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 to walk the empty streets and imagine the life that once was. The town’s actually called Krombegin but the station's name is all that remains on the map after trains stopped stopping there. Ambitiously someone even built a (water) well at the station building, complete with a rocky path ending in a fishpond. Nearby stood an old bakkie (pick-up truck) with: “I’m looking for my engine” scribbled on the bonnet.

With no luck in Putsonderwater for anything to drink, we pushed further east on a minor farm road which rapidly reduced into a bike breaker. Sections of deep corrugation played tag with rocks and sand and it was with some relief that we eventually stumbled across the N10. The Boegoeberg Dam laid due east but we first headed north to Groblershoop for some supplies.

Standing next to a loaded adventure bike almost always attracts attention. Some folk want to tell you about their own rebel days as bikers while others are genuinely interested and curious about your choice of transport. Other times the conversation is completely casual. Like the chap in Groblershoop who insisted on warning us against all the dangerous snakes on the roads leading to Griquatown when he learnt that we’re heading there!

Fortunately for us, we encountered no snakes on the next 25km before turning down a teeth-shattering road towards the Trans-Eco Boegoeberg Reserve. One can only chuckle when coming across road signs that read “Caution - Road Dangerous and Narrow”! Regardless of the state of the road, the Reserve turned out to be a real gem and we pitched tent on luscious green grass shaded by milkwood trees on the bank of the Boegoeberg Dam. I kept humming the old Afrikaans folksong about Boegoeberg; all the while Lisa insisting that I’m just making it up! “Boegoeberg se dam is ’n doodlekker dam. Dis daar waar die meisies hulle hare was en kam. Glasies word geklink as ons vaaljapie drink. Boegoeberg se dam is ’n doodlekker dam”. Not exactly Grammy-winning songwriting but it hints a little at the history of this well-known dam which was constructed by hand in the 1930s during the economic depression in which the state initiated the project primarily as a measure to relieve unemployment.

The Trans-Eco Boegoeberg Reserve is on the ‘wrong’ side of the dam but we found it an absolute joy. The place was the epicentre of peace and tranquillity - apart from hordes of mischievous monkeys. There’s no electricity or distractions and we were pretty much alone there for most of our stay. The following morning a stiff breeze was blowing and seeing that we were enjoying ourselves so much we decided to stay another day at the dam rather than brave a sandstorm at the Witsand Nature Reserve (which was supposed to be our next destination). It was once again time to bring out the emergency rations but it was a good choice. One needs to relax as much as ride for it to qualify as a holiday!

From Boegoeberg it’s a pleasant drive east towards Griquatown. This small town is more than 200 years old and hasn’t grown much in that time. It’s apparently the original hangout of Griqua captain Adam Kok and his people, as well as mostly missionaries. We visited the memorial grave of another Griqua leader, Andries Waterboer just outside the town which was adorned by two small cannons which were a gift from Queen Victoria.

My impeccable planning once again put us in a small town on a public holiday and the most promising attraction of the town, The Mary Moffat Museum was closed for the day. We did manage to stock up on some snacks and then stumbled upon a tiny coffee shop for breakfast. Realising that only dirt roads (and most of them really bad) run north from there to Danielskuil, we engaged many a local in conversation to gather opinions on road conditions. Unluckily for us, we found as many opinions as we did people! The Tannie who owns the shop eventually called her son who has a farm in the direction we were heading to get some more tips.

As we were cruising along our chosen route (which turned out to be a fantastically smooth dirt road) the thought crossed my mind to give the Tannie a call later to thank her for her efforts. However, I rapidly lost that notion as the road suddenly deteriorated. After another 30 minutes of losing all my fillings, I was conjuring up this image of us painfully bouncing our way down the road when all of a sudden the bike totally disintegrates into a thousand pieces. It reminded me of my school days when we used to hang out at the main gate before school started. There was this one little boy who used to cycle past us every morning on his way to primary school. One day right at the moment he passed us his little BMX bike just snapped in half. I will never forget the look of surprise and bewilderment on his face as he sat there flat on the ground, still holding the handlebars. For a while, I thought today I would be that boy.

