I wasn't happy locking up my home on the wild West Coast and leaving my
comfort zone at 5 on that midwinter morning. I took a deep breath of the fresh,
freezing sea air, and then another, as I didn't know how long it would be
before I'd smell it again.
Kelsey was happily ensconced with my nephew Charlie and his wife Lindsay and their brood of young children, who were ecstatic at the thought of looking after her. (She turned out to be so happy with Charlie's family that I didn't have the heart to reclaim her on my return, and now she almost hides when she sees me in fear that I'm going to take her back!)
Crying, I climbed into Tracy, turned the ignition key, patted her dashboard and said, 'Let's go.' First stop was a very rainy Cape Town, to collect Zambi. I felt she was the bravest – and the bossiest, which I'd need to keep me from making a U-turn for home, which, even before I left, was tempting.
Unlike me, Zambi was excited about the trip ahead, and she kept trying to buck me up.
'Come on, Mum! This was your idea!'
But I just kept saying, 'I want to go home.' I was miserable.
As we battled our way through the city in the downpour, my tears and the rain beating on the windscreen obscured my view so badly that I found myself driving over the pavement at one stage. Imagine, I thought, if a cop jumped out from behind a bush and gave me a ticket? He could stop me from driving on. He could save me from the terror of driving up Africa through nine unknown countries.
Slowly but surely, however, as the kilometres ticked past, I started making peace with the journey. The Hex River mountains, about an hour out of Cape Town, were my emotional turning point: when I saw those majestic snow-capped peaks, I was able to take a breath and settle in for the long haul. A shining rainbow showed us the way: it felt like a sign for me that, yes, I was doing the right thing. My pot of gold lay in Cairo. And to add to the good omens, lo and behold, there was a Maersk container on the back of a huge truck driving next to us up the N1.
Tracy flew along like a bird, without a moment's grumble. In Beaufort West, Zambi and I had the first of what would turn out to be an endless string of meet-and-greets across the length of the continent, when we bumped into two people from my church in Darling.
Seven hundred kilometres later, we pulled into the small farming town of Britstown in the Northern Cape. In the heart of the central Karoo, Britstown has the distinction of being located exactly halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg. We made our way to Kambro
Accommodation and Farmstall, about 20 kays outside the town, where Katherine had booked us into a chalet for the night. It was cold and I was tired, and in Tracy's jampacked interior I couldn't find the red bag that contained my sleeping pills.
'Bugger!' Zambi said, grinning. 'Now I'm going to have to sing lullabies all night!'
But the sense of freedom was wonderful. The Karoo has always been one of my favourite places, with its space and the silence and the beauty in the dryness, and its pepper trees.
Zambi and I spent that first night surrounded by my birthday cards, under a crisp Karoo sky, eating Karoo lamb chops. What better way is there to spend your 80th birthday?
Britstown to Johannesburg via Kimberley, 14 June 2017
Kimberley shocked me in that it had grown so much. Sure, I'd last been there on my way down from Johannesburg to Cape Town almost 20 years previously, when my late partner, Brookie, and I had bought the house in Jakkalsfontein and made the move south.
I'd got divorced some 10 years before I met Brookie, on a blind date. What especially attracted me to him was that he kept bees, which have always fascinated me with their hard work and loyalty to their queen.
By the time Brookie and I decided to move to the Cape West Coast, my kids had grown up and got on with their own lives. My elder sister, Sue, and her husband, Bert, were living in Darling, and I wanted to be close to her. I told myself it was also because I was reaching retirement age, and wanted to slow down, but as it turned out, I continued working for the next eight or so years, flying regularly between Cape Town and Johannesburg, until I finally packed it in at the age of 70.
Anyway, back in the present, Zambi and I got well and truly lost in Kimberley – something that probably doesn't happen very often – so we hailed a chap in what we thought was a traffic-cop uniform. He told us to follow him, and led us on a wild-goose chase that turned out to be a marvellous tour of the city.
As we raced down a side street, in stitches with laughter, we saw a sign saying 'Gauteng'. We did a U-turn, leaving our 'guide', who I think was enjoying these two mad women following him to who knows where!
Just outside Kimberley was a dam that I remembered as always painted with flocks of pink flamingos, and I wasn't disappointed: there they were, up to their knees in water, scooping up their dinner. This inspired a 'Do you remember?' from Zambi, about her and her siblings' childhood.
My kids grew up in what was then a very rural and quiet Witkoppen, north of the city of Johannesburg. It was a place of rocky veld with small streams trickling, dotted with shrubs, trees and knee-high grasses, with guineafowl and porcupines roaming about. Here, my children had a wonderfully free and fun-filled childhood, surrounded by animals and with loads of choccie cake. The children rode their horses all over the countryside (where there are now houses and shopping centres), making birthday cakes for them from grated carrots. True bliss!
When my father died in the 1960s at the age of 58, he left me money to invest for my future. I blew it all on alterations to the house and building a natural swimming pool on our Witkoppen property. It was way over the top, with a cave filled with semiprecious stones and a waterfall and a huge slab of rock serving as an island in one of the shallow ends. The four children and their friends spent endless afternoons swimming and eating watermelon in that pool. Not once did I regret blowing my money on it – every shriek of laughter made every cent spent worthwhile, providing a lifetime of memories to build their dreams on.
Every Christmas Eve we'd chop down a huge pine tree to put up in our thatched house, and we'd decorate it. Then it was time for our Nativity play and Christmas dinner – my grandparents were German, so we always celebrated the German way, on Christmas Eve.
The Nativity play was something else. In the true spirit of sharing, each of my children had the chance as babies to play Jesus, in a proper manger swaddled in a tablecloth; then, when they got too big for that, they dressed up as angels or shepherds and, of course, all our animals took part as well. One year we had our pigs, donkeys, horses, cats and dogs, and the parrot, vervet monkeys, meerkats and bushbabies up in the rafters, all watching us sing 'Silent Night'!
* This is an extract from My African Conquest by Julia Albu, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.