THE road between Ceres and Calvinia goes by the official and prosaic name of R355. I’d rather think of it as The Tyre-killer.
It is the longest dirt road linking two towns in South Africa, and I had four unfortunate experiences traversing its 290km length; first, northwards and then headed back to Cape Town a few days later.
Anyone who has travelled that road will tell you there is virtually no traffic other than during the annual pilgrimage to AfrikaBurn, and no cellphone reception along just about the whole way.
Those four punctures – three in one day on the return leg, which necessitated being loaded on to a flatbed trailer in the middle of the night – bookended an adventure-laden 3 000km, six-day road trip to the Northern Cape. The trip took in the Tankwa and Hantam Karoos, Verneukpan, Keimoes, Kimberley and Mokala National Park, the latest addition to the SANParks destinations in the so-called “arid region”.
Of course, you don’t have to subject yourself to The Tyre-killer: alternative routes include taking the N7 to either Vanrhynsdorp or Springbok and heading for Keimoes – the former being the prettier road, taking in Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia before continuing with the R27. The latter includes Pofadder (worthwhile if only to say you’ve been through it) and the scenic village of Kakamas on the Orange River.
But adventure is my middle name and I set out from Riebeek-Kasteel on a fiery Saturday afternoon. It got hotter and hotter but the vehicle had powerful air conditioning and I took on the R355 with neither discomfort nor trepidation.
I stopped at the Tankwa Padstal, just 84km from Ceres, because there were a couple of BMW adventure bikes parked outside and – to me – this usually signals a “bush” pub, though in this case it’s a bit of a misnomer because there wasn’t a bush anywhere to be seen.
It was a good thing I stopped. I discovered later that week that the free wifi offered by Die Werkswinkel extended beyond the gate, which is locked when the owners head home in the early evening. I was able to make some WhatsApp calls that eventuated in the towing service carrying me back to civilisation in Worcester.
Die Werkswinkel is a fascinating oasis both in terms of decor and the people who frequent the place. The pub used to be part of the adjacent farm stall until one inebriated local, furious at being kicked out a few years ago, returned and burned the place to the ground.
The place is decorated with old tools and agricultural bric-a-brac to resemble an actual farm workshop. The booze is cold and inexpensive.
I sallied onward towards Calvinia and, with 170km to go, puncture #1. After unloading just about everything to get to the spare, changing it in 37˚C heat and then reloading, it was a very cautious Freeman that proceeded.
I got to Calvinia in the middle of the Springbok-Wales match, but the owner of the local SupaQuick was so disenchanted with the South African rugby team he didn’t hesitate before coming to fix the tyre. I decamped to the Calvinia Hotel for a couple of cold ones with the disgruntled locals (the match had just finished) before getting the call that the tyre had been fixed and I could continue with my journey.
I’d always planned to sleep in the back of the enormous SUV I was driving, so I pulled over between Williston and Carnarvon, laid out the camping mattress and unrolled my sleeping bag. It was a surprisingly comfy night and the sole vehicle to pass only did so after 6am.
The temperature rose rapidly through the day (it reached 36˚C before 11am) and I was really looking forward to an early arrival in Keimoes. However, about an hour north of Vanwyksvlei, a signpost pointed to Verneukpan – the salt pan where Sir Malcolm Campbell tried unsuccessfully to break the world land speed record in Bluebird in 1929.
Being someone who writes about cars, I couldn’t resist, and headed down the sandy track bordered with thorn trees and browsing cattle.
What can I say about Verneukpan? It’s big, it’s flat, it’s hot as hell and flies are plentiful and persistent.
I arrived in Keimoes in the early afternoon and immediately headed to The Overlook guest house (www.overlook.co.za). I’ve stayed there several times before and it is truly one of the gems of the Northern Cape.
As its name suggests, the air-conditioned and inexpensive rondavels overlook the vineyards and orchards that line the Orange River, which was flowing strongly. With the temperature now over 42˚C, I spent most of the afternoon in the infinity pool watching a host of little birds splashing around on the rim.
Dinner is always a surprise at The Overlook, mainly because New York-born owner Eric Husing is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
If you’re in the Keimoes area, make an effort to visit Bezalel Brandy on the road to Upington. The XO is a delight (don’t you dare drink it with Coke!) and, if they have any in stock, buy a bottle of their brandy-based date liqueur. It’s the perfect accompaniment to malva pudding.
The next day started with a four-hour drive to Kimberley to pick up a friend who had wisely flown in the evening before. We drove about 70km south on the N12 before branching off towards the Lillydale gate of Mokala National Park (https://www.sanparks.org/parks/mokala).
The park is a small one – just less than 20 000ha – and, although it’s not a Big Five reserve, it bills itself as a park “where endangered species roam”.
