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Union Jack Bohemia

We’re sitting on bales of hay on an open ten-ton truck, murdering the drinks. Guys in jesters’ caps totter arm in arm, beers raised in salute to the blazing blue skies of KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands. It’s like The Canterbury Tales with a brewery sponsorship.

Original publication: Sunday Times Lifestyle, August 1998.

Image courtesy of Kim Ludbrook

‘So you’re a journalist?’ he asks, swaying on his feet. ‘Well, lemme tell you, my country left me to rot in jail in Mozambique.’ He fixes me in his gaze and, without breaking eye-contact, throws back his shoulders to chuggalug another beer. His head rolls forward and the palefaced Natalian readjusts his Afro wig. ‘Dammit!’ he observes, wiping his mouth, ‘beer is the soul of my life.’

For someone abandoned in a tropical jail, he’s holding up pretty well, if only for now. But by the end of his pub crawl across the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in celebration of a Springbok victory, this Robert McBride impersonator won’t be standing up at all.

Nor will I, by the looks of it. In the course of exploring a tourist route known as the Midlands Meander, I’ve been ‘kidnapped’ by ‘McBride’ and his pals in the BBC – the Balgowan Bachelors’ Club – and taken on a drunken truck-ride across the hills of The Last Outpost’s Little England.

We’re sitting on bales of hay at the back of an open ten-ton truck, murdering the drinks. There’s a dozen or more of us – the BBC, their girlfriends, hangers-on, a Jack Russell called Tabasco, and a hefty cockney inn-keeper, who has himself been kidnapped from his pub for the afternoon. Like me, he’s grimly resigned to having a good time. Beers pass from hand to hand, as do tot-glasses streaming with vodka.

Our so-called ‘McBride’ stands at the head of the truck, supporting himself on the broom-handle which serves as the flag-pole for the truck’s ensign, the Jolly Roger. At the rear of the truck guys in jesters’ caps totter arm in arm, with beers raised skywards. ‘We are the champions!’ they sing raucously. It’s like The Canterbury Tales with a brewery sponsorship.

For the BBC, this good-natured rowdyism is an annual event, held to coincide with the birthday of one of their ringleaders. Earlier on, it was this individual’s ceremonial duty to appear before his cheering sidekicks and down a yard of ale – that is, drain several pints’ worth of beer from a long-stemmed glass beaker as quickly as possible.

Now, slouching on a pile of hay, the birthday boy tells me the rules of BBC membership. Once you’re engaged, you tender your resignation; get married, and you resign. Above all, ensure that you’re free for the yearly pub crawl.

The BBC is one of many drinking clubs endemic to the Midlands, but while most are short-lived affairs confined to members’ student days, this club has survived into relative old-age. Its members find themselves in their late twenties and drawing salaries as corporate employees in Durban. Yet these Methuselahs are undiminished in their zest for festivity. ‘We play hard,’ a vodka-drinker in jeans and chequered shirt shouts into my ear, ‘and we play hard. Forget work.’

An attractive philosophy, particularly on the Midlands’ escarpment. The day is perfect, afflicted with neither the subtropical humidity of Natal’s coast nor the high-altitude severity of the Drakensberg. Cool and mild, the Saturday afternoon unfolds panoramas of woodlands and pastures, trout ponds and hedgerows.

The truck drones up hills and coasts down valleys. Europas of dense forest bordering the road climb and fall alongside us, sailing side by side with our ship of fools. Every so often the tree line dips, offers a glimpse of mud shacks or Victorian manor houses, then ebbs on. Forget work, the landscape whispers: go with the flow.

An overturned train carriage lies rusting on an embankment, and the truck rumbles over a railway crossing into a gravel avenue. It docks next to the veranda of a country retreat in Hebron Valley. Just as the BBC lower their ‘drawbridge’ – a stepladder – the manageress rushes out to stop the visit. ‘Sorry, guys,’ she calls out. ‘Another time.’

Oh, well. A quick sing-song for the bemused patrons lounging on the veranda, and we’re off. The truck starts reversing. I decide to bid farewell, and jump overboard. The catcalls shoot at my back: Wuss! We’ll boycott your newspaper!

Inside the bar, the manageress explains her actions. Touring drinking clubs are a hotelier’s nightmare, she says. Not all are as charming as the BBC, and some insist on stealing ‘trophies’ from their ports of call. Besides, the BBC may have proved too disruptive for the family clientele occupying her country house hotel, which is fully booked to celebrate ‘Christmas in winter’. Come again? She gestures to the bar, itself a thatched-roof edifice like the one housing it. Sure enough, in mid-year it’s decorated in mistletoe and tinsel.

