Our cats speak English. Either that or they have a sixth sense that says “Uh oh. Road-trip!” followed by a smoothly-executed, vanishing act. Our plan was to leave at 6am sharp, so we had strategically locked Jango and Hobie in a bedroom, but our brand new, 4 month-old kitten, Inky, (who is ALWAYS underfoot) was missing. Not the best start for his first road-trip.
Eventually we were packed; including:
– 2 unimpressed cats;
– 1 blissfully ignorant kitten; and
– 1 over-the-moon-with-excitement Golden Retriever.
It was slow going. The first 4 hours of scenery leaving Joburg behind in your rear view mirror, tends to be boring and repetitive. We had a hectic pit stop that really required us to have all our wits about us. Hobie launched boldly into the veld and headed off casually into the thick of the grass, thoroughly enjoying his freedom. Darcy set off down the road towards the N1 highway at a pace, followed loyally by a tiny Inky. Jango, who is no longer trusted to leave the confines of the vehicle without a harness, but was very interested in doing just that, was keen to explore further afield. All four animals managed to get themselves covered in blackjacks, as did we.
After picking off blackjacks as best as we could, we counted 3 pairs of pointy ears and 1 pair of floppy ears and eventually hit the road again.
We perked up as we took the Karoo highlands route from Britstown.
Clumps of wild flowers began to appear all around us, despite the inhospitable environment. This boded well for the next leg of our trip. The Namaqualand flowers are expected late August/ beginning September and seeing these is definitely on the bucket list!
The terrain shifted again to reveal collections of pitch black iron-looking rocks Often, they appeared ‘arranged’, in fact it was hard to fathom that the precarious structures were not man made.
Vosburg (some 60km west of Britstown in the Northern Cape) is a new town for us and we were charmed by its spotless streets and charming, well-restored homes. The array of pine trees and blue gums provided a cooler, peaceful setting in contrast to other Upper Karoo towns. The communal gardens were carefully tended despite this being an extremely arid region.
Although we were keen to explore further, it was getting late so we headed towards our overnight stop – Zeekoegat, following the route towards Carnarvon.
Suddenly we were in billowing Grassland. Displays of what looked like bouquets of white flowers dazzled in the afternoon sunlight in between the dwarf shrubs. This is the Groot Karoo and we love it!
Zeekoegat Country House is nestled on a working wool farm situated in the heart of the Karoo region. Situated on a gravel road between farms, halfway between Vosburg and Carnarvon, it is literally an oasis of shady trees and waterways. More of the ‘bouquets’ of white daisies surrounded our accommodation. What a relief to stop driving, settle down with our animals and take in the openness, silence and seclusion of the Karoo, as the sun cast long shadows, and the first fingers of cold crept under our shirts.
We were free to wander all over the farm and we allowed the cats a stroll around so that they could peacefully go about their ablutions. Hobie disappeared down a culvert, Inky climbed trees. Jango set off with purpose, but we managed to keep him at lunge distance. Inky is such a confident little guy. We were scared of trusting him to wander around on his own, but he was relaxed and able to find his way back to us, or Darcy, and we were amazed that on one occasion when he got a little spooked, he ran to the front door of our cottage (we’d only used the back so far!) and put his paws up to say “let me in”. How he knows what a door is…!
Geoff lit the old wood-burning stove and instantly turned our home cosy! Owners Chanté and Jan arrived with a home-made meal of tasty slow-braised beef ribs and barley, with a fresh salad and a sticky, crunchy pavlova. We washed it down with a complimentary bottle of Alvi’s Drift red. Yum!
The bed was comfy and warm and the electric blanket was a treat as temperatures dropped significantly after dark. Everyone except Jango was allowed to pop out during the night for a pee. The stars were a magnificent sight as we stared into the darkness, keeping an eye open for our babies. Our hearts were sometimes in our mouths, but everyone trotted back safely!
In the morning we took Darcy for a stroll towards the main farmhouse where breakfast was set up for us. We explored the sheds and the surroundings. Zeekoegat has lovely white and black swans on a picturesque lake flanked by amazing trees, crisscrossed by crafted bridges and miniature islands. It was all a bit hard to fathom, in this drought-prone countryside. Chanté told us that Jan had lived in Scotland for a period of time and was enchanted by lochs and wanted to create something similar here. Quite an astounding vision, brought to life in this devastatingly dry environment. Breakfast was another spoil with so much choice and variety and generosity. Home baked bread and everything from sausages to traditional pap and sous! What a pity we could only stay for a single night.
Driving between the Zeekoegat and Carnarvon, we noticed big blue bows tied to fences of farms along the route. I found out that these were put up to signify gratitude for the rains that fell in November 2021, ending 8 years of unrelenting drought. The farming community were so overjoyed that the bows were their way of showing their happiness and thanks for the good rains.
