The intrepid mom-and-daughter adventure team of Leilani and Sabria Basson headed to the Northern Cape in search of elusive water sources… In search of calm for their souls… In search of being part of the wonder that is the magnificent Augrabies Falls in full flood.
The last few years in South Africa have been dry – bitterly dry. Add to this the past year spent in varying degrees of lockdown which brought about its own extraordinary challenges and the situation is more than dry. It is dire. With the inevitable change brought about by 2020, and struggles that followed, things tend to look hopeless and people stop dreaming. A national lockdown leads to adventurers like us feeling frustrated, our emotions in turmoil… We long to get out, to explore! I may not complain, I know. Despite the pandemic, our family are still blessed, healthy and happy. And I am grateful – very much so. But my adventurer’s heart is left longing, thirsty for revitalisation that only being out there, exploring the unknown, can bring. My heart yearns for the things that bring me true joy: to be able to write for a magazine, to tell my story through photographs, to head out on the open road – pure, unadulterated wanderlust.
The new year starts with a promise: during January, the floodgates open and rainfall in all regions reach new heights. This water reprieve is also evident in the dry and struggling Northern Cape. Before long, social media is flooded with videos and photos featuring the mighty Orange River and Augrabies in full flood for the first time in a decade. My adventurer’s heart starts pleading deep from within, and I know: I simply need to witness this water wonder. Even if I have to beg, borrow and steal. My reason for being – my seven-year-old little girl, Sabria – needs to witness this miracle before school officially starts again on 15 February. It was now or never – when will we ever get to see this magic again?
The story of finding water
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, the saying goes. So, I decide to take a chance and pitch a story to new print title on the market, Adventure Afrika. With my heart in my throat and stomach in knots, I phone Mary Willemse, the managing director of M&A Media who publishes the magazine. With little to no cohesion, pumped with the adrenaline of expectation, I pitch my idea about visiting the Northern Cape in search of the province’s elusive water sources. Inevitably, this would include a trip to Augrabies Falls. She is going to think I am mad, high or drunk, I think to myself… But against all odds, she agrees! Wait, what!?
Before I know it, things start to fall into place. Blessings start flowing like the mighty Orange River in full flood – we manage to arrange a car to take on the open road, we figure out a deal to pay for fuel, we negotiate accommodation and sort out meals. My heart sings – the drought has ended! I can, at least for this trip, feed my passion. Blessed beyond words, I immediately start planning. Even though school only official starts a week later, online classes have resumed for Sabria. As we cannot start Grade 2 in trouble with the teacher, the classroom will have to become mobile. With lockdown reinstated to level 3, we also need to take extra care to plan the trip to minimise unnecessary stops. As such, we stock up on provisions and before we know it, it looks like we’re setting off on a year-long odyssey through Africa.
Very early on Monday morning, we meet our wheels. A shiny new, capable and powerful KIA Sportage. Gosh – what a stunner! When opening the boot, I am initially thrown by what looks like a relatively small boot. How embarrassing would it be if I cannot fit all our luggage which, admittedly, looks like that of six people for months! No need to worry, though – the KIA’s versatile boot comfortably takes a 466-litre load with backseats in place, which increases to a massive 1 455 litres with the rear seats folded down. As Sabria needed space for her mobile Google classroom, folding the seats down was not an option. Fortunately, my hours of playing with Lego’s as a child, came in handy and we manage to fit everything into this cleverly designed car.
When we finally hit the road, the clouds hang pregnant with promise over Johannesburg. As we drive through the North West Province, my heart sings as we pass growing maize crops as far as the eye can see. While Sabria is figuring out her degrees of comparison for an English class, I realise that growth is often a dormant thing. It is always there, but sometimes invisible – a few months ago, farmers in this region would not have predicted sky-high maize crops. Yet, the potential was always there, deep inside the ground. The human race is very similar, I realise. On the surface, your life may seem hopeless and without the potential of growth, but deep inside of you, the resilience is always there. The strength that more often than not surprises us. The same applies to the elusive water sources we are after. Despite external drought and hardship, they feed the earth from deep within.
