So my beloved and I, with various family members in tow, took a December road trip to the seaside. On the way there and back, we decided to travel slightly off the normal route and visit some of the smaller towns between Jozi and the Cape.
On the way there, we stayed at the royal Hotel in Bethulie. (I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Royal Hotels because there’s got to be some kind of interesting royalty-ridden story behind the name. According to our encyclopaedic host, Tony Hocking, that’s not really true – most Royal Hotels have no good reason to call themselves such.) Besides the incredible honour of spending time with Tony, whose knowledge of the area’s history is gob-smacking, he’s also got an enormous collection of books which line just about every wall in the hotel. For book lovers, it’s definitely got a feel of Hotel California (you can check out but you can never leave).
So, we were sitting chatting to him at the bar with a beautifully chilled G&T in hand when he asked if we wanted to see a concert pianist in action. Sure, why not we said. We weren’t too sure what to expect, but arranged to meet back at the bar at 5:30 after we’d done a quick whizz around the area and walked across the longest road/rail bridge in the area.
When we returned, Tony was ready to frog-march us up the road to the pianist’s house (and there I was picturing high tea in the lounge with a dude diddling the ivories in the background). We walked a couple of blocks, trailed by two other guests (one of whom had a cast on her leg) and were deposited on the stoep of a cute little house.
Benjamin Fourie, the concert pianist, opened the door and invited in to his ‘voorkamer’. The biggest thing in the room was his grand piano, pushed into a corner to accommodate a few armchairs and a couch. Intimate indeed. It felt a little candid-cameraish; until he started to play, that is. For an hour, Benjamin took us on a journey of emotive rollercoastering that we’re unlikely to ever forget. Each piece he played was thoroughly introduced and its history and various other details outlined.
None of us are particularly clued up on classical music and would probably never intentionally go to a piano concert, but all of us were affected deeply. It was deeply surreal – the setting, the dusty street, the quietness of the town, Benjamin’s playing and our travel engrained outfits. We of course had to invite the maestro to join us for dinner and proceeded to have a fascinating evening.
On the way back, we stayed in a little town called Smithfield and were also serenaded. But in a completely different vein to our first stop. Here we stayed in a highly quirky little guest house painted a hideous shade of purple but so artfully decorated we couldn’t help take millions of photographs. The owner, Johann, was as quirky as his house and while we braaied on his stoep, he played a few tunes on his guitar. After a leisurely conversation, we managed to squeeze out of Johann what he’d done in his previous life (before high-tailing it to a tiny town in the Freestate) and among other things, he confessed that he had the dubious honour of producing the very first Afrikaans porn movie.
After that big reveal, he mentioned that he’d asked his gardener come the next morning dressed in his traditional Basotho outfit and that there’d be a great photo opportunity for us. So, after an interesting breakfast, we lined up the cameras and waited for the gardener (named Oupa) to appear. He’d brought Johann an outfit too, so the photos were even more fun.
Just two little towns ostensibly un the middle of nowhere have given us enough stories and moments to fill a book and will certainly last forever. So, from now on, we’ve decided to never drive straight through a small town, but to stop and actively seek out at least one of the interesting characters sure to be hiding in plain sight.