March 26, 2014

Karoo Byways, not Highways: Journeying off the Beaten Script. ~ Gary Koekemoer

Karoo Dog

When rewriting the script, take the less direct route. When exploring an arid South African area known as the Karoo in a Landrover with a dog called Chicken, it’s the preferred option.

The obvious choice is the highway. The sure-way. The straight. The not so narrow. The well-defined and well-marked. Engineered for vehicles of speed. Built to get from point A to point B before the crow does. Efficiency. Safety. Reliability. It is the reasonable, rational, and logical route to go. The cost—the fare paid the ferryman—is giving up seeing. Shut the world out—shut in.

The Karoo, which covers 40 percent of the country’s landmass (roughly South Africa’s equivalent to New Mexico, minus guys on horseback) was once upon a time (253 million years ago to be exact) an inland basin, teeming with strange creatures (like cynodonts and dicynodonts). Now home to seven million tasty and woolly sheep (munchalots?), munching on the scrub (over 6000 plant species) that survive the now harsh conditions. Infinite—seeming plains are framed by mountain ranges that show off rocks in amazing formations.

It’s as if the gods gave their children this area to play with and said, “Do what you like; follow no rules.” It’s a place of extremes, of stark beauty. A deeply spiritual place.

Yet in our wisdom of efficiency, because of the barrier it formed between the inland heart of our economy and the ports that service our daily bread, we laid down long, straight veins of asphalt to act as bridges of speed to the coast.

Every December, we inject middle-class families down these veins (our annual school holiday pilgrimage) to burn in the sun and tumble in the waves all along the coast.

The Karoo is a hot bother with roads that never end—something to endure. The “Are-we-there-yet?” from the back seat, just fans the flames further and the foot presses harder to the floor.

Then two or three weeks later, having boosted local coastal towns with inland money and traffic jams, the exodus returns to the grindstone, again at break-neck speed along these well-established arteries. This is considered a lekka (very nice) holiday. The journey is just the fee paid for a few weeks of critical rest and relaxation.

What to do then with a week or so to spare, due to the new script having split the traditional family holiday in two? One part re-constituted family time; one part single man, with time on his hands.

Pack a Landrover. Throw in a Chicken. Head off in the opposite direction to the masses. Trust oneself to the Karoo byways. Avoid the highways. Book no accommodation. Get off the beaten script. Simply go and have faith that the path will find you.

A “Landie” is one of the iconic all-terrain vehicles that populate, or litter (depending on one’s opinion), Africa. Built by British engineers, the driver was an afterthought, as was air conditioning. It’s either a vehicle one loves wholeheartedly, or a vehicle that provides our mates with endless material to poke fun at us zealots who dare drive the beasts.

Chicken, of “Your dog’s name is Chicken?” fame, is a short, stocky, borrowed-from-a-best-friend, Staffordshire Terrier. A traveling companion who doesn’t ask how far it is, or politely question your on-a-whim decisions. Her only interest is to get out there and smell.

These byways are mainly dirt roads going pretty much everywhere and anywhere. They get heart to places spirit has yearned for, but they’re dirt. Stones, sand, gravel and dust! Dust that goes everywhere and anywhere. Endless dust.

Dirt rewires the script. Can’t travel at speed, so slow down. Open the window (which helps with the romantic hair-blowing-back bit until the dust gels it sideways) and let the outside in. You can smell; you can hear. Forced to drive on the best, not necessarily the designated, part of the road.

The rules change out of necessity to save your dentures. So concentrate and make endless immediate decisions based on which path looks best. You stop often, to stretch, to take pictures, to take it all in.

Passing cars, at least two a day, are filled with interesting people who actually greet you, or were they suggesting the need to clean your window?

Then as the kilometers silently tick over, you become the Karoo and the Karoo becomes you. Mostly because the dust gets in everywhere, but there is a little bit of magic that piggy backs the silicone spread.

Script is changing. Perspective has shifted. You’re being rewired. No longer single; no longer divorced; no longer alone, you are less and less the gap you seek to fill. You just are.

In a Landie, with Chicken and the open dirt road.

This is why byways should be traveled often. They have an uncanny knack of showing the way back home.

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Editorial Assistant: Todd Otten/Editor: Travis May

Photo: Courtesy of Author


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