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Tankwa means [according to the book], “turbid water” [for the Tankwa River], or maybe “place of the San”, or simply “thirsty land”. It’s a magnificent arid plain framed in the west by the Cederberg and its familiar peaks, in the east by the soaring, dolomite Roggeveld mountains and, in the south, by the Koedoesberg. We recently held a poll on our website for our next map and the Tankwa Karoo won by a short head. Suitably encouraged, the Kaartmans loaded up the research wagon and headed for the Forgotten Highway. It leads out of Ceres and into the vastness of the Karoo, and, if you’re an AfrikaBurn fan you’ve been there.
Day One began at Ceres, a day of threatening rain. Fifty millimetres a year, Mr Kaartman cheerfully told the missus, that’s all the Tankwa gets – it won’t be raining there. He was wrong. Of course.
We passed the Fat Boy Loo, sulking in the veld near Karoopoort, and called in briefly for coffee at the Tankwa Padstal. Wally Lange gave us plenty of tips for the map, including harsh words for some existing ‘maps’ that show you how to get lost. We diverted briefly up the Skittery Pass [our horses behaved, by the way], passing the Naked Footballer and watching rainbulls sweeping menacingly over the vast plain below. We paused at the turn off to AfrikaBurn. The ‘Tyre Shop’ signs are the ones to fear ... and if you don’t know what a ‘stofadil’ is, just go drive around the Tankwa – sooner or later you’ll meet one.
We paused once more to view the sad remains of ElandsvleiBurn – not, we presume, associated with recent events at the Tankwa Tented Camp. One hundred kilometres later we blew a back tyre on the ghastly bit of track that heads south off the Calvinia road, the road from the north to the Tankwa Karoo National Park. As this Kaartman lay down in the dirt under the back bumper, seeking a jack-up point for the injured wagon, a rainbull struck in all its fury. The road became instant mud, torrents of dirty water struck me in mine eyes. Happily for us, Wonga, a young ranger from the Park, happened by and in minutes he had the spare wheel on the wagon.
Without much chance to admire our lekker cottage at Varschfontein, the next morning the owls in the palm trees woke us with lots of tuwittuwooing, and we hit the Gannaga Pass to Middelpos. Our trip hung in the balance. No spare wheel would mean skulking meekly back to Ceres, our research hopes in ruins.
Middelpos, population about 250, is about 250km from Ceres – that lightie in the hoodie has a long walk ahead. Middelpos is also the Boerbul Breeding and Testing Capital of South Africa. We stopped to admire these huge slavering carnivores; the owner in the picture also has a Jack Russell which we believe he keeps in his top pocket. Replete with free second-hand tyre with no tread [the only one available, what did we expect] we returned to Varschfontein in time for a sunset to die for.
All followed by a lazy, unwinding Sunday in this highly-recommended Park, when a warm sun washed down on the incredible silence of the desert; lizards lazed in the sun and bokkies sipped water from the varsch fontein, which is cunningly situated so you can keep an eye on it over a large breakfast.
On day four we hit the road with half-a-tank of gas, for distant Sutherland. The old skooltjie at Uintjiesbosch conveys well the enormous emptiness of the Tankwa; a bit further on was the first of many signs that helped convince us of the need for a good map ...
The Ouberg Pass was originally a ‘trekpad’ and is still used for the seasonal moving of sheep from the Roggeveld into the Tankwa, and back again. It rises about 700m over three or four kilometres and is not an easy road – at all. It’s even worse when the petrol gauge has hit ‘empty’, you’re forced to drive in first gear, and Sutherland is still 24 kilometres away ... and the rusting old Oldsmobiles at the roadsides don’t boost confidence, either.
We made it to Sutherland with 400 ml of gas left in the tank. That’s about two glasses of wine or a bit more than a beer, so the Kaartmans were much relieved. We sank happily into Hannatjie Sieberhagen’s absolutely lekker cottage at Rooikloof – absolutely recommended, with the biggest and absolutely best bath we’ve enjoyed in many a cottage-for-hire. Hannatjie’s house has absolutely everything, even the distant bleating of sheep – very important for that proper Karoo atmosphere. Makes me hungry, though.
At Sutherland JWL of JWL motors got us a new tyre, all the way from Worcester – good service, hey. Day five saw more strange roadsigns, baboons scooting across a hangbrug that most humans would, well, skitter over; a ‘bushmanland tent tortoise’ that the locals just call a doppieskilpad, a scene out of Star Wars #7 and an unusual farm – no, that’s not Nkandla re-named.
Day six began with the worst bit of corrugated road we found anywhere. There’s no best way to drive a road like that, unless you ride in a bulldozer, and the Nommerplaathek says it all. If you lost yours there thanks to extreme vibration, well, there it still is. The next road sign repeated the Call of the Tankwa – ‘map me pleeeeeze!!!’, and it was followed by a mystery plaashek where you were not allowed to stop, so we simply rode it down. The research wagon has some scars, but it was worth it to avoid meeting the friendly, hospitable South African farmer [remember that famous reputation?] whose ‘private’ notice was pretty unambiguous. It was not, in fact, Matjieskloof farm – there the all-steel locust was impressive. But it’s a long and not-very-winding road to Calvinia, so don’t take the kids on that road if you’re planning a trip there soon.
And so to Calvinia. We’d booked into the Hantam Huisies, and we were not sorry. We had a lekker little house and a very lekker mutton pie in their restaurant, that evening. Highly recommended!
Day seven was disturbing. It began with some innocent-looking sheep, but, after refusing to get out of our way, they actually chased us as we gunned the wagon as fast as we dared up the rustic country road. A terrifying moment – all those blank, yellow eyes wondering if you taste as good as grass. The piebald horse was a relief, but we crossed a nek and, ye gods, there was Doctor Doolittle’s original pushme-pullyou at the roadside.
We fled down a dusty pass. At Soutpansrivier we had our revenge on the sheep, but we thought we should let City Tramways know [remember them] that we know where their lost bus is.
Research complete, we trundled down the Botterkloof Pass to Sevilla and an extraordinarily idle weekend at Traveller’s Rest, which of course, we recommend too, but don’t go there if you’re scared of the beautiful, rare little namtaps and the magnificent Bibron’s geckos that actually share your planet [and even some of your DNA!]. You wouldn’t believe the snotty complaints downloaded onto TripAdvisor about these harmless little beasties ...
Kaartman, Inauguration Day, 2014 [don’t look, now!]