No one goes into the driest place in our country without good reason. Even fewer venture through without a destination on the other side. You don’t just accidentally stumble into the Tankwa.
My introduction to this desert landscape came a few years back when our family weekend getaway turned into an exploration of a more direct route from A to B. It looked good in theory, cutting off two sides of the mapped triangle by going straight across the valley instead of lumbering south and then west along the N1. The road less travelled always has a smell of excitement and equal uncertainty about it. The dusty road ran in typical Karoo style, straight ahead for as far as the eye could see and the October morning sun was already warming up the landscape by the time our tyres made an imprint in the powdery earth that was to stain our lives for weeks to come. Nothing is immune from it and it leaves a dusty coat as a gentle reminder of where you have been.
I was immediately hooked and while the miles wheeled by underneath my eyes were transfixed and my mind wandered, building campsites in the landscape and bonfires under starry skies. The one thought that remained as thick as the dust was that I have to come back to this place.
Three years later and I found my reason. After months of neglect my bicycle needed a solid spin again and where better than the depths of soul restoring and endless horizons of nothing. The Tankwa Karoo.
The plan gradually materialised out of nothing into an eight day trek that would ultimately take us north to Ceres, east to Sutherland, north to Calvinia and straight south down to Ceres again. ‘Straight south’ is not an exaggeration. The road is so straight that at one point where it takes a minor curve it had to be sign-boarded on both sides with chevrons warning mesmerised travellers of the excitement ahead. The straight road lends a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal and the effects are to be seen littered on the road side from the moment you descend the pass into the valley. Tyres strewn in all manners – sliced, diced, chopped, split, and all but blown apart by the sharp shale surface, left as road kill to be eventually covered by the Karoo life cycle of wind and sand. I lost count of the fatalities, but it was with some excitement when we came across a live one on the last day. The passenger who had the flight to catch didn’t look as excited as I was as capturing the spectacle on film.
The original intentions behind the journey were based on a self-supported kind of approach. Needlessly heroic to some point but unnecessarily barbaric in most others, so it was with a fair amount of relief when team Elvis and BUD shook hands on the agreed contract of participation. This would be a good time to introduce the team –
Tour name: Elvis.
A highly accomplished ultra endurance psycho Ironman trail athlete, speedster on and off the bike, riding an impressively home modified / DIY’ed Cannondale lefty with a plywood rack and a Big Jim tool box on the back. It would’ve been the envy of Canondale’s design department, until the plywood rattled itself in half.
Tour name: Eisbein, actually Einstein thanks to the day he gave up an evening run for a quiz night but anything red-meat related seems more appropriate for the Karoo.
Formidable adventure partner of many a dodgy outing, including the Breede River epic, The Orange river, The Tour de Towerkop, a few crazy outings into the Jonkershoek snow, and the Seweweeks, to name a few… His adventure pedigree says it all, we need say no more… if you can look past the weird hat.
Tour name: BUD, or Back Up Driver.
Aka life saver, lunch preparer, wine pourer, beer chiller, and dare I say it – chocolate-on-pillow-placer… I may have just downgraded our attempt to make this trip look hardcore. BUD, a dedicated trail runner with too many podiums to mention, selflessly volunteered under relentless pressure to be our lone support crew, and in that instant upgraded the trip from sheer misery to something like a scene on the shoot of Out Of Africa.
Will be remembered for her dodgy parking skills and almost ramping the support vehicle through the front doors of one of the overnight stops.
And finally, yours truly.
Tour name: Basil. Long story. Conjurer-upper of the journey, or rather he who spends the most time on Google Earth daydreaming about back roads in the middle of nowhere.
The date was set, the food and wine packed, and a soggy Saturday morning saw a final departure from home comforts. This would be an appropriate time to mention just how I underestimated the trip. The initial two days 190km ride to Ceres was meant to be fun, but a week after tackling the knee jarring Two Oceans marathon left absolutely nothing in the legs but hour upon hour of cramp. Most of the Saturday afternoon was spent on the side of the R44 towards Wellington in a grimaced, teeth-clenched, locked-jaw, state of agony providing good entertainment to the passing motorists who probably thought I’d escaped the local institution. (They would have been forgiven for thinking the same if they’d seen us a few days later) Saturday night was spent in Wellington before tackling the long and winding Bains Kloof and Michells passes to Ceres. By now I was really looking forward to some company and it couldn’t have arrived soon enough on Sunday.
