Sunday, 29 November 2015

Off the beaten track: A detour through the Upper Karoo

Dawn at Stuurmansfontein
On our return journey from the lovely, newly discovered Mokala National Park near Kimberley, my mother, her friend and I decided to take the long way home, and head towards the west coast (rather than via Beaufort West) into the vastness of the Upper Karoo where the roads are straight as arrows and there's little to break the horizon. This meant we had to backtrack to Britstown before taking a right into the greatest of open spaces South Africa has to offer. 

From Britstown to Vosburg was a good 65km, and although the little town is off the main road, we turned off to take a look. The sign at the entrance invites visitors to come and enjoy the shade trees, and they are indeed impressive: large beefwoods line little gravel roads with typical Karoo homesteads, a fraction lost in time.

Here we found Die Ketel, a tuisbedryf (home industry shop), staffed in rotation by the women who make the goodies, such as rusks and cakes and jam. After a quick spin around the town, we were back on the road, tackling the 80km to Carnarvon (it's tar although the map shows gravel). 

Carnarvon is newly famous because it's close to where the SKA, the world's largest radio telescope, is being built. But we did not linger as our destination for the night was a place called Stuurmansfontein where we planned to sleep in an historic corbelled house built out of stone by trekboere (pioneer farmers).

Stuurmansfontein with kookskerm
About 25km out of Carnarvon, we turned onto a gravel road that would take us yet another 25km, past a martial eagle hanging in the sky and a dam surprisingly full of flamingos, to a farm house lush with garden roses. We were met by Charmaine Botha, her hands red from pickling beetroot, who told us the dam had recently been repaired and the flamingos had only arrived a fortnight earlier, before directing us a further 5km down a two-spoor track to the old house.

Karoo dam with flamingos
Dawn view of corbelled house at Stuurmansfontein

I hadn't read the small print, and so discovered there was no running water indoors when my mother was trying to make tea (there is an outside bathroom and a tap). So we had a real taste of pioneer life. Nevertheless, Charmaine's hand was evident in the fresh flowers, lovely beds and linen and other touches in the house. Once we figured out how to make the tea, and had our outdoor showers, we could enjoy the absolute isolation and that deep silence you only get in places like this. We were assured there was nobody else around. Except, at dinner I could hear what sounded like voices murmuring in the kitchen, rather like a radio station playing just out of earshot. Perhaps it was the ghosts or just the wind in the chimney. We'd cooked our delicious Karoo chops over a fire outside in a skerm (a wind shelter made by stacking bushes in a semi circle) while watching the swifts hawking overhead as they caught their last insects before turning in for the night.

Looking up into the dome of the corbelled house
The next morning, I took myself for a walk up the kloof behind the house, where a stream comes down in a trickle. As I walked deeper into the kloof, I heard the piercing jackal-like wail of a buzzard, warning me off. It was a pair of jackal buzzards, and I'm presuming they had a nest, so I backtracked without wishing to disturb them further.

Look carefully to see the jackal buzzards guarding their kloof
Dawn sky, Stuurmansfontein
On the way back on the main road, we encountered a group of shepherds herding sheep. 

Shepherds and sheep
And then on and on we drove past more corbelled houses, 132km to Williston where we'd promised ourselves coffee at the Williston Mall before pushing on. It's not really a mall at all but a place that houses an eclectic mishmash of things to buy and eat, and where I discovered the delicious Karoo Swiss Langbaken cheese (and have since found an outlet or two in Cape Town) made from a herd of only 12 jersey cows.

Sign painting at the Williston Mall
From here, 115km to Calvinia past the jagged edges of the Hantam mountains to Nieuwoudtville which lies on the edge of an escarpment catching the last of the winter rain. We spent the night on a farm called Papkuilsfontein, about 25km out of town, where we slept in another historic cottage and I took a walk to the nearby swimming dam which offered up a lovely sunset view. From here on in we only had the downhill home run to go.

Travel tip? Don't rush...

Swimming pool at Papkuilsfontein near Nieuwoudtville

Sunday, 15 November 2015

My happy place: Rooiels

As much as I love to travel and explore new places, we all need those special spots that we return to again and again, where we can find comfort in the familiar and restore our sagging energy levels. One such place for me is Rooiels, a little seaside village, which lies sandwiched between mountain and sea on the False Bay coastline, just over an hour's drive from Cape Town (outside of peak traffic). 

We don't own a house here, but are fortunate enough to rent a cottage for regular weekends away. And because the weather can be inclement (read 'windy') it is never too crowded. Usually there are only a handful of similarly minded nature lovers around when we do visit. I love nothing more than to hunker down with a book or to sit on the stoep looking out over the sea with binoculars in hand to watch for whales and dolphins.

Here are 10 more reasons why I love it so

1. Across False Bay, of an evening, you can see a blazing ball sink below the horizon over the landmark Cape of Good Hope at the almost southern tip of Africa.

