Karoo Detour

I haven’t blogged for over a month. Not much inspiration because I’m mostly still housebound and I’m depressed as all hell at recent developments in my life, which I won’t go into now but suffice to say that the virus has done terrible things to some people.

However, I did take a short break last month. From being housebound almost all the time to the other extreme – I flew to Pretoria and drove back to Cape Town with my sister in the car that she has kindly lent me. I’ve had to sell the touring minibus that I also used as personal transport so found myself with no wheels which is an untenable situation in this town, this suburb. It’s too dangerous to walk around here after sunset, I was spending too much on Ubers to get anywhere, and I can’t walk far anyway with my lungs as they are.

The flight was not as traumatic as I expected because precautions are taken by, and for, everyone. The wonderful commuter train system between Johannesburg and Pretorias was once again a delight to use – it’s a massive novelty in South Africa to have a rail system that not only works well but is safe and clean. After a few days in Pretoria my sister and I headed back to Cape Town. This is normally a 1600km journey – around 1000 miles – if done straight down the main national highway but my sister’s husband sponsored us to a few days roadtripping so we ended up doing around 2500 kms (1500 miles) and visiting parts of the country we had not seen before.

A first for me was Clarens and the Golden Gate National Park. After the flat maize and sunflower fields of the Free State, the exquisite rock formations and mountains of that area were a delight for the eyes and Clarens is a very pretty arty town, well deserving of all the attention it gets from wealthy weekenders from Johannesburg. We were not lucky with the weather – it was near freezing in the morning! – but still enjoyed it. Roadworks and excessive potholes prevented us from going along the back roads which would’ve taken us along the Lesotho border and those lovely Maluti Mountains so after the Park we reached the Karoo via the usual beautiful open spaces it’s known for.

We drove in and almost straight out again of some depressing Karoo towns, but the Valley of Desolation in Graaff Reinet made it all worthwhile. We also struck it lucky in that town with a delightful little guesthouse that we didn’t want to leave. We were on a tight budget so our accommodations were all simple but in this instance they offered a huge reduction so we were as happy as larks. My sister had never seen the Valley of Desolation so this blew her mind away, as it does all first time visitors.

Continuing our Karoo detour we then encountered lots of rain. This took me completely by surprise because I know the Karoo quite well and have never encountered rain there; in fact it hardly ever rains there, being a very arid semi-desert region. That didn’t last into the next day as we drove through what is known at the Little Karoo – less arid, more mountaneous and full of pretty little villages and towns. It’s part of the Garden Route tourist route so has all the benefits of regular traffic and people who expect decent coffee, good food and funky attitudes.

Of course this being pandemic times we encountered very few people. Other than truckers and farmers we pretty much had roads to ourselves; guesthouses were not full, and restaurants were sadly almost empty and closed early every evening. All of this guarantees prompt and personal service but the toll it’s taken on the tourism economy is catastrophic, as I know full well myself. Strangely, the devastating effects have not diminished the warmth and smiles of the people we did encounter along the way – from shops to guesthouses to restaurants and petrol stations. The pandemic has not dented the hospitality for which this country is famous.

Our Karoo detour lasted only five days but it was great to get away and to have a change of scenery, literally. And we did tick off 7 out of our country’s 9 provinces!

First stop before the roadtrip started properly was Maropeng Cradle of Humankind. A friend of mine created and runs this unique Unesco Heritage Site which depicts the origins of man. This is a must-do when in the area of Krugersdorp, not far from Johannesburg. This photo shows a part of an underground boat trip taking the visitor through all earth’s elements. We loved it!

Swartberg Pass, again

swartberg pano blog
Playing with pano, full sun, not ideal. I took this standing on top of what’s left of the building from which the master road-builder Thomas Bain worked. It’s a pity it’s a ruin because it has historical significance given that Bain was this country’s most visionary road builder.

