Maverick Life

ESCAPE

Escaping to the Karoo for remarkable back road adventures in a trusty double-cab

Escaping to the Karoo for remarkable back road adventures in a trusty double-cab
Getting delightfully lost on the backroads of the Little Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

It’s not the years you clocked, it’s the road you took to get here. And maybe the books you wrote along the way, writes ‘Karoo Space’s Chris Marais.

Sometime back in 2003, I was standing toe-to-toe with a Sutherland sheep farmer after his deeply rutted middelmannetjie road had nearly ripped the guts out of my wife Julienne’s little low-slung Toyota Conquest sedan.

We’d come to do a magazine story on some aspect of the guy’s farming enterprise, but the issue of his bad road took precedence and we ended up yelling at each other. As much as I hate to admit it, he had the last word:

“Get yourself a blerry bakkie, man!” he shouted as he turned and stormed back into the shearing shed.

So the next week I walked into a dealership in Sandton and traded in my beloved Corsa Lite for a brand-new metallic-grey Isuzu KB 250 double-cab bakkie. It was (and still is) the kind of vehicle that wants to leave the city traffic and head out into the open road. Parked there in our garage in Wendywood, the bakkie was nothing less than a call to adventure. A call we could not resist.

Namibia calls

In the spring of 2004, after much plotting and planning, Julienne and I drove out of Joburg and headed west on the N14 towards Upington, where I bought a second spare wheel.

We were taking on Namibia for three months, from toe to nose: entering the southern border at Noordoewer in mid-August, finally leaving this marvellous blonde country via the Caprivi Strip in mid-November.

Karoo Space team

It’s never swanky shag palace, instant room service travel for the Karoo Space team, but the adventures are five-star. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Namibia’s Kaokoveld

Chugging through the rugged landscape of Namibia’s Kaokoveld. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Messum Crater in Namibia

A pause in the middle of the Messum Crater in Namibia. (Photo: Chris Marais)

We were two books richer. There had been no flat tyres and no mishaps except for the temporary loss of keys in a big rocky outcrop near Keetmanshoop called The Giants’ Playground. The bakkie had growled its way perfectly across most of Namibia on the road trip of our lives.

We wrote A Drink of Dry Land – Journeys through Namibia and, soon after, we compiled Namibia Space, an accompanying photographic coffee table book. Having this bakkie had made us brave.

The coastal caper

It was no real challenge then, to propose the next great mission to Struik (now Penguin Random House), our publishers at the time: a three-month journey around the entire coastline of South Africa.

The Namibia travel books had hardly hit the shelves when we were already sitting up at Alexander Bay, the bakkie’s nose pointed south. We took a deep breath, buckled up and began another adventure.

It was less challenging for the bakkie than for us, this time around. Most of the roads we traversed were sedan-friendly, so the bakkie became more of a people-mover. Especially when we ended up in a wall of fire on the N2 outside Storm’s River and had to rescue a dazed and desperate group of wood mill workers from the blaze and the accompanying smoke.

That trip yielded two more books: Shorelines – A Journey along the South African Coast and Coast to Coast – Life along South Africa’s shores.

Julienne du Toit, forestry workers, Garden Route

Co-author Julienne du Toit helping stranded forestry workers onto the bakkie in the middle of a Garden Route firestorm. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Mud-bogged bakkie, Karoo

Youngsters coming to the aid of our mud-bogged bakkie after heavy rains. (Photo: Julienne du Toit)

It suddenly felt like we had two existences: one behind a computer writing a book, the other behind the wheel of our bakkie on the hunt for a tale to tell. Little did we know that this would become the story of our lives — at least for the next 20 years.

The year 2006 saw us take on southern Africa in a big way, with extended trips into Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Mozambique. We used the diff-lock facility only once, in the deep clay of a Lesotho mountain road after a rainstorm.

But a gaggle of young herders appeared, heaved us out of the clinging mud, jumped on the back and sang with gusto as we drove to the nearest village to buy them all treats at the trading store.