Exchanging my philosopher’s hat for that of driver, I realise that we have to push if we want to reach our first overnight destination in Kuruman at a decent hour. Luckily the road is a pleasure – well maintained and dead quiet (travelling on a Monday is evidently a great idea!). Without me even realising, our blue bullet every so often exceeds the speed limits – thank goodness for the cruise control, making the drive super convenient. A couple of kilometres this side of Vryburg, the countryside – saturated with all the rain – glistens.
Of course, the flipside of all this water is that roads were virtually washed away in some sections. Some of the dongas are as big as a splash pool and it takes all my concentration to keep the vehicle safely on the road. My nerves are shattered, but we push ahead and the KIA continuously impress with its capabilities and solid grip on the road. Built to wow (to quote its product slogan), standard features include a cordless charger for your phone, an eight-inch touch screen with an integrated navigation system and connectivity with your smartphone; as well as a whole host of security features. We reach the Eye of Kuruman – the first of the mysterious water sources on our list – around 15h30. The main road’s entry gate is locked already, despite the prominently displayed sign indicating the closing time as 16h00. I drive around the block to a caravan park which, according to my geological calculations, should give me a line of sight to the Eye, but the guard won’t allow me access. It is now a beehive of activity at the main entrance, and I don’t feel completely safe to get out for a photo. The “High Crime Area” signboard confirms my instinct and, although disappointed, we decide to rather return at a later stage when we have Daddy around for protection. This is the biggest natural fountain in the Southern Hemisphere and I really had hoped to see it – but no use crying over spilt milk, or natural water in this case!
We booked into the beautiful and comfortable Red Sands Country Lodge for the night. I have never seen this spot so lush and green – the plants, grass and trees are so thick it is only the gravel road that bears a resemblance to the well-known red dunes in the area. This oasis in the middle of the Kalahari offers so many activities that I feel sorry that we can only stay one night. The service and facilities are wonderful and the manicured lawns and garden is a welcoming sight; while the onsite restaurant wows us with some splendid Kalahari chops, succulent steak and a fresh salad.
Early the next morning, we are up and about – excited about the prospect of visiting the trip highlight: the Augrabies Falls. But first, we have three hours of driving ahead of us… A long three hours for me as the 26 kids in Sabria’s Grade 2 Google classroom frequently forget to mute their microphones! Listening to all these voices talking over one another, I have renewed respect for primary school teachers! Instead, I pay my attention to the road and surrounding and notice how it changes from red to white and back to red.
somewhere close to Olifantshoek, the mountains open up and reveal glimpses of the spectacle we are about to witness. “We are close now – I can feel it, Mommy!” pipes Sabria from the backseat, her excitement palpable.
We finally reach the Falls shortly before lunchtime, welcomed by an already steady stream of vehicles moving in and out and creating somewhat of a bottleneck. Friends of ours who visited the weekend before had to compete with thousands of visitors who wanted to witness the water wonder. While it is understandably very busy, we can’t complain and reach the entrance soon enough. Next to us, the Orange River is in full flood – easily four times its usual width. We find a parking spot and as we climb out, the humidity and heat hit us. It is over 40 degree Celsius, without any breeze in sight. With the ever-present mask in place, the short walk to the gate feels like a marathon in the Sahara.
It is too hot to stop and study the information board with interesting facts about the Falls and its history, so I opt to quickly snap a picture with my phone to review later. We are on a mission to reach the wooden platforms beckoning ahead, promising to give us a front-row seat to this marvellous spectacle. The walk – despite the incredible heat – is rather pretty, with a quiver tree and some dassies finding shade under the rock formations. Our bottled water, which was ice cold when we took it out of our coolbox in the parking lot, now tastes like luke bathwater. As we turn the corner, a haze of the finest and coolest spray unexpectedly blows over our heads and clings to our hair and shoulders. It brings a welcome reprieve to the sweltering heat.
As we walk further towards the Falls, we hear the rumble, louder and louder. Fellow visitors pass us on the way back, soaked to the bone but with a look of contentment on their faces, having just witnessed this incredible display of nature at its best. The atmosphere is electric – everyone is cheerful, ready to chat and share their experience. Most masks are removed at this point. The only distinction between Afrikaans, English, locals or tourists is those that are already wet and those that are about to get wet. There is no way to stay dry and long before we see the bubbling masses pouring over the gorges, we are soaked. I use my hat as a raincoat to protect my camera. Although I desperately want to film this remarkable sight, it is so wet that I can hardly hold on to my devices. My child crows with pleasure. She dances and laughs and sings in the downpour. It’s absolutely enchanting. In this moment, my heart is full.