I found this in the draft folder. It was written about 6 years ago and I don’t know why I didn’t finish and publish it at the time. With some editing, here it is – low on wording, high on photos, and I’ll leave it like that. I remember well this strange client, and how difficult he was, but seeing as it took us to some of my favourite parts of the region, the time was not wasted.

So last month I had an unusual tour to the Klein Karoo.  One person, 6 days, and he didn’t hesitate to speak his mind about certain aspects of the trip – which details we won’t go into here, it’s fading from my mind. Luckily, he was thrilled with the open spaces of the Karoo and went nuts on Swartberg Pass. I decided to do a full day of it – up to the top of the pass in a 4×4, lots of stops for photos and plant stories, down into Prince Albert for lunch and a tour of the town, and then back to Oudtshoorn via Meiringspoort ad De Rust. It was a perfect day, warm and sunny, happy client, and my favourite aspect of any road-trip – mountain passes.

gentle start 2 swartberg
Gentle start up the mountain. The road was in surprisingly good condition as it had recently been graded. As I type, we have heard that it’s being damaged by rains again and can only be accessed in a 4×4.
start climbing swartbrg
Not at the top yet but already you can see how high the pass is. 1600m at the top.
retaining wall
Built in the late 1800s, this wall has not changed much since then. Its unique method makes it as strong as ever.
You’ll know you’re at the top when you see this.
swartberg scenes
roelnds office on swartberg
lucas thatchers
Lucas Thatchers are the most well-known thatching company in the Western Cape. The owner originates from Prince Albert and this is apparently the first building he ever thatched. It’s tiny, like a child’s toy, and neat as a in.
water of prince albert
One of the old water canals of Prince Albert – the town still uses this water reticulation system from the early days of settlement in this part of the Karoo. The whole of the Karoo is very dry but Prince Alvbert is especially dry so a nearby river serves well and not a drop of water is wasted.
domisee house
Classic Karoo Victorian house.
water mill
At the old water mill near the entrance to the town.

New-age roadtrip

Packing 1


There was a time when packing and planning for a roadtrip meant only that you made sure the car had petrol, a spare tyre and a flask of coffee. You grabbed a bag, threw in some clothes according to the weather, added a map and a ham sandwich, and you were off.

Things have changed.

I’m off tomorrow morning for a few days researching roads less travelled in the Garden Route and the Klein Karoo. In the company of 2 intrepid friends, we’ll be investigating what lies hidden in the forests of Nature’s Valley, we’ll traverse the mountains between George and the Klein Karoo via Montagu Pass which I always look down at when I’m with clients on Outeniqua Pass but have never been on, and we’ll take the back-roads between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. I didn’t even know this road existed until recently and it sounds like a nice option to the usual road so it’s worth a look-see, especially as it lies at the foot of some of that region’s most beautiful mountains.

Given that it’s the middle of winter my bag is double the size of a summertime bag and will be bulging with warm clothing, rain gear, socks, scarves, beanies and wellington boots, as opposed to the usual t-shirts and sandals.

Ok, so there’s nothing new in that but, wait … the technology.

  • Cell phone, with charger, and 2 point plug, plus car charger
  • Camera, with charger, extra memory card, and universal adapter, as well as local plug
  • Second, back-up, camera, with spare batteries, and 2 point plug
  • Tablet, as back-up to the first back-up camera and to see what sort of pics it takes, with charger and universal adapter.
  • Add one big multi-plug thingie so they can all charge together, if need be.

They’ve all been on charge since yesterday, and that’s just my stuff, the others must sort themselves out.

For once, the laptop stays at home but I can’t shake off the feeling I’m forgetting something.


packing 2


A note to all accidental visitors:

I am not a photographer and do not claim to have any particular skills whatsoever in that department. I have enormous respect for those who can see the potential in a scene and can create a great photo. Good photography is an art, in my opinion.

I am just a happy snapper, I have no special lenses or accessories, my camera is very simple and it's usually best to leave the setting on auto.

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