Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Road to Brandvlei - our great Karoo adventure

This March we were very lucky to be invited to a friend's wedding here in South Africa. The lovely bride comes from a tiny little village in the middle of the Northern Cape called Brandvlei. Even by Northern Cape standards this town is really tiny and remote, located right in the middle of the Tankwa-Namakwa desert and about 150km from the nearest town (which is another equally small village). It would be at least 1,200km journey from Johannesburg to get to Brandvlei (taking in some sights on the way), a one-of-a-kind road trip with a really good party at the end of it. How could we say no?!

Sunset on the road to Kimberley
Johannesburg to Kimberley
The first stretch of road was the N12 to Kimberely which passes all the way through the Free State. There isn't much of interest to see on the way and you can drive it in about 5 hours (with a stop for coffee). We spent our first night of the road trip in Kimberley, capital of the Northern Cape and a city most famous for its diamonds.

Kimberley was the first real diamond-rush town in South Africa and within just a few years in the 19th Century this hot and dusty town became the biggest settlement in South Africa (before of course they discovered the biggest Gold Reef in the world in Gauteng and Jozi stole the title). As you can imagine the city's most famous attraction is the mine. The Big Hole as they like to call it, is the biggest mine dug without the use of heavy machinery in the world. It's pretty crazy. The Big Hole has a big museum attached to it (pretty good actually) as well as one of those quaint recreations of an old mining town (I have to admit I do like that sort of thing).

Besides the Big Hole, there's not a huge amount to do in Kimberley so we spent the rest of our time chilling in the courtyard of The Halfway House (one of the oldest pubs in town) and lounging around at our beautiful guesthouse (75 on Milner – highly, highly recommended) and generally recovering from the at times terrifying drive through the Free State (word to the wise: do not drive the road around Potchefstroom in the dark, it's a death trap!).

Kimberley to Augrabie Falls
For the next leg of our trip we crossed the Karoo and drove up to the border with Namibia to see the Augrabie (pronounced O-khrabie) Falls, one of the biggest waterfalls in Southern Africa. The Karoo desert was a lot greener looking than I expected, but still very much a desert nevertheless. As we crossed up to the northern border of South Africa our road began to follow the Orange River. Around this part of the country it is noticeably greener. The river is tapped to irrigate vineyards which produce wine and raisins and when you are right next to the river it looks almost tropical.

A quick stop for lunch at the Irish Pub in by far the biggest town around here, Upington, and we continued on our way. We didn't make it to the falls that night and instead slept at a very posh hotel in Kakamas, a reasonably sized (for the Northern Cape) town which relies heavily on grape farming to sustain the community.

A rainbow in the Karoo - unexpected!

The next morning we headed off to check out the waterfall, which by this point was in full flow after particularly heavy rains further up the river. It was seriously impressive and awe-inspiring. All around this area for hundreds of kilometres you just have heat and silence, then suddenly bam 'the Great Noise'. It was also probably the hottest place I've ever been to in my life – 38 degrees C (unimaginable heat!). There are no clouds and no shade and the rocks reflect the blazing sun right back at you like an oven. The kind of place where you could fry an egg on the ground (seriously).

Augrabies to Brandvlei
In the last stretch of our journey, a mere 300kms, we crossed over into the Tankwa desert (or Namakwa as the sign had it, I'm still not sure which it is really, the locals don't seem to agree on it). This place was seriously desolate and remote. Between us and Brandvlei was just one tiny town, at least 120kms down the road. The heat was insane and the land spreads out so far and wide and flat with absolutely no buildings or structures it almost reminds you of the sea. And it's just a long straight road for several hundred kilometres.

The last town we passed through before Brandvlei was Kenhardt. I think they have some kind of spring there as it was a lot greener than dry and dusty Brandvlei. This part of the world is famous for its Paadstalls (kind of roadside farm shops/snack stops), the one in Kenhardt was particularly nice. 

This area is also famous for these crazy trees, Quiver Trees. They are so called because the San bushmen used to use the branches to make quivers for their arrows. The trunks are so solid they actually feel like stone and these big tree-like things are in fact succulents (which is evident from their 'leafs'). They take a long time to grow and are quite rare and only in this part of the country are they really thriving.

Finally at around 3pm we rolled into town. Brandvlei is only about 10 streets by 5 streets big and has one hotel, which we of course were all staying in. The less said about the Hotel Brandvlei the better. Never in my life have I been so harassed at night by mosquitoes (mosquitoes in the desert, WTF?!) and the security was quite hilarious (padlock for when you leave, chair pushed up against the door for when you sleep)...But hey, we made it, we were in the true Middle of Nowhere, we wouldn't be driving tomorrow and the next few days were going to be amazing. To be continued...

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