How to plan an overnight hike in the Drakensberg mountains

This blog post is a little different from our previous posts. Rather than being about a specific adventure, it is about a place that we hold very close to our hearts: South Africa's Drakensberg mountains. It’s possibly our favourite place in South Africa.

 Looking into Lesotho from the top of Giant's Castle Pass

Looking into Lesotho from the top of Giant's Castle Pass

There are two sides to the Drakensberg, the Midlands and the high Drakensberg. In this two-part series, we will describe exploring this mountainous world in Kwa-Zulu Natal, between Johannesburg and Durban. Part 1 will look at how to plan your own hiking adventure into the high Drakensberg and part 2 will look at exploring the Midlands and little Berg in a car and on foot.

Planning a multi-day hike into the Drakensberg can feel intimidating at first. It feels like you need loads of kit, need to be super fit and have lots of hiking experience. We hope this post will show you that it’s more manageable than you think and inspire you.

To reach the high Drakensberg (which are passes that lead up to the Lesotho border) typically requires a day of strenuous hiking. So, before you start planning you need to be fit. Not superhuman, Ironman fit but able to carry a pack and walk uphill for 8 hours (and then sleep in a cave or tent).

When first exploring the idea of hiking in the Berg the first thing that overwhelmed me was the seemingly endless route options. In time, I learnt to embrace this as part of the beauty of the Berg. Because it is such a vast wilderness and there are so many different routes it is unlikely that you will see more than a couple of people while you are out hiking.

The first overnight hike I did was with my dad up the infamous chain ladders, to the top of the Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park and then across to the Ifidi Cave. We drove down from Johannesburg on a Friday after work and stayed at the Witieshoek Mountain Lodge before setting off on our hike early Saturday morning. I learnt a lot on this first hike, mainly about navigation and water. 

Buy hiking maps

 Above the clouds 

Above the clouds 

The best way to start planning your route is to buy the hiking maps for the Berg. They are available at Maps4Africa in Johannesburg and Takealot. In London, you can buy them at Stanfords. We also use the forum comments on Vertical Endeavour to give us an idea of route conditions and hiking times.

If you can get your hands on a copy of David Bristow’s book, Best Walks of the Drakensberg, that will also help you understand the different routes. There is a fair degree of poetic license in the book (especially around distances and travel times). So, take everything in it with a pinch of salt.

Don’t over commit

Be careful of planning too much driving and hiking in one day. Driving to the Berg from Joburg takes about 4 hours, depending on where you are going. Planning to hike 6 to 8 hours on the same day can be very hard.

The same goes for the way back. If you are Joburg based, the best thing to do is take a half day on a Friday and drive down to the Berg. Stay at the Parks Board accommodation or hike for an hour into the mountains (if you are brave this can be done in the dark). Hike all day on Saturday and then aim to be back at your car by latest 3 pm on Sunday.

Book your cave & pack your tent

When hiking in the Berg you will either sleep in a cave or in a hiking tent on the mountain. Good caves offer fantastic shelter and often mind-blowing views. Detailed information on the condition and shelter offered by the numerous caves can be found on Vertical Endeavor and caves are all marked on the maps. Some caves need to be booked in advanced through Ezemvelo Wildlife.

My advice is to find a cave that you would like to sleep in and then plan your trip around getting to that cave. Always bring a tent - even if you don’t plan on using it – as things may not go to plan. Hikes often take longer than you anticipate or the weather could close in. Caves are few and far between at the top of the escarpment and this is where tents can save you.

Download Gaia GPS

 Injisuthi

Injisuthi

Hiking in the Berg is not like hiking in Europe or North America, where there are typically well-marked trails and often sign posted. Most hikes in the Berg start on a well-marked trail from an Ezemvelo Parks Board Office, and then as you get deeper into the mountains the paths normally disappear or often lead in multiple different directions, which are not marked on the map.

It’s easy to get lost. Download the Gaia GPS app on your phone. It’s a peer-sourced hiking map. Most of the main routes in the Berg are marked on it. Then visit Vertical Endeavour, a forum with invaluable information on hiking in the Berg. It has GPS routes and waypoints you can download onto the Gaia app. So, you simply have to follow the line marked on the GPS.

