We drive the famous passes of the Tankwa Karoo in Ford’s Ranger Thunder and join a pilgrimage to Niewoudtville to witness the world’s most impressive natural flower show.
You have to go and see the flowers. It’s the best it’s been in years.” This kind of advice is hard to ignore, coming from Henk van Niekerk, a tour operator and one of four owners of the Tankwa Tented Camp (TTC). He points out a special route I have not driven before, which takes one to Niewoudtville in just 140km. Then Henk delivers the clincher: But remember you need good rains, and sun for the flowers to come out. We’ve had the rains, but this sunny weather is not going to last.” I had persuaded The Prof (aka known as my better half) to go on this jaunt, to help with driving duties and to open farm gates, selling her the idea of open roads and cosy lodges. Luckily, after packing up and leaving Cape Town in bucketing rain two days before, clear skies and sun had emerged as we picked a less-travelled circular route along the Roggeveldberge and through the Tankwa Karoo National Park, enjoying the comforts of Ford’s latest Ranger special edition, the Thunder. Now, though, it’s time for a snap decision. The spirit of adventure wins as we choose to add an extra leg and another day to our trip, one that promise of a carpet of flowers. It’s a no-brainer, really, and that evening after we braai a few lamb chops outside our charming wooden cottage in the Tankwa Tented Camp, out comes the trusty Slingsby map of the Tankwa Karoo to get to grips with the twists and turns of the proposed shortcut.
Thunder (and rain, wind and snow) to Ceres
Two days earlier we had hit the N1 out of Cape Town in heavy rain. Gusts of wind buffet the Ranger as we climb Du Toit’s Kloof Pass en route to Worcester and the temperature gauge reads a frigid 8 degrees. There’s snow on the mountain tops. I’m tempted to get Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ blasting through the rather good six-speaker sound system, just for the lyrics, “Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening…” Instead, we opt for the “Freshest South African” playlist on Spotify to celebrate getting on the road in September after months of COVID-19 lockdown. Riffs of bad verse form in my mind, and I wonder if this trip will turn into a mud bath. “Rain, Wind and Thunder… Roll on Summer… If this is Spring, we’re suffering.” Turning off the N1 onto the R46 we crest the twisty Michell’s Pass then drop into Ceres with 180km on the odometer. Time to get lastminute supplies at the local Spar and duck into the trendy Tremor Coffee Bar where I fully expect to get a Seismic Cappuccino. We head out the town, still on the R46, moving through squalls of rain, over a greyed-out Theronsberg Pass as we make our way towards the R355, a 257km stretch of sharp shale that terminates at Calvinia. This road is notorious for munching tyres, and, to be honest, I’m nervous about puncturing the sidewalls on the highway-oriented Continental Cross Contact tyres fitted to the Thunder. I keep them inflated, against most advice, and drive with care.
The Forgotten Highway & Ouberg Pass
Just 6km in, we turn right onto the gravel R356, which forms part of the “Forgotten Highway” to Sutherland. At Bizansgat we have to eat inside the car. The wind is so strong it’s blowing the sliced tomatoes off our sandwiches. The “highway” gets narrower as it heads towards the Koedoesberge, punctuated by cattle grids and unexpected steps into rocky stream beds, many with muddy approaches indicating recent rains. The brakes haul speeds down sharply at times, and the suspension is ironing out the bigger hits. The Thunder’s fancy auto box is doing lots of work here, making easy-going of a demanding road. The road winds upwards between Tafelkop and Gifkop, and just at the Northern Cape provincial boundary, we stop at Thyshoogte, which offers spectacular views towards Sutherland. There is little evidence of civilisation stretching out below, and the skies seem huge – with little light pollution. No wonder this is prime stargazing country. It’s windy up here too, and after pouring mugs of tea from our flask, we figure out the origins of the phrase, “a storm in a teacup”. Better to retreat into the warmth of the Ranger’s cabin. It’s time to push on if we are to make our stopover before nightfall. We miss an unmarked left turn and briefly end up on the tarred R364 to Sutherland, taking the first left onto the P2252, and the first water splash, crossing the Dwars River. This winding and pretty section of road follows the path of the Tankwa River for some distance, before heading up the Roggeveldberg plateau to one of the highlights of the day: the 9km-long Ouberg Pass. I had driven down this old farmer’s route used to move sheep between the valley and the plateau, but never up. With the brooding shadows getting longer, it is time to get The Prof into