Hard Man’s Karoo | Here we pray for our rain
Seven days in the Deep Karoo left Chris Marais exhausted, enriched – and covered in a thick layer of fine dust.
You’ve probably done the N1 blacktop stretch between Leeu-Gamka and Matjiesfontein a thousand times in your life − just more than 150 kilometres of the most deadly-boring part of the Karoo, with the emphasis on “deadly”, because of the high accident rate here.
Eighty minutes of rumble strips to keep you awake − not a meerkat in sight and only the vague outline of the Groot Swartberge in the distance to give you hope of something a little more lively down south.
Even I, who loves the Karoo like a dear friend, find it hard to get excited about that 150 km bit of the N1.
Oh yes, there’s the Flood Museum in Laingsburg, followed by an intriguing sign to the Moordenaars-Karoo. Followed by zilch else until you see the cheerful flags atop the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein.
So on a high summer’s day I find myself heading, in no tearing rush, to Cape Town on this route, with these thoughts.
Then I realise, heck, you have time on your hands; you have water, biltong and old rock ’n roll tapes; you have a bakkie full of diesel and a head full of daydreams − what’s your problem? Hook a right into the Hard Man’s Karoo; get lost in the dry country. OK, then.
Another reason is something a man from Williston once told me in a bar. He asked me where I was from.
“The Karoo Heartland,” I replied. “Cradock.”
At which he burst out laughing, saying: “That’s not the Karoo! Over there, you just order your water from the Great Fish River. We in Williston have to pray for it – and damn hard too. Where I come from, we call it the Hard Man’s Karoo, boet.”
I bought him another Olaf Bergh and spring water to calm him down.
One very sexy lion
Now when you decide to fly the schedule, take the road less travelled and see what happens, time slows down and the universe comes out to play.
I pull over into Leeu-Gamka, erupting like a spot on some forgettable part of the vast Karoo’s skin. Or so it would seem, until you find out this is where the last Cape lion – the one with the glorious Vidal Sassoon black flowing mane – was shot, back in the mid-1800s.
This sounds awfully rude if you’re a modern-day bunny-hugger, but the old journals all whine in unison about how these handsome matinee-idol lions used to plague the wagon trains, day and night, making merry havoc with delicious oxen.
Hmm, Leeu-Gamka … A bit like New York, New York, really, because the name means “Lion Lion” in the Afrikaans-Khoikhoi vernacular.
It looks quite lively: a river lined with thorn trees (great for lurking lions of old), a general dealer, B&B, a nursery and, good grief! a railway line that actually works!
I have to take a photo of a working South African railway line, because it looks set to go the way of the Cape lion one of these days.
A motor mechanic driving a bakkie-load of locals stops for a chat. I ask him about the dirt road into the interior. He looks derisively at my brand new Conti Tracs, as if maybe my Isuzu should be wearing old takkies for the occasion.
“Daai pad, dit vreet nuwe bande. Sommer so,” (That road chows new tyres, just like that.) followed by a series of dramatic Jet Li-style hand chops. He says I should drive on to Prince Albert Road and head down the dirt to Merweville.
I ask him how he came to live here. “I’m from Phalaborwa,” he says. “One day I was driving to Cape Town and my car broke down near Leeu-Gamka. That’s it. I never left.”
Now he fixes other N1 break¬downs for a living out here in the glorious nothing.
An arty recycler
So I grit my teeth and take the tar down to Prince Albert Road, where my old friend Jan Schoeman (also known as Outa Lappies) lives in a run-down railway house.
Although many in the district once thought the lanky, talkative man to be one calamata short of a cocktail party, Outa Lappies is the perfect role model for an environmentally correct life.
He’s the ultimate recycler, taking the waste objects of the Karoo (no shortage of those) and turning them into roadside art. There’s many a Patchwork product gracing the windows of homes as far flung as Norway and Russia – the coloured glass bits and hand-hammered tin figures capture the sunlight and throw dancing images on walls.