I slump down at the bar to collect my thoughts. ‘Forget work,’ said the vodka-drinker, yet technically I’m on duty, straining to discover the essence, the encapsulating truth, of the Midlands Meander. You set out with good intentions, but it doesn’t help to be kidnapped by the BBC. Or does it?

Perhaps being steered off your predetermined path by unforeseen adventures is what makes the Meander a meander instead of a pilgrimage. Rather than a straightforward journey to a fixed destination, the Meander is a network of digressions made on impulse. ‘Hang on, that looks interesting,’ you think, and make a U-turn, departing from the itinerary you initially had in mind.

You could wind up anywhere. Relax, and take it as it comes. No two experiences of the Meander will be identical; none will give a complete picture of it.

Postmodernism aside, what is the Midlands Meander? Simply put, it’s a tourist route, extending from north of Pietermaritzburg to Mooi River. You can chart your course by consulting the Meander’s brochure, which maps over 100 different destinations, ranging from arts and craft studios to nurseries, trout dams, bed and breakfasts, and a slaughterhouse trail of vintage pubs.

The Meander’s constellation of rustic stopovers is as eclectic as the wares offered at the curiosity shop in Howick. Strewn inside it are bric-a-brac oddities, but it’s nothing compared to what’s in the backyard. Outside it’s pure Salvador Dali: nude mannequins … school desks (with text-books and apple cores inside) … coco-pans. There’s even a dentist’s chair, perhaps awaiting an SM application.

Each Meander destination is in its way as intriguing as these artefacts. Take Rawdons Hotel, for instance. Set on a verdant estate interspersed with rows of conifers, it’s a complex of Tudor-style buildings with humpbacked thatch roofs and attic windows.

Inside, culinary smells circulate through the stone-tiled rooms, from the sitting room and its illustrations of fox-hunting scenes, to the bar, with its fireplace and dark wooden beams. In lieu of ashtrays, brick troughs filled with sand line the bottom of the counter.

Outside, firecracker-red Beemers pull up at Rawdon’s trout dam to observe a fishing clinic in progress. The weather’s turned to wintry gloom; waters swirling with weed beds lap at the mossy wharf. On an embankment a row of novice fishermen practice their cast-off. They lasso their fishing-lines above and behind them. Seen in profile, the twisting shapes formed by these lines resemble psychedelic crayon scribblings.

‘The Midlands has an old world charm,’ says Ian McMillan. ‘It’s green and misty, full of cottages and hideaways. It’s a little like England.’ McMillan is the marketing manager of Hilton College, which along with St Anne’s and Michaelhouse, is one of the three premier independent schools in the region.

Modeled on the traditions of English public schools, Hilton is located on an estate that looks about the size of England itself. The grounds extend far beyond the nexus of school buildings to encompass 3 500 acres of timber plantations, pasturelands and forests. These are flanked by game farms on the Umgeni River, and the estate abounds in wildlife: a 13 foot python skin from yesteryear adorns a wall in the school museum.

If Hilton College is a little England in Little England, fittingly enough it’s the first stop-over listed on the Meander’s brochure – fitting, because thereafter the Meander, while still redolent of Ye Olde Colony, transforms into a Union Jack Bohemia.

Until the advent of the Meander, says Justin McCarthy, ‘this was a pukka, horsey, polo-set area. Now it’s being recolonised by artists who’ve been attracted by the place’s beauty and come and live in the hills.’ Like other Midlands’ cottage industries, McCarthy’s leatherworks is a hands-on, owner-run outfit. He jacks up a cigarette and drinks in the view from his double-storey farmhouse. On the office wall behind him is a weathered Union Jack, purloined from a manor in Wales.

‘It’s being recolonised,’ he says. ‘Even old-style farmers are catching on and looking at BB additions to their properties. And more and more Jo’burg refugees are arriving to start businesses. There’s no uniformity out here. Each place has a different character, and the Midlands give you that space to be unique.’

As Simon Carr says, ‘Many people on the Meander have been in the region for a long time and developed gradually; equally, many come here specifically to open businesses because they’ve seen the area’s potential.’ Carr is chairman of the Meander association, and he speaks wistfully of the days when meetings were conducted over a bar counter.

