The police were horrified that we should even contemplate using such a road. So was a local farmer, but the owner of a B&B in Sutherland had a different take on matters.
“These farmers in the north-western Cape don’t know what a bad road is,” he tutted. “They should visit Limpopo. You go for it.”
He was right. The farm roads between Middelpos and Fraserburg in the Northern Cape were in perfect condition.
They were, in fact, much better maintained than the main Sutherland/Middelpos/Calvinia R354, and the scenery was magnificent.
Sometimes, drivers can be reluctant to try out a gravel road, but there is always the option of turning back if it is too bad.
But let us start at the beginning, before we reached this lonely part of the country. Let’s commence the journey in Steytlerville (the nearest well-known place is Addo Elephant Park).
The town has an interesting outdoor museum: colourful farm implements on the main street. We popped in at the quaint Royal Hotel, with rooms around a cobbled courtyard, and lunched on the stoep, watching life in a country town, where everyone seemed to have time to stop for a chat (and no doubt a bit of gossip).
Then – with South African rugby history in mind – we headed for Norspoort Guest Farm, where Danie Craven grew up.
The 150-year-old colonial farmhouse has been in the Craven/Haywards family for six generations. “Doc se Hok” bar has memorabilia from his sporting days, and the farm (which also has self-catering cottages) is obviously popular with families.
Then, instead of taking the tar road between Steytlerville and Willowmore, we chose a gravel road running alongside a river. We had been warned that it might have been damaged in the recent floods, but found it well maintained and scenic.
Leaving Willowmore, we headed for Beaufort West (via the tar), then used the gravel road up De Jager’s Pass and onwards amid wonderful scenery. It has many sharp bends and switchbacks, and frequently crosses the Krom River (which was dry during our visit), so is great for those who like putting their driving skills to the test.
You now have a couple of options: to continue to Loxton or Victoria West, or circle back to Beaufort West via Molteno Pass.
We chose the second option but at the bottom of Molteno Pass we did a U-turn and travelled back the way we had come for a short distance, before turning away towards Fraserburg.
All this gave us insight into life as it must have been before everyone raced down the national roads. Sheep strolled across the road; glossy-coated horses raced across the veld at a stud farm; springbok pranced in the fields; a sign for a riverine rabbit conservancy lured; a lone black eagle hunted in the sky.
In some parts there were no fences between the adjoining farms and the road. When last did you see countryside unfettered by fencing?
We passed Modderpoort se Dam, while a sad, deserted house was a reminder of the precariousness of life in such isolated areas.
The only person we saw the whole day was a woman cuddling her cat. She allowed us to take her photograph, but lamented, “Ek lyk soos ’n skrik. Ek is vuil van die stof.” (I look a fright. I’m dirty from the dust).
In Sutherland, at the end of a long day, The Galaxy B&B looked inviting. The next morning the owner served breakfast – creamy oatmeal porridge – on the glassed-in sunstoep.
Heading towards Calvinia on the R354, we turned away shortly before Middelpos and motored back to Fraserburg via farm roads, to complete our circular trip of this little-travelled area.
That night, we stopped at Die Pophuis Hoekie in Victoria West – charming, restored old self-catering cottages with lots of character.
Victoria West was founded in 1843, and the Victoria West Messenger, founded in 1876, is apparently still one of the oldest weekly newspapers in the country; while the original Standard Bank in the town is said to be the oldest branch.
Sheeting rain meant we were reluctant to take the gravel road direct to Richmond but, after reaching the town via the longer tar road, we took a chance on the R398 gravel road to Middelburg, which was in good condition and scenic.
Our evocative journey down SA’s back roads had come to a close, and at Middelburg we joined the R56 and headed back to KwaZulu-Natal.