Outa Lappies still has his famous handcart. In the 1970s, he festooned it with junk (soon-to-be art) and dragged it more than 16 000 km across the vastness of the Karoo. As he travelled, he picked up more pieces of trash and turned it into collectables for sale to passers-by.
The old man once told me something very wise: “Wake up every day and make something out of nothing.”
Pg 2: Dinner on the wing
Dinner on the wing
Now, however, I have the Hard Man’s Karoo bit between my teeth. So I just wave in the general direction of Outa’s house across the tracks, pop in at the gaudy truckers’ bar for a lemonade (let’s call it that) and head west, into the driest part of this people-friendly desert.
The 40-odd kilometres of dirt to Merweville are over flat, sunburnt terrain, where you pass a deserted farmhouse on the one side, the flat-topped worker’s hut on the other and the rest is left up to your imagination.
There’s no fowl nor donkey in sight. No one lives in this desolate place anymore.
I have Lynyrd Skynyrd on full volume, sliding into Call me the breeze as I drive into Merweville. This small Goup Karoo town was once used in a TV commercial for J&B whisky, because one of the scenes called for a “tiny town on the Mexican border”. Americans who come from New Mexico would feel quite at home here.
Also arriving in town, this time from the south, is some of the most dramatic weather I’ve ever seen. The Cape has dispatched an armada of gunmetal-grey clouds and the neo-Gothic Merweville Moederkerk glows ominously in the last bits of sunlight.
I’ve booked a self-catering house from one Kallie le Roux.
I follow the directions to the Springbok Lodge where the caretaker, Aletta Victor, and her charming daughter, Lanie, aged two years and three months, meet me.
I soon discover two things: Kallie le Roux is a dominee who actually lives full-time across the country in Darling – “Evita Land” to some – and the Spring¬bok Lodge is a helluva large, sprawling old family
holiday house. I’m going to rattle around quite happily here.
In the afternoon, I take a walk to the shop to buy a newspaper and catch up on the world.
I pass an exultation, a veritable Rio Carnival, of European bee-eaters, all chirpy and dramatically dressed up in tropical party colours of emerald green and golden yellow, with turquoise and black accessories.
They’re catching insects on the wing, and flaring their yellow undercarriages briefly before landing on the telephone lines to finish their dinner.
I have a yen for traveller’s paella and I’m hoping the shop stocks mussels.
They don’t, so I have to settle for a pack of strange chocolate biscuits and a Fanta Orange – the supper of champions.
I ask about newspapers.
“Well, there’s nothing right now. Would you like to borrow my copy of Huisgenoot?” offers the lady at the counter.
I decline, but the kindness is well remembered.
Not the rainmaker
just as I am about to settle into my whisky and biscuits, the dominee phones from Darling to find out if everything’s OK. Tells me the local koster is a good guy to talk to.
Damn right he is. Jan Mocke, the verger of the Mother Church, is a man of smiles.
Shows me the beams of the church ceiling that came from a shipwreck, the cheerful-looking organ that was built in Aberdeen, Scotland, and reveals all about the Main Event of Merweville: the Dankfees − concerts, pies, braais and pannekoek making nearly half a million for the church.
Someone has said the Goup is so drought-stricken that farmers have been abandoning the land. No one wants to buy when it’s dry, and there’s no point in even pretending to farm anymore. “Farming is a hard life out here,” is all Jan wants to say.
The wind, meanwhile, grabs the Cape weather by the throat and hauls it out of the Goup. Sometimes, I think I am the Rainmaker, but not here.
Jan and I drive out to the Englishman’s Grave. Actually, Walter Oliphant Arnot was a bipolar Tasmanian who left a strange suicide note in his prayer book, walked off and shot himself while passing Merweville as part of a British scouting patrol during the Anglo-Boer War.
His wife arranged that a memorial stone be erected and the people of Merweville have been fulfilling their promise to “tend his grave forever”.
