I feel like a new person after a short roadtrip recently – a Karoo detour with my sister.
Like everyone else on earth (well, everyone except New Zealanders and a few small islanders!) I’m beyond fedup with lockdown and have hardly moved from my own neighbourhood in over a year. This means I never have anything to inspire me to blog or even pretend enthusiasm.
This has to stop! I can’t wallow in this lethargy and depression any longer. Tourism is bound to start picking up soon. I do have a couple of confirmed bookings for later this year with local travellers, but it is my French and Swiss clients that I long to see and hope to welcome very soon for day tours as well as roadtrips.
However, last month I had the opportunity to go on a long personal road trip – I’ve called it a Karoo detour! Short in time but long on distance. I drove from Pretoria in the north to Cape Town in the south, almlst the full length of the country. Normally this is about 1600 kilometres in an almost straight line on a national road and can be done in 2 days with just one sleepover. I was doing this trip with my sister so we did it in 4 nights and we detoured from the national road and zig-zagged through the Free State and the Great and Small Karoos. During the 5 days on the road we encountered very few other travellers, too many trucks because our rail system is broken, the usual warm country hospitality for which this country is famous, and excellent adherence to Covid-19 protocols almost all of the time. In total we clocked up 2500 kms.
Day 1 – a morning visit to Maropeng Cradle of Humankind near Krugersdorp. This wonderful World Heritage Site showing the origins of man has seen a substantial reduction of visitors and is now open only 3 days a week. Such a pity because it should be on everyone’s list of places to go. Maropeng was created and is managed by a friend of mine so he gave us a private tour which was awesome. The best part was a boat ride underground taking you through a series of effects that show all the elements – earth, water, air & fire. We were like two kids on the small round boat that turns as it self-propels through the tunnels.
After that we navigated our way through the hectic traffic of the outskirts of Johannesburg. Capetonians like myself are always terrified to drive there but in fact they drive better than we do. They stay in their lanes, they keep a decent speed and distance, and they don’t muck about dithering as to when to turn. I was nonetheless thrilled to finally escape South Africa’s busiest city outskirts and reach the countryside.
Our first night was in the small but beautiful little town of Clarens in the Eastern Free State. This artistic and trendy place is a popular weekend getaway for Johannesburg citizens as it’s not too far and is flanked by the magnificent Lesotho mountains and one of the 20 South African National Parks – the Golden Gate Highlands Park. This park is truly awesome with its spectacular sandstone rock formations that rise out of the earth impossibly close to the visitor – you have to cran your neck to see them.
Day 2 – We had planned to head towards the Karoo by skirting the Lesotho and the Maluti Mountains along backroads but were warned about bad road conditions and roadworks so we went back to the main roads and the dreaded national road we had hoped to avoid. The drive was not too bad but we encountered a lot of trucks which we were often unable to overtake. Luckily we were patient drivers. We stopped in a few towns that one only ever hears about when spoken in hushed tones about the ‘ back of beyond’ in terms of farming communities. We didn’t linger, these places are depressing and poverty states you in the face in a frightening way.
Our night was a utilatarian stopover in the town of Colesberg which has very little going for it other than being a convenient overnight stop. It has some historic interest in terms of the South African War (previously known as the Anglo-Boer War) but we arrived too late to see any of the famous battlefields and the museum was shut. Our guesthouse was called The Lighthouse – a very strange name in the middle of such an arid region almost 1000 km from the coast. Whoever built it must have enjoyed putting a miniature lighthouse on the roof and having one painted into a window, with subsequent generations baffled and ignorant as to the reason.
Day 3 – Using smaller main roads we headed towards the highlight of our trip: the very historic and lovely town of Graaff Reinet and the Valley of Desolation. The Valley is of very significant geological site with massive dolerite pillars rising to over 100 metres. Situated inside the Camdeboo National Partk (which almost completely surrounds the town) a winding road takes one high up the mountain until you are at eye-level with these prehistoric pillars and your breath is literally taken away. Aside from the pillars and the Valley itself, the views are outstanding. This is an absolute must stop for anyone visiting that part of the region. We were even surprised at having two kudus run across the road in front of us – a bit nervewracking as we were going down a very steep and narrow road! My sister had never been there before and she rated it the best part of the entire trip.
Our accommodation in Graaff Reinet deserves a special mention as it was the best of the whole trip. I highly recommend this lovely little guesthouse – Rietjiesbos Bed & Breakfast. (sadly, the famed breakfast is not served at the moment due to Covid protocols.) Our room was in a long building which I suspect are renovated stables. Overlooking a garden in progress, beautifully decorated, with every little touch, detail and facility one could hope for, we were very comfortable and happy there. I will definitely return and take tourists to stay there.
Days 4 – this was the shortest drive of our Karoo detour trip but we made it last as long as possible because the scenery and the country air were wonderful and we didn’t want the trip to end. We stopped for many coffees in quaint little towns and villages, we picnicked on the side of the road while observing a murder of crows fighting over a large roadkill – gruesome and fascinating at the same time, and of course we saw the usual Karoo multitudes of sheep and goats – sometimes the only sign of life for hundreds of kilometres – bliss!
Our last night was in the small town of Calitzdorp. Not long ago this was just a dusty little town that one drove through as fast as legally possible, except for maybe a quick stop to buy port because this is the centre of port production in South Africa. Sometime recently, someone decided that putting Calitzdorp on the map for roadtrippers was a good idea. Indeed. it was and what a good job they did. Small coffee shops, second-hand shops, antiques, restaurants, amazing pizzas, an annual succulent show drawing crowds from all over, and loads of lovely guesthouses – and there you have Calitzdorp today. We chose to have dinner at an excellent Portuguese restaurant – Porto Deli – where my sister bravely ordered the peri-peri chicken livers, full strength. As I ate mine, ordered mild, I watched her gasp and gag at how hot it was. The owner also noticed her reaction and quickly brought her, on the house, a large glass of beer. This is the perfect solution for hot spicy food taking your breath away. She drank it in great gulps and happily ate her way through the entire portion, big smiles and all.
Day 5 – last leg to Cape Town. We stopped at all the classics of the R62 – Montagu to say hullo to the birds at the sanctuary; Barrydale for coffee at Diesel & Creme where my sister bought me a wonderful Tannie Maria novel set in the region, and a visit to Magpie – the most beautiful gallery of recycled odds and ends turned into priceless art. Platform 62 for a visit the R62’s most famous pot-bellied pig, Fanie, whom I have known since he was a piglet eating travellers leftover sandwhich crusts and now lives in a large enclosure because he’s too big and a bit of a greedy nuisance. Robertson for some wine. Another roadside picnic. And home in time for dinner – a 3,5 hour drive took us most of the day, just like a good roadtrip should be.
As I sit here in my home office in Cape Town on a lovely autumn I desperately long for another Karoo detour – to be back in the Karoo, seeing sunsets to make you cry, smelling the vegetation that miraculously turns sheep into the most succulent lamb on earth, and just generally lapping up the countryside for which South Africa is most famous.