(Tyler Leigh Vivier; www.goodthingsguy.com; 14 Feb 2022)
Armed with a flask of filter coffee and homemade rusks, we headed for the town of Carnarvon. A disappointing dump. We got in some quick practice for our pending trip to Morocco, avoiding eye contact with beggars and vagrants. We were a little astonished that we were last here in 2019, because we didn’t recognise anything. The Pep store where I’d queued for scissors to get the burrs out of Paddy’s fur seemed nowhere to be found.
We did locate “3 Sons”, the butchery recommended by Chanté for Karoo lamb chops. After a Monty Pythonesque conversation in broken Afrikaans with the lady at the till (Is this the butcher? No, this isn’t a butcher. Oh! Where can we buy meat then? Well right here.) We kinda worked out that the literal translation of butcher i.e .slaghuis likely implies slaughtering as well as portioning and packaging of meat, and no, that was not happening on the premises. We did procure some delicious-looking tjoppies though!
In keeping with the seediness of the town, we slunk into a dingy bottle store and purchased a bottle of Tanqueray. In fact, it was the only bottle of gin. (It looked lonely on its shelf so we thought we’d take it home).
I texted our host for the evening accommodation to enquire about dinner options in the area. “Best to bring your own food,” was the response, ” there is everything you need to cook here”. Thus the next stop was an equally questionable Spar where we procured potatoes and basic salad ingredients.
We embraced the term “get the hell out of dodge” and swept out of town towards more fascinating landscapes.
The countryside was bleak but textured with plenty of scrub. Although it appeared that nothing could thrive in this landscape we came across some very pretty birds as well as a number of raptors.
Gradually we noticed patches of yellow flowers which became less random and more densely spaced. Then the flowers became mauve, followed by bright orange. Again we passed piles of precariously ‘placed’ black rocks.
We were amazed at how good the roads were, given that they must surely be those ‘less travelled’. We passed the turnoff to Stuurmansfontein, famous for the charming corbelled house where we’d spent such an special few days 4 years ago.
Williston is still a pretty town in the valley and this time we did remember it from our previous visit. We were keen to sample one of the famous milkshakes at the grandly, but perhaps inaccurately named “Williston Mall”. It’s a quirky spot with lots of character.
We stopped to investigate and stretch our legs. Darcy bounced out of the car and went to greet a local dog. Unfortunately he bit her on the nose through a fence We did not feel welcome. Indicative of the future of the town perhaps, but a sign at the milkshake place advised “by appointment only”, so the milkshakes were not to be. We doused poor Darcy’s snout in hand sanitiser and thanked heavens her shots were up to date.
We desperately needed to fill up with petrol. There was only one station and a lengthy queue of cars with an harassed looking attendant. We observed the substantial number of unemployed vagrants and marveled that no one was working? It is sad to see a potentially interesting town decaying slowly but surely.
We cheered up again because the road to Calvinia was nothing short of inspiring! Startlingly orange flowers had us stopping to gasp at the intensity of the colour. Then suddenly it was fuchsia-pink! Then headache-inducing yellow. We stopped frequently for photos. The town itself is so pretty. The main streets are dressed-up for flower season and the sense of occasion is wonderful! Groups of cars were paused everywhere; people doubled-over taking close ups of the vygies and gerberas on their phones.
Niewoudtsville is an anchor town for the flower route and the place was also packed with tourists. We were torn between ‘smelling the roses’ as we came across them, versus dashing off to our new abode and embracing sundown in what might be an even better location. At the church hall serving as the tourist information centre we were provided with maps indicating the best viewing sites. We were so excited. We were headed for the Biedouw Valley which was purported to be a top location for seeing the best showing of flowers right now!
The feast of floral colour did not ease up. We wound our way to a place called Matjiesfontein and stopped again to admire the diversity and intensity of colour. We stopped to let the kids play in the flowers. Just delightful.
Time was flying and we realised we had only a vague idea of how far we still had to go. Earlier, having received no directions from the booked accommodation in the Biedouw Valley, I texted our BnB host. In response he had dropped us a pin. It was then that I realised that I had no cellular coverage or WiFi. No way at all then to follow the location pin.
Seduced by the amazing colours, the exquisite landscape and the frequent sightings of birds of prey (and even a pair of bat-eared foxes), we continued enjoying the journey. Although we had a colourful tourist map, it was representational, not necessarily accurate for navigation so essentially, we had no clue where we were! Because there are so few roads in the area, we thought ‘well how wrong can we be….’
