Riding through Northern Cape to find the Spoegrivier caves – where the first Braai-day was held about 2000 years ago. To see nothing for days. The flatness extends past the horizon where it is hard to differentiate between the off-white at the end of the earth and the light blue at the beginning of the universe. The earth is flat… trust us! Never trust us!
Since our America tour plans kind of fell through, and similarly our plans for northern Namibia, we had to slum it in sunny South Africa for my annual birthday adventure. Long on the Tank Girls’ to-do list was Skinny’s idea to go where humankind had braaied its very first chop. The Spoegrivier Caves The only way there is through the thickest sand barrier known to man. Impenetrable. Visible from space. Scariest terrain imaginable. To prep, we DIYed a training day at Rhino Park, achieved nothing, and settled on a different strategy. We would take two weeks. If that was not enough to get there and back, then it simply cannot be done. So we left everything we knew and loved behind and set off, starry-eyed, for the Namaqua Coast!
We arrived in Kamieskroon just as all the blommekykers buggered off. Some chairs were neatly stacked up on the tables in the corner and they were busy rolling up the tar road. Flower season was over and the resident ghosts roamed freely once again. A chill filled the air and the wind picked up steadily. We checked into the hotel and our travel plans were just starting to take a whisky-stained shape outside on the stoep, when this KTM640 rode right up to me and it was (I do not know how she pulled it off) Metaljockey! A great adventure rider and hero from way back when I had just started riding! What a rad surprise! Thanks, Skinny! We got to swap war stories all night and I drank way more than any sleep-deprived adventurer should after a sixteen-hour commute from Mooinooi… Sorry, Erich. But no one even drew a moustache on my passed out arse. Are we really getting too old for that? Specialised Adventures guided a group of riders through many of the same places we ended up going. We did it without the Unimog and matching mini eco system, though, but the guys had really nice coffee! When it is usually only the two of us and our own familiar morning rituals, to be afforded this rare glimpse at the pack-animal dynamic was, I would not say valuable, but certainly amusing! It takes a special kind of morning person to sleep under the stars in a howling wind.
Hopeful to catch what was left of the world famous wildflowers, we looped around the Kamiesberge, passing quite a few establishments that were closed for business. Tail-end of the season, we presumed, or perhaps a corona corollary, but try as we might, we could not find cold drinks anywhere, never mind beer! Now, I do not need to explain the science, but that is a pretty serious problem when you are afflicted with severe ‘afterthirsties’…
By 16:00 we had looked for a spot to camp, preferably near a river (unlimited supply of free water, you see!). Out of nowhere next to the road this sign glides by for Thys se Kombuis en Pub. We instinctively registered “something something Pub” and pulled in. It looked quiet, but not haunted… From the back garden, accompanied by celestial choir music, appeared Annemie, a jovial blue-eyed vision with open arms and wide open bar! Four Zamaleks and two venison pies, and our tent auto-pilot-pitched itself right on the lawn. Upon hearing of my forthcoming fête de forte they poured us each a shot of Thys’ home-distilled witblits and insisted we join them again the next evening for a celebratory dinner. Beautiful hosts, if you can understand the heavy accent… “Jy ken my nié!”
We continued our flower quest in the direction of Leliefontein, traversing some exquisite mountain passes, among which Studer’s Pass and Bloedsmaak se Hoog once again puzzled us by its limited watering holes. Garies Hotel did not even have ice! Or refrigerated Coke! There was, however, a tenacious dimwit who tried to wipe our dirty bikes with his even dirtier rag and then insisted to be paid for it! One thing about folks in the Northern Cape: they do not have teeth, but they are damned relentless!
Melk picked out a nice and scenic spot in the sun to play ‘stubborn horsey stubborn horsey’. I turned the ignition key, quickly set up Jet Girl (the drone) for a fly-along, secured the remote control between my teeth, hopped on and hit the start button. Nothing happened. Between mouthfuls of biltong, we unhooked the battery to see if anything would reset. When nothing happened still, Skinny cleverly suggested we try a push start, which did the trick, alright! We narrowed the problem right down to “something with the battery…” Wise beyond our years, we are.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Thys was chomping at the bit to take us up the mountain and show off his special sunset spot. He is a big guy on a little bike with a floppy hat and infectious smile. Following our chilled day-ride, this was the adrenaline rush we did not know we craved! A spirited ascent with our guide blitzing back and forth on his Suzuki DR200 to help any of us up. “Whoops, another one down.” We simply could not get over the hat!
