One of the places in South Africa that ceases to amaze me, is the Great Karoo… You simply have to experience this wide open space where nothingness equals everything...
Growing up in South Africa, and as a young adult, the great Karoo was the massive bit between the North Eastern part of South Africa, were I grew up in Jo’burg, a city of 10 Million +, and the South Western part around Cape Town.
Cape Town is now my home. It is approx. 1,500km from Jo’burg to Cape Town and takes two days by motorcycle (read my earlier blog). On the N1 Highway heading to Cape Town from Johannesburg and soon after Bloemfontein, the traveller gets to experience a tiny smidgen of this massive open space. I never realised how special this place is until venturing into the wilderness of it all and especially on a motorcycle. The Karoo seems to quite suddenly disappear after about 700km. The Hex River Valley appears quite suddenly as the ride (or drive) plunges down into lovely green vineyards touching up against peaky jagged surrounding mountains. Soon after Cape Town with here Mediterranean climate is within only an hour or two.
In recent years I have come to spend some time in the Great and Little Karoo and more and more find myself appreciating the solitude and the undefinable beauty of this vast arid wilderness. Although the Karoo boarders are not clearly defined, and a point of contention when the ‘experts’ argue; however in simplistic terms its extent is approximately a third of the entire South Africa or… to put it into perspective… the Great Karoo is about the size of Germany and Switzerland combined.
The Great Karoo’s name comes from a Khoisan word meaning ‘land of thirst’, and that it is. More than that though, it is an amazing wilderness that boasts an eco-system second to none having been honed over millennia. This arid yet beautifully rustic area occupies amazing succulent plant species, hardy wildlife and many mountain-passes meandering across this vast semi desert.
In December 2019, Diana and I decided to spend a few days riding into the Great Karoo. We hooked up with Swiss friends from Somerset West and Hermanus in the town of Ceres, a fruit producing centre of South Africa. We headed North up the Witzenberg pass before turning East onto the lovely Klein Cederberg gravel road and heading over the Katbakkies Pass at approx. 1,200 ASL and down into the Tankwa Karoo. Lunch was enjoyed at the iconic Tankwa Padstal (road stall) where we had just managed to miss a rare Karoo thunderstorm by 2 minutes. The fragrance after an African storm of this nature is very difficult to describe. My wish is that every single person on the planet can get to experience it. A quick and quite wet downpour, however venturing back onto the well maintained R355 gravel an hour later it was pretty much completely dry. Summer storms of this nature are only occasionally experienced and sometimes only every other year. The afternoon of day one and the morning of day two of the trip was spent on a variety of gravel from well graded ‘national road’ (R355) allowing speeds of over 100kmph without a problem and down to hair pin mountainous rough gravel and hard shale requiring slipping of the clutch in first gear. On occasion the roads were badly corrugated making for some tiring riding for extended stints. We were on road orientated Bridgestone Battlewing 90/10 tyres, which much prefer asphalt to gravel but still handled the shock treatment and rough roads with aplomb. We made sure we had a tyre repair kit with us but fortunately didn’t require it at all.
We spent the night at ‘Gannaga Lodge’ at the top of the beautiful Gannaga Pass set in the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Early evening was spent gazing at distant storms below and between the karoo Koppies (hills) and mountains. Our digs for the night was a converted stable which was impressively rustic and a fabulous place to rest after a long tiring day. In the morning we enjoyed a leisurely late breakfast before bidding our friends farewell and heading via Middelpos to Sutherland. After a short lunch break, we decided that 300km of gravel was enough. Our late departure from Gannaga meant the day had slipped away, needing to get a move on, we decided to stick to asphalt for the remainder of our ride back to Cape Town. Returning via Bain’s Kloof Pass and the Durbanville Hills to home in Bloubergstrand.
Feel free to come on one of our tours with us, we always offer alternatives to the tarmac. The occasional stretch of gravel can be quite liberating, building confidence up and bringing you closer to nature.
The Great Karoo is that one space on the planet that you simply cannot own… it owns you!
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