Words and Pix by Chris Marais
I was sitting in a warm winter sun-spot in Adderley Street, Cradock, earlier this year, waiting for my wife Jules to finish up her business at the post office and dreaming of a Karoo road trip.
Casting about in the bakkie for something to read, I picked up our tatty copy of the Caltex South African Road Atlas and paged through, mesmerised by the possibilities offered along the Deep Karoo route between the Mother City and the Diamond City.
Hmm. I realised we had done this epic ride over the past decade of our Karoo life, only not in one fell swoop. So I began to thread it all together, to work out the logistics of actually covering the 1 200-odd kilometre trip in one heavenly journey of dust and diesel and fine bluegrass tunes – if I ever get around to fixing the in-bakkie music system, that is.
Dawn in Simon’s Town
We would begin at dawn with a cup of coffee on the stoep of our favourite Simon’s Town hideaway, where we normally come to complete the last bits of a book with the layout team.
It’s a Karoostyle self-cater called Cotton’s Cottages and it overlooks the Simon’s Town Harbour, the lights of Kalk Bay and the delights of the Olympia Café in the distance.
Jules sends last e-mails while I pack the vehicle and then we’re out into the murderous flow of Cape Town traffic, ears pinned back and heading for the N1. Next stop Matjiesfontein.
Matjiesfontein O Matjiesfontein
Round about Touws River, we begin to breathe the good Karoo air. This is just what consumptive Victorians paid fortunes to suck into their sooty lungs.
Less than 60km later, the late afternoon sun glints on the plinth below the grave of Major General Andrew Wauchope, ill-fated leader of the Highland Brigade that took on the Boers at Magersfontein on the 10th of December, 1899.
James Logan, owner of Matjiesfontein village just down the road, had contacted General Wauchope’s widow after the battle and offered to bury her husband near his enterprising little railway settlement.
Possibly confusing Magersfontein with Matjiesfontein, she accepted his offer. That’s why this British soldier lies so far away from his last battlefield. But wait, we’re gonna get there.
As always, we drive on to Matjiesfontein, climb on a Red London Bus and let impresario Johnny Theunissen take us away on a five-minute (but hilarious) tour of his neighbourhood.
The next morning, being Sunday, we join Johnny at his church over the railroad tracks and watch him preach in his passionate style. There’s always something to experience at the beloved Matjiesfontein.
Way of the Ox Wagon
It is at this point, however, that the classic traveller’s routes split up. You can continue on the N1 and up to Beaufort West. Later, you take the N12 and meet us at Victoria West, where our story continues.
This is, loosely, the way many prospectors, chancers, fortune-hunters, chandlers, grocers and remittance types travelled up to the new diamond fields around Hopetown and then later Kimberley in the early 1870s.
Future riches lay in wait for the likes of Barney Barnato, who booked passage on an ox-wagon “to the diamonds” for five pounds. It took the Barnato Party two months to crawl through the Great Karoo along the trail of the first Voortrekkers.
Starry, Starry Sutherland
We, however, are heading directly north from Matjiesfontein over the mountains to the village of Sutherland, skirting the Moordenaar’s (murderer’s) Karoo and settling in for a night of stars, stars and more stars.
The next day we head through the Rooipoort Pass, cutting through dry and dramatic geology en route to Fraserburg.
We are now officially in Tough Guy Country. This is where the hardiest of trekboere once settled, after decades of being kept out of the district by equally determined groups of Bushmen.
Big Foot Was Here
But we are looking further back through time to around 251 million years ago. A guide connected to the Fraserburg Museum takes us out to the nearby Gansfontein Farm to see the clear sign of a Bradysaurus that left its imprint tracks here on a smooth rock surface, once a muddy waterway.
To be honest with you, we regularly travel very far to see places like this – they are worth every drop of diesel. Not only do we have here one of the great ancient footprints, but also traces of pre-historic prawns, tok-tokkies from yesteryear, fish and dassie-like diictodons. Preserved in ancient mud on a farm in the middle of the Karoo.
Tumbleweeds, Corbels and Castles
The 76km between Fraserburg and Loxton is broken up by tumbleweeds and corbelled houses in the distance. Some of these weird dwellings are now very popular overnight stays.
