Once a year, after my father put the maize crop in, my mother took the road map out and we headed south for a thousand kilometres through the desert that separated our farm from the sea. My brothers and I lay on mattresses in the back of the pickup while Pa drove and Ma admired the countryside. Towns clung like beehives to dry riverbeds. Ma spun the radio dial searching for songs among the sermons. By midday the sun was not a guiding star but a hunter. We sweated and bickered in the back. Admonishments came from the front. It would come to blows. Then Pa would pull up and we’d get hauled out and smacked. Some sheep looked up and a windmill sang in the wind. Every family has its rhythms.
Eventually Pa would find a forlorn picnic spot by the side of the road, with a cement table and a pepper tree for shade, and Ma would bring out the padkos, “roadfood”. Afrikaans has a delicious immediacy. It calls it as it sees it, having been stewed with a little Latinate fat on strong Germanic bones, then flavoured with Malay and sweetened by the cadences of Khoi, where the words have been forgotten but the tune remembered.
Padkos consisted of boiled eggs that were always cooked till the water burnt off and the yolk went green and blue. Also slices of pink gammon and wounded tomato sandwiches. The jammerlappie – literally, a “sorry-I-messed cloth” – came in a plastic packet prefixed with its apologetic adjective. When the eggs were peeled, accusations of gas being passed were countered with a sideswipe from the jammerlappie. To finish, Pa drank hot, sweet coffee from a Stanley flask, and allowed us to scale fences and take a dip in a farm dam. We took to the muddy pond with its garlands of slime like converts to holy water. Then Ma remembered the sunshades with plastic suckers that we stuck on the windows with spit, yellowing the passing landscape. Weaverbirds picked at a discarded sandwich as we turned back onto the broiling tar.
By late afternoon the escarpment rose before us, velvet rigged to hold clouds. Our overnight stop lay in its rain-shadow. The farm belonged to our family and was called Enough is Enough. Pa’s aunt Tannie Annatjie was a dumpling soaked in rosewater and her husband Oom Jan a burnt-out cigar. She would make tea as soon as we clambered out of the truck. Two bags of English and a bag of rooibos in a Royal Albert pot, stewed with soft and sweet limewater that was pumped from the river and scaled up the pipes. With each visit she grew rounder and her skin was as soft as hibiscus blooms.
While the tea took time to draw, Oom Jan knocked his pipe against his armchair and grumbled about the Boer war, looking out onto his pastures of Herefords and Ayrshires lazily chewing the cud. His cows gave the milk for the tart we ate for tea, boiled and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon, and poured into a pastry casing. In the past farmers would bring a cow to the coast to have fresh milk on holiday, with enough hay to last a month. Oom Jan also brought news from the veld. A broken windmill. Kudus in the stinkwood forest. Rumours of rain. Tannie Annatjie would send me to fetch a jar of birdseed from her larder that she kept for the tame Jacobin shrike that lived in the poplars. It stood amid the glass jars of potato yeast that she grew to leaven rusks. After dinner Tannie Annatjie insisted on supplementing our padkos. Bottles of watermelon preserve, packets of biltong, dried rusks, freshly over-boiled blue eggs. And a whole gammon, dressed in apricot jam and studded with cloves.
By dawn we were on the pass that cut through the mountain and wound down through yellowwood forests and old man’s beard towards the sea. At first sight of the wild Indian Ocean surf, Pa would pull over and crack open his demijohn of Chateau Libertas to anoint the view. Ma would sigh in teetotalling disapproval and bring out the final meal for the road, which we ate with ceremony and a song in the heart.
For the finest blue eggs and ham in South Africa roll back time along the road that crosses over the Outeniqua mountains into the Great Karoo, to that picnic spot where Ma looked like Sophia Loren and Pa could still lift the boys onto his shoulders, to see over the horizon and look for the sea.