Later, dominee Kallie phones again: he has arranged for the housekeeper, Marina Witbooi, to expose me to some Karoo culture. Marina fires up the outside oven and by lunchtime I am feasting on heavenly, slightly smoky, panbrood.
Pg 3: Cooking post-box
Back on the road again, through the Koup, the Hantam and the Bo Karoo.
Bruce Springsteen is doing Pete Seeger unplugged and I’m loving it.
Nothing like American music in the badlands of South Africa. Jimi Hendrix in Port Nolloth. The Rolling Stones in Rietbron. The Boss in the Bo Karoo.
I’m pointed at Fraserburg, a hop of about 150 km. I drive up, up and up the Teekloof Pass in the midday heat. Around me, over-exposed and sunburnt, are the classic layer-cake mountains of the Karoo.
I stop at an old road workers’ camp, which now seems to have become a dassie-breeding centre. I find an old klipkraal, ancient rocks held together by lichen webbing. Here’s a sign to a place called Good Luck. I know where that’s at. I go there often.
Then suddenly I’m in Fraserburg, asking the local postman why he’s dropping letters into a little stove outside Die Kliphuis, a restaurant and guest house where I’ll be hanging my floppy hat for the night.
“It took me a long time to get used to this,” says Oom Klaas Botes as he lifts one of the stove plates and shoves a flyer for an upcoming stock auction inside. “I worry about the letters getting wet.” Yeah, sure − it’s not exactly monsoon weather out here.
Fraserburg – also known as “Freezerburg” in winter – is a town of windmills, donkey carts, Victorian homes full of classic yellowwood and a shop called Joanies where you can buy as much Karroo foot powder as your heart desires.
It takes me days to get out of Fraserburg. Like my old friend Igor who popped in for tea recently and stayed for two nights, I find myself entranced with the doings of Fraserburgers.
I meet a dazzling array of artists, including a couple of young Goths, all leather-clad and dark of brow.
Oom Fanie Kersop takes me around the fossil museum, where I meet a replica of the Bradysaurus, a chubby, flatulent fellow that lived 250 million years ago.
Then Oom Fanie and I drive out to a farm where Bradysaurus left his track in a clay bed all those years ago on Permian Extinction Day when the lights went out all over the world and 96 percent of all life snuffed it.
And I’m wondering, is this not better than the Natural History Museum in London or the blasted National Geographic Channel?
Back at Die Kliphuis, I am drinking a lemonade with Herman le Roux, the owner, who is stoking a fire in a braai stand of mammoth proportions.
I want to know about the slightly dented Voortrekker Memorial on the main street.
He tells me. A double-cab full of hell-driving perlemoen poachers and their booty – chased by a squad of very visible police – apparently bliksemmed straight into the memorial around Easter last year. Knocked off its stand, the memorial was quickly repaired by locals. The smugglers were hauled away. Who knows what happened to the perlemoen …
The Tombstone Route
The road from Fraserburg to the village of Williston shows increasing signs of vegetation.
It’s been a funny weather year: the Western Cape and this part of the Karoo have mostly had all the rain rations God spared for the country, while the rest of us have gone dry.
So now, vast succulent swathes either side of the road add colour and opulence to the farmhouse ruins along the way. Vygie power!
Elsa van Schalkwyk takes me on the Tombstone Route, following the handiworks of the legendary Cornelius de Waal, a true citizen of the Hard Man’s Karoo.
His special thing was carving gravestones.
It was not a job for nervous hands. First, he’d look for the sandstone piece that would be a suitable gravestone. Then he’d bore holes around the piece and jam wet wooden sticks in it. The sticks would swell and the sandstone pieces would eventually break loose. Whew.
Then De Waal would cart the slab off by donkey to the graveside, where he’d spend months smoothing and shaping it and carving flowers into the stone before chiselling in an inscription. A De Waal gravestone was indeed a fine thing to possess.
There’s a De Waal gravestone at the Williston Museum. It is one of his best pieces but, after he had completed it, he found his clients had disappeared.
