Chasing Snowmen Searching for snow in GWM’s Steed

When the schools closed for five weeks in June and July, teacher Mike Slater decided that he and his two sons should go exploring the Free State and Western Cape. So off they went in GWM’s snazzy 2,4-litre Steed. Little did they know that they would end up chasing an elusive snowman, and meet more horses than they had bargained for along the way.

In winter, the South African Highveld is dry and dusty, with nights cold enough to crack water pipes and freeze to death the hardiest of greenery.

There is little wind to clear away the urban smog, and the smoky skies become a depressing reddish-grey smear, without the prospect of a cleansing shower.

Not even the excitement of the wonderful World Cup could lift my spirits and I needed to go somewhere wet, windy and far away from the gloom. Right, so I had a GWM (Great Wall Motors) Steed double cab at my disposal – but no real plan on where we should be heading.

“The plan” came unexpectedly: Luke, my eight-year-old son, called me to the TV, which was showing snow, and kids playing in it. So he asked if we could go there as he had never thrown a snowball or built a snowman before. At the ti me the Western Cape was being battered by one of the seasonal cold fronts that bring galeforce winds and floods to Cape Town and surrounds, but can also paste the mountains with a layer of the wonderful white stuff .

“Let’s do it,” I said.

And so, with just the friendly Free State and 1000km of calming Karoo between us and that snow, we packed for Antarctica and plotted a route south from Johannesburg that included some interesting stops to break the journey.

Expecting to find convoys of Capetonians streaming in the opposite direction to escape the wailing winds and blinding blizzards, the Steed fairly galloped down the N1 highway to Bloemfontein. When we got there, Daniel, my soccer-mad 13-year-old son, suggested we take a look at the Free State Stadium, where Germany (my kids go to the German School in Johannesburg) had just given England a spanking.

Right next door to the stadium is the King’s Park Zoological Gardens – a perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich, old chap. Old chap.

Bloemfontein was about as far as I could stand driving on the boring N1 and so, with Vanderkloof being our first scheduled stopover, we turned off the N1 at the R706 to Charlesville, Jagersfontein and Fauresmith.

Apart from finding out that the Vanderkloof dam was formerly named after one PK le Roux (Minister of Home Affairs 1966-1968) and, at 107m, has the highest dam wall in South Africa, we noticed that a lot of horse-boxes were being towed to somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In Jagersfontein (founded in 1870) we were told that the horses were heading for the annual Fauresmith horse marathon. Then Daniel pointed out a hand-writt en sign saying “Groot Gat”, or Big Hole.

Everyone knows about Kimberley’s “Big Hole” – this is a different one. “Jan”, who you must phone on arrival, arrived with the key to the old Excelsior diamond mine, and asked for R5 per child and R10 per adult, and also welcomed us to “the biggest hand-dug hole in the world”.

We had a look and were very impressed, and wondered why this incredible excavati on is not bett er known.

Fauresmith (founded by the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in 1859) is named aft er Dominee Faure, former moderator of the church, and Sir Harry Smith, former governor of the Cape Colony, and is only 10km from Jagersfontein.

It appears that Fauresmith is famous for two things – that it was nearly the capital of the Orange Free State, and the horse marathon that has been held there annually since 1971.

We looked in at the agricultural showgrounds to ask about the endurance race, and decided to watch the riders set off in a few days’ ti me on our way back to Johannesburg.

From Fauresmith there is a short cut on a gravel road to Luckhoff (founded in 1892). While the Steed kicked up a lot of dust doing what bakkies do best, none of the red powder came into the cab, and I started to quite like this Chinese-built vehicle.

Due to some quirky programming of our Garmin GPS, we drove over the Vanderkloof dam wall three times, and then crossed the Orange River on a single-lane bridge just below the wall before turning up the hill to the town of Vanderkloof, and Pride Rock Lodge.

Once the “single quarters” for the engineers who built the dam, Pride Rock Lodge has been turned into a comfortable and homely hotel with cool gardens, a pool and great views over the dam.

We were now in the Northern Cape Province and while we played pool in the bar, it became my task to explain to Luke the diff erence between a province and a country, and why we didn’t need a passport to cross the big river.

Attractions in the area (apart from the dam) include the Rolfontein Nature Reserve that protects unique succulent plants, and the old Orange River Stati on Post Office that Lord Methuen (who commanded a British division during the battle for Kimberley in 1899) used as a staging post for the relief of Kimberley.

The remains of the Doornbult concentrati on camp are nearby. This quote from historian Robin Pelteret captures some of the pathos:

“But it is out in the veld over a kilometre away that one engages the true history of the place… Here are the simple kitchen utensils fashioned of wire and black metal; lead sealed tins – chicken soup, salmon, bully-beef, cacao, condensed milk – which, when used to heat food, caused lead poisoning. Here are bottles – aqua glass, gin, ink, medicine, perfume, whiskey; and shards of pottery – glazed earthenware kitchen jars and transfer-printed porcelain. Here are the spent coals of campfires, boot-scrapers fashioned from serried ranks of buried ti ns, and raised stony ground where canvas tents once stood.”

Eager to experience the snows still so far to the south, we rejoined the N1 at Hanover and stayed with it through the fl at-topped mountains of the Karoo until we turned off onto the R318 after Touwsrivier and climbed up the Rooihoogte pass towards Montagu.

