“THEY ARE locking their love away”, an instantly likeable fellow quipped whilst huddled with an intimate group of fellow travellers above the Vaal River.
He made this part cynical remark whilst surrounded by numerous padlocks of varying sizes and hues with hundreds of messages inscribed on them – suspended on the narrow 1919 Parys Suspension Bridge, and whilst below, gaiety-pumped urchins swam, together with a pet dog, in the rather green water of the provinces- straddling and Life-sustaining river.
This scene on a scorching Saturday morning by the waterfront side of the picturesque Free State town of Parys, played itself out as shades of the French river Seine and the world-renown ritual where the romantic at heart from across the globe expressly visit Paris and perform the wont of scribbling declarations of dedication on padlocks and thereafter chain them on bridge railings – flooded one’s imagination!
At that spot, the tourists’ collective anvil-hammer-and-stirrup also get to hear from the affable and soft-spoken tour guide that the name Parys is Afrikaans for Paris.
That was on the second day of a media excursion en-route to South Africa’s sixth largest city, judicial capital and one fondly referred to as, “the city of roses”, Bloemfontein – for the 2018 edition of the Metro FM Heatwave sonic splash!
Rewinding to the genesis of what was to be an adventurous three day ride kicked-off from the now familiar South African Tourism premises in Sandton, of a Friday morning. Walking into the staff canteen, I was immediately met with greetings and offered breakfast by two young ladies, Sherileen Swales [Marketing and Communications Officer for South Africa – Sho’t Left] and Lungi Ndaki [FCB Account Manager] – representatives of the entities who facilitated the whole media junket.
Straight-away, a realization of contradiction dawned on my racing mind when, upon exchanging introductions with a trio of instantly friendly gentlemen, I learned that they had just arrived from Bloemfontein!
But how did it make any sense that the Mangaung Issue’s Teboho Masakala, the Free State Sun’s Bongani Tshabalala and The Mail’s Sidwell Guduka, had just landed in Johannesburg from Bloemfontein – only to be embarking on a drive back to their hometown? Well, the logic of that scenario peradventure lay in the slogan: Nothing’s more fun than a Sho’t Left.
Armed with goodie bags safely placed, together with our sizeable luggage, inside a trailer – seven of us were soon driving on the M1 southbound motorway, in Vuka Tours’ owner Zwai Roda’s Mercedes Vito, enroute to our first itinerary in the Midvaal countryside. The duo of social media savvy ladies, Swales and Ubuntu Radio presenter, Thelma Ngobeni, accompany us.
Subjected to Mother Nature’s own brand of a heatwave, with the mercury registering some 35 degree centigrade around Karma Game Ranch in the Midvaal district, we found ourselves making the acquaintance of two Tapimanzi Adventures representatives. On a bank of the tranquil flowing Suikerwater River flanked by a vast agrarian setting surrounded by healthy-looking cattle grazing in the proximity with numerous cute calves [mainly twins, Roda noted] and tractors in the distance – tour guide, the deadpan- humoured Melusi Magagula prepared our group for the first activation referred to as tubing – which entailed floating in the river whilst lying on proportionate tire tubes and paddling downstream with one’s own hands!
Clad in lifejackets and crash helmets, and after making mental notes of the requisite instructions, we were soon gliding across the length of the delightfully cool water as we covered a distance of a rough estimation of a kilometre, encountering mild rapids along the way. All that while, Magagula recorded the excitement on a small but handy and clear waterproof Go Pro Hero 5 camera – alternatively in video and stills modes.
At some wide point of the water, Ngobeni revealed her jovial and improvisational side by proposing that Magagula film the group’s own take of the currently trending, “#Malwedhe Challenge” [a craze where circles have taken to showcasing their reaction to hit maker, King Monada’s Malwedhe festive season hit song].
Immediately posted on the junket’s WhatsApp group named, Metro FM Heatwave- BLM, the video shows the five of us boisterously slumping backward onto the tubes in unison, shortly after having chorused the lines: “It’s your country, enjoy it – harele mometsing, rea Idibala!” The Sotho part translates, “when we are in the water, we collapse.”
Back on the bank point we began from and now dried and having changed into fresh clothing, our status in having safely and commendably taken the experience in our stride, was rewarded with a very filling riverside picnic spread whose dessert entailed fruit kebabs of blueberry, papaya, strawberry, melon and grapes – with those meticulously presented arranged on a wooden crate interspersed with ice blocks!
