South African (gravel) road trip

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03 December 2022
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Pat's son, Isaac, enjoying the wide, open spaces, and from the best vantage point : credit: © Patrick Cruywagen
Editor Pat and friends enjoy a 48-hour blast to the Western Cape’s lesser-known Tankwa Karoo National Park in a Defender 130. To get there they travel the longest gravel road between two towns in all of South Africa.

When mainstream tourists go to Scotland for a memorable road trip they normally do the North Coast 500. If going to the Republic of Ireland these same folk would probably do the 1000-mile Wild Atlantic Way. I have done the former in autumn and was just blown away by the landscapes, definitely some of the finest in all the world.

Would I do the same trip at the height of the summer school holidays? Probably not. Because the older I get the more I crave wide open spaces and being surrounded by my nearest and dearest.

Which is why when in Cape Town, South Africa (SA) for the recent half-term holidays, all of my focus was on my family where my 8-year old son Isaac used this precious time to get to know his African cousins a whole lot better.

We had endless braais (SA speak for BBQ), climbed Table Mountain, ate seafood in Hout Bay’s Chapmans Peak Hotel, took freezing cold swims in the Atlantic Ocean and just hung out, like families do when there are no travel restrictions or lockdowns.

When foreign visitors to Cape Town feel the need for a road trip they normally head up one of the coastlines. When the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge visited South Africa in 2003, the competition went along the famed Garden Route – this southern coastline road leaves tourists breathless with its whales, wineries and wildlife. It can, however, get a wee bit busy in the summer, like the M1 on a bank holiday weekend.

Nekkies taking us to his secret viewpoint. The 130 just ate up the rough, rocky track

Although my South African sojourn was short and sweet, I did allow myself a 48-hour road trip with two of my best mates, Nekkies Smit and Aldri van Jaarsveld, both Land Rover owners and enthusiasts. Isaac came along as I want him to develop a love for the African continent along with an understanding of his roots.

Nekkies kindly provided me with a Defender 110 Td5 while visiting my family; Isaac and I then drove it back to his home in Paarl when that part of our trip was over. In summer, the mercury in Paarl hardly ever drops below 35°C – today is one of those days. “I thought about taking my Discovery 4 but that is not the right vehicle for an African road trip, so we are going in my Defender 130 instead,” Nekkies insisted.

The Tankwa trio: Nekkies (on left), Aldri and Pat, enjoying a swift drink

Not only does Nekkies fix and restore Land Rovers, he also collects them. Lucky for him South Africa does not have the same Land Rover theft problem as the UK does, so he is easily able to house them on his property. South Africa has other problems, though, which explains the electric fence, two big black Dobermans and the 24-hour armed response security.

I chuck Isaac’s and my bag into the back of the pick-up and get into the second row of seats. When you are used to driving a 110 you tend to forget how bad the second row of seats are in a 110 – or a 130 for that matter. Because of my height, I can’t really see out of the regular window and have to crouch over whenever someone points out something. Only the two in the front get any sort of advantage from the air-con. No big deal as it feels good to be on a road trip in Africa in a Defender after such a long, long time.

The first hour or so of our trip takes us through the beautiful Hex River Valley, which is home to the most expensive farming land in all Africa. Every inch of this fertile land seems to be covered in vineyards. Sometimes in the winter the surrounding mountains can be covered in snow, but today they gleam magnificently in the summer sun.

Bokkoms is a whole, dried salted mullet, a delicacy in these parts

The tuned Td5 engine safely takes us out of the valley towards Ceres where we stock up on ice, biltong, beers and some red meat to cook on the fire. One of my sisters used to teach in the Ceres valley, and fruit from these farms is exported the world over. Surprisingly, Africa is a net importer of food, yet has 60 per cent of the planet’s uncultivated arable land. Not long after leaving Ceres we say goodbye to the tar roads. Nekkies stops to deflate the tyres to about 1.9 bar. They were at around 2.5, which is way too hard as the 130 is not carrying much gear –just some wood, a fridge and our small bags. This is a really back-to-basics tour; no fancy gear required when you are staying in nice lodges.

The R355 is the longest gravel road between two towns in South Africa, and as soon as we are on it the fun begins. The Tankwa Karoo was declared a national park in 1986 and since then the area has grown as the park buys up the surrounding overgrazed farmlands. The stark, semi-desert region has fast become the go-to place for those wanting to escape humanity.

I’ve also done a few 4x4 trips here in the past when still working for SA4x4 magazine. The park has truly magnificent 4x4 trails and I think it would be good for staff from the UK’s Lake District and Peak District National Parks to maybe take a trip here to see how 4x4 owners and park officials get along just splendidly and respectfully.

Drive past the Tankwa Padstal and you will regret it

We take a lengthy stop at the characterful Tankwa Padstal, an oasis in the desert where one can take a swim, order some food or pick up some final provisions before entering the sparse park. Isaac jumps into the tiny pool for a cool down and I join him. Aldri and Nekkies head for the bar to find another way to cool down. The place is more like a museum of madness with trinkets and interesting displays everywhere. We are the only visitors and in the hour or so we spend there, no one else arrives. This is my kind of travelling.

