We are back from our trip to the Western Cape, travelling a distance of about 4000 km (2484 miles). Perhaps sharing photos taken from the car while travelling is a useful way of conveying something of the feel of the journey?

This selection of photos is not really representative – for one thing I do not take photos when it is my turn to drive (in case you might be wondering), and sometimes the light produces too much glare to make taking photos feasible. Most of these photos were taken through the windscreen or side window while travelling, so technically brilliant they ain’t, but perhaps they give a randomish overview of some of what we saw.

We drove from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal to our ultimate destination, Onrus, a seaside settlement adjacent to Hermanus in the Western Cape. We passed through parts of the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces on both legs of the journey, avoiding retracing our route on the return journey as much as possible. To give some idea of where we went I add a rather sketchy map of our route at the end of this post.


Driving through farming areas, we often saw small dust-devils whirling across barren land

Dryness was a constant presence, especially in the Free State and the Eastern Cape. The farmlands were desiccated and dusty with little evidence of spring rains even in the summer rainfall areas.  In the few better-off areas where there was still surface water cattle looked to be in reasonable condition, but irrigation systems appeared to be standing idle.

In many places along the roadside, farm homesteads and outbuildings looked rundown. Some were seemingly abandoned, and others looked to be hanging on despite little productivity being evident and what livestock there was looking thin.

Drought at Free State farm South Africa

Driving by it was hard to tell if this farm was still in any way active or even inhabited

In South Africa travelling any great distance even on minor roads entails travelling on long almost endless stretches of dead straight roads through flat countryside where telephone poles provide the tallest landmarks. Birds make use of these poles as perches and for nesting.  We frequently saw crows’ nests atop telephone poles, often with a parent bird sitting in the nest in blazing heat, resolutely protecting eggs or fledglings.

Wireless telephone poles South Africa

Two anachronisms in this photo: the telephone poles clearly show that communication systems are going wireless and not many cattle were in evidence, either in the fields or crossing the roads

Near Beaufort West, the road we took drops down from the inland plateau into the Karoo Basin. From there we took the route that runs almost due south as it approaches the Swartberg range of mountains, one of the Cape Fold range of mountains that runs from west to east parallel with other ranges that run almost parallel with the coast. As can be seen in the header image, the road runs towards a wall of high mountains that seemingly block access with no through route ultimately to the coast.


Part of the Swartberg mountain range seen from the road as we drove towards the mountains from the inland side

Of course several ways through the mountains have been found, with one of the most scenic being the Meiringspoort Pass that follows the course of the Groot River that makes it way down a narrow gorge providing a gateway through the Swartberg mountains.


Looking across from near the village of Klaarstroom to the top of Meiringspoort where a gap in the mountain range is visible


The village of Klaarstroom, situated near the top of the Meiringspoort pass, is named for the clear mountain streams that gave rise to a settlement there in 1777. After Meiringspoort Pass was opened up for the transportation of goods from the interior to Mossel Bay, a wool-washing facility was established using Klaarstroom’s clear waters to wash wool in transit from inland farms in the Great Karoo on route to the port. However, as can be seen in the above photo, the river bed at the causeway is completely dry


The first road through the pass was built in the 1850s and it was an important route for the transportation of wool and other goods intended for export. For more on the history of the building of the Meiringspoort pass – and its rebuilding after several significant floods – see here


Meiringspoort is interesting not only for the engineering of the road – the 16 kilometre pass crosses and re-crosses the river 25 times at low-level drifts – but also for the spectacular rock formations and the diversity of vegetation that grows in the different soil types that occur in the gorge

After descending the Meiringspoort pass we travelled via Oudtshoorn, the main centre of the ostrich farming district where ostriches have been farmed since the 1880s, initially largely for their feathers, but since the early 20th century more for meat and leather products, and less so for feathers. We were heading for the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve were we were to stay a couple of days, and on the way we passed through ostrich farming areas where the drought was all too apparent.

Drought Oudtshoorn ostrich farms

Passing through ostrich farms on the way to Gamkaberg, we saw that most of the paddocks on the ostrich farms were empty. The clouds brought a tantalizing smidgen of evening rain but not enough to even wet the ground

An article in GroundUp by Madison Yauger titled “Climate change plagues Western Cape agriculture” (6 November 2019, https://www.groundup.org.za/article/climate-change-decimates-western-cape-agriculture/) reports that Oudtshoorn farmers say the drought is costing them billions. They are unable to irrigate to grow lucerne, and ostrich production numbers have dropped by 60 000 birds over the past few years since the ongoing drought started biting in 2014.  Many farmworkers have been laid off and farmers struggle to survive financially.


