Travel: Space odyssey under African skies

Unwilling to take the scenic but bland Garden Route to Cape Town, Juliet Clough drove across the vast Karoo scrublands - and found the emotional heart of South Africa

"YOU'LL BE taking the Garden Route, of course." Planning to drive westwards to Cape Town on our first trip across the tip of South Africa, we got used to this almost universal assumption. Our response, that we were all set instead to spend five days crossing the semi-desert scrublands of the Great and Little Karoo, met with dubious head-shakings from anyone connected with the tourism industry, but loud applause from old South Africa hands.

The coastal Garden Route, stretching green and groomed from Port Elizabeth to Mossel Bay, is the safe bet. But: "Overrated, ribbon development," said friends in South Africa. The grand and arid spaces of the Karoo, these confirmed, represented the true heartland, the blank page on which much of South Africa's literary experience is written.

In July, Grahamstown hosts what is claimed to be the world's largest arts festival after Edinburgh. Which is why we found ourselves, at the start of our journey, freezing on an upturned crate in a disused power station watching a vigorous theatrical reworking of a local scandal involving witchcraft and violent death.

Next day, the sun shone; the Victorian camera obscura turned its giant lens on a relaxed and animated scene, a charming 19th-century town centre, fizzing with university students, market stallholders, and shoppers of all colours. Among the urban centres we visited in South Africa, Grahamstown came across most positively as embodying the new-era optimism expressed by friends at Rhodes University, for whom the ending of apartheid had been "an enormous, grey weight lifted off our shoulders".

Touristically speaking, South Africa's recent isolation has left the little towns of the Karoo pickled in an engaging timewarp. It would be worth being a shopper in Grahamstown at any time of the year, for the genteel emporia on Market Square. Curly gilded lettering above the mahogany shelves of Grocott & Sherry's late-Victorian bookshop identified Prize Books, Wedding Presents, and Standard Works. In Birch's, money for baby wools and school blazers zipped along to the cashier's cage on an antiquated kind of overhead tram-wire.

Meals along our route had the same retro allure - well-boiled veg and plenty of HP sauce accompanying large stews and steaks with, as often as not, steamed pudding and custard to complete the nursery theme. A stout- hearted local refusal to recognise the realities of the Karoo winter often found us crouched, of an evening, over one-bar, electric fires, in temperatures which dipped below zero. By day, the July weather was warm, clear and brilliant. We got used to casting off layers.

Towards Cradock, the Karoo opened out, a seeming infinity of sparse scrub, its emptiness relieved by fringes of low hills under skies of almost drinkable blue. Gradually, after hour upon hour, mile upon mile of excellent, virtually deserted roads, the rhythm of its expanses took hold; shifts of light on the hills, the aloes' flaming candelabra spikes, and sightings of the odd ostrich or grazing springbok which gained unexpected depth. There are two ways of looking at the Karoo, said our hostess at Die Tuishuise in Cradock: "Either you dismiss it as a lot of nothing or, like me, you find its beauty strong, comforting, dramatic and mysterious."

This was the Karoo of The Story of an African Farm, South Africa's first ground-breaking novel, published in 1883. We stopped to see the modest house in Cradock where the author, Olive Schreiner, spent part of a hard youth. Schreiner, a free-thinker, campaigned for universal franchise in 1909, almost 90 years before it happened. Buttressed by at least four churches, one of them a copy of St Martin-in- the-Fields, and by all the narrow certainties of a 19th-century Afrikaaner dorp (village), Cradock struck us as a tough nursery for a free spirit.

Die Tuishuise had already engulfed 17 little buildings of the Schreiner period in Market Street, restoring frilly iron verandahs and scattering antiques around before moving on to the next. The result was less Victorian pastiche than a bracing dose of the real thing, complete with draughts, lethal wiring and a distant bathroom with an apoplectic cistern. Luckily, authenticity stretched to an open fire and hot water. Breakfast saw guests and waitresses alike muffled to the gills in scarves and overcoats.

More hours of pale gilt grassland, crisped by drought; more Karoo bushes and ashy thorn; more improbably shaped hills. Eventually, the midday glare exposed a little tin-roofed town of unpaved streets, lost in a dusty oasis of cypress, willows and slow windmills. Here, in Nieu Bethesda, Helen Martins, the real-life heroine of Athol Fugard's play, Journey to Mecca, turned her back on her neighbours to create her own self-contained universe.

