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Taking it easy with Jannie Herbst





1 June 2016


Ver in die ou Kalahari

Many South Africans are familiar with the above song even if they only know the chorus. Indeed, the Kalahari is an amazing place and a favourite of many world travellers. Famous American country singer Jim Reeves even adapted the song, so moved was he by it. Jannie recently headed back to the Kalahari, as well as an old mainstay, the Gemsbok Hotel…

I was sitting on a red dune at the end of a hot day, killing time before dinner with my wife, Maryke. The sun was setting behind a cluster of camel thorn trees and hordes of guinea fowl were coming home to roost – only the unmistakable shrill sound of their squeaky chitter and the red dust cloud against the amber skyline betrayed their position.

Ah, another day, another great Kalahari sunset, I thought to myself, sipping some red wine. The harsh call of a rooibekfisant and the bellows of distant cattle join the beautiful cacophony of the Kalahari twilight symphony. And before the moon was up, we were treated to a magnificent show of heavenly bodies. What a magnificent place this Kalahari is.

Our trip had taken us from Randburg to Kakamas where we stayed at Vergelegen Guesthouse, a personal favourite. We then headed north via Noenieput and Hakskeenpan to Andriesvale where we checked into the Molopo Lodge. Following heavy rains, Hakskeenpan was under water, so it was impossible to visit the site where The Bloodhound Project is set to attempt to break the land speed record. The 1 600km/h record attempt, by the way, has been postponed until next year.

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My first visit to Molopo Lodge was in 1988, when it was known as the Molopo Motel. Sadly, it has lost the feeling of being in the sticks, in the middle of the bundu. The ghetto blasters are in play from early on a Saturday evening, the locals clearly keen on their oempa-oempa-doef-doef parties. The night sounds I remembered from my previous visits are gone. The lodge, however, remains a really special place. Should you find yourself in the area, do stay over. Their springbok pie is a must.

We decided to head back to Gauteng via Van Zylsrus. We had some interesting memories of the old Gemsbok Hotel and thought that it deserved a re-visit. I first drove the gravel road from Askham, along the Kuruman River, in 1988, and it hasn’t changed a bit, and was still no easy drive. We stayed at the Gemsbok Hotel back then. The owner at the time, Duisman Bekker, was a real character who apparently loved horses: there were photos, paintings and pictures of them everywhere.The one wall was adorned with shined and polished stirrups, spurs, reins and bits. And he loved plants, too. Ferns were hanging from the ceiling in old tyres modified like baskets. Various plants grew from large old jugs and milk cans.

Farmers travelled more than 200km (or ‘10 beers’ far – in those days, distance was measured in the number of beers you could consume while driving to a destination!) to have a goeie kuier at the Gemsbok. Duisman was the receptionist, the manager and, of course, the barman. Hundreds of hats and caps were suspended from the ceiling and Duisman could tell a story about every single one. And of course, each story was worth another drink.

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Every few minutes on the Saturday night we were there, there would be a knock at the door behind the bar, accompanied by a faceless voice: “’n Papsakkie, asseblief meneer.” A papsakkie, Duisman explained, was a plastic bag filled with really cheap and nasty wine. The only purpose of this vile, cheap drink was for the consumer to get inebriated to levels one cannot comprehend.

Things got jollier as that Saturday afternoon progressed: “Op die boek asseblief Duisman,” some of the farmers would say when it came to settling the bill. On account, please. Yes, it was possible to drink on credit. Later Duisman told us that the local grocer’s son was getting engaged that evening. It was also the grocer’s wife’s birthday. Everyone in the bar was (eventually) on their way to this big party on a farm outside town, and we were invited.

Duisman said he was switching the generator off at 7pm either way, so it was our choice if we wanted to join the local opskop or retire early. We were exhausted and appreciated an early night. Our dinner was ready before 7pm… not that you could order anything – you ate what you got. In our case, pork chops, sweet potato, tomato salad, rice and gravy. It was delicious.

