We are back on the road to Beaufort West the capital of the Karoo. This really is road trip country, with dramatic passes, stunning mountain ranges and vast open skies.
We decided to have lunch in Beaufort West and then stay over at the Karoo National Park before heading on our last leg to Cape Town. The highway runs right through the town, we immediately noticed that the town appears to have undergone something of a transformation from downright shabby to shabby chic, and one’s eye is drawn less to the fast food joints, and more to the history of the town – the typical Karoo buildings dotted here and there like flourishing succulents amongst stones.
Beaufort West is a thriving town and the town’s tourist information office was buzzing upon our arrival. The two ladies at the tourism office jumped through hoops to help us find information, not only of their town but anything in the vicinity too. We also picked up a book called Karoo Keepsakes by Chris Marias and Julienne du Toit. Karoo Keepsakes is more than a book. It’s a gift, a traveler’s companion and a dedication to the people and the places that make up the dry Heartland of South Africa. It is also a collection of photographs and words that give you an insider’s view of what’s to be found under the seemingly flat vastness of the Karoo.
Beaufort West’s streets are lined with pear trees, some which date back to the 1830s. Donkin Street, the main street through town, is dominated by hotels and guest houses. We decided to stop and have lunch at Ye Olde Thatch Restaurant. We were received with open arms and we decided to sit in the beautiful garden area. The restaurant specialises in a variety of Karoo lamb and seafood dishes. I ordered the Lamb Combo (Lamb’s liver & Net fat & Lamb Chops) and my companion order the Thatch Hunchback (Scotch fillet or rump coated with mustard, crumbed coating topped with mushroom sauce and a spatter of cheddar). Of course, there was none of the Joburg concern about healthy eating here.
The big plates of food soon arrived and judging on looks it would have caused Gorden Ramsey to utter his famous string of swear words. This was food prepared to taste good and not necessarily look good but it was rich and delicious. After a chat about our experience thus far, while ravaging through our large portions, we decided that there was no better way to see the town than on foot. This would definitely help with working off the glorious calories we had just eaten before we continued our journey to the Karoo National Park, but not before we each had a helping of delicious Olive Ice Cream. With full stomachs, we bid Ye Olde Thatch farewell and went in search of the famous MC Ellis Fietswinkel (a recommendation from our waiter).
Walking down Bird Street we spot the MC Ellis Fietswinkel, the front of the shop is full of old-time announcements, declaring that the man inside will sell or fix bicycles, locks, and guns for cash. We walk in and after our eyes adjust to the sudden gloom after the harsh Karoo sunlight outside, we spot Tim Ellis, a large man in a blue shirt.
It’s a shop and a museum all thrown together in a marvelously random manner. Keyrings, box cameras, the famous Ellis ginger beer, old time fire extinguishers, zimmer frames with broken wheels, rows of Primus blow torches, clams and bikes, and more bikes. There are even bicycles hanging from the ceiling. One of them is hand-made, with wooden wheels, a driveshaft, and a cog. The other is the bike Tim’s mom used to cycle to school with in the mid-1930’s.
The shop is living proof that if you hang around long enough there’s every chance they’ll be back in fashion some day. Tim Ellis and his shop appear in Karoo Keepsakes 1, now available in print and e-Book format from the Karoo Space Bookstore. Why not order your copy here.
It never fails to amaze me how most would always assume that all there is to a town is its main road, one can leave a town with completely the wrong impression. Although in Beaufort West’s case, the main road is central to something of a tale. The story goes that Sir Rufane Donkin, after whom the street is named and who was acting governor of the Cape for a year from 1820, lost his wife whilst stationed in India. Such was his love for her that he had her heart embalmed and took it everywhere with him, finally choosing to be buried with it in England on his death. Whether the story makes you all warm and fuzzy is debatable, but it’s an interesting titbit.
Beaufort West lies in what is regarded as the world’s richest collecting ground for ancient reptile fossils, and collections have made their way to museums not only in South Africa but also in Europe and the United States. We had planned to take the Fossil Trail at the nearby Karoo National Park to learn more about them.
It’s sad to leave such a surprisingly interesting town, with its old-time architecture, and sense of quaint vitality. We will be back to further our experience as I am aware there is so much more to see. Next stop the Karoo National Park about 20 km outside Beaufort West. It doesn’t take longer than a couple of minutes to drive through the town and along the way we passed a couple of donkey carts, one of the major forms of transport of the Karoo.
Next week we will share with you our encounter with therapsids in the Karoo National Park. Till then we leave you with a clip of one of Beaufort West’s most famous sons – David Kramer gave a TEDx Talk in Johannesburg called The Sound of Silence Invisible musicians of the Karoo he received a standing ovation after the talk.