Despite the best technology things can go wrong. While doing the Bell Traverse in April this year with two friends I accidentally knelt on my iPhone whilst rummaging around my hiking tent trying to find a head torch. The screen broke and we had no GPS. Fortunately, we had paper maps and a rough idea of where to go. We eventually managed to download the app on one of my hiking partner’s phone when we found cell phone reception. (The friend was from the UK and we used his work phone. He was told he was only allowed to turn data roaming on for emergencies – we thought this counted as one.)

Water, water, water

 Giant's castle

Giant's castle

Water can often be an issue when hiking in the Berg towards the end of the year, after a long dry winter. On the Ifidi Cave hike, we had to ration our water carefully and still ended up very dehydrated by the end. We went in November, which is at the end of the dry season.

During the Bell Traverse hike, the campsite (marked by a couple of stones in the ground) had no water source. With tents up, I went with one of my hiking partners up the valley in search of water. In the dark, we eventually located a spring in the mountain by listening for water. I have also done hikes in the Berg where there are waterfalls around every corner and you never have to worry about water at all.

Collect water whenever you find it. If you are sleeping in a cave research where the nearest water source is. Make sure you fill up with more than you need and drink what you can when you are at the water source. I don’t purify water in the Berg, as surely it must be some of the cleanest water in the world. I have never had a problem. A Life Straw is a good option if you’re squeamish.

Pack lightly  

 Indigenous forest at Injisuthi

Indigenous forest at Injisuthi

In terms of kit, there is lots and lots of stuff you can buy for hiking. But travelling as light as possible is one of the most crucial factors for a successful hike. Good hiking boots, a warm jacket and the weather are other important factors. Hiking poles help a great deal also. We use the Outdoor Warehouse hiking checklist when packing for a hike. You can decide what you think is important or not (see the end of this post for a list of resources).

Packing enough food can be a challenge. I try to avoid freeze-dried hiking food - it is lightweight but doesn’t taste great or have that many calories. Pre-made frozen stews are ideal for the first night and then a pasta and sauce for night two works nicely for me.

Take care of yourself

Sadly, there are very infrequent security incidents in the Berg between hikers and semi-nomadic Basotho herdsmen, who live in Lesotho but occasionally they venture down mountain passes into South Africa. This is frequently associated with smuggling.

We have never had any security incidents in the Berg. I have encountered Basotho and they have all been incredibly friendly. The best advice is to check the Vertical Endeavour security incident page, don’t pitch your tent next to major paths at the top of the escarpment or in the middle of mountain passes.

It is essential that you sign in and out of the mountain register at the Parks Board office before and after every hike. Also, tell a family member or friend where you plan to hike and when you expect to return. If you don’t they can raise the alarm.

The raw wilderness, epic views and peace of the Berg make it an extra special place that will forever be in our hearts. I hope you can enjoy it too. Good luck and take lots of photos.

Botswana Adventure: Baines' Baobabs

After a night at South Camp, at Nxai Pans National Park, we had one night left in Botswana before the long drive back to Joburg.

I had seen photos of the famous Baines' Baobabs and heard wonderful things about the campsites there. So we decided that’s where we would head for our last night in paradise.

23331370_995950809577_6646469007640852571_o.jpg

   Baines' Baobabs

We went to reception at South Camp and enquired about Baines'. We were happy to hear that Site 3, supposedly the best site from a privacy point of view, was available...but it was going to cost us US$ 90. We thought this was quite a lot of money for a campsite with no facilities. But, as it was our last night, we decided to go for it.

 Jolene the Jimny on the salt pans at Nxai Pans National Park

Jolene the Jimny on the salt pans at Nxai Pans National Park

We packed up camp, whilst keeping an eye out for the elephants that were roaming nearby. There is no water at the Baines' campsites, so we filled up one of our 20L water containers. We also picked up firewood at the shop and jammed it into the back of the Jolene the Jimny, mangling the upholstery on the roof.

We headed off down the same sandy track we came along and about halfway back turned left towards the famous Baobabs. The landscape changes quickly from scrubby savannah grassland to the famous Kudikama Pan and its islands of Baobabs.

We stopped and took photos of the famous thousand-year-old ‘upside down trees’ that were made famous by Englishman Thomas Baines who painted the trees in 1862 during an expedition through the Kalahari.

We drove across the salt pan, making sure to follow tracks made by others and arrived at campsite number 3. Tracks4Africa is a must in this area, as there are very few signs pointing you to your campsite.

Campsite number 3 is marvelous. It is set on its own tree island of golden grassland and, of course, it is scattered with baobabs.