A few years later we again paid a visit to the Gemsbok Hotel. Outside was a bakkie with a tarpaulin cover pulled over the loading bay. Several gemsbok and kudu legs protruded from the sides. In the bar we found Duisman with a handful of hunters, the latter who proclaimed: “Johannesburg lê nog ver. Ons het net gou kom volmaak.” Or Johannesburg is still far away. We just stopped for a fill-up for the long road.

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On our recent visit, I couldn’t believe how completely different the hotel looked – it had morphed into a modern boutique hotel. It is now called the Van Zylsrus Hotel. Elbie Jonker, a former financial broker from Joburg, is the current owner. Petro, his wife, had family in the area and when she heard that the hotel was on the market, she convinced 45-year-old Elbie to buy the establishment. Elbie would become a full-time farmer in the area and Petro would manage the hotel. That was in 2006.

Following some planned upgrades to the old structures, it became clear that saving the hotel was impossible. Even the foundations could not be salvaged, so an entirely new hotel needed to be built. By 2008, the new hotel was finally ready. However, the unexpected rebuilding costs had dealt Elbie’s plans of buying a farm a decisive blow. Since then, Petro is no longer involved in the hotel, and Elbie runs it with the help of Susan Gray, a local boerenooi and Hanelie van Tonder, an ex-Capetonian.

The old hotel’s plants and equestrian paraphernalia have made way for beautiful murals, mosaics and other artworks that were created from the rubble of the demolished hotel. There are seven spacious en-suite bedrooms (including a large family unit) and one luxurious honeymoon suite. A few things have, however, not changed since our first visit: the farmers still drink on credit, visitors are still greeted with a firm handshake when they enter the bar and the food is still great – albeit with a more extensive menu.

“People here say you grow from the roots and when you are a newcomer to Van Zylsrus, you are not a local tree and will never be one. Those early days were tough. Now, after four years, I consider myself a branch,” says Elbie. Elbie loves life here. “People really care about each other. They stop on the road for
a quick chat if they pass one another. There are no hidden agendas. Only honest spontaneity. And every second Tuesday of the month we have an auction here, after which the bar is packed with farmers complaining about the low prices their stock fetched,”he says.

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The bar was packed too on the Sunday we were there. Packed with a bevy of beautiful, young, stylish youngsters – all foreign volunteers working at a local sanctuary for meerkats called the Meerkat Project. The project’s meerkat population is the very same that starred in Animal Planet’s series, Meerkar Manor.

The volunteers said the highlight of their stay in the Kalahari is the once-a-month trip to the hotel. They come to let their hair down, swim and have a jolly good time. Leaving the hotel the next morning after a hearty Kalahari breakfast, I couldn’t help hearing the last refrain of Jim Reeves’ Old Kalahari playing in my head: “When I am called on safari By Him whom I cannot deny I pray that the old Kalahari Will be part of that land in the sky…” I’m sure this rings true for Elbie, too.

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Van Zylsrus is back on the map
During the 80s, the quickest and shortest route between Johannesburg and the then Kalahari Gemsbok Park was the 900km via Hotazel, Van Zylsrus and Askham. The tar ended at Hotazel leaving travellers with more than 300km of very bad gravel roads to Twee Rivieren.

So, when the 180km road between Upington and Askham was tarred a few years later, this longer stretch became the more popular choice, even though it meant travellers needed to drive the 780km to Upington first. Later, the 80km between Askham and Twee Rivieren was also tarred, further confirming this 1 040km option as a more popular option than the infamous (but shorter) route via Van Zylsrus. But all that has changed.

The route via Van Zylsrus and the Middelputs Border Post to Botswana is currently the shortest, most scenic and comfortable drive to the Kgalagadi. You can enter Botswana at Middelputs 40km west of Van Zylsrus and travel via an excellent tar road to Bokspits (about 180km). Enter South Africa again at the Gemsbok Border Post and you are a mere 70km from the park.