We were mesmerised by the Owl House, where painted suns, copied from floor-polish tins, glared from the windows into poor, bare rooms, their walls brilliant with a surfacing of ground glass. Enigmatic statues thronged the yard: concrete owls, camels and temptresses with beer-bottle crinolines. Praying figures surged towards an empty shrine. Quotations from Omar Khayyam, woven in wire, petered out along the barricades. Jars of spare glass twinkled from the larder shelves beside rows of whiskery preserves.

Plying us with home-baked scones and copies of The Prophet, the owner of the coffee shop down the road was typical - he said - of the city drop- outs who give the tiny community its mild dash of new-ageism.

Fifty kilometres to the south, Graaff-Reinet seemed, by contrast, a model of venerability. We bought sun cream just for the pleasure of getting behind the bow-fronted windows of the mahogany-fitted pharmacy, an honourable addition to our roll of Great Karoo shops.

Graaff-Reinet dozed, lapped in calm, an elegant stage-set of a town, one of the oldest and most beautiful in the Eastern Cape. Errand boys pedalled past on squeaky bikes through wide streets lined with curvaceously- gabled houses. "What, on Sunday?" said a restaurant owner when we tried to book for dinner.

The 200-year old Drostdy, a hotel of real class, provided the most comfortable, stylish retreat of the trip. Built as the town magistrate's house, on generous Cape Dutch lines, it accommodated most of its guests in a cobbled lane of prettified former slave quarters. The view from the front closed with a building of similar elegance; Reinet House was home through most of the 19th century to the celebrated Scots minister, Andrew Murray, who must have found its broad yellow-wood floors and cool, high ceilings a far cry from the rigours of the average Aberdeenshire manse.

If anyone had warned me about the Swartberg Pass, I might still be cowering on the far side. The Meiringspoort approach proved a mere taster: Scotland with ostriches.

But the 1,585m Swartberg Pass was a surfer's drive. Sandstone layers heaved thousands of feet skywards and buckled into pink and grey swirls, loomed over, then under the narrow, untarred road. Conversation faltered as hairpin bends grew ever more fearsome. "Weren't you terrified?" I asked my husband after he had negotiated the 1,000m, roller-coaster descent into the Little Karoo. "No. But I was scared of becoming scared."

Throughout the Little Karoo's 350km length, broken patches of green spread towards rumpled hills, promising an end to the desert. Piled into donkey carts, black families trundled home from the fields to sleepy hamlets.

"Calitzdorp is rife with culture" a local brochure assured us, but, somehow, seeking it out seemed too much like work. We sat instead in a garden full of lemon trees, drinking sauvignon blanc and listening to cockcrow and the church clock chiming the quarters.

Vineyards lined the road between Calitzdorp and Robinson, a taste of the grown-up wine routes lying ahead, around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. A decanter of the local muscadet, left in our Montagu bedroom, just suited the mellow flavour of our last Karoo evening.

Hemmed in by mountains and apricot orchards, Montagu preserved its clutch of pretty Cape Dutch houses like a wax bouquet under a glass dome. If the Karoo was a literary landscape, then here we found an echo of EF Benson. Every second garden sprouted a lady in gloves, painting a watercolour, or a gentleman pruning the roses.

At Mimosa Lodge, a culinary star in a constellation of excellent guest houses, we spotted a comment in the visitors' book from a couple we knew. "Unforgettable. So we shall not forget."

FACT FILE

KAROO

HOW TO GET THERE

Juliet Clough travelled courtesy of South African Airways and Southern Africa Travel. Return flights from London to Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth, with an option of returning from Cape Town, plus seven days' car rental, cost from pounds 830. Return flights from London to Cape Town cost from pounds 581. South African Airways (tel: 0171-312 5000, or 0161-834 4436 for the north of England, Scotland and Ireland).

WHERE TO STAY

Hotels in the Karoo area start from around pounds 18 per person for b&b. A wide range of packages, including tailor-made itineraries, is offered by Southern Africa Travel, Guardian House, Borough Road, Godalming, Surrey GU7 2AE (tel:01483 419133).

FOOD AND DRINK

South Africa is excellent value. Meals seldom cost more than pounds 6 per person, including a bottle of good local wine.

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