Maverick Life

Maverick Mapper: A desert trip to the Tankwa Karoo National Park

By Karel van der Vyver 27 February 2021

Photo: flicckr.com/Sumarie Slabber

Situated near the border of Western Cape and the Northern Cape in one of the most arid parts of the country, the Tankwa Karoo National Park’s desert allure is particularly potent in these socially distant times. Here you can partake in outdoor activities or simply spend time recuperating from the pressures of this moment in time. It is also one of the most unique ecosystems in the rich tapestry of the South African outdoors.

The Road There

As an overnight trip – or even a day trip for the brave – it’s not the most practical ‘shot left’ destination if you’re coming from upcountry or cities on the east coast. The journey from Johannesburg is a whole 12 hours, and from Durban, 15 hours; and from the freshly renamed Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), a slightly more forgiving eight hours. Hence we made the trip from Cape Town.

To spice things up, we suggest a longer route that takes approximately four hours. It follows the N1 out of Cape Town for approximately 240km, before taking a turn to the right onto the R354. However, before taking the turn – take a stop.

Stop at: Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein

Situated within the tiny town of Matjiesfontein, this historic hotel is not only architecturally beautiful, but historically significant. “Between these walls lie a colourful history that includes international cricketers, fortification during The South African War as headquarters of the Cape Command, refuge for Jamieson Raid reformers, and the venue of controversial war crimes hearings,” reads its description. These days the town caters more for tourists than soldiers and is a perfect stop on your journey.

The Lord Milner Hotel. Photo: courtesy of the Lord Milner Hotel

The Lord Milner Hotel Dining Room caters to breakfast and dinner. Meals are served in a Victorian dining room where antiques abound. The food caters for the local palette, serving “a unique and contemporary take on many of South Africa’s traditional dishes, including Karoo springbok and lamb sourced from the local district”. It is open from 08:30am to 10am and again from 7pm – 9pm every day, If you arrive outside these times head to the Coffee House that serve quick bites and coffee. They are open daily from 9am to 3pm.

Destination: Tankwa Karoo National Park

This park was named after the Tankwa river that run through it, and was proclaimed a part of the South African National Parks system in 1986. The park consists of three distinct ecosystems, “pure desert in the west, open grasslands in the centre and the Roggeveld Mountains in the east”.

It boasts numerous mammals adapted to desert living, such as the Cape Mountain Zebra, Gemsbok, Red Hartebeest and Springbok. Other small animals, such as lizards and mongoose, share the land with the larger mammals.

Elandsberg cottage. Photo: flickr.com/Jaffles
Photo: flickr.com/Errol Douwes

For those interested in the fauna side of the park, the landscape is also surprisingly rewarding. “The remarkable endemism and diversity of the Succulent Karoo flora, generally at its most spectacular from August to October, is one of the more prominent aspects of the park… At present, the plant species list for the park stands at 780 plant species.”

The reception is open Monday to Saturday from 07:30 to 17:00 and Sundays 09:30 to 16:30. Entrance fees for South Africans are R48 per adult per day and R24 per child per day. There are no restaurants, ATMs or petrol stations, so plan accordingly. The closest amenities are at Middelpos, more than 50kms away.

What to do: Activities in the park are in line with the remoteness and landscape of the space. Visitors can go on self-drive game watching trips to see the game that live in this part of the world. However, due to the limited water supply and unforgiving landscape, the park does not have the same variety of game as other national parks, such as Addo or Kruger might have.

Photo: flick.com/Daniel J. Field

However, an aspect where it stands back for none is birdwatching. “Tankwa Karoo National Park is a well-known stop for birding enthusiasts in search of Karoo endemics…[with] fine Karoo birding and, perhaps most notably for hardened birders, above-average chance of finding the enigmatic Burchell’s Courser.” Birding is at a peak from August to October, with a full list of birds in the park available here.

For the more adventurous among us, the park offers 4×4 routes, namely the Leeuberg 4×4 Eco-trail and the Watervlei 4×4 Route. If you want a preview before committing, watch this YouTube video of the Leeuberg 4×4 route.

The distance of the park from civilization also makes it ideal for stargazing, due to the lack of light pollution. Remember to bring your telescope or download a skygazing app that can tell you what you’re seeing. Or just enjoy the breath-taking beauty of the night sky from the desert.

Where to stay: Since the drive to the park takes a while, staying overnight is advisable. The park offers numerous accommodation options, from your own small cottages amidst the desert to a guesthouse to camping sites. Some of the options seem ideal for a stylish getaway. For example, a cottage known as the Paulshoek Cottage, “was the first to be restored as visitor accommodation in 2003, is quaintly furnished with antique furniture…and has breath-taking views of the imposing Roggeveld Escarpment and plains between”.

The Road Back

For those heading towards Cape Town, a shorter road back takes you through the idyllic Western Cape town of Ceres. This is a perfect half-way stop to stretch your legs and grab something to eat.

Stop at: Homegrown Bakery Cafe & Market

This Ceres institution serves breakfast, lunch, coffee and freshly baked bread in a beautiful and modern space. And if that isn’t enough, you can buy organic produce, flowers and gifts – ensuring you arrive home fully stocked. They are open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm and on Saturdays from 8am to 1pm.

Soundtrack: Tinariwen, a group of musicians from the Sahara Desert, will charm you with their song ‘Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré’, which translated means ‘The Traveller in the Desert’.

Passenger seat: Maverick Life’s Don Pinnock is no stranger to the great outdoors, read his article An introduction to the ungainly ship of the desert, will prepare you brilliantly for your visit.

Listen to: The World Nomads Podcast: Namibia. In this episode, “we hear about Namibia’s iconic Himba tribe, surfing the Skeleton Coast, driving in remote Damaraland, where elephants roam and jumping spiders”. DM/ML

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  • If you’re coming from Cape Town you must turn LEFT from the N1 onto the R254 to go to the Tankwa Karroo. If you turn right at that junction you’ll go into Matjiesfontein

  • Alas! COVID-19 has meant that AfrikaBurn has been cancelled for two years now and so no pilgrimage to the Tankwa Karoo for any of us.

    • Your car should be ok.
      The tracks in the area are well known for “eating” tyres. Take a puncture repair kit or a second spare if you have space. Best to deflate your tyres to 80% of normal, that will help to reduce the risk of punctures.

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