Thursday 13 July 2006
29M above sea level
And so it begins. Easy enough, riding the old Spoornet road along the railway line to Lamberts Bay, the sweaty armpit of the West Coast. Our intention was to ride alongside the old Saldanha to Sishen railway line for a few hundred kilometres before turning East towards Loeriesfontein and the high Karoo. As the Touareg sailed effortlessly over the dirtpack, foremost on my mind was the thought that there were no actual roads alongside the track. Our map indicated nothing. Rolling on intuition already. At one of those railway outposts, we stopped to ask directions. An old Spoornet employee, I called him Oom, was supervising the unloading of concrete sleepers and tracks from a huge flatbed truck. He smoked furiously like an old tjoo-tjoo. After bribing him with a magazine and bad Taal , he assured us that it was possible to do what we had planned. He suggested we pull through Vredendal, in order to get onto the right road - the rest of the instructions were murky. My Afrikaans was left in High School. Up close I noted that his bushy white moustache had two stained yellow streaks from the jets of smoke that pumped forth from his nostrils, like exhaust pipes.
The deviation via Vredendal meant that we had to drive 18.2 kilometers on tar. Hatred and pain. To be riding on the hard stuff so early in our epic journey.
149M above sea level
At this GPS point Nick insisted we pull over and appreciate Namaqualand's flowers. The road is a long, light brown line cut into the land.
208M above sea level
This random bunch of numbers is where we left the railway road and turned up the Western escarpment on the R355. Loeriesfontein is halfway up there, stuck in a time warp. It looks like a 1950s movie shoot. Clean and orderly. On the far side of town there is a Windpomp Museum. I'm not joking. The town was originally named after all the loeries that congregated there, until they shot them all. For a while people considered changing the name to Skaapfontein, but then they came to their senses. It's getting cold and the prospect of camping is pretty bleak. The Loeriesfontein Hotel and Bar/Kroeg looks inviting. As we walk into the place the guy behind the desk tunes, 'Warrie fok dink julle gaan surf?' He says it deadpan. He's a retired cop from Tableview who now runs the Loeriesfontein hotel. He's as hardboiled as they come. And dry like an old veldskoen.
'Jislaaik, you want to drive all the way through to Port St Johns and you're complaining about 300 Rond for a hotel room!' He puts on the hard sell. 'Is bladdy cold outside.'
We're staying indoors tonight. I don't want to argue with this guy. You're a long way from home, boy.
'Maybe you know my friend, he's also a surfer. Blackie Swart?'
'Everyone with the surname Swart is Blackie.' Jokes Nick. The cop doesn't laugh. Blackie Swart, the surfing policeman from Cape Town.
Game of pool and a few beers while they fix us a plate of lamb chops. While we eat, the old cop comes in and puts Helmut Lotti's dedication to Elvis on the DVD. The hotel regulars are all out of their rooms for dinner and the 'entertainment'. A big, old, broken man in front of us is loving Helmut almost as much as the lambchop he's sucking on. It's all just a little bit too much like the twilight zone. If I wasn't so scared of the cop, I would have laughed a lot more.
Friday 14 July 2006
918M above sea level
Brandvlei is a small dustbowl town, about 100 clicks North East of Loeriesfontein. From there Eastwards on the dirt R357 towards Vanwyksvlei before hooking left up towards Swartkop.
997M above sea level
Swartkop is a windswept fourway stop with an old eroded sign pointing towards Verneukpan. A dog barks from behind a fence in front of a falling down farmhouse. We follow a bicycle track over the road towards Nuwerus farm and then left to the pan. Eventually the track catches up with the man on the bicycle. The place is desolate and lonely and we haven't seen another human since Brandvlei, so we stop to chat. He's skinny and has a face hardened by the weather and wisened from smiling. His name is Klaas Pieters and he's a jagter specialising in caracal and jackal. A service for the local farmers. It's only then that I notice under the bundle of wood piled on the back of his bike is a dead caracal.
'Rooikat.' He indicates sadly. 'Ek het dit nou-nou doodgeslaan.'
It was still warm. He gets R40 for the pelt. He looked sad about the whole business. We acted tough, like it didn't matter. Like that's just how things are out here in the middle of nowhere.
'Die rooikat is 'n baie mooi dier,' he said and shook his head. I wanted to stay and talk longer. The dead rooikat dripped blood off its sharp teeth. There was nothing left to say.