Jollie, the snow white cutie cat, had to have her stitches out, and Skinny is the most qualified as her dad is a parasitologist. After the surgery, we enjoyed a spread and some tales that will be remembered forever. Like how a Sandton family stayed for a weekend and ended up taking one of the piglets home. “’n Lelike varkie met swart kolle!”
Our operation moved a little further west, with a pit stop in Hondeklipbaai where Rusty the Pomeranian sang for my birthday and I turned 40 without spontaneously combusting or anything! (Ed: Touch wood.) Koos meanwhile tried his best to get us into the Richtersveld, but the end of the line simply said No bikes allowed.
The puffy in the road had us clutching our seatbelts for 15 kilometres to the Namaqua National Park gate. What other creepy crawlies would we conquer in this strange wilderness? Teenage Mutant Ninja Sea Turtles? Navy blue seals? Jealous fish? A nasty little sea breeze pestered the campsite, which, the later it got, transformed into a vicious typhoon-type thing, but the yellow sun sank low and slow over the restless Atlantic and we toasted forty blissful years of everlasting childhood.
The only other campers, Allan and Kae, invited us into their cosy little canvas cocoon cave where we jibber-jabbered like age-old friends. Late that night we got a little fire started for much-needed warmth, but also for getting an exclusively improvised DIY chocolate pudding birthday cake baked! (Ed: The secret ingredient is Sprite.) Follow us for more recipes! I was treated to an orchestral rendition of “Lekker verjaar”, concluding this superbly special day of ride-or-dying with the best!
That night the ground hardened up like hell right under our bones, so we rolled out of bed and straight into a foggy sunrise, pretending to be way more excited than we really were about the sand riding that lay ahead. It was also the morning we discovered to our horror that we had never packed even one of our five CO2 bomb adaptors. We had all the tools and spares with us from the start, but could in no way inflate a tire… Okay, so now it’s a party!
Looking a lot braver than we felt in all our armoured glory, we started down a coastal shortcut towards the caves. Not very far along, we stopped to adjust a camera and Melk (Husqvarna 701) threw the old familiar “I won’t start”/”You’re not my real mom!” -tantrum. It gave Skinny an opportunity to forget how terrified she is of thick sand and to ride back for a tow rope – pushing was not an option. A few minutes later, we had the bikes hooked up footpeg-to-footpeg, and we scrambled out against the little incline on all fours until I felt enough momentum under me to drop that clutch. Sparks flew, we said our prayers and fled back to the main road. Only the last few kilometres would be deep stuff and we were more than okay with that. Our tires hummed along happily at one bar, the first time we had ever bothered to deflate them. Melk ran lekker once I got up to third gear. Skinny employed a skiing technique she had read about online and did not cry once! (Ed: Though the volume at which the swear words were uttered…!)
We descended quite suddenly down a dune right by the river mouth that had us both more than a little worried about getting back out later. But there they were in all their majesty – the Spoegrivier Caves! We had made it, after all these years!
The first ever domesticated sheep bones were found here some 2000 years ago, and apparently they were charred. Which led us to believe that our contemporary Saturday night heritage hails back to this very sacred spot – where the first ever braai took place. We are not sure when braaibroodjies became a thing. Man, all this talk of dop and tjop got us so hungry! They do not allow fires in the caves these days, so we opened a box of spicy bean salad for brunch (we welcomed any and all extra propulsion to get up and out of there). But first, we had to walk a mile on the beach. I think it was about three miles, actually. Five, if you factor in the wind. We were surprised to see my cocktail flamingo cake decorations out there on the river mouth! But we really did not enjoy the squall and much preferred getting back to riding on some sand.
