The sun eases into the shimmering horizon. The wood smoke from our braai mingles with the fragrance of the shrubs and grasses. The ice in our glasses tinkles as we toast our incredible good fortune to be in such a panoramic spot. The immense silence is overwhelming and a sense of peace prevails as the ever-changing sunset colours the western skies and competes with the rising of the moon in the east. In the silence we notice the movement of a herd of Springbok in the distance, and the flash of busy ground squirrels burrowing nearby.
One of the advantages of being “imprisoned” in our country due to COVID-related travel restrictions is that we have been determined to explore further and deeper into the vastness of this breathtakingly beautiful country of ours.
If your only experience of the South African Karoo is the featureless, flat and inhospitable land that flanks the N1 highway from the Orange river in the Free State to the start of the Cape winelands, then you are really missing something special! For many years we had been guilty of whizzing through the Karoo, stopping only for petrol and takeaways, grateful for the aircon in our cars. We even prided ourselves on being able to drive “straight through” from Jo’burg to Cape Town, without overnighting. In recent years, however, we revel in exploring roads less travelled and taking a leisurely few days to get there.
We visit our family in Cape Town a few times a year, usually arriving by plane, but there is nothing quite like a good road trip and planning it is half the fun. This year we had only one requirement – to travel to areas that we hadn’t been to before. I had thought that there were probably only a few possible alternatives, but when you sit down with some maps and some determined Google searches, the country really starts to open up for you.
We know now that the best way to experience the Karoo is by easing along the back roads away from the busy highways and endless stream of freight trucks, and to spend a little time savouring the vast open spaces, the enormous blue skies and the evolving landscapes. The opportunity for photography also presents itself in unexpected ways.
It was the last week of April and we set off around 6h30 – an early start that involved much preparation and cat management. Jango had been missing for the prior 48 hours and we were worried that he’d stage another disappearing act delaying our departure. Hobie was tense as soon as he saw we were shutting them in. The dogs lay behind the car, lest we consider reversing without them. At last we’d finished packing and preparing pad-kos and were able to shove them into the car and everyone settled down immediately – Jango to lie cheek to jowl with the dogs, and Hobie nestled cosily in his cat cave.
The Highveld had that delicious pre-winter nip in the air and the fields were turning to pale gold in colour. Breakfast was egg mayo sarmies on fresh-from-the-oven kitke rolls and a flask of coffee. Our first stop coincided with magnificent sunflower fields 🌻. The dogs played in between the avenues of nodding blossoms while Geoff and I snapped away with our cameras.
We turned off the N1 at Springfontein and headed towards the town of Bethulie which is on the scenic route around the Orange river and !Gariep dam
I love the way !Gariep is written on all the signposts Bethulie has some charming and historic buildings – The Dutch Reformed church is a stately edifice, completed in 1887 and now a national monument; the Royal Hotel has been restored and is also known as “The Book Hotel” as floor to ceiling on display is something like 100 000 books. The house that story-teller and actor Patrick Mynhardt grew up in is also in this town. His autobiography is titled “The Boy from Bethulie”.
Two kilometres beyond Bethulie we came across a magnificent feat of engineering. The Bethulie Bridge connects the Free State and the Eastern Cape. It is a 1152m long concrete structure spanning over the convergence of several rivers that drain into the Gariep. It accommodates both rail and road. We stopped on the bridge to marvel at the landscape and waterways in both directions. We found out afterwards that this Hennie Steyn bridge is the longest in South Africa.
On the outskirts of Bethulie is the infamous memorial to Bethulie Kampkerkhof. This desolate piece of veld was home to South Africa’s worst of 33 concentration camps, housing around 5000 people at its most intense period. Concentration Camps were not solely Nazi run for the non-Aryan. These camps were utilised in war long before World War 2 as effective tools to control the enemy. During the South African War that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the British set up several concentration camps where civilians were placed and tortured – most of the times, to death. The camp at Bethulie was the countries worst. Here, mostly Boer women and children were brought and kept in subjucation. Countless names adorn the walls of the monument signalling that this was not just a camp for control and work – it was a death camp. Overall, 26 000 Boer women and children and about 15 000 Blacks were killed in these camps. In contrast, about 3 000 Boer soldiers were killed in battle. An icy breeze was blowing and despite the sun, it seemed impossible to remove the chill from one’s bones.
We’d heard that the Royal Hotel was a must see. The town is not so large that you might overlook the most prominent building apparently established in 1870. Yet somehow we did. Eventually we put Waze on only to discover we were pretty much parked outside. No signage confirmed that we were in the right place. We drove around the building twice and eventually parked inside the grounds where there appeared to be a tradesman’s entrance. Hoping for an old-fashioned boerewors-and-two-eggs brekkie, we persisted despite the fact that things seemed hopelessly closed. A couple of staff members, wandered around, one carrying in some supplies, another sweeping the courtyard. “Yes that way…” they nodded as we passed hesitantly through the one of the many doors.
Every single corridor and every single room is packed floor to ceiling with books or vinyl records! The owner is reputed to be a historian and Anglo Boer War expert. We wandered around the chilly hallways, peeking into all the rooms, taking pictures and hoping to sniff out the comforting aroma of coffee and bacon. No-one seemed to care that we were walking around. No-one stopped us and no-one spoke to us. Eventually we got back into our car and left…
Beyond Bethulie we continued to skirt the Gariep Dam. We cruised through gorgeous hills with amazing skies at every turn. In this desolate region, your car is the only automobile for miles.
Next we passed through Venterstad. During the six years that it took to build South Africa’s Gariep Dam (1966 – 1971), the little Eastern Cape settlement of Venterstad became quite a cosmopolitan centre. In fact, legend has it that during this time you heard as much French and Italian spoken in the streets of Venterstad as you heard English or Afrikaans.
