Tankwa and Sutherland – January 2022

When we left Cape Town for Johannesburg we had a few weeks time before flying to Australia to visit kids and grandkids and we decided to spend some more time in the Karoo. One of the things we still wanted to do was stargazing at SALT. Seeing our two previous attempts had not worked out due to time restrictions, we looked at the weather predictions and moon stand: cloud cover and full moon are a no-no for the ultimate stargazing experience! So we found the perfect date and booked online 10 days in advance which gave us all the time in the world to take it slow and visit Tankwa National Park again before arriving in Sutherland.

We camped for a day or two at Touwsrivier, where we got hammered by a serious thunder and hail storm. When we later would arrive and drive around in Tankwa and the greater Karoo area, we would see how the rain had soaked the ground and caused serious erosion of the landscape.

Once we left the N1 and headed north, the Karoo was much greener than we remembered and we could see water puddles between the vegetation and farm dams red from the force of the rain churning up the mud.

We drove to Tankwa via the R355 and saw some property for sale in the desert. Definitely a farmer with a sense of humor! A bit later we stopped for some lunch at the Tankwa Farmstall. English translation of the signs: “Sheep’s head, nice and clean and teeth brushed”, “I wish for you to find a rock in the Karoo, where you can sit in silence and carve your dreams with a stick in the sand!”.  Out of nowhere a little plane came to land right next door.

We booked in at Tankwa, but chose a different camping site than we had on our previous visit a little more than a year ago. Seeing we are totally self sufficient we chose for a bush camp (no water, no electricity, no facilities).

We got underway and everything went well on the dirt road leading to the camp site. As said … it had rained tremendously over the past few days and the ground was soft and soaked. We did ok, until we hit a spot where the red clay ground was so drenched that we started slipping left and right (luckily just flat land and no steep abyss on the side!!!) and before we knew we were axle high in the mud. Stefaan did his forward/backward manoeuvre and although it took a few attempts, he eventually was able to slip us out of the deep and muddy patch.

We figured out that we would not be able to get to our campsite in any way possible and decided to park a bit back on more solid ground alongside the road. We had also figured out that there were few to zero visitors in the park, so we were confident enough that no other vehicle was going to pass for the rest of the afternoon/evening. Stefaan walked up to the patch where we had almost been stuck and at that moment another car arrived from the other side. Seems the driver was doing bird studies in the park and was on his way out. He couldn’t really cross the muddy patch where we had gotten stuck and he turned around to find another way out.

We settled for the evening in this silent desert plain surrounded by the glowing red mountains.

Next morning we had a look at the map and seeing that we most probably would not be able to access the greater section of the park due to the wet and muddy conditions, we decided to leave the park and find a few passes. We drove out of the fairly green park on dirt roads, pitted by washed away dongas and erosion channels,  and eventually reached the Ganaga Pass: a beautiful and challenging (but luckily no too challenging) pass in reasonable condition, although we could see where rain and storm had uprooted trees and washed away rock. We stopped a few times to get out and enjoy the wide valley below and the interesting rock formations along the road.

The rainy weather had however provided much needed sustenance to the dry landscape and plant life was abundant.

We conquered the pass effortless and at Middelpos turned back south towards Tankwa. We wanted just a last drive in the drier part of the Park, before leaving this part of the world.  The Karoo lay before us in all its lush and green beauty, complete with iconic sheep farms and wind pumps.

We turned off at the arrow indicating Ouberg Pass. By then it was late afternoon and when we saw the sign “Vloedskade” (flood damage), I really didn’t want to go down that pass, so close to dusk. We parked Trokkie and called it a day.

When we descended the Ouberg Pass the next day, it wasn’t that bad at all. Yes, we could see some spots where the road had washed away a little bit and was more rocky, but overall the road was wide enough without any dangerous or dodgy heart stopping moments!

We continued towards Tankwa and at one of the roads we turned off, we all of a sudden saw a gigantic rock slab with a little valley falling away from its steep cliff sides. That looked as good as any other place to park for the rest of the day and night and that’s exactly what we did.

