I’ve spent a life of travelling but I have limited experience of the USA. The places so many Brits have on their bucket list in the USA keep on eluding me. I have passed through JFK airport many times; I have even overnighted in the Jamaica district in Queens once while en route to Haiti. But I have never set foot in the downtown New York City, never stepped onto Manhattan Island. I have never been dropped into Grand Canyon, marvelled at Yosemite, said hello to Yellowstone, not gambled in Las Vegas, had my picture taken outside the White House or made a pilgrimage to Gracelands.
I have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge. I have seen the Hollywood Sign (albeit from a set of traffic lights in Los Angeles). I have been to Cape Canaveral. I did attend one Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And I once saw the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
Generally my trips to the US have been much more eclectic and surprisingly spread apart over twenty years or more. It has usually been down to work or attending conferences. Once I took a holiday from the UK to Houston, a couple of times I hopped over from BVI to take some time out to explore Florida and California. My opinion of the USA started with me feeling there were a few honeypot amazing places but in between miles of tedium, sameness, and a basic lack of character that meant I was not in a hurry to explore more.
I have kept going back and over the years and although I have seen much that disappoints such as the miles of suburbia, strip malls, wide open flat fields with nothing going on, repetitive chain stores for food, accommodation, tyres, supermarkets, cars….. I have seen more variety that I expected and have begun to understand the culture a little better. The best way I think you can do it is stop thinking of the USA as one amorphous blob of a country and see how different so many of the states are.
The view from my hotel
Many small towns in southern Africa are fortuitously off the main road – to let the huge trucks make their noisy gear changes and brakings beyond the residential area. We turned off the main road and headed up a steep hill – Clarens was perched on a small plateau above a couple of rivers. Our accommodation was a villa on this hillside just below the town centre, a well appointed house with a big open plan centre, and best of all, a massive deck from which we looked east down the valley. Becky and I had done a shop in the Pick’n’Pay in Maseru after picking up the car, so we pretty much dumped it all in the kitchen and headed out into the town. We had decided that we would have a quick lunch and then do a sightseeing tour of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, saving a tour of the town of Clarens till the Sunday morning.
So after a quick burger and a chance to say “Hmm this place looks good”, we set off along another good road. After several miles of farmland and forest, we reached the park entrance. The scenery had been stunning since we entered South Africa but now it took on an extra edge. Above us on either side , steep weather worn cliffs looked down on us. The colours in the sandstone ranged from washed out grey to deep orange red, with camel, khaki and yellows in between, where exposed looking like a layer cake of sponge and cream topped with the green icing of grass. The rocks were soft and eroded into marvellous shapes, caves scoured out by wind and rain, and where the top level was harder than the lower, huge stone mushrooms appeared to grow out of the valley sides.
Good road, fantastic scenery
Which one is the gate?
Amazing eroded landscape
Everywhere you look
In amongst a carpet of grasslands
Where exactly the “Golden Gate” is somewhat open for debate. There are several viewpoints that give you the perspective of your route passing between huge golden coloured barriers. Maybe the gate was the whole valley. At the far end of this long wide canyon the elevation drops substantially and maybe that could be the gateway. Whatever the final definition of gateway, I could see that above the natural wonders, this was a supremely important pass. Beyond the highlands of Lesotho to the south, the Rooiberge to the south east being the first manifestation of these, Golden Gate was the first sensible place to pass through to get from the Northern Cape and Free State into Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Trans Vaal. The pass and the fertile terrain rich in game was much coveted both by the British and the Boers, and the Basotho and other African tribes were keen to maintain their presence there. This meant the region was the site of many conflicts and regularly passed from hand to hand. Given we were in amongst a crumpled topography of mountains, the Brandwater Basin supplied a useful hideaway location too, which had been used to good effect in the Boer War. However, the restricted number of exits from the valley, the Golden Gate being one of them, meant you could also get trapped in the basin. Boers in the Boer War came under siege that way in 1900, and were forced to surrender. In theory the view from the top of the pass should give lookouts ample opportunity to spot activity coming up the mountainside. The nooks and crannies of this terrain, though, are often hard to discern as an inexperienced outsider. Deep streams, low ridges that are invisible amongst the grass can keep you hidden, and once in the mountains themselves the caves, rocky outcrops and screes still provide good cover despite the lack of trees.
We detoured a couple of times off the main road taking us up amongst the buttresses and higher elevations. The air clarity meant we saw for miles. We distinguished areas of bare ground, some of which were due to poor fertility and thin soils, but others reputedly from massive ammunitions fires from the Boers that scorched the earth and basically killed it.
Few trees grow here in the Golden Gate, but a few protea clung to the hillsides. These weird plants are common place in gardens across the world, but in their native habitats are restricted to Southern Africa and mainly South Africa itself. Its thick leathery leaves are well suited to the dramatic changes in temperature in these high elevations.
At one location we got a picture of just how fragile the rocky escarpments are; a fresh rock fall, so clean and bright, may have only possibly dropped in the last week, and you could see the brand new scar in the rock face too. Gradually the mountains here are being worn away, but from the scale and quantity of them, the Park is safe for a few more millennia.
The main road dropped down onto a wider green plain. A small herd of zebra were grazing nonchalantly a hundred metres from the road, an ostrich or two were glancing around. Sometimes South Africa’s landscapes seems more like the USA or New Zealand, and then a sighting like that will put you right back on its own continent.
And then back in Africa