Accidental Tourist

Sundays are spooky on the platteland

There's nothing quite like staying in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, reckons Louis Rood. And SA has plenty of them to choose from

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Louis Rood

In 1986, we arrived at Carnarvon, Northern Cape, late on a bleak Sunday afternoon. Nothing seemed to be open so we pulled up outside the hotel. There was nobody at the front desk. I walked into the deserted dining room, yoo-hooing for someone who might be on duty, through the swing door into the kitchen with its pots, pans, racks and rumbling deep freeze. No luck.
The bar was closed and locked.
On the basis that even the dust stirs eventually, we selected a room key from the row of hooks at reception, headed down the darkened creaking passage, found number 5 and made ourselves at home. The water was hot, the bedspreads were worn but spotless, and there was a Gideons Bible.
Eventually we heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet, and found a friendly face, aged about eight, playing in the lounge. She went to call her mother and, slowly but surely, the lights came on, staff appeared, drinks were served, and a memorable evening was enjoyed with generous Karoo hospitality, bean soup, roast, veg and gravy, and hot telephone pudding with custard (so called, I was told, because the recipe had been passed on that way).
The highlight was getting up at 3am, wrapping up warmly, and going outside to gaze up into the night sky. There was Halley's Comet forging its celestial path across the heavens, trailing a sparkling wedding veil.
Over the years, we have somehow inadvertently contrived to arrive at other platteland dorps on a Sunday. There is invariably a rather desolate lack of anything active in the air.
Dogs are desultory, no-one is about, even the local garage is closed. Sometimes, the only thing moving is a cold little wind.
But where the country hotel survives, there is no better place to savour the overnight experience of an earlier era. The high ceilings. The clunky teacups. The radio box on the wall, where you could turn the dial to Springbok Radio. The dismal one-ply toilet roll.
Once checked in, it is always good to step out for a stroll to get the journey out of your cramped limbs. In Kamieskroon, walk from the hotel up the hill to the village and enjoy the wild flowers in front of the squat, stone church. Around the Okiep Country Hotel, you will find green, copper-rich rocks in the veld. In the parking area behind the Pofadder Hotel, you can gather fallen pomegranates.
The proprietors of these establishments sometimes surprise with their enterprise. We spotted a chalkboard outside a Somerset East hotel: "Beer is cheaper than petrol. Drink, don't drive." That is in the tradition of the classic pub sign: "Free beer here tomorrow."
In Kakamas, you may be startled to find a sushi bar at the Kalahari Gateway Hotel, but it has been a quirky feature there for years.
The Kenhardt Hotel with its long stoep has been in business since 1916, but it was also all locked down when we trundled in on a lethargic Sunday afternoon. But with the help of a few locals, entry was gained and a pot of tea produced.
There is something so charming about deep, old armchairs, massive sideboards, the odd battered ashtray, and menu mistranslations - "stake", "chopps", "oxtale".
In icy Sutherland, after a brisk circuit of a few blocks, the hotel always seems to have a fire going. This is where time trundles along as slow as you like.
Tomorrow's Monday, but there's still a long night ahead.
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