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Northern Cape Roadtrip: Part 1 – Karoo Highlands

In our family it’s a rule that you can’t break out the padkos until you have left town. “Out of town” has been further defined as being on the major highway leading to your next stop. Fortunately from where we live it’s a mere 5-minute drive before we hit the N1 😆. Our go-to snack is blue cheese and ham smothered in mayo, with crispy lettuce and tomato, on fresh-from-the-oven kitke rolls 😋. Oh and a flask of piping hot coffee!
 
The Northern Cape is probably not the first choice for most when it comes to a road trip. As the largest and most dispersed of South Africa’s provinces (it covers over one-third of the nation’s landmass) it’s vastness makes it tougher to tackle by car because the distances between towns are significant. It’s an area dominated by aridity and endless empty spaces. The summer heat is notorious which is why our mid-winter timing is perfect. Driving through miles of nothing, it’s hard to contemplate that in this desert the tastiest mutton is produced, that diamonds were dug from the dirt and that early spring brings blankets of wild flowers.
 
Lured by the promise of Karoo lamb and Sutherland’s wintery skies we loaded our exuberant dogs Paddington and D’Arcy, as well as some basic supplies into the back of Geoff’s spacious SUV and headed south.
At Ventersburg we stopped at ‘The Fat Butcher’ who promised “Moerze lekker biltong met geel vet”. (Helluva delicious dried beef with yellow fat😄) What a pleasure! So tasty and almost half the price of Woolies. Not to mention the gourmet homemade pies – lamb with rosemary; and oxtail cooked in red wine, brimming with tasty meat and then washed down with old fashioned ginger beer. 😋
 
 Late afternoon we reached our first stop – a sheep farm near Trompsburg. It’s not easy finding decent, comfortable establishments that also accommodate dogs. Adding a filter to an Afristay search of “pet friendly” usually means you are left with very few options. “Small pets by special arrangement” gets awkward when the host asks you directly what breed your dogs are. “Er… a little Golden Retriever and a German *whisper-whisper*…”. My new approach is to send a photograph of Darcy and Paddy looking particularly sweet and well-behaved, shot from the moon so that they look smaller.
 
Friendly Anphia was unruffled on meeting our dogs and upgraded us to the larger ‘Rondawel’ which was beautifully done up and had plenty of space for our dogs’ bedding. Anphia explained that the sheep had been lambing all week and it would be advisable to keep the wolf away. 🙈
 
 
Anphia runs part of the farm with 20 000 egg-laying chickens 🐓 and spoilt us with a generous batch of enormous, double-yolked eggs I’ve never seen such big eggs before and not surprisingly, they don’t fit into the usual cardboard containers.🥚
 
 
After a sunset stroll to see the newborn lambs Geoff built a fire in our private boma and we enjoyed the first of many braais under African stars.
The night air was noticeably colder than Joburg and we were pleased that our beanies, scarves and jackets were already being put to good use!
 
Toasty with our electric blankets set on max, we fell asleep to the sounds of baby lambs mewling for milk.
Day Two
After a sumptuous breakfast of freshly-laid (double) eggs and bacon we hit the road to Carnarvon. Road trips are all about slow travel. Explore a little deeper, take photos and the scenic route.
 
The first historical settlement just north of the Orange River, is the town of Phillipolis. Decaying Victorian homes flank the main street beneath enormous pine trees. Strolling around, we were interested to discover that this town was home to the writer Sir Laurens van der Post and Emily Hobhouse’s school for destitute Boer girls. We eventually had to tear ourselves away from the dusty time-warped roads.
Crossing the border from the Free State to the Northern Cape, we decided that it was time to show the dogs that their holiday had truly begun and we found a track down to the wide and lazy Orange River. Paddy didn’t bother with a track. He ploughed through the bushes and into the water, followed closely by Darcy. Loading them into the car afterwards we realized they were covered in nasty burrs that had knotted deeply into their long fur. A marathon task awaited us! But first we needed to make some headway towards our evening destination via the Karoo Highlands Route from Hanover to Britstown and Vosburg.
Paddy was forlornly trying to chew the dense masses of burrs out of his fur so we stopped to buy a pair of kitchen scissors in Carnarvon. Only the Pep Stores seemed to stock this kind of item but it was payday so the lengthy queue of people settling their ‘lay-bys’, paying an installment on their funeral plan or simply shopping for basic school items was truly staggering for what seemed to be a tiny town. I had to wrestle with myself not to simply dump R20 on the counter and leave with my R14 pair of scissors. ✂️
An hour later we were racing against sunset to arrive at the Cape Dutch homestead belonging to Piet and Charmaine who’ve carved out a small oasis surrounding their peaceful settlement. Charming and petite Charmaine welcomed us warmly with a loaf of homemade bread and homemade jam, her dogs and kittens weaving around her feet.
 
