The west coast of South Africa is a dry semi-desert region with an average rainfall of 280 mm (12″). For most of the years the vegetation is low scrub and thorn bushes with patches of dry dusty ground. In August after the winter rains things change dramatically. The flower come out in raging colours. This display lasts three months and by the end of October the flowers are gone and the dry dusty veld is left. We drove up to Langebaan in mid August after good winter rains and enjoyed the glory of the flowers
The flowers spread across all the open ground and wild profusion. If you drive through quickly you only see the carpet of flowers. If however you stop and look, there is a wealth of beautiful flowers hidden within the showy flash of white, yellow and orange.
A visit to the Invasion Beaches and my tribute to the men and women who landed on those beaches. Many did not make it.
In 2019 we traveled to Europe. Included in the itinerary was a visit to the Normandy Landing beaches. Guided by a very competent guide, we saw and walked on Juno, Sword and Gold beaches. What I saw there stunned me and for the first time I understood the shear horror of those landings. I understood the blind courage required to leap out of the landing craft into the ice cold sea and wade ashore into a hail of bullets. Come with me on a personal trip to those beaches.
Phoenix Bridge: Allied Commandos were instructed to take this bridge at all costs. Three gliders landed nearby and then according to the tour guide three soldiers stormed across the bridge to silence a machine gun nest at the other end.
You can get an idea of just how long that bridge is. I asked the guide if the bridge was wider in those days but he said, “Narrower.” I cannot imagine storming a machine gun down a narrow alley of steel and hard road surface. I have no idea how they survived that crazy run.
The landing craft were mainly wood with the front door being steel and the soldiers packed together shoulder to shoulder inside. On an aside note, this is the landing craft that was used during the filming of “Saving Private Ryan”.
The tide was out when I was there so the run was longer than during the invasion but as you can see that there is no cover whatsoever.
The guns were positioned to fire directly along the beaches, not down them. There was thus no way of a soldier further down the beach from evading or stopping the the fire.
Once in about a decade the March Flowers or Maartblomme rise out of the harsh Tankwa Karoo soil and bring colour and life to the dry and harsh landscape. We were fortunate to make the 5 hour trip from Cape Town to Nieuwoudtville to see them.
The flowers seem to congregate in patches as you can see from this picture.
Verneuk Pan is approximately 100 km from Brandvlei, a small town in the middle of the Namaqualand semi-desert. Brandvlei is approximately 600 km from Cape Town and it looks like this:
Gardening is not a favourite pastime in Brandvlei. Well with soil like this, who wants to dig in the garden? Not much water either for that matter.
The local pub called is called Die Windpomp – directly translated the Wind Pump, more correctly The Windmill. It has a friendly atmosphere and a suitably cheerful and chatty owner.
You notice the fire in the fireplace? It gets achingly cold in Namaqualand. This is not the coldest I have seen the temperature on the Subaru.
But it does come close and, when you consider that I was baking in 40 degrees the day before, it has got to be the most extreme. It looked like this when the temperature was 6. And yes, you can see camera shake. At 6 degrees in a light jersey, you shake.
And now, off to Verneuk Pan, but first a short history lesson. Malcolm Campbell was a man who specialised in breaking speed records. Verneuk Pan is flat and long. Two attributes that you need for a high speed race track. The race track takes a smallish portion of the Pan. The original racetrack, marked out by half sunken car tyres is 19 km long and over its entire length drops 15 cm. Verneuk Pan is 53 kilometres long, so the race track fits easily. It is also covered in the finest dust I have ever experienced. About the only time I ever got dust into the car when it was sealed was at Verneuk Pan.
My Subaru at the starting point
That glimmer on the horizon is not water. It is what gives the place its name. Verneuk Pan translates as the The Cheating Pan. Early travellers got out onto the flats of the pan.
The heat shimmer appears to be a kilometer away. It surrounds you and you end up in a circle of heat haze.
Everywhere you look is shimmer, as you advance toward it, the shimmer retreats, luring you on to your death from dehydration.
I left the track and headed out into the unmarked pan to experience the isolation of being off the track.
When I turned around to find the track I must admit that I was glad that the GPS was still on and functioning.
The end of the race track and the end of the pan.
Did Malcolm Campbell succeed? No, he didn’t. You see that black line running across the pan?
There are thousands of those lines, mostly smaller than that one, made up of the local shale. It raises a lump about 2 or 3 cm high on the track. There is a cross line of shale every 200 metres or so. As the vehicle speed increases, so does the instability of the car. Each time you hit a lump, the car bounces slightly. The faster you are going, the higher you bounce and the sooner you hit the next one. At 185 km/h the Subaru was airborne longer than the wheels were on the ground. Very disconcerting, believe me. At the 400 km/h that Campbell was aiming at it would have been impossible to control the car. Interestingly, the Subaru did not like accelerating on the dusty surface and the take off from the start was slow and sedate.
When a friend heard I was going to Verneuk Pan he insisted that I visit a small settlement called Granaatsboskolk. He gave me a GPS and the co-ordinates and sent me on my way rejoicing. Why, I hear you ask do you need co-ordinates? Well simple, look at the pictures and you decide how you know if you have found Granaatsboskolk.
And no, there isn’t a place called Lus 10. I couldn’t find it so I had to ask. It is the special cell phone station for the Sishen Saldhana Railway line.
By the way, the locals didn’t ask why I needed a GPS, they just wanted to know why this mad Englishman actually wanted to go to Granaatsboskolk.
Half way there I found a hill. Mind you in this type of country, a hill can be just a gentle rise in the road. This picture was taken from a rise that the road prudently went around. The hill was huge. At least 10 metres high and about 500 metres long.
That is the way back to Brandvlei.
