Plains with views for days, white fleece clouds patterned against a bluer than blue sky, and the light from a million stars. After fifteen days and almost 3 000km taking in these Karoo sights, Maryke Roberts declares this the perfect breakaway to clear your head.
Long before our planned Karoo breakaway, we started plotting and planning our route on ’Google Maps’. After an early start from Strand, we would stop for coffee and home-baked chicken pies at Ou Meul Bakery in Riviersonderend, before pushing on to the Karoo National Park. After a few days’ stay we’d head to a remote Karoo farm in a conservation area, then take the gravel roads to Nieu-Bethesda.
There we’d spend a few days visiting a friend, exploring fossils and resting our souls in Helen Martins’ Owl House. More gravel roads would take us to an agave tasting near Graaff-Reinet, and we’d stay there a while before – heads cleared and many Karoo chops later – heading coastwards to the Addo Elephant National Park. After enjoying its serene beauty for a few days, it would be just over two weeks’ break, and time to head home on the N2.
And here we are. Our little Hyundai Creta is packed to the brim, with barely enough space left for a single jar of pickled green figs or a bottle of wine. Why mention it? Because when you have to unpack that area behind the front seats in the middle of a dust storm in the middle of nowhere, after trashing two tyres on the unforgiving Karoo roads, it is important to mention! But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. It was just after 13:00 on the first day of our adventure when we turned left off the N1 into the Karoo National Park, a stone’s throw from Beaufort West. The sudden change in speed from 120km/h to 40km/h was quite a contrast after five hours of driving, and we realised it was not just to protect the animals. It was just the right pace for getting us into the slow-motion mindset you need to truly enjoy this area. As a massive Eland bull came into view, we took it as a sign we were back “home” at last.
A place close to the heart
Our assigned Chalet 4 sits high against the hill, the views over the area vast and unspoilt. The vegetation is thin though, and it’s clear the soil is bone-dry, We quickly unpack the car, gather the braai supplies and wine glasses, then pour an ice-cold gin and tonic. Just before sunset we hike the camp’s short fossil trail and laugh at a giant turtle who is doing his best to swallow the entire lawn in front of the manager’s house in one mouthful. We don’t blame him – it’s the only patch of green for miles. Relaxing on the stoep, we admire the colours in the Nuweveld Mountains and surrounding hills, watching a swarm of swallows tumbling against the sky at dusk. As load shedding kicks in, we head to bed, our bodies tired from the long drive and stress of the past few days. The alarm clock goes off before sunrise, and we wake up well-rested and ready for a full day of exploring.
Before breakfast we check if any sightings of lions or other interesting game have been noted on the map at reception. As a park official is writing up the day’s weather forecast on a board, we ask if there will be rain. His head jerks towards us and he asks hopefully: “Did you hear anything?” We shake our heads, smiling. “Bloody Capetonians!” probably flashes through his head as he walks away. We take a quick turn past the crowded campsite and confirm for ourselves that the paved stands are clean and spacious. One of the stands boasts a lush green lawn, with a wooden board that reads, “Honorary park rangers on duty”. Just behind the sign, a kudu is grazing peacefully.
Our campsite recce is followed by two blissful days of exploring the park where all we need comprises of padkos, a flask of coffee, a cooler bag with cold drinks, bird books and binoculars. The park has informative pamphlets detailing the wildlife, birds and other interesting things you can see and enjoy. We recall that on a previous visit, a guide on a gameviewing vehicle had rightly said: “In the Karoo, it is easier to identify birds by their sound rather than trying to spot them since they blend in so well with the environment.”