On the large platform closest to the waterfall, masses and masses of bubbling and rolling water swirls and grinds right before your eyes. “Looking at all this water makes me feel dizzy, Mommy,” beams Sabria. An apt way to describe it, indeed. You do feel totally unsteady on your feet and the swirling masses throw you off balance if you stare at it for too long. But you cannot help but stare… and stare… and stare. Words and pictures can never capture the essence of physically standing there, witnessing this marvellous display.
We are dry and hot before we even hit the halfway mark back to the parking lot. When we reach our blue bullet, we set the air conditioner on full blast while still spending more time marvelling at the mighty Orange River. Affected by the grandeur of what we just experienced, we are both quiet on the road to Kakamas, where we will overnight at the Vergelegen Guesthouse. We are the two most privileged people on the planet. My cup runneth over.
Enroute, we see the famous Pienk Padstal from the road, beckoning us in – how can I not show this beacon to Sabria? Although quite busy, we turn off and get a chance to chat with the owner and buy some koeksisters. She is adamant that we will not make it to Riemvasmaak in the Sportage as 4×4 vehicles hardly make it out after the heavy rains. Before disappointment can set in, however, she arranges for someone in town that would be able to take us through the next day.
And so we meet up with Gerhard Oberholster – a local tour guide and our impromptu uber driver – the next morning, ready to take us to Riemvasmaak in his double-cab bakkie. Gerhard runs an events company in the area (Xtreme Green Adventures) and as a district native, he entertains us with stories and anecdotes. Sabria is as quiet as a mouse, staring in wonder at the beautiful surroundings – Gerhard packed some pillows for her to sit on so that she could enjoy a good view. We barely passed the first pay point into the area when a dusty, expressionless child emerges from nowhere. His collection of pebbles unpacked on a piece of cardboard. His name is Julian. He must be about ten. We have no choice but to purchase some of his stones and Sabria pays double for the rose quartz, amatis and fluorine rocks. I look at him and her and my heart jerks. The abundance in his own region passed him by. There is no abundance here. Nothing sustainable. Only the constant flow of shiny SUVs and bakkies passing through his neighbourhood, giving him more customers.
We set off on a hike through the gorges. It’s deserted. Thank goodness we are not alone – up until now, I had to use my tripod for photos of Sabria and me. Gerhard now becomes a willing tripod carrier and photographer. Before long, we reach the well-known natural springs, untouched in the baking sun. Butterflies surround the baths and Sabria wants to immediately dive in. But first, Gerhard wants to show us another pool, deeper into the gorge. Not aware of additional pools, I stand in awe when the beautiful scene opens before us as we descend into the lush green gorge. It is magical. Time stands still and with Sabria, surrounded by natural beauty and butterflies, my camera works overtime.
On the other side of the thickets, the surprise Gerhard promised delivers. An unspoilt, natural pool with the clearest blue water and small waterfall gently running down the moss green wall into the water. It feels and looks unreal – a real-life paradise. For the next few hours, all of this natural splendour belongs to us – we frolic, swim and dance in the water. The water is so clear you can see the gorges when you open your eyes under the water and look up. Simply incredible.
The memories captured on film will have a place of honour on our wall of adventures back home. We have to tear ourselves away from the pool to head over to the hot spring. Again, the butterflies – in all colours and sizes – surround us. A fraction of it is captured in our photos, but again: it is one of those places you have to experience in-person as there is no way to truly portray this exceptional moment.
Tired and hungry from the swimming, we finally head back to Gerhard’s bakkie. We are still in a trance and in quiet wonder as we drive back to Vergelegen. After a quick lunch and a quick dip in their swimming pool, we pack up and head out towards Upington. But first, we need to detour to Keimoes to visit the third of the elusive water sources. The fountain – or Eye – in Keimoes is a mysterious business, it seems. Seemingly nothing more than a fable, no one seems to know about it… Or simply do not want to talk about it. I have heard that it is situated in the hills behind the Roman Catholic Missionary in the heart of town, but no one can confirm it. According to my sources, the Eye once provided gallons of water a day to the residents in and around the small town. It is, after all, where this town’s name comes from: made up from two native words – “Kei” which means big and “Moes” which means Eye. In search or it, we drive to the missionary. It’s in a fairly deserted part of town and I am a little reluctant to spend too long taking photos and trying to confirm the history.