And then I was there. Uhm, correction, I drove straight through the place and when the road curved which it hadn’t done much that day, I knew I had missed Granaatsboskolk. So I drove back. Checked the GPS and the road signage and decided where to stop. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Granaatsboskolk. It is a cross roads, one clue that you have arrived.
Looking toward Brandvlei.
Off to Kakamas.
A Telkom installation.
The only dwelling in Granaatsboskolk.
And if you don’t have a GPS, how do you know you have made it? Simple really. The sign boards stop talking about it.
Having had my VW Polo stolen I decided that I would like to go back to driving a Subaru Imprezza. After much hunting around and finding only modified and old Imprezzas I took my courage in hand and phoned the guys who sold me my first Subaru, Somerset West Subaru.
Did they have an Imprezza? Yes, they did. Priced to sell. 2018 demo model then owned by one lady driver. 15 000 km on the clock. Would I like to see it? Sure I would.
Fell in love almost immediately.
One week later.
They took the red ribbon back and I was once again driving a Subaru Imprezza. Such an awesome vehicle
Thanx to Anthony at Subaru Somerset West for the enthusiastic and informed help.
We (Amanda and I) have a story to tell you about a part of our Europe trip, that started out as a bit of an add-on and ended up as being one of, if not the most important part of our trip. The whole idea of going to Europe was to see a Rembrandt Retrospective. By the time we had booked, we realised the exhibition would be over, so we adapted. This was to be the grand European Art Tour, Rome, Florence, Paris and Amsterdam. Nothing more.
Almost as an afterthought Amanda suggested that we go to Castiglione to visit the grave of Sgt. Thomas Brain, her uncle who had died in Italy during World War II.
I thought that was great idea as my mother had been in an Entertainment Unit called the Modernaires during WWII.
She had written a poem about holding a dying man’s hand in a place called Castiglione.
Amanda rolled up her sleeves and with typical efficiency had us booked. It was during this booking period that I discovered there was not just one Castiglione, but three, and that the chances of it being in the town my Mother had written about was pretty slim, and then actually proving it even slimmer.
Castiglione dei Pepoli was the one we were going to and it is a tiny town. It seemed a very unlikely place for an entertainment unit to be performing so it was basically Amanda’s show, with me happily joining her on a complex trip that required fairly tightly scheduled series of changes between buses and trains.
It was an interesting trip because it was not on the tourist routes. Being a small town, the buses ran only 4 times a day. Miss the last one and we would be stuck in another tiny town on the railway line. Getting out of there and to Lausanne after the visit was, if anything, even more fraught with complexity. A seasoned traveler looked at those two days travel and remarked it would be “quite hectic”.
So the day duly dawned in Florence and we set out at 7 am. Train to Prato, another to San Benedetto and then a bus to Castiglione.
Buying a bus ticket in San Benedetto to Castiglione and no ticket office. What to do? Easy! You go to the local station bar, this at about 8:30 in the morning, and a cheerful bartender sells you espresso, croissants and tickets. A committee of Italian gentlemen make sure you get on the right bus and disembark at the right bus stop.
At about midday we are in Castiglione, we book into the hotel and we wander down to the immaculately kept War Cemetery where 401 South Africans, 99 British (seconded to 6TH S.A. Armoured Division) and 2 Indians (British origin) are buried and their graves carefully tended by the super efficient Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is by using their data that we find Sgt. Thomas Brain’s grave quickly. Amanda spends time at his grave, we have a subdued lunch there looking out over the valley.
As we leave we read the visitors book and find that a steady stream of South Africans visit the cemetery. Amanda also finds the name, email address and phone number of the curator of the tiny War Museum which is unfortunately closed today. He is interested in the stories that visitors have to tell. Amanda emails him and he responds almost immediately. If we are interested, he is willing to drive for an hour from Bologna and meet us in Castiglione at 8 after supper. For the rest of the day we do the tourist thing.
We agree and just as we are finishing supper, Mauro appears. A greyed haired, gentle eyed man who sits down with us and produces documentation from the SA Defence Force Archives with details of Amanda’s uncle’s death. He has visited South Africa 9 times doing research.
We ask him what drives his curiosity. He says that his mother told of seeing Scots Guards (a British unit seconded to 6TH S.A. Armoured Division) soldiers returning from the front “in tears”.
South-east of Bologna in the communities of Castiglione dei Pepoli, Grizzana Morandi and the surrounding area local people gather annually to celebrate their towns’ emancipation from Nazi forces in the autumn of 1944 by the 6th Armoured Division from South Africa. During this ceremony, they raise the South African flag to acknowledge the efforts of the liberation forces.
This area was the site of the biggest, yet least-known, massacre of innocent civilians in Italy during WWII: the Marzabotto Massacre and it is here that the Allies eventually broke through the following Spring, spelling the end of the war in Italy.
Mauro produces a document for Amanda showing her uncle’s name, details of his death and confirming his date of death, 30 October, 1944.
He then turns to me, produces two documents. A nominal roll of Modernaires Entertainment Unit performers dated 21 October 1944.
“Is your mother there?” he asks and sure enough there she is, Sgt. D A Morton.
“And I have a report of the show they put on” he says, and produces another document. He has by now reduced the pair of us to tears.
“Come see the museum.” We walk through the dark streets to the Centro di Cultura (Cultural Centre) past the building where my mother may have performed.
We go upstairs and up on the wall is a copy of a photo I have in my mother’s picture albums, of her and her fellow performers in full costume. They are walking past a bunch of soldiers down what up until now was an unnamed town – Castiglione dei Pepoli.
The only thing we don’t know with any certainty is if Amanda’s uncle saw my mother perform just days before his death. I certainly hope he did.
If you are in Italy and want to see the Museum, or are just curious their website is here.