Places in South Africa that people normally seldom get to see by Robert Fowlds
Angela and I recently travelled 5500 km during 3 weeks in March, visiting some very special places in South Africa that are not generally seen by normal South Africans! We left Durban early to spend the first night at Philippolis, south of Bloemfontein. Our purpose was to visit John Varty’s Tiger Project about 25 km outside of the town. We stayed in a historic house that belonged to Adam Kok, the famous Griqua Chief (Kaptein) where he stayed when the region was still Griqualand West, before he left to establish Kokstad in Griqualand East. Philippolis is also the birthplace of Laurens van der Post. We spent the next day at Tiger Canyon, where we met John Varty and learned about the interesting and magnificent tigers (quite a bit larger than lions and with huge paws) and had a safari through the area where he kept and bred the tigers in the wild, after having trained some that he had rescued to fend for themselves by hunting wildebeest, springbok, and stupid blesbok, etc. You do not sit in an open game-viewer, but in one that is enclosed in a cage, as tigers can apparently identify people sitting in a vehicle – unlike lions. We did however get out to meet his favourite tiger, Julie, who he has “lived with” for 12 years. She jumps onto the well-dented bonnet and then onto the roof, which is of steel, not the customary canvas! Varty is currently fighting an expensive law suite against some Chinese “partners” that are trying to take over his business. [Sadly, we heard that John Varty was recently mauled by one of his tigers and landed up in the ICU of Bloemfontein hospital.]
The next day we drove to Cape Town where we were to meet ex-UCT friends of ours now living in Canada. Being Saturday, we left Philippolis early as we wanted to watch the Sharks vs Stormers at Newlands. On Sunday morning the four of us again left early to drive up to the Namaqualand west coast, with Peter Raine and Ian Wheeler of Diversity Tours. This was a self-drive 4×4 fully catered guided tour, which was exceptional for the wonderful meals, stunning scenery, interesting plants and history. The route was along the N7 passing through Malmesbury and Piketberg, and then along the western side of the Cederberg through the towns of Citrusdal and Clanwilliam. Then we passed through the fertile Olifants River irrigation scheme up to Vanrhynsdorp, Nuwerus, and Bitterfontein. We left the N7 highway at Garies and turned towards the coast along the dry Spoeg River (very dry, as no one had spoeged for a long time) into increasingly barren and desolate countryside to Wallekraal and Hondeklipbaai. From there we required permits to enter the restricted diamond coast mining area on land and offshore, formerly under De Beers but now sold to Transhex. Uniquely, 98% of the diamonds recovered in this area are of gem quality.
We stayed for 4 nights in the Noup Diamond Divers Cottages that were used by the diamond divers who guided the powerful vacuum suction hoses underwater that literally sucked up everything within reach and even on occasions a diver too. The cottages have now been taken over by Dudley Wessel and his wife as a private self-catering accommodation enterprise. He is also employed by De Beers to rehabilitate the areas that were damaged by the diamond mining and prospecting, but plants grow so slowly in this region that it could take a hundred years to achieve. The cottages were quite basic but were comfortable and right on the ocean edge. We walked along the beach but no swimming, as the water there is always freezing! Dudley has a fascinating collection of fossils of ancient prehistoric animals recovered during his time there, one of which has been identified as an upper molar of a humanoid dating back 18 million years signifying that South Africa has been home for these pre-humans earlier than the previously regarded 3.5 million years. On one of the days we went on the Diamond Coast Shipwreck Trail, which involved some challenging 4×4 off-road driving for 37 km along the pristine coast and strandveld and at times through some of the softest sand that I have ever encountered. We visited 3 of the many shipwrecks; one of which was allegedly struck by a German torpedo during WW2; and another that ran aground in 1947 off Naas Naas Point that was carrying petrol and explosives for the Okiep copper mine (once the richest copper mine in the world), all of which was amazingly recovered and transported away by donkey wagons. We also visited one of the old stone-house ruins that belonged to a family that somehow managed to farm sheep and goats in this extremely remote and arid region. They had dug 2 wells for water as they discovered that under the sand and rock was an underground water basin. This 30 000ha territory is now a nature reserve donated by De Beers, but still remains a high security area.
We had the Noup cottages to ourselves and after 4 days we left for Springbok. Because of distance to travel and time limitations we elected to take the faster northerly route via Kommaggas and the Spektakel Pass instead of the Namaqua National Park, Wildeperdehoek Pass and Messelpad Pass, which will be available to tackle another day. Spektakel Pass named after the mine of the same name, is indeed spectacular as you can see for ever from the top of the pass.
