Sharing a windy spot with strangers

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

If you’ve ever driven the N3 from Durban to Johannesburg, some 2,5km before the town of Van Reenen is a severely potholed unmarked exit on the left.

It was in the early 1970s that I first heard about the “Villiers route” to Johannesburg from my father who had taken that route (and broken a stub axle along the way). Up until that time, the N3 to the Transvaal wound its way up through Ladysmith, Newcastle, Volksrust, Standerton, Balfour, and Heidelberg – a route still largely followed to this day by passenger trains between the Highveld and the coast.

The route through Van Reenen’s Pass to Villiers shortened the journey to Johannesburg by more than 50 km, but the road was poorly maintained. Also, the road passed through the Orange Free State where laws dating back to 1891 prohibited Indians from remaining in the province for more than “a brief period” – 24 hours was the rule generally.

Nevertheless, it soon became the route of choice for most passenger vehicles. I drove that road with my father in his VW Beetle en route to Cape Town in 1980 and remember precariously winding our way up the pass with treacherous drops off to the side – there were no protective rails then. Within a year or so afterward, I myself began regularly driving to Johannesburg through that route: get to Ladysmith and hang a left on the R23 for Harrismith.

By the time I left the country after the state of emergency in 1986, I was routinely driving between Johannesburg and Durban in around 5 hours, stopping briefly for fuel and a burger at Swinburne.

In the following eight years that I lived out of the country, the apartheid government swapped the names of the R23 and the N3.

The road between Estcourt and Harrismith was widened and improved, bypassing Ladysmith completely, tolls were introduced, and many small economies which once relied on travellers passing through found themselves reduced to ghost-towns. The former treacherous stretch at Van Reenen’s Pass was bypassed by a new dual carriageway.

But throughout the years, whenever time has permitted, I have driven off the main drag down that unmarked exit to what’s now left of the old road. Near its peak, the old Van Reenen’s Pass has breathtaking panoramic views at the aptly-named Windy Corner lookout point.

And so it was, at the close of the year 2011, that I found myself once again heading off the beaten track to Windy Corner – this time with my four-year-old daughter, Mia.

It’s a lot more difficult to get to now – the potholes are miniature craters and most vehicles with low ground clearance will find themselves in trouble.

Even fewer people will stop there in years to come. The N3 is being rerouted once again through a new road under construction through De Beer’s Pass. And who in their right mind goes 50km out of their way just to take in a view?

But as we drank in that magnificent landscape, I noticed that there had been additions made to the wall overlooking the vista. Several memorial plaques had been tastefully added to the stone.

They read: “In loving memory of Stompie Needham. Wife & Mother Like You Not To Be Found. 1942- 2009”. “In loving memory of Hendrik Earle. 1950-2009 from AJ & Carla”. “In loving memory of Kevin Walter Kilfoil 1942-2002”. “In loving memory of Brendan Roux ‘Big Ben’ 13-12-1946 to 11-6-2009, beloved husband, father, and grandfather”.

And I found myself chuckling with quiet pleasure at the thought that there were these four dead strangers who are inextricably joined to me forever by the unspoken joy of the beauty of that corner of the universe.

So put aside for a moment the disaster about to be unleashed on our education system by our pathetically short-sighted minister. Forget for a while the inevitable impending conflict in the Straits of Hormuz. Move your mind away from the holiday road death toll.

Instead, pause for a moment to reflect on that which brings beauty into your life, savour it, and trust that when 2012 gets you down (as it inevitably will), you will have something to give you balance.