 Jolene under the baobab at campsite 3

Jolene under the baobab at campsite 3

With camp set up, we went for a walk along the shore of our tree island and admired the endless grey expanse stretching to the horizon. The wind picked up and began to pump as the sun set, so we headed back to camp. Strong wind is apparently quite common on the pans, but you can usually count on it stopping after the sun sets.

That evening we had our last bucket shower in the wilderness and cooked Kate’s famous potjie bread and a bean stew. Thankfully we had saved a couple of bottles of wine for our last night, which we drank admiring the stars.

The next day we set-off early, as we had a long drive ahead of us. On the sand road to the main gate we came across a family of ostriches, who weren’t too pleased to see us. Mum and Dad were so quick to run off flapping their wings that they left a couple of stragglers behind.

We spent all day on the road and made it to the Groblersbrug border at sunset. We pushed on for another hour in the dark to Lephalale, where we found the Palm Park Hotel.

We were exhausted and stopped for pizza. We gave into temptation and booked an overpriced hotel room for the night. The hot showers (our first in a week!), aircon and clean white sheets were much appreciated.

Catch up on the first 3 parts of our Botswana adventure: Central Kalahari Game ReserveKhumaga and South Camp.

Botswana Advenuture: South Camp at Nxai

This is post three from our trip through Botswana. Make sure to catch up on our earlier posts about Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Khumaga.

IMG_3712.jpg

South Camp

Nxai Pan National Park

Our sightings at Khumaga had been so fantastic (Elephant swimming across the Boteti river! A male lion on a zebra kill! A jackal fighting off 40 vultures!) that we had our doubts about moving on.

We didn’t know if we would find a campsite further north in the Nxai National Park (or if the viewing would be as exciting) but we decided to push on anyway.

We broke camp quickly. Kate sorted out the tent: collapsed the stretchers, rolled the mattress, folded the linen and repacked the bags. Ben sorted out the camping chairs and table, repacked our boxes and started packing Jolene.

 Lion at a kill at Khumaga

Lion at a kill at Khumaga

With our car packed we opened the map on the bonnet and plotted our route. We decided to head north towards South Camp and see if we could get a campsite. We knew there would be water so we ditched a couple of 5 litre bottles, which provided much appreciate leg room for Kate.

We hopped in Jolene and took the road towards the north gate of the Makgadikgadi National Park. We passed the zebra kill again and had a peak. It was almost completely stripped bare by the vultures. What had two hours before been a red and pink carcass was now bones and dried brown flesh. A few vultures were still hanging around in the nearby trees and flew off as we drove by. The two jackals had long moved on - to shady sleeping spots, we imagined, as they must have had full tummies.

The road north was more of the same - sand, sand and more sand (Ben: Kate was asleep for this bit so she can only assume.) As we approached the gate we began to speculate about the possibility of ice. It had become the thing of fantasy for us. Where can we get it? How long will it last? How much are we willing to pay for it? Answer: much more than it was worth.

We reached the gate and the receptionist, Becca, started the checkout process. We signed the forms, chatted about recent sightings and bought ice-cold Fanta Oranges.

“Do you have ice?” we asked. She smiled and disappeared around the back of the building. She emerged a few minutes later with a couple of 2 litre frozen water bottles. We could have kissed her.

We repacked the cool box - positioning gin and tonic supplies next to the ice - and hit the main road.

About 15 kilometres later we arrived at the entrance to Nxai National Park. We booked a campsite for the night at South Camp and hit the sand again. (There’s only so much we can say about the sand. It’s tough going.) We had a dicey moment when Ben hopped out for a quick pee and the car started sinking. Sticking Jolene the Jimny into low range and reversing saved the day.

We arrived at the reception to find an elephant trunk-deep in an underground water tank. He emerged every few minutes to check on the cars coming and going.

The reception has an impressive shop! It's not cheap but there is an amazing selection of supplies and (importantly!) booze. After four days of low rations we stocked up on cold drinks and packets of chips.

After signing in we headed to South Camp. It’s a well equipped campsite but not our sort of place. The campsites are very close together. It doesn’t have the feel of a wilderness camp but you will regularly have elephants wandering past your tent.

The toilets are protected by electric fences, metal spikes embedded in concrete and locked gates. This is to keep the elephants from breaking down the building to get to water pipes.

We relaxed during the afternoon and then headed off to a nearby waterhole with a bottle of wine. We arrived just as the sun began to set and sipped Chardonnay while about 20 elephants jostled for the water.

