In September 2016 Bill, Rodney and myself formed the Old Age Pensioners' Expedition to South Africa. Our purpose was to see in habitat those plants from the Western and Northern Cape that we grew in our greenhouses.
After a few days we found ourselves in Oudtshoorn in the Little Karroo. It is by no means a one horse town; rather it is the centre of a substantial area devoted, as far as sparse rainfall allows, to viticulture and ostrich farming. We decided it was time to send postcards home, and, having hunted down some rather dog-eared ones in a mangy Indian store, we needed to buy stamps. The first visit to Oudtshoorn Post Office was unsuccessful: it was mid-afternoon and it was shut. The next day we tried earlier and it was open.
The post office building, externally, is a handsome relic of the British Empire. It is a large square building, single-storeyed, ornamented with Queen Victoria's royal cipher. Inside, sharing the light from a single electric light bulb were ten or twelve counter positions each manned by an Indian clerk. There were no other customers. I approached the nearest counter position and explained my requirements.
“We don't sell stamps.”
“Am I right, I am in the Post Office?”
“We don't sell stamps.”
“Where do you buy stamps, then?”
There was a huddled dicussion between several of the clerks.
“Perhaps you could try B&A Bookshop.”
It was as well that I didn't. According to the young couple who kept the hotel where we were staying, the proprietor of B&A Bookshop, who needed stamps for his mail order business, had driven a hundred miles to the coastal resort of George, where rumour had correctly indicated that stamps were to be had. News of his successful purchase had anticipated his return to Oudtshoorn, and queues of hopefuls had formed down the street. He was by this time in a homicidal rage.
It was weekend when we got to the next town, Laingsburg. So our next place of residence was Calvinia in the Northern Cape. This town did have a post office, and we drove round to it after breakfast. It was a pleasant, whitewashed building, airy and light. Bill remained in the car, and I went in and asked for stamps for postcards to England. Rodney followed me in. There were no other customers. It soon became obvious that the postmaster was suffering from Alzheimer's. His granddaughter was not much help, apart from showing him the drawer where the stamps were kept (there was only one drawer) with the words:
“Ompa, jy is 'n aselkop.” (Grandfather, you are a donkey-head).
He insisted on trying to find stamps that stated on them “Foreign Postcard – Vreemde Poskaart” whereas all I wanted, obviously, was stamps to the value of the correct postage.
While this was going on, Rodney was standing behind my left shoulder giggling. There were no other customers for postal services, though a succession of people came in and handed black binbags to the granddaughter. I had time to sketch out a six-part television series in my head called “Buying Stamps”, in which these binbags contained cannabis. In reality, most likely the granddaughter was acting as receiving agent for a laundry business.
Eventually the postmaster sorted out some khaki-coloured stamps commemorating some long-forgotten anniversary of the South African Army. Then came the excruciating wait while he calculated how much he should charge for them. From entering the post office to leaving it was half an hour. Furthermore, when I came out and divvied up the stamps between us, it was evident that the amount he had charged me was not a multiple of the number of stamps purchased. Rodney tried to insist that I should go back and argue it out, but my rage and Bill's impatience made him grin and reveal his insincerity.
And there's more. The pillar box on the other side of the street opposite the post office is 23 feet (seven metres) high, broad in proportion, and bright red. It is inscribed in Afrikaans and English with the boast that it is the biggest pillar box in the Southern Hemisphere. It is not inscribed with any information about why anyone would have wanted to erect such a useless eyesore. Local legend would have it that it is only emptied when it is full, but that is not true: there is a tiny conventional box sent into the side of it. Despite these absurdities, our cards did actually get delivered.
Towards the end of our stay we found a first-rate bookshop in the town of Springbok, where postcards of excellent quality were to be had. However, there was no point in sending any at that stage because we were only a couple of days away from catching our plane in Cape Town. Besides, Springbok Post Office was festooned with razor wire, suggesting that they did not undertake much business. Furthermore, and even more oddly, the pillar box outside was also draped with razor wire.