Not surprisingly the Tiger came through unscathed and we found ourselves on a flat open road with surroundings that resembled the ocean. Eventually, a hill appeared with a sign pointing to it that said Wonderwerk Grot. It was (still) a public holiday and we wondered whether there would be someone on duty, but Neels, a friendly soft-spoken guy who lives at the gate, was happy to show us around. He made us sign the registry and it was clear that Wonderwerk hasn’t been a highly visited attraction for a while. Neels explained that after some excavations for research, a part of the floor has collapsed and a large portion of the cave was closed to the public for safety reasons. He said that after repairs he’s sure that more visitors would come. When asked how longs since the collapse he told us that it’s been three years!

The cave turned out to be a 140-metre-deep cavern which has been occupied by our ancestors for around 300 000 years. It shows proof of man’s earliest attempts at making fire and is by far the longest-inhabited cave in the world. Neels showed us the rock paintings and shared some of his vast knowledge of the cave with us. Wondering what he did with his time when there weren’t any visitors he told us that he “just watches the cave” and that he also started breeding chickens for extra cash. “It’s really easy,” he said.”They do all the work”. We left Neels and his chickens and sailed the sea northwards to Kuruman.

The “Oasis of the Kalahari” was fairly quiet apart from some picnic makers at “The Eye of Kuruman”. Outside the Pick’nPay an Oomie with yellow teeth and an interesting hairstyle tried to convince us that the Red Sands Lodge was closed for the public holiday and that we should rather go stay with him at his house for the night. He mentioned something about a double bed but wasn’t that clear whether he’d be in it or not. We graciously declined his offer and made a beeline out of Kuruman!

Neels at Wonderwerk also told us to visit “Rooi Sand” which turned out to be Red Sands Lodge just outside Kuruman. I think they call the Red Sands Lodge a ‘lodge’ because overseas visitors (especially Germans) just like that word. Perhaps it’s part of the “African experience”. The lodge also offered lovely campsites though and we were once again the only people there. As the receptionists said “We don’t really get a lot of campers” looking at us suspiciously… But the setting was great and the weather superb. Loads of game roam the area and there are even a few semi-tame antelope that casually stroll through the campsites. We considered staying there for an extra night and perhaps see some more sights around Kuruman. I would’ve loved to travel the road from Hotazel to Askham but alas we were running out of time and still had to go a long way to get back to Cape Town.

The entrance to Kathu is marked by two humongous oversized mining vehicles which are really something to see. Apparently even if you’re not into mining the mine tour (offered by appointment) is really well worth it. After seeing those massive vehicles I felt sorry that we couldn’t do the tour. Ah well, just another reason to go back!

Upington came almost too quickly and we enjoyed a slow cruise through this green town. The statue of the camel and his rider in front of the police station caught my eye and we stopped there for a while. It’s refreshing to see something different from the usual stoical political figure!

We decided to head west to Keimoes after hearing of a new private ecotourism development on the islands of the Orange River called Kalahari Water. They have a range of accommodation options including bush huts, chalets and camping; which to our great surprise was totally devoid of other people. The owner Dirk told us that although there are precious little facilities like this along the river it will take some time to get people to go there. Selfishly this suited us perfectly as there’s no better way to enjoy nature than being alone next to a beautiful river. Apparently there are some 130 islands in the Keimoes area forming an inland delta of sorts with most big enough to grow vineyards on. That night the stars were so bright that their reflection could be seen in the calm waters of the Orange River.

Once again contemplating an extra day next to the water we eventually had to concede to the fact that Cape Town was still VERY far and we had to start making our way in the direction of home. Timing once again perfect we had to compete with the rest of the Keimoes population who were out in force on a Friday afternoon shopping spree. In the ensuing chaos, I stupidly left some electronics and the lights switched on while waiting outside for Lisa to return from battle. A large