Monday morning we were packed and ready for the long haul up into the Tankwa Karoo. The initial 50kms were spent dodging trucks and convoys of festive bohemians making their way up to the annual Afrika Burn festival with everything in tow from piles of wood to cars covered in grass. I kid you not. We weren’t sure if it was of the artificial or smoking variety but the vehicles’ inhabitants looked set on making it a week to remember. Not to be outdone, we got kitted out appropriately and the trip suddenly started getting a distinct ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ feel to it.
The Burn is our local answer to the international ‘Burning Man’ gathering and provides a good excuse for those inclined to revel around the clock in a surrealist landscape of sculptures, costumes, and fumes. I have since read it being described as “part art festival, part radical self expression, part esoteric fair, part party (seemed all party to me?) and part community building and has no commercial aspect at all. There is no money allowed and no commercial content at all. A gifting society is created by Burners who gift of themselves on all levels.” (That last sentence seems infinitely understated!)
Our route thankfully detoured off the dusty Burner’s route and by midday we were sucking on the clean air of complete solitude and peace as we drifted east to our overnight stop at Bizansgat, a working sheep farm with some magnificently restored cottages – no electricity, no cell phone signal. Just peace. And stars, lots of them!
Our destination for the following day was 125km away, just short of Sutherland on the farm Blesfontein. The undulating route towards the Roggeveld escarpment gradually gave way to a flatter landscape as we crossed the Tankwa river, before reaching the foot of the feared Ouberg Pass. We started the climb at 5pm and emerged over the top in the dark at 7. Two hours of slogging up that loose shaled beast but it was well worth every step for the views afforded us – looking out over the entire Tankwa valley was one of the undisputed highlights of the trip, the sun sinking into a red sky over the Cederberg over a hundred kilometres away was completely breathtaking. We finally rolled into the farm somewhere between 8 & 9pm, in true Karoo hospitality the farmer, Nicol, had come out before that to look for us on the road, armed with an ice cold 2l Coke after hearing we’d run out of water along the way.
While the others were making this ride look like a breeze, the 4 days of toil on weary legs had left my confidence more than a bit shattered and I drifted off into a near comatose sleep unsure of what the new day would hold.
The body was pleased to ease into the following morning with the thoughts of the big climb up Ouberg now a thing of the past. A bank of morning fog creeping up from the valley below had cooled things down nicely as we set off to Sutherland, arriving in time to do justice to the breakfast menu at the Jupiter restaurant before setting off north. Our goal was somewhere near Middelpos but fading afternoon daylight started catching up and we managed to bunk down for the night at a farm a few kms short of our target. Once again the legendary Karoo hospitality came knocking, or rather we came knocking and Karoo kindness let us in for the night. Our unforeseen host for the night was a local farmer, Willie. With a farmhouse mid way through renovations there was room to sleep an entire army on the floor of the beautiful old building, the creaking floorboards as you walk echoed softly down the long passage, and our plans of sleeping on the grass outside changed quickly when we were told how cold it gets there. Willie was a quiet, unassuming bloke of few words, but we managed to lure him into joining us for a few beers around our braai (actually his braai). He summed up his peaceful existence out there in no-mans lands quite perfectly in one sentence. “To live here you must be born here”. Food for thought indeed while we tried to charge cellphones, camera batteries and get gps co-ordinates on Google Earth so we wouldn’t get lost.
Sunrise again bought with it another long day in the saddle, our destination Calvinia, 110kms away. I was thrilled to see the red Kalahari sand start creeping into the landscape but immediately reversed my enthusiasm when I saw how easy it was to get sucked in and spat out onto the roadside by the powdery quick sand. By late afternoon we had made good progress and arrived on the final tar road into Calvinia, the red meat capital of the Karoo. I was starting to notice a common thread in this trip. Ice cold beers at the Calvinia Hotel seemed a good manner to celebrate reaching the most northern point of the journey, before riding around the town trying to find our B&B.