With strangers now seemingly long-lost acquaintances and the current location impressioned upon the members of the fourth estate as a manifestation of the Search and Discover niche that Roda’s Vuka Tours specialises in – we were soonly drift-tricycling on an isolated incline beginning on a medium gradient hill and ending at the feet section situated at the entrance into the Karma Game Ranch.
With helmets assuredly on, the activity entailed racing downhill on tri-cycles sans pedals but with just handbrakes – with the exhilaration quotient being derived from expertly slaloming in a drifting manoeuvre as the rider balances gathered speed and whilst strategically braking for both the machine and body swings, all the while, whilst negotiating the incline! The drifting aspect is a skill one cannot simply master in two rides [as was the case with our group] and also the bumpy Macadam surface didn’t make for a smooth and much faster slide downhill!
I was early eventide when we left the ranch for our overnight destination, while negotiating a gravel road in the dark after having bade au revoir to the Tapimanzi crew.
After an hour on the road, we reached the Riverside Sun, located on the bank of the Vaal River, outside Vereeniging. With all the previous afternoon’s activities whilst subjected to the unrelenting heat – a freshening up was in order before a rendezvous at the hotel’s restaurant for dinner.
The establishment offered a buffet and over munching and swigging back of beverages, conversation amongst the group flowed at a steady and fulfilled pace – whilst punctuated by musing and laughter. It soon occurred that we were sharing space with actors and crew from the local SABC drama, 7deLaan, who were having an awards and year-end ceremony.
Saturday morning had us meeting up in the same restaurant, this time for a laid-back breakfast before check-out. Those who had awoken early revealed that they took the opportunity to indulge in a riverside walk along the bank of the river, whilst spotting other guests enjoying passing boat cruises.
After breakfast, some in our group had a chance to interact with some of the soap’s stars by sharing pleasantries and snapping photographs. Although still in the morning, the ambience at the hotel was one of anticipation for accruing more of what the weekend and Life had in store, as families mingled in the spirit of affirmation – with such a mode nowhere put into perspective than on the front page of the Saturday Citizen newspaper, which alluded to it being a weekend to back the men in green and gold.
With the cricketing Proteas, Bafana Bafana, Springboks, Kevin Anderson and Banyana Banyana in action- which country’s sports fans were spoiled on a scale.
Shades on and gleefully chewing on fruit pastilles and biltong provided on board our touring bus, our company now found itself passing vast tracts of landscape dotted with windmills on either side of the road and stretching to as far as the naked eye could make out – en-route to the idyllic town of Parys located on the banks of the forever meandering Vaal River. Described on a Free State’s Big 5 brochure as an artists’ mecca of arts & crafts s
hops boasting no less than 42 restaurants – the itinerary was, as previously mentioned somewhere in this travelogue, the scene of the allude about “love being locked away.”
On a town square referred to as the Lienbenberg Strek, under a huge oak tree, stood the red bricked Parys Museum. And it was hereat that we effected the brief acquaintance of tour operator, Renee de Jong Hartslief [who was filling in for the establishment’s curator] and the welcoming Keakabetse Ramokonopi.
Occupied at the museum’s front gate unfurling a tourism banner promoting what is known as the Lion Route segment [incorporating the towns of Deneysville, Sasolburg, Parys, Vredefort and Kroonstad] of the Free State Big 5 – Ramokonopi, fondly nicknamed, “Phontho”, is the Fezile Dabi District, Lion Route ambassador. Surrounded by framed prints of giant artist, JH Pierneef’s sketches of Free State landscapes, she and de Jong Hartslief indulged us in a brief overview of the place and the area.
Having moved from the suspension bridge on the dorpie’s waterfront, being a photographer, I immediately became drawn to Niki’s Vintage Studio, one of the arts & crafts addresses – to be soon spotted excitedly fiddling with a big box 18 century Collodion camera displayed inside the exquisitely furnished studio.
Receptionist, friendly Ansie Teklenburg obliged a request to photograph her rearranging an appealing artefact container decorated with Marilyn Monroe’s image, next to a porcelain tea set located on a wooden cupboard. With a variety of enticing props ranging from a Victorian era wardrobe, Welcome Dover coal-stove and previous centuries’ miscellany, the studio, located on the town’s main street, has resident photographers who can transform clients into colonial or spaghetti western-esque denizens!