Climbing out of sea-level altitude was unexpectedly easy in the end. We ran into some oncoming traffic, but it was nothing we could not heave and roost our way around. Not many 4×4ers realise how difficult it is to move up out of a deep track with one-wheel drive… Our sense of accomplishment was palpable. The tequila was warm. Best day ever.
Back at the camp, now chock-a-block full of rooftop tenters, Kae and Allan (both 650 riders themselves) wanted to hear all about our day. Camp fridge woes got them cooking everything they had, so we needed to help them eat. There was not a thing we could not talk about, and these people have lived! Sleeping in the car that night was not so great, but almost worth the extra two degrees of warmth. Next morning, we made ourselves a consolation cup of Ceylon and tried to come up with a devious plan for the day. Skinny felt abnormally strong and proposed that we ride the park’s 21 kilometre safari loop. We had to plough through a stretch of dunes to get there, but she did not regret her decision yet. She first regretted it walking in on a puff adder at the old ruin. (Ed: Never again will I buy white panties.) We would have knocked, but someone had made off with the door decades ago.
The rest of the ride was just scenic tweespoor, a big herd of gemsbok and for lunch, an ice-cream tub full of picnic chicken. A moody fog bank loomed over the beach where we crinkled our noses at the bleatin’, flippin’, stinkin’ seal colony.
We had done everything we wanted to do in the area, headed back inland and based ourselves at the Kokerboom Motel in a hot, dry and mercifully windless Springbok for a brand-new cloverleaf experience. Since Richtersveld was out of the question, we drifted up to the north-western corner of the country.
It was a damn long ride, and everything after Wildeperdehoekpas was a bloody massacre! Straight, corrugated, unending. We passed countless heuweltjies which are believed to be ancient termite mounds covering the entire surface, neatly visible from Jet Girl’s POV. There was not much else around. In fact, there was less than nothing. Our sightseeing went into the negative! Overwhelmed by such absolute isolation, which literally comes with the territory, we wondered how people could exist here. The Spoegrivier settlement already had us stumped; why anyone would let precious life just go by in such a godforsaken place. We think they choose it simply because it is all they know. We wild wanderers may never understand it. The remoteness, stillness, nothingness. Acceptance. But we have way better things to do than get all caught up in the philosophy…
We headed into Komaggas for a cool quart and spent fifteen minutes looking for a shady spot to drink it. A couple of neighbourhood kids entertained us from afar with backyard gymnastics and their grasp on bikes – they know you have to wring its ear to go BRAAAP! We waved to the lady sweeping her stoep, dressed in satin pink nighties. She squinted at us for a second before hollering, “Ek ken jou nie! Jy’s mos ‘n wit nooi!”
We finally enjoyed a belated paella di pesce on Port Nolloth’s beachfront where a multiplying group of students one another into the freezing ocean. It was the first sunny day of the season, which meant everyone with dropped suspension and their aunties were strutting stylishly through the main street. Back on the cyclone coast and wrestling a mean side-wind, we pulled into Alexander Bay, immediately stopped at the Engen to top up our tanks and appropriately rubbernecked around for anyone to help us, but to no avail. Turns out you have to pay a R100 after-hours call-out fee for the attendant to come and pump juice. They close at 16:00 on Fridays and remain closed for the weekend. What?! Hell no, that kind of nonsense we shall be boycotting.
So we carried onwards a smidge to the border post for a picture of the Orange River from the bridge. Alas, the gate was locked and the sign said Nope. We had completely forgotten about lockdown. Skinny believed all her life that if your head could fit through a gap then the rest would unflinchingly follow, (Ed: I still do.) and that is how I got talked into squeezing through a steel-framed gate into a foreign country without a single government official around to stop us! We operated swiftly in our panic to get the shot and get out, running up and down crouched over like trained movie criminals. Not suspicious at all!
