A weekend motorbike visit to the Groot Marico

Steve and Carole Eilertsen. stevei@icon.co.za (comments welcome!)

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For the adventurous motorcycle rider willing to stop and talk to the locals, the Groot Marico district is a favourite - a must-visit gem of moody magic.

'There is no other place I know that is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life that bears the authentic stamp of South-Africa."

Herman Charles Bosman

Groot Marico .  .  everybody has heard of it as a result of reading Herman Charles Bosmon. When you say however that you have actually been there their eyes get a glazed look and they say, ‘Is it a real place? Where is it?’ The answer to this is on the way to Gaborone, two hours West of Johannesburg South Africa. 

This would be our second visit. The first was a memorable weekend about two years ago . . .  the weekend of the “Kerk Fees” (Afrikaans church family fun day) This is a day when the whole region arrives and food and activities keeps everybody occupied till late into the night. 

The memories of that weekend continued to amuse us as we planned our new weekend trip. For example the church raffle. The first and second prizes were prominently displayed on poles outside the church entrance. One was a 800kg Kudu buck, its glassy eyes staring upwards and his black swollen tongue sticking out of its mouth! The second was a 600kg reed buck in a similar state . . . what happened to the church raffle prizes of my English city youth of a hamper of fruit and nuts from the local deli? The mind boggles had we won either of them. Can you imagine the faces at our town house complex as my wife and I ‘gamely’ struggled to drag the body up the narrow stairs by its horns? 

Then there was the story telling. The tent was packed with young and old as a middle-aged woman with starchy permed hair in her colour-coded Sunday best took to the stage. Within minutes her story had us on the farm where Jakkals (the smartest animal, akin to Brer Fox) was enticing the greedy Bobbejaan (Baboon) for his own personal gain. The storyteller’s 3 inch high-heel shoes banging on the wooden platform provided all the informal punctuation needed to keep the action-packed story racing along at a furious pace. 

This new trip was to be in a similar vein as our chosen weekend was the “Co-Op Fees”. As a city boy I am hard pressed to know exactly what a Co Op is. It seems to be where the local farmers can buy anything and everything at prices that would make us city dwellers drool at the mouth  . . . if you cared to own 500m of fencing wire of course! 

The faithful Internet brought up the Tourist Board’s web site, a basic but very informative site that listed the local accommodation and contact telephone numbers. A lady ran the tourist board by the name of Sante. We took down her number and put on our best Afrikaans accent in an attempt to book a two-night stay somewhere…anywhere.  Luckily she spoke English well and we quickly reverted to a familiar language to discuss our plans for the weekend.  

A quick pack into the panniers of our BMW F650 motorbike and we were off.  The soothing thump of our single cylinder would be our only companion for the next hour until our first petrol stop.  A relaxing lunch at Western Cane Trading Store in Magaliesburg was a perfect stop-off to relieve our sore butts.  They had become quite unaccustomed to the hard saddle due to a long, cold winter and few long rides. Why do motorcycle manufacturers get most things right but the ergonomics of the saddle remains a mystery to them? 

We drove into the little town of Groot Marico. The town is dusty and old, with a local convenience store, a café, bakery and the ever-present furniture store.  The most popular place is the local hotel pub, which is well frequented by the locals and tourists alike.  Everything is a little dingy but it is wonderfully different.  A lost world filled with history and legends. The small town that Herman Charles Bosman wrote so passionately about, but here is the thing  . . . you visit Groot Marico for the people you will meet, the things you will see and the experiences you will have. This is why a “Fees” weekend is most suitable. 

Sante had booked us into the emergency room within the tourist boards offices considering that the rest of the area was booked solid.  Nothing luxurious but we were happy to have a place to stay. The huge advantage of this was that Sante was therefore our host and a mighty fine one at that! 

Sante sat on the porch drinking honeybush tea and dipping home made rusks while chatting to some tourists.  This was a women who oozed character and passion for her town. Dressed in an unidentifiable baggy pair of khaki pants and shirt, she had a strangely academic look about her.  

Santes tourist office is not just a place to collect brochures as many of them are. This is a living experience! The first is her hearty welcome accompanied with an invitation to sample some of the local mampoer. I am told that mampoer is a peach brandy. This is hard to comprehend, as it has nothing in common with either if taste is anything to go by. I can easily understand the tales of crazed American Indians drinking ‘fire water’ and then going on the warpath – mampoer is the stuff that did it I’m sure! Fortunately Sante’s establishment has the sense to serve a more upmarket version i.e. a mampoer and honey blend. Nice, very nice. 

Next on the To Do list was the honeybush tee – the real stuff, not the fancy version you get in white tea bags at an overpriced northern suburbs deli. Brought up from Cape Town in a huge Hessian sack this tea is made from the dried, yellow flowers of the honeybush. The buds are large, about twice the size of pepper corns, and lie in the bottom of your cup. The tea itself is different and refreshing but this is not the thing . . . when your cup is empty you spoon the buds up and eat them! With an initial taste of dry, veld grass the chewer who perseveres is rewarded with a subtle but delightful flavour. You just have to try it sometime! 