Wildlife species include most of the larger antelope such as eland, gemsbok, tsessebe, red hartbees, roan, sable and kudu; buffalo, rhino, wildebeest and giraffe, and a host of small buck species that include both black and copper springbok.
(We had a black springbok that was a regular visitor to our private watering hole; we called him Bryan.)
The main accommodation sites are Mosu Lodge, Lillydale Rest Camp and the Motswedi Campsite. There are six campsites at Motswedi – each with its own ablution and cooking facilities as well as outside braai area – grouped around a watering hole. The only electricity powers the fence around the perimeter.
Mosu and Lillydale feature luxury, semi-luxury and self-catering bungalows and chalets. Both have swimming pools (there were two kudu in the pool enclosure at Lillydale when we arrived and showed no haste in moving off) and there is a bar-restaurant at Mosu.
The shops at both Mosu and Lillydale stock a very limited range of goods, so it’s best to do your buying before arrival if taking up one of the self-catering options.
Other accommodation options are the very basic bunk and shower facility at the Stofdam bird hide, two treetop chalets (one of which burnt down a few days ago) and the delightful Haak-en-steek camp in the extreme south of the park.
The latter – our home for two nights – is a rustic two-bedroom self-catering bungalow that sleeps a maximum of four people. It’s far from the other camps and is the ideal bush getaway for those who don’t particularly want to interact with anyone else.
There are solar-powered lights and showers, as well as a gas stove and fridge.
There are no electrical outlets, so have a car charger for your mobile phone. There’s also no air conditioning or fan, and – given the extreme heat – showers were required day and night. Not once during the entire stay did I turn on the hot tap.
With the reserve being relatively small, it’s possible to cover all the looping game drives quite easily in a day and a half. That leaves plenty of time to laze under the bungalow’s broad eaves and watch the passing parade at the nearby watering hole.
There’s an incessant stream of animals coming down to drink and their antics kept us absorbed for hours on end. We laughed on the first evening when a tortoise made haste(?) to the water, followed a few minutes later by a scrub hare. Aesop would have appreciated that.
Then, the following evening, a tortoise (could it have been the same one?) approached from the opposite side of the pan. He was lost to sight for a while and – sure enough – down came the hare. He lowered his head to drink and, just then, the tortoise popped up out of the water.
The hare fled in shock.
While most of the animals are not particularly habituated to humans, there are some exceptions. The warthogs at Mosu and Lillydale couldn’t give a fig about your presence; the lush green lawns are their feeding grounds and to be shared only with the odd (fairly) tame tsessebe and family of gambolling yellow mongooses.
The Cape glossy starlings do what all starlings do – try to bully you out of your food, even to the extent of hopping on to the braai when the meat is cooking.
Their richest pickings come when the grid has cooled and they can scavenge the bits stuck to it.
Most endearing was a pair of little buck we christened Dick van Duiker and Princess Duikana.
Grey duikers are unique in the antelope world in that they will actually eat meat. No, they won’t go out and kill something but they will scavenge. Dick was the most adventurous, repeatedly approaching the braai in the hope something had fallen on the ground.
It was clear that previous occupants of the bungalow had fed them because the pair never strayed far the entire time we were in residence.
Haak-en-steek is not protected by electrified fence and there is even a sign urging residents to beware of rhino.
The cost of the bungalow is R1 080 a night. Entrance to the park is R37 a day for South African adult citizens and R18 for children. Foreign visitors (adult) pay a standard conservation fee of R148 a day. This fee is halved for children.
On the third day, prior to leaving, we took a slow meander back to Lillydale. The vegetation changes from red sand and camel thorn acacia scrubland to broad grass plains teeming with gembsbok, roan and sable. At one lookout point, we spotted a Burchell’s zebra exhibiting distinctly quagga-like characteristics.
With some time remaining till my friend’s flight back to Cape Town, we popped into the landmark Halfway House Hotel (Cecil John Rhodes used to pop in regularly on his horse for a drink while still in the saddle) in Kimberley for lunch. It’s a wonderful place though, sadly, the once-lively bar and beer garden has been sold off to a restaurant franchise.
The meal was very good and inexpensive, but the highlight was the half-hour spent studying former Griquas cricketer – and ex-owner of the hotel – Mike Doherty’s collection of sporting memorabilia.
“The Half”, as it is known, also possesses the only “drive-in” liquor licence in the world: you can park in the driveway outside the hotel and waiters will serve you in your car. This was great, says an old friend, when most of you were under-age and had an adult thirst. All you needed was an older pal with a car.
Off to the airport and, fool that I was, I went back for a disastrous second crack at The Tyre-killer. I should have headed south on the highway, saving myself (and the vehicle) from a load of strife.
But where’s the fun and adventure in that?