Thugs like us made us rethink our intentions to wild camp, so we sailed upstream to Brandkaros Backpackers. The corrugated five-lane gravel highway was painfully polluted with puffy powder pits, and the seat of my pants calculated that fesh fesh instantly reduces your average speed by a whopping 60%. We had barely arrived when two guys walked up asking whether we had any other brands of sand planned! They recognised us from the park dunes. Wide open spaces trapped in a small-world body! Then as we rode up to reception, a lady popped out behind her 4×4 asking, “Where’s your bakkie?!” “Huh?” Turned out to be shrapnel from our campsite by the sea, the Scannell brothers with all their wives! Three brothers, one wife each. We watched closely for wishful twinkles as the sun set over the scene where Baxter Brown picked up his first diamond in 1964. The old man still lives in the area on herbs and homeopathies.
Attie wanted to organise fuel for us at Sendelingsdrif, but it was a gamble of a detour should bikes really be forbidden. I now know that two-wheelers have travelled there, so no more mister-play-it-safe henceforth. We backtracked down the icy R382, spluttering into Port Nolloth on fumesicles. Gallop got 233 kilometres from one tank, which is 70 more than he is capable of at altitude. Smalltown was crawling with cops, but we acted cool, defrosting our lifeless fingers at Mar-e-Sol. Rozanne, the owner, had her jeans on backwards, but it turned out that is just how ahead-of-the-time trendy these people are. She gave us a swanky paper map to help navigate the long, straight roads out of there, supplemented with massive debates by Poeier and The Porra to ride this road rather than that. They gave us one job: Don’t break a leg. The gravel turnoff to Kleinsee was barricaded by a police roadblock. Bollocks! The dog ate both our number plates… We got off with a “Take caution over the red sand” – Phew!
We eased our way through the abyss until the landscape picked up again and we found ourselves on Spektakel Pass. Heaven to feel some actual corners again! After a long hard day of nothing much we had damned well earned our drinks, but as luck would have it, most of Springbok’s power was out and we had to settle for not-so-frosty Red Hearts. We soon realised we stank and quickly flipped off to our motel room for a bubble bath and better outfits.
Elite Rebels, Hannes and Warren, saved our spot at the bar and by the time we returned the place was pumping – generator huffing and puffing in the street, ice machine rolling in the cubes, live music and barefoot dancing! We partied the night away and Danie very enthusiastically nudged us towards our next destination. Local folks always know the good spots, count on it.
We figured we would make it to the Groot Melkboom and back the same day, so we packed only a little extra fuel and journeyed north past Concordia on a quiet dirt road. When we spotted a handsome white stallion, we stopped, opened a can of fish and box of shortbread biscuits, and proceeded to enjoy the scenery while there was any.
Paul Salen rushed over to check that we were not up to no good there on his property, and reassured us that Oom Abraham who lived near the big tree with his wife would gladly help us out if things got hairy. We expected a more technical ride from the goosebumps we got from Danie telling us about this Cruiser country of his. It was mostly rutted tweespoor, some sandy riverbeds and one or two rocky patches, but completely doable and we were able to relax.
We found the spot and gravitated straight towards the river where we cooled off for a good while before unanimously deciding to stay and camp there, even though we did not bring the tent or sleeping bags, or even a lighter!
Little fishies nibbled on our feet until we ultimately succumbed to our thirst, braved the consequences and just drank water from the river. You will be happy to know that until this day, we have not suffered the squirts. Nor did we dehydrate and die that day in the middle of nowhere! (Ed: How many lives do we have left?)
The big tree itself had unfortunately sustained fire damage when someone tried to smoke out a beehive. So we were told by Martin, herder of two hundred plump goats, wandering through the hills with his ragged old uncle and two young dogs. The greyhound was aptly named Turbo, so we nicknamed the younger pup Vtec after the V on his forehead. The two of them stayed behind long after the last goats had left.
Dinnertime was a table for four, sharing with two hungry doggos, a can of sweetcorn and leftover shortbread. And river water. It all went down a treat! Bedtime followed with one emergency space blanket, one serendipitous fleece blanket, and hey presto, we had a big old cuddly krismisbed! We snoozed under the Milky Way like people with clear consciences.
We were up before sunrise with the barking baboons. There was not much to do but saddle up and head back, with no tent to fold or bags to pack. Just two handsome pooches to kiss goodbye. We went around the mountain past Oom Abraham’s house and I had to leave my little green jerrycan behind. It had chewed through the ROK straps, which it had always threatened to do until it finally did. We hope that it may someday become a famous point of interest to the guild of illustrious overlanders.