After trying all these things we set off to the Co-op festival on the banks of the local dam. Riding two up on our F650 motorbike on the 12km dirt road was made of the stuff that got us into biking in the first place. A kind of 4 x 4 touring on 2 wheels without the jacks, cylinders, spades and kitchen sink that goes with that kind of life style. 

The area was buzzing with activity.  There were tractors of all shapes and sizes and a small hall whose air was thick with the sharp smell of chemicals and fertilizers. Other stands had all the usual country crafts that one would expect from candles to pottery. We of course joined the locals in the beer tent and watched the Miss Groot Marico beauty pageant. I marvel that you can go any place in the world, urban or rural, rich or poor, and each place has a beavy of beautiful young women to set any young man’s heart a-thumping. 

After spending some time pretending to appreciate the finer points of farming machinery we lay under the trees on some bales of hay and watched the approaching darkness creep into the African sky. During this time we saw the white flash of a falling meteorite cross half the evening sky before falling to Earth. This was no ‘falling star’ that ones sees two or three times a year. The long tail of white fire that moved relatively slowly across the sky was breath taking.  One could understand the people of old, who on seeing signs in the sky would wonder what great event or calamity would soon befall them. 

This brings me to the magic of the area called Groot Marico. Not the tinsel town stuff, but something a lot deeper, moody and ominous. The area has a reputation! A moody magic that skulks and shifts through the deep shadows under the spreading African foliage. A mischievous magic, not altogether good, that can slip unnoticed into your very soul – or so they say. Make up your own mind once my story is done. 

The area’s reputation and with the meteorite still fresh in my mind the idea of riding back to town on roads I did not know late at night did not appeal to me much. The prospect of a local singer singing country was not enough reason to make me ignore my uneasiness and so we hopped back onto the bike and headed for town on an unknown route that offered us a tar surface rather than the dirt we had used earlier. Even as I rode into the darkness I could hear the old adage about motorcycling in Africa i.e. Never travel at night! Therefore you can understand my relief when we pulled into our accommodation 30 minutes later. 

We had told Sante the day before that we would like a traditional Groot Marico breakfast. She kept asking if we were sure as being English we would probably be expecting croissants, jam, egg and bacon. Somehow we knew Santa had a whole new menu up her sleeve and therefore we were game to give it a try. 

Breakfast was “Pap en Alles” a big pot of 'pap' (stiff white maize porridge) and several plates of 'everything' including tomatoes, avo, jam, toast, sausage and a spicy scrambled egg and bacon mixture.  Apparently the locals eat a plate of pap every morning and dump whatever leftovers from the night before on top of the porridge! This left me in a predicament. If I was going to have tomatoes, sausage, onions and scrambled egg on top of my porridge, do I still add milk and sugar as well??! I never solved this and yes it was a strange breakfast, but we enjoyed the whole experience enormously.  

Over our pap, eggs and avo we chatted to Santa about her life in Groot Marico.  She had earned a degree in Sociology and had met her husband who was older than herself and boasted quite a few degrees himself. Her husband was the perfect symbol of the typical Herman Charles Bosmon character – a tall thin man with an enormous grey beard and curly grey hair. His skin was dark from the sun and he smoked a long pipe while contemplating life over a cup of coffee on the stoep.  Before they married, Sante had to come to terms with a few basic principals i.e. her new home did not, and would never have electricity, running water or inside ablution facilities. Cooking would always be done using alternative energy sources. At this point we were shown their sun cooker - a simple box affair into which one placed a kettle or pot. This was then taken outside and placed in the sun.  This was cooking the eco-friendly way without wasting mineral energy. 

Sante’s husband was obviously a man with a formidable reputation for his knowledge of the land and wise use of natural resources.  Even as we were speaking a film crew from Finland was spending the weekend with him making a documentary on alternative, natural remedies from the area. 

We also met one of the local ladies whose father lived in a room in the old police station. He was a man in his early 90’s. A few months previously he had refused to ever bath or wash again.  His daughter felt terrible about this and decided to sneak in and wash his bedding.  When it was returned, he was furious and refused to sleep in the clean bed. He took an old blanket and moved to the couch where he has slept ever since! 

My wife Carole and I looked at one another. We searched the fleeting shadows under the spreading trees that filled the indigenous garden around the information centre. Maybe there is a moody magic that skulks and shifts through the deep shadows under the spreading African foliage. A mischievous magic, not altogether good, that can slip unnoticed into your very soul while you lie sleeping peacefully under the silvery moon. 

For weekend visitors however like ourselves Groot Marico is definitely a must-visit favourite. We have never stayed at one of the farms on the banks of the Groot Marico River, which is something we have to do next time – who knows what adventures we may have!

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