Barefoot Woman

Barefoot Woman

Barefoot Woman

The historic Kaalvoet Vrou (Barefoot Woman) statue stands proudly in South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains. It commemorates Voortrekker Susanna Smit who, in 1837, said that she would rather walk barefoot back over the Berg than live under British rule. Bridget and Andrew Batchelor went in search of her…

We’re here – but are we there?  We should be, but here is just a small scruffy bit of tarmac behind a rusty fence and an open gateway.  No sign, no explanatory panel – and no sign of a statue.  ‘Drive for 25 kms on the gravel road’ the instructions had said, which is what we’ve done. So, are we there?

“Let’s look round,” suggests Andrew.  “There might be at least a decent view.  After all, the Voortrekkers were supposed to have thought this was the Land of Milk and Honey.”

Out of the car, we are swept by a chilly breeze. It is after all winter here in South Africa and we are quite high up.  But the air is clean, fresh, delicious.  The dust our car had kicked up has settled.  We are miles – correction, kilometres – from anywhere, the only sounds are distant bird-song and the odd hum of an insect.  The sky is an amazing, clear blue.

At the back of the car-park is a gap in the rusty fence.  Two gate-posts sag at different angles.  It looks like humans are meant to be here, and guided off somewhere, so we take the hint.  Around a bend in the path, we stop dead.  The view down, down, down over a succession of rolling hills, lush and inviting even in winter, takes our breath away.  If this is what those Trekkers of long ago saw, then no wonder they thought they had been guided by God to this land.  Even today there is nothing but emptiness; no roads, no farms, no sign of man.

“No wonder they went for it,” I whisper.  “They couldn’t have known the Zulus had got there first.”

We drink in the view in silence.  A piercing bird call seems to accentuate the isolation.  There is just the blue sky and the wind and the emptiness and the promise of a place to settle in peace, to live life as you want without interference, to worship as you please.

After a few more moments of awed contemplation, we turn back.  Andrew says idly “I wonder why someone put a scarecrow up there?”, and points to the skyline to our right.  There indeed is a scarecrow, coat flapping in the wind, seemingly protecting nothing from the odd bird of prey.

We decide to investigate.

We scramble up the steep slope, following a dusty half-path.  As we approach from behind, the penny drops.


“That’s her!” I shriek.  “That’s Susanna!  See, it’s a statue, with a bonnet.  It must be bronze or something.  We’re in the right place after all.”

And we were.  On this little ridge in the middle of nowhere, Susanna Smit strode back the way she and her people had come.  

The original sculptor had given her wind-swept hair and skirts wrapped around those resolute legs with their bare feet.  But someone visiting one of the lesser-known Boer landmarks  – a descendant of those stalwart Trekkers, maybe? – had wrapped her in a plaid blanket, fastened with what looked like a giant kilt-pin.  

Someone had wanted to leave a message to future visitors that the story of Susanna had not been forgotten.  To someone, Susanna was a woman of huge courage whose public declaration that she would rather walk back barefoot the way they had come than live under British rule had changed her people’s history.

We walk all the way round the life-sized statue, in awe of yet another Boer statue which told its own story, and of the visitor who had left this tribute, now flapping in the winter wind.  There was no explanatory plaque.  There was no need.  Anyone who took the trouble to come to this landmark knew the story behind what they would find. 

We take some photos, trying to do justice to the location’s loneliness and resolution.  Then we walk in silence back to the car, turning back as we reach it for one last look at the scarecrow figure highlighted against the cloudless sky, forever telling, in one piece of cast bronze, one of the more powerful Voortrekker tales.


Images © Bridget Batchelor

Our thanks to Bridget for this lovely piece – and watch out for our ‘Face to Face With’ interview with Bridget, coming soon.

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How to start your day in the Andes

How to start your day in the Andes

Before we left for Peru, we asked Paul about altitude sickness. “Very few people get it,” he said. “And the best bet to help avoid it is coca tea. All the hotels will have it available.” Which left me with a mental picture of urns of the stuff sitting in foyers, for guests to help themselves.

Imagine therefore my surprise when our hotel in Chiclayo – 0 metres above sea level – offered us coca teabags, along with the chamomile and green tea with mint, at breakfast. “Can’t be the real stuff” I thought to myself.

Wrong. Here in the Sacred Valley – some 2800 metres above sea level – exactly the same teabags are on offer at breakfast time. As you can see.


We dutifully made ourselves a cup of coca tea at our first breakfast at high altitude, before moving on to the coffee.
We proudly told our guide that we had been good and drunk our medicine – it’s actually quite a mild flavour, nothing to object to – only to be told that we should aim to drink 500ml a day, and not in the evening because it contains caffeine.

The next morning we took 2 teabags each and managed to drink 3 of these small cups – and no coffee. This morning I spotted teapots by the hot water jug, took 2 teabags and solemnly drank my way through a potful of coca tea. And the orange juice. AND THE COFFEE!

Does it work? Well, all I can say is that we were a bit breathless on day 1 if we had to walk faster than the average Galapagos tortoise; on day 2 we were mostly walking at normal pace, although a decent slope was a bit of challenge. Today we haven’t thought about our walking speed at all.

We’re at this altitude or higher for another 2 weeks – and I’m going to keep drinking a potful of this pale brown rather innocuous liquid. I’ve drunk many a worse medicine in my time . . .

House on Fire, Swaziland

House on Fire, Swaziland

“ . . . and do visit our theatre, House on Fire” finished Ruth, our source of all tourist tips.

We were dubious, but we were passing, needed a coffee and stopped.  It’s in a small complex on the edge of nowhere and we sat gawping while waiting for our coffee.

The outside looks like a bunch of people were each told ”Here’s where the walls are going to be, each of you can build a metre of wall, any style you like.”  There’s towers, odd-shaped windows, varying heights, bits and pieces of decorative materials – you name it, somebody used it.

House of FireInside was even wierder.  A wall with carved reliefs ranging from adverts for products from the 1930s to Egyptian and Hindu gods.  Random-shaped bits of glass and tile in the floors.  A – pillar? sculpture-in-the-round? – with probosces verging on the lewd and surreal carvings.  A modern poem painted in 6” amber letters in curving lines on a terracotta wall.  The box office was bright orange-red with a grotesque figure on its roof.  No symmetry, just exuberance, fun and colour from the ground up.   It was a theatre, complete with boxes each fitted with a teak table+benches familiar to any British pub-goer, but it was also sculpture garden and art-gallery.

house of fire actorsAnd on that day, it was venue for a photo-shoot for Gone Rural, a project providing work for 731 rural women which exports to 32 countries.  The models were being dressed (if that’s the word) in a selection of Gone Rural’s main product, raffia place-mats.  Bent into sexy curves and stitched together, the resulting “dresses” were completely stunning.  Professional models they may have been, but they were happy for an amateur snapper to take pictures.  That’s Swaziland for you – friendly, laid-back and in places stunningly beautiful.

(Bridget and Andrew Batchelor stayed at the Forester’s Arms in northern Swaziland in October 2012)