5km further along we reached our historic corbelled house at Stuurmansfontein.
Wow, but we fell in love immediately with the quaint home and it’s perfectly private and isolated setting. Paddy, not so much. Geoff lifted him out of the car. He looked around at the bleak and remote landscape and promptly jumped straight back into the car – which totally out of character. 😳
We persuaded him out and got ready for the night as there is no electricity or modern conveniences, although somehow everything you need to be cozy and comfortable was available.
 
Temperatures dropped swiftly and we opted to eat indoors. Geoff invented a mouth-watering pasta dish using some of our plentiful eggs and we named it Carbonara di Corbello.

Cutting out burrs with our new scissors

Unfortunately, during the night Paddy became very ill. He threw up a pile of horrible burrs and I think his (already weak) kidneys couldn’t handle the invasion. We spent ages easing out or cutting out each burr, but he spent the next few days mostly off-colour and refusing to eat. Fortunately he made a full recovery by the time we left.
 
Day 3-4
Glorious, lazy, sun-drenched days ensued without seeing another soul (except for some dassies and a hare.) We read, walked, took pictures and nursed our dog. Late afternoons we enjoyed the old fashioned bathtub 🛀 and dried off naked in the sun. Evenings, we braaied in the boma crafted from ash tree branches and fragrant with armfuls of rosemary that Charmaine had left for us. We drank red wine and marveled at the stars in the moonless sky. Never had we seen the Milky Way so prominent and somehow so close!
Day 5

Our last day came too soon and we agreed that we simply had to come back again one day. We took pictures of the beautiful tombstone at a lonely grave nearby.

Charmaine saw us off with a gift of her latest batch of marmalade and recommendations for lunch in the remote town of Williston.
 
 
 
Cornelius de Waal was a tombstone scribe. For one pound a month, working on site for as long as nine months on a piece, he would cut names and dedications into sandstone. The lanky, often-impoverished De Waal’s legend lives on in the form of these hand-inscribed stones that you still find in the Williston cemetery and on scattered farms in the area. www.Karoospace.co.za
 

What we didn’t see: MeerKAT telescope
Image courtesy of ska.ac.za

But first we though we’d take a look at the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) also known as the The South African MeerKAT radio telescope.
 
Well! After driving 50 km towards the supposed site and with no indication of how far we had to go and with almost zero information available online we made the decision to turn back and head to Williston. (A good call – Later we found out that we would have had to travel 110km to reach the site, and then of course the same distance to return!)
This massive, multibillion dollar international project is the biggest thing to hit the science world since the Higg’s Boson was found.
Seven enormous ‘dishes’ – the Karoo Array Telescope, or KAT7 – are already in operation, receiving information about the Universe. South Africa has funded another 64 for the second phase and called it MeerKAT. These are currently being built. All these will help inform the best way to arrange the other 2 800-odd that will be pointed at the sky here and across Southern Africa in the coming decades.
With another 250 receivers in Australia, they will be picking up ancient radio signals that will help explain the vexing issues that have been dogging astronomy for decades.
SKA has already had some positive impact on the local community in town. Apart from the excitement of such a huge project being launched in the area, the broadband access is now some of the best in South Africa.
The local high school has a state-of-the-art computer lab and SKA is funding a number of study bursaries. www.Karoospace.co.za
What a delightful and eclectic dorp is Williston. Lunch was our priority after our failed MeerKAT mission and ‘Manna’ restaurant welcomed us and the dogs and we sat on the sunny stoop and ordered the boerekos specials. The Karoo is the place, to find the country’s finest lamb. This is primarily because the sheep graze on indigenous shrubs and herbs with aromas ranging from rosemary to sage and eucalyptus.
 