2. If we time the drive to avoid peak traffic, we can be there in just over an hour.

3. The dog can stretch her legs and adopt striking poses on the dunes.

4. We regularly see otter tracks on the beach.

5. The baboons call past too and, if you don't bother them, they won't bother you.

6. The waves truly are wild horses when the sea is up.

7. There's always something beautiful in the miniature.

8. You can see Cape rockjumpers on the mountain slopes.

9. You can go on beautiful fynbos walks on a back road to Pringle Bay.

10. And no two sunsets are ever quite the same.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Bush break: Haak-en-Steek in the Mokala National Park

Mention Mokala National Park to many people and you're likely to get a bit of a blank stare. As South Africa's newest national park, it is little known, and because it doesn't have some of the usual charismatic megafauna (read 'lions') people tend to overlook it. 

Haak-en-Steek, Mokala National Park
Well, for me, all that changed when my mother said she'd like to visit. We stayed at the Haak-en-Steek cottage. You know that you've stumbled onto something good when you immediately book to go back upon your return home. 

Sunset at Haak-en-Steek

Mokala lies about 70km south-southwest of Kimberley and its name means 'camelthorn tree' in Setswana. This is the park's signature tree but the area offers a variety of landscapes, from the red sands of the Kalahari to the dolorite hills of the Karoo (which are said to have many significant rock engravings) and the grassy plains more characteristic of the Free State. 

The park is a bit of Noah's Ark as it's also used as a haven for rare antelope species such as tsessebe, roan and sable. They have disease-free buffalo, rhino and a quagga breeding programme (to bring back the zebras with the white bottoms).

The Haak-en-Steek cottage was once the weekend hideaway of the former owner of what was once a game farm in the 'Kalahari' section of the park. If you check in here, you have it all to yourself, and there is a waterhole not much more than 100m away from the stoep. 

From this stoep, we could sit and watch the passing parade, which consisted of a variety of game: eland, springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest, tsessebe, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, vervet monkeys, ostrich, even impala... The warthogs and ostriches tended to visit during the daylight hours and the vervets would chill around the dam in the middle of the day. The shyer kudu and some of the other game tended to come at dusk and dawn. The main bedroom has a huge sliding door that looks directly out onto the dam. 

Warthogs to the left, impala to the right...
Eland at the waterhole
The trees around the cottage were also home to a wonderful variety of birds, including a very vocal scimitarbill looking for a mate. I'm happy to report he found one (see image below). We also heard and saw the dideric cuckoo, an African hoopoe, a nesting golden-tailed woodpecker, swallow-tailed bee-eaters, golden buntings and many more...

Scimitarbill courtship
Our visit coincided with a rather severe drought that is gripping the western, more arid parts of South Africa and so we had a rather poignant sighting of a herd of buffalo trying to slake their thirst in the Stofdam (meaning 'dust dam'). They were so thirsty that they bellowed and started to run when they got close to the dam, but they had to wade into knee-deep mud to access the little puddles of water. We felt rather sorry for them.

The front runners break into a trot as they approach the dam
Buffalo braving the mud
There was weather brewing, though, which was a good sign. The first night we had a tremendous electrical storm with some fierce thunder and lightning (which my mother swears struck the ground on the far side of the waterhole). I was doing extreme braaiing, dashing in and out between thunderclaps to turn the chops on the coals. Sadly, for all its noise, this storm did not produce much rain.

Weather coming
The next afternoon, matters looked up when another, deeper storm blew in around 3pm and delivered a few hours of soaking rain which created some temporary puddles, much to the joy of the birds. We spent the afternoon sitting in the lounge as we watched the downpour, and appreciated the moment. 

Rain storm at Haak-en-Steek

But at Stofdam, which we checked on the next day, this storm too had barely made a dent on the rapidly drying earth and the puddles of the day before dried up within a day. Mokala's drought is ongoing...

Travel tip

It's probably best to go in a high-clearance vehicle like a bakkie because the roads are not in tip-top condition and the 25km access road from the N12 to Mosu was particularly corrugated.

If you are self-catering, stock up before you enter the park as they don't really have a proper shop nor is there any fuel available. You can, however, buy the bare essentials (like matches and Blitz). For those travelling from Gauteng to the Cape, Mokala is an alternative stop off to the Karoo National Park, although somewhat off the national road

Mokala also has a good campsite called Motswedi (where each camping party has its own ablution block and kitchen) and a range of other accommodation. We had a brief look at the main camp (Mosu) and decided that the chalets were a bit on top of each other. Due to heavy rains and mud, we didn't make it to Lilydale which is on top of a hillside overlooking the Riet River.

Sundowners at Haak-en-Steek

Monday, 26 October 2015

Road-tripping: Farm stalls of the Karoo and their resident pets

One of the great joys of road-tripping, for me at least, is stopping off at farm stalls to see what's on offer. Generally, there'll be the usual jams, beskuit, roosterkoek and pies, and also the resident pets, like Soetlief (below), a ridgeback with quite a story to tell.

Soetlief with her owner Appie Viviers
It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon when we stopped at Boeteka, about 20km outside Beaufort West on the Oudtshoorn road, looking for some Karoo lamb for the braai fire that night. We were met at the door by a very friendly Appie Viviers who introduced himself to us and persuaded us to buy far more than we originally had intended - curried beans, sausage, chops (all delicious). 

