The Forgotten Highway | Highway of yesteryear


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Hundreds of transport riders took a shortcut through the Karoo between Ceres and Kimberley in the 1800s. Nowadays, Matt Covarr discovered, you have the Forgotten Highway all to yourself.

There’s a timeless feeling about Karoo Poort, a picturesque gorge 43 km east of Ceres that cuts through the Swartruggens Mountains on the R355. I stop next to an old whitewashed building on the side of the road. Chickens scratch in the dust near my Landy as I climb out to have a look around.

“Ken jy die geskiedenis van die gebou?” I ask an old guy sitting in the shade of a massive oak tree smoking a pipe. He narrows his eyes and seems to enter a state of deep thought as he looks up to the tree for answers. “Uh, nee meneer, ek het nou al vergeet, maar ek weet hy’s baie oud.”

His answer sums up the next two days’ wandering along a route that was once traversed by Cecil John Rhodes and explorers such as François Levaillant and David Livingstone. A route that took the stampede of hundreds of starry-eyed diamond diggers, speculators and supplies to Kimberly after the discovery of diamonds there in the early 1870s; a route on which you can explore about 400km of gravel road from Ceres through the Tanqua Karoo and into the Great Karoo without passing more than a handful of vehicles.

Towns like Sutherland, Fraserburg and Loxton sprung up, and farmers along the way opened their doors to weary transport riders and mail coaches heading northeast into the Cape interior.

Unfortunately, the action didn’t last. The construction of the railway line from Cape Town already reached Touws River by the 1870s. This and the outbreak of the Boer War put an end to the good times, leaving the shortest route between Cape Town and Johannesburg to become nothing more than long, lonely stretches of gravel cutting through sleepy Karoo villages, which never saw the limelight they once seemed to be destined for.

The old pipe smoker and I sit in silence under the oak tree for a while. I try to picture laden transport wagons, sometimes up to 30 of them jostling their way through Karoo Poort 150 years ago, the crack of whips carrying through the deep gorge.

I light up the gas stove for an early morning cup of coffee and take in the vast expanse before me. The sky is big; the November air crisp. As I take a sip from the steaming cup, a windmill squeaks into life as a gust of wind catches its blades.

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Pg. 2 | Next stop Sutherland

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Next stop Sutherland

To get onto the gravel of the Forgotten Highway, you drive northeast out of Ceres on the tarred R46 for 40km and turn left onto the R355 heading north, drive through the poort and take the first right turn after Karoo Poort.

I share the spectacular exit out of Karoo Poort into the Bokkeveld Karoo, the region east of the poort, with some Eskom power lines before hitting the gravel on the road to nowhere. Well, the road does in fact go to Sutherland – eventually. But 120km of beautiful dirt has to be covered before reaching the Komsberge and climbing up to the Great Karoo town.

My plan is to spend two days following a section of the Forgotten Highway that follows the old transport route through the Tanqua Karoo to Sutherland, where I’ll briefly join the R356 to Fraserburg, before heading onto Die Rantepad, which skirts the edge of the Nuweveld Mountains on the way to Fraserburg. From here, my route cuts south on a gravel road parallel to the R353 to Leeu-Gamka, where I’ll end on the N1, the very road that finally formed the main artery between Cape Town and Joburg.

I’m soon gunning it out across the plains, past the gates of farms such as Pretoriuskraal, Hangklip and Bizantsgat. The Hangklip itself is an iconic landmark, a towering mass of eroded rock that looks out over the Forgotten Highway and was once a sign of relief to transport riders, who knew it well as an outspan for the night.

I stop at an abandoned stone building near the farm Bizantsgat. Close by I discover the remains of an old ox-wagon, lying upside down in the veld. I wonder where it was built and if it was part of the heavy traffic that once passed through Bizantsgat.

Back on the road, I eventually start the long climb up into the foothills of the Komsberge, with the peaks of the Roggeveld range rising to the north. My Discovery’s old diesel engine clatters up the steep slopes to get to new views over the rocky landscape.

The track twists through Thuyshoogte before crossing into the Hantam district. A small sign at a cattle grid informs you that you’re heading into the Karoo Highland.

At Marigold Heights, the views open up and reveal the endless plains that stretch out over the Roggeveld towards Sutherland.

It’s late afternoon by the time I hit the tar again just south of Verlatekloof. I have spent the whole day on one continuous piece of gravel and only now see my first car, an old Isuzu farm bakkie battling up Verlatekloof’s winding road to Sutherland.

Pg. 3 | Southern land preacher

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Southern land preacher

Sutherland’s clear night skies have been its main draw card. While not much happens in Sutherland during the week, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) draws a steady trickle of weekend visitors.

It’s Monday evening and with an accommodation establishment on just about every dusty street of the town, I’ve got easy pickings… or so I think.