Far away from home, even a portrait of Mamelodi musician, Don Laka, had pride of place on one of the studio’s walls – tastefully surrounded by a requisite frame complementing its monochromatic tone.
Stepping across the town’s main street with Ngobeni, looking very much in place in a flowing light floral skirt, a picnic hat and sunglasses – we retreated to an establishment which boasts the most berserk candy store Dennis the Menace could ever encounter and a restaurant with simply stikkende interior deco a homemaker could ever dream of! Lost and specifically looking for sour worms’ treats within the all-matters-sweets space, one’s nostrils instantly become met by contesting pungent smells the stuff of a realm resembling a Katzenjammer Kids kinda paradise fix.
Whilst within the restaurant space, below a wall displaying a panel of Die Stem, a family tucked away into hearty fare on a table adorned with a Singer sewing machine!
Crossing the Vaal River, as well as the border between the Free State and North West provinces, we then headed to Kopjeskraal, although located in the latter province, yet basically on the outskirts of Parys lying in the former province!
Our drive followed Phontho’s on a gravel road leading to a plot address. This was Sean Barradas’ The Dog & Fig Brewery situated plumb right within the Vredefort Dome!
We were booked to having lunch on a World Heritage Site! According to the previously alluded to brochure, the dome is the oldest and largest meteorite impact structure on Earth.
Once at the brewery, our group joined other guests on a tour and lecture about the establishment, which also had a kiddie’s play area on its rustic grounds. Although only established in 2008, Barradas’ business has already racked up resume points such as having hosted three Oktoberfest’s to its reputation. And who would had thought matters hops and barley also had their own Periodic Table of Beer Styles?
Well, Sean and Morne Barradas’ brewery does, with the craft beer tipples on offer ranging both in hue and flavour from Weiss, Pilsner, Octfest, Alt, Irish Red and Stout – and sans putting too fine a point to the presentation – accompanied by a side dish of pretzels [that is if you are sampling].
Brewery tour concluded and having parted ways with Ramokonopi, we slid back across the Vaal into the Free State and now steady but surely headed for our destination: Bloemfontein.
Stopping over for a bathroom break at the Kroonstad Shell Ultra City, we were met by the delirious reactions of some of the petrol attendants sat on benches with eyes fixed on a flat screen in front of them. The reason: Bafana Bafana had just scored an equalizing goal in an African Nations Cup qualification fixture against Nigeria.
It was late in the afternoon when Roda pulled the Mercedes Vito into the parking lot of the Protea Hotel by Marriott Bloemfontein Willow Lake – our overnight digs in the capital of Mangaung.
Having checked-in and scattered to different rooms to refresh before we could head for the Metro FM Heatwave at the Sun Windmill Casino, it became such a welcoming sight when, upon drawing one’s room’s curtains – one was met by the sight of Zebra, varying bucks, ostriches and rabbits, just outside one’s window! This was thus on account of the hotel being located right next to none other than the Bloemfontein Zoo!
We eventually made our way to the venue of the sound splash, arriving in the early evening and immediately meeting up with representatives from both South African Tourism and Cheetah Route, Free State Gambling, Liquor & Tourism Authority.
Swales’ colleagues manned a stall which offered a Virtual Reality Experience in two forms, whereat visitors could snap selfies with a scenic backdrop or either become immersed in flashing images of adventure, culture and nightlife. They also issued questionnaires inquiring of visitors as to which province they’d like to travel to; what was their travel budget and which activities would they enjoy on holiday?
At that stage of what promised to be a long evening of sonic assault, the weather had even toned down, with a cool breeze permeating the casino grounds whilst all about, business in food, drinks and same-time photo mementos flourished.
Couples, colleagues, acquaintances occupied the foreground immediately proximate to the elevated performances stage, assuredly sitting assuredly on camping chairs and knocking back beverages ranging from wines, cerveza and other more pronounced spirits.
Directly opposite the stage, a huge white marquee housed the cigar-chomping, malt, champagne and cognac set.
With mini-skirted flesh and curve revealing revelers making their presence assertively felt – herein was the space where celebs such as event co-host, Somizi “Somgaga” Mhlongo, Lerato Kganyago, Mahoota, Vetkoek and Selimathunzi’s Baby Joe, hung.