Quiver trees are indigenous to the northern cape and southern parts of Namibia, and we later learned that they are critically endangered, because the Bushman-arrow population expanded so much they just could not keep up.
The road back to Springbok was flat and featureless just like we left it, but it felt nice to wave to a familiar face – Paul Salen was out fixing the crush as he had pledged to do.
While we were looking forward to fresh, locally produced dates (the fruit, not single boerseuns) and a potentially scenic wild campsite, our drive to Pella was quiet, both of us reflecting on the past few days, still astounded by the vast expanses of barren land between any two points on the map – and that those points themselves were seldom more than a bottle store besieged by badgering beggars… We had the absolute displeasure while stopping for a six pack of the bakkie suddenly refusing to start. Oh no! It was maybe 35 degrees outside. One laaitie said he would push-start us for R2. It was worth a shot, but just then an old toothless man with crazy eyes elbowed his way past the kid and would not let go even after the bakkie had jumped to life and I had paid him R10 for his help. I do not do well in crowds and was stressing out. Skinny and I became irritated with each other trying to get the hell out of there. We eventually found our way, but it took about 15km of internal haemorrhaging from corrugations to get back on speaking terms. It was the loneliest half-hour of my life! At the water’s edge people walked by with their goats or buckets of river water, so we felt a bit like intruders there. Pella Orange River Resort was more than happy to accommodate us. While we still had our shoes on, Ouma Anna made us go and help her daughter, Bridget, herd the goats. All we wanted to do was drink beer and forget that whole afternoon ever happened, but we obliged and chased them around like good lassies. A huge, hairy scorpion dashed across the lawn while we were busy with a braai fire. I was subsequently handed a green plastic rake! “No thanks! Uhm, the yard looks fine. You go and put some shoes on!”
Vlooi, the glossy black dog, had just had puppies, and she chased all the light reflections from our watches and cell phones. We played with her and Mollie, the young bobtail cat, until all our snacks were finished and Ouma Anna said, “Stop it, julle maak my hond mal!” She also said when Mollie starts purring in her arms at night, she just whacks him lightly. She called it a place to clear your head. No cell reception, no TV, no broad bed where you can lie apart from your wife. The day’s last rays cascaded slowly over those great Pella mountains, and in an airconditioned room nearby, two adorable explorers slumbered oh so sweetly.
After our morning tea we hit that achy, breaky earthquake of a road back to Klein Pella where Karsten Farm’s gate guard, Job, kindly informed us they had been closed due to you-know-what. He treated us to an improvised spoken-word tour of their impressive facility and had us mesmerised with their date-infused whisky. Employees were not allowed to enjoy the on-site bar, though, even now that there were not any visitors. “As onse mense dronk word dan huil ons mos baie lelik,” he said.
Hostages of rumbling tummies, we snuck into a coffee shop in Pofadder where the waitress seduced us with fresh pasties straight from the oven. When we asked what kind they were, she confirmed with the kitchen and proudly announced that they were, indeed, meat pies! Our lucky day! Every Northern Cape town has a toothless old hobo with a funny walk, and this place was no different. We narrowly escaped his onslaught and made our way to Augrabies Falls National Park. At the gate we had to push-start the bakkie again, and surmised that it might also be battery troubles. Since there was no longer a shop or restaurant inside the park, we had to pass back out for water and supplies anyway, and while there was time, found a fitment centre in Kakamas. With a shiny new battery under the hood, we procured all our booze and snacks for the coming days at Hartebees convenience/bottle store, but as true as Robert – again! Frederik, Marius and Jessica helped us to finally push the damn thing over a cliff in my mind’s eye, but in real life the Ford fired up and the nearest workshop’s deep-voiced, broad-shouldered, redheaded receptionist redirected us to to WP Trekkers around the corner, whose diagnostics machine revealed a faulty diesel injection system. They were not in a position to help, but it was sweet of them to try, and we were cheerfully sent on our gloomy way. Two minutes to closing time, we tried our luck to get the battery’s money back. JP quickly swapped the old one in again and for once we started without a glitch.
