How wonderful those road trips could be…

A road trip – Tony Lewis – 2022

Dawn breaking after an all night road trip

Memories from South Africa’s Karoo, that vast ancient seabed, in the midriff of the country. Its sparsely populated, with only the occasional dorpies.

These open desert plains, surrounded by flat-topped hills, mountains with the occasional extinct volcano shimmering in the blue haze of the distance.  Sheep farming is the main industry meat on the glowing red coals, a glass of red wine and a sky full of stars.

The Karoo, its colours warm blues, purples, brown and sand, all meld together to make for a landscape that is vast, and wild. The straight as an arrow black flattop road. Kilometre after kilometre, disappearing off into a shimmering blue haze … surely at the end of this road is the end of the rainbow?

The only way to go is via The Karoo

Just keep on driving

You can’t get from Johannesburg to Cape Town without crossing the Karoo. A hundred years ago, long before the Great North Road, the route through the interior was tough, tortuous and constantly punctuated with farmers’ gates. People travelling this way armed with large bags of multi-coloured boiled sweets to reward the children who would open the gates. Today the gates have gone and we travel in air-conditioned comfort of a car.

The Karoo was home to Africa’s first people, the Bushmen. Searching its arid dry surface, you may find Bushmen arrowheads, fossils, settler coat buttons, or spent cartridges from a Boer War skirmish. The migrations of millions of graceful brown springbok across the plains, has scrouged it of its little vegetation. The Khoiksan with their flocks of goats and fat-tailed sheep arrived, followed by the Voortrekkers from the Cape Colony, many of whom ultimately made the Karoo their home.

After being home to many of the Voortrekkers, today its finally made it into the 21st century, hosting its very own ‘Burning Man’ fire festival. Next year, my niece says she’s is going to paint her toenails and attend AfrikaBurn. The little African brother of Nevada’s Burning Man is held every autumn in the Tankwa desert. Crowds light up the night with fire, sway to the beat of the music. The final night goes up in flames, with the burning of the various giant artworks. Those that attend enjoy the dry heat, the clean air and the stripped-down environment.

We stayed almost next to the Tankwa Karoo national park, the closest true desert to Cape Town. Nearby is Die Mond (The Mouth), a rich green oasis in the middle of the desert. The resort lies beside a large lake of clear shimmering water, which changes colour with the light. The Guest house has an eclectic riot of colour, with different coloured enamel signs, paintings, ceramics and decorated car wrecks, similar to the explosion of colour of Cadillac Ranch in the US.

Another golden sunset, we follow a winding path down to the river between spectacular lichen covered red mountains; past a waterfall falling to the lake below, where according to the locals, a mermaid lives. A bark of a baboon echoes into the night, the huge orbs of a baby mongoose eyes staring at us from a tree. A couple of grey duikers dart out of our way, blending quickly into the landscape.

I’m amazed at the different people we see here. They look like sushi eaters who should be on Clifton beach in Cape Town, but here they are, stunned by the heat, the rough roads and the huge distances.

Elmarie is a real Afrikaans tannie, – she minds the store of the Tankwa Padstal general dealer.

A feast, fit for a King

Next door is the Meerkat Deli, selling sliced and smoked meats, Biltong of all flavours, Karoo cheeses, bright green pickled agave buds and the rich and deep rich purple of glazed figs. Eat here, or on the go. They have their own unique recipe for sosaties – lamb or beef kebabs usually marinated in lightly curried sweet and sour sauce.

Everything to make tonight’s braai a feast for kings. I’m already smelling the meat sizzling over the glowing coals, the blue smoke drifting away on the breeze. Like no mobile phone signal, there’s no quick-fix fast-food way of thinking out here. Somebody holds up his phone to a darkening sky searching for a signal, his face registering shock when he realises that he’s completely disconnected from the outside world. He starts to focus on his immediate surrounds – the landscape, the colours, a sweeping outline of mountains, thick bush, vast valleys and along the Little Fish river where, hopefully, Oom Hennie will catch a trout tomorrow. And that’s when the magic happens, the stress falls away and the outdoor learning begins.

Sitting around the fire, on this bright moonlight night, we become aware of the sounds of the night. The call of the Nightjar, the bark of a jackal, the faint yowl of a wild cat or civet, the whine or groan of a porcupine, or the tremulous clicking of a pair of mating aardvark. The Karoo is full of life.

We sleep underneath the stars, bright and multitudinous, almost near enough to reach up and catch a shooting star as it races across the sky.  

Breath-taking scenery

Life in the Karoo isn’t easy, but those who live and work the land are surrounded by a starkly beautiful landscape. These are places where the mind can open up, places for retrospection and reflection, an authentic life experience for many. If as we were, fortunate enough to have visited friends there, we arrived as tourists, but left as travellers – just passing through and experiencing this magical space.  


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