Part 1 : Meandering the Karoo
“At first encounter the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.”
― Eve Palmer, Plains of Camdeboo: The Classic Book of the Karoo
Disclaimer note: I often use the Afrikaans terminology referring to this part of the world since I grew up with that terminology, and its been embedded as acceptable terms, e.g. veld – open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally divided by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld. There are other such terms I use throughout.
As soon as we decided to ‘go back home for Christmas’ I was in secret planning mode. And when Stean remarked, ‘I don’t really know the Karoo’, it was the last straw; my planning and dreaming and longing became acute. I asked Stean whether he wanted to see the Karoo and ‘He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”
We’ve been living in Germany for eight years, and though we’ve been back home many times, we’ve not been there for Christmas – a summer Christmas with family and friends like the days of old beckoned. I knew the underlying idea was to visit family for Christmas, but my wanderlust convinced me very quickly that driving the 1338km down to the Garden Route should never be done in just one day. There’s just too many distractions, stops to be made, and I needed time to show my children the Karoo en route to Wilderness.
I’m fortunate though, I have a brother who lives on the Highveld some 100km east of Pretoria, and a weekend relaxing there with a braai, good South African wines and long chats catching up on all and sundry to get rid of Europe’s cold before embarking on my road trip seemed the perfect start to 3 weeks of bliss in the South African ‘platteland’. The ‘Hoëveld’, or Highveld is that large portion of the South African inland plateau which consist mostly of rolling grassland and open open spaces.
In die Hoëveld, waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo,
Waar kuddes waaigras huppel oor die veld,
Waar ‘n mens nog vry kan asemhaal en aan ‘n God kan glo, …
Toon van den Heever
Very freely translated it will read
‘On the the Highveld, where its open and the heaven wide above,
Where flocks of waving grass skips over the veld,
Where man can still breathe freely, and can believe in God, …’
This is where my road trip started; on a farm in the Hoëveld outside Delmas with family, braai, swimming, photographing the brand-new flock of flamingos which settled at the farm dam and distant thunderstorms to welcome us. How I missed the rains in Africa, and how ‘I bless the rains in Africa!’
In the old days, when I was a student studying in Bloemfontein, I hitch-hiked the Pretoria Bloemfontein road many times; sometimes in record time, and sometimes it took hours and hours longer than I could bare – 14 hours for the normal 5-hour trip being my longest. It was the days before the N1 national toll route cut some 20km and 18 minutes from the route and I always went the now ‘alternative’ via Vredefort and Parys. Therefore, I decide that the first stop for coffee and cake will be Parys. Parys is a quaint little ‘plattelandse’ town on the banks of the Vaal River just under 200km from Pretoria. It is nowadays renowned for its artists, cafes and weekend getaways from the cities, while quite a good couple of city dwellers also went there to retire. Parys is the Afrikaans translation of Paris, and the name was given to the town by the German surveyor Schilbach who participated in the Siege of Paris in 1870 to 1871 as part of the Prussian Franco War, when the Prussians ‘wanted to expand German unification’ by provoking the French. Yes, they did sort of that in 1914 and 1945 as well! Well, back to Herr Schilbach, who said the quaint town on the banks of the river reminded him of Paris on the banks of the Seine. It was before old Gustave built his Eiffel tower in Paris, thus I can understand completely that Parys on the banks of the Vaal look a lot like Paris on the Banks of its river – the similarities are insane.
After we enjoyed our coffee and ‘melktert’ at The Trading Post Café, we headed towards Vredefort with magnificent thunderstorms all around us. South Africa was experiencing horrific droughts for the last couple of years and driving leisurely south in thunderstorms with our eyes peeled on the stunning Free State grass plains I’m pretty sure we had Linkin Park blaring on the radio, because ‘I remember black skies, the lightning all around me. I remember each flash, …’ and what followed. The beautiful thunder and welcome rain stayed with us all the way through Kroonstad, Ventersdorp, Winburg and only eased up as we arrived at our sleep over destination in Bloemfontein. The accommodation at Marrakech Guest House was exquisite and after a takeout Dagwood for dinner I was a happy traveller. I was on my road trip in ‘big sky’ country, South Africa, I was travelling at my pace and my routes and I was looking forward to tomorrow’s nostalgic Karoo trip via the roads less travelled.
I had 600km to drive, but I needed time because I knew I will stop for photos, coffee and just to stare at the open Karoo ‘bossie veld’. I turned west on the N8 and everybody in the VW bus was enthralled (at least they made it look to me as if they were interested) by my anecdotes. There were plenty of interesting places along the route, such as De Brug mobilisation military base, Petrusburg where in the early eighties late one Sunday evening I had to ask the hotel owner for R10 petrol money when I ran out as a student (I think I paid him back), the Farm Ja-Nee where the writer Ettienne le Roux farmed and wrote, Koffiefontein diamond mine, Luckhof where nothing ever happens and Vanderkloof on the banks of the PK le Roux dam, or nowadays the Vanderkloof dam. Evident of the pace of living in this part of the world was the fact that the coffee shop I had in mind, based on Google advice, was closed for coffee, because, although it was in the heart of the December holiday period, the lady took a few days to visit her mom.
