The Bakkie with the Best Stories

Story and Pictures by Chris Marais

Sometime back in 2003, I was standing toe-to-toe with a Sutherland sheep farmer after his deeply rutted middelmannetjie road had nearly ripped the guts out of our little low-slung sedan.

We’d come to do a magazine story on some aspect of the guy’s farming enterprise, but the issue of his bad road took precedence and we ended up yelling at each other. As much as I hate to admit it, he had the last word:

“Get yourself a blerry bakkie, man!” he shouted as he turned and stormed back into the shearing shed.

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Outside Barrydale in the Klein Karoo.

A New Bakkie

So the next week I walked into a dealership in Sandton and not long after I drove out in a brand-new metallic-grey Isuzu KB 250 double-cab bakkie.

It was (and still is) the kind of vehicle that wants to leave the city traffic and head out into the open road. Parked there in our garage in Wendywood, the bakkie was nothing less than a call to adventure. A call we could not resist.

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Sundowners on the Orange-Gariep River.

Namibia Calls

In the spring of 2004, after much plotting and planning, my wife Jules and I drove out of Jo’burg and headed west on the N14 towards Upington, where I bought a second spare wheel.

We were taking on Namibia for three months, from toe to nose: entering the southern border at Noordoewer in mid-August, we finally left this marvellous blonde country via the Caprivi Strip in mid-November.

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The Lost Patrol in the middle of the Messum Crater, Namibia.

KB and the Desert

We were two books richer. There had been no flat tyres and no mishaps except for the temporary loss of keys in a big rocky outcrop near Keetmanshoop called The Giants’ Playground. The bakkie had growled its way perfectly across most of Namibia on the road trip of our lives.

We wrote A Drink of Dry Land – Journeys through Namibia and, soon after, we compiled Namibia Space, an accompanying photographic coffee table book. Having this bakkie had made us brave.

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Ferrying stranded mill workers to Storm’s River during the N2 fires of 2005.

The Coastal Caper

It was no real challenge then, to propose the next great mission to Struik (now Random House), our publishers at the time: a three-month journey around the entire coastline of South Africa.

The Namibia travel books had hardly hit the shelves when we were already sitting up at Alexander Bay, the bakkie’s nose pointed south. We took a deep breath, buckled up and began another adventure.

It was less challenging for the bakkie than for us, this time around. Most of the roads we traversed were sedan-friendly, so the bakkie became more of a people-mover. Especially when we ended up in a wall of fire on the N2 outside Storm’s River and had to rescue a dazed and desperate group of wood mill workers from the blaze and the accompanying smoke.

That trip yielded two more books: Shorelines – A Journey along the South African Coast and Coast to Coast – Life along South Africa’s shores.

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Life behind the wheel of a classic Isuzu KB bakkie.

Behind the Wheel

It suddenly felt like we had two existences: one behind a computer writing a book, the other behind the wheel of our Isuzu KB on the hunt for a tale to tell. Little did we know that this would become the story of our lives – at least for the next 15 years.

The year 2006 saw us take on southern Africa in a big way, with extended trips into Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Mozambique. We used the diff-lock facility only once, in the deep clay of a Lesotho mountain road after a rainstorm.

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Shepherds to the rescue in Lesotho.

Saved by Shepherds

But a gaggle of young herders appeared, heaved us out of the clinging mud, jumped on the back and sang with gusto as we drove to the nearest village to buy them all treats at the trading store.

In 2007 the bakkie, Jules and I came to live in the Eastern Cape Karoo river town of Cradock. It was the Big Move of our lives, and one of our first local connections was with Andre Conradie, service manager at CAT Delta (now CAT Motors). Andre and his team have serviced our KB for the past 12 years, carefully prepping the vehicle before every long trip we take into the Karoo.

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Our new branding came with a quirky gift from a prankster friend.

Karoo Spacemobile

We were now branded as Karoo Space and publishing independently, beginning with the bestselling Karoo Keepsakes and following a few years later with Karoo Keepsakes II. After that came Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa.

Our print magazine client, SA Country Life, became a great promoter of the Karoo and so we could plan long trips to the little towns of the region and supply them with regular features.

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Smousing at the Williston Mall, Northern Cape.

Smousing in the Karoo

The bakkie then took on the brand name flashed across its canopy: Karoo Space. It became known all over this vast region, from Richmond to Riemvasmaak, Springbok to Somerset East.

We had, in the meantime, become Karoo Smouse, in the tradition of the old Jewish traders who used to traverse the dry country. Before a trip, the bakkie would first be loaded with book stocks to drop off at all the little padstalle and out of the way coffee shops in dorpies you probably never heard of.

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The bakkie gets a new friend – TwoPack the German Shepherd.

TwoPack and Karoo Space

The Karoo Space bakkie also made a new friend, in the form of a long-haired German Shepherd called TwoPack. Our new dog came to regard the back of the bakkie as his personal fiefdom, his safe place, over the years.

We have ventured deep into the khaki mountainlands of the Richtersveld and followed the great floods of 2011 from Gariep Dam right across to Kakamas, where the river roiled in the desert like a fat python, restless and deadly.

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Karoo Space in the southern Drakensberg.

The Roads Less Travelled

We have taken on the mountain passes of the southern Drakensberg and the Klein Karoo, with the bakkie relentlessly growling its way through all conditions and obstacles.

We have seen the Karoo in times of plenty and, like now, in desperate times of drought. We have prayed with the farmers of the Hard Man’s Karoo, partied with the youngsters at the AfrikaBurn events, sung at huiskonserte in the strangest little spots, driven through the blizzards of winter and endured a blistering sandstorm in the Kalahari.

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Clutch plate repairs in a Uniondale workshop.

Karoo Mechanics love the KB

“Aah, the Karoo Space bakkie!” a padstal owner in the middle of nowhere would exclaim, as she gifted us a couple of meaty pies “for what you do for the Karoo”. To Jules and me, this was far more rewarding than any of the journalism trophies we won back in our city days. The Isuzu KB had become the third essential cog in the Karoo Space wheel.

In our 16-year relationship with the vehicle, we have come to know many mechanics across the Karoo via: a clutch plate in Uniondale, a battery in Williston, a wheezing fuel pump in Willowmore. They all love to work on the old KBs, which they regard as “legend bakkies”.

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Battling through the blizzard of September 2018.

The Next Chapter

The other day an old buddy asked me about mileage.

“Oh, about 320 000km,” I said.

“After 16 years? That’s only 20 000 a year!”

“It’s not the years, boet. It’s the road you took to get there,” I replied.

“And now?” was his next question.

“Now we go for another 320 000km,” was my answer. Isuzu and the Karoo are one…

  • Latest news: This story inspired C.A.T. Motors in Cradock (the local Isuzu dealership) to arrange a massive reconditioning for the Karoo Space Bakkie – catch that story HERE.


7 thoughts on “The Bakkie with the Best Stories

  1. Jan Nel says:

    This KB story is a classic. At various points of our lives, dad had a KB-1500,KB-1800, KB-250 and finally a KB-280, I had a KB – petrol in the USA, my sister Hanli had her KB-2200 and brother Basson had a KB-280. I don’t know if we have photo’s of the various KB’s we owned, but they were all incredible vehicles and most of them tackled the road from our farm outside Waterford, up the little pass to Pearston, past the graveyard and over the mountain to Cradock, to visit family.

  2. Chris says:

    Has your KB done the stretch from Ripplemead to Groenvlei — and on to Murraysburg via Swaelkranz ?

    Some interesting “roads” in that part of the World …

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