Eventually we have to depart as we don’t want to arrive at the Gannaga Lodge after sunset. The name Tankwa is supposed to mean turbid water or land of thirst. I once took a Honda CR-V though here for a review and photoshoot. Ironically Aldri was also with me on that occasion and we decided back then that the name comes the twwaaank sound the millions of little stones make when the tyres flick them up against the undercarriage of your vehicle. Many a Tankwa Karoo visitor has come a cropper on these roads as they are not kind to your tyres.

As we come speeding over a rise Nekkies notices a tortoise crossing the road, he does not slow down and perfectly lines up the tortoise with the centre of the Defender. I glance back and see that although the tortoise has gone back into his shell it is unharmed.

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This viewpoint is only a short distance from the lodge but not many know about it

The highlight of the day is the sunset climb up the Gannaga Pass. Isaac and I hop into the back of the pick-up so we can take it all in, while Nekkies pops it into low-range as we slowly start the climb. There is no other 4x4 on the pass, not even a Toyota. The views and switchbacks make it a special drive. We stop at the top of the pass to celebrate life and being together.

If you want to relax, unwind and watch the world go by, then Gannaga Lodge in Middelpos is the place. Great views from the lodge and awesome 4x4 tracks in the nearby park. See gannagalodge.co.za.

Once at the lodge Isaac enjoys a sunset swim to cool down. We have the whole place to ourselves for the night as it is mid-week and the schools are not on holiday. The lodge is known for its local cuisine and so I order sheep’s neck for dinner which is served with fresh veggies and rice. It’s absolutely delicious and myself, Nekkies, Aldri and two of the staff members sit up and discuss anything and everything until the wee hours of the morning. We have a full Karoo brekkie and swim before our mid-morning departure.

Our gravel trails continue towards the small town of Middelpos where we fill the Td5 with fuel which, incidentally, is much cheaper than in the UK. The veldt is green and there is much water about. This is very unusual for this time of the year, but I’m sure the wildlife and farmers aren’t complaining.

We continue along the long and lonely gravel tracks to a fascinating town called Sutherland, also known as the coldest town in South Africa. The clear skies here make it one of the best places in the land to come stargazing. This probably explains why they have called the local steak house and boozer the Mars Bar.

Sutherland’s soon-to-be-famous Boorgat watering hole, complete with Series II sentries

We instead head to a new place called Boorgat, a restaurant with character and a must-stop for Landy lovers as it has two Series II Land Rovers permanently adorning both sides of the entrance. There is another one on display inside the restaurant and my sources tell me that it was recently used in a movie. We enjoy some pizzas and Vuilhonne, a local drink, before pushing on towards our final stopover, Rogge Cloof, a private wildlife estate renowned for its clear night skies.

Unlike the Defender, the cheetah is the fastest animal in Africa

Isaac and I once again hop into the open back of the Landy, and as we do so a mongoose scurries off into the bushes. We pass some magnificent herds of springbok, eland and oryx and I warn Isaac to keep a lookout for the harder to spot cheetah, which also inhabits the estate. The place is massive and it takes us about another 30 minutes to reach the accommodation and HQ.

While Isaac and I head for the pool to cool our British skins, Nekkies has work to do; he is responsible for keeping Rogge Cloof’s fleet of Land Rover Defender game viewers in a serviceable condition. He heads off to inspect the vehicles before calling his workshop’s mechanics who are coming over in the morning to carry out the necessary work. One of the Defenders has a knocking sound – it could be a CV joint or the front diff. As it is pretty isolated out here, Nekkies sends them a long list of bits to bring out, including a new front diff. Just in case.

Aldri enjoys the sunset at at Rogge Cloof

He joins us again just before sunset and I light a fire to cook on. The skies really turn it on for us, turning several shades of orange before darkness descends. Lamb chops, local sausage and cheese toasties are cooked on the coals. Due to the recent drought and the make-up of our little group, salads are a
swear word.

I take Isaac by the hand and we walk towards the dam about 100 metres away. I stop and tell him to look up. There are stars everywhere and he reaches out to try to touch them. My eyes start to well up when I realise that I will be flying back to the UK the following night.

I awake at about 4am and open the curtains so I can watch the sunrise. It is time to go back to England; Isaac’s headmistress is calling.

Our 48-hour Defender 130 road trip had been the perfect ending to our short South African adventure. Afterwards Nekkies messages me and says that it felt like a two-week holiday. I still can’t believe we had the whole of the Tankwa Karoo to ourselves for that time and didn’t see another tourist. While the Garden Route and the Kruger National Park are must-see places, if you want peace and solitude, the Tankwa Karoo will always come out tops, especially if enjoyed from the back of the Defender 130 pick-up.

 

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