At Springbok our hosts filled up on provisions while we visited the iconic Springbok Café for coffee and melktert. After Springbok we travelled along the N14 towards Aggeneys and just before Pofadder we turned onto the gravel road to Klein Pella, where we stayed for 2 nights at the Karsten’s guest house. This is situated on a farm close to the Orange River (now called the Gariep – the San name for “great water”) from where water is pumped to irrigate grapes and the largest date plantation in the Southern hemisphere comprising of 87 ha and 13 900 date palms. These Majool dates are exceptionally sweet and delicious. The intensive cultivation is like an oasis in the middle of this parched land, referred to as the Namaqualand Mountain Desert. It was a full moon at the time which enhanced the experience. Piet Karsten owns 8 farms in the desert along the Orange River and a complete packing line exists for every 40 ha of Hanepoot table grapes from vineyards on their various farms. These grapes ripen much earlier due to the climate and are transported to the market before those of any competitor.
The next day we drove to Pella where a mission station was founded in 1814 by the London Missionary Society as a sanctuary for the Khoi San people driven from Namibia. The cathedral was built by 2 missionaries who used an encyclopaedia as a building manual as they had never laid a brick in their lives before. It took them 7 years. It was abandoned in 1872 because it was so dry, but then reopened in 1878 by the Roman Catholic Church and is still operating today. There is an underground spring that reaches the surface giving life to figs, grapes and pomegranates.
After Pella, we tackled the Namaqua Eco Trail, a serious 4×4 route, which started with Charlie’s Pass built by Charlie Weidner, one of the first white inhabitants of the area, to provide access to the Orange River from Pella. The flora in this area include the quiver tree or kokerboom, the elephants trunk or halfmens, the euphorbia, the shepherds tree, the sycamore fig, and thousands of different flowers that blossom after late winter rains. We then drove along the Orange River and visited a project funded by the EU and the Department of Science and Agriculture that grows geraniums and extracts the essential oils by steam stripping. The small factory is well designed, all in stainless steel, even the cooling water pipes; it looks good and although it apparently does not break even yet, it does provide work for 40 people. They appreciated our visit and were most obliging. I am sure they do not get many visitors! We returned to Klein Pella via the track along the river and through the mountains. We then swam in the Orange River looking across into Namibia. This stretch of the river is very reminiscent of the Nile, with a green belt each side, including the Karsten date palms and then followed by serious desert and mountains. Sunset on this river is stunning.
One of the best things about this territory is the almost total lack of other people. Last year we travelled up Charlie’s Pass but we spent more days along the river and camped at Grootmelkboom and Kamgab.
After 2 nights at Klein Pella, our hosts from Diversity Tours left us to return to Cape Town and we continued with our Canadian friends to Tankwa-Karoo National Park, via Pofadder where we stopped to buy provisions for the two nights self catering in Tankwa, as there are no shops there. Pofadder is an interesting and very clean town, with some of the locals waiting in the street to pounce on any foreign cars to engage in conversation and accompanied with the odd request for aid to purchase essential sustenance from the local bottlestore. The recommended local white wine is called Daisy and tastes like paint stripper. However, we purchased the best ever lamb and also surprisingly, good sirloin steak at the butcher shop and the girls managed to find everything else they needed.
The road then took us south along the R358 to Houmoed, then on to Kliprand through long stretches of beautiful nothingness. After Kliprand the road turns south-east onto the R355 to Loeriesfontein, where my brave Canadian friend had a meat pie which he claimed was exceedingly good! After Loeriesfontein the R355 continues to Calvinia, and then south, dropping altitude down the barren Bloukrans Pass (very different to the one on the Garden Route) with great views. Another long stretch through the great Karoo and we arrived at Tankwa, where we spent the first night at Paulshoek Cottage, which is basic, with paraffin lamps and a donkie boiler, but very pleasant. It is very remote with nothing else in sight but the distant mountains surrounding the large very flat plain. We marvelled at the tenacity of the trekboer farmer that settled in this desolate place as his home in the early 1800’s. It certainly spoke to how desperate they were to get away from the Cape colonial government! We saw a graveyard in the middle of nowhere with about 10 small graves that clearly belonged to children, which again showed what an isolated and difficult life these people led – not much hope if you got really sick!