The road to Verneukpan cuts across many farms: Swartkop, Nuwerus, Witkalk and another Nuwerus. Nick is constantly jumping out to open and close farm gates. There are no fresh tracks in the dirt. It feels like we are the first people to ever visit the place. 3 weeks prior to our arrival Johan Jacobs had attempted to break the land speed record. His jet propelled car turned sideways and rolled, going over 500 km/hour. He would have broken the record had he survived. The Verneukpan flat and unrelenting says nothing about it. Self-effacing, ancient and quiet. We park in the middle of nowhere and make a coffee. Walk away from the Touareg and look at it from afar to get perspective on the emptiness.
The wind howls over the flat pan.
Jump in the car, get it going at about 50km/hour and hit cruise control. There's miles of nothingness, a flat flat surface, acres of square space. Humming along, I climb out the window and perch on the roof like the zen Buddha of 4x4 journalists, in the lotus position. Soon enough I am surfing the Touareg like a big longboard across the Verneukpan. Nick is snapping away and cackling like a maniac. Adrenalin is spurting through my body like severed artery. Woo hoo! My joyous cry gets sucked into the vacuum of Verneukpan nothingness.
896M above sea level
It's getting late and we are nowhere near a campsite. From Verneukpan we drive East on the gravel post road that connects these high Karoo farms to the dorpie hamlet of Vanwyksvlei. At this stage we are very far away from civilization. Two city boys in a half million Rand vehicle with no firewood. The sun is drooping fast under the horizon and throwing a timeless red light on the landscape. The Karoo brush sighs fragrantly. There's an old derelict farmhouse on the left surrounded by spooky looking dead trees.
'Let's just camp here.' Nick suggests. I concur. Best to set up camp before it gets too dark. We unpack the vehicle quickly and Nick and I take turns hacking down a huge branch from one of the trees. I want to make a big fire. Nick wants to sleep inside the farmhouse, I am keen to set up my tent in the garden. Laziness wins out and we make camp on the enclosed stoep. I am playing out scenarios of irate farmers arriving in the middle of the night with shotguns and dogs. An owl has taken up residence in the house and escapes through a hole in the corrugated iron roof. Getting into bed there's the squeaky sound of rats in the roof. Nature has definitely reclaimed this place. Nick is soon snoring loudly, I can't sleep and through half-closed eyes watch bats swooping through the gloom. Eventually I drift. Wake up in the cold morning to Nick making coffee. God bless air mattresses.
Saturday 15 July 2006
'Ooh look flamingos!' Squeals Nick.
It's marked as a Saltpan on the map. There are large shallow pans for evaporating the water and extracting the salt. I've got a bad feeling about this.
'Let's just keep moving bru.'
'Nooit! I want to take a pic.' Nick tunes as he swings down the gravel path to the Salt works. We're cruising until we're riding the flat alongside the vlei.
'Take a higher line,' I suggest, too late, the wheels of the Touareg. The smooth, low riding set of slick city tyres bite into the mud, get coated in double thick Karoo silt and spin. Stop, low range, elevate suspension - like the Starship Enterprise. Vroom. Way too much power. We're sitting still spraying mud like a hippopotamus.
Stumble through the stickiest mud. On the edge of the vlei is a pile of bricks. We haul as many of them to the car as we can to try and create some friction for the wheels to grip to. Nick is trying to dig the car out with a fold-out spade. The mud is so dense it clings fast to the spade in a fat 10 kilo lump. Going is slow. Going is muddy. Filthy hands on the Touareg's polished oak veneer. This is the way she longs to be touched. Finally we get wise, discover some old sheets of corrugated iron and line 'em up. The Touareg roars out in a low-range reverse.
'I got great pics at that vlei.' Nick assures me. The land clings to us, dries and crumbles onto the floor.
?M above sea level
At this stage the GPS goes on the fritz. The dirt road from Vosburg to Richmond eventually hits the N12 at a farm called Graafwater. Forced to drive 8.5km on tar in order to take the R398 South East down to Richmond. It's a long 100km stretch in the late afternoon through forgotten stretches of high country. In Richmond we settle for some nourishment and fresh coffee at the Blue Lantern. The plan: Nourishment. Imbibe copious amounts of caffeine. Head the last 100km stretch to Middelburg by starlight.
After wolfing down his burger, and while another round of coffee percolated on the stove, Nick went to make nice with the Saturday evening bar crowd. He came back with a grin and the news that someone had offered us free lodging for the evening
'How does it sound?' I asked.
'Dodgy.' Said Nick.
'After last night I can handle anything.'
The guy's name was Hoffie and he builds roads. He just so happens to have a house rented in Richmond, round the corner, and an empty room unoccupied. A wonderful example of gastvryheid , ou Hoffie. Soon enough we were drinking beers and making small talk. Hoffie gave us his key with instructions to make ourselves comfortable.
A boisterous, middle aged man with a boep comes into the bar and orders a Massy Ferguson (Double shot of vodka and Sparberry. A John Deere is the same except you substitute the Sparberry for Cream Soda). By this stage I am speaking a lubricated Afrikaans.