“Mondays are holidays here,” laughs Adrian Jerome, owner of The White House backpacker’s lodge, seemingly the only place that is open. “On Mondays and during Sewende Laan this whole place comes to a standstill.”

Sutherland owes its beginning to the 1850s when the Dutch Reformed Church bought the farm De List, which was divided into 50 plots. The town was named after Ds Henry Sutherland, the church’s minister from Worcester.

I trundle down the quiet streets the following morning past crumbling voorstoeps and the Moederkerk, which dominates the centre of the village.

The town has produced the poet brothers NP van Wyk Louw and W.E.G. Louw, whose little house in Jubilee Street is now the village museum.

I fill up at the single diesel pump on the outskirts of town. The petrol jockey still carries one of those leather bags with different slots for storing coins, something I remember from my childhood and I guess the days when you could fill up your tank and pay with coins.

I’m soon back on the gravel, where I decide to take the rantepad to Fraserburg. Although, strictly speaking, the rantepad isn’t on the Forgotten Highway, it was certainly used by transport riders in the old days and once formed part of the mail coach route between Sutherland and Beaufort West. Besides, the lure of an even more remote road than the main gravel drag between Sutherland and Fraserburg is too great.

The rantepad is 100km of rough gravel that skirts the edge of the Nuweveld escarpment. Starting about 20km east of Sutherland off the R356, it continues east, offering views over the Great Karoo as far as the Swartberg in the south.

It doesn’t take long to realise the rantepad is going to have me captivated. The road crosses lunar-like landscapes, dives down into gorges and curves up onto high plains.

I stop at the farmhouse of Kobus and Anna-Marie Olivier
at the three-star Rhenoster Valley Guest Farm. It’s 60km from Sutherland, so you don’t just pop back to town if you’ve forgotten to buy milk. We chat about life on this remote farm along the rantepad. “We don’t have internet or cellphone reception here,” says Anna-Marie.

About 2km down the house they have restored an old cottage for visitors, complete with Aga anthracite stove. “In the middle of winter it’s the perfect place to stay in,” says Anna-Marie. As it is on top of the Nuweveld escarpment, this area is much cooler than the Karoo’s low-lying areas in summer. But winter here can be bitterly cold. In fact, the Oliviers are quite used to going about their farming chores during the annual snowfalls here.

From the Riet River the road snakes along rugged kloofs and outcrops of the Nuweveld Range, finally emerging onto the plains of the Great Karoo. The landscape evens out and the far-off flattop mountains dot the horizon.

I say a last goodbye to the spectacular views behind me as the Landy emerges onto the escarpment and the final stretch of gravel takes me into the metropolis of Fraserburg.

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Pg. 4 | Freezerburg

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Freezerburg

Fraserburg is a no-nonsense sort of place. The Meerkat Kafee serves fastfood; you can get beers at Nuweveld Drankwinkel, fuel at Mans Motors and buy farming implements at the Fraserburg Co-op. If there’s anything else you’re after, bring it with you or do without it.

It’s late evening when I roll into town and the streets are deserted. After my first day of not passing a single car on a gravel stretch, it looks like I could make it through town and to Outuin Country Lodge, my accommodation for the night, without busting that record.

Maxie Boshoff waves the geese out of the driveway as I drive up to the lodge. “It’s not too cold at this time of year, but there are wool blankets if you need them,” Maxie assures me after I had climbed out of the vehicle, exhausted. The evening skies are already lighting up with stars.

“You must go and see the spore,” Maxie continues. Among Fraserburg’s main attractions are the fossilised Bradysaurus footprints outside of town. These mammal-like reptiles are believed to have roamed central Gondwana before the dinosaurs.

It’s enough to have me up early the following morning to have a look around town before heading out to the spore with a guide from the local museum.

I get sidetracked in Main Street by local resident Trompie Boshoff, who’s tending to an oil leak under his old Land Rover Series 3 bakkie. “They still haven’t got that sorted out,” he says. I laugh as we shake hands on the side of the road. I think of my Discovery that has left its customary overnight oil mark on the driveway at Outuin Country Lodge.

Trompie offers to take me for a spin, so we head out of town to an old British gunpowder store dating from the Boer War.

“Ja, the Forgotten Highway,” Trompie murmurs, as I tell him about the route I’ve taken. “Some trucks still cut through here to get to the Cape. It’s the shortest route.” The result is that the gravel roads to Loxton and Victoria West are sometimes in a terrible condition.

He tells me of a perlemoen smuggler who thought he’d head along the Forgotten Highway to avoid attention. When he jumped the stop sign outside the Fraserburg police station late one night in 2009, the cops gave chase. During the chase, the poacher crashed into the Voortrekker Memorial at the end of Voortrekker Street. He was caught, his car was a write-off, and the memorial had to be repaired.