 
Our amiable waitress recommended the lamb neck. Interestingly it was not a boney stew but rather a long lengthwise cut, prepared like a shank. It was served with sticky pumpkin fritters and simple vegetables in butter. Heaven!
 
After lunch we wandered around the village. It was Sunday and sadly everything was closed. We browsed the key streets smiling at the ‘Williston Mall’ and it’s crazy signs. We were sorry to miss Elmarie’s famous killer pink milkshakes.
We took the desolate dirt road to Fraserburg as we headed for our next destination, Sutherland. The distances never failed to amaze, the dead straight dirt roads and the fact that we never saw a single car yet there were tragically frequent corpses of meerkats, foxes or small wild animals that had ended life as roadkill. Many of the towns are spaced far apart, often two hours drive from each other with no cell coverage.
 
And then suddenly we came across a slow-moving vehicle ahead. As we approached we realized that it was a pair of donkeys pulling a cart at a brisk pace. As we slowly overtook the purposeful beasts we saw the cart was ‘manned’ by a keeled-over guy, who had literally passed out on his face, probably from too much to drink. The donkeys were taking him safely home! 😂
 
We pulled ahead to take pictures, but the donkeys stopped dead when they reached our vehicle, instead of going around us. Worried that our gent would sober up much later and find himself in the cold and dark, we had to get out of the car and whack the donkeys on their butts to get them moving again. It took a bit of an effort and a spot of cross-country trekking, throughout which our friend did not stir and eventually, back on track, they trotted off once again. Gotta love country life!😄
As sunset approached we arrived in the picturesque town of Sutherland with its welcoming white church spire. It was easy to find ‘The Velvet Olive 1881’ and the beautifully restored ‘Ou Waenhuys’ with its private garden which suited our dogs perfectly. We were delighted that there was a fireplace.
 
Overtired from too much driving we opted to pick up some groceries at the surprisingly well-stocked OK Foods. We had tinned salmon mayo on toast and went straight to bed.
Day 6-7
Sutherland is famous for snow, stars and succulent lamb. The first we missed by a week and we were determined not to miss the other two. 
Sutherland is known for its extremely cold winter temperatures and its ideal location for viewing the night skies. The main attraction is the big SALT telescope mounted high on the outskirts of the town. We’d booked for a tour of the site – and it was so interesting to see the older telescopes that are still in use and then the amazing configuration that is SALT with its precision-set, 91 mirrors that allow astronomers to look light-years away into deepest galaxies. Very impressive and exciting. It’s also mind-boggling how insignificant Earth is in context of outer space. 🌍 A crazy wind was howling and it got very cold. Grateful for our fireplace and electric blankets!
Back in town, Sutherland Planetarium is located in the centre of the town. It is the latest and only privately owned Digital Planetarium in South Africa. At midday we met Lucas who talked to us about the Sun 🌞 and allowed us to gaze into the heart of our wonderful star. We were able to spot a tiny flare which was most incredible!
 
The planetarium also had an awesome 3D show on the solar system and galaxies using actual images from one of the large telescopes in South America. It was surreal to lie right back in your reclining chair and get lost in a journey through millions of dazzling stars and mysterious planets.
Meeting the locals is always an interesting way of getting to know a town. We were encouraged by Lucas to visit the Sutherland Hotel (“best Karoo lamb and cheapest booze”) and met Ingrid the barmaid who had us in hysterics as she described the recent snowfall and how after a few drinks she thought it amusing to run through the snow – barefoot. She was now worried that she may have inflicted permanent damage due to frostbite. 🥶
 
We met another interesting lady at the local butcher who talked to us about what it was like living in Sutherland (pretty good!) We stocked up on Karoo lamb chops, neck, wors and mince to take back to Joburg.
 
At the local library Ronelle helped us with some business documents that needed scanning and mailing and we borrowed a few novels for the next two days.
 

On our last evening we drove out at dusk to ‘Sterland’ where local astronomer Jurg, shared an indoor presentation on a three meter big screen explaining all the constellations and relative sizes in the universe. Thereafter he set up the telescopes for us and we were able to view Saturn with her rings, Jupiter and her bands of storms and 4 of the moons, the Scorpio constellation, the surface of the moon and many other intriguing constellations.

More about our Sutherland insights here. Or continue with day 8 of our road trip here.

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