Max and Sue Hoppe are a couple from Port Elizabeth who are, well, let’s just say “past their prime”. Koos is their recently acquired Hyundai Terracan, of which the same could be said. Together, the three of them are taking every opportunity to explore remote and beautiful places
Over the years we have travelled along many of the little back roads in SA and Lesotho in our poor abused plat karre, but we had a long list of dream destinations requiring a 4×4. Now, with our newly-acquired Hyundai Terracan, named Koos, rearing to go, we can make up for lost time!
Max was able to take a few days off in early spring, and we were keen to revisit Namaqualand to see the flowers. We have a tent which, although extremely comfortable and weather resistant once up, has more pegs than a Monday morning washing line and whose advertised ease of erection has always eluded us. Add to that a husband who is a camping gear addict (OK, OK, maybe both of us) and you have a car packed to capacity with stuff that seemed indispensable at the time.
We have learned from experience that there is no point in camping unless we can spend at least two nights in one place, to make it worth all the effort of setting up. So we decided to combine two of our bucket list destinations into this trip and booked three nights at Perdekloof campsite in Tankwa Karoo National Park, followed by three at Matjiesfontein Farm, Nieuwoudtville.
I adore cold weather, and claim that my dream holiday would be to Antarctica (which is safely out of our reach, so there’s no need to test that little bit of bravado). But before our departure, when a succession of cold fronts appeared, accompanied by snow and night temperatures in nearby Sutherland consistently several degrees below zero, I had images of tent pegs crumbling like paperclips in frozen ground. Max, who does not share my love of the cold, was horrified. There was snow on Table Mountain, and the Solaris webcam at the SALT site in Sutherland showed a white wonderland.
Nevertheless, we set out bravely before sunrise, taking the Langkloof route for Oudtshoorn. By the time the sun put in an appearance, we were nearing Joubertina, which looked deceptively spring-like, with blossoms on the fruit trees.
From Oudtshoorn, we headed through the 17km long Seweweekspoort – one of the legendary mountain passes built by Thomas Bains in the 1860s. We have always wondered about the name, realising it could not have taken only seven weeks to build this marvel of engineering. Apparently the pass is named after Berlin Mission Society preacher Louis Zerwick, and the name was corrupted over the years. It was no test of Koos’s 4×4 abilities, though. Even after the storm and with snow on the mountains, the road was in very good nick.
The closer we got to Tankwa, the more beautiful the countryside became, and the stormy skies just added to an already dramatic landscape.
There was no signboard to tell us which of the three possible routes to the left of the Matjiesfontein/Sutherland road was the best to take. We went for the third one, and hoped the GPS was not having a bad day.
Koos finally came into his own in the thick mud and strongly flowing river crossings. In normal weather a 4×4 would not have been necessary, but after the storms of the previous week, these were far from the region’s usual arid conditions.
Because the Tankwa park is still being developed, there are no distinctive game fences or clear signs when you enter it, and none of the usual formalities. You go over several grids and presumably the one with a sign instructing you to report to the park office is the “gate”.
We rounded a few bends and there before us lay the Tankwa Basin, covered with a yellow welcome mat! It is a place of extraordinary contradictions – harsh but soft looking, rocky but covered with delicate plants, colours oddly subtle. We fell in love instantly!
Tankwa is renowned for its rubber chewing roads, so we stopped to let the tyre pressure down to 1.6 bars before reporting to reception. Then we headed down the 6km road to the Perdekloof campsite, with another river crossing on the way.
A pair of steenbokkies darted away and a jackal slunk behind a bush as we passed, but we knew that Tankwa was not going to be about the game viewing. The park itself, with its awesome landscapes, is the main attraction. Animal sightings are a bonus.
The SANParks website does not do justice to the camping facilities. We were pleasantly surprised. There are only six campsites, in three pairs, well separated from each other by the facilities, which comprise a toilet, shower and kitchen for each site, with a gravelled area under sheltering trees on which to pitch the tent. There was no electricity, but solar power for the lights in the buildings, and a gas geyser.
The reception office was very helpful in charging camera batteries, and we had otherwise come prepared. The lack of a cellphone signal was a bonus. The reason we were here was to get away from it all.