 Sunset at the watering hole.

Sunset at the watering hole.

The next morning we were up early and headed off in search of cheetah. We didn’t have any luck, though. The highlight of our drive were two bat-eared foxes curled up together in the morning sun.

Our next stop was a night at the legendary Baine's Baobabs - a camp on tree islands in the middle of a salt pan.

IMG_3725.jpg
IMG_3709.jpg

 






 

Botswana Adventure: Khumaga Wildlife Camp

We were sad to leave the CKGR and we will definitely return in the summer after the rains when it’s cooler and the bush has recovered from the tragic fires. The trip really reminded us of the importance of putting out a campfire at night - even hot ash can start a bushfire in very dry areas like the Kalahari. (Read our trip report from CKGR here.)

 Khumaga zebras checking us out. 

Khumaga zebras checking us out. 

We’re planners so heading off into the unknown was a new to us but we enjoyed it more than we thought we would. A week or so before we departed Ben had read a blog on 4x4community about Khumaga. We found it on the map and it looked pretty close.

We packed up Jolene, plotted our route and headed back along the sandy track to the main gate. It was slow going and we saw little game.

After signing out we got back on the tarred road and headed towards Khumaga. After days in the dry and dusty Kalahari we were amazed the GPS instructed us to "take the ferry in 300 metres"!

And sure enough, just over a small hill, the Boteti river was in full flood and a pontoon was waiting for us and Jolene.

 Jolene floating across the Boteti river on a pontoon. 

Jolene floating across the Boteti river on a pontoon. 

We paid out fare and drove onto the pontoon. The driver guided us safely across the bank on the other side. We drove up a short dirt road and arrived at the entrance to the Makgadikgadi National Park.

Two very helpful and friendly receptionists welcomed us and recommended we spend the night at the Khumaga Wildlife Camp. Unfortunately, there had been a small burn at the camp recently but nowhere near as bad as at CKGR.

We set up camp under a large Tamboti tree in campsite 10. The camp has excellent ablutions and after the bucket showers and long drops of CKGR Kate headed quickly disappeared to enjoy a long cold shower.

The campsites could be a little more private, but the recent burn meant a lot of the normal vegetation providing privacy was gone. It is a small very well-maintained camp and the staff were extremely friendly.

Khumaga Bird List

  • Khumaga Bird List
  • White backed vulture
  • Double banded sandgrouse
  • Pied Kingfisher
  • Hammerkop
  • Lappet faced vulture
  • Sacred Ibis
  • Great White Egret
  • Goliath Heron
  • Greater Flamingo
  • Lilac breasted Roller
  • Red-billed hornbill

The banks of the Boteti, with little water elsewhere in the region at this time of year, are teeming with game. The river is fed by the highlands of Angola, where it rains for nine months of the year.

We were lucky enough to see a herd of elephant cross the river at sunset. In places the river was so deep that the elephants had to use their trunks as snorkels. They emerged on the bank less than 20 metres in front of us.

 Elephants swimming across the Boteti River at sunset. 

Elephants swimming across the Boteti River at sunset. 

We headed out on a game drive the next morning thinking this experience couldn’t be topped. We were wrong.

We had a great breakfast on the banks on the Boteti river while we watched its abundant birdlife waking up for the day.

 An after breakfast pic on the banks of the Boteti River. 

An after breakfast pic on the banks of the Boteti River. 

On the way back to camp we stumbled upon a large male lion on a fresh zebra kill. We watched him finish off his meal before he sauntered off. He stopped briefly to have a quick pee on a bush.

The real action then got underway. Over 50 vultures had been watching the lion from trees. But before they could get to the carcass a jackal dashed out and claim it for himself. For the next 45 minutes we watch the jackal fight off the vultures between mouthfuls of zebra.  

 Spot the angry jackal. 

Spot the angry jackal. 

The vultures eventually fought off the jackal and mobbed the carcass. We quietly drove away and headed back to out camp to pack up and set off.

We arrived back to find out tent collapsed under the weight of a troop of monkeys. They had tried to break in and raid our bags. Luckily they had been unsuccessful and the only damage was a couple monkey turds on our tent.

We packed up our gear and headed off with our sights set on spending a night or two at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Check back soon for that trip report.