the driver’s seat while I take some snaps. Of course, the Ranger takes this challenge in its stride, bumping over the loose sections, and negotiating the tight hairpins and sharp drop-offs into the valley that retreats into the distance way below. We pull into a stopover point and marvel at the mountain peaks and distinct geological strata. It’s been a steep climb up a narrow ridge, yet it has inspired confidence. The Prof now seems to have borrowed a cap from Sébastien Loeb, and is gunning the Ranger through muddy ditches and boggy sections on the last 15km towards the turn-off to Skurweberg Guest Farm. From sweltering sun in the valley just an hour before, temperatures on the plateau have now plummeted, and our host Elsa van der Merwe ushers us quickly into the digs for a night: a well-appointed and spacious cabin with four bedrooms and two bathrooms that sleeps 10. She points out the provided braai wood and the words “electric blanket” and “hot shower” are music to our ears as we notice thick drifts of ice near reception, a leftover from a big snowfall a few days before. Biting cold (two degrees on the Ranger’s temperature gauge) encourages me to get the unpacking done and the braai on in record time as we settle in. It’s an early night and a frosty morning on this working farm, and I greet the horses and disappoint the sheep and goats who think it is feeding time. We had been passed on the road by farm owner Witjan in his Land Cruiser the day before, and I get to admire his industry. Everything is orderly, even the usual cluster of farm implements outside the sheds. We had planned to drive Skurweberg’s Grade 3 4×4 trail, but time is short and the tyres perhaps not up to it. “It is more difficult in the wet,” Elsa points out, so we linger over morning coffee and take a leisurely start at 9am after inspecting the camp site – a great spot with a boma.
Middelpos & Gannaga Pass
The undulating district road, the AP2264 to Bo-Visrivier, soon connects with the larger R354 going northwards to Middelpos. The initial drive borders the Fish River, which is unusually full. Dams and rolling hills dot the views, and between fields of sheep we spot a couple of Steenbok which shyly head off into the distance. There are signs to guesthouses left and right – Ouberg Farm, Koornlandskloof Gastehuis, Jakkalsdans. There is no traffic at all, apart from two bikers. These roads are very quiet during the week. As the sun rises, small patches of daisies and other species in brilliant yellow, orange and purple shades emerge, the promise of things to come. We expect Middelpos to be a sleepy one-horse town. It turns out to be a ten-chicken town with a fading hotel and an old-fashioned trading store. The roosters are busy, but the residents are clearly on the sleepy side. A sign in the shop warns: “Geen diens aan pajama lopers.” Turning back down south towards Ceres, we take a left after 6km at the signpost indicating the Tankwa Karoo National Park and Gannaga Lodge in 22km. Apart from rooms with endless views, this haven for adventure bikers has a well-stocked bar. We enjoy a pleasant lunchtime stopover, from our initial greeting by manager Johann Visagie to a sampling of Voertsek beer crafted by winemaker Dawie Niewoudt of Cederberg Wines. We bump into cheery travellers “breaking out” after lockdown, including Nick and Hillary Diemont, here on a 50- year honeymoon tour in their Pajero. They get us on their mailing list after we find out they are co-owners of Strandveld Vineyards in Agulhas. In the heat of the day we get cautiously back on the road, passing the jump-off point for Watervlei 4×4 trail, a four-hour route which requires a permit issued by the Tankwa Karoo National Park, and which guarantees amazing views from the top of the plateau. Next time! Almost immediately we begin the steep drop down Gannaga Pass, a 7.2km cluster of hairpin bends which drops to the valley from 1 226 metres above sea level. Though not rough, it is narrow in places, and a fellow adventurer coming up tells us there are some rocky, washedaway sections, assuring us the Ranger’s high ground clearance will be an advantage. The Prof is in the driver’s seat again, and to keep things slow, we engage high-range four-wheel drive using the twist dial, and experiment with the Hill Descent Control, which helps to regulate speed. Intended for gnarlier conditions, we soon resort to simply holding gears using the +/- selector on the gearshift. We are treated to incredible views with each turn, and some of the stone walls on the bends are a feat of early roadbuilding. The P2250 flattens and widens on level ground slippery broadside halt before the startled photographer. “I think I’m getting the hang of this,” she grins. I praise the rain-sensing wipers which cleared the windscreen and saved me from a mud bath. We have seen no more than ten cars in two days, finding the east-west link