The road less taken

2017-02-05 05:58
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Early One Sunday Morning I Decided to Step out and Find South Africa by Luke Alfred

Tafelberg

240 pages

R195 at takealot.com

This engaging travel book follows in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson in its exploration of the countryside, in this case South Africa’s, and some of its lesser-known byways, in the hope, the author says, “that such walks would tell me something interesting about my sometimes tortured country”.

Luke Alfred gives a description of each of his walks at the beginning of each chapter, and moves between a suburban stroll from Hope Road in Mountain View to Modderfontein, Johannesburg, to the Eastern Cape, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and Marico in North West. Some of the journeys are more successful than others. Operating on the same sort of basis as travel writer Paul Theroux, Alfred takes care to meet the locals and relates his interactions to add colour and some historical background.

The beauty of the book is that it can be dipped into at intervals, as each chapter stands on its own within the overarching narrative of the discovery of little-known parts of South Africa, or just parts that appeal to Alfred. Each journey is located in its social milieu and the historical or literary setting is mentioned to add poignancy.

So, on the walk from Carisbrooke via Stainton to Ixopo – about 12km – we hear about one of the area’s most famous forebears, Alan Paton. The opening sequence of his 1948 novel – Cry, the Beloved Country – is set at Carisbrooke siding and Alfred remarks that “even today, the hills beyond the meagre siding remain softly inviting, mildly green after poor summer rains, forever rolling”. He muses on the character of the Reverend Stephen Khumalo, setting off from this very siding in a narrow-gauge train before boarding the “midnight thunder” to Johannesburg.

Alfred is best when describing his physical surroundings, perhaps less successful in some of the detours he takes into ontological discussions of truth and lies, for instance in his discussion of Paton’s novel. He is much better when he describes the “rural poor, still walking the gravel roads that spun through the hills, spending long hours waiting in the sun for the inter-town taxis, and although they were now their own bosses, black workers still felled the forests”.

The excursion from Museum Africa, Newtown to the Hindu Crematorium – about 2.5km – is not a long walk, but is a chapter filled with interest and reminders of that first inveterate traveller, Gandhi. For him, “there is always a journey, often a walk or a march”. We are reminded that while living in Troyeville, Gandhi walked the 6km to and from his office. While Gandhi was one of the city’s first activists, there were many other “firsts” on this walk: the first barber shop and shaving saloon was opened in 1887 at 58 Commissioner Street, a stone’s throw from the first butchery, Morkel’s, on the corner of Bree Street and Marshall Square, and the first horse-drawn tram became operational in 1891.

Early One Sunday Morning is an interesting mix of personal observation and analyses, history and anecdotal tales, beautiful descriptions of physical surroundings and philosophical musings on life and loss. We also find out all about Alfred’s family in this book – his wife, his sons, his late mother and his father, aged 79, who loves old Johannesburg in a “soulful, deeply magnanimous way”. The mix is an unusual one, but the mood is thoughtful and one feels after reading it as if one has had a long Sunday lunch discussing the issues of the day and all the ramifications of the country. Not a bad way for a book about rambling through
South Africa to end.


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