Star Trek through the Moordenaars Karoo
You may have wondered how the Moordenaars Karoo got its name and what exactly you can find in this seemingly inhospitable place. We took the recently facelifted Chevrolet Captiva there to find out.
With a name like Moordenaars Karoo you might imagine that we would discover, if not real bandits, tales of folk with murderous intent or a past that is less than honourable. We didn’t come across any thugs but found something far more mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial. We began our journey at the Cape Town International Airport and headed north on the N1 to Laingsburg.
From the moment we stepped into the new Chevy Captiva we felt right at home. The raised seating position, the easily adjustable, comfortable leather seats that offer a decent amount of lower lumbar support, the generous interior and oodles of space in the boot for luggage all made for a good start to the relationship.
Passing through Worcester and then the Hex River Valley, we made our way through the Matroosberg Mountains and found ourselves in typical Karoo landscape, where buttes and mesas abound (koppies and more koppies) and scrubland extends as far as the eye can see.
The 2.2-litre diesel Captiva D LT progressed comfortably along the N1, cruising at the national speed limit with the six-speed automatic gearbox doing an effortless job of making the odometer tick over. We couldn’t head straight into Laingsburg, however, without stopping at the quaint and beautiful outpost of Matjiesfontein. Our pit stop included a visit to the historic Lord Milner Hotel, where we had a brief conversation with the staff about the Blue and green (Rovos Rail) trains that stop here.
We also made our way to the Laird’s Arms, the quaint saloon next door. Feeling almost like we’d stepped back in time, we enjoyed some refreshments before completing the last bit of the day’s trip to Laingsburg. Besides the region’s tasty Karoo lamb, Laingsburg is famous for the 1981 flood when the Buffels River burst its banks and took 104 lives, leaving a wake of devastation in the Karoo dorpie and destroying almost two-thirds of its infrastructure.
A visit to the Laingsburg Museum to learn more and have a chat with flood survivor Tannie Francis van Wyk seemed appropriate, so we headed there first thing the next morning. Marking the entrance to the museum parking lot is a flood level indicator and an eye-catching display of rusted water meters that entwine to form a loose sculpture outside the building, representing the 104 lives lost.
Tannie Francis has donated a large part of her personal collection of photos of the flood and its aftermath to the museum and recounted how her son was one of those washed into the Floriskraal Dam by the raging flood waters. Of the many who ended up in the churning dam waters, only he and nine others survived.
In addition to stories about the flood, Tannie Francis chatted about popular Afrikaans writer Dana Snyman who’d been in the area recently and had interviewed her for his TV show, Op Pad met Dana. She then gave us the name of a couple of farmers who we might run into along the Moordenaars Karoo route. We thanked her and set off to investigate this curiously named place.
In search of murderers
Heading back out of town the way we’d come, we spotted the sign indicating the Moordenaars route and swung a right to get our first taste of dirt roads and to see what we could find in this arid place. At the end of a long, hot summer, with a drought still ongoing in places, there had nevertheless been hints of greyish-green scrub and the odd yellowish bush on the way from Cape Town to Laingsburg.
This road seemed even drier and dustier, though, with the landscape varying between shades of brown and grey, relieved only by the blue sky and puffy white clouds that offered no promise of rain. The Captiva handled the dirt road without any drama. Even on the badly corrugated sections, which were thankfully few and far between, the MacPherson strut front suspension and four-link independent set-up at the back ensured that we cruised in comfort. After driving for about an hour we spotted three men mending a fence. They introduced themselves as farmer Johan le Roux, his son Riaan and helper Hans Horn.
Friendly and engaging, Johan spoke in a manner similar to the late Jan Spies from the TV show Spies en Plessis. He spoke of being attached to this arid land where the harsh climate takes a great deal. “But when it gives, it gives a lot, too,” he said.
On the topic of the Moordenaars Karoo, Johan wasn’t sure where the name originated but it’s rumoured that it is either a reflection of the extreme climate, or pointing to the distant hills he commented, it could be that people running from the law sought refuge in those hills. His theory: “If you get in [to the hills] no one will find you.”
It seems that none of the locals are really sure, but Leon Nell in his book, The Great Karoo, mentions that although it has come to refer to the murderous extremes of temperature, originally the name reflected the murder of the early colonists by the San, in the 1770s and their subsequent retaliation.
Whatever the origin of this evocative name, it’s evident that this is a harsh habitat, where eking out a living does not come easily. As a testament to this, the farmers’ houses scattered along this route appear exceptionally humble when compared to those of their kin further south, in the Cape Winelands. A number of windmills marked our route, some dilapidated, others working. To complete the typical Karoo scene, however, we needed some sheep. On passing the halfway point along this road we had yet to see more than one or two timid creatures, each of them running away in a funny hopping fashion as the Captiva approached.
Clearly these sheep are lacking taste. Then a sudden rise and dip in the road brought us face to face with a herd of brown-headed Pedi sheep that were trotting towards us. But as we lined up for ‘the perfect shot’ they turned tail and ran the Captiva was just too flashy for this humble crowd, it seemed.
A short while later we encountered a very large herd of Dorper sheep with their black heads and white bodies. They, too, decided not to stick around. Tannie Francis had given us the names of some farmers, who she said might be able to share some stories about the area.
The first lot weren’t home, so we continued down the dusty road and made another stop to ask some locals, perhaps farmhands when they where younger, if they knew where farmer Billy Myburgh lived. “Djaaa, net oor darrie bult, reg oppie pad,” they answered. So at least we were on the right track, and the house was supposed to be ‘just over the hill, right next to the road’.