In 2007 the bakkie, my wife and I came to live in the Eastern Cape Karoo river town of Cradock.

We were now branded as Karoo Space and publishing independently, beginning with the bestselling Karoo Keepsakes and following a few years later with Karoo Keepsakes II. After that came Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa.

The newly-branded Karoo Space bakkie

The newly-branded Karoo Space bakkie visiting the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The bakkie then took on the brand name flashed across its canopy: Karoo Space. It became known all over this vast region, from Richmond to Riemvasmaak, Springbok to Somerset East.

We had, in the meantime, become Karoo Smouse, in the tradition of the old Jewish traders who used to traverse the dry country. Before a trip, the bakkie would first be loaded with book stocks to drop off at all the little padstalle and out-of-the-way coffee shops in dorpies you probably never heard of.

TwoPack the late German Shepherd, Karoo

TwoPack the late German Shepherd hogging the back seat of the bakkie on a road trip. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Karoo Space cab

Inside the Karoo Space cab, where Van Morrison, Little Feat and Bob Dylan run the airwaves. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Karoo Space bakkie also made a new friend, a long-haired German Shepherd called TwoPack. Our new dog came to regard the back of the bakkie as his personal fiefdom, his safe place, over the years.

We have ventured deep into the khaki mountainlands of the Richtersveld and followed the great floods of 2011 from Gariep Dam right across to Kakamas, where the river roiled in the desert like a fat python, restless and deadly.

We have taken on the mountain passes of the southern Drakensberg and the Klein Karoo, with the bakkie relentlessly growling its way through all conditions and obstacles.

Taking on the Southern Drakensberg in glorious late afternoon light. Image: Chris Marais

Taking on the Southern Drakensberg in glorious late afternoon light. Image: Chris Marais

In the snowy middle of the Northern Cape

In the snowy middle of the Northern Cape spring blizzard of 2018. (Photo: Chris Marais)

We have seen the Karoo in times of plenty and in desperate times of drought. We have prayed with the farmers of the Hard Man’s Karoo, partied with the youngsters at the AfrikaBurn events, sung at huiskonserte in the strangest little spots, driven through the blizzards of winter and endured a blistering sandstorm in the Kalahari.

“Aah, the Karoo Space bakkie!” a padstal owner in the middle of nowhere would exclaim, as she gifted us a couple of meaty pies — just because. To Julie and me, this was far more rewarding than any of the journalism trophies we won back in our city days. The Isuzu KB had become the third essential cog in the Karoo Space wheel.

In our 16-year relationship with the vehicle, we have come to know many mechanics across the Karoo via a clutch plate in Uniondale, a battery in Williston, a wheezing fuel pump in Willowmore. They all love to work on the old KBs, which they regard as “legend bakkies”.

The next chapter

Bakkie and mechanics, Karoo

As the bakkie grew older, mechanics all over the Karoo had their turns to tinker with it. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Second branding season of the Karoo Space bakkie, on a visit to the southern Cape coast. Image: Chris Marais

Second branding season of the Karoo Space bakkie, on a visit to the southern Cape coast. Image: Chris Marais

Swartberg Pass

Breathtaking ride over the Swartberg Pass. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Who visits the Little Karoo without popping in at Ronnie’s? Image: Chris Marais

Who visits the Little Karoo without popping in at Ronnie’s? Image: Chris Marais

At a padstal in De Vlugt while breaking in the new Karoo Space bakkie on the Prince Alfred Pass. Image: Chris Marais

At a padstal in De Vlugt while breaking in the new Karoo Space bakkie on the Prince Alfred Pass. Image: Chris Marais

The other day an old buddy asked me about mileage.

“Oh, about 320,000km,” I said.

“After 16 years? That’s only 20,000 a year!”

“It’s not the years, boet. It’s the road you took to get there,” I replied.

“And now?” was his next question.

“Now the bakkie goes shopping in Cradock, and the new one hits the open road.”

“So why didn’t you trade in the old one?”

“Never! Do you trade in old friends?

A thoughtful silence. DM

This story first appeared in Karoo Space. For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected].

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