Nature’s Valley

John Simpson

You are leaving: Bloemfontein


I am jotting this down in the hot afternoon sunshine in a café in a charming little South African dorp called Graaff Reinet: a brief stop-off on my journey from Bloemfontein in the Free State to a quiet seaside village on the south coast of the Western Cape called Nature’s Valley. The journey is just short of a thousand kilometres, as best as I can judge; perfectly easy to tackle in 11 or so hours. Somehow, the things that would seem impossible or illegal on the small, restricted roads of Europe present no problem at all on the empty, dusty roads here in Africa.

The shadows stretch right across the wide road, laid out for ex-wagons, and touch the delightful Victorian buildings on the other side. This is the moment when I should get out my map, to see how far I’ve come and how much farther I have to go. Before I left I would have memorised the remaining route, checked the places where other roads crossed, looked up places of interest along the way, tried to visualise the lie of the land and the pattern of the mountains, imagined what the little towns along the way might be like. More than one campaign in the Boer War was fought in this area, so the road passes through various battlefields. I would have looked them up, found out who lost and who won, who was present, what books they wrote about it afterwards...

Not now. Somehow, everything has changed. At first light this morning, instead of opening my map – or indeed even buying one – I plugged in the little GPS gadget I had picked up from the car hire company and entered the words ‘Nature’s Valley’; by some marvel which I would find it impossible to explain to, say, my six-year-old son, the gadget had already found out exactly where I was: in the car park of my hotel. It had even spotted where in the car park I was. It was like being in one of those movies where the CIA tracks people down from space, with special sound effects each time the camera zooms in closer on them. (In fact, in my admittedly 1064.4kmslight professional experience of these things as a journalist, the CIA observers often manage to home in on the wrong person, or misunderstand what he or she is doing, or – surprisingly frequently – can’t obtain a decent picture in the first place. But that’s a completely different story.)

Here I am, then, typing in ‘Nature’s Valley’ and hoping, patronisingly, that the apostrophe has reached southern Africa. It has. I then have to give a street name and number for a place as far away as the Swiss border is from London. The GPS mutters to itself, then tells me in a Kate Middleton accent that it is ready to work out my route – but would I prefer to take the fast route or the dynamic one?  I’m all for things being dynamic, I think, so I choose that. The GPS comes up with an answer of sorts: 1195.1kmstarting with the suggestion that I turn left into President Steyn Avenue.

Names, whether of streets, cities or provinces, have a particular power in post-apartheid South Africa. The city known to seven generations of Afrikaners and other whites as Bloemfontein is starting to take on the name of one of its non-white, nearby townships: Mangaung. The most liberal of white people often hate this. My wife, whose political credentials are impeccable, is furious that the name of South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, should still be under threat; her great-great-great-grandfather was Andres Pretorius, a ferocious Boer leader who fought his way across the face of South Africa in command of a train of wagons, and in the place where they finally stopped, established a settlement which he modestly called after himself.

I obediently turn left into President Steyn Avenue. No one seems to want to change the name of a road named after the President of the Orange Free State (now, for occult reasons, renamed simply ‘the Free State’) during the Boer War. They haven’t even changed the name of 12103kmHendrik Verwoerd Road, I notice;  Hendrik Verwoerd being the crackbrain who put high apartheid into operation, and was later shot and finally stabbed to death, more or less as a result.

set out. Music, talking books (Dickens seems to work best – entertaining without being too distracting), chewing gum and stopping occasionally for petrol to keep me awake and attentive, and I blast southwards along roads of which I know nothing, guided by Kate Middleton: “Keep right in four hundred metres, then continue for two hundred and fifty kilometres.”  Kate, irritatingly, pronounces it “kilòmmetres”, American-style; she ought to know better.