routes between this region’s north-south arterials very empty. Closer to the Mecca of Niewoudtville, soon after crossing the R364 to Clanwilliam, the clumps of flowers become more frequent and, with it, more cars and tourists stopping all around, walking mesmerised into the veld. This is it. We are heading for the epicentre of the flower fever. We take a detour to Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm, passing a field filled with Blue Cranes, and sign up to drive two curated flower routes. The reception area is buzzing with botanical talk and the smell of good coffee, and we take a break to enjoy a cuppa along with some delicious apple tart. The profusion of colour is incredible as we drive along the flower routes. A labourer’s cottage, where clothes are drying outside, is surrounded by a riot of oranges, purples and yellows. Daisy devotees are walking into the fields, where more than ten species can be discovered at many locations, smiling broadly and approaching the TKNP head office at Roodewerf, from where one can branch off to some remote camp sites we will explore next time around. From here the mountains cast shadows on either side of this broad valley, and though the vegetation is low and sparse, there is a scattering of flowers. I’ve plotted an easterly route across the breadth of the valley, turning left at the ruins of a school and heading on an indistinct track past Uintjiesbos. We take a wrong turn towards the farm Platfontein, then follow our instincts, with help from map expert Peter Slingsby. There are no signboards here, and we warily bump over fist-sized boulders crossing the dry Renoster River, then join the faint Windkoppies track. This drive captures the beauty of the Tankwa Karoo, with the road transitioning from yellow to red sand, each with different vegetation sorts, then on to a blackened gravelly moonscape. We startle a brace of Gemsbok, who trot twin dust trails across the plains before they stop to stare at this metal imposter. Cars are a rarity here. The road is very corrugated in parts, giving the suspension a workout designed to overheat shock absorbers. So we again engage high-range 4WD and, credit where it is due, the Thunder stays very composed. It hardly breaks out under power on the bumps and easily churns through deep sandy patches. I am taking photographs from outside and can see the extent of the wheel travel at times. Inside, The Prof is impressed at how safe it feels.
Fossil beds & Tankwa Tented Camp
We rush over fossil beds and ancient stony lunar landscapes, chasing the light to reach Tankwa Tented Camp in the Stonehenge Nature Reserve. Another biker haven adjoining the site of the annual AfrikaBurn Festival, a bar is hidden behind an eclectic collection of bikes, ploughs and collectables arrayed around an open fire. Strange mutant vehicles and bizarre sculptures from AfrikaBurn are artfully scattered about around the rampart-like stone wall which forms the backbone of the place. Near a set of stone sculptures which backdrop giant solar panels, we are drawn to music and laughter. A Stop sign and a message scrawled in chalk pronounce: “This is a trap!!!” But it’s too late. We are into the private jol of Henk van Niekerk and a bevy of friends. He is one of the larger-than-life owners of the TTC, holding forth in his book-filled camp in the desert. There’s a big KTM in the corner. He tells us about his overland tours, before urging us to join a sundowner drive to one of the surrounding hills, and planting the seed that makes a trip to Niewoudtville’s natural flower show a must-do. He introduces us to manager Leon, who explains how to get to our mini chalet, an off-grid wooden Wendy house on stilts with a neat front stoep, donkey boiler for ahot shower and a pristine bed with a solar-powered electric blanket. After a day of dusty driving we rather opt for a swim, taking the “Bored Walk” to the “Stoney Beach”, where a cluster of palmfronded umbrellas and sun loungers complete a fantasy centred on a huge reservoir. We can’t believe this extraordinary venue. It is a feast of wide-open space and a lekker place to toast the sun setting behind the distant mountains with a few chilled beers before we get the braai going again. An almost-full moon is just fading as the morning sun fills the horizon, and we aim for an early start to ensure we complete our flower mission. Leon tells us about his year with the Maasai in Kenya, and a few snippets of his travels in 19 African countries over the previous decade while I feast on the famous TTC breakfast served by the Malawian kitchen crew. Then we confirm the route with Henk, who has his hands deep in a basin of soapy dishes: 40km up the R355, left at the bridge, right at the first fork, right at the fence post… and so on. His tyre protection advice is first-class: “Whatever you do, stay in the tracks. Don’t go to the side of the road.”