In no time we were warm and snug in our new home for the next three days. We dozed off with a delightful sense of anticipation about what Tankwa had to offer the next day.
No fences, no rush
Some unique factors make this national park especially enjoyable. The biggest one for us was that it is free of predators, so you are not fenced in or required to stay in your car. The fact that we could stop now and then and wander around, experiencing the fresh air and the scents of the flowers, just made our holiday.
Although there is an impressive game list, the arid conditions and wide open spaces make the carrying capacity lower than those of the major parks, so you certainly don’t see animals around each bend. And since game viewing is not the primary attraction, there is no need to be up at the crack of dawn. You can make a gentle start, enjoy an extra cup of coffee and take a morning stroll.
This is even truer in spring, because the flowers only begin to open around 9am and are best after 10, so there is no point in racing out to see them.
After a leisurely start, we set off to explore Gannaga Pass, which climbs the Roggeveld escarpment, past Gannaga Lodge, to Middelpos. (Incidentally if you use diesel, it is available in the park at reception, but if you need petrol, Middelpos is the closest source, about 50km away.)
The flowers were out in force, made all the more special because they were so utterly incongruous in this harsh landscape.
The road itself is an easy drive, and apart from some deep muddy patches, did not present any difficulties. And the views! The biggest challenge was to resist pulling over time after time to gawk at the whole Tankwa Basin and the snow-capped Western Cape mountains.
At the top of the pass you come across a somewhat unprepossessing building, but don’t be fooled. This is the charming Gannaga Lodge, and it’s a classic example of Tankwa architecture, built with the extreme climate in mind.
In summer, the temperature averages in the low 40s, while in winter it seldom rises about 5C or 6C. The recycled stone walls and small windows, low reed ceilings for insulation, cool cement floors for summer and fireplaces for winter, combine to make the lodge comfortable all year round.
A feature of Tankwa Karoo is the number of old, crumbling structures dotted around. We discussed this with Johan, the lodge owner, and he offered us an interesting little book, “Around the Tankwa Karoo – a guide to some of the buildings and people who lived in them”. The book is available at the park reception and is well worth getting on your way in.
Some structures were built of loose packed, rounded rocks, and others of slabs of shale. Many were also built with bricks made from straw trampled together with clay, and baked in the sun. Some are more than 100 years old, and only since being abandoned have they deteriorated into the intriguing textures and ruins one sees today.
Johan told us that, before selling all but 20ha of their farm to National Parks, his family had discovered in one of the kloofs a crack in the rocks which must have been a San burial site. During some particularly heavy rains, water gushed down the kloof, carrying human bones with it as the earth over the crevice was washed out. The incident was reported to the heritage authorities, but never followed up.
After an enjoyable interlude, we headed back down the pass. We thought nothing could top the beauty we had seen that day, but we were wrong. After all, this area is close to Sutherland, the star gazing capital of SA, and the night skies were incredible!
The following day we decided to explore the north-western section of the park and drive the Leeuberg 4×4 trail near Varschfontein.
Meandering along, with regular stops to enjoy the surroundings, was a delight. We were able to enjoy not only the awe inspiring sense of space and of being tiny specks in a vast emptiness, but also the intricate details of the plants, changing rock formations and soil types, and finding animal spoor. (Tankwa is a geologist’s dream.)
Rounding a bend, we came into an open plain with yellow daisies as far as the eye could see, interspersed with bands of white flowers. In the distance, the mountains gleamed with heavy caps of snow.
Rooivlei was a great place for a picnic lunch, with 360-degree views across the wide-open spaces, unusually featuring patches of water after the storms.
From here our map reading must have gone a bit pear shaped. We were under the impression that we were heading for a road marked “self-drive game viewing”, but somehow ended up on the 4×4 trail. We only realised that we had entered at the exit after a particularly hairy hill climb, when the bonnet reared up and the world dropped away in front of us.
I slammed on the brakes and Max got out to check where the road went. This was just as well, because in front of us was a treacherous drop into the valley below while the road did a 90-degree turn to the right. Next to us was a sign saying “4×4 trail”, pointing back the way we had come…. Oops!
