Maverick Life

ESCAPE

Tales of the Tankwa Padstal — an iconic roadside pub and shop in the desert

Tales of the Tankwa Padstal — an iconic roadside pub and shop in the desert
Reflection – created by a crew led by installation artist Daniel Popper for AfrikaBurn 2013. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Instead of burglar bars, there are pitchforks attached outside the windows. There is a stuffed tigerfish trophy mounted on the wall. Here’s your regulation waterbuck with a cigarette in its mouth. Seven naked blonde dolls are pinned to a braai griddle and the ‘installation’ goes by the name of Barbie-Q. The barstools are fashioned from galvanised iron tubs.

First, there’s this road we’re on, in the late summer of 2013. The R355 is one of the longest, straightest stretches of car-dirt in South Africa. The 263km route between Ceres and Calvinia looks like the trail of joy for hipsters as convoys of gaudy AfrikaBurners hit the road, losing their tyres and their inhibitions in one fell swoop.

The infamous tyre-biting R355 between Calvinia and Ceres. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Yet they come every year, in their multitudes, to express themselves on a patch of desert on a farm called Stonehenge in a place called Tankwa Town.

“If you stand and look at Tankwa Town from a distance, it’s a delightful crop circle of crazy,” says Stellenbosch Journalism honours student Kim Harrisberg, a two-time “Burner”.

Open a bar

Wally Lange bought the farm De Vloeren in 2003. It lies about 90km north of Ceres and about 170km south of Calvinia.

Wally, an amiable fellow with a large beard, would sit on the stoep with his sundowner, admiring the darkening Swartruggens mountain range out there in the middle distance.

Even though he had his faithful dog with him, Wally Lange felt lonely. Someone suggested he open a bar on the R355 — that way he’d always have company.

And so he did. 

“I didn’t think people would come — I was wrong.”

A couple of years later, his rangy brother Hein and his sister-in-law Susan came to visit. Hein and Susan were at one of life’s crossroads, where an empty nest faced them.

So Hein bought a patch of De Vloeren from Wally, named it Kleine de Vloeren and the brothers set about seriously building the kind of desert padstal that legends are made of.

A padstal with attitude

You arrive at the Tankwa Padstal and immediately you know this is not simply a place for Granny’s preserves. There are ostrich skeletons outside, along with kudu horns, tables, chairs and some ancient agricultural implements.

The padstal is a country store with an old-fashioned counter.

The Tankwa Padstal’s trading store. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The shop offers a glorious mix of product, because it sells stuff to passers-by and to local people, some of whom travel for half a day by donkey cart to get here.

Here you can buy incense, light bulbs, stove wicks, watch batteries, Okapi knives, toy tops, flasks, guitar strings, Doom, airtime, paintbrushes, sweets, canned fish and peaches, blankets, cough syrup, cold drinks, chips, biscuits, bicycle spares, fudge, apricot sweets, Zambuk and kappies for the harsh Tankwa sun.

“This is where people come for post and bicycle tyres and windlaaiers and solar panels,” says Hein. “And we must do it. There’s a need.”

Indeed, local people of all persuasions have adopted the Tankwa Padstal as their own. Hein, Susan and Wally started a little lending library with a pile of donated books. Particularly popular are the children’s books and romantic novels of a very restrained, non-explicit nature. After all, this is the Tankwa Karoo.

Locals also come here for eyesight tests — and inexpensive spectacles. If you can read the name “Jakkalsfontein” on the map, your eyes are probably okay.

But this is not where it stops, this Tankwa Padstal phenomenon. Next door is Die Werkswinkel: Wally’s pub.

You’ve never seen burglar bars like this – view from inside the Werkswinkel Bar. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Instead of burglar bars, there are pitchforks attached outside the windows. There is a stuffed tigerfish trophy mounted on the wall. Here’s your regulation waterbuck with a cigarette in its mouth. Seven naked blonde dolls are pinned to a braai griddle and the “installation” goes by the name of Barbie-Q. The barstools are fashioned from galvanised iron tubs.