We crossed our fingers that Billy would be home. Thankfully he was.
A harsh place
After introductions, we were invited into this hospitable family’s home, where we sat chatting in their lounge. Billy concurred that the name Moordenaars Karoo refers to the extremely harsh climate. He spoke about the rainfall that had dwindled in the last number of years and with it, the number of farmers. Growing up in Bellville (near Cape Town), Eloise recounted that when she first came to the farm, when she and Billy married 37 years ago, she wasn’t sure she could adapt to a place like this. It didn’t take long, though, for the Karoo to grab her heart and for Eloise to learn to see this patch of land through the eyes of a local.
ET phone home
On Christmas Day in 2014 Eloise and the family heard a strange rumbling, sounding like thunder. But there were no clouds in the sky. Then followed a loud popping noise, ‘in surround sound’.
Some neighbours confirmed that they had heard it too, but it wasn’t until very recently that they discovered what it was. A few weeks ago one of their farm workers found a round, heavy metal object with the words “Primary Vent Valve” printed on it.
“It’s ruimterommel… Space rubbish,” said Eloise.
She and Billy took some photos of the object that came crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere and have emailed the photos off to Willie Koorts of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), to be identified.
To our uninformed eyes this extraterrestrial item looks like a hatch from some spacecraft or satellite. However, if you believe in aliens (who mark their equipment in English nogal) you could imagine a more peculiar origin…
Whatever it is, it made for a great conversation piece and was perfectly apt as our next stop, just 60km up the road, was Sutherland and the aforementioned SAAO.
As we were leaving, Billy commented on the poor condition of the stretch of road we had just driven, saying how rough it was. Perhaps that’s the case for Billy and his bakkie, but in our comfy Chevy, we hadn’t really noticed.
Next stop: Sutherland! We headed straight for the observatory and made it just in time for the last tour of the day. In the visitor centre our guide, Jeremy Stuurman, brought the displays alive with expert explanations of gamma and infrared rays, galaxies and stars.
From the visitor centre we headed up to the various tele-scopes that sit at 1 750m above sea level and got to enter one of the smaller telescope buildings, followed by the star of the show (pardon the pun), the impressive Southern African Large Telescope (SALT).
SALT is the largest and most powerful telescope in the southern hemisphere, with 91 individual mirrors that form one giant mirror with an 11-metre diameter. SALT can pick up an image as faint as the light of a single candle on the moon.
After a fact-filled tour that we’d recommend to young and old, the Chevrolet took us back into the quaint Karoo town of Sutherland. A little exploring ensued and with names like Skitterland, Jupiter and Sterland B&Bs, it’s easy to tell what drives much of the economy of this small town.
And that concluded our journey of discovery in this harsh place. It included friendly and hospitable people who seem juxtaposed to the land in which they live, and tales of the climate, of floods and stars and finding the hospitable Billy and Eloise Myburgh. This is the Moordenaars Karoo. A tough place, filled with stories of English-speaking aliens, stars, murderers, real people and hardship and, most endearingly, magnificent splendour.
Spacious, versatile and comfortable
The Chevrolet Captiva recently received a nip and tuck, which included new front and rear lights, new bumpers and some other cosmetic updates. The big news in the cabin is the addition of Chevrolet’s MyLink Infotainment system. Featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the system can display certain apps and functions of your phone on the system’s centrally mounted seven-inch LCD screen. This includes applications such as navigation, music and podcasts, to name a few. We found the MyLink system to be intuitive and user-friendly.
The seven-seat Chevy is a really great family vehicle, too, with ample space and comfort. The range of seating and boot configurations make this multi-purpose vehicle suitable for everyday life and it also serves as a very plush capsule in which to enjoy a road trip, whether driving a few hours for a weekend away or for a long haul, cross-country vacation.
In the hot Moordenaars Karoo, the dual-zone climate control worked a treat, and we found the cruise control and rear park assist most helpful. The two extra pews in the boot (that fold flat into the boot floor) are not exactly made for a typical Springbok front-row rugby player, but kids will love them and medium-sized adults won’t mind them too much over shorter distances. They’re also easy to fold up or down.
The Chevrolet has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating and is armed with a plethora of electronic aids such as electronic stability control (ESC), traction control system (TCS) and braking assist system (BAS). The Captiva range is nowadays only available as a front-wheel-drive SUV, but it does have hill start assist (HAS) and hill descent control (HDC) in its off-road party pack. However, with 171mm of ground clearance, it is suited to rough dirt roads only conditions it handles with ease.
The four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel engine (135kW/ 400Nm) packs plenty of punch to overtake comfortably and cruise up hills without breaking a sweat, with the gearbox dishing up smooth shifts. This engine is only available in combination with a six-speed automatic transmission, while petrol models have the option of manual or automatic gearboxes.
The dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rear park assist and electronic folding mirrors are all great features. Ours also came with a sunroof. We tested the extra two seats that are folded flat in the boot before leaving and they were easy enough to pull up or pop back into place (once you’ve removed the rod into which the cargo cover retracts).
The Captiva 2.2 D LT automatic (as tested here) retails for R431 300.
The Chevrolet Captiva 2.4 LT AT (123kW/230Nm) sells for R415 500, and the 2.4 LT with manual transmission for R396 600.
A five-year/120 000km warranty and roadside assistance plan is standard, as is a three-year/60 000km service plan.
Text: Elise Kirsten Photos: Jannie Herbst