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Backroads of the North

For those of us who make our lives in cities, we consider it normal to live in a dense jumble of buildings, redolence, the roar and purr of unending traffic, skillfully navigating the hubbub of faces standing, striding, meeting, stopping. We pick up the energy and terrain of the cityscape and make it home.

Among cities Cape Town is mellow, languishing like an oriental king on lovely slopes, warmed by the sun at 36deg. overhead and fanned by sea breezes. Plenty of distinguished buildings and tales of old keep modernity in its place and make this, as a guest of mine recently remarked, ‘a very human city’.

But there comes a time when my Land Rover grumbles about trifling pavements and traffic lights and howls to get some earth up her wheel arches. So, with fiancee aboard and plenty of useful kit, we set out for the backroads of the Northern Cape

We headed north, beyond the city’s surrounds, past the lines of fruit orchards and vineyards, along the imposing, brooding Cederburg mountains, until we entered the Karoo at Calvinia – ‘the land of great thirst’. Once a swamp, home to the earliest dinosaurs and Karoopeculiar mammal-like reptiles, the Karoo is now a thousand kilometers of sand, rocks and stones and some hardy bushes, munched by hardier sheep and goats. There are some salt pans, the low points where the great lakes made their last stand (and where Bluebird set the land speed record in 1929). Some trees grow around the pans, but otherwise sparse bush and low volcanic hills stretch to the horizon.

Winds blow across these empty plains in gusts like bands of aimless wild ghouls kicking up dust and bouncing tumbleweed. Swinging in their flight are isolated rusty signs – de Wet, Dieter Stadler, van Zyl. Farmers, the descendents of the trekboers marching in the 1830s from the lush Cape to defy British rule. Their grandfathers were early quitters: compatriots pressed on to cross the mighty Drakensberg to meet battle with the Zulus, while others crossed the Vaal river to the gold rich lands of the north. These grandchildren of the trek are left tending goats, sheep and ostriches over immense areas that barely support 10% of the original biomass thanks to over exploitation by their forebears. Gone are the herds of antelope that lived here in great diversity before man narrowed the ecology and impoverished the land.

After hundreds of miles of Karoo, change comes suddenly – fields of citrus fruit, table grapes, villages and towns. The Orange river, and the irrigation channels built for Afrikaans farmers by the old regime, transform dearth to abundant crops. It is like an artery in the landscape, rising from Lesotho and carrying its power of life across the Karoo until it spreads into the Atlantic at Alexander Bay.

We camped on the grassy banks by masses of reeds and watched the scene. Cormorants resting on rocks among the fast rapids, drying their wings. They lift off, plunge beneath the white water, disappear, surface again, rising airborn, setting down upstream, proudly Orange River (and Egret!)spreading their dripping wings, slowly digesting the bulge of success in their throat. Monkeys play in the trees, plucking berries to their mouths, hand over hand. High in the sky, circling above their shadows, eagles glide on the eddies, spying for the movement of hyrax. Goliath Herons, five feet tall, stand gracefully on boulders and Pied Kingfishers hover over still inlets, waiting to dive for a fresh catch. Flocks of Martins dart hither and thither, skimming the water for insects.

An abundance of life is brought into the wilderness by this mighty river. And it is a mighty river. The Augrabies Falls carry 200 tonnes of water a second plunging into the deep gorge it has carved from these hard rocks, 1.4 billion years old. The river is dense with life. And yet, within a hundred yards of the reed banks, the adjoining landscape may as well be the moon. Beyond the folded strata of orange sandstone that rise in valley sides, the stillness of the Karoo stretches to the south and the Kalahari desert to the north.

Crossing the river we found the Kalahari’s rolling red dunes made a mesmerising spectacle. Here, the moisture trapped in the dunes gives rise to classic African soft grasslands dotted with trees. Sociable weaver birds make their impossible homes about the Sociable Weaver's nesttelegraph poles – so large you wonder if the pole will not topple. We decided to head along the Molopo river – rivers are always picturesque and water is indispensable when you are camping rough. But the Molopo was a dry river bed – later we discovered it only flows once every 45 years. And that has not been recently! The track followed the river bed and the Land Rover had her fill of off-road driving.

At Kuruman we came to a natural spring pumping 20 million litres of water a day into the desert. Here, in the Kalahari, Moffat built his mission station in 1824. He made peace with the Batswana, scripted their language, translated the Bible and printed it on the first press used north of the Orange river. He laboured for 50 years, and less than half his children survived. One of them married Moffat’s young missionary apprentice – Dr Livingstone. The later headed north in 1841, exploring two great African rivers, the Zambezi and Limpopo, and opening the way for the colonisation of Southern Africa. Moffat’s mission is restored as a museum and still used by the church.

Our travels took us through strange named places – Terra Firma, Bokspits, Noenieput - small, sometimes abandoned centres of farming districts. In the far north west, in the Richtersveld mountains, we came across small communities of Nama. The Nama are cousins of the Bushmen with origins in the Namib desert. Most Nama young men seek work in the diamond mines along the coast, but some families continue their traditional way of life, herding goats across the barren hills like Moses in the Sinai. They live in ‘Matjieshuis’ – low round huts, made of sticks, although now covered with plastic rather than skins. Donkeys pull their crazy carts from one place to another following their traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The magnificent, dramatic Richtersveld is a mountainous desert. Only 70mm of rain falls per year – yet there are over 300 plant species per square kilometer. These brave, The Richtersvelddetermined plants are quite freakish, taking on the strangest of shapes to catch every drop of dew and avoid roasting in summer temperatures that regularly top 50 degC. Weirdest are the scattered aloe trees like the peculiar Kokerboom and soaring Halfmen. The Nama have legends and numerous uses for these oddities of nature.

We had been on the road three weeks, and covered 5,500 kms. Coming over the rise at Malmesbury appeared that familiar shape of Table Mountain, as proud and elegant as ever. The wide horizons, stretching under the horizon, the silence where only the haunting wind can be heard, the strangeness of plants, the world of birds and the night’s sparkle of stars in the speckled arch of the milky way – these were suddenly behind us, now extinguished by the hubbub, the jumble, the thousands of the energetic city. But in venturing beyond the city’s familiarity we enlarged our horizons, we wondered, we caught the pace of nature, and we loved it. Perhaps we brought home something of the spirit of those wild winds, charging free, boundless across the great Karoo.



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