The reconstructed lounge area at the Werkswinkel Bar. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A ferociously sharp-bladed farming instrument is suspended above the bar. Someone guesses it’s a lucerne-cutter. My word, there are a couple of Tretchikoff prints on either side of the counter.

A deconstructed set of windpump blades forms an arty circle on the wall above a one-armed couch — call it a chaise-longue. More little antelope heads. Wally, give me a beer quickly, before Han Solo and Mad Max arrive and clean the joint out.

Spring, 2014

Nearly a year later, we’re back down the dusty R355, in the company of some mates from Calvinia.

At a familiar sign we turn left. This is the site of the annual AfrikaBurn, and we’ve been here a couple of times when it’s been crawling with Burners dressed like their best dreams.

Now it’s desert and wind, a distant giant head, a graveyard of crazy cars — and the Tankwa Tented Camp.

A Fear God waves at the San Clan Man during AfrikaBurn. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Freedom of expression – and mode of transport – at AfrikaBurn. (Photo: Chris Marais)

We drop our gear and head off to the Burn site. Way past the Tankwa International Airport, we find old Ozymandias, the giant head. This incredible piece of desert installation art is titled Reflection and was built by a team led by Capetonian Daniel Popper for AfrikaBurn 2013.

But now there is thirst. There is also the Onverklaar Bar at the tented camp. As we sit down at the counter, someone spies a small-bore rifle at the bar counter.

Alien life in the Onverklaar Bar at the Tankwa Tented Camp. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“I’ve been hunting mice,” says Marita Holtshauzen, the part-time manager. These damn Tankwa mice will steal you blind.

A bad burn

How do you find out you own the most beloved frontier padstal in the country?

It burns to the ground, and an army of well-wishers helps you bring it back to life again. That’s how.

The old Tankwa Padstal before it was burnt down. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Tankwa Padstal was obliterated by an arsonist one night near the end of September 2014. Ten weeks later, just in time for some mid-summer Christmas business, it reopened. And it was even brighter, bigger and better than before.

The Tankwa Padstal was rebuilt with a massive helping hand (in the form of money donations, social media support, construction supplies, sweat equity and Granny’s décor oddments) by the bikers, bloggers and Burners who love this place dearly.

The second iteration of the Tankwa Padstal – new and vastly improved. (Photo: Chris Marais)

En route to or from the Burn, it is not unusual to see someone at the bar, dressed in snorkel, goggles, flippers and little else. Or a guy in a frilly tutu, munching on a burger before moving on in a Combi done up like a doodle-bug.

They’re crazy for the Tankwa Padstal, as are the bikers of all ages for whom the Cape Town-Upington backroads route has become some kind of rite of passage. It’s a thing you have to do, with your mates, before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Travel writers, photographers and internet bloggers spend hours driving through brown nothing and are then blown away, nay, totally inspired, by the stuff in this quirky padstal.

Slow ride on the R355 for shopping at the Tankwa Padstal. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Support also arose from local farmers and their workers, those little family clusters you see on the wooden donkey carts, coming for Old Brown sherry, all-day suckers and an obscure bicycle part.

An old man from the community actually offered co-owner Wally Lange a crumpled R10 note and said:

“Money for one brick for the new padstal, meneer.”

‘We do not have wi-fi’

We return in the spring of 2015. The first friendly face we see belongs to Susan Lange, Hein’s wife.

Susan is in the trading store, which still sells the amazing items found useful by patrons: smoking pipes, safety pins, versterksalf, Vastrap fly ribbons, rooibos, umbrellas, shoelaces, honeybush espresso, leg warmers, body art paint, pots, a hobby knife, Rizla medicated snuff, violin and banjo strings, chilli relishes of varying strengths, and quail eggs. One would dread the thought of Inventory Day around here.