My parents lived in Philipstown for some 12 years after their retirement and that was to be my big photo stop. In the early 90s we spent many a happy visit in the Philipstown area, both in town and on my sister and her husband’s farm Leeuwkuil, about 10km from Philipstown. It was predominantly here that I learned the truth of what Eve Palmer so accurately describes in her quote, when she says, ‘those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety’. It was here where Springbok biltong, boerbeskuit, coffee and Karoo lamb was in abundance when we were young, and it was this nostalgia that I was seeking to see for a brief moment while driving home for Christmas. Though the town nowadays is very neglected, even run down, I did find my nostalgia. My father’s house is still in fair condition, but nobody there knows him now, the town is dusty and the buildings mostly in sad state. The school is no more and only a few ruins remain, but the Karoo scenery is as ruggedly beautiful as I remember it.
I stopped and got some photos of exactly what I remembered this beautiful arid and hard land looks like. I was happy as I turned the bus further southwest towards our overnight stop in the Karoo National Park, passing through Hanover, Richmond, Three Sisters to Beaufort West.
Coffee is an important part of my life, maybe too important, some would say. Having the trusted old Stanley thermos at Heleen’s feet with coffee for the road is probably just as important than having a decent travel atlas to double check on Garmin and Apple Music playlist, plus my veto right on some of the songs my kids occasionally sneak on to that playlist, dare I add. However, I found to my delight that there are excellent modern-day farm stalls on this stretch of the Karoo N1. They all are equipped with proper coffee machines (not 5 hour old drip through or a teaspoon of Frisco coffee) with choices of espresso, cappuccino or latte, prepared from freshly ground coffee beans is available. For reference, consider this motivational peace of information on why a South African road trip is such good value for money; a cappuccino will cost you R23, or roughly €1.44! That is less than half price for a Flat White in any European Starbucks!
I first stopped at Karoo Padstal, some 20km north of Richmond, and then at Travalia Farm Stall 10km southwest of Three Sisters. Both these farm stalls are like 5 star delicatessens with a wide variety of hot meals, meat pies and sandwiches, various craft Gins, South African wines of all sorts, biltong, fresh coffee, rusks, cakes, curious, wood or charcoal for that all important braai, and more importantly, all kinds of meat including the world famous and renowned Karoo lam. It’s like novel oases spread across the Karoo!
The Karoo National Park is a gem of a park, providing exquisite Karoo landscapes and views from your accommodation ‘stoep’ of the majestic Nuweveld Mountains, a portion of the Great Karoo Escarpment. Though the primary function of the National Parks Board is conservation, and they probably are world leaders in that, it was especially enlightening for me to see how management at the Karoo National Park understands their strategic position and competition. The Karoo National Park is 1000 km from Pretoria, and just under 500km from Cape Town. This makes it a perfect sleepover en route between these two destinations and from this point of view you can still access the park until 22:00 at night and leave the main gate from 05:00, a feature normally not expected from nature conservation areas. Furthermore, included in the tariff of the self-catering accommodation is breakfast, which means you can save time and effort to get back on the road, if you are one of those we-must-eat-kilometres travellers, and do not understand this blog post of mine promoting slow travel.
It’s a national park, there’s wild life and stunning wilderness scenery on your doorstep, so when I asked whether we’ll hit the road towards the Garden Route, our destination for the day, or whether we’ll do an early morning game drive there was just one answer from many voices, ‘game drive, duh!’ Fortunately, in December the gates open early, thus at 06:00 we were out, scanning the pristine Karoo ‘veld’ for game, birds and scenery. This is arid country, and the vegetation is harsh dwarf (less than 1 metre high) shrub and grass veld, yet still game are plentiful. We saw our fair share of gemsbok (oryx), red hartebeest, kudu, eland, ribbok, Cape Mountain zebra, a couple of black backed jackal, klipspringer, plenty of tortoises, and even two lions. The route takes you up the mountain with the Klipspringer Pass road where you have beautiful views of the mountains in the distance and the Karoo veld on the plateau.
After breakfast I had an appointment to pick up my half lamb which I pre-ordered from Appie, the owner of Boeteka Farm Stall. I knew we were going to be with family for ten days, and therefore we will be braaiing for most of those days. I contacted Appie and placed my order in advance, while I was still in Germany. He was quite surprised to get a meat order from Germany, I must admit. Included in the order were obviously biltong plus the regular culprits of lamb chops, boerewors, rump steaks and for a special occasion I ordered a kudu fillet. Summer Christmas in South Africa without decent meat and decent fires will simply not work, and I was prepared.
The last leg of this 1st road trip to our base camp for the next 10 days was a mere 250km drive from the Karoo National Park via Appie’s Boeteka Farm Stall and the majestic Meiringspoort where the road cuts through the glorious Swartberge, which I will address in my next blog-post, to the equally majestic coastal town of Wilderness. Wilderness is in the heart of the Garden Route on the Indian Ocean, and the lakes district including towns such as Sedgefield, Buffelsbaai, Hoekwil, Karatara and Knysna. Though we’ve set up camp in Wilderness for 10 days, those 10 days will be filled with mini road trips, as this is prime sight seeing country, where mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and the ocean meets. This is where birds, rural coffeeshops, world-class restaurants, scenic dirt roads, mountain fynbos, Knysna Yellowwood forests all shout out for the traveller’s attention and where my daily ‘braaivleis vuur’ beckons to give flavour to those lamb chops Appie so lovingly packed.
This, I will address in my next blog-post.
- Plattelandse – rural
- Melktert – milk tart, traditional South African way
- Bossieveld – shrub plains
- Boerbeskuit – rusks
- Padstal – Farm stall next to the road
- Stoep – veranda with a roof