A pair of Verreaux’s eagles engages in what looks like a war dance against a powder-blue sky with a few pale white clouds here and there. The dust from the car in front of us lingers for a while, reminding me of a mystical spirit above the jar from children’s books of yesteryear. Sometimes we find nothing for kilometres on end, then there is a special sighting. On one occasion we notice fresh dung, and as our eyes focused, we spotted a day-old springbok in the rocks next to the road. We come across a couple of red hartebeest near the road. I remember a guide somewhere saying they looked depressed. “Their heads always look like they are hanging in despair,” he said. I almost feel sorry for the little family. As we drive, I again realise the Karoo National Park is anything but flat (contrary to what many people believe). I’m not only referring to the hills that majestically guard the park, as there are also many dongas and dry riverbeds, the sort of places where small animals like the bateared fox can quickly disappear from eyesight.
I can assure you that you will come back once you have experienced this park. While other parks might offer many animal sightings, lush green trees and loads of water, the Karoo National Park offers something indescribable. Its beauty lies in its harshness; it sharpens your appreciation for the little things, and every sign of life is cause for excitement.
Hospitality and detours
After a few blissful days, the long road calls. But on this trip, we are taking it slow and decided that we would not drive more than four or five hours a day. After a year of being cooped up due to lockdown restrictions, we have a newfound respect for time, for treasuring each moment. We are also delighted to be on the road again, exploring beyond the provincial borders.
Our next stop, Langfontein Guest Farm, awaits in the hills on the N9 between Graaff-Reinet and Aberdeen, behind the conservancy gate. A group of 16 farms form a conservation area covering 80 000 hectares, and Langfontein itself stretches over 5 000 hectares. Thinus and Marliza van den Berg bought it back in 2004 and restored all the historic buildings (some dating as far back as the 1830s) to their former glory. In addition to the guest accommodation, they farm sheep, cattle, almond trees, disease-free buffalo, sable and roan antelope.
The farm has three accommodation options – the 1830 cottage, Westbrook and Dot’s cottage. The latter would be our home for the next 48 hours, and it is just perfect: no alarms, no deadlines and no worries – only lamb chops, dry wood, reading and farm bread. Sheer bliss. Oh, and at night, what looks like billions of stars so close you feel you can touch them.
Graaff-Reinet is a favourite stopover every time we explore the Eastern Cape, with its historic town centre, beautifully restored museums and houses, and interesting places to visit. Our little Hyundai is grateful for a bit of tar road after so many days of gravel roads and dust. As we fill the tank in town, the petrol attendant rinses the windows with a watering can, and I admire the small circle of mud that forms under the car as the dust washes away, forming beautiful patterns. We stop at the Hello You restaurant for lunch and hear about the Toerboer (aka Dawid de Wet) and his Afrikanis rum. His small tasting room is only a few steps away. Dawid talks about his Toerboer Travel company, which promises “Experts in Extraordinary Experiences” and offers all kinds of exciting tours in and around Graaff-Reinet. Dawid used to be a tour guide, but travel bans and closed borders have forced him to focus on local tours. His Afrikanis rum brand has also gained popularity, so he decided to expand his brand to now also produce a range of body creams and soaps.
One of Toerboer tours is the Craft-Reinet tour, which includes wine tasting in town, beer tasting in Nieu-Bethesda, Agave tasting, and then rum tasting at their Rum Room. We buy a bottle of Afrikanis to enjoy later, and get back on the road. The reason we chose the ‘detour’ to Nieu-Bethesda instead of just tracking down the N9, is to visit the Valley of Desolation. The valley lies in the Camdeboo National Park on the R63, and is the result of erosion and volcanic activity over 200 million years.
At the lookout point, high above the plains, breathtaking views await, reminiscent of a landscape from a Star Wars or Mad Max movie. Tandjiesberg beckons in the distance, and the famous Spandaukop lies to your left. With the wind whistling in your ears, it feels like you can see until the day after tomorrow. Sights aside, the park has more than 225 bird species, various antelope species, and smaller mammals, making it well worth a visit.
At Nieu-Bethesda, we visit our good friend, the artist Daleen Kruger. After many years of travel, she has found the place where her heart feels at home. In fact it feels as if she has always been part of this special place in the middle of nowhere. In her six decades on earth, this talented artist appears to have mastered everything from photography and painting to sculpture, playwriting and museum work. She takes us along to the new Owl House visitor centre and we spend hours in Helen Martin’s wonderful world of coloured glass, light and cement. Daleen even wrote a play about Helen’s life.