The sign on the cooldrink fridge reads:

“Solar energy used. Please decide what you want before you open the door.”

Wally Lange in 2015 at the rebuilt Werkswinkel Bar. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Wally Lange still presides over the Werkswinkel Bar next door. Entering this eccentric establishment, we are pleased to note that the Barbie-Q has been recreated in the new setup. The original got toasted in the blaze.

There are good signs all over the place, like:

“We do not have wi-fi. Talk to each other.”

There is a smoking kudu, the skull of a human, a circle of windpump blades, all manner of old farm implements, lots of baseball caps, cow-pattern chairs and baby dolls on display. 

Over a cold beer, Wally tells us the story of the fire.

Like a Tom Waits song

On Saturday, September 21 last year, there had been a dispute in the bar. A young local man had made a disturbance, left the scene and returned later that night, armed with petrol and a sweet tooth.

He broke in, stole some sweets and knives, and then allegedly set the place alight.

“A neighbour called us and told us the padstal was burning. By the time we arrived, the roof was collapsing. The fire was so fierce it even destroyed the floor. The next morning it was only police and tears. There was nothing left. It looked like a Tom Waits song.” 

The police brought tracker dogs, a case of arson was opened and the suspect, who had been spotted leaving the scene by Wally’s neighbour, was arrested.

But now here’s the really interesting part.

Lonely road – stretching the legs on the R355. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The fire was one of those events that really define where you are in the world. Before the incident, Hein and Wally and their wives Susan and Henrietta were just boogying along, doing what they wanted to do, counting themselves lucky that they could “play” while earning a living.

They soon discovered that their establishment was one of the most beloved of its kind in the world. In fact, they had just telephoned the insurance company when the first ripples of concern started to wash up against them.

People called, asking what was needed. Quite spontaneously, an entire help network sprang up to rebuild the Tankwa Padstal. It was remarkable as an insight into the spontaneous love and support of a brand.

Within 24 hours of the fire, the Tankwa Padstal Facebook page suddenly spiked, from 700 “likes” to 1,800. They began receiving the kind of publicity most other pubs and padstalle only dream of.

A very faraway place

The Wild Dog Adventure Riding motorcycle club set up a fund and collected money from all over the country. On their fundsite, people offered transport, cash and labour to rebuild the padstal. Support from abroad came in the form of a posse of Canadian bikers passing through. AfrikaBurners helped establish a temporary bar in a Bedouin tent. Trucks began arriving with building sand and bricks.

“We had no idea this would happen,” says Wally. “It was like our desert hospitality coming back to us.”

Passers-by on the R355 who had heard of the fire brought the kind of strange objects that Die Werkswinkel is so famous for.

Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), very popular in the platteland, broadcast news of the fire. The public was asked to donate books to the padstal library, which is used by the locals.

Not only was the library well stocked, but a community hall was built as well.

“If the arsonist meant to destroy our business, his work had the opposite effect”, says Wally Lange. “All this publicity and concern have put the Tankwa firmly on the map. In fact, there seems to have been an uptick of business in the lodges around here.”

But it still bemuses Wally, the fact that people will specifically come here from relatively far-flung places like Modimolle or Pretoria.

He concedes:

“This is a very faraway place.”

Spring, 2017

Jules and I find ourselves in the Eastern Cape Karoo town of Jansenville. Doing my regular photo stalk around the streets, I hear the words “Mr Marais!”

Here, almost magically, is Wally Lange of the Tankwa Padstal’s Werkswinkel Bar.

Wally Lange in Jansenville on his way to fetch a parrot in Cradock. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Right now he is passing through on his way to Cradock to collect a parrot Henrietta has set her heart on. Its name is Princess of Wales.

“Great seeing you guys, but I must rush,” Wally suddenly announces. “I want to be on time for happy hour at the Pearston Hotel.” DM

Wally Lange has moved north to Nieuwoudtville, but Hein, Susan and the Tankwa Padstal remain.

This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. 

For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. 

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