The road less taken

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Early One Sun­day Morn­ing I De­cided to Step out and Find South Africa by Luke Al­fred Tafel­berg 240 pages R195 at

This en­gag­ing travel book fol­lows in the foot­steps of Charles Dick­ens and Robert Louis Steven­son in its ex­plo­ration of the coun­try­side, in this case South Africa’s, and some of its lesser-known by­ways, in the hope, the au­thor says, “that such walks would tell me some­thing in­ter­est­ing about my some­times tor­tured coun­try”.

Luke Al­fred gives a de­scrip­tion of each of his walks at the be­gin­ning of each chap­ter, and moves be­tween a sub­ur­ban stroll from Hope Road in Moun­tain View to Mod­der­fontein, Jo­han­nes­burg, to the East­ern Cape, the KwaZulu-Natal Mid­lands and Marico in North West. Some of the jour­neys are more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers. Op­er­at­ing on the same sort of ba­sis as travel writer Paul Theroux, Al­fred takes care to meet the lo­cals and re­lates his in­ter­ac­tions to add colour and some his­tor­i­cal back­ground.

The beauty of the book is that it can be dipped into at in­ter­vals, as each chap­ter stands on its own within the over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive of the dis­cov­ery of lit­tle-known parts of South Africa, or just parts that ap­peal to Al­fred. Each jour­ney is lo­cated in its so­cial mi­lieu and the his­tor­i­cal or lit­er­ary set­ting is men­tioned to add poignancy.

So, on the walk from Caris­brooke via Stain­ton to Ix­opo – about 12km – we hear about one of the area’s most fa­mous fore­bears, Alan Pa­ton. The open­ing se­quence of his 1948 novel – Cry, the Beloved Coun­try – is set at Caris­brooke sid­ing and Al­fred re­marks that “even to­day, the hills be­yond the mea­gre sid­ing re­main softly invit­ing, mildly green after poor sum­mer rains, for­ever rolling”. He muses on the char­ac­ter of the Rev­erend Stephen Khu­malo, set­ting off from this very sid­ing in a nar­row-gauge train be­fore board­ing the “midnight thun­der” to Jo­han­nes­burg.

Al­fred is best when de­scrib­ing his phys­i­cal sur­round­ings, per­haps less suc­cess­ful in some of the de­tours he takes into on­to­log­i­cal dis­cus­sions of truth and lies, for in­stance in his dis­cus­sion of Pa­ton’s novel. He is much bet­ter when he de­scribes the “ru­ral poor, still walk­ing the gravel roads that spun through the hills, spend­ing long hours wait­ing in the sun for the in­ter-town taxis, and although they were now their own bosses, black work­ers still felled the forests”.

The ex­cur­sion from Mu­seum Africa, New­town to the Hindu Cre­ma­to­rium – about 2.5km – is not a long walk, but is a chap­ter filled with in­ter­est and re­minders of that first in­vet­er­ate trav­eller, Gandhi. For him, “there is al­ways a jour­ney, of­ten a walk or a march”. We are re­minded that while liv­ing in Troyeville, Gandhi walked the 6km to and from his of­fice. While Gandhi was one of the city’s first ac­tivists, there were many other “firsts” on this walk: the first barber shop and shav­ing saloon was opened in 1887 at 58 Com­mis­sioner Street, a stone’s throw from the first butch­ery, Morkel’s, on the cor­ner of Bree Street and Mar­shall Square, and the first horse-drawn tram be­came op­er­a­tional in 1891.

Early One Sun­day Morn­ing is an in­ter­est­ing mix of per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion and analy­ses, his­tory and anec­do­tal tales, beau­ti­ful de­scrip­tions of phys­i­cal sur­round­ings and philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings on life and loss. We also find out all about Al­fred’s fam­ily in this book – his wife, his sons, his late mother and his fa­ther, aged 79, who loves old Jo­han­nes­burg in a “soul­ful, deeply mag­nan­i­mous way”. The mix is an un­usual one, but the mood is thought­ful and one feels after read­ing it as if one has had a long Sun­day lunch dis­cussing the is­sues of the day and all the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the coun­try. Not a bad way for a book about ram­bling through South Africa to end.

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