Escape from lockdown: Travelling in the time of the coronavirus
With #him, I have spent the past three weeks meandering 3,500km back and forth across the breadth of South Africa, with a mild jiggle to the north.
We take time out for these road trips every year, usually in spring to catch the fleeting flowers, although the main attraction is spending time with our son in Cape Town. A big part of the adventure is getting there and back, exploring places that we may see only once and touching base with special people. It’s slow travel in every sense.
This time, we were desperate to get on the road. I’ve never argued against the need for a lockdown to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, but the South African government chose coercion, placing the people, where the “invisible enemy” hid, under house arrest. Not very healthy, was it?
The big break
I felt caged and bombarded by official fear mongering, blame and panic. As soon as the powers lifted bans on leisure travel, we dashed to the Transkei Wild Coast and the village of Hogsback for weekend breaks. And we waited for the end of the ban on cross-province travel so we could get out for the big one.
I needed, really needed, to feel the wind in my hair and thrill in the new experiences that road tripping brings every single day. With each kilometre, the tension in my body and my head ebbed away. The feeling came back to my fingers and toes. The laughter started deep in my belly.
And I noticed people hugging, often and everywhere – not because they want to kill granny, but because they are human and need to hug. These are embraces without facial and skin contact, and they are precious.
Life goes on
Life, I was learning, goes on despite the coronavirus.
We travelled with an awareness of the virus, of course. Our cubby and bags housed a wardrobe of masks and hand sanitizers (also good to use when you want to shake hands).
Researchers know now that the virus is far less likely to spread outdoors. The nature of travel in South Africa keeps us safe from the virus: we enjoy our beautiful wide-open spaces, being out there.
After not eating out for most of the year, we went to a few restaurants, sitting outside when possible and at a bigger distance from others when it was not possible. That icy Cape south-easter and rain keeps even the most hardened indoors.
We did the same on the many wine farms we visited, doing tastings or sipping a glass outdoors. Many wine farms have such beautiful surroundings that you’d want to sit outdoors anyway.
The wine industry is, of course, one of the hardest hit by the government’s lockdown – it was not allowed to operate at all for a time. Sales were banned for weeks on end, twice, and they are still banned on weekends. I was/am more than delighted to support this industry, a national treasure that also provides livelihoods to around a million people and makes up a big chunk of GDP.
A woman on a wine farm told me that she was lucky to have a job during the lockdown as she could support family members who lost theirs (in the narrow definition of unemployment, South Africa lost 2.2 million jobs just in the second quarter of the year). At a wine co-op, a staff member told me of the battle to survive with shortened working hours and less pay. Everywhere, from the Karoo to the Overberg, we saw signs at restaurants and wineries: “Closed”.
A strangeness, for now
Over our three weeks of travelling, we stayed in nine accommodation establishments, and they all applied various levels of COVID-19 protocols. One person told me that she had no idea what she’d do with the forms where we recorded our temps and ticked a checklist of symptoms. Another warned that there would be no cleaning during our stay (“because coronavirus”), but it did not appear there was much of that before our stay; mould grew on picture frames. Those were aberrations; most were efficient and reassuring.
Likewise, almost all the people we met and saw wore masks. It’s a strange normal, for now at least. There seemed to be fewer people travelling like us – I guess because many are still staying home and/or are battered by the economic fallout of the continuing lockdown.
Solitary and busy
In Tulbagh, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, we wandered up and down the historic Church Street and soaked in the Cape vernacular architecture, much of it restored after the 1969 earthquake. We popped in more than once to the fabulous Church Street Kitchen Gardens. We sipped olive oil (yes, that’s what you do) at Oakhurst Olives and wine at several estates, most memorably among the art collection at Saronsberg. We ventured to nearby Wolseley, home to the Farmyard Honey Factory where a woman with laughing eyes helped us fill our basket with deliciousness and directed us to the watershed where the Breede and Berg rivers flow into both the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
And in most of these places, most of the time, we were the only visitors.
Yet it’s clear that people are itching to get out and about. In the Cedarberg, we could not believe the busyness of the “quiet and isolated” farm where we stayed. There was a constant flow of cars and people.
Venues and public spaces are filling up. We were lucky to get a table (outdoors) at the Clay Café in Hout Bay, Cape Town. Queues of cars waited at the Langebaan entrance of the West Coast National Park and picnic spots were full.
We jostled (at a distance) past streams of joggers and walkers at Table View and Bloubergstrand; this was within an hour of the earth shuddering and rumbling (three times in a series of small earthquakes).
The Meiringspoort waterfall near De Rust was abuzz – families swimming, a couple smoking a joint in the cool spray (the day simmered at 36C) – while a string of bikers revved their machines on the tar road through the poort (apparently, bikers like the roar of the engines echoing off the sides of the mountain – #him liked it, too).
Dancing on tables
There was an almost tangible happiness and rejoicing. Maybe it’s always been there. But it is louder in my ears now, and it makes me happy too.
Maybe that’s why I leapt without hesitation onto a table at our accommodation in the Overberg and danced – 34 people, at least, could sit at this table, and there was just #him and me. That day, we’d seen a flurry of flowers waving their heads and a whale frolicking close to shore at Gansbaai and then walked among vineyards hugging a mountain. All are good reasons to celebrate, don’t you think?
Ultimately, this road trip was not about COVID-19. It was about recharging and regenerating – albeit in the time of the coronavirus. It was gentle and slow, and we allowed ourselves to find ourselves and listen to the calling of the road.
Take our quick decision to veer off the N2 close to the border of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape to have a peep at a place called Nature’s Valley. We wiggled our way down the mountain through the Grootrivier Pass and its ancient forest, marvelled at one of the prettiest places on the planet (surely), and then headed up the other side of the pass.
We waltzed on
Our sense of adventure overcame us and we did not re-join the N2. We waltzed straight ahead (well, Google Maps said we could), not understanding why signposts were crossed out with black tape, but noting a warning that trucks were not allowed past a certain point. And so we plunged into the Bloukrans Pass, which, we later realised, is closed to traffic. Why? Because there is a real danger of serious rockfalls on this narrow, unmaintained road. But there was nowhere to turn.
When I dared open my eyes, I saw rockfaces lining the road, dripping with emerald-green ferns and arum lilies in flower, and boulders and stones strewn across the road. Just a few kilometres more, Google Maps assured us. And right at the end, we found … the road blockaded by a massive mound of compacted sand. Just one side of the pass is blocked.
With no means of turning – and too terrified to run this gauntlet again – we went over the mound. I will respect #him forever for not letting our vehicle slip off the sides; no way would a normal car get over that.
That was a thrill I probably could have done without. But it was an adventure. May the adventures continue, coronavirus or not.
My friend, Hassan Amra, who happens to be a brilliant professional photographer, messaged me just as our journey was coming to an end. As always, he encouraged me to keep taking and posting pictures. And he shared the lyrics of Dehradun, a recently discovered Beatles song by George Harrison:
Many roads can take you there
Many different ways
One direction takes you years
Another takes you days
Many people on the roads
Looking at the sights
Many others with their troubles
Looking for their rights
See them move along the roads
In search of a life divine
Beggars in a gold mine
“A song for your trip,” he said. Indeed! A song for all of us wanderers.