An old photo of Cornelius de Waal in the museum shows a lean man with a heavy beard and a sober look in a suit of clothes dusty with wear, and enormous, bony hands. Steady tools …
Pg 4: Middelpos
Koos’ boerboels at Middelpos
After an excellent evening with the Naude family at Die Werf, drinking wine in their reed gazebo under a Karoo moon, I’m on the road to Middelpos.
It’s a magical 170 km route through natural stone buttresses garlanded with amber succulent necklaces and it drapes itself over the flowered hills like a dusty shoelace.
Beyond a brimming vlei where children play like water sprites lies the tiny settlement of Middelpos.
The famous Britain-based actor Sir Anthony Sher has family roots that once sprouted in this place, the middle of nowhere, east of the Tankwa Karoo.
His kin were the Jewish smouse, the wandering traders so well known and beloved in the desert corners of South Africa.
The settlement has reverted to farm holdings, although there is a shop, a petrol station, a police station a row of dwellings and a post office.
Helena van der Westhuizen works behind the counter at t
he Middelpos Trading Store, alongside Sarie Mattheus, who twists old pages from Huisgenoot into cones and fills them with assorted sweets for the kids who come to buy with their two-rand coins.
After a day’s work in the onion fields, the owner of Middelpos, Koos van der Westhuizen, is only too happy to serve me a beer and talk about his breeding of the boerboel, one of the favoured dogs of the Karoo.
He quotes Lukas van der Merwe, co-founder of the breed: “A boerboel will run with you next to your horse all day. On the way back home, he’ll catch a scrub hare for your supper, and that night he will guard your wife and children.”
This season, the road between Middelpos and Sutherland is exquisite: old stone buildings, lime-stoned white, green fields of wheat, fields of flowers − yellow knopies, purple vygies and the red-flowering cancer bush.
The weather gods have been good to this part of the world, as I drive from the Hard Man’s Karoo past the Tankwa and down to Matjiesfontein.
Which looks like the set of a Victorian-era movie as I arrive in the fresh rains, after a week in the parched lands.
The dust sloughs off the side of my bakkie and I head for the bar, where John Theunissen is singing a Knees-Up-Mother-Brown-type song for the tourists.
Damn, it’s been a good week!
Pg 5: Quick facts
What vehicle were you in?
A 2003 Isuzu 2.5 double-cab
The best and worst of it?
This is perfect bakkie country, so it was fantastic. The worst part was returning to the N1 and facing all the yuppies and the truckers racing up and down through the Karoo.
How far did you travel?
About 680 km in total
About 12 km/litre
Good, – even for carefully-driven sedans
Did you use diff-lock or 4×4?
Always the people along the road; each evening spent in the wide Karoo, glass of something wet to hand, chop on the braai, moon in the sky.
I can’t think of a single one.
Best things to do?
Firstly, read this article. Then do more homework on the geology of the Karoo, the stars, the Tombstone Route and the legends of the area. Then just follow this drive and do what we did.
Best place to stop en route?
Williston – Die Ark B&B. It’s just wonderfully eccentric, comfortable and your hosts are the epitome of the friendly face of the Karoo.
And the worst?
There was no place for us like that. Merweville, Fraserburg, Williston, Middelpos and Matjiesfontein were all great – each town had its own unique set of charms.
Best meal en route?
A meat feast with Jan and Elna Marais in their kitchen in Williston, with Spirit the African Grey parrot shouting the odds in the background.
A Caltex touring map
Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit’s Karoo keepsakes – a traveller’s companion to the heartland of South Africa – available through www.karoospace.co.za; or Dana Snyman’s On the backroads – available at leading bookstores or through Naomi Herselmann at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where can I stay over?
Merweville: Springbok Lodge 083 255 6931
Fraserburg: Kliphuis Guest House 023 741 1870
Williston: Die Ark B&B 053 391 3659
Middelpos: The Middelpos Hotel 027 341 2507
Matjiesfontein: The Lord Milner Hotel 023 561 3011
|DO_Hard Man’s Karoo.pdf||1.2 MB|