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Tankwa magic

Ever since I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” way back as a student, I knew that I would have a bike one day. But like many good things in life, it took a long time before it became a reality. In fact, I didn’t even plan to be riding by now, it was on my “to do in the distant future” list.

Early last year, while chilling in China, I got a whatsapp from my buddy Jacques Holtzhausen. It was a short message: “Ek jeuk” (I’m itching). Followed by a picture of a motorbike. My response was just as short: “Ek’s in” (I’m in). By the time I arrived back in South Africa a few days later, Jacques was already well versed in motorbike nomenclature. I had to catch up quick.

Fast forward a few months, and we found ourselves in the Tankwa Karoo, a semi-desert region a few hours’ drive northeast of Cape Town. In December, of all months. The heat became a formidable challenge, but nonetheless we had great rides on some magical roads. The open skies, the expansive land and the endless dirt roads are the perfect ingredients for the type of trip where memories are made and pictures are taken. With cellphone cameras, nogal.

 

First day riding in the Tankwa.
First day riding in the Tankwa.

Open road and open skies.
Open road and open skies.

 

We based ourselves at the Blesfontein Guest Farm, some 30km out of Sutherland. From the farm, we criss-crossed the Tankwa landscape and mountain passes.

Ouberg and Gannaga are names that roll comfortably off my tongue, but it was a tad stressful to ride these passes. It was my first experience riding mountain passes with a motorbike; fortunately I have some mtb skills in my skills quiver that I could put to good use. It was a good learning experience too: if you ride too hard on the back brakes, the brake fluid boils and the brake’s braking ability disappears, as I found out on a steep downhill section just before a hairpin turn. There is nothing like adrenaline to help make the best of a bad situation.

 

Panoramic view from the top of Gannaga pass.
Panoramic view from the top of Ouberg pass.

 

Ouberg Pass snaking down to the valley.
Ouberg Pass snaking down to the valley.

 

Start of Gannaga Pass, heading up.
Start of Gannaga Pass, heading up.

 

Apart from the actual riding on all these stretched-out dirt roads, our trip through the Tankwa Karoo National Park was a certain highlight. The Oudebaaskraal Dam in the southern part of the Park is much larger than I expected it to be, and we were treated by the spectacular sight of a gemsbok first jogging along the dam and then picking up speed, running slightly ahead of us before crossing the road and disappearing in the distance.

Sections of thick sand in the Park kept things interesting, and I managed to fall twice without breaking anything apart from my bike’s mirrors. The heat took it’s toll though, and by the end of our tour through the Park I was battling to stay focused on the riding. Once out of the Park, we found a little farm dam next to the road where we promptly stripped off our riding gear and jumped in for a cool off. It is amazing what a difference it made to our riding afterwards.

 

My favourite pic from the trip.
My favourite pic from the trip.

 

A KTM-branded grasshopper.
A KTM-branded grasshopper.

 

Sand 1 : Celliers 0
Sand 1 : Celliers 0

 

Hiding from the heat in a dry riverbed.
Hiding from the heat in a dry riverbed.

 

Saving grace in a harsh landscape.
Saving grace in a harsh landscape.

 

I’ve visited many places where I love to spend a few days or even a few weeks, but where I wouldn’t want to live permanently. Nonetheless, I can almost always understand why some people choose to stay there, regardless of the hardships they might have to endure or luxuries they have to forfeit. A large part of the Tankwa would fall in this category for me.

On some rare occasions, the location of choice for a settlement is just too difficult to fathom. On the way out from the Tankwa Karoo National Park, we noticed some ruins a short distance off the track. I have no idea what the history is of these ruins, but it is clear that people chose to stay here not too long ago, maybe a few decades. The houses were built with a mixture of wood, reeds, grass and mud. Some of the outer walls were even decorated. Judging from the scale of the little settlement, it is a fair assumption that a group of families lived here, kids included.

No matter how hard I try, I can not imagine why any person would have chosen to settle in this god-forsaken part of the world. It is the driest, rockiest terrain we encountered in the Tankwa. There is no source of water that we could see within a few kilometers of the settlement. How these people survived, I have no idea. Clearly they also realized after some time that it’s not a viable area for living, as the ruins are now, well, ruins.

The unlikely environment for a family home.
The unlikely environment for a family home.

 

Thanks for visiting, but don't stay long.
Thanks for visiting, but don’t stay long.

 

Prettifying the depressing walls?
Prettifying the depressing walls?

 

Quite central to the area that we explored lies a little outpost, aptly named Middelpos. It consist of a hotel, called the Middelpos Hotel, a shop called “Die Winkel” (The Shop), a post office, a fuel pump and a few houses. The outpost is obviously a hub for the farming community in the surrounding area, but calling it the proverbial hub of activity would be a stretch.

The first time we arrived in Middelpos, unannounced, the owner of the hotel treated us with goat milk, goat meat and goat cheese for a late lunch. We were so impressed with her friendliness that we arranged a goat cheese platter for the next day, when we went through Middelpos again via a different route. When you’re in the middle of the Tankwa, all roads lead to Middlepos; if not for agoat cheese platter, then at least for the fuel, which is a scarcity in this part of the world.

Having done many trips in the bundus with a variety of transport modes, often in clothes/gear that must seem outlandish to the locals, I’m quite used to little kids swarming around on arrival in a village. Invariably they are curious; on occasion also demanding. None of that was present in Middelpos though. The few kids around just stared at us, and made no attempt to interact. I’m curious to know what the reason for that may be. With riders coming through Middelpos every now and then, have the kids become jaded already by the trademark sights and sounds of adventure bikes? Or do they resent what we represent? Or was it simply too hot to bother?

 

The middle of Middelpos.
The middle of Middelpos.

 

No attempt to be original here.
No attempt to be original here.

 

The last time I saw a sign that says "kleedkamer" must have been at school.
The last time I saw a sign that says “kleedkamer” must have been at school.

 

Cheese platter, Tankwa style.
Cheese platter, Tankwa style.

 

Filling station, a good part of Middelpos' reason for existence.
Filling station, a good part of Middelpos’ reason for existence.

 

A sundowner with a great view is always a suitable ending to a great trip. We treated ourselves to exactly that on our last evening at the guest farm.

As the saying goes, we’ll be back!

 

Viewpoint on Blesfontein Guest Farm. Perfect for sundowners.
Viewpoint on Blesfontein Guest Farm. Perfect for sundowners.

 

Partners in crime.
Partners in crime.