Botswana Adventure: Central Kalahari Game Reserve

I had always dreamed of visiting the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). This large green swathe in the heart of the map of Botswana was created in 1961 as the last refuge for the Kalahari Bushmen living a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sadly, now the bushmen have all but disappeared but remote unfenced camps in total wilderness remain.

Last year I read The Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. It’s an account of their experiences living in the CKGR for seven years conducting research into the reserve’s lions, hyenas and jackals on a minimal budget. This was the final spark I needed. I was determined to visit in 2017.

 Looking for cheetah. 

Looking for cheetah. 

4x4community has a lot of information on CKGR and I spent hours (maybe even days) ploughing through it all to plan the perfect trip. I love the planning part of an adventure, so I took the careful preparations required to visit such a remote place all in my stride.

We booked through Tara at Botswana Footprints, who came highly recommended on the forums. She was brilliant and made all our bookings for us and couriered all the confirmations to Joburg. She charges a flat rate of ZAR 500 - an absolute deal.

Some campsites in Bots are run by department of wildlife and national parks and others are run by private operators. Tara can book with both - meaning that you only have one point of contact when booking trips. We booked about two months in advanced and a lot of the sites we wanted were already full.

CKGR: Need to Know

  • CKGR is the second largest game reserve in the world and is very remote with few roads.
  • Don’t expect wildlife densities like Kruger or elsewhere in Botswana. The primary reason to visit the CKGR is the experience the remote wilderness and careful planning is required.
  • You will need to bring all your own fuel and water. 
  • A lot of the roads consist of thick sand, which will greatly increase your fuel consumption and travel times. 
  • We used 10L of water between us each day and this allowed us a very quick shared bucket shower, but we did have other soft drinks to supplement our water supply. The more water you can bring the better. There is nothing better than a bucket shower in the CKGR after a long hot day.
  • As we were traveling alone we rented a satellite phone for emergencies and the occasional call to family. We used Sat4Rent. They couriered it to Kate’s offices before the trip and collected it afterwards. It was quite pricey but a relief to know we could call if we needed help.
  • We didn’t have a fridge. Our cool box put up a good fight but after three days we were struggling for cold beers.
  • Bring lots of books - apart from game drives there is not much else to do.

Day 1: Joburg to Tuuthebe Lodge

We left Joburg at 5am with Jolene the Jimny fully loaded and arrived at the Stockpoort border post, via a refuelling stop in Lephalale.

Based on the advice we received on 4x4community we decided to use this border post because it is less busy and quicker than Martin’s Drift. The advice proved correct and we were on the other side of the Limpopo in under 15 minutes.

From the border to Mahalapye on the A1 was approximately 45km on a fast gravel road with nothing but cattle and trees to keep you company. A nice welcome to Botswana.

Once on the A1, the main motorway heading north in Botswana, the going was easy and the roads relatively quiet. We stopped for a Steers and few supplies at Palapye and then took the A14 north-west towards Orapa. We stopped for cash and fuel at Serowe, but there is not much here and would recommend that over landers pick up their supplies in Palapye.

We reached our overnight stop of Tuuthebe Lodge on the edge of the Kalahari at 4pm, roughly an 8 hour drive excluding stops from home. It was ominously hot! Luckily Tuuthebe had aircon and cold showers. While Kate napped I drove to Choppies in Letlhakane to pick-up some beers. It’s a well-stocked Choppies, which is open to 7 or 8pm in the evenings. It's not on Tracks4Africa, so ask for directions at the reception of Tuuthebe.

Tuuthebe Lodge Bird List

  • Fork-tailed Drongo
  • African Red-Eyed Bulbul
  • Kalahari Scrub Robin
  • Green-winged pytilia (melba finch)
  •  Blue Waxbill

The lodge is the perfect stopover, with nice braai facilities overlooking a duck pond. The land surrounding the lodge is a cattle farm, which you are welcome to explore on foot. After a long drive it was nice to stretch the legs and spot some interesting birds at sunset. I wouldn’t recommend camping there unless you are desperate. The sites are fine, but the traffic noise would drive you mad.

Day 2: Tuuthebe Lodge to Kori 3 (CKGR)

I was up early and filled up our water tanks from the borehole tap when disaster stuck. One of our new 20L tanks was leaking water and despite Kate’s ambitious duct taping we were unable to stem the leak. Knowing we needed more water we headed back to Choppies in Letlhakane and bought four 5 litre water bottles and left the leaking tank in the car park.

