Weird, Wacky, Wonderful Things I Saw While Riding in a Van Around South Africa

by | Oct 7, 2015 | Arts and Culture | 5 comments

It’s a really long title, I know. It was a really long trip.

I spent ten days riding in a van around South Africa with five blogger/Instagrammers, one videographer, one driver, and one tour guide. We were different genders and ages and races, different nationalities and different personality types.

Our guide received a list of towns and places to sleep each night. Other than that, we were left to our own devices. With the exception of the South Africa national Instameet in Graff-Reneit, where we stayed for three nights at the beginning of the trip, we had no guidance on what we should do or see.

This trip was like a psychological experiment. Hmm, let’s throw nine opinionated, social-media-obsessed people into a moving vehicle together, thought the folks at South African Tourism. Arm them with bags of candy, potato chips, and minimal 3G signal. Send them into the hinterland without instructions and advise them to use the #MeetSouthAfrica hashtag. Then open up Twitter and Instagram and watch what unfolds. Bwahahahaaaa.

Many of you probably followed the hashtag yourselves. But I’ll tell you what unfolded in real time:

A lot of boisterous talking. A lot of food-binging. A lot of confusion. A lot of enthusiasm. A lot of WTF-ing. A lot of spirited discussion (arguing) about maps and routes and what to do when. A lot of crude swearing. A lot of high-fiving. A lot of deserted roads. A lot of jumping in and out of the van and waiting for people and rushing to catch the sunset and complaining. A lot of photographing. A lot of laughing.

Above all, a lot of oohing and ahhing at the beautiful, interesting, strange things we encountered along the way. A lot of gratitude that we live in such an amazing country.

Here are some things I saw, in no particular order.

1) Rastas on the road.


This is Isher, a 22-year-old Rastafarian who wears only burlap. I met Isher on a busy street in Graaff-Reinet, selling traditional medicines and herbs. From what I gathered, Isher and his friends are like gypsies, living in the mountains and traveling around the country selling things. 

2) A glass house.


I spotted this shed made of bottles in the garden of the Owl House, in the tiny Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda. The Owl House, formerly owned by the reclusive Helen Martins and now a museum, is impossible to describe. I’m not even going to try. Some of my friends found it creepy but I loved it.


A bedroom in the Owl House. The walls are coated with crushed glass.

3) Cement ghosts.


There are dozens of cement ghosts in the Owl House garden. They transfixed me.

4) Miniature owls.


In the Owl House, of course.

5) Real owls.


These Cape eagle owls, spotted at the Dullstroom Bird of Prey Centre in Mpumalanga, were so quirky and hilarious. I’m going to write a whole post about the Bird of Prey Centre in the future.

6) A book hotel.


This is the Royal Hotel in Bethulie, a tiny town on the border of the Eastern Cape and the Free State. There are about 180,000 books in the hotel.


There are records at the hotel, too — tens of thousands of them. And a musician named Henriel and a beagle named Baxter.


Anthony Hocking, South African author and owner of the Royal Hotel. This place is worth a visit.

7) Miles of mosaics.


We slept in a town called Ermelo, at a hotel called the Izimbali Lodge. Nearly every inch of the sprawling lodge is covered in handmade mosaics. 


Countless fragments of tile cemented together into mosaics. 


To be honest this hotel was a bit too odd, even for me. I wouldn’t seek it out as a holiday destination. But if you like mosaics and need a place to stay en route from Joburg to Swaziland, Izimbali is an option.

8) Spectacular sunsets.


Just one of the many amazing sunsets we saw. This one happened outside Ermelo.

9) A lunar eclipse.


Tail end of the blood moon lunar eclipse, which we caught just before sunrise in Bethulie.

10) Weird reflections.


The weird restaurant at Izimbali Lodge.


Weird room in the Owl House.

11) Blanket ladies.


Gertie Dejager, one of the Basotho blanket sisters in Clarens. I’ve blogged about them before. This shop is one of my favorite quirky places in South Africa.

12) A strange restaurant with a strange cat.


The Rose de Fleur restaurant in Roossenekal. We found ourselves in Roossenekal — I’m not sure why — at about 8:00 p.m. after a harrowing drive on a terrible dirt road. The Rose de Fleur was our only dining option within a 50-kilometer radius. We were all cranky, beyond exhausted, and the food was…not great. (Although the staff did their best — I think we were probably their only customers of the week.)  Nonetheless, the evening was awesome in a “we’re going to look back on this and laugh” or a “this should really be a reality TV show” kind of way.


The strange, Melville-Cat-like lord of the Rose de Fleur.

13) Crazy rocks.


We drove along the Panoramic Route and saw some crazy rocks. The rocks above are called the Bourke’s Luck Potholes.


A crazy person (me) sitting on a crazy rock dangling over the Blyde River Canyon. (Photo by Andy Carrie)

14) A lady in a hat.


This is Andronika. She sells souvenirs at the foot of a beautiful waterfall in Limpopo, outside of the J.G. Strijdom Tunnel. Andronika is cool and she has an amazing name.

15) Schools of children.


Our last stop, just before returning to Joburg, was the homo Naledi fossil exhibit at Maropeng. I’ve been to Maropeng many times but this was an especially enjoyable visit with all the energetic kids around.

Those are some of the things I saw and photographed while while the van was stopped. But for the vast majority of the trip we were inside the van, moving along at a moderate pace. I saw lots of things through the window that I couldn’t take pictures of. Here are a few of them:

Eland grazing on a hillside at dusk. A town called Nobody. Cows and donkeys and goats and zebras. Termite mounds with trees growing out of them. The season’s first jacaranda blossoms. Cozy houses with porch lights in the middle of nowhere. Flamingos. Giant hills of black coal. Shacks. Castles. Landfills. Acacias. Golden grass. A mountain covered in a hundred aloe trees.

It was a nice trip. It was South Africa.


Cheerio, motherf*ckers. (Inside joke.)

My road trip around South Africa was sponsored by South African Tourism. Opinions expressed are my own.


  1. Di Brown

    A perfect account of a bizarre but enjoyable trip.

  2. mvschulze

    I feel cloistered. A facinating, and unusual travel “literary.” M 🙂

  3. Robert Lankenau

    Wonderful. I can’t wait for my next trip to South Africa.

  4. SusanB

    Enjoyed this.

  5. UnderAnAfricanSun

    We tried to go to the blanket place when we were in Clarens a few months back (thanks for your blog post about it) but it was a Sunday and they were closed. Just one more reason to go back 🙂


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