July 1997

Continuing my occasional series reviewing the round the world trip I did in 1997, I’ve reread my journal from this week, and looked at the photos I took.  I was in South Africa, and my memories are of hiring a car and driving through the wine areas around Stellenbosch, along the coast to Knysna and to Oudtshoorn.  I remember the deep, deep blue of the sky and the grey green of the mountains beyond the vineyards and the white of the old farm houses.

My journal gives me both less and more detail.  There are comments on things that, now prompted, I do remember, and others that I still don’t recall clearly at all.

When I first took possession of the car, a 4 door white Toyota Celica, rather large for it to be the smallest available, I immediately head off down the Atlantic coast heading for the Cape of Good Hope.  There I remarked on the dramatic topography, the blueness of the sky and the high wind.  I watched serious looking rangers with guns chasing marauding baboons away from groups of picnickers.  The baboons darted in for an attack, a stubborn look on its face – not an attractive animal.  Lots of unpleasant tourists too.

Hark at her!

Only a day later, just one week into what was to be a five month trip at the start of which I had promised myself that I was not going to buy lots of stuff along the way, I chanced upon an art gallery in Constantia, and bought a painting.  Bought a huge picture.  Bought the most expensive picture of my life so far.  The VAT I wouldn’t have to pay if I exported it would cover the cost of shipping it to Scotland. Ho ho.  I still have that painting hanging in my living room and I look at it many times each day, and I’ve never regretted buying it.

Shell shocked after the purchase I went to the nearby winery intent on joining the advertised tour, only to find that there wouldn’t be one as (a) I was the only person there and (b) there was no guide.  Instead I was offered a wine tasting in a room clearly designed to accommodate 4 coachloads at a time.  I was met by a bored woman.  To encourage conversation in the otherwise potentially awkward situation (in case I would be expected to talk with any knowledge about wine) I decide to offer up Russia as a conversational opening.  Bought a bottle of Merlot/Shiraz and threw it in the back of the car.

Reading through the diary these two things are repeated at frequent intervals: talking to people about Russia, as I found that it was a good way to generate chat, and buying a bottle of wine.  Those, and recording the advice I kept receiving that I must not be out after dark, which in effect meant arriving at my destination by 6pm.

I also frequently wrote about finding a congenial spot in which to sit and either watch the world go by, or to read, at the time, Babel Tower, by AS Byatt.  A big fat book bought in Cape Town.  It didn’t make it back to the UK with me, so I’m wondering if I recorded where I left it!

I made frequent comments about the reliability of the information on my guide book – The Lonely Planet – and also noted down each time a person gave me a recommendation which didn’t tally with the book.  One great source of advice was H, the landlady of a B&B I stayed in twice in Stellenbosch.  Now I read the journal I remember the long conversations I had with her.

She couldn’t hide her fascination with the fact that I was travelling alone, a thought which had never previously occurred to her.  She was only one of the people with whom I had oddly intense conversations.  I ask myself if the people I have met share so much about themselves with everyone, and wonder if I am peculiarly privileged/afflicted. 

While writing my last entry in South Africa, while waiting for my flight to Perth at Johannesburg airport, I noted that I’d done 2,200 km in the hire car.

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  1. You left your book under a tree at Kirstenbosch Gardens. I found it.

  2. I’ve noticed those intense, oddly personal conversations are a privilege/affliction very common for solo female travellers!

    • It’s difficult not to sound ungrateful for the hospitality and ‘connection’, but sometimes I did feel rather overwhelmed by it – and for a period when I was in Australia, after a particularly intense encounter, I avoided B&Bs and stayed in hotels and motels instead!

      • Got right in your face, eh? That’s a shame – my apologies, on behalf of some of my countrymen. I’ve encountered it too, just a little too familiar sometimes – bordering on the creepy. On the other hand, it can sometimes be almost lifesaving, or situation-saving, and a great help when you’re on the lookout for the ‘authentic’ as opposed to what’s on the tourist schedule. And for those occasions, I tend to grit my teeth and bear the former.

      • You’re absolutely right – and by far and away the majority of people I met along the way were wonderful, but once or twice I felt trapped by too much familiarity.

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