Last weekend I took a trip with my son Max who is in South Africa on a break from working in Berlin. As it’s flower season we decided to book Steenkampahoek campsite in the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Steenkampahoek is new and I’ve never visted it before, but knowing how the vast emptiness of the Tankwa is transformed into a carpeted flowering jewel at this time of year, we decided to try it out. It also gave Max a chance to do some serious stargazing – something he really enjoys!

We left Cape Town at about midday with one bakkie, two one-man tents, a few ammo boxes containing cooking essentials and tools, some food and a bag of clothes. At five hours from Cape Town the Tankwa is perfect for a short break from the hustle and crazyness of city life.

We turned off the N1 onto the R46, just before Touwsrivier. During this stretch I was struck by the lack of water in the surrounding dams, despite there having been some rainfall over winter. The reality of the current drought taking place in SA is harsh, but for the arid Tankwa Karoo this great thirst is nothing new. With around 70mm of rainfall per year this is one of the driest areas of the Karoo.

Soon we hit the R355 – the longest dirt road in South Africa with a bad reputation as a ’tyre chewer’ due to the many sharp stones that litter its surface. On the way we stopped over at the Tankwa Farmstall for cool drinks. The Tankwa Farmstall is an institution in these parts – a small colourful stopover in the middle of nowhere. It offers a pub and small shop which feels less like a farmstall than a sort of general dealers from the 1960’s. The place was mega busy. Apart from the usual crowd of bikers, it seemed as if every oom, tannie and child from every farm in the neighbourhood was having their Sunday outing here.

 

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The R355

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Tankwa Farmstall

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After another 23km later and we turned right onto a gravel road that took us into the Tankwa Karoo National Park. 69km later (about an hour at our speed) we reached the Roodewerf Park Office where all visitors have to sign in. Equipped with our permit we tackled the last 11km to Steenkampahoek campsite.

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Park Office

The last 4km are really not suitable for sedan cars and it took some careful driving to negotiate the bad roads. In fact this campsite is only bookable for 2x4s and 4×4’s, as are other camps in this fairly rugged national park. All in all there are six informal campsites scattered over the park. You have to be completely self-sufficient if you fancy staying in these as there is NO water, NO toilet and NO shade structure.

Our campsite backed onto the side of a mountain while in front we had a 180 degree panoramic view across the plains, all the way to the Cederberg mountains some 70km to the west. The sunset was spectacular! As it got darker more and more stars appeared until the whole sky seemed as i fit was littered with millions of tiny dots of light – the Milky Way being the main feature across the night sky. There were perhaps two man made lights coming from distant farmhouses as farm as the eyes could see. The isolation was intense and the feeling of limitless space pretty unbelievable. Simply put, night time in the Tankwa is extraordinary!! The Tankwa is one of the best places in the world to stargaze as it has very little light pollution. The stars are crisp and infinite. The moon came up behind us but still had to climb above the mountain. We watched its shadow creep slowly towards us. Then as the moon climbed the ridge it seems as if someone had switched on a light, and we didn’t need torches anymore to see our way around the camp.

 

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Camp

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Moonlight creeping towards our camp

After a peaceful night sleep and breakfast of bacon and eggs, we went on a walk around the camp to look at the flowers. Theres not much to do in the Tankwa except sit, walk and think. At some stage in the future the authorities will be introducing cheetah in this Park – to prey on the various antilope species that live here –  but for now it is quiet, tame and safe. Although it seems we had just missed the annual explosion of orange created with the blooming of millions of flowers after the rains, there was still a lot to marvel at.

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A patch of veld flowers. During the seasonal bloom the landscape becomes covered in these hardy flowers

We packed up and were on our way again. Back at the Parks office I met Natasja Smith, the Duty Manager. I showed her the new edition of our West Coast / Cederberg / Tankwa Karoo map which features the NP in good detail. She was delighted and wanted to stock it for the visiters to this often overlooked park. Great!

Leaving the Park we made for the Tankwa Farmstall once again – this time for lunch. Now midday on a Monday the place was much quieter. I chatted to the owner Susan about the big sign outside saying: Free WiFi. She told me that the connection for her credit card speedpoint came with WiFi, and so she passes this on to her customers. As there is no cell phone reception the WiFi often comes as a ‘lifesaver’ when cars break down or there are accidents or other mishaps. Susan recommended roosterbrood with eggs, bacon and all the other trimmings to quench our hunger. It was delicious – a real South African farm breakfast.

We continued over the Katbakkies Pass with it’s stunning views west towards the R303 to Op Die Berg and Ceres. 24km before that intersection we turned north on the long gravel road that took us into the heart of the Cederberg mountains. We passed Mount Ceder, Cederberg Oasis and later Sanddrif from where one can start the famous Wolfsberg Cracks and Maltese Cross hikes. Sanddrif also boasts a craft brewery and a great wine cellar.

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Road to Cederberg

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Our destination for the night however was Driehoek farm, with its ample campsite. This is a great base for hikers and suitably the farm sells Cape Nature hiking permits. As we set up camp we realized that the staff were wearing bee-keeping suits. While pondering the reason for this we became aware of miggies – millions of those flying little buzzing pesky insects that always seem to find their way into your nose, ears or even your eyes. However with the vanishing sun, the miggie swarms departed too. Thank god!

On Tuesday morning we returned to Cape Town and InfoMap, with a 4 hour drive mostly on the N7. We had covered 823km in three days with a fuel consumption for our 3,0 CDI Ford Ranger at 9.3 L/100km.