When our gravel road ran into a gate, we began to be concerned. An enterprising little girl in a gauze tutu ran over from a lonesome, decrepit hut and opened the gate for us, solemnly accepting some change as payment. Geoff remarked on the fact that there were no longer any fences. I didn’t even think there were still places in South Africa that had no fences…We kept driving through beautiful but ever more desolate landscapes.
It was approaching the golden hour. We continued to move away from the setting sun. Which is when it dawned on me. Surely we should be heading South? Why were we driving due East?
The sun-bleached sign to Tankwa stopped us in our tracks. We’d been to Tankwa. Tankwa is in the middle of nowhere, closer to Sutherland than to Clanwilliam. With a horrible sinking feeling we knew roughly where we were, i.e., nowhere near the Biedouw Valley. How could we possibly have gone so wrong?
Next we came upon a T-junction indicating “Die Bos”. We located it in our map book. It confirmed that we were literally miles from the destination where we’d dreamed of sipping a G&T watching the sun set! We spotted an old farmstead and headed over to ask for directions. Unfortunately it was utterly deserted, complete with an abandoned car or two and enough neglect to indicate that it had been uninhabited for many a year.
The shadows began to get longer…
We decided to cut our losses and make a U-turn. Depressing as it was, there was some comfort in knowing we would eventually come across a road we recognised. We raced into the sunset now, but at least we were heading west.
Eventually we reached the R364 to Clanwilliam although we still had no idea where the BnB would be located. We decided to go into Clanwilliam despite it being a lengthier ride, to at least get cell coverage and download some Google maps! It’s interesting how dependent one becomes on technology and instant gratification of information.
We took the Botterkloof pass that meandered through part of the Cedarberg range. Despite our apprehension, it was beautiful watching the sun cast its last rays over the contours of the mountain range. All of a sudden it was dark. There are no lights at all in the valley. The pets became restless. They were tired of traveling and getting hungry. We missed the time for Hobie’s insulin shot. A gaudy tourism board indicated a rough map of the region. It seemed the wrong way round though, but Geoff seemed to work out more or less which way we should head and we took the chance of not going via Clanwilliam.
We passed through various farms. I had to hop out and open and close numerous farm gates. We began noting where we might return for directions (and perhaps a safe place to park) if our logic didn’t pay off.
It was pitch dark by the time we opened the last gate on the farm road. We were still uncertain. Was this the right road? It had to be! We still had no WiFi or cell coverage. The idea of retracing our steps was abhorrent. Geoff hadn’t verbalised it yet, but he was wondering if we would be able to keep warm enough in the car overnight.
All of a sudden, a vehicle approached us and paused beside our car. “Are you guys looking for accommodation?”
“Yes” we said, “we are looking for (name of the establishment).”
Much nodding and smiling and “Follow us!”
Well, those were two extremely welcome words.
Approaching the farmhouse, the car we were following stopped and two young guys got out.
“What is your name?” one of them asked “It’s Nikki,” I said, and they explained that they were still expecting another couple who also appeared to be lost. I couldn’t help saying that I wasn’t surprised given the absence of directions or coverage in the area. “True” said one of the guys, “we really need to make a video to show the way”.
We were shown to our room just off the main house. Oddly, you entered through the bathroom which led onto a bedroom with the bed butted up against a counter with a stove. It was not what we anticipated, or recalled booking, but we were too tired to discuss and the owner, a 40-ish, Frenchman, appeared looking disheveled and introduced himself as François (not his real name).
Our biggest priority was settling and feeding the animals. And then settling and feeding ourselves. (As an aside, at this stage Hobie is diabetic and needs insulin twice a day; Jango has been diagnosed with feline hyperesthesia syndrome – a neurological condition that sees him attacking his tail to the point of serious injury and requires medicating with an anti-convulsant; and Inky is a baby kitten. Darcy at almost 11, also gets tired easily these days).
As a result of the animal pursuits, it took some time to notice the bright red sheets on the bed and the fact that the front (bathroom) door had no lock. More than a little discomforting…
At this point Geoff was preparing to cook our lamb chops. There was no cooking oil, decent pots, crockery or utensils. I knocked on the door of the farmhouse and François emerged wearing pyjama pants. He apologised for this and explained that he was watching a movie. I followed him into the kitchen and he produced a few of the required items. I returned later for salt and pepper, then again for a sprinkle of instant coffee, and eventually (letting myself in and wandering through the house) for a pile of mismatched towels. So much for “everything you need to cook is right here!”
