Remember all of those uniquely amazing individuals I said I had met at CurioCity in Maboneng? Well, one of them was Jelmer, a Dutchman who flew from Amsterdam to Johannesburg to buy a car and “drive it North to Sudan or Kenya” over the course of six months. We arrived at the hostel a day apart and in our initial chats, our complementary situations became apparent: he was looking for someone to join him on an initial practice trip to Cape Town and I was looking for a ride just about anywhere before my visa ran out.
While in Johannesburg, Jelmer and I spent surprisingly little time together. During the daytime, Jelmer was busy first searching for and later buying a 1989 Toyota Hilux and then spending time with local mechanics to work out the bugs and learn as much as possible before the trip started. In the evenings, I was busy behind the bar. The rough logistics of our trip were planned in 20-second intervals between cocktails I was mixing or in barely heard shouts while on the dance floor during our mutual ‘time-off’.
But in the end, an itinerary wasn’t necessary, our similar attitude about taking each day as it came made us extremely compatible travel partners. We picked Clarens as our first stop Monday evening with the rest of the stops to be planned along the way and Cape Town as a final destination by Friday night. Jelmer would start his mechanic’s course on Saturday and I planned to make some new friends who were (or could be convinced to be) Namibia-bound. After goodbyes hugs with CurioCity staff and guests, Jelmer and I hopped into ‘The Beast’ and set off towards Clarens.
I think we added two extra hours to the initial leg of our trip by missing turns because of our highly animated conversation as we got to know each other; another hour was added to GoogleMap’s estimation since The Beast was not meant to be driving on asphalt. We arrived in town around 5 just as the sun started going down and the temperature settled into a more wintry level. We ran some quick errands for beers from the local brewery and dinner supplies and then we went to a local backpackers. Our journey crisscrossed with two other Dutch friends we had made the previous week and had an evening of braaiing, card game playing and completely overlooking the gorgeous peak behind our house in the dark. We caught it in the morning though.
Day two of our trip was the longest drive. We covered about 680km in a car that doesn’t like to go much higher than 100 km/hr. I learned how to drive standard (Finally. Thanks, Jelmer) and covered the non-city portion of the trip. I took Jelmer’s mid-afternoon nap as an indicator that I passed my driving exam. Slow pace aside, our destination was worth it. At 7 we were flying along the gravel path that enters Nieu-Bethesda from the North side. We pulled up to find that my friends Anrich and Beulah had already prepared an amazing dinner and had called the pub to stay open for us. We feasted, danced, and Andre showed up to close out the evening. As I mentioned in my post on the town, the spirit of the place is hard to put into words but I’m glad I now have at least one more outsider who has experienced the magic of Nieu-Bethesda.
On day three, the car started making some unsavory noises. With Car Talk several thousand kilometers and a few years in the past, we pulled into the nearest town (De Rust) to give the car a rest. The heating gauge had not been working for some time so we didn’t want to put too much stress on the engine. Unfortunately, the mechanic in town wasn’t equipped to do much work on the vehicle so the next day we decided to continue on to a mechanic in Oudtshoorn. After a quick assessment at the garage, it became apparent that this would not be a quick fix. The engine had overheated and the damage was worse than a few busted seals.
So here we are in Oudtshoorn. A place I could not pronounce that morning without any clue if there would be anything to do in town. How sheltered we were… The mechanic gave us a ride to Backpackers Paradise (which it was) and within an hour Marius (the owner) convinced us that we could not have broken down in a better town. For the next two days we cycled around town, shared bottles with other guests at the backpacker’s bar, had amazing ostrich lasagna and ended our nights at Braai Kraal down the road. I even scored a new sweater after realizing that I left my own in Johannesburg. We renamed our journey “Road Trip to Oudtshoorn” without any sore feelings about our circumstance.
But in the end, I pulled myself away again. I had to leave Jelmer behind to work on the car since I was entering the final days of my 90-day visa. Off to Cape Town by minibus taxi to plan my route to Namibia… Thank you Jelmer for the fantastic journey West. I’m sorry that I left you in a different place than planned and that you never made the mechanic’s course but I think you’re going to be well equipped for the rest of your trip.
For updates on The Beast and Jelmer’s trip you can follow him on Instagram: @jelmeroverland
One more thing…
This post is dedicated to John.
During the month I stayed in Nieu-Bethesda, John was one of the seventy residents of the main town. Despite it being such a small place our encounters were pleasant but always brief. Except for one.
At the pub, late one evening, I was hungry. I started asking my friends if they had eaten already and what their plans were for dinner. Maybe it was because he overheard me or maybe it was serendipity but soon after, John came over and asked Anrich and I if we would come to his house to cook dinner with him since his wife was away. We both gladly joined him home in his Land Rover and cooked a dinner of chicken, beans, and white asparagus. After dinner, John brought us down to his incredible house bar (which is more of a bunker) to thank us for cooking and shared some of his reserve whiskey and we talked into the wee hours of the morning.
John suffered a heart attack and passed away the morning that Jelmer and I were in Nieu-Bethesda. This happened mere minutes after John phoned the doctor to come to the house and check on him.
When I leave behind friends in new places, I know there’s a big chance I won’t meet them again. But I also hold onto some small odds that I’ll be able to find them again and return the kindness that was given to me. With John’s moving on, I was reminded of the fragility of our time here and how fleeting this life is. I think the shock finally caught up with me two days later while in Oudsthoorn finally getting settled and starting to write this post.
I’m incredibly grateful that mine and John’s journeys overlapped in our lifetimes. I know his memory will live on with everyone who was blessed enough to meet him.