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The Roaring Green Kalahari

When, a few years ago, my sister gave us a copy of Getaway’s “1001 Places to see in Southern Africa”, I initially became rather obsessed with it. I got myself a huge full-colour map that filled an entire wall and proceeded to painstakingly plot each of the 1001 points on the map with tiny numbered arrows. Along the way, I re-discovered long-forgotten destinations and memories from my travelling past – mostly from as a kid in the back seat of our family car with a destination obsessed father at the wheel!

Eventually, the map was covered with a multitude of markers – some reminders of past journeys and some pointing at places still to visit. Every now and then I would go stand in front of my bizarre creation and dream up a new trip. I trace a potential path and see myself riding new roads, discovering wonderful sights, visiting quaint little towns and meeting friendly people. Every now and then this dreamy journey turns into a reality and that is how most of our trips start!

Cape Town was miserably cold for September and summer felt like it would never come. The plan was to head north and chase the elusive warm weather we’ve been craving. A public holiday right in the middle of the week signalled a great opportunity and with some shuffling, we both managed to free the rest of our week. Suddenly a glorious nine days lay ahead of us and we felt the excitement of exploring new destinations. With the bike packed we set off out of Stellenbosch on a cold and wet Friday afternoon. The weather was just nasty and we couldn’t quite decide whether a rain suit was necessary but the thought of getting wet on our first day settled the argument.

Usually, I take a back road past Wellington to get to Bainskloof Pass (one of my favourite mountain passes in the Cape) which is just a short hop from Ceres. The weather was unpredictable and for a change, we slipped over a quiet Du Toits Kloof Pass and took the Rawsonville turn-off out of the valley below. The Slanghoek road is an old favourite; winding beautifully through green farmlands and small settlements eventually hooking up with the Worcester to Ceres road. But damn you, you winter rain! Just short of this intersection we came across a fully flooded bridge where we were forced to stop and contemplate our next move. We watched a tractor make the crossing without too much effort and our spirits lifted. But when a farmer in a huge 4x4 struggled across, the back of his vehicle moving precariously with the flow of the raging water the decision was made for us. We had to turn back and find an alternate route.

A substantial detour later we made it to Ceres and filled the bike with fuel. We were running very late but this was to be an important stop as we weren’t certain when fuel would be available again. The plan was to spend two nights at Die Mond (camping next to the Doring River) and from there travel via Middelpos to Brandvlei. This would mean stretching our fuel to the maximum and I even filled up the extra 5-litre container strapped to the back. I mentioned to some fellow biker friends where we’ll be from that evening up until Sunday in case some wanted to join us for the weekend. Unbeknownst to any of us at that stage, I had made a massive error in the directions I gave. Blissfully unaware of this we hit the R355 outside Ceres and went in search of our destination. The shadows grew longer and thick snow on Matroosberg glared down at us. It was very cold and suddenly we were grateful for the extra layer our rain suit provided.

I’m not entirely certain at which stage we realised we had a problem. We started stopping every now and then to check for cell phone reception; hoping to call for directions but we had no luck. My GPS directed us west towards the Katbakkies Pass but soon we knew that we were completely lost. The sun was setting and the wind was very cold with my little thermometer showing barely 5˚C. We turned back towards the R355 and stopped one last time to check for cell reception.

With my helmet off I recognized the familiar sound of a Suzuki DRZ somewhere ahead of us. Seconds later our friend Hylton appeared out of the dusk, as lost as we were. With no time to waste we headed down the Peerboomskloof Pass looking for an overnight spot. A deserted picnic area in a sheltered corner of the pass came to our rescue and as the last glimmer of light disappeared in the distance over the mountain we pitched our tents and made ourselves at home.

Unfortunately, we failed to gather enough wood for a proper fire and had to make do sipping copious amounts of red wine to stay warm and eat whatever we had. We had a pleasant evening but the cold drove us to our beds early.