After my visit to the Bradysaurus footprints, which are well worth the outing, I leave Fraserburg to head south to the N1 at Leeu-Gamka. What’s left of the Forgotten Highway will have to be completed on another back-road journey.

On my map I notice a dotted green line running south from Fraserburg, parallel to the tarred R353. I can’t resist – the thought of a few more lonely hours away from the tar and traffic seem a great way to delay the pain of the N1 back to Cape Town.

The 140 km of gravel is excellent and takes me a good few hours to complete, mainly because I’m spending a lot of time out of my vehicle exploring rock formations and the twisting bends of the Oukloof Pass, which cuts down gracefully through the Nuweveld escarpment.

The pass was built in the 1870s on the road that linked Fraserburg and Leeu-Gamka. It was only when Thomas Bain later built the nearby Teekloof Pass on the now tarred R353 that the road over the pass became another forgotten route.

I pass deserted stone cottages, windmills and rusted wrecks of cars that never made it to Leeu-Gamka. As with the other gravel tracks I’ve followed over the past two days, I’m entirely alone.

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Pg. 5 | Plastic rules

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Plastic rules

The road finally exits onto the R353 about 20km north of the N1. I soon reach the wide stretch of tar that cuts through the country. I roll into the busy Ultra City, a blob of yellow plastic on the Karoo landscape. There are over 10 petrol pumps; the jockeys are dashing around swiping garage cards through electronic card machines. They’d laugh at the leather money cases.

The very railway line that was part of the demise of the Forgotten Highway lies baking in the midday sun in front of me, heading northeast to Kimberley and southwest to Cape Town. Ironically, the railway faces the same redundancy as the Forgotten Highway once did.

In the 1920s it was predicted that even though the railway line had ended trips by transport riders and turned the shortest route across the country into an unused byway, the arrival of the motor car would revive the route. But by the 1940s the Du Toit’s Kloof Pass was being built and the course of the main north-south road across the country was set.

I wonder what would have become of Fraserburg or Sutherland had the N1 ever sliced through them. I wonder what the wide-open landscape of the Tanqua Karoo and the Roggeveld would have looked like with petrol stations, truck stops and high-speed traffic. I wonder how many places are left where you can explore 400km of gravel road with no other vehicles around.

Thank goodness little has changed along the Forgotten Highway. It’s the road to take if you want to take a shortcut between Cape Town and Kimberley, or simply want to explore a once-buzzing route that has gone silent.

Pg. 6 | Know before you go

Know before you go

What can I see and do there? Follow sections of the Forgotten Highway, the original route from the Cape into the interior before the railway or N1 was built. Explore hundreds of kilometres of gravel road through the Tanqua Karoo, the Roggeveld and the Great Karoo.

Road conditions? All gravel roads are in fairly good condition. There are a number of washed out areas on the road over the Oukloof Pass between Leeu-Gamka and Fraserburg.

4×2 or 4×4? A 4×2 bakkie with high ground clearance is fine.

Is there fuel along the route?
Fuel is available in Ceres, Sutherland, Fraserburg and Leeu-Gamka. No fuel is available between towns.

What should I take along? Distances between towns are long. It is advisable to take along plenty o
f water and food as it can take a full day to get from one town to the next with stops. Take two spare tyres. The roads are hard on tyres and it’s unlikely that you’ll find replacements in towns along the route.

Where can I stay along the route? All towns have some self-catering and B&B accommodation options.

  • The White House backpacker’s lodge (Sutherland): Single and double rooms at R120pppn and a self-catering cottage at R150 pppn. Phone Adrian Jerome on *023 571 1444.
  • Outuin Country Lodge (Fraserburg): six self-catering granny flats; three en-suite double rooms in the main house. R190 pppn; R350 per double room per night; R150 pppn for groups larger than two. Phone Maxie Boshoff on *023 741 1208; *karoo.bigsky@gmail.com
  • Rhenoster Valley Guest Farm (off the rantepad between Fraserburg and Sutherland): fully equipped four-bedroom self-catering farmhouse sleeps nine; R200 pppn for 1-2 persons, R180 pppn for 4 persons, R150 pppn for 6-9 persons. Contact Anna-Marie Olivier on *023 571 2780.

More information: www.discoversutherland.co.za; www.fraserburg.co.za

Fast facts:

Best time: The area looks at its best in autumn or spring. Winters can be bitterly cold with snowfalls likely. Summers are hot.

Stay at least: Two nights and three full days is more than enough to cover the route.

Distance from: Cape Town to Ceres: 121km, Johannesburg to Ceres: 1353km

Know all:
The Roggeveld was named after a wild rye (roggen in Dutch) which once grew in abundance in the area and was almost entirely eradicated by cattle grazing.

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