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Here Comes Treble: Fascinating Free State

We toured their garden: the Chinese section, complete with Buddha and koi pond, and the duck pond where two indigenous, yellow-billed ducks showed off their beautiful brown-and-white plumage. Andrée said, “I’ve told these ducks, if they don’t produce chicks soon, I’ll give them pornographic magazines to show them what needs to be done!”

Isabel Bradley continues her account of a visit to South Africa's Eastern Free State Province where she met fascinating people.

"The Eastern Free State offers magnificent scenery, interesting and quirky villages and towns, unusual and lovely art-works, adventure holidays offering hiking and four-by-four trails, horse-riding, hunting, visiting game-farms and searching for historic artefacts. More than this, however, it offers warm hospitality and fascinating people.''

On Saturday morning the ‘telephone bird’ woke us at dawn, but we rolled over and slept a little more before enjoying breakfast with friends Chris and Alice.

We then drove to the Rosendal Theatre where we were booked to perform a lunch-time concert the next day; we there to rehearse. The Rosendal Theatre is attached to an antique shop, coffee shop, restaurant and pub. The theatre is the country retreat of a popular actor, our host, also named Chris.

He led us through his shop and tiny changing room into the theatre. It was a rectangular room with a small stage at one end and lighting control box at the other. The left side was a brick wall with a pair of wooden doors open to the main street, the right side was a wall made from second hand corrugated steel sheet, letting in pinholes of light through dozens of bolt holes. The open roof was also corrugated steel sheet, multicoloured, with streaks and swirls of red and yellow rust, faded blue paint, and white oxidised crusts caused by leaks around the bolts. The room provided seating for a hundred on stackable plastic chairs.

After our rehearsal, we climbed into the four-by-four vehicle, heading for the main road and another, slightly larger village, Paul Roux. After forty-five minutes’ drive, we parked outside a classic century-old sandstone building. Engraved into the lintel above the front door, were the words, “National Bank”. A sign beside of the door read, “Old National Bank Gallery of Paul Roux”. We made our way to the veranda at the side of the building, where we were met by Droopy, the friendly basset-hound, wet, muddy and smelling strongly of tick-and-flea-dip. Pulling Droopy off my light jeans, the owner and artist Pieter apologised and introduced himself. Two years before, Pieter had moved permanently to this his ‘holiday home’, studio and art gallery, to paint and scour the local table-topped mountain for artefacts. His kitchen and verandas are used to seat the clients of a German lady, Edith, who runs a coffee shop and restaurant on the premises.

They welcomed us warmly. Edith set knives, forks and plates in front of us and presented us with a beautiful, golden chicken pie, fluffy white rice and a crisp green salad. She brought us glasses of fruit juice, and we feasted like people who had starved for weeks. Rehearsing does that to musicians… While we ate, we chatted with Edith.

After lunch, Leon and I joined Pieter in his gallery, which had once been the business floor of the National Bank. The only sign of the building’s designated business was the forbidding strong-room door set into one wall. It was hard to imagine this as a bank. Furnishings were limited to a divan and several side tables. On the walls hung Pieter’s pictures of country scenes, all South African, though not all local. Some featured wrecked cars, their rusting and battered old shapes drawing the viewer’s attention. Others were of country roads, leading the viewer deep into the landscape. His more recent work is compilations of broken china, glass beads and marbles creating fascinating pictures. He is also working on sculptures in the local sandstone.

Pieter showed us containers filled with what, at first glance, seemed to be junk. As our host, eyes shining, identified and spoke about each item, the collection was transformed into valuable clues to history. There were two bright little glass slave beads, made in Venice in the fourteen-hundreds. They had filtered down through Africa to end up on a mountainside in central South Africa, to be found six hundred years later. Unexploded bullets, probably left behind by hunters. Bullet casings dating back to the Anglo-Boer War, fought across this countryside over a hundred years ago. Military brass buttons greened by verdigris. Fragments of china, looking amazingly like scraps of Ming-ware. A tiny white doll’s saucer… Every weekend Pieter, either alone, or with his eleven-year-old son, goes treasure-hunting on ‘his’ mountain, returning with more riches to add to his collection. Late in the afternoon, we said goodbye, knowing we had forged a friendship.

That evening, we ate at the Rosendal Hotel, a surprisingly beautiful and elegant property at the end of a badly rutted gravel road. Each room is set in its own garden-courtyard. The gardens are a blaze of roses in full bloom. Wrought iron roses decorate the gates. The main building is large and modern, with wide, shaded verandas, a welcoming pub and a dining room with deep-orange walls and elegantly draped, rich cream curtains. Interestingly, colourful sheets of rusting corrugated steel featured as the front of a serving table. We enjoyed a magnificent meal, presented by the young chef who co-manages the hotel with his equally-young fiancée. The hotel offers conference and wedding facilities and holiday accommodation. Service was good, the ambience was wonderful and the evening left us feeling mellow and ready for a good night’s sleep.

