I am currently hanging out in the Free State. Farm country; and the only thing people here talk about is the price of lamb, how much rain there has been, when the next rain will come and whether or not they should spray Round Up on those invader trees down by the river. It’s fantastic fun.

The best place to spend summer?

The Free State is also the place where a lot of meat comes from. The perfect place for a carnivorous young woman to spend her vacation? Not really and here is why:

Just because steak can be grown in the Free State does not mean you will find good steak in the Free State. The meat is here is cheaper than in the city, because of transport costs and, a little secret, all the good steak goes to Johannesburg. And once it’s there, it’s tricky to get hold of, but always worth the effort. For obvious reasons, you can’t grow good steak in Johannesburg. It’s not a great place to raise a good piece of meat – too much noise and pollution and no room for the steak to mature. This makes places outside of Johannesburg necessary and very important for the enjoyment of steak.

Meat looking happy as it gets ready to move to the city

It’s too bad really. The Free State has the potential to produce good steak, but it fails miserably. There isn’t that much to do, so from a very young age everyone eats a whole lot of meat, but it’s not good meat. It’s really boring, talentless meat. But because the locals don’t know any better, they spend their lives indulging in low grade beef and often relish in its toughness. So everyone goes about their daily lives without knowing what a great steak tastes like. And this makes me very sad for the average Free State dweller.

Rare Steak
It looks so good I just want to hang it on my wall.

I’ve been here for just over a week now and I find myself missing steak. I dream about steak at night sometimes, I think about it during the day… All of this even though I can have as much meat as I want. It’s easy to find and requires little effort to prepare. But it’s just not the same. Once you have had good steak, you just want more of it.


Barn Dancing and Breakdowns

My friend The Delia is pretty cool. She’s wise, fun and many different types of awesome. She is also really good with a guitar and does live gigs. One of these gigs would take her deep into the Free State to a tiny little town called Christiana. And I got to be her roadie.

So one Saturday afternoon we loaded up her car and headed out of the city. The trip down was uneventful yet pretty. The towns just got smaller and smaller as we got further and further away from civilisation. The trees and grass are uncultivated out there and it pleases me.

This is what it looks like on the N12.

And even on that side of the Free State the grammar skills of the locals are not really great.

I'm sorry, what now?

In one town with a population of 174 there are no less than four KFC’s. Two are within 500m of one another.  In the next town Rainbow Chicken raise poultry to feed the town 45km to the north.

This bridge crosses the river that led to chaos

But on to the party… I had planned on being a wallflower for the night, but I ended up making friends with the other people my age and before I knew it I was barn dancing. And it was awesome.

Barn dancing is actually really complicated and requires a lot of concentration. I don’t think I could do those steps again without The Delia’s instructions. And it’s good exercise too. Because you’re having fun, you don’t even know you’re working out and that you’ll be stiff in the morning.

This is something I really want to do again. And when all the people dancing are dressed as cowboys, it can’t go wrong. As Justine would say: It’s very much of fun. Actually, she says things like: It’s very much of funny. But same thing really, and it work here.

But it got late and it was time to go so we loaded the gear back into the car and headed back to the guest house. And this is where the real adventure started.

Earlier that evening, while driving on the dirt road to the venue a really cheeky stone decided to bitch slap that part of the car that holds the oil. So while the party was happening, The Delia’s car was leaking. And after a just a few kilometres of driving the car stopped and it refused to start again.

So there we were, two tired women at some time past midnight, on the side of the road, in the dark that you can only experience in the Free State. And being really far from home, I couldn’t phone the boys I have on speed dial for when I run into speed dial, and The Delia couldn’t even cash in on her AA membership properly.

But since it was in the Free State, friendly people from the party drove past and even though they couldn’t actually help us in any way they insisted on standing on the side of the road with us until the tow truck arrived.

It did and it dropped us off at the guest house. They said they could fix the container that holds the oil (no, I have no idea what the real name is – that’s why there are mechanics in the world). In the morning we took a stroll to the main street in search of coffee and a newspaper. Finding both was a challenge.

But we wandered past the garage to visit The Delia’s car. It was almost ready and we felt relieved that we would get back to Johannesburg at a reasonable time. We found coffee and a shop that sold The Sunday Times. And we took a detour into one of those Chinese clothing stores where you find cute things for real cheap. It was turning out to be an okay day.

We managed to leave three hours later than the originally decided upon time. But 50km down the road, and just before the next town that damn car started to make really terrible noises. The Delia stopped at a filling station and that was it. The car had given up, it was dead.

And unlike that wonderful place that sells spare parts on a public holiday back in my part of the Free State, there was nothing even remotely similar going on there.

There were tow trucks available, but about three thousand complications about how to get the car where it needed to be. The engine had seized and there was no chance of heading back to the city in Renault comfort.

Our concern was not just for the car, but how would we get home? We were only 50km away from Christiana, which meant a couple hundred more to Johannesburg. The car was loaded full of The Delia’s equipment and we couldn’t just abandon it. And we had that thing called work the next day, neither of us could miss it.

Eventually an AA affiliated tow truck arrived, loaded the car (with us in it) and took us to the next town 50km closer to Johannesburg. I know it wasn’t much, but hey, we were making progress.

