The road less travelled

2014-07-18 00:00

MAYBE it was in the name, but somewhere around Kommadagga I started to get a little paranoid.

I had just turned off the N10, where it runs between Cradock and Port Elizabeth, and was bouncing along a dirt track when ahead of me, a sudden scurry of wind lifted the dust from the surface, making a bank of pink fog. As I peered through the windscreen, I was overcome by this strange notion that I had somehow transcended the highway hyper-reality of speeding taxis and long-haulage trucks, and was now travelling down a ghost road, although, when I emerged from that cloud of swirling sand, the scenery appeared little changed from what had gone before — miles and miles of rough, ribbed, ungoverned country, tapering off towards infinity.

The road led on. I followed it. A white speck suddenly appeared on the horizon, got bigger and solidified through the heat shimmer.

Reaching an isolated crossroads, I pulled over onto the side, although with the amount of traffic I had seen that didn’t seem strictly necessary, and consulted my map. I was right. The spectre I had been chasing was indeed my destination.

Enfolded in a shallow, winding valley, with a commanding view over the surrounding plains, Ann’s Villa lies on the Karoo side of the old Suurberg Pass. Built in 1864, it once served as a stopover point for ox wagons full of romantics and day-dreamers heading upcountry, all hoping to coin it in the diamond fields of Kimberley.

The construction of the national highway some 20-odd kilometres to the north robbed it of its reason for existence, but it has somehow managed to survive its growing isolation and the march of time, preserved in its own little time capsule and not much changed from when it was originally built.

As the crow flies, it is not all that far from Port Elizabeth. And yet it feels remote.

As I crested the final rise I got my first proper view of it — a big, white-washed, double-storeyed Victorian house with a weather vane, upstairs balcony and a corrugated iron roof that glittered silver in the sunlight.

In its day, it must have been one of the most proudly posh buildings in the area, attracting a polyglot crowd of farmers, hunters, adventurers and fortune seekers, all gathering to slake their thirst and exchange gossip. Even now, one can feel the pride of its owners in their creation.

Besides the inn itself, there was a shop, post office, blacksmith, a barn that doubled as a dance hall and even a small school, which has now been colonised by an army of dassies. There is also a little hilltop graveyard, fenced off with barbed wire, whose individual graves lie untended.

As I carried my luggage up the front steps, my arm brushed against the tangled bush in which, the Zimbabwean caretaker cheerfully informed me, the resident boomslang lived, but not to worry “he’s very friendly”. I decided not to put it to the test.

Inside, the building had that unmistakeable, reassuring quality of an old, well-lived-in home. On the first-floor landing, there is a collection of black-and-white photos of the previous owners — the Websters, the Halls and the Shaws — which I stopped to peer at, hunting for clues in the shadows that would reveal what their lives must have been like. With their stiff body postures and pinned-on smiles, it was hard to judge, but one thing I knew for certain: right now, in 2014, it seemed like my kind of place — warm, tranquil and very laid-back.

The closet-sized rooms smell of dust and the lawns are covered in sheep droppings. Across the road, at the foot of the pass, there is a collection of old gum trees from which the doves call; beyond that lies wild country, mostly dry scrub land and aloes, rutted and rocky.

After the barbered green of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the tumbled surge of rocks, sand and shale served as a somewhat peremptory reminder of just what an arid place so much of South Africa is.

During the Boer War, Ann’s Villa was transformed into a hospital for wounded British troops and was allegedly raided for food by a commando led by Jan Smuts himself. Later on, it was advertised as a “health resort”, prompting one wit at the time to quip that you would need to be pretty healthy to survive its climate.

The pass that was its lifeblood is nowadays little used, although it takes in some classic South African scenery. At the top of it, I stopped and gazed back down over the road I had just travelled.

If the purpose of any journey is to keep progressing until you find somewhere worth getting to, I was where I was supposed to be.

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist.

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