Bedecked in designer labels and swanky sport suits [with the Lacoste he was wearing being nonchalantly described as pyjamas by DJ Vetkoek] dudes and their accomplices milked the tempo and mood of the occasion as it steadily built to a crescendo whose cherry on top was to be billed by the multi-award winning Kwesta.
In between featured acts, “Somgaga” had revelers in stitches with his alternatively hilarious antics – at some stage latching onto the #MalwedheChallenge and its propel
ler Silly Season anthem of “ho Idibala” by hinting at the fairer sex to also get their back at deviant spouses and boyfriends by making excuses of venturing out to go get onions for a planned meal and thereafter disappearing from the home front for a period of up to four days sans their whereabouts being traced.
Mock-laughing at his own playing-the-devil’s-advocate insinuation, “Somsom” went on to suggest that the ladies place the blame on “ho Idibala” [having fainted]. With that, the ever so stylishly dressed MC almost brought the whole house down! Needless to say, the heatwave endured on up to the wee hours of Sunday – by which time, Bloemfontein residents and visitors to the city have had their fill of lit up fun!
Come Sunday morning after brief slumber all around, breakfast by the hotel’s swimming pool whilst gazing at the game around the zoo’s grounds and checking-out – Roda then took our group on a tour of the city and its surrounds, starting along a canal section marking the exact spot that the city of roses was founded back in 1834.
We then proceeded on to a strip of the city declared a National Monument, namely, President Brand Street – impressively dotted with will-‘o-the-wisp architectural structures such as Raadsaals, as well as both the High and Appeal Courts. With statues in abundance, we could spot those of C R de Wet to Fidel Castro’s, among numerous others.
Driving towards some of the suburbs of the city, we caught a glimpse of 2nd Avenue, said to be the pulse of the city’s nightlife and also passed the official residence of the province’s premier – as we headed to the Oliewenhuis Art Museum and Gallery.
According to a brochure provided by the Protea Hotels group, the gallery is a Neo-Cape Dutch manor house whose purpose was to house Governor Generals and State Presidents during visits to Bloemfontein. In its present form, the gallery houses a permanent collection on its upper floor which, among other works, displays a sizeable JH Pierneef painting and a curious photograph of late AWB leader, Eugene Terreblanche interacting with a horse on a farm landscape. For an artistically-inclined soul, they don’t manifest better than Oliewenhuis!
Next on our menu was an excursion up Naval Hill, boasting one of the few nature reserves located within a city in the whole World, viz, The Franklin Game Reserve. A highlight was encountering a lone giraffe which partially obstructed our path whilst it blissfully munched on succor on a tree above the road.
Sans a care, it went about its immediate concern, continuing chewing on the upper leaves even after we disembarked our vehicles [along with other visitors] and strategically positioned ourselves closer to the lanky herbivore for photo ops. It was one un-shy fellow and carried on unfazed, as if to allot us ample time to interact with its environs.En-route to the Nelson Mandela statue overlooking the city below, we also spotted zebra, gnu and ostrich. Roda mentioned a pearl of wisdom in the form that Madiba’s looming figure was strategically positioned to be aligned with the Waaihoek Church located next to the power station, in the distance below.
Having satisfied our content necessities atop the 192, 5 hectares flat-topped hill, we then headed down in the direction of the historic church – a living monument renowned to be the birthplace of the ANC. Under the overshadowing cooling towers camera and phones clicked away at the historic souvenir before the touring party headed to the nearby Batho Location for the recording of yet another ANC-related matter – this time, the Mapikela House situated at the entrance of the neighbourhood.
With time now edging ever so closer for the flight back to Joburg for a trio of the tourists in the happy-go-luck group, our tour guide then took us in the direction of the Bram Fischer International Airport for a check-in and a lunch at the ambience-filled Mugg & Bean restaurant – before the dreaded parting of ways.
The restaurant’s gourmet offering, The Big Daddy Burger, a monster consisting of a chargrilled beef patty with a special BBQ sauce layered with fried egg, back bacon, ham, cheddar, gherkins and M&B burger mayo topped with hand-made onion rings and served with a salad and washed down with a South African red wine – seemed to be a fitting reward at the end!
On cue, Swales, Ngobeni and myself were soon taking to the skies on an SAA flight to Johannesburg!
Mawela was hosted by SAT.