How Geoff produced the most outstanding meal of tasty lamb chops, their fatty edges well-rendered and sizzling; smashed baby potatoes, refried in butter and a fresh salad, is truly amazing. We sat on our bed (no chairs, no table) and drank the rest of our wine from the previous evening and devoured our meal. The cats watched us uneasily. We discussed the place and our host. We wondered if this BnB was a front for something sinister, given that François clearly had not the first clue about the hospitality industry. Geoff wedged a heavy, wooden statue under the door handle. We agreed that this was most certainly not a place to lose the cats. We had no interest in returning. Ever.
A fairly uneasy sleep and we were up early, packing to go. François was around and I asked him if the other couple had ever arrived. He looked a bit shifty and said “I think I owe you a refund. I got confused between the booking name of Nicolette and your name Nikki, which is why I gave you that room. The room you booked was all ready for you,” and he pointed away from the farmhouse.
We made an effort to highlight how inadequate his directions were, he seemed determined to disregard this and said that the farm is clearly marked with the “Flower Power” sign (see pic above). Of course, even in the daylight this is quite ridiculous!
François did seem determined to make amends and explained how his land had one of the most incredible displays of flowers in the valley. “The flowers only wake up around 10h30”, he explained. As we had nothing to eat and no desire to spend more time there, we asked where we could get breakfast. He suggested we head to the nearby farm “Enjo”, which we had passed through the previous evening. “They serve a delicious breakfast and I send all my guests there.”
Lauren and Guy, the owners of Enjo, were startled when we knocked on their door. “No we most definitely don’t offer breakfast. Unless of course its for our own guests.”
Embarrassed, we backed away, mentioning that François had sent us, to which there was some eye-rolling.
“Please stay, I’m busy making eggs on toast for my kids and I’ll happily make some for you too!” offered the friendly (and life-saving) Lauren.
Lauren produced a delicious brekkie, coffee and homemade bread and jam while we sat on her comfortable verandah beneath an olive tree. While she served us, she filled us in on how they came to move here from England. On hearing of our misadventure the previous evening, Lauren said “Thank God you turned back – that road would never have swung around into the Valley.”
(Later we discovered more about the dubious antics that characterised François and his plans for the valley. These stories ranged from local farmers having to retrieve their daughters from François’ clutches to stories of introducing cheetahs to the land and trying to launch a full-scale rave event in the peaceful ‘get-back-to-nature’ valley.)
After a breakfast made all the more tasty by the fact that we may have had to forgo the meal entirely, we wandered around on the lovely eco nature farm, taking pictures. Lauren confirmed that the flowers would only show themselves around midday. A bit disappointed that we couldn’t tarry, we began a slow drive through the valley. It was almost 11 am. As we wound our way around the the mountains and across the streams, we literally saw the hillsides coming to life. The flowers were opening in front of our eyes as the sun streamed down more intensely. Like magic, the valley was transformed into shades of tangerine, gold and ochre. We couldn’t believe our luck. We drove our car into field after field of gorgeous Namaqualand daisies, vygies, marigolds and gazanias. We paused to admire and let Darcy and Inky bounce around in the pollen. Jango and Hobie were sleeping and we thought it best to let sleeping cats lie. Tour buses and vans were starting to appear in number.
Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away, aware that we still had a fair drive to reach Simonstown.
Our route along the R365, took us through the most delightful mountain passes as we skirted the Cedarberg mountain range. The Pakhuis Pass connects Calvinia to Clanwilliam and is exquisitely scenic with the most fascinating rock formations. There are also incredible views from the top of the pass overlooking the Karoo.
We came upon a sign indicating C Louis Leipoldt’s grave, about 10 minutes outside of Clanwilliam. We climbed up to the simple rock shelter that commemorates the renowned South African writer and poet.
Clanwilliam is purportedly one of 10 oldest towns in South Africa, going back to 1660 when some of Jan van Riebeeck’s explorers reached the valley and saw a herd of elephants on the banks of the river. Hence the name Olifant’s River preceded the naming of the town. Clanwilliam is also the “Rooibos Capital” of South Africa. The unique plant is only found in the Cedarberg.
The central NG Kerk is known as “The Flower Church” and was being used to house the flower expo, but we were drawn to the historic graveyard with dates of death around 1850, in some instances.
The town is pretty and well-maintained and was thriving with all the visitors in town for flower season.
It was a surprisingly pleasant drive via the N7 towards Cape Town. Upon leaving the town of Clanwilliam, we passed over the impressive Clanwilliam dam on the Olifants river.
Again we passed the most exquisite scenery flanking the edge of the Cedarberg and exposing the rocky, folds of the mountain ranges to the East.
The scenery shifted to the dazzling yellow of the Canola fields, often skirting the highway on both sides.
It’s an excellent road and before long we could make out the iconic silhouette of Table Mountain, indicating that we were almost home.
An exciting and fun roadtrip for Inky’s first!