Oh well, we had no idea how long we had been on the trail, so we decided we might as well press on, and do it back to front! Koos handled it like a pro, and the views were breathtaking.
During our two days in the park, we had only occasional glimpses of gemsbok, springbok, a lone hartebeest, a jackal and a pair of steenbokke. Being regular visitors to Addo, where the animals practically stand in the road and put on a cabaret for you, this might have seemed disappointing, but in fact it was the opposite. Each sighting felt like a rare and fleeting treat.
The following day we had to leave Tankwa and head for Nieuwoudtville, and we have seldom been so reluctant to leave a place. We both felt a strong affinity with this unique area and hope to go back soon.
Cloudy skies and varied scenery accompanied us as we travelled to our next stop via Calvinia.
We headed for Matjiesfontein farm, 7km outside Nieuwoudtville, which is said to have the largest concentration of wildflower bulbs in the world. It also has some extremely old buildings. The main one serves as a padstal and two others are the now ablution blocks for the campsite. They are clean and characterful, but don’t camp here unless you don’t mind Spartan and rustic facilities.
We raced the clock to set up camp before darkness fell, followed by welcome mugs of steaming coffee. There was a chance to photograph the night scene before hopping into bed for what turned out to be an extremely cold night in the tent.
Next morning it became apparent why we had been so cold. I emerged from the tent to find a world of crisp white and a tent that was frozen solid and looked like an igloo!
I decided there was no point in shivering in bed any longer so I went for a walk. It was spectacularly beautiful and the pre-dawn light lent a cold gleam to the scene, which rapidly changed as pink tinted sunlight spread over the frosty surface of the farm.
“There goes our spring flower viewing,” I thought, as I looked at gazanias covered in white crystals. It was hard to imagine they would survive unscathed, but later in the day they were bright as ever in the sunshine. The farmer told us that the flowers “loved the frost” and always looked the better for it.
Nieuwoudtville is typical of small town SA – a mix of people farming on the outskirts, and a single main street running through a collection of old buildings that host shops, art galleries, coffee shops and whatever will get passing tourists to part with a few bucks.
The side streets are all gravel roads, with rusted fences around yards with windmills in seas of spring flowers.
Many of the buildings were beautifully constructed of dressed sandstone blocks, including the old Dutch Reformed church with its tall spire – another icon that is common to practically every dorpie in SA.
A favourite stop for us is the glacial pavement – another of the geological marvels in the Northern Cape. The bedrock of a long gone glacier is exposed on the surface, and the striations carved by rocks bedded into the ice and dragged along for miles give one an idea of the powerful forces at work in nature.
In a town such as this, with a short window of opportunity to draw tourists for the spring flowers, the coffee shops and restaurants do what they can so that you will “stop here rather than there”, and some are more successful than others.
We were drawn to the eccentric display at the Kuns Gallery, with its innovative approach to recycling, resulting in chairs made of old 44-gallon drums.
If you find yourself in this part of the world, don’t be put off by the somewhat bland exterior of Die Nedersetting, in the main street. Treat yourself to some of the most delicious traditional boerekos to be found anywhere in the Karoo. The bobotie was to die for!
One of the planned highlights of the trip for us was to photograph windmills, and where better to do that than at the Louriesfontein Windmill Museum? En route, we stopped to see the Nieuwoudtville Waterfall on the Doring River, which is about 5km outside the town on the way to Loeriesfontein. The water was flowing particularly well after all the rain and the falls were a beautiful sight, with rainbows shimmering at the base.
We found Louriesfontein rather disappointing, and lacking much of the charm of so many other little towns. However, we enjoyed the array of windmills at the museum. And, of course, no trip to this region would be complete without a visit to the surreal kokerboom forest. We stopped there as the sun was sinking and leaving long shadows, which added to the surreal atmosphere on this hillside of prehistoric looking trees.
We took our time over the next two days, meandering home along more muddy back roads.
On our arrival, the guy at the carwash looked at Koos in horror. No wonder – half the clay in the Karoo was stuck to the chassis! No designer mud for this Terracan. Koos and his passengers like the real McCoy, and can’t wait for the next adventure!