We refueled and filled our jerry cans in Mopipi, overlooking a vast salt pan. We also refueled Jolene at Rakops, where there is now a Puma filling station. We were told it now has reliable fuel. We were persuaded by the petrol attendants to buy wood here because we were told there would be none at the park gate. This turned out not to be true but we were fooled.

 Left turn ahead!

Left turn ahead!

Just outside of Rakops is the turn off on to the sand road, which leads to the Matswere entrance gate to the park. There were some thick sandy sections on this road, but no major dramas. As we headed further along the sand track the vegetation got thicker and signs of human life got thinner. As we got closer to the entrance gate we started to see signs of recent fire damage. This was a sign of things to come.

We got to the entrance gate in good time and the receptionist was extremely friendly and helpful. We headed into the park and the burn damage became worse as we drove. We arrived in Deception Valley to find vast stretches of it decimated by fire.

Kori 3 is a fantastic camp. It is large and private, with some trees for shade - a real luxury in the Kalahari. It has a good view of the Deception Valley, but this was a little spoilt for us by the burn. Kori 2 also looked good, with a nice view of the valley but is a smaller than Kori 3.

We set-up camp and settled into our home for the next three nights.

 Magic nights by the fire. 

Magic nights by the fire. 

Days 3 & 4: Kori 3 (CKGR)

On Day 3 we spent the morning and later afternoon on game drives without seeing anything noteworthy. During the day the temperate was in the upper 30’C, which made it hard to even concentrate on reading a book. Kate was then stung three times by insects and morale was running low. The only solution I could think of was to go on a game drive with the AC on full blast while we sipped cold beers.

CKGR Bird List

  • Black-shouldered Kite
  • Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
  • Violet-eared waxbill
  • Secretary bird
  • Bateleur Eagle
  • Crimson-breasted Shrike
  • Red-crested Korhaan
  • Northern Black Korhaan
  • Cape Glossy Starling
  • Black-faced waxbill
  • White-Browed Sparrow Weaver

By the morning of day 4 we had decided that because of the severity of the burn and the extreme heat we would not be moving deeper into the park to our next booking at Phokoje. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

Knowing this was our last full day in the park we decided to make the long drive to the Letahiau waterhole (a 90 km round trip) where we had been told at the entrance gate of frequent lion sightings. We were in luck, about 10 km before the waterhole resting under a tree we saw two cubs and a lioness resting after a long night of hunting. We sat for over an hour enjoying the curious cubs watch us carefully whilst Mum was fast asleep.

 Lion cubs resting in the shade.

Lion cubs resting in the shade.

The next day we packed up and headed off without a plan. Check back soon for that blog post!

Taking the long way round: Joburg to Cape Town

Many people quickly dismiss the 1,500 km drive from Joburg to Cape Town, which crosses the Great Karoo in the centre of South Africa, as too long and arduous to bother with. Why spend 30 hours on the road when you can pick up a round-trip flight for around R2500? I differ - I love the freedom of the open road, the changing scenery and the ability to explore places off the beaten track.

In February, Kate and I stayed with my parents in a beach house in idyllic Churchaven, situated inside the West Coast National. As we are based in Joburg and had a wedding in Cape Town the weekend before we were due to rent the house, I saw this as an opportunity to explore the lesser known parts of South Africa by road. And as a bonus, my Mum asked to tag along.

We planned to do the drive over two days, with a shorter first day and a longer second. We set off from home at midday and headed south, crossing the Vaal River, entering the wide-open spaces of the Free State. Here we left the national highway and headed on side roads through a thunderstorm to the small forgotten Karoo town of Philipolis.

 The road to Die Groenhuis in Philipolis

The road to Die Groenhuis in Philipolis

Philipolis was a former mission station founded in 1823 for the local Khoi people in the then-British held Orange River Colony, making it one of the oldest settlements in the Free State. A once prosperous agricultural town, it used the be on the main road from Joburg to Cape Town. When the national highway was constructed in the 1960s it just missed the tiny speck on the map, passing 60km west of the town and taking much of the trade and industry away.

It feels like the pause button was pressed when the highway was built, creating a quiet and haunting traditional South African “dorp”.

We stayed at Die Groenhuis, a series of renovated Karoo Cottages set along a dirt road that leads out of town overlooking cattle fields. We were welcomed by Jens, who remembered me from when I passed through in 2013, when doing the same journey. He had lots of stories to tell about the delights of the small town and its history, which I think were the same stories he told me when I last visited.