When people mention Karoo towns they love, Loxton so often floats to the top. It has been the backdrop, even the central character in movies. Writer Deon Meyer has a place there and we once watched the veld-muti guru Antoinette Pienaar spellbinding an audience with her singing voice in the local church hall.
Loxton has magic. It’s in the building styles, it’s in the shady lanes, the faces of the people and the occasional eccentricities that intrigue us travellers so. We buy cheese from one lot of Wiese family members, we drive out to look at another Wiese-owned oddity (the only castle in the Karoo) and we have a go at a Bushman rock-gong on the farm of one Henk Cloete.
The etchings and the gongs we find along the way, especially up near Kimberley, are a constant reminder of the First Ones who lived, hunted and played in this arid vastness.
Legendary Victoria West
Now we drive the 70km to Victoria West, epicentre of the Great Karoo. If you’ve never been here before, you’re going to love the timeless feel of its streets and its many legends.
The year 1871 had a dual effect on Victoria West. That was when the floodgate of north-bound diamond wayfarers opened, and the 12-year-old settlement (founded in 1859) became a commercial centre, practically overnight.
You’d be amazed to find out that many of these hopeful souls with diamond fever actually arrived in the dusty streets of Victoria West on foot. Most, however, came up on the post coaches, and Victoria West was their halfway spot.
That same year saw a real flood as well, when a classic Karoo storm descended, gorging every gulley, stream, river and dam in the area. What happened to the town was on the same horror-scale as the events that occurred in Laingsburg just over a century later.
History for All Ages
We learn all this and more at the Victoria West Museum, where we also pay our respects to their resident Bradysaurus and various fish fossils.
After a brief sojourn at a rail-side blockhouse outside town, we finally begin to connect the travel dots on this one. This is a trip for those who love fossil history, big landscapes, the story of the Anglo-Boer War, First People veld art, red wine and lamb chops around an evening braai, mountain passes, remote farm stays, village life and all the little roadside eccentricities that real travellers adore.
It’s not for anyone in a hurry, that’s for sure.
On, on, up the N12 to Britstown, just more than 100km to the north. After a lunch in the rather charming courtyard of the Trans-Karoo Lodge, we continue.
But look, here’s the Kambro Padstal. Let’s stop and shop for a second. There is fresh biltong, there are crafts for sale but the real find for us is the World’s Best Nougat.
I normally avoid the stuff like the plague, because of the ensuing battle between its toffee stickiness and my ageing chompers. But Theresa’s Pecan & Cranberry Handmade Nougat from Boskop Farm up in remote Brandvlei is pure crumbly magic in a wrapper.
One day, Jules and I will work out an entire road trip up to faraway Brandvlei just to find Theresa and, obviously, buy up all her nougat. It’s the kind of thing we do.
Strydenburg is in our rear-view mirror. Hopetown, where the first diamond was discovered, soon joins Strydenburg. We arrive at Mokala National Park just in time for the evening game drive, settle in with cameras on the furthest back seat and tune in to the world of fabulous rare ungulates like tsessebe, sable and roan antelope.
The following day, before our grand entrance into Kimberley, we spend some sobering moments at the Magersfontein Battle Site where General Wauchope (remember Matjiesfontein cemetery at the start of our odyssey?) met his end.
And finally we’re in the Diamond City, at the lip of the iconic Big Hole. I’m just about to mentally slope off and have a couple of cold ones at the legendary Star of the West Hotel bar when Jules raps sharply on the bakkie window and breaks my reverie and I’m jerked right back into downtown Cradock.
“What’s that smile on your face?” she wants to know.
“We’ve just been on a helluva trip. Climb in and I’ll tell you all about it…”
Travel Information Contacts
Fraserburg Museum Guide: Marthinus Kruger 084 873 0098 or Municipality 023 741 1012.
Kambro Padstal: www.kambroaccom.co.za, call 053 672 0408 or 083 305 6668.
- Or for something quite different, try this trip as outlined and then load your vehicle onto a train and do the Trans-Karoo from Kimberley to Cape Town. For more information, visit southafricanrailways.co.za.