Upon further investigation, I finally get in touch with Maxi Compion, a well-known tour guide who has managed the region’s tourist office for years. She tells me that the Eye does, in fact, exist but that it is currently on private property. The family who owns the area covered it with a cement sheet as they were worried their son (who was small at that stage) could fall into it. The family apparently drilled a borehole near the fountain years later and – from what we hear – the natural spring water it produces is the purest yet. At present, no one knows whether this natural wonder will be hidden forever or open to the public again. As we leave Keimoes – almost as a sign from this hidden and mysterious water source confirming its existence – it starts to rain.
Arriving in Upington, we must at least allocate a part of our story to another kind of thirst – the type quenched not by water, but by an equally natural wonder… Many of us are (probably too) familiar with the Western Cape wine region, but did you know that the Northern Cape has an
equally impressive wine industry? The healthy-looing vineyards in this rugged landscape are actually incredible. It is rather unbelievable that this seemingly nutrient-free rock and sandy soil can produce something so beautiful. It’s a lot like us South Africans, I think to myself. In the most challenging times, with little or nothing at our disposal, we rise again and again from nothing to grow from scratch… and produce something of value. Orange River Cellars warmly welcome us for an interesting tour. Taking us through the entire winemaking process, literally from where the tractors are driven off the vineyards with tons of freshly picked grapes to where the wine is bottled and packed for despatch. What sticks with me, though, is that this year there is only room for 50% of the grape harvest due to the congestion caused by the time during lockdown when the sale and distribution of alcohol were banned. The economic impact of this on a region like the Northen Cape is immeasurable as half of the crop will not be converted into wine but rather into a concentrate which can be used in various products. The difference in income, of course, is significant.
We also visit the cellar’s tasting room and Bistro in town – the wine and gin tasting is a must, as are their cheese platters. Sabria loves the on-tap mango Slush Puppy and gets rid of some energy in the well-maintained playground. We overnight at the beautiful and neat Classic Court Villa, and as an unexpected bonus, we are upgraded to a much bigger room – what a great way to end our adventure.
Shortly after 06h00 the next morning, we start the long drive back home with our final water source en route: the Tufa close to Jan Kempdorp. In layman’s terms, a Tufa is a fossilised waterfall. While the most well-known of its sort in South Africa is found near the Blyderiver Canyon in Mpumalanga, this one in the Northen Cape is still fairly unknown.
A hidden treasure, the only way you can reach it – or even hear about it – is if you know someone who knows someone… Catch my drift? The local folk are particularly protective of this gem in their midst and is not keen to take city folk there. As I have visited before, I know the way. We turn off the main road by Taung and later Norlim, whereafter we reach some rough dirt roads which change into a tiny two-lane road leading to the imposing moss wall.
Slightly tucked away under an umbrella of trees, the soft, lush and water-rich wall stand in stark contrast to the arid and dusty landscape surrounding it. A true water wonder, literally in the middle of nowhere. A fossilised waterfall such as this is formed by calcium taken up by moving water from dolomite rock. The moss in the water then releases carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which then reacts with the calcium in the water to form a tufa (soft porous stone). This process takes millions of years. We watch the drops fall onto the soft moss and sink into a thick layer of sediment, mesmerised. However, we cannot linger too long as it not the safest place for a woman and child alone. And since I left my cameraman, Gerhard, in Riemvasmaak, the photo-taking also proves difficult – luckily I have photos from my previous visit!
As we head home, Sabria continues with her Google classroom work. I hit the cruise control – again thinking how much I will miss this function on the long open road when back in my Landy – and start shaping the article in my mind. We have had the time of our lives on this spontaneous adventure. After years of creative drought and the past 12 months of living in
this new way of lockdown life with masks, curfews and rules, what an absolute blessing this was. Life can push one to the extreme. To what you think is your limit… But life can also surprise and enchant you, but you have to allow it. As Bob Marley said: “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”