But I haven’t gone far before I realise that something is seriously wrong. I don’t have the faintest idea where I am. I understand, of course, that I’m continuing along the N6 for another hundred kilòmmetres; but where I have reached, what I am passing, what mountains these are, what the little settlements along the way are called, I simply have no idea. If it weren’t for the help of the sun, I wouldn’t even know I am heading south-south-west. Were Kate Middleton to give up on me now, I won’t have the vaguest idea where I’m going. I’d be as lost as if a gang of kidnappers blindfolded me and drove me to some unidentified spot and dumped me by the side of the road.


I have been taken hostage by a little GPS machine the size of my mobile phone. Only it knows where we are going.  Only it will tell me when we get there. I may have paid for the thing, but it is my master. I am heading across the deserts and plains and mountain passes of central South Africa with as little knowledge of where I am and what I am about as Andres Pretorius himself – except that he had the assistance of an army of local guides. My only guide is the GPS machine, and it doesn’t tell me anything except that I should get ready to turn right in five hundred metres.

This, then, is the death of the map as guide, as help-meet, as guardian. No one has taught my GPS the basic rudiments of safety. No one has input the political rules of the road, South Africa-style. The dynamic route along which I am being taken leads me far way from the bland main roads where the police cars patrol and other motorists will stop to help you if you break down. On these small roads I head straight through the Eastern Cape townships which white motorists are usually very careful to avoid. I am indeed the only white driver for much of this part of my route. My fuel is getting low, but there is no garage to stop at. People stop to watch me as I drive through, my white face glimmering nervously through the windscreen.

As it turns out, I am able to pass through these townships perfectly safely, and I don’t suppose there is ever a moment of the slightest danger. Still, in recent years South Africa has been by some way the most violent country on earth, so perhaps it isn’t entirely suitable territory for taking the dynamic route anywhere. The problem comes when you cede control over yourself, your car and your plans to a little gadget the size of a small radio. Global positioning by satellite is magical, wonderful, a miracle of its kind, but there is more to geography than just going from one place to another.

So now that the map is dead, and bland voices give you your directions, what do we do? Soon, I suppose, our cars will be driven for us by machines which will be far more sophisticated than our present GPSs, so that we will be able to sit in the front seat with nothing to do but read maps and guide-books to our heart’s content. It may take a bit of negotiation with the machine that does the driving and the machine that does the map-reading, but eventually, no doubt, we’ll be able to avoid the pockets of crime and violence and take the quieter, safer, less interesting roads.

So what, then, will my maps look like? If I don’t need to look out for President Steyn Avenue or Oliver Tambo Drive or Robert Mugabe 183.1kmHighway, or watch for the place where the N6 crosses the N12, 199.8kmor find a place to get petrol, I will have the leisure to concentrate on other things. I can spot where the Xhosa used to gather, or the20450m Zulus raided, or the Voortrekkers passed. I can work out the area where the British Army set up its base camp before the Battle of Elandslaagte, and look for the burial mounds where the dead 2135.3kmlie.

I assume I won’t have a paper map, but an electronic guide which, like the GPS, will be run from a distant satellite, controlled by technology which I can scarcely comprehend. It too will have a Kate Middleton voice, but I’m distinctly partial to being directed by cool, pleasant accents anyway. I shall be a tourist, a passenger, an onlooker, an observer, an explorer who is pulled across the face of Africa by mechanical slaves 2130.9kminstead of human beings. It will be more and more passive, and more and more safe.

But to be honest, I don’t like any of it. I shall head out from Graaff Reinet directly after I’ve finished writing this and paid for my coffee and biscuits, and although I shall need the GPS to get out of town I shall switch it off as quickly as I can. Then I shall follow my nose. I’m sure I’ll get to2115.1kmmy ultimate destination safely, and I’m equally sure I won’t drive through any townships. Soldiers used to talk about the Mark 1 human; perhaps they still do. It means real people as 2110.8kmopposed to machines. This Mark 1 human is declaring his independence and heading off with nothing but the map inside his head to guide him. I prefer it that way, and I 25400msuspect most of us do.


You have arrived at: Nature’s Valley.