Donkeys are a regular sight in the Northern Cape. They’re exceptionally hardy creatures, which is useful when there’s not much to eat in the semi-desert scrub of the Kgalagadi, and when there are temperature variances of as much as 20°C in an hour.
They’re pack animals, are yoked in teams to pull carts and are useful, via their insistent braying, for reminding Capetonians of Boulders Beach and for keeping uitlanders awake at night.
At Kalahari Info & Tented Camp, the last building on the South African side as you approach the Rietfontein border post en route to Namibia, you are greeted with a hug by matronly proprietor Gertruida Bott. She’s the sort of lady you automatically want to call “Ma”, and the sort of lady that doesn’t mind if you do.
She’ll offer you food and drink – egte coffee (“Toeka Se Koffie”, reads the label), included, rather than the ubiquitous Ricoffee the less salubrious stopovers offer. Don’t be surprised if biltong is included. It’s a staple in the region: the larney Falcon B&B restaurant in Upington has as a menu item “Scone, Cheese & Biltong”.
Just outside the property’s gates stands a cart with two donkeys harnessed to it and two young men waiting – if the fancy takes you – to take you for a spin, Rietfontein-style.
One of the donkeys, it transpires, is called “Ronneman” (“Round Man” for his girth), which is sweet enough. The other is called “Hitler”. The obvious question received the less than illuminating response, “Because he’s a man.”
Ah. Clearly this is not a community that holds any grudges against anyone in the formerly German territory that begins a few hundred metres from where they live.
Some balance is required when getting into a donkey cart as a novice. The spar that runs between the two donkeys and to which they are yoked also runs under the cart, so when it is raised to ascertain that the animals are properly attached, the stability of the floor on which you’re leaning is suddenly and spectacularly compromised.
In stark contrast is the smoothness with which the donkeys pull the cart once they find their rhythm (though there is the occasional jerky over-correction if they wander too close to the edge of the road). They run without apparent urging from the driver and have considerable stamina, not seeming to be bothered much by the contraption they’re dragging along.
We turn back within touching distance of the border post – perhaps the quarantine regulations don’t allow for the spontaneous importing of a couple of donkeys, even if they are providing a means of earning a tourist buck.
Back at the info centre, our driver poses next to his charges (chargers) with a serious, satisfied look on his face, like a jockey who’s just won at Ascot. Another journalist snaps away with her camera as well. For a moment he is red carpet royalty; the centre of attention.
And that’s fair. After all, this is the man that Hitler takes orders from.