If you go this way, try to do it in the late afternoon when the low sun brings out the colours and character of the Langeberg mountains (on which there was not even a glimmer of snow) and enriches the greens and browns of the Koo and Bree river valleys. We spent too long enjoying the views and did not make it to the wide streets of Montagu and the De Bos Guest Farm unti l aft er dark. Maureen and Alan Brown greeted us like long-lost friends.

Montagu’s setting at the top of Cogmans Kloof between the Keisie and Kingna rivers is magnificent. Named after John Montagu, colonial secretary of the Cape in 1841, Montagu was laid out on the farm, Uitvlugt, and now boasts 14 national monuments in Long Street alone.

De Bos is a working pecan nut farm where the main house dates back to 1856. Accommodation ranges from camping, dorm and en-suite rooms to bungalows.

The Montagu area is a rock climbing paradise, with more than 300 bolted routes of all grades within walking distance of the guest farm.

Cape Town is just two hours from Montagu, and as the snows of the last cold front had all but melted (to the huge disappointment of my sons) and we had all developed some sort of chest infecti on, we decided to skip the Matroosberg, where we had a booking at the Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve.

Instead, we spent a couple of days in Cape Town at a friend’s house. Mid-winter it may have been, but the sun shone, the wind stayed away and Luke, although disappointed about missing the chance to build a snowman, fulfi lled another of his dreams by walking among the penguins at Boulders Beach near Simonstown.

To ensure that we got back to Fauresmith in time to see the horses and riders heading for the hills, we left Cape Town at 3am. The Philoppolis NG Kerk (built in 1862), with its Brinley & Vorster 1000-pipe organ and a mechanical church-clock that has been ticking since 1887, was a fascinati ng diversion along the way.

Laurens Jan van der Post (1906-1996) was born in Philippolis and is the author of 25 books including The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958), Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) and A Walk with A White Bushman (1986).

Despite a few stop-go roadwork delays before and aft er Beaufort West, we made it to Fauresmith just in time to watch more than 400 horses on parade. Daniel found a pool table at the Fauresmith Bowling Club (nogal!) and we chatted long into the night to riders, trainers and owners about who were the favourites to win this year’s marathon.

It is interesting to note that this year’s crew included more than 30 veterinarians and horse physiotherapists to constantly monitor the horses.

The idea of having a horse marathon began – as is often the case – with a dispute over a few beers, regarding which breed was best for endurance riding.

The farming magazine, Landbou Weekblad, had published a controversial piece about various horse breeds and suggested which off ered the best endurance ability. To settle the issue, an endurance ride was held in 1964, starting from Hanover. The event was well supported, with the Arabian breed galloping in first.

In 1971 the race was moved to Fauresmith. Each year the agricultural and sport grounds are turned into a showpiece of not only horses, but of every make, shape and form of bakkie, SUV, 4×4 and the associated caravan and camping gear – something for everyone.

On the night before the marathon not many of the grooms, riders and trainers get much sleep, and when I got up before dawn, the arena was already a busy scene, with the first batch of riders due to leave at 7am. Regulars told me that this year was a “warm” marathon but I was certainly very glad to find coffee and boerebeskuit on offer in the dining hall.

Watching the riders fade into the dusty hills behind our tent, with the sky turning clay-red, I couldn’t help thinking what an appropriate place this was to park a GWM Steed.

I certainly wasn’t interested in another 11 hours of driving that day. Fortunately, our excellent planning (plus a bit of luck) meant that aft er just two hours on desolate but scenic gravel roads we had passed Koffiefontein, Jacobsdal and Heuningneskloof to get to Mokala, South Africa’s newest nati onal Park.

Mokala replaces the Vaalbos Nati onal park, which had to be deproclaimed in 2003 due to the return of the diamond prospecti ng rights to a land-claims group.

Taking advantage of the SanParks 40% discount because of beds not being taken up during the World Cup soccer, I had booked us into one of the luxury self-catering bungalows at Mosu Lodge.

First prize would have been the remote Haak-en-Steek Camp, which has just one rusti c bungalow and five campsites, but that very special camp was fully booked for many months to come.

Mosu has a swimming pool, restaurant and conference room and – yes, you may have guessed it – much to Daniel’s delight, a pool table tucked above the bar.

I eventually dragged Daniel away from the table, and Luke from the TV in our bungalow, so that we could take a look at the Haak-en- Steek camp and a drive along one of the loop roads. We came across game almost every few hundred metres – gemsbok, buffalo, kudu, springbok, zebra, giraffe and a group of at least five white rhino, with calves.

Although the sign said “Residents Only”, we called in at Haak-en-Steek camp. It certainly is one of the few places in the national parks where you can brag about having the place to yourself – and no electricity!

One of life’s rare little pleasures is to watch a glorious sunset and then listen to the changing chorus of the bush as the light fades away.

As I rarely visit national parks, it was easy to forget that the camp gates close at 6pm, but either Luke is unusually law-abiding (for a Slater) or he was just getting hungry, but he made sure we didn’t miss the cut-off time. Prices at the Mosu restaurant were very reasonable and I can highly recommend the prego steak roll, served with crispy potato wedges and a great salad.

Winter temperatures in this part of the world often drop below zero but the night skies are incredibly sharp and the down duvets were a real treat aft er my threadbare collecti on of well-travelled sleeping bags.

Buffalo grazed just a few metres away while we enjoyed a simple breakfast the following morning, and I decided that the “Big Smoke” could easily wait another day… but Mokala was fully booked. So we gave our Steed the reins, and she took us home.