With an unreliable vehicle, we were not destined to spend as much time in Augrabies as we would have liked, but we popped in at Vera and Louis Naudé’s for an exclusive hand-carved gift knife where we chit-chatted the rest of the afternoon away, sweating out all of our moisture in 40 degrees plus.
Augrabies Hotel’s drinks were uncharacteristically cold, the food was tasty and Hekkie the dog was dangerously close to getting kidnapped. Barman Pietie did not seem to know too much about what went on outside his immediate surroundings. We tried to fish for info, but there was no interest in, for instance, land speed records, which to us had been a pretty big deal! I bet you can guess where we were off to next…
First we had to sleep in our car again, instead of pitching the tent and packing it all up in the morning. So efficient! And moderately comfortable. We were up at dawn again and a bewildered man was already running around the campsite, brandishing a slingshot. Baboons! And as if the poor people had not suffered enough stolen groceries, we scooped some of their kettle water for our morning brew. They were hooking up with Voetspore in the Richtersveld while we jumped hot on the trail of Bloodhound LSR! There we were, in the middle of a railway crossing, when Gallop’s chain adjustment just could not wait any longer. Out came the tools and for about ten minutes we swung those spanners around. The train never came. Thank goodness we had our own transport. We found gourmet cracker stacks of green fig preserves and bybelkassies under a windmill’s scanty shade. Our caterers were absolute maestros, but we were running notoriously low on fluids. (Ed:…Again!)
A formerly majestic mansion motioned for us to enter its weathered walls and reminisce over long lost lifetimes that had played out there. Where was the sense in ever building such a conspicuous construction in the middle of nowhere? We were thrilled to find zero puff adders this time.
We rode into Noenieput at noon, thirsty as hell. We have come to count on little one-horse towns to have a liquor store and typically plant ourselves right in front of them. All the beer was warm, so we settled for room temperature cool drinks. A man with long silver hair walked up to us wearing a briefcase on his head. He introduced himself as Barrie, South Africa’s most mounted missionary whose life story had been made into a movie. We learned strange and sweaty facts about his wife, and he told us about Willie, the most beautiful man who ever lived, in Askham. He explained at length what the road was going to be like and that we were in for a treat at the pan!
The final 90-kilometre stretch was severely rutted with sporadic fesh fesh traps placed hazardously at blind crests. It was brutal. We were caught in a giant sandpit and outnumbered by bullies. Screams for help were ineffective and Skinny’s eyes were chopping onions for a soup kitchen. (Ed: If you did not see the tears, you cannot state for a fact that I cried.) So we stopped at a mostly deserted desert lodge to regroup and maybe give some liquid courage a turn. We also exchanged vows not to ride that quicksand-infested road back to Augrabies ever again – our sanity depended on it. “What sanity?” you ask. Moving on. The landscape levelled out again and pretty soon we were out the other side of Philandersbron and right onto the world-famous Hakskeenpan. The 21-kilometre was meticulously marked out kilometre for kilometre. Our own high-speed run yielded dazzlingly diverse results – Skinny topped out at 267 kilometres from 12 litres of petrol, and I chickened out at 172 kilometres per hour. Because I am not a Binder. There we were, in the middle of a pan, and someone had left the oven on! We were sizzling, the hazy heat emphasised by a desperate dryness in our throats.
Drinking tea when you are hot can apparently trick your body into feeling like outside temperatures are cooler than they really are. There was not enough water for tea, but some boiling hot beer happily did the trick!
We crouched in the shade of our bikes until the light was lekker, unleashed the Jet Girl and had her follow us around. A seven-minute flight gets a bit long in the proverbial tooth with a drone remote clamped between your teeth. I suffered lockjaw for a while after that! Once we had taken all our photos and reached the approximate centre of our universe where everything was equally flat and far away, we threw down our sleeping bags and feasted al fresco. It was quiet, the wind was calm and we were carefree.
As naturally as it may come for us to just go out and do what we do, we realise how rare it is and how lucky we are. For as long as the sun rises over us, adventure will be had.
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