The Frenchmen and Italians may have departed, but they left behind a monumental piece of dam architecture in the form of Gariep Dam, South Africa’s biggest stored water resource.
Venterstad began life back in the mid-1860s as a farmer’s town, with its tuishuise (town houses), shops and church buildings. It was quiet until the Gariep Dam was built, and then a lot more farms were established around here now that there was available water.
I couldn’t get over what a beautiful part of the country we were travelling through, and how it seems so under-utilised by tourists. Encompassing almost 500,000 square kilometres, the Karoo stretches across a vast swathe of South Africa. It seems that there are many moods and the Karoo landscape can alter dramatically from shrub, to rocky plains, desert and grassland.
The word ‘Karoo’ comes from the Khoi word Karusa, which means dry, barren, thirstland. Karoo is an apt description for this arid region.
Middelburg is approximately 50 km from the farm and is a small rural town that rose to prominence during the Anglo-Boer war when 7,000 British troops were garrisoned there. We found it to be a lovely old town with quaint traditional houses and small shops. Middleburg is aptly named as it is located halfway between Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein, as well as between Johannesburg and Cape Town – essentially, the centre point of South Africa.
We passed into the Eastern Upper Karoo Midlands set in the Suurberg mountains. Our destination was the Karoo Ridge Eco-Conservancy, which is a 5 000 hectare area aimed at retiring and protecting diverse wildlife and landscape of the region.
Approaching the lodge we enjoyed photographing a lordly group of Sable antelope. We met friendly owner Helen who took us up to the exquisite Mountain Lodge which nestles beneath the ridge of dolerite for which the farm is named, above the grassy valley and overlooking a peaceful dam. Helen has done a superb job of decorating the lodge and we really wanted for nothing. We had ordered fillet and the conditions were perfect for an early evening braai in the boma.
The dogs were tired from their journey, flopping down beside us, while the cats explored their territory. Always nervous of Jango’s penchant for a lengthy sojourn, we were relieved to see him playing nearby, darting through the scrub. We enjoyed one of the most exquisite sunsets ever, so special to be with our furries in such a wonderful place.
In the morning, Jango was sleeping peacefully on one of the wingback chairs. Hobie spent the night on our bed. The dogs were exhausted from the trip, but always ready for the next adventure.
Helen had recommended a walk to the ridge and we set off with dogs, taking a circuitous route to avoid the nearby grazing sable, who are notorious in their dislike for dogs.
245 million years ago the Great Karoo was flourishing and it is from this period that many fossils have been found.
183 million years ago Karoo dolerite intruded into the surface layers of rock (Beaufort Group).
After this molten intrusion the dolerite cooled and hardened. Joints formed at right angles to one another in the dolerite and when this was then exposed to the surface (100 million years later) rainwater seeped into the joints and weathering began. As the process of weathering continues and more material washes away from these joints a “stacked” appearance is left behind. This is often referred to as “Woolsack weathering”.
Karoo Ridge Conservancy blog site.
After our walk we enjoyed a brekkie of braaied pork sausage and scrambled eggs. We sat outside and enjoyed the sun, playing with Jango as he rolled on the lawn and explored the area around the stoep. Geoff called me over mid-morning to show me that he’d left the car door open and both cats had climbed inside and settled down to sleep. We felt relieved to know that they had a “safe place”.
Helen’s husband, Pete, popped up to deliver Rose the cleaning lady.
We had some admin to do and Pete pointed us in the direction of the only bush that somehow afforded a thread of MTN and Vodacom coverage, but only if you stood on an anthill.
Business concluded, we saw that a storm front was coming through so we headed back to our lodge. We wanted to round up the cats, but Jango was suddenly nowhere to be seen. We set out with the dogs to hunt for him, but despite walking and calling for ages, there was no sign of him. Geoff dropped off Rose and took a drive around the property, calling and whistling, but although we kept expecting him to come bounding home, there was no sign of him.
There is little to match the smell of the earth after a rainstorm. We retreated inside to watch the weather sweep in accompanied by high winds and pounding rain. Late afternoon it abated and we headed out again with the dogs to call for Jango. We were astounded that he wouldn’t be able to hear us. The valley is shaped like a large bowl and we are nestled in the centre. We walked and searched in every direction. Then the storm set in again. The wind was howling and the rain was lashing. Despite this we kept popping out to call for our cat.
Pete delivered a steaming homemade chicken pie, accompanied by fresh salad, rice, and chocolate mousse. It was hard to enjoy the tastiness of the meal and to revel in the raging storm, knowing our baby was out there somewhere. We oscillated between thinking he was lying low somewhere or that he had headed off at speed in one direction. It’s pointless to try and second-guess a cat.
We sat reading by the fire calling intermittently for our Mickey Mouse. Eventually with a feeling of dread I succumbed to tears. We had a sleepless night, starting at every noise and praying Jango had returned. By dawn the reality was sinking in. He seemed to have vanished.
Pete was very supportive, offering for us to stay on another night at no charge. Deep down I knew our cat wasn’t just hiding under a bush nearby. We also had no idea of whether he would return home in a couple of days, considering how often he had disappeared (In Wakkerstroom we had to leave and return for him and in Fourways he is regularly AWOL for a few nights at a time). As Geoff sadly pointed out, “we always knew he was going to break our hearts”. More calling, more traversing the area and whistling, but eventually we had to be on our way.
It was with heavy hearts that we drove away. We had assurances from Pete and Helen that they would keep an eye out for him and they alerted their staff as well as their neighbours. Jango seems to have disappeared into thin air. All I can say is that he chose an incredible spot, wild, dramatic and beautiful – just like him.