Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Life in Karoo Country… or, Put Your Best Face Forward

-Elizabeth Storey-Lawson -

My small island country finally allowed automobiles on our roads in the late 1960’s. Until then, boats, horses, mules, bicycles and feet had provided adequate means of transport. The government in its wisdom: simply poured tar over the existing carriage tracks and bicycles lanes, severely restricted the size of body and engine capacity, and curtailed speed to 35 kilometres per hour – conveniently, exactly the time it takes to transverse the entire length of land. There are no shoulders, hard or soft. Most corners are ‘blind’ and roadside vegetation, beautiful and lush, obscures superbly. Speeding fines will soon deplete Midas’ purse and if convicted of drunk-driving, one’s licence is forfeited for life.

Obtaining a driver’s licence, at age 21, is an ordeal in mechanical skill and knowledge of arcane law. The written test emphasizes questions on when to give way to horses, hearses and, at all times, tourists who may not hire cars and are limited to riding motorbikes with an engine slightly smaller than the average sewing machine. The driving test, taken in the environs of the capital city, mandates extensive knowledge of the warren of one-way streets, all of which are unmarked. And, reversing down a triple – S-curve, identical to most driveways. (Land is just too precious to waste on turn-arounds.) A family, no matter how many members therein, may have only one car and yearly registration requires that it be in perfect working order with not a single dent, scratch or rust spot.

Of all the adjustments needed for my new life in South Africa, driving is one of the most demanding! Lorries travel at ‘warp speed’ and verges are shared by pedestrians, hawkers, stray stock and blown tyre shards. Three lanes means being passed on either side, brakes lights are a luxury, and indicator signals remembered, if at all, after the move has been made.

Our farm road, on the other hand, is an exercise in pothole roller-coastering. One is never out of second gear and the life expectancy of a tyre is about 4 months. Kudu pose more of a danger than Cape Town mini-buses and farm gates are likely to blow closed when I am only halfway through. My husband insisted upon my getting professional 4x4 training just to traverse the 10km of our property to home.

Tragically, our section of the N1, half way between Laingsburg and Beaufort West, is one of the deadliest in the country. Deservedly so, there are police inspection stops every week. So, after innumerable examinations of my small, innocuous and very unofficial looking foreign licence, I was convinced by various traffic police to finally obtain a proper South African driving permit.

With girded loins and gritted teeth, ominously forewarned about the trials of dealing with the Motor Vehicle Department, I hied myself to Beaufort West. What relief to be told that South Africa kindly issues a life-time driver’s licence to those fortunate few who come from a country which drives on the left! (There are 64 – the last pink bits of the old British Empire – and oddities such as Sri Lanka, Surinam and Sikkim!) No tests, no fingerprints, but a photograph was required.

On the stoep an ancient lady sat waiting with an even more ancient Polaroid camera. Ah, but “Vanity, thy name is woman.” Cringing at the memory of my passport picture, I begged her patience whilst I did much needed face and hair repairs. My presence, and my primping, attracted a wide and highly bemused audience. Lipsticked and brushed, I settled in my chair and asked of the tolerant photographer, “Should I smile or look serious?”

Karoo humour too knows few bounds. One spectator leaned forward, and with a wisdom garnered from long experience, whispered in my ear: “Mama,” he counselled, “Better you should look innocent!”

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