The first two days of our six-week trip would be spent getting to Namibia. This journey took us from Cape Town at the southernmost tip of the African continent through the Western Cape and Northern Cape before reaching the Namibian border late on the second day.
The Western Cape is a beautiful region incorporating many of South Africa’s major tourist draws including Cape Town, the wine region around Stellenbosch and the Garden Route. This is an area popular with international visitors for self-drive vacations and with its excellent roads, ample boutique accommodation and the variety of wonderful scenery I can see why. The Northern Cape is no less stunning but for different reasons with the mostly green and fertile landscape of Western Cape giving way to an arid high-desert environment. This province covers a huge area about the size of Germany yet it is sparsely populated with many of the mainstream international tourists disappearing, leaving behind a few adventurous travellers heading for Namibia.
The first day of our journey began with a sobering visit to the township of Gugulethu that I wrote about in a previous post. After that we joined our truck for the first time, a large solid Mercedes that would be home for the next 6-weeks. It has been custom fitted for overland trips and over the years the company has become expert at stocking it so that we are fully self-contained but this only works if you pack everything properly, something we quickly learned to do. If you put your tent away in the wrong position or don’t stack your camping chair correctly then things just don’t fit. Whilst the crew took the lead we were also responsible for unloading and loading the truck. We’d all pitch in with central equipment like tables, chairs and cooking utensils whilst taking individual responsibility for our tent, sleeping mat and bags. During the first few days we’d bumble around trying to remember what had to go where, often getting it wrong as the crew looked on patiently but we soon got the hang of it and within a week or so we could pack up a campsite in a matter of minutes.
We were already running late when our Gugulethu tour guides dropped us off at the truck in a parking lot overlooking Table Bay where we began another steep learning curve about how to quickly have a roadside lunch. Our cook was a friendly, patient and happy man from Kenya who has spent many years on the road with overland trips. His resourcefulness and talent for producing tasty and wholesome meals in all kinds of remote spots throughout Africa never ceased to amaze us. He gave us a quick lesson in how to prepare lunch on the road and hammered home messages about food hygiene, something the crew took very seriously throughout the whole trip.
The first job in preparing lunch was to scrub your hands clean before triple washing any fresh produce. Then we’d prepare a huge salad, lay out cold meat, cheeses, condiments and bread that we’d use to make our own plate of food. Afterwards we’d generally have whatever fresh fruit he could buy such as apples, oranges or if we were lucky, watermelon and passionfruit. Then we’d all rush around to wash up and load the truck before heading to our next destination, but not before ensuring we didn’t leave a single piece of trash behind and we weren’t allowed to sit down on the truck until we sanitized our hands. Nobody wanted to get sick on the road so we all diligently followed the rules and if anyone did get ill further down the line it certainly wasn’t down to the food our cook prepared.
Our destination that day was Highlanders, a lodge, campsite and wine farm in Namaqualand which was about 3-hours drive away. It didn’t take us long to get out of the city and head away from the coast on the N7, an important route that begins in Cape Town and runs for about 800km through the provinces of Western Cape and Northern Cape before it hits the Namibian border. From there it turns into the B1 road running all the way to Windhoek and northern Namibia. The road followed the Atlantic Coast for a short while before turning inland and we wouldn’t see the Atlantic again until we arrived in Swakopmund, Namibia several days later. For now we began a two-day journey through the interior and past some incredibly varied and beautiful scenery.
First we travelled through the Swartland, often referred to as the bread basket of Cape Town due to miles and miles of wheat fields interspersed here and there by farms producing fruit, vegetables and sometimes wine. This region was given its name (which means black land) because of rhinoster bushes whose leaves turn black in the rain giving the impression of a vast black country from a distance, however we found it green and fertile looking. Soon we were climbing over Piekenierskloof Pass that separates the Swartland from the Olifants River Valley, an important orange producing area that is also well known for wine but sadly lacking in elephants these days.
With a summit of 520 metres, Piekenierskloof Pass was constructed in the 1800s using convict labour by a South African road engineer called Thomas Bain who is something of a local legend having been responsible for constructing many passes over South Africa’s mountains, thus opening the access between remote farmland and commercial centres that helped this region thrive. We stopped near the summit to take in sweeping panoramic views that were simply breath-taking in the late afternoon light. In one direction were the flat plains of Swartland, a patchwork of gold and green. In the other direction were the beautiful Cederberg Mountains.