Our days in Nieu-Bethesda are filled with a visit to the fossils and rock art at Ganora Guest Farm & Excursions, finding interesting reads in the garage-turned-bookshop, and having slow coffees on the shop porches with every motorist or pedestrian raising his or her hand in greeting. After a threeday visit to this town with no street lights or tarred streets, we say goodbye, and Daleen gifts us a Karoo angel she has made. She crafts the angels from the twine of sisal plants in the area, each one a unique masterpiece. Their wings are carved from pine, and each angel has its own story – ours looks like Frida Kahlo and carries the peace of the Karoo in her eyes.
We are heading to Graaff-Reinet to replace two tyres torn up by the sharp shale roads we have been driving on, but turn off en route for an agave spirit tasting with local legend Tim Murray. He uses plants from the district for a unique range called Three Agaves Silver. It is carefully called Pure Karoo Agave Spirit to avoid irritating the Mexicans, who are inherently proud of their trademark tequila. Tim also supplies sisal plant piñas (pineapple-like hearts) to other well-known producers of local agave spirit. Tim’s tequila and mezcal tastings are part of the Toerboer Craft-Reinet route, on which visitors can taste locally produced coffee, rum, beer, agave spirits and wines from the Cape. Tim explains why our locally-produced agave spirits may not be called tequila. First, tequila refers to spirits from the Agave Tequilana plant made in Mexico, and the name is protected – much like Champagne in France and Port in Portugal. Secondly, the local agave spirit is made from the Americana species. It’s quite a fine point, and Tim points out there are more than 200 species of the Asparagaceae family which are native to Mexico and the Caribbean.
The ideal way to drink tequila, says Tim, is as a double sip with ice, or a little water, to release the flavours. He says his health has improved since he now enjoys tequila or Agave spirits in favour of beer or wine. As part of his demonstration, he lines up a variety of tequilas, agave spirits and mezcal from Mexico and South Africa, and we are able to taste how the drinks differ – some are smokier, others sweeter, and others softer on the tongue.
Onwards to Addo
The Addo Elephant National Park, the third-largest park in South Africa, was proclaimed in 1931 to protect the Eastern Cape’s last 11 African elephants. In the last 90 years, the initial 4 500 hectares has grown to 176 000 hectares on land and 114 000 marine hectacres in the adjacent marine conservation area. The park now has more than 600 elephants, one of the densest populations in Africa, and one of the main reasons people revisit time and time again. The only elephant to have escaped was Hapoor, who was the dominant bull from 1944 to 1968.
We have booked two days in the private Nyathi Rest Camp, which consists of just a few tiny houses perched high above an amphitheatre overlooking the plains. Sitting on our stoepie, the only sounds are birdcalls and the bark of baboons in the distance. We remember why we prefer to travel out of season and during the middle of the week; it feels like we are alone in the park. I read somewhere that the first official tourist drove through the park in 1978, and as we drive on the kilometres of tarred or gravel roads, I can just imagine the experience of those earliest visitors. Here and there, we come across a car parked at a waterhole or pulled halfway across the road. Apart from that, there is nothing except the vast openness, natural beauty, a deep silence and the animals. On our game drives, we pull off at lookout points and picnic spots to stretch the legs and enjoy picnics of leftover braaivleis and potato salad.
At Jack’s Picnic Site, a plaque states the site was named after the first black rhino to be brought to Addo. He was kept in a fenced area before being released into the larger park. The park’s unique biodiversity includes five of South Africa’s seven biomes. We are bird watchers, and love elephants, especially the little ones and we keep our eyes open for interesting species. There is no chasing after lion or buffalo sightings for us, even though the park has the largest pest-free buffalo herd in the country.
