one copse of trees.  Later we come upon another, where some kind of underground ledge has backed up the water to make a good stand of thick trees, gone, nothing but stumps – even if they replant, it will be 100 years.


On the other side of the pass is a dramatic fall of scree, into a verdant panorama of lush farms up into the soft folds of the nearest hills, but the row upon row of these valleys stretching back, each bluer than the last – now it’s California: this is Sonoma writ large.


As we descend into the valley, which is more touristy than Prins Albert, we come across an animal farm.  The small trickle of water in the upper reaches have been harvested, ponds created, camels are there for riding, ponies, goats among the palms – the whole thing as lush and tacky as a Florida roadside attraction.  Who knows who’s running it now, but this is originally a Boer farm, carved out of what was as arid as the other side, now full of animals and prolific gardens surrounding a couple of solid Dutch houses.  We drop into a canyon again and are just as suddenly back in the dry chapparal, the sudden little vision of a Shangri-La hidden away within these sucked dry soils in these red folded mountains..

In the end, it was a Boer farmer who hiked up into those hills a couple of hundred years ago and set about making that spot into something beautiful.  Having come set against the Boers and the Afrikaaners, I have come to a grudging respect for their dedication to the land and conservation, if not for their recent forms of governmental control.

The other end is the small town of Oudtschoorn in the middle of the valley.  The kind of middle class security one wants to promote in South Africa (but not to live in, too provincial) – we stop for a drink and a stretch.  The parking attendant (they are self-appointed, but a regular service, even in this small town we saw three) asks if A is voting DA in the upcoming election. (Democratic Alliance is white Cape Town party, actually a pretty good chance for a sensible government, but this was the first black DA proponent I had seen).

A, intrigued, asked him why he was voting for DA. “We’ve got to get rid of the kaffirs” – in Afrikaans, this is more outlandish than our N-word, but of course the speaker is black, and continues: “Will you vote for the local candidate?”

“And who would that be?”

Tapping his reflective vest, “That would be me.”

On the way back via the roadway, we do pick up a hitchhiker, Mathies.  He is thumbing over 700 kliks / 500 miles to take a job in Kimberlee.  He has to be there by Monday to take up work as a security guard.  We get him 40 kliks shorter, down at the black end of main street, in the baking noonday sun.


I have oversimplified this whole situation in South Africa, completely eliding the distinction – one we do not make at home – between ‘black’ and ‘colored’.  Isaac is colored, even the parking attendant, as black as ever I have seen a man, is ‘colored’ – mixed race.  In the US, we have just elected a mulatto – half-white, half-black – but there was never any question that he was anything other than ‘black’ to us.  This man has every intention, based on his words, of governing from the center right (by any European standard), but it is assumed that because he is black, he is just waiting to take us to the political left.  I don’t think so, and I wish we could get around these stereotypes to begin to look at people.

Isaac is a colored man with blue eyes (working for A, an Egyptian with blue eyes).  Barack has dark eyes and a white education.  As the aspiring Southern white politician said, “I may have white skin, but inside my heart is as black as yours.”

One Response to “ZA 8: Schwartburg Pass”

  1. Deborah Serrano Says:

    Hi Tom, I’ve been enjoying reading about your travels in South Africa. I wonder if you’ve heard of The Owl House, Nieu Bethesda, South Africa, the home of an outsider artist named Helen Martins? In January I saw a play by Athol Fugard called Road to Mecca which dramatized her life and her life’s work in the context of the peculiarities of white colonial culture in S. Africa. We grew up in a very white world. I remember how upset my Mississippi grandmother was to learn that my room mate at Northfield was a “colored” girl – (who has since gone from accomplishment to accomplishment and is now on the Board of Trustees at NMH).

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