We were anxious to get to Highlanders before dark as we still had to learn how to put up our tents so we quickly moved on and reached our campsite just in time to take in the beautiful views of the valley below before the sun dropped behind the mountains. We were relieved to find that our tents were relatively easy to put up so before long that job was done and we headed up to the restaurant for wine tasting. We were all surprised at the luxurious surroundings we found ourselves in but this was to be a fairly one-off experience. It was a chilly winters evening so we were grateful for the roaring open fire, the vast quantities of wine we were offered and a dinner of Potjie or Potjiekos, a very tasty traditional Afrikaans dish that essentially involves meat and vegetables slow cooked in a small cast iron pot (a potjie) over an open fire. All of these little treats warmed us up and made us sleepy so most of us slept well on that first night in our tents despite the low temperatures.
We had to leave early the next morning to make the long drive to our next camp so it was still dark when I took a shower in the shared bathroom and discovered that it was semi-outdoor. Soaking yourself in a hot steamy shower on a cold dark morning is blissful enough but when you add in a view of the huge bright Milky Way you feel as though you are in heaven, literally taking a shower on the top of the world. As I was enjoying this I caught a whiff of bacon cooking and assumed it was for the guests up at the lodge so you can imagine how happy we all were to find our cook had prepared us a hot breakfast of bacon and eggs over the fire to be washed down with a mug of hot coffee. Maybe this camping thing wouldn’t be so hard after all?
After a lesson in packing up our tents and loading the truck, we wolfed down the lovely breakfast and hit the road just after dawn to re-join the N7 and begin the final run to the Namibian border. We were now well into the Northern Cape and Namaqualand, a scenic region of South Africa known for stunning landscapes and, funnily enough, daisies. As the morning progressed the land became more desert-like with large rocky plateaus, red earth and the occasional Quiver Tree began to appear. These odd-looking trees are part of the aloe family and are primarily found in Northern Cape and Namibia. The landscape strongly resembled parts of Southern New Mexico where I used to live but instead of grazing longhorn cattle there were sheep.
Quiver Tree photo from Wikipedia Commons
We stopped for lunch under some eucalyptus trees on the side of the road before making our way to the small town of Springbok where both the cook and ourselves stocked up on supplies at the supermarket. Northern Cape is primarily Afrikaans so that was the language everyone was speaking and for the first time in South Africa I noticed that all the signage was in Afrikaans with very little in English. One of my favourite South African foods is biltong, a South African version of jerky but in my opinion much tastier. Whilst beef biltong is the most common and generally the cheapest, you can find it made from many different animals such as Springbok, Kudu and even Oryx. My favourite is Kudu so I was excited to find a deli counter in the supermarket totally dedicated to biltong and bought a large amount that would become my staple truck snack for the next week.
Top: The town of Springbok. Bottom: Our fully self-contained truck.
From Springbok we travelled a little further north to the Orange River, also known as the Gariep River. This is the longest river in South Africa and runs all the way from Lesotho to the Atlantic Ocean providing hydroelectric power and much-needed irrigation along the way. It also follows part of the border between South Africa and Namibia. Our campsite that night was on the South African side of the river but looked over the water to beautiful mountains on the Namibian side. We spent that evening getting to know each other better at a fabulous campsite bar that overlooked the river.
As I happily drifted off to sleep in my tent later that night I contemplated the trip so far. It already felt like we’d been on the road for a long time and our group was bonding well, seeming like we’d known each other for a long time. Yet in reality this was only our second night and I had another 40 to go. I wondered if we were in some kind of honeymoon period that would wear off in deepest Africa when we would suddenly all turn on each other, the cook couldn’t get decent food so we’d live off corn flakes and cheese sandwiches for days on end before we all succumbed to a stomach bug or malaria. I resigned myself to riding out whatever the road had in store for us and in any case, I was committed now. Whatever did happen down the road would certainly make a good story.
Best Accommodation Finds: Highlanders, also a farm producing many great wines and I enjoyed their Chenin Blanc so much I bought two cases for us to take on the road | Fiddlers Creek Campsite near Vioolsdrift. They also offer rafting trips on the Orange River.