As we were about to leave, Soetlief (meaning Sweet Love), the ridgeback, turned up. She was wanting to go home and had hopped into the front seat of the bakkie to wait for Appie. It then transpired that she was a famous dog, having featured in Die Burger in July 2015

She and her litter of puppies were living under the threat of euthanasia after contracting Brucellosis from Appie's wife Marietjie who was hospitalised. The couple had already had to slaughter some of their goat herd.

Fortunately, Soetlief's follow-up test came back clean and she and her pups (sired by a sheepdog that slipped through the lounge window one evening) were spared. Marietjie made a full recovery too, I'm happy to report!

This was our second farm stall stop of the day. Our first stop was for coffee and roosterkoek at the Smitswinkel farm stall between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo. I loved how these handsome kitties had found a comfortable spot for a snooze among the tableware.
Live kitty display at Smitswinkel

Smitswinkel also has a resident rooster of formidable proportions. His name is Kassie and he makes a colourful addition to the stoep where you can sit out and enjoy your meal while looking out onto the lawn at the back.

There is another farm stall with the same name outside Oudtshoorn (both establishments were originally started by the same owner). There I previously met a similarly tame rooster named Seun. 

Kassie and Seun are quite likely from the same line, as was confirmed by the staff at Smitswinkel. The two farm stalls are now separately owned and do not have any direct connection. 

Nevertheless, I can highly recommend the roosterkoek at the Calitzdorp outlet. They also have a handicraft job creation project. A worthwhile stop indeed.

Sam at Ko-ka Tsara
That night we slept at Ko-ka Tsara about 7km outside Beaufort West. It's not a farm stall but a a very comfortable bush camp with only seven chalets tucked away in a kloof bordering on the Karoo National Park off the Loxton road. 

Here we met the handsome and very polite labrador Sam, who spent the evening with us snoozing on the floor while a thunderstorm raged around (all that heat was building up to something). Sam loves walking with guests and, of course, is quite attuned to braai fires.

We stopped twice at Kambro (near Britstown) where there was a Sam equivalent named Max (no pictures). Just to say that Kambro is also a good pit stop. They make delicious pies served with their own peach chutney but they have rules about visiting dogs not using the grass (that is, except for Max of course) which seems a bit churlish given that this is the only green for miles around.

Koeks at The Mall
Our final pet of the trip was Koeks, who lives at The Mall in Williston. She had an eye on the cheese and scones we ordered there. The ironically named Mall is known for its extraordinary collection of memorabilia and great breakfasts. It also stocks delicious award-winning cheese from a farm called Langbaken which has a herd of only 12 jersey cows. We bought the Karoo Crumble (a bit like a mature cheddar) and their Karoo Swiss which is a bit like an Emmenthaler. Wish I'd bought more!

The Mall in Williston

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Great campsites: Horseshoe Camp on the Fish River Canyon

The view from Horseshoe Camp on the Fish River Canyon

Easily one of the most dramatic places I have ever camped, Horseshoe Camp is actually part of a mule trail along the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, but when there are no mule trails running, then ordinary folk can book it directly with Gondwana (even though you won't find it advertised on their website).

When we visited, we were the only people there for two whole days! It really gave new meaning to being 'off the beaten track' and we spent our time admiring the ever-changing light and soaking in the deepest of silences. It's not the kind of place you go unless you're comfortable in your own skin. It might also be a little terrifying with small children due to the precipitous drop into the canyon.

You turn off onto a farm road to get to the campsite. A 4x4 is required for the last bit.
We drove from Springbok in South Africa, crossing into Namibia over the Orange River at Noordoewer and then turning onto the C12, a good dirt road from Grunau to access the turnoff to the campsite, which is actually located on a farm just to the north of the national park. 

All in all, it was a good 80km from the tar, if my memory serves me correctly, and the dirt road on the farm gradually got rockier and steeper as we proceeded and we were glad to be in the sturdy old Toyota Hilux (nickname Rooikat).

We encountered this train to Luderitz several times on the C12
There were storm clouds all around, which made for this dramatic scene with a little two-coach diesel train heading for the coast. We overtook it a few times, and everyone waved when we did so.

German grave at Holoog
We also stopped to look at some lonely German graves next to a railway bridge at Holoog where we encountered the train again.

It was raining as we approached the campsite and there some temporary waterfalls streaming into the canyon, but that soon stopped and the next days were clear. We were all alone with the big sky, the full moon and the silence.

View from campsite at sunset
The camp is so named because the river forms a natural horseshoe here, making for stupendous views, particularly at sunrise and sunset when the colours mellow beautifully.

There's a kitchen hut (or mesa) where you can store your food and prepare your meals while looking out into the abyss.

View from kitchen hut
The showers and loos also look directly out onto the canyon. Without a doubt, the most dramatic view you are likely to ever have while doing your morning ablutions.

Loo with a view

It was difficult to fit the whole horseshoe into one frame 
Rain-soaked roads on route to the canyon
The mesa from a different angle on the lip of the canyon
Moonrise to the east with storm clouds receding
My kind of heaven