'Thank you for respecting my mother tongue.' He says.
'Thank you for respecting mine.' Says Nick. I'm not sure what he means. Turns out the ballie is a jakkals jagter and launches into a long diatribe about how he hunts the poor things with a .22 rifle.
'Jakkalsjag, nou wat is dit.' He begins like a professor circumnavigating his subject.
'Doesn't matter which direction the jackal comes from, the last 200 meters will always be down wind. I play a MP3 recording of different sounds, jackals mating, lambs, you know, and that attracts the jackals...'
On and on it went. He wants to buy a single berth caravan to take on his expeditions. He charges R500 to rid a farmer of a pesky jackal and he weighs and measures his bullets into batches to ensure accuracy.
Finally it was time to make camp in Hoffie's spare room.
'Ag what a pity.' Said the Jakkalsjagter. 'I wanted to play you that old record about the bullets...'
Sunday 16 July 2006
1218M above sea level
A sharp smack to the side of the GPS has it working. Adrenalin surging through my veins has impaired my patience. The road is wet muddy soup.
We've just done a 180°spin on a long, flat muddy stretch of road about 20kms from Middelburg. A long, saturated stretch of mud, hit at 60km. The car started to slide, the wheels lost all traction in the clay and we did a slow motion pirouette.
'Don't touch the brakes!' Shouted Nick as we spun. Just relax and let it slide. With crumple zones, front and side airbags and the bumwarmer on 5, there was not much to be worried about.
Low range the vehicle from the edge of the road and inch towards Middelburg. Low range gave us too much power and not enough traction - even in 4 th . So we moved up to high range 4 th and tried to maintain momentum. On arrival in Middelburg the Touareg looked like a mud curio. You could see several different shades of terra firma caked on the body. A greasy breakfast beckoned.
From Middelburg a drier dirt track passed several farms to the railway line at Tafelberg, then alongside the track down to Conway before hooking right and meeting up with the marginally better gravel R410 to Hofmeyr. From Hofmeyr up and over the Bamboesberge.
1248M above sea level
We have officially crossed over into the Eastern Cape. The road stretches upwards over the broken topography. It looks impossible. We haven't seen another car all day. Here halfway up the gravel mountain pass we stop to snap pictures. It's beautiful and deserted. Only the local farmers know about these roads. The escarpment breaks and rolls from here down to Sterkstroom. Pass on through, not much to see save empty Sunday streets, old buildings, a big church and a few taverns groaning in the weak afternoon sunshine. We join the grondpad R311 that links Tarkastad to Dordrecht.
Monday 17 July 2006
1789M above sea level
From Dordrecht up the well worn tourist dirt route to Barkley East on the R396. It's a magnificent drive through dangerous hairpins and glorious vistas. In Barkley East we stopped to ask directions. Back roads through Rhodes and then on over Naude's Nek down to Maclear and our final run through the 'Kei to Port St Johns. Naude's Nek pass is one of the most impressive stretches of gravel road in the country. A sheer, snaking piece of engineering genius that negotiates it's way over some of the steepest and most incredible terrain on the subcontinent.
2583M above sea level
Top of the Naudes Nek, looking down on the Eastern to the coast. On a clear day you can see Port St Johns. It's not a clear day. A huge block of ice has fallen onto the road from the cliff above. I lift it above my head and throw it over the edge. Then stand and watch agog as it bounces and rolls and breaks and bounces before reaching the bottom of the incline almost 2 minutes later. I suddenly realise how high up we are, and almost kak myself.
Tuesday 18 July 2006
2258M above sea level
The river cuts through hills dotted with aloes. Suddenly the ground gives way into a huge stone amphitheatre. The river pours down from about 30 meters into a deep blue pool with a huge cavern behind it. This is the Tsitsa falls just outside Maclear. It's a little detour from our route, but definitely worth it. The area is being developed into a tourist destination by the farm's new owner, Adriaan Badenhorst. A young kayak enthusiast with long dreadlocks and a penchant for playing the didgeridoo.
According to him our meticulous planning has gone pear.
'Nooit the R396 to Tsolo is tarred.' He says. Too late and too far to head back and find an alternative route, we resign ourselves to the easy ride. It's hard to describe the disappointment, after over a thousand kilometres on dirt, to have to drive an extended stretch on tar. I feel soft.
In Tsolo we veer off the tar and take the Nqadu forest road to Umtata. There is a myriad network of criss-crossing roads - some on the map, most others not. My Xhosa is bad, almost nonexistent. We stopped a group of ladies heading into Tsolo to ask directions.