Ecstatic to have survived the freezing night we celebrated with coffee to warm up. We hit the road and continued up the R355 - annoyingly finding the elusive turn-off just 30 kilometres further. It was just as well though as a part of this road was completely flooded by the river and it would’ve been more than interesting to have attempted a crossing at night.

As all responsible travellers should, we checked the depth of the water by walking across. The water came to just under knee height and apart from some loose river stones a crossing shouldn’t be any problem. Seeing that my waterproof boots were now keeping the water inside, I spared my wife from the same travesty and carried her across to dry land before returning for the green hippo. Oh, why is there never a camera out for the good moments!

Die Mond turned out to be a pleasant camping spot (albeit rather primitive) along the massively flooded Doring River. Some fellow adventurers managed to (eventually) find their way there despite my disastrous directions and we had a great time relaxing and chatting the night away. Two more intrepid travellers who lost their way joined us late in the night, fresh with new stories and re-energized by company and drink.

The next morning the campsite was a lot quieter than the night before and packing up was a slow affair. Everybody else was heading home but Lisa and I would continue our journey further north.

But first, we had to figure out a way to cross the flooded road en-route to the R355 without leaving either of us with wet boots again! The brave way would have been to just storm through the water and loose rocks, hoping for the best. However, our entire journey was still ahead and good judgement was paramount. So we took the safe route and I asked Lisa to take her boots off and walk while I would plough through on the green battleship. The fast running water was very cold and as I stopped on the other side I heard Lisa shrieking. She was about halfway through and unbeknownst to me the freezing water coupled with some sharp rocks underfoot caused her tremendous pain. I grabbed the camera to capture the moment believing she was enjoying the cold water but when she stopped walking I realised what was happening and stormed closer to assist. Fortunately, there was nothing a bit of warm sun and a little bit of whiskey couldn’t cure!

The R355 is usually in pretty good state but due to the recent rains in the area there were loads of washouts and potholes along the route and we made slower progress than usual. To make matters worse our fuel situation was bleak after the unexpected little detour we had on the first night and as there was no guarantee of fuel in Middelposas as it was Sunday so we had to abandon our plan and head straight for Calvinia. Calvinia was completely deserted and although it felt like a ghost town, wafting smells of Sunday braais following us around told a different story. With nothing interesting to see and nobody to chat to we had a quick break at the Mile 250 Café and hit the ridiculously boring road north to Brandvlei.

The initial plan was to get as far as Verneukpan that evening but as we rolled into Brandvlei at around 5 pm I became rather concerned with the amount of daylight left. A passing farmer gave it some thought before agreeing that the road to Verneukpan should be good enough for our steed providing we take it easy. However, an odd 120km’s of unknown gravel road with nightfall approaching seemed like a bad idea and we decided to abandon the plan (this time) and rather find alternate accommodation for the night. Kenhardt was another 150km further north along the soul-destroying R27 but we made short work of it and checked into the Kenhardt Hotel with enough time to still have a sundowner outside. Kenhardt really doesn’t hold good memories as our previous visit there was highlighted with a technical issue on our bike, pestering street children and the prospect of another boring 300kms to Calvinia. This time our stay turned out pleasant enough though and we even squeezed in a chat with the owner of the hotel, Eaton Wickens who told us about his 6-day 2500km fundraising trip on a 50cc scooter. He’s an avid biker himself but I pity the fact that his Yamaha R1 only has a choice of two roads, both equally boring!

The next morning we swung east off the R27 in the direction of Putsonderwater. The road there was straight as an arrow with the flat arid plains offering little in terms of entertainment. It was getting really hot when we finally stumbled into the little town and I suggested we get a cold drink somewhere. Yeah right. So what does a place with a name like Putsonderwater look like? It was completely deserted.

Like a cheap rendition of Kolmanskop its derelict buildings and abandoned station glared at us through gaping glassless windows. It’s somewhat creepy, yet tremendously entertaining