Down the Orange in our car

2010-08-02 00:00

I HAVE always loved canoeing and the first book that I read about it was Willem van Riet’s Stroom af in my kano, which begins with his Orange River marathon from Aliwal North to Oranjemund, a journey which my brother and three friends completed to Upington, when I was too young to join them.

I have recently read the book Borderline by William Dicey which also recounts a canoe trip from Orania to Oranjemund and gives a fascinating account of the history of the areas they pass through.

My wife, Marie-Anna, and I wanted to confirm that a two-week winter holiday in the South African platteland can be just as exciting and rewarding as any overseas trip, at less than half the cost, for the two of us about R1 000 per day in all. We wanted a road trip (too old for marathon canoeing now) and we were going to do 5 000 kilometres, along the 30th parallel, down the Senqu-Orange-Gariep river, straight across rural South Africa, from coast to coast and back again through the Garden Route, in a huge ellipse.

We were also quite taken with the idea of ours being a journey following, in reverse, the footsteps of the multiply displaced Griqua people, the Children of the Mist written about by Scott Balson, a circle in the wilderness, from Kokstad to Upington to Saldanha to Kranshoek near Plettenberg Bay. Not many people know that Nelson Mandela’s mother was Griqua and therefore that he possibly has Dutch blood.

We started in Pietermaritzburg, went to Kokstad, Rhodes, Aliwal North, Hopetown, Prieska, Upington, Augrabies Falls, Springbok, Lambert’s Bay, Saldanha, Langebaan, Piketberg, Citrusdal, Ceres, Prince Albert, over the Swartberg Pass to George, Keurboomstrand, Port Alfred, Grahamstown, Hogsback and finally came back home via Umtata.

We stayed in historic hotels, country homes, riverside and beachside lodges and our own beach house for a few nights. They were mostly three-star places and the most we paid for a double bed and breakfast en suite was R795 and the least was R400, averaging R600. All had a pub and restaurant on the premises or nearby for dinner, which in all cases was excellent. We made our own snacks for lunch, usually on the road.

Of the two weeks on the road, 11 days were spent travelling the 5 000 kilometres, at an average of 450 kilometres per day, with petrol costing about R3 000. Information and road signs for tourists were generally adequate, but a lot more could be done to ease the confusions that foreigners are likely to have. The roads were mostly good, except near Umtata and to Rhodes, and the weather was perfectly cool but sunny, except for Rhodes where we were treated to snow.

We experienced how badly signposted places like Upington and Saldanha make you miss many of their attractions and you pass on to the next place with your money unspent. Conversely, when well-advertised temptations like wine tasting prove to be just a tease at Kakamas, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth and again you pass on. We also learnt the value of bargaining when looking for accommodation and were invariably given substantial discounts.

For the first time, we explored Kokstad properly, and saw Adam Kok’s memorial with two of the cannons brought all the way from Kanoneiland, visited the museum with the exhibition on the Griqua people, well curated by Audrey Steenkamp, and went into the yellowwood-filled church.

Barkly Pass is impressive but the road to Rhodes is rough in a sedan car and apparently crazy if you go over Naude’s Nek, and the village itself is very quiet, especially in the snow and with Tiffindell closed.

Aliwal North used to have the hot springs resort which is now sadly defunct, and it still has the mighty Orange, but only one place, the Riverside Lodge next to the bridge, capitalises on this, with a great pub and restaurant with a deck nearly over the water.

From Bethulie one sees the vast Gariep Dam for the next 100 kilometres, then on to the lesser-known Vanderkloof Dam built in a gorge, and then to Orania Volkstaat which is a small town now, with a hotel right on the river, where “anyone” can stay ( at quite a price), and a school apparently of the highest standard.

The road to Upington is mostly dead straight and deserted, fit for high-speed motoring, with lots of road kill, mostly bat-eared foxes and owls, but also hundreds of huge weaver-bird nests on telephone poles along the road.

The Kalahari becomes intensely green along the river, with literally hundreds of kilometres of vineyards, olive trees, date palms and fruit orchards all the way to Augrabies. After flowing in a network of branches and canals in a broad valley, the river enters rocky terrain and narrows to plunge spectacularly over the falls into a gorge dubbed South Africa’s Grand Canyon. The park has top-quality chalets, a shop, pub and restaurant, and the walks and drives with good roads and viewing platforms, and daily river rafting trips, make this at least a two-day stop.

We left the Orange River here and travelled through Springbok down to Vanrhynsdorp, from where we followed the Olifants River, also with its rich cultivations, down to Strandfontein and Lambert’s Bay on a toll gravel road, a first for us. The West Coast was calm and clear with the deep-blue sea sparkling in the sun. Bird Island Nature Reserve was a treat. However, the fishing industry has almost collapsed, with boats and factories lying idle, and our request for fresh fish at a restaurant was greeted with the ironic “we only have freshly defrosted fish, madam”.

It was good to see the old family home, where my mother grew up in Piketberg, in such good condition and in fact the whole town and indeed the Western Cape looked neat and tidy and loved. It was an easy drive down to Ceres and on to the N1 to Matjiesfontein for lunch — what a grand English oasis — and to Prince Albert before going over the winding but smooth Swartberg Pass, with a view down to Oudts­hoorn and the Outeniqua Pass to George.

We stayed at our beach house at Keurboomstrand and then made our way back through the Eastern Cape.

Our last day was spent going through the Transkei in light rain and, after not seeing one car accident for 4 500 kilometres, we passed at least four fatal accident scenes in a few hours before arriving home, back to old clothes and porridge.


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