'Ndlela Nqadu?' I said pointing down at the road.
The woman smiled and nodded in the affirmative.
'Just hamba istraight.'
The Nqadu forest is a weird mix of foreign bluegum and wattle trees, until you get over the hill, choose the correct gravel road at the unmarked 4-way intersection and meander down to Umtata through a long stretch of thick indigenous forest. Umtata stretches out below, a huge urban township clustered around the Umtata dam. Our dirt road deposited us on the N2 in Ncambedlana. The 59km stretch between Maclear and Tsolo had set a bad precedent. Instead of backtracking 50 odd kms and taking the rural tracks through Nyandeni, Tyana and Meyeni down to Libode, we opted to blaze the 21.7km on the tar R61 to the dirt track in Libode that would lead us to Port St Johns. Guilty as sin; two tar traitors in a mud covered vehicle. Moods lifted as soon as we turned the Touareg and bounced over a rough and corrugated gravel road. The stretch from Mount Nicholas Mission to Mgwenyama hugs the upper contours interlinking all the different villages as it runs parallel to the tar R61 on the other side of the valley. You never really know if you're going in the right direction. You're rolling on intuition, guesswork and broken Xhosa. After Thaleni there is a stretch of road called the Mlengana Cutting, that is truly special. The road looks down on the Umzimvubu valley. Across the valley rural Xhosa hamlets are surrounded by indigenous forest and a series of sheer cliff faces. A few kilometres before Mgwenyama, the road passes directly under a monumental, isolated granite mountain with sheer hundred meter cliff sides.
Just after Mgwenyama we stop to at an intersection of about 7 dusty paths to ask directions to Lutaweni.
'Ndlela eLutaweni?' I ask pointing down at the road again.
'I'm going to Lutaweni.' Shouts a wiry young man. 'Can you give me a lift?'
The Toureg is so packed with our gear, that there is no space except on on Nick's lap.
'You are very lucky to have picked me up.' He said as we rode smoothly over the severely potholed and corrugated gravel road. God bless the Touareg's adjustable suspension system. 'My name is Bonisile. It means the one who shows the way!' He declared triumphantly.
Bonisile Mazuza was good company and he spoke a fine English. Or so we thought until he directed us to the high school in Lutaweni and left us there to talk with the headmaster, for what reason I am still unsure.
Soon enough we crossed over the tar R61 and on towards Caguba and round the back gravel road, the final10km, to Port St Johns. By this stage the rolling grassland hills of the Transkei has given way to dense sub-tropical indigenous forest. The lush smell of lush vegetation is carried by the afternoon onshore, It's warm and muggy. The forest twitters and chirps on either side with the sounds of insects and birds and the odd crunch of something larger. Impenetrable jungle on either side as the Touareg meanders the final contour roads around the back of Port St Johns, depositing us on a gravel stretch near 2 nd beach. The sun is setting. There is just enough time to pick up a few quarts of Hansa from a nearby backpackers and set up camp on the bank of the Umzimvubu river, just before it washes out into the Indian Ocean.
The Drive Out Gravel challenge is officially over. We have made it. I reach for the GPS to take one more, final co-ordinate of our epic adventure. I plug it into the 12V lighter socket and wait. And wait. It searches in vain for a satellite. It's no coincidence that we could not get a GPS reading in Port St Johns. This is the Kei, man. PSJ is off the grid. A paradigm shift away from the rest of the world.
In total, from Lamberts Bay to Port St Johns, we drove 1705.5km. 111.9km of that on tar and 1593.6km on gravel. Vast areas of free space. Friendly, generous people. Good vibes. Unpolluted views and empty roads stretching to the horizon. Miles and miles without seeing a billboard or a brand, a petrol station or a quick stop. No newspapers, garbage, flushing toilets or live broadcast rugby games. Sunrise to sunset. Campfires and warm sleeping bags. I'm now a back road convert, a dirt rebel, a gravel junkie. All along the N2 home, I plotted new routes, divergent paths down strange and forbidden landscapes.
Gravel Road Survival trips
1. Drive slowly. 100km is too fast to negotiate blind rises, muddy stretches, unmarked hairpin bends that drop away into oblivion and the meandering wildlife that lives there.
2. Be extra careful in the wet. Mud is very slippery. And has a tendency for making you stuck.
3. Pack your food and stuff you want to get at during the trip at the back - for easy access. We only figured this out on day 3, and mastered by day 5. Especially the coffee pot.
4. Take extra care while navigating the back roads. An accident out here could take several days to clean up.
5. Make sure you have a spare tyre, extra fan belt, tool kit, high-rise jack, and some extra diesel/petrol.
6. Take a good friend.7. Ipod with lots of musical diversity.