Spring Dance in the Tankwa

The Tanka daisy fields of 2013 were out of this world – and so was the guy in the frame…

Story and Pix by Chris Marais

The road from Cradock to Williston is paved with wild flowers and windpumps, blessed with minimal traffic and quite perfect for the playing of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus album at three-quarter volume with a light hand on the bass button.

The way to Williston from our front door cuts through the chilly late-winter heart of South Africa. The route is generally in great nick, the land is a sexy tan with a dash of daisy and all in all, it’s a no-stress eight-hour drive in the company of Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Lowell George, Peter Gabriel and Mr John Lennon.

When you travel with us in the dusty Karoo Space bakkie, you meander and you kuier and you generally go slow. No one can drink in the land at 140km/h. If you’re in a hurry through the Karoo, the only people you’re going to meet are petrol jockeys and the occasional Knight of the Shady Trees.

melanie brummer
Melanie Brummer, the magical Tie-Dye Lady who attends the Williston Winter Fest as often as she can.


We’re exhausted as we chug over the rise into Williston, this little Starry Karoo village we love so much. We’ve come for the annual Winter Festival at the Williston Mall and in no time we are drinking beer at an amateur karaoke show.

The first new face we meet here is that of Melanie Brummer, the T-Shirt Lady. Melanie is a clothing designer and author. Some years back her good friend (and legendary purveyor of, in particular, anything in luiperdlap) Marianne Fassler said Melanie, you don’t have a husband and kids, you can do anything you want.

“I realised I could stop worrying about life. I decided to travel the country, meet new people and leave a rainbow of T-shirts behind. The more I travel, the more knowledge I share, the more things work out for me.”

She shows Jules (the eternal hippie chick, as it were) how to make a rainbow-coloured tie-dye T-shirt with a fork, some elastic bands, gloves, apron, cloth and dyes.

williston winter fest
Shadow dancing at the Williston Winter Fest as the Nama Riel kicks into gear.


The Nama Riel. I write about it often. I photograph it when I can. But this year it’s different. They dance at midday, so their shadows seem disconnected, doing totally unrelated things .

Fascinated by the dancers’ shadows, I follow every move with my cameras, focussing on these spirit shapes on the ground.

And later, drinking far too much red wine with Jo Els, our magistrate buddy from Tarkastad, I realise I have just captured a series of out-of-body experiences. Or maybe it’s just me being weird. And being a little out-of-body myself.

For weird and wonderful, look up the Van Rensburgs of Calvinia. We love them dearly and hook up with them the next day for our annual safari to somewhere in the Northern Cape.

This time it’s down the dusty R355 between Ceres and Calvinia, the Tankwa Tented Camp to be precise.

A ship of state sailing through the Tankwa Desert…


You’ve never seen the Tankwa like this. The annual flower bombs have landed here, and it’s daisies as far as the eye can see, with blue skies and cloud patterns you could stare at all day.

The distant mountains look noble, the roadside horses eat our apples, beetles scurry from bush to bush, swathes of sage green vegetation spread all about us, there is the constant threat of a punctured tyre, and an agreeable silence reigns in the vehicle until Dirk opines:

“You know, it’s not really wise to drink goats’ milk in the Tankwa at this time of year.”

“Why, Dirk, why?”

“Because that’s when they eat the yellow stinkkop flowers.”

In the distance, the Cederberg ranges beckon like the battlements of an ancient kingdom. This is the road, man.

At a familiar sign we turn left. This is the site of the annual AfrikaBurn, and we’ve been here a couple of times when it’s been crawling with Burners dressed like their best dreams.

The Giant of the Tankwa – at the AfrikaBurn site.


Now it’s desert and wind, a distant giant head, a graveyard of crazy cars, the Tankwa Tented Camp and our host, Marita Holtshauzen.

Marita is a lanky, slow-talking, easy-smiling, guitar-playing, super-chilled young woman who looks just perfect rolling her own cigarettes.

We drop our gear and head off to the Burn site. Way past the Tankwa International Airport, we find old Ozymandias, the giant head. Birds are flying up and peering into his empty eye sockets. From a distance, he looks fantastic. Close up, I just want to run away screaming. Those massive hands.

Sunset finds us at a massive old ship, also courtesy of AfrikaBurn. We play like kids at Disneyland. Pirates of the Tankwa.

tankwa tented camp
The Onverklaar Bar at the Tankwa Tented Camp.


But now there is thirst. There is also the Onverklaar Bar at the tented camp. Jules is a bit startled to find a small-bore rifle at the bar counter.

“I’ve been hunting mice,” says Marita. These damn Tankwa mice will steal you blind.

The Onverklaar Bar, you just have to see it. There’s naughty stuff all over the walls, just like in most desert bars in the Karoo or Kalahari.

But there’s also a large wooden box in the bar containing silly hats, suspenders and a traffic cop’s jacket – don’t ask. There are also a number of tom-toms in the corner. It now becomes compulsory (we decide) to dress up and drum. As if our lives depend on it.

Outside forces, cohorts of said Ozymandias perhaps, have taken over our hands as we drum furiously to Marita’s bar music and then we just can’t stop laughing. And all this on one glass of red wine.

Jules and I find our tent in the small hours of the night and lock the door – only because Marita said those damn Tankwa mice are out there, lurking in the bushes.

What happens in the Tankwa tends to stay in the Tankwa. Maybe not this time…

This is an extract from our story that won the 2015 Caxton Magazines Award for Best Travel Feature. We returned to the Tankwa recently – see HERE for a photo gallery glimpse. And if you want to have some quality Karoo all to yourself, here’s an incredible deal on our Karoo Life Ebook series – ORDER NOW!

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