Privately funded from members’ subscriptions, the Meander’s come a long way since the 70s when a few artists joined forces to promote their studios to tourists. Competing routes opened up during the 80s, until they were amalgamated in 1992. Today the Meander’s big business, annually generating an estimated R120-million in revenue for the area.

‘It’s like a golf club,’ Carr explains. ‘Applicants are approved by a committee and pay subscriptions. They get on the map, which is our main marketing tool for showcasing their work. The applicant could be a high-flying restaurant, but if doesn’t fit into the Meander ethos, it doesn’t get on. It could be a tiny cottage on a dirt road but if it’s quaint, it’ll get accepted.’

What is this ‘ethos’? ‘I can’t put it into words,’ he replies. ‘It’s a feeling, a special kind of atmosphere.’ Carr has no doubts about what falls outside that ethos: the mass-produced and homogeneous. And as much as he praises the variety of the Meander’s products, he also celebrates the human diversity of the producers themselves. ‘The personality of the owner comes through in the business.’

Some owners are rough diamonds unprocessed by corporate training in ‘service standards’. For example, there’s the inn-keeper who was asked by a diner, ‘What’s in the fruit salad?’ ‘Fruit, you fucker,’ he said, and walked off.

The numerous applicants to the Meander are rated against a nebulous ethos: all want to be on the official map. What this means is that the map a tourist reads isn’t simply a reflection of what’s on the ground: the Meander is creating its own world, and as more entrepreneurs buy in and take root, so that ethos becomes a palpable reality on the ground. It’s really the map – the tourist organisation – that’s creating what you’ll find in the Midlands, not so much the Midlands defining what you’ll find on the map.

If the Meander is constructing a certain image of the Midlands, how reflective is it of reality? ‘I’d say it’s reflective of the new Midlands,’ Carr says. ‘The old Midlands is very colonial, all tweeds and serious shoes. It’s changed dramatically – older folk complain how it’s full of Meanderthals, as they call tourists.’

But for Carr, the Meander’s ethos infuses the tourist’s purchases with mystique that will re-evoke the Midlands long into the future. ‘Things are made with passion. The Midlands is full of passion – okes jump fences for other oke’s wives and don’t quote that.’

Passion is a quality that defines Helen and Andy Shuttleworth, carpet weavers who live on a forested mountainside near Nottingham Road village. They are longstanding members of the Meander, but were living there even before the Meander’s inception, in search of what Justin McCarthy termed ‘that space to be unique’.

Kitted in dungarees and beard, Andy is a mountain of a man; next to him, Helen seems tiny, but with her spectacles and ankle-length skirt, she’s as big-hearted as Andy’s large. In 1976 Andy resigned from his career in banking and Helen from hers in teaching. They headed for the hills with a pittance to their name and built a home by hand. Their display room is also a hand-built structure of sawmill off-cuts, hessian and cement.

‘We were young,’ Helen laughs. ‘It was a Sixties’ dream – we were all going to be self-sufficient and weave just enough to afford provisions. What we didn’t know about ourselves was just how interested we’d become in the craft of weaving itself.’

The display room is draped with glorious rugs – woven from mohair and hand-spun wool, and tinted with dyes boiled in wood fires. One rug is a dream-coat of purples and turquoises. ‘They’re sea-colours,’ Helen says.

Go with the flow: it’s the Meanderthal style.

Yet although openness to variety and adventure is a virtue, the spirit also needs a centre of tranquility, and for me that place was the oldest pub in Natal, Nottingham Road Hotel. In particular it was the oldest man in the oldest pub, a bankrupted sugar-cane potentate nicknamed Mafusi, Zulu for ‘old mielie fields’, who now eked out a living as a carpenter.

Mafusi never seemed to leave the place. On my three visits to Notties, he was always already seated at Geriatrics Corner, beer and smoke in hand, toasting himself near the fire grate. His face was as gnarled and grooved as the counter he rested on – a counter scored with trout measurements and the depredations of a century of drinkers.

Beneath the overhanging copper kettles, regimental ties and portrait of Queen Victoria, we pored over photo albums of Mafusi’s former life. He showed me the cheetahs that once lived in his home; he told me how his wife died.

Meeting him on the first day, I bade farewell on the second. ‘You’ll be back,’ he said. On the last day we met again, and when I turned to say goodbye, he had gone. A journey without clear beginnings or endings, it’s in the Meander’s nature to leave you with a sense of unfinished business – and the desire to return.


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