We took a walk around the town when we arrived to stretch our legs. We got chatting to a local about the town and its history. He very proudly told us that "no white women had ever been raped in Philipolis" and we were completely safe. We didn’t really have an answer to that.

Restaurants in Philipolis are few and far between. Jens gave us the contact details for Elwina (+27 73 878 6820) who runs a small café, Sielskos. She does excellent dinners for travellers – strictly by appointment only – at her small café on the main street. We enjoyed a chicken pie and lamb, while we enjoyed a few drinks and listened to the nearby stream running in full flood after the storms

We ate in the courtyard of the café, which is also a monument to Laurens Van Der Post. Philipolis is the birthplace of the famous writer and conservationist. Coincidentally as part of his colourful life, he was also a dairy farmer near to where I grew up in the English countryside.

 "I came to live my life not by conscious plan or pre-arranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird." - Laurens van der Post

"I came to live my life not by conscious plan or pre-arranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird." - Laurens van der Post

The next morning, we had a quick coffee overlooking the wetland at the back of the cottages and hit the road. We re-joined the highway at Colesberg, where we stopped for the obligatory Wimpy bacon sandwich.

After Colesberg the Great Karoo opened up before us, with its vast spaces and imposing mountains. In colonial times, the Karoo formed an almost impenetrable barrier to the interior from Cape Town due to the hostility of the environment, extreme heat, lack of water and shade.

Today, it’s a magnificent drive through a desert landscape that has been largely unchanged for thousands of years. If we had more time an overnight stay at one of the many Karoo farms offering accommodation or at the Karoo National Park would be well worth it.

Nearer the end of the drive, we stopped for lunch at Matjiesfontein, a storybook town set in one of the driest parts of the Karoo.

The village is situated along the main railway line from the diamond fields of Kimberley to Cape Town and is just off the main highway. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and admire the Victorian architecture.

Matjiesfontein was founded by an entrepreneurial Scot, John Molteno, who created a Victorian health resort, based around the Lord Milner Hotel and the Karoo’s clean air. Again, a night at the quirky Lord Milner and a few beers at its pub is recommended, if you have the time.

Unfortunately, we had to press on with Cape Town in our sites. We left the Karoo behind us, crossing the Cape fold mountains via the dramatic Hex River Valley. In the space of two hours, we drove through vast open desert, jagged mountains and vineyards.

We eventually arrived in Cape Town glad that we hadn’t flown but had driven savouring South Africa’s landscapes.

The way back

On the way back, a week later, I was solo and went a different way. I headed back via the N12 and Kimberley, rather than the N1 and Bloemfontein.

This time round I could enjoy the peace and solitude of driving alone through the desert. The quieter N12 allowed me to relax and enjoy the view, rather than having to worry about constantly overtaking trucks.

I spent the night camping at Mokala National Park, South Africa’s newest park. I camped at Motswedi campsite, which overlooks a waterhole. There are only six sites at the camp which is set amongst camel thorn trees. Each has its own kitchen, shower and loo block, giving each camp some luxury and privacy.

The camp has a true wilderness feel. There is only an ankle high electric fence to keep buffalo out and the other member of the Big Five that call the reserve home.

I arrived at the camp, via flooded sand roads, in the pouring rain. I struggled as I put my new tent up getting soaked and cursing myself for not being more sensible and opting for a chalet at the main camp.

 Home for the night at the Motswedi campsite. 

Home for the night at the Motswedi campsite. 

I retreated to the kitchen block to wait out the storm and then hopped in a hot shower thanks to the solar geyser. Eventually the rain stopped and I lit a fire. I sat on a picnic bench listening to the chorus of frogs where I enjoyed an entire borewors for myself, happy I had not chickened out and opted for a chalet.

Despite the rain, the inside of my tent was dry and the only thing to wake me in the night was a hippo munching on the green grass around my tent.

I woke up on the morning of my 29th birthday and drove through the park taking 4x4 roads, eventually heading out the park via the Lilydale Gate.

On my game drive, I saw Oryx, Springbok, Tsessebbe, Red Hartebeest, Eland, Kudu and Zebra, as well as plenty of unusual birds. I left Mokala feeling that it needs more exploring as part of another adventure. Perhaps some fly-fishing in the Riet River?

After leaving I headed north to Kimberley and then on to Joburg through driving rain, along flooded back roads of various quality and through endless fields of tall green mielie and forgotten farming towns.

Road trip reading list: