The place where heaven meets hell

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The rumpled mountains of the Camdeboo. Photos: Brendan Seery

Cradock - I have a love-hate relationship with the Karoo.

My earliest memory of the arid, semi-desert heart of southern Africa was when my father told me what it was called, as I stared out of the window of the second-class compartment on the SAR/SAS train to Cape Town.

I was probably somewhere between 6 and 10 years old, and it disturbed me. It disturbed me, because as a kid growing up in what was then Salisbury (now Harare), I was comfortingly surrounded by big, green things. The trees, the grass, enveloped you in the central African bush. A 1960s colonial cocoon.

Outside the wooden-shuttered windows of the compartment, there was a different reality. The concrete benches on the neat, clean platforms at the little stations with their signs “Blankes”and “Net Nie-Blankes”. Then, when my father spoke, I understood. Other people didn’t have the same skin colour as us. I didn’t quite know then that that reality would define my life.

Outside that window was space. No trees. No buildings. No cars. No comforting parameters.

A vacuum. A wilderness. An eternity.

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A breathtakingly beautiful afternoon at The Paddocks, a self-catering stop just outside Colesberg.

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Not the sort of place you wanted to visit. Something that passed in a day or two and an endless night, before you got to something interesting. The Hex River Valley signalled, for me, the end of the torture. As the train wound through the twists and turns, I knew Cape Town – and civilisation – was not far off.

Not long afterwards, we made the trip by car and drove south from Colesberg in our Datsun 1200 (no aircon – remember those days?). I still associated the Karoo with torture. The noon glare off the rocks of Three Sisters, the heat, the suffocating heat. And miles and miles of nothing.

The definition of hell. The Devil lives in Beaufort West… and his disciples in Richmond and Hanover.

Moving to Windhoek in Namibia years later, I felt like Captain Kirk in Star Trek as I pointed the nose of my Opel Kadett past Upington into the unknown. Kimberley to Windhoek: one day, 1 400km, a handful of trees.

But on that trip: clouds and splatters of rain and – amazingly – a smattering of flowers. The other side of the Karoo.

Then our first visit to the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock in the Eastern Cape… when we sat, quietly, watching a rainstorm in the distance, rolling across the flat-topped hills as the wind slashed the silence.

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The Karoo town of Aberdeen about to be overwhelmed by a summer thunderstorm.

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And a realisation that space equals peace… something that took a while to sink in.

Millions of words have been written in adoration of the Karoo and, to be honest with you, much of it is silly romanticism.

Here’s the reality: most of it is bloody awful, for much of the time. Nothing grows very big and most plants look like they’re on the verge of death. Through most of the day, it is grim. It is hot. The colours are flat. The glare is horizontal.

The towns are ugly. They’re poor, and when the residents do have money, they get blind drunk. They live here, after all… they’re not passing through in an air-conditioned SUV.

But… but…

At sunset, the Karoo is a glimpse of heaven. As the sun sinks, the harsh colours become muted, sounds grow still and the horizon creeps closer.

On the way down to Knysna over Christmas, we stopped off in Colesberg at a great place called The Paddocks (look it up).

As I sat nurturing the braai and some decent lamb chops, with a reasonable bottle of red wine, I watched a storm putting on a show in the distance. First there was a rainbow, trying in vain to reach the earth from the clouds and then, later, forks of lightning illuminating the rolling hills.

The stage was vast – and the space had me inhaling deeply. This is the antidote to the chest-compressing stress of the city.

And I realised: I love the Karoo. That love comes out of the hate, too. You cannot appreciate the beauty of the place unless you absorb the awfulness – the hard, harsh hellishness – and feel the balance when it comes.

Going to the Karoo removes the Joburg poisons from your body.

Having realised that, sitting next to the braai at The Paddocks, I knew: we have to go back.

But where to?

I would like to head off – some time later this year – and I would like some advice. I want to look at the map and… take a left (or right) turn. And head whoever knows where.

So – sorry to be blatant about it – please give me some advice.

What are the jewels of the Karoo – the towns, the food joints, the B&Bs, the scenic routes – you have seen?

I want to head out for about 10 days and experience all that the region has to offer… but I am ignorant.

Drop me a line at brendan.seery@inl.co.za - Saturday Star

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