Although Sunday morning dawned grey and cold, it soon cleared and by the end of the day we’d experienced winter, spring and summer. Our concert in the corrugated steel theatre was a great success, with an audience of more than twenty. Several people came from neighbouring Ficksburg and Paul Roux to hear us, including Pieter who rode the short route over the mountain on his off-road motor-bike.

Afterwards, we sat on the veranda outside the coffee-shop enjoying the compliments and company of the audience and a marvellous lunch prepared by the owner. We were invited to enjoy after-lunch liqueurs and coffee with Henk and his wife Andrée who had thoroughly enjoyed the concert.

Their beautiful home, designed with the help of an architect, was full of light and space, yet comfortably warm and welcoming. Andrée proudly showed us her three enormous looms, one of which is a ‘damask’ loom for the weaving of fine linen. On these looms, she creates throws, cushion covers and other colourful items which she sells in her shop in the village.

We toured their garden: the Chinese section, complete with Buddha and koi pond, and the duck pond where two indigenous, yellow-billed ducks showed off their beautiful brown-and-white plumage. Andrée said, “I’ve told these ducks, if they don’t produce chicks soon, I’ll give them pornographic magazines to show them what needs to be done!”

She showed us two huge cages where ‘rescued’ owls live. These magnificent birds, two small marsh owls and one large eagle-owl, are unable to fly. One of the marsh owls has had a wing amputated, and the other two have wings so badly injured they will never fly again. When they first came to her, Andrée tried letting them amble around the garden, but the wild birds mobbed them, so they are now in cages for their own protection. How sad to see these magnificent creatures caged and unable to soar through the night hunting for food.

Henk collects memorabilia from the Anglo-Boer and First World Wars. He is a mine of information on the topic, but this visit was not the time to explore either his collection or his knowledge.

The liqueurs were wonderful, the rare apricot liquor tasted of apricots but smelled of marzipan. What heaven. I relaxed while the conversation and the chirring of swallows outside rolled over me. Then the ‘telephone bird’ began its double-ring call, and Andrée identified it as the ‘Bokmakierie Shrike’ or ‘Telophorus zeylonus’. It is a smallish, olive-green bird with bright yellow chest, black collar and yellow and black facial markings, so effectively camouflaged, we heard it often but didn’t see it. We left Andrée and Henk a little before sunset after a wonderful afternoon in their company.

Next morning, we were all up early, ready to begin our drive home along the ‘scenic route’. After a pleasant breakfast with our friends, we loaded our luggage into the car, and set out.

We drove through the large, crumbling sea-bed that is now in the centre of a continent. Geologists say that the sea-bed dried out, volcanoes erupted, lava flowed, cooled and set, forming strata of sand-stone and lava. Wind, rain and sun eroded the soft sandstone, forming rolling valleys, leaving the huge flat-topped mountains glowing in the sunshine. Golden sandstone tumbles from the cliffs and lies, shattered and scattered on green hillsides.

Swallows clustered together on the telephone lines at the road-sides, preparing for their autumn migration, looking like notes spread along the stave in a particularly complicated musical score. Kites and kestrels, larger and more widely spaced, provided the slower notes of this avian piece of music, until they took flight and soared, majestic against the clouds. We watched a swirl of white-backed vultures, magnificent in their free flight above carrion hidden somewhere in the grass. Eagles soared and called against the golden cliffs, and a flight of egrets shone eerily white against a great, purple cloud.

We slowed to allow a herd of cows to cross the road, driven by three cowboys on chestnut horses. In a nearby field, a tiny foal pranced next to its mother.

The mountains rose higher, becoming dramatic ranges and peaks as we drove through the gorgeous Golden Gate National Park.

Eventually, we reached the intersection with the main road between Durban and Johannesburg, and after lunch in Harrismith, we turned left and headed for home in the rain.

The Eastern Free State Province in South Africa offers magnificent scenery, interesting and quirky villages and towns, unusual and lovely art-works, adventure holidays offering hiking and four-by-four trails, horse-riding, hunting, visiting game-farms and searching for historic artefacts. More than this, however, it offers warm hospitality and fascinating people.

If you ever get the chance, go there and experience as much of this marvellous country as you can. We will certainly return as often as possible.

Until next time, ‘here comes Treble!’

by Isabel Bradley © Copyright Reserved

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