The next day we drove through the Park to Elandsberg Wilderness Camp where we stayed the night. We only encountered one vehicle that was as lost as we were. Elandsberg was much more luxurious, still with paraffin lamps but with gas geysers for hot water and also with a very welcome plunge pool overlooking a vast plain. Tankwa is not a place to visit for 5-star luxury or to see droves of animals. Whereas there are some springbok, gemsbok, mountain zebra, eland and aardvark, and other small fauna, the main reason would be to enjoy the solitude, and lack of any pollution from people, light, and noise. To relax, unwind and seek peace while enjoying a quiet glass of red wine. Spring flowers do appear some years when there has been a “good” rainfall which is normally only 30mm per annum. We did not venture up the Gannaga Pass, which looks spectacular from the pictures, but again this will be for another time!
From Tankwa we travelled to Sutherland via a challenging and stunning pass. Through Onderwadrif and the amazing Ouberg Pass which is a narrow and fairly rugged route carved out of the mountain side for the early ox wagons through the Roggeveldberge 1000 meters above the Karoo valley and on a clear day one can even see the snow on the Touwsriver mountains. This was one of the first routes used by pioneer farmers from the Ceres Karoo to the Roggeveld and then on to Sutherland. Once a year the farmers would pack up their belongings including the livestock and trek down the pass to the warmer Karoo farms, as the weather was too cold higher up and was detrimental to the animals. This took anything up to 4 days to complete. It was quite manageable in a 4×4, but must have been a monumental challenge by ox wagon. The views were remarkable and we kept on stopping and clinging to the mountain side to take pictures around the hairpin bends. On the way to Sutherland through the Sneeukop and Swaarweerberg, the farmers were cultivating patches of green in the valleys, even grapes, in the harsh Groot Karoo landscape.
We spent 2 days in Sutherland at friends of our, Dries and Glaudi Neethling, who had moved there 5 years ago from Pretoria. This is an interesting, quiet and very clean little town which is world famous for the South African Large Telescope (SALT). Dries organised a tour around SALT, which is enormous, 34 meters high and 26 meters across, completed in 2005 at a cost of USD32million, and has a hexagonal mirror array 11 meters diameter. It is the size of the mirror that determines the strength of the telescope, and SALT is able to detect distant stars, and galaxies that are a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye. SALT is located on a hilltop outside Sutherland, at an altitude of 1750 meters, together with another 15 telescopes belonging to different parties and nations, because the site is free of light and atmospheric pollution with very little cloud cover and is acknowledged as one of the best astronomical sites in the world. The South African telescopes from Cape Town and Pretoria have been re-located here because of pollution in the cities. The partners in SALT are RSA, USA, UK, Germany, India, Poland, and New Zealand.
The following evening we visited a private enterprise, called Star Gazing, on the outskirts of Sutherland, which offers lectures and viewing of the stars with telescopes situated in the open screened off by muisboskerms.
After Sutherland we had to drive back to Cape Town so that Karen could catch a flight back to Canada and the Caymans as they were expecting another grandchild shortly. Rob stayed with us for the rest of the trip and went back 10 days later. We drove back south to Majiesfontein on the R354, via the Verlatekloofpas.
From Majiesfontein we drove back to Cape Town on the N1 through the Hexriver Valley, taking note to stop and enjoy the marvellous scenery on our way back. We had an excellent stay at the recently renovated Alphen Hotel in Constantia that was offering a re-opening special which made it more affordable.
We returned up the N1 as we wanted to go through the various passes of the Karoo that one hears about but never gets to see. From Laingsburg, we turned south through the Rooinek Pass, and then down the valley between the Witteberge and the Kleinswartberge to Middelplaas. This is seriously rugged and harsh country and it is amazing that people can eek out a living farming here. And then on to Seweweekspoort Pass, which is awesome. We stopped so many times that we renamed it 10-weekspoort.
When we reached the R62 we turned east to Calitzdorp where we visited Boplaas Winery to check if they were still making good port. Fortunately this is still the case. After some restricted wine tasting we again hit the road towards Plettenberg Bay via Oudtshoorn and the N12 and N9 to Avontuur. From Avontuur we took the R339 and enjoyed the stunning Prince Alfred’s Pass. Up to now the passes had been dry and the mountains very rugged, but this pass, although still challenging, was green and verdant with feinbos and proteas on the mountainside, and again with fabulous views.
After spending nights with friends at Plettenberg Bay and then Morgan Bay, we spent 4 days at the house in Transkei at Qolora where we had brilliant weather. Then back to Durban via Bizana, but as is usually the case, the weather had closed in and we were not able to see the good views along that scenic road.