The irony of having a really comfortable night on a trip like this is that the nicer it is the harder it is to leave. And no truer words could be spoken of the Tarantula guest house. The owner Frans has gone out of his way to make an oasis of warmth and luxury in amongst a harsh landscape and I could have quite easily hunkered down there for another few days. But the long road south was calling and we were on the road just after sunrise in anticipation of tackling the big one.
The last two days involved riding directly south from Calvinia to Ceres. At 257kms, the infamous tyre-eating R355 is officially the longest road in South Africa between two towns, or in more direct terms – make sure you’ve filled up before hitting the road because there’s no going back. The first half involved descending the Bloukrans Pass off the plateau into the Tankwa valley followed by long straight dusty dry roads. By early afternoon the temp was already in the upper 30’s, a far cry from the cold late Autumn conditions we’d been expecting and along with it came the endlessly dusty lines of cars approaching at full speed over the horizons. Burners. We hadn’t counted on these late Friday arrivals leaving us choking in their wake but figured we had finally worked the Burn festival out – the Volksie beetles and old school Landrovers that had passed us on Monday were the hard core burners, getting roasted under a blazing African sun in a trance like haze for a full seven days. These we dubbed the “enduro hippies” while the late Friday afternoon speedsters arriving in their once shiny SUV’s were dubbed the “nouveau hippies”, the ones who took the costume out the closet once a year, dusted it off, and headed north after work on a Friday. Regardless of the title, the ambitions were still the same and that night we took a stroll up the hill behind our campsite to stare out over the endless Tankwa, and sure enough – there in the distance, lay a Vegas-like temporary city of neon lights flashing along with the faintly repetitive thud thud thud of a good party on the go.
Our final night was spent in the most magnificent setting on the side of the road, tucked behind the only koppie for 200kms that provided shelter from the dust and a truly memorable sun set over the distant Cederberg. What it lacked in home comforts (not much considering the organisational skills of Elvis & BUD) it made up for in location and we were privileged to lay our heads down under a sky of stars in the middle of nowhere. Evening entertainment was provided by Elvis doing some DIY home-style surgery on a toe nail gone wrong, involving a pair of pliers, a bottle of Dettol and a flask of whiskey. In that order.
Morning light bought with it the last day of our ride. We set off under a spectacular sunrise, clouds glowing pink and orange and a straight road ahead as far as the eye could see. The miles drifted by broken only by morning coffee breaks and a visit to the legendary Tankwa Padstal to stock up on things we didn’t even know we needed. The end of the dust came mid afternoon as we snaked our way out of the Tankwa valley, bidding farewell to an amazing journey as we climbed the last hill before descending the final 30kms into Ceres. The photo stop at the “welcome to Ceres’ sign was an absolute necessity before finding the local pub to celebrate over a hard earned few cold beers and steaks.
It’s always in hindsight that we learn and appreciate and after a week back in the ‘default world’ (to quote the burners) I’m always reminded over and over what a privilege it is to do what we do, to saddle up and ride out over the horizon, returning with memories richer and friendships deeper, making us appreciative of both the world out there and what we have back home.
Some stats and info on the trip –
Total trip was around 860km, the accommodation along the way was absolutely superb, with special thanks to our hosts for always making us feel so welcome –
June’s Place (Self Catering) in Wellington
Coralie at Edenvue in Ceres – www.edenvue.com
Tinda and DeVille at Bizansgat
Nicol & Marina at Blesfontein – www.blesfontein.co.za
Frans at Tarantula Guest House, Calvinia – www.tarantulaguesthouse.co.za
Additional photos courtesy of Andre van der Spuy & Caitlin Lewis
And a special word of thanks to Andre and his staff at Chris Willemse Cycles in Greenpoint for going beyond the extra mile in assisting with some serious and urgent mechanics. It will always be greatly appreciated.