While I explored the top side of the cliff, Stefaan descended in the valley, finding a way through the dense bush ending up at a little waterfall. Did I mentioned it had rained a lot in the Karoo lately? When he returned to the truck, he convinced me to come with him to have a shower under the waterfall. Unfortunately the sun had turned and, although he claimed it had been balmy warm some 30 minutes ago, it felt pretty darn cold to me. No relaxing shower for me, thank you!

Seeing there was no-one around, and it wasn’t really a national park or wildlife reserve, Stefaan took the opportunity to haul out the drone to capture some images of this pretty little valley. Unfortunately, disaster struck and his drone crashed out of sight somewhere in the bushes below. With a joint effort – he in the valley, me on top of the big rock slab – we eventually found the poor thing hanging from a branch. Unfortunately it now needs a repair session!

We had a visitor later in the afternoon. Turned out he was the owner of the farm. To today I am still confused as to where public roads end and farm property begins. I’ve always thought that roads are public and public roads have a road reserve where you can easily park a car. The fact that farm fencing is usually not right next to the road, but rather a few meters away, kinda supports this theory in my book. In South African farm country however we have concluded that, where public roads run through private farm properties, farmers tend to regard the side of the road (between road and fence) also as their property. We have also figured out that farmers in South Africa are quite suspicious about any strange vehicle passing through their country side: they’re overly paranoid for stock thieves! Which makes it uncomfortable or annoying when we, as travelers just wanting to explore the land, park and sleep, are being regarded with suspicion. Luckily that suspicion usually lasts as long as the first few words we exchange. Then the farmers are relieved and happy enough for us to park along the roadside. So was this farmer and after he waved his goodbye, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the little valley.

Next morning we packed up for our last session back into Tankwa National Park. We had some coffee stops along the way and at one of them we discovered the most intricate eroded rock formations. Even though we understand that erosion is caused by rain and wind… to see it to this detailed, almost lacelike,  extent was quite fascinating. The fact that this seemed quite an isolated spot added to the mystery. Upon closer inspection we saw tiny pebbles resting in the bottom curve of some of the holes, but- seeing we didn’t have an explanation for this phenomenon- that just added to our amazement. 

Since our previous visit to Tankwa (and the Karoo), we have just loved the starkness of this landscape with its hidden treasures of design and colour of the hills, the plains and the river beds.

The recent excessive rain had now carved mini canyons in the riverbeds crisscrossing the landscape.  The soil, where the water had swirled and run, had turned into abstract paintings and the cracked surfaces of dried mud imitated skeletons and fossils.

And did I tell you before? I just love the fairytale daintiness of the waving grasses!

We eventually left Tankwa and seeing we had another day or two to reach Sutherland, we decided to discover some more of the Roggeveld Mountains. We drove towards Matjiesfontein, past the wind farm project we had visited the year before and turned left to onto yet another dirt road that would take us through more of the pretty soaked Karoo landscape: puddles and greenery, eroded roads and rock falls.

It always amazes us to drive through landscapes that are virtually empty of human presence, as far as the eye can see. Then you take a turn in the road and a lonely farm house greets you.

We slept somewhere on top of a hill with sweeping views over a deserted but green valley. Another day of driving through this isolated Karoo landscape brought us closer to Sutherland. Our last night we just pulled up along the roadside and true to our farm experiences by now, a farmer stopped to find out who we were and if we were ok. After a little chat, he invited us to come over for coffee in the morning, which we did! We had a nice chat with him and his family about sheep farming and the problems thereof!

We continued to Sutherland where we parked next to the church, well in time for our stargazing the next day. But our anticipation turned to dread when we saw the sky getting blacker by the moment and a check up on the weather forecast predicted rainy and cloudy conditions for the next 4 days! Big Bummer! So much for our weather research 10 days prior! Against all hope, the weather stayed very overcast the following day and when we drove up to SALT, we were told that we would have been the only visitors and our stargazing was cancelled. Understandably, because there was not a single star out! Even though we have seen SALT in action on a previous visit, it seems that  stargazing is just not meant for us! Don’t know if there will be another time to try again! Bummer!

Seeing that we were not going to stick around till the weather would clear we started on our way north with extra stops at Karoo and Mokala National Parks.

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