Soutpanpad to Niewoudtville
Through a few farm gates, we turn right onto the infamous R355 and barrel along its rolling path for 40km, keeping very firmly in the tracks. The tiny Uitspankraal sign marks the left turn after a bridge, onto a narrow rural tweespoor. We ignore the left to the Biedouw Valley, and find our way to the Soutpanspad. It is hot and windy, 22 degrees by mid-morning, and the roadsides are bursting with colour. We get out of the Thunder to take in some of the wide variety of flower species covering each square metre, coming across the first of many tortoises pretending to be stones. It’s not called the Soutpanpad for nothing. Thick muddy tracks on much of the road are throwing the Ranger about, and there are deep drifts to get through. The Prof has the wheel, and the Loeb cap is back on. She takes a massive plunge through one deep drift, throwing a wave of mud over the Ranger and coming to a snapping away with their cameras. We spend hours doing the same, marvelling at this rich display, before heading into town making frequent stops when another variety pops up. The brownstone buildings of Matjiesfontein, a popular tourist stop along the way, are almost obscured by a wave of yellow. The Hantam National Botanical Garden is so full that new visitors are being turned away. We take some snaps of the purple fields at the entrance along with an upcountry visitor, and declare together: “It’s too much.” We’ve reached colour saturation point. It’s late when we finally drive through the unusually busy streets of Niewoudtville to refuel at Protea Motors on the outskirts of town. The owners are run off their feet dispensing fuel and tell us all accommodation has been booked out for at least the next two weeks. Yes, South Africans can travel again, and making the most of it. We get onto the N7 going south, have a quick tailgate picnic of roadside roosterkoek stuffed with cheese, and stop briefly at the top of the dramatic Van Rhyn’s Pass to witness storm clouds rolling into the vlaktes stretching out for miles below. An overnight stay in Clanwilliam breaks the 400km journey back, and the rain is back in full force the next day. The Prof and I agree the weather gods have smiled on us, opening a two-day window of sun so we could witness this flower feast. The scenic passes and huge vistas of the Tankwa Karoo have calmed the city rush. We have to go back with more time. The Thunder is now humming along at a good lick on the tar, and I watch the fuel index drop as low as 7.5l/100km, down from an average of 8.8-9.0l/100km on the gravel. The Active Cruise Control is doing its thing and I can relax despite the wet conditions. We agree that the Ranger has been a superb travel companion, delivering a safe and cosseting ride under all sorts of conditions. It has never felt stretched to any limit, and, best of all, we didn’t pick up a puncture despite over 300km on shale-strewn gravel roads.
THE VEHICLE: Ford Ranger Thunder
Special Editions have their appeal, and the Thunder adds R30k to the price of the Wildtrak, the primary benefits being black alloys and red detailing on the seats, grille, and Sports bar/ spoiler. The “Mountain Top” roller shutter covering the load bin is standard, along with a bed divider which makes packing easier. I found it ideal for separating the wood, braai and groundsheets which go up front, with the food and duffel bags of clothes further back. The tie-down hooks on a sliding rack also prove useful to prevent items bouncing around in the back. We pack a load of stuff into the load bin, but the fridge is just too high to fit under the roller deck and goes onto the back seat. Apart from rugged looks, this double cab bakkie justifies premium pricing with a feast of technology. The range-topping driveline comprises a bi-turbo 2.0-litre diesel putting out 157kW at 3750rpm, and 500Nm from 1500-2000rpm, combined with a 10-speed automatic gearbox and low-range transfer case. To put that in perspective, the high-range 1st gear ratio is 4.696, while 10th gear takes that down to 0.636 per revolution. The fuel index is pegged at 7.8 litres/100km, but one can expect a real-world usage of 8.5-9.0l/100km with careful driving. There’s a gear for almost everything, and while the engine sometimes seems to hit a flat spot on gentle slopes and needs a throttle nudge before kicking down, most of the changes are almost seamless. When you need it, there’s the low-range option, and a solenoid-operated rear differential lock. Apart from a full traction control suite, the big deal for most Thunder or Wildtrak owners will probably be the driver aids, optimised for highway travel. It has a lane-keeping system that pulls the steering when you veer off the line, adaptive cruise control which slows the vehicle down and speeds up again to the set speed, to ensure a safe distance from other traffic. A high-end piece of tech includes a system called Active Park Assist which basically does parallel parking for you. Not much need of that out in the desert, but one has to welcome the reverse camera and parking sensors which help to manoeuvre this long bakkie. What makes the drive enjoyable are things like the highly effective new LED headlights and the rain-sensing wipers which do their work according to the amount of rain, automatically. It’s a well-insulated cabin, with overtaking moves getting done with authority, needing only a small twist of the right foot.