The Paardeberg mountains as seen while travelling through the Huisrivier Pass

After our stay at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve (which I will write about in another post) we continued on our journey, driving the Huisrivier Pass between Calitzdorp and Ladismith. Interestingly, the word “huis” in the name of the pass is not from the Afrikaans word for “house” but from the Khoi word for “willow tree”. For more on the Huisrivier Pass see here


Another notable pass as the road descends further towards Riversdale (and to the coast beyond) is Garcia’s Pass – another pass where the rock formations of the Cape Fold mountains are clearly visible to the traveller


The mountains provide refuge for baboons. These baboons watched us warily when we pulled over to the side of the road on Garcia’s Pass

After Riversdale, as we continued travelling due west into the Western Cape the land became less parched and rain clouds gathered. We skirted several scattered and localised showers of rain.

Farmlands Cape with rain clouds

Hay fields make a golden contrast to the silver of the threatening clouds, as we drove towards Riviersonderend

A day or so after our arrival in Onrus near Hermanus, there was indeed heavy rain – enough to cause some localised flooding in some urban areas as stormwater drains blocked up. The rain was most welcome and sorely needed and it has boosted some of the dams in the region slightly.

However, water restrictions of varying degrees of stringency still remain in place in much of the Western Cape, including in Cape Town. Although the situation in Cape Town is no longer in crisis as it was in early 2018 when the dams were so low the city nearly ran out of water, current water restrictions limit personal usage of water to a maximum of 105 litres per person per day. Other restrictions include strict limits on the use of hosepipes.


Inland from Hermanus on a day trip into the countryside it was a relief to see the relatively greener pastures after witnessing the dire circumstances in the Karoo

Road trip 17

It was lovely also to see Blue Cranes in some of the fields – this one having its tail feathers tousled by buffeting winds

After our stay in Onrus, on our return trip home we travelled a different road back through the Karoo. Unfortunately there was no respite from the drought on this route either.

Road trip 18

Entering the small town of Uniondale I photographed this abandoned building by the main road and I wondered if the Christmas light on the lamp post had been put up early for this year’s festive season or if it was left over from previous years? The town’s large Dutch Reformed Church can be seen in the distance to the right of the photograph

Road trip 19

Here is a closer view of Uniondale’s Dutch Reformed Church, which was built in 1884. Most Karoo small towns (dorpies) are dominated by a central church

Road trip 20

Uniondale is a small agricultural town that was founded in 1856 when it became known for its wagon building and ostrich feather industries. Even from a distance the church spire remains visible. The town is surrounded by the Kamanassie and Kouga Mountains


After leaving Willowmore the rock formations in the nearby mountains reminded me of the triangular shapes of toasted sandwiches served to travellers at quick-stop cafés on motorways


A typical Karoo farm landscape photographed as we approached Graaff-Reinet

Road trip 24

The main road cuts through the town of Graaff-Reinet with its impressive church, the Groot Kerk, built in the 1880s and inspired (I nearly missed the pun!) by Salisbury Cathedral in England

Road trip 25

On the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet and hugging the main road is the uMasizakhe township, not far from the dry Nqweba Dam and Camdeboo National Park where we stayed for a couple of nights. Currently in ongoing crisis, the township relies on deliveries of water by tanker or donations of bottled water as the taps have run dry. For more on the water crisis see here

After leaving Graaff-Reinet and Camdeboo National Park (which I will write about in another post) we continued on our journey, leaving the Karoo and travelling through the Free State province north of Lesotho on our way back to KwaZulu-Natal.

Road trip 26

Passing through the town of Burgersdorp I snapped this photo of the splendid Dutch Reformed Church that was built in about 1912

Road trip 27

Overlooking Burgersdorp is this Block House or small fort, one of many built by the British during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) and used in the defence of railway lines and bridges


Getting closer to home we passed through the Golden Gate National Park in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains that are part of the Drakensberg mountain range. The park is famous for its towering sandstone cliffs and rock faces. The willow trees (an introduced species) provide an illusion of lushness in a landscape that remains dry despite some recent light rains


Usually when we cross back into KwaZulu-Natal we are greeted by a pleasing verdancy. But not this spring. This settlement is near Bergville, and the veld is dry and there has not yet been sufficient rain to plant in the fields 

And so after our long road trip, we got home to mostly cooler temperatures and forecasts of continuing light rain. After the sobering experience of driving through extreme drought conditions in the Free State and in the Eastern Cape, we better understand how fortunate we are here at home, where we still have water in our municipal water supply dams, our home rainwater tanks are full and we have the promise of rain.

If you are interested in getting an idea of our route, I copy a rather basic map below. The numbers indicate the places where we stayed or stopped over for at least one night.

Road trip route from KwaZulu-Natal to Western Cape

Now that we are settled back home, I look forward to catching up on at least some of what I have been missing in the blogosphere while we were away.

Posted by Carol

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