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