When last did you get the opportunity to travel through 21 different locations, by road, in a van, with a trailer-load of instruments, four band mates on board, playing live music every night.
Neil Sandilands (aka General Abbot, or if you prefer – Bart from 7de Laan) is the catalyst for such an undertaking, bringing his music to the people and allowing us all in on this adventure through South Africa.
I joined the entourage at Route 62 in Oudtshoorn, for a rowdy bunch on a Tuesday night, with thick cut ostrich fillets and klippies & coke fuelling the fire. I’ve just stepped off a multi-day hike in the Baviaanskloof, so the ‘back to reality’ contrast of embarking on this tour is a jolt to the system.
Next day we roll into Graaff-Reinet, where the beautiful John-Rupert Theatre awaits. Acoustically tranquil with an appreciative velvet-clad, quirky audience wanting more and more. Without a doubt though, the lamb shank at the local bistro, takes the cake.
Day by day we’re getting into more extreme territory. It’s colder at night, warmer during the day, and anything just off the N1 highway is a kopfokmazurka of potholes and desperate little dorpies, clinging to remnants of a lifeline. Jagersfontein is particularly bleak, with contaminated diamond mines painting a post apocalyptic scene. Poverty and desperation, amongst the dustbowl town square, the ever present KFC and the towering NG Kerk, leave a dreadful shiver, as we make our way through to Burgersdorp via Fauresmith into Bloemfontein.
By now the band is musically tuned, solid and tight enough, so as to break free from structural narratives and explore the improvisational layers as they appear. Gigs become an epic story book of Sandilands theatrics filled with hopeful absurdity and it takes a lot to ruffle the Frikmeister’s feathers. Spirits are high, everyone’s role is now clearly defined and we are a well oiled machine. Arrive, unload, set up PA, soundcheck, ready to play in less than an hour. Briers steering the ship, Frank on guitar, Schalk on bass, Neil on ukelele, voice and myself, hitting everything I can make a decent sound with.
The legendary Aasvoelklub in Bloemfontein is a grimy, Tarantino steam-punk scene, with a packed room of eager weekenders, enjoying the metaphoric symbolism of Frikkie’s search for ‘Die Goue Graal’, his love of the open Rooigrond and obsession with his Dotti’s tiete. Anything could happen at the Vultureclub in the Freestate… where are we gonna sleep, are we gonna sleep at all, and what on earth are we eating? Jissus Neil !
On to Clarens at Noah’s Cheese, nestled in the foothills of the Maluti mountains. It’s icy and fresh, but beautiful and really far from home now. Good food, new conversation and the choice of music in our Hyundai van is improving as the DJ baton is passed around, hour by hour, Kilometer and pothole by mile.
Hennenman is an actual place just outside Ventersburg. Neither come to mind when I think of a route through SA, and yet here we are. A rum distillery in the middle of nowhere, it’s minus 8 degrees, with a brutal wind and no, we’re definitely not playing outside! Another slice of pizza, another shot of rum, gimme all the layers you’ve got, coz even a third blanket isn’t gonna make this a cozy night’s rest.
Happiness is Hennenman in your rear view mirror, and soon we’re on to Pretoria for a sold out show at Die Blou Hond. Big sound, great atmosphere and temperatures in the plus are a welcome change. Fresh laundry and a day off to rest the bones, a check in at home and a good long sleep, just what we need before we hit Dozi’s in Hartebeespoort, Mbombela and Kaapsehoop on the boarder to the Limpopo. The terrain is more lush now, bird life is plentiful and as we progress further and further north, winter turns to summer. Hoedspruit is positively balmy, we may even break a sweat during the show. There’s a fair amount of game about as well, and the whine of a mozzie in the evening is as oddly unfamiliar as a Kudu crossing your path, post 3am pee under the stars. We’re treated to a luxury night’s rest at the 5 star Kapama Lodge, after which we hit Mookgopong’s Olifant Oasis venue. A tin can with concrete reverb, another truckload of braaivleis and salted caramel cappuccino in a packet.
Another 300ks later and we arrive in Tzaneen, our most northerly destination on the tour. The Fairview hotel, high in the hills, is a lushly luxurious gem, before we head to Dullstroom. I believe this is a lovely little town and a popular tourist destination for people from far and wide. However, all we are subjected to is sleet and fog without even the slightest glimpse of the town or its surroundings. A lovely gig at Sessions Music though with great hospitality, and waking up the next morning, to a cluster of freezing cold objects bobbing on the water in the mist, amusingly turned out to be the first day of the ‘national women’s trout fishing competition’.
Thoroughly space caked, we eventually hit Middelburg and thrash out a bombastic set of music to a heaving crowd of Friday night jollers at the Rustique Boutique Hotel. Wheels up at 8am for a matinée performance at the prestigious Etienne Rousseau Teater in Sasolburg, brings us to a turning point in the tour. It’s our last gig with Schalk, who is needed in the UK for a tour with the Strawbs, so we pop the champagne on stage and celebrate a brotherly moment, loadshedding and all.
A weird night in a slush puppy casino, an early start, dropping our bassist at Joburg airport and a few km’s later, we find ourselves at the wonderfully spirited Loop St venue, for a sold out show in Potchefstroom. Kudu burgers, endless Leffé beer on tap and a highly appreciative audience, are seductive reasons to pull an all nighter, but the long drive of 800kms to Beaufort West is already looming in the wings.
We get there by sunset the next evening and check into the lovely Teri-Lemveli Lodge for a decent night’s rest. The next day has a hazy, cold Karoo atmosphere with a strange sense of accomplishment, slight sadness and euphoria in the air. It’s our last gig before we head home to Cape Town the next morning. We give it one last ‘everything’ and end the evening with whisky and malva pudding. An early start, load the trailer one last time, coffee to go and we’re off home, for real. We did it, and it was wonderful. All of it. Thank you Frank, Briers, Schalk and most of all, Neil for this adventure and musically charged road trip of a lifetime. 21 gigs in 23 days ! One for the books as they say. Also huge thanks to Veronica Kotze for all the admin work in the wings. Your logistic skills and tour planning was spot on.