You can try this on your own, in a broken car
On the back of the truck

The problem was that now we were on the back of a noisy truck, facing the wrong way. And I started feeling just the tiniest bit car sick. But since I’m all about experiencing things, I went with it. And since the other option was making small talk with a tow truck driver, I got over it.

While all of this was happening, another kind person from the Free State with a bakkie had agreed to meet us at the tow truck depot and the equipment, The Delia and myself all the way home.

By now it was around 16:00 and we would have to wait about an hour for our ride. So I spent a bit more time in Renault comfort. It really is. And by this time, with all the snacks we had been eating, it resembled a lounge.

The yard where the car would stay and where we had to wait was unusual. The guy was professional and capable, and his fleet shiny, but the setting was odd.

To the X-Philes out there, think that episode ‘Home’ and you’ll have an idea of what it felt like. It creeped me out just the tiniest bit. And I am not lying when I say there were sheep grazing between the wrecks, and I’m just as serious when I say there was a white rabbit hopping around. And turkeys. Anyone who has seen a live one knows they are the most frightening thing with wings, ever.

The sheep
The white rabbit

That was the strangest place I have ever been with permission. The only place that is weirder is that place my friends and I snuck into as kids where there were skinned rabbits hanging from a clothing line. There was a sheep there too, but I imagine not for long.

The yard

Finally were met up with bakkie guy and his surgeon wife and after dropping her off at some hospital in-between, The Delia and I started our quest for food. In the Free State, kitchens close at 19:00, and garage pies are three days old. This is why I have much respect for 24 hour McDonalds. And you don’t even have to get out of your car!

We eventually got home. And although I’m due for a trip to my hometown, it has to wait a bit. I don’t often take advantage of available at all hours fast food, but my god, it’s good knowing it’s there!

Barn Dancing and Breakdowns

A Weekend in ‘The States’

The Free State is a very special place. It’s always pretty and the air is fresh. Just because I don’t live there anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still think of it as home. And things happen there that just aren’t possible anywhere else. And a lot of unusual things can happen in just a few days.

For example, I went to the bank. This could happen anywhere in the world. But only in a small Free State town do they let you take out your phone and use it. While waiting in line, I checked and responded to my e-mails, then I logged on to Facebook and spent about five minutes doing pointless social networking and no one stopped me. In fact, most people were doing the same thing to pass time. Some guy even called two of his friends to arrange a braai for that evening.

This is why they should provide reading material in banks. Braai could be code for “there’s an old lady with 10k leaving now, mug her” or “the security guard is outside smoking, bring in the guns”. But besides the obvious security risks, waiting in line is boring. So to all bank managers out there – buy some magazines. To the bank managers in the Free State, there are magazines besides Farmers Weekly and the Afrikaans version.

And just like that, the world will be a happier place. Women can learn how to cook awesome meals and men can learn sex tips. Or women can read about the specs on a VW Golf and men can catch up on the latest fashion. The point is, banking could also become a learning experience and men and women would have more to talk about and more to do. Aggression and frustration levels will go down because we’ll all agitate less waiting to make a deposit. Once this catches on, we’ll talk about seating. Seriously, I already have a flawless system in place.

Also, in Bethlehem, they still have parking meters and I always forget to drop a coin in. I was sitting in my car, writing out a shopping list, when a traffic official walked by. He stopped at my meter and looked at the flashing screen. He then looked up and saw me sitting in my car, gave me a smile and waved. He then continued on his leisurely stroll, looking a meters and not writing out tickets. I drove past him again later in the morning, he was still just being a nice guy and I got another wave.

Of course, not all encounters with traffic officers are pleasant in the Free State. I was pulled over once and the cop wouldn’t return my licence to me until I agreed to have dinner with him. And I’m often asked if I’m transporting drugs. My best friend has been chased by the police because they thought she was a dealer (Yvette, I keep telling you, short girls in big cars arouse suspicion – but don’t sell the Hilux, it’s just too convenient).

And in the Free State you can sometimes just get really lucky. Really randomly lucky. On my return to civilisation I had some car trouble. The battery light came on, making me panic, so I stopped at the nearest garage in a one horse town 10km down the road. I asked the petrol attendant to have a look at my engine, because men just know these things.

He suggested my alternator was broken which made my heart stop. Then he looked around a little bit more and told me that I no longer had a fanbelt.

It was a public holiday. I had work the next day. I anticipated a crisis.

But no, around the corner was a shop that sold spares. And fresh milk in coke bottles. But more importantly, brand new fanbelts on a public holiday. So I returned to my car and asked my new friend, Joseph, if he could fix it. He said no, he didn’t have tools, but he got straight on to his phone and called Lucky who was there in ten minutes. Another ten minutes later and I was on my way back to the city. The whole thing cost me R50.

The Free State is lovely. In small doses. The food is good and it’s quiet even if nothing really exciting ever happens there, it’s a great place to get away from it all and it is entertaining. And there are men called Joseph who will help you out simply because they can.

Check it out some time. But take a book. Unless you like walking or heavy drinking you may find yourself at a loose end.

A Weekend in ‘The States’