Oh the excitement! as I bundled my two kids into the car as we prepared for our journey across the barren landscape of the Eastern Cape, headed towards the equally barren southernmost town of the Free State. The kids, 13 and 8, were pretty blasé. Me? I spontaneously burst into songs about death, lost love, and sorrow. Because those are typically the songs that make me happy. It’s a vaccine for loneliness, the anti-venom to sadness, amphetamines for the long distance solo traveler.
Today, however, my amphetamines are in the car with me. Number 1 (13yo) in the front passenger seat, and number 2 (8yo) sprawled in the back.
“Kids, you’re going to meet Anthony Hocking today”, I muse.
“Okaaaay” and a sideways glance from number 1.
“Is he a serial killer?” from number 2 in the back.
I swear, these kids never listen to a word I say. Maybe the discussions I had with them about the Royal Hotel in Bethulie, it’s eccentric raconteur owner, and passages lined with books, music, artwork, ghostly creaks, and whispering walls were mostly one sided. Maybe they have inherited my innate talent for appearing to engage in conversation, while simultaneously enjoying my own hypothetical coversation with Stephen King on the merits of Stanley Kubrick, tricycles, and typewriters. I think they missed the part where I explained that they are going to experience a uniquely unique hotel. The Royal Hotel is an hotel like no other: There is no sign outside. There is no entrance portal. There is no receptionist. No doorman, no porter, no barman. There is no wi-fi, no TV, no swimming pool. Why did I bring them again? Because of the stories! Commonly refered to as “The Book Hotel” by bloggers and Instagrammers, Anthony prefers to call it “A Hotel of Stories.” That’s why we are here. Not to talk about the hotel, but to experience it. We checked in through the back door, as one does. The Porter, doorman and receptionist, Mr Anthony Hocking, took us to our room, where my darling children (who would be impressed by a floor fan) babbled like monkeys, exploring the bathroom, and the main bedroom, and from there I heard number 2 exclaim: “Cool, a fan! Dad, come check this!” I love my kids.
Anthony took us on a short historical tour from the hotel to the Anglo Boer War concentration camp memorial, and regaled us with morbid myths and fascinating facts about the origins of the town Bethulie, where it got its name, and, somewhat prophetically, where it is headed. Anthony is an engaging storyteller, and even my distracted number 2 paid attention for some of the time. A family of four joined us for the tour, and it was a wonderful interaction with fellow Royal guests. Our tour ended on the Hennie Steyn bridge, the longest bridge in South Africa, with a cooler box of drinks, and we watched the sun set over the mighty Orange River. After sunset, we headed back to the hotel for dinner, and chatted, and drank wine in the beautiful dining hall, surrounded by books, music and stories.
By 11pm, the kids were understandably tired, but inexplicably not yet asleep. I was understandably tipsy, and inexplicably happy. I swayed down the dim passage to our room. Books, stories, smells, and ideas wafted before me. This place feels like home. A spiritual beginning for my quest to have a drink in every Royal Hotel in South Africa.
I slept on a single bed with number 2, because a spider the size of a small child ran into my room minutes before I turned in. I have a rational fear of spiders. I 100% cannot, knowingly, be in the same room as a spider that size. As my head hit the pillow, a vision of the roadmap of South African side roads, back roads, dirt roads and beautiful little towns like Bethulie that wait to be explored, slowly, faded like the sun did behind the clouds above Orange.