Our bird list grows by the hour, and the joy of seeing a small feathered species bouncing between the branches is just as great as when a giant bird of prey gracefully circles the air. However, there is plenty of game in the park, and we see herds of buffalo, wildebeest, hyenas, warthogs, almost every type of antelope that occurs there, and a few meerkats. We wake up to rain on our second day, and after two hours of seeing nothing, we turn around. The shop at reception has everything we need to braai, but to spoil ourselves we opt for steak, red wine and thick potato chips at the Cattle Baron restaurant.
Early in the afternoon, we return to our peaceful chalet, listen to the rain patter against the windows, and hear birds calling in the distance. The forced day of doing nothing is an unexpected gift. I read my book with one eye on the plains below our room and occasionally see a wet kudu grazing on grass or foxes running for cover. We doze off to dreamland after a nice movie on TV.
The cloudy weather remains, and as the departure hour looms a thick fog covers the valley below as we enjoy our rusks and coffee. The birds are still active, chirping, bouncing and chasing the early-morning bugs. With the car fully loaded, we settle into a final few hours of gameviewing on our way out of the park. At Domkrag Dam, on the way to the main gate, we notice a lone elephant bull. We ascend high above him and get out of the car to admire the serene scene. Apart from a giant heron hunting fish, there is no other animal or human in sight. We watch a display that never grows old. The elephant’s huge legs make soft exploding noises on the wet ground. He pushes his trunk deep into the water, sprays it over his back and takes deep breaths. After a while, the water is too attractive and he lies down on his side and starts frolicking in the mud. It is the silence of the surroundings that we carry with us on the N2 home. And it’s the longing for that silence that will soon make us tackle the long road again. Thank you, Great Karoo, for this amazing gift.
Experience it and enjoy it:
The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda is where you can admire Helen Martins’ 300 cement statues, which stand in stark contrast to the barren landscape in the Camel Yard. Check out her exquisite glasswork, and watch as the sun makes delightful patterns to bring the images to life. Helen drew her inspiration from Bible verses and from Omar Khayyám’s poem, “Rubáiyát”. The Camel Yard’s more than 300 statues are mostly of owls, camels and humans. Visitors can wander through the visitor centre, gift shop and Helen’s home in their own time. A brochure is available showing 35 marked attractions.
Entrance fees: R70 for the Owl House only, or R100 for a combination ticket, including the Owl House and Kitching Fossil Centre.
CONTACT: +27 49 841 1733 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.theowlhouse.co.za
Hear it and enjoy it:
The silence of the two new eco-cottages, Eagle’s Flight and Camdeboo Plains, at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve outside Graaff-Reinet, will bring you peace and rest.
The only sounds are birdsong, the occasional herd of kudus chewing the cud as they pass by, and perhaps the call of a bird of prey spinning high above the valley. The houses sit several kilometres apart and overlook different valleys. Access to the cottages is 45 minutes by game-viewing vehicle, which will also bring your luggage.
For the length of your stay, there is nobody about for miles, no air pollution and plenty of wood to heat the water in the hot-tub. In addition, you can go on game drives to look for lion, leopard, antelope, giraffe and elephant.
CONTACT: +27 21 427 5900 | email@example.com | www.newmarkhotels.com.
Believe it and enjoy it:
Ganora Guest Farm & Excursions is at the foot of the Sneeuberge, just outside Nieu-Bethesda. It is one of the best places to see Karoo fossils that are 250 million years old. These are pre-dinosaur times, and Jan Peet Steynberg’s private collection is astonishing. Also, be sure to walk along to view the Bushman rock art located a short distance from the museum. There are even remnants of the Anglo-Boer War on the farm.
CONTACT: +27 082 698 0029 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.ganora.co.za
Karoo National Park and Addo Elephant National Park: +27 12 428 9111 | www.sanparks.org/bookings
Tim’s tasting at Roode Bloem: +27 82 632 3103 | email@example.com
Toerboer’s Craft-Reinet route: +27 83 538 2865 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.toerboer.co.za
Langfontein: email@example.com |www.langfonteinfarm.co.za