Hiking the Tankwa Camino

The Tankwa Camino through the Karoo is a modern-day Great Trek not for the faint-hearted. It’s certainly a ‘soul journey’ to remember…

Words and Pictures: Fiona McIntosh

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Dawn is breaking as we gather in the Northern Cape, in front of Calvinia’s Dutch Reformed Church, for the start of the Tankwa Camino. Preparing for a 250km, 10-day hike through the desolate Tankwa Karoo from Calvinia to Ceres has been something of a logistical exercise.

The organisers provide dinner each night, but the fifty hikers here have brought everything else we might need for the duration. Our bags and food containers loaded onto the two lorries that will accompany us on the journey, we shoulder bulging daypacks (one always packs way too much on the first day), check that the red flags sticking out from the tops of our packs are visible to oncoming traffic, and pose for a group photo in front of Calvinia’s big, red postbox before striding out of town.

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The mood is festive. As we turn off the tar onto the R355, a sign indicates that our destination, Ceres, is 246km away. We’ll be walking along this road, mostly on gravel, the whole way. I’m intrigued as to why the Tankwa Camino has become one of the most popular long-distance hikes in South Africa.

At the briefing last night it was soon clear that we were deep in Afrikaner country. With the help of a translator I picked up that we should be careful of traffic and that there were no shops or other facilities along the route other than the Tankwa Padstal, which had cold drinks and good burgers. Today I’ve stuffed a couple of R50 notes into my daypack for ‘emergencies’.

The Tankwa Camino began as a personal journey, a walk down Memory Lane.

“I had this dream of walking from my Oupa Jan Pieterse’s grave in the Tankwa Karoo to my other Oupa’s grave in Rawsonville,” organiser Danie Pieterse tells me. A friend, Charl van der Merwe, had a similar vision and word of their intention spread.

Forty-five hikers joined the first walk in 2013, which for logistical reasons took a modified route from Calvinia to Ceres. The interest was so overwhelming that Danie and his wife Rhina decided to repeat the exercise. They have now organised six Tankwa Caminos, and are almost sold out for the next year.

As I sit having tea and muffins at the end of day one (Rhina and the team lay on daily afternoon treats) the well-oiled machine they have developed motors on steadily.

The bush toilets are in place, the donkey boiler is pumping out hot water, and chicken and vegetables are stewing in big potjies. Weary hikers identify their luggage then wheel it to their chosen campsite. I pitch my tent then go off to swim in a shallow pool, revelling in the pre-dusk hue of the mountains. This is when the Karoo reveals its magic.

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A few stragglers limp in, swearing that they’ll start well before dawn to avoid the heat. The average age is over 50 (roughly 80 per cent women) and a surprising number of the contingent are not regular hikers. I can’t help thinking that it’s going to be a long haul for them. But after a wash – hikers bring basins and are dispensed hot water each night – everyone is in good spirits as they gather for dinner.

“Our aim is to bring people back to their roots,” Danie explains. “People want to escape from the cities and experience a simple, plain life.” Not everyone is in full agreement. “Mmm. Think I romanticised camping,” comes a whisper from my neighbour, as she wrestles with her inflatable mattress.

Magda Slabbert is a seriously competitive long-distance walker. “But you lose out when walking against time,” she admits. “This is different. I’ve come to enjoy myself; to appreciate every flower.” A professor of law, she and one of her students, Talisha Britz, have decided to create awareness about organ and tissue donation – one of her areas of expertise – by sporting witty T-shirts provided by The Organ Donor Foundation, Bone SA and the South African Burn Care Trust during the walk. Some of their outfits are more esoteric: tonight we learn that ‘Wine drinkers make good lovers’.

They are glamping. Talisha has organised everything – a tent the size of a small pavilion, stretcher beds, full-size pillows and some excellent red wines. But for most people it’s back to basics.

“People come out here to find their souls,” Danie says. “And they start talking as they walk together. It throws up questions, makes people realise that they’re not the only ones with this or that problem or dilemma. Talking to strangers is often easier than downloading on those close to you, so people open up. The place is important; the sense of space.”

Henk Landman is a seasoned hiker transitioning into retirement. “I see it as a walk to freedom,” he tells me. “I liked the idea of leaving work, getting into my car, driving to Calvinia and walking the Camino, then returning home as a retiree.”

The affordability of the Tankwa Camino is a big attraction, but I think for many people, me included, it’s a chance to explore a part of the country that is too remote and inhospitable to brave otherwise. The R355, the longest road between two towns in South Africa, has a fearsome reputation for shredding tyres. Pointing out a discarded tyre on a fence post, Frikki Smit assures me that it’s entirely justified. He’s counted 22 tyres today.

As we sit in a big circle before dinner, Rhina explains that on the next, spectacular section of the hike we leave the Hantam behind. “The Roggeveld is freezing cold in the winter,” she tells us. “So farmers move their families and their stock further south in the Karoo.” The fences are set back from the road to facilitate this passage.

Most people hit the winding road before daybreak, heading down the escarpment. As we near the plains below, the lorries come past. “Kyk na daardie pad, dit is die pad wat jy nog gaan loop (Look at that road, that’s what you’re still going to walk), quips one of the workers pointing far into the distance. The next camp looks a looooong way off.

Although it’s not one of the better years for wild flowers, the Karoo verges are a mass of daisies and little vygies. Trees, however, are scarce, and any we see have a gathering of hikers sheltering underneath. In the absence of other shade we rest in culverts under the road. Or, in the case of those who read the pre-hike notes carefully, under umbrellas.

Laurette Smit doesn’t like the heat. Anything above 25 degrees is a struggle so she knew the trek would be a challenge. “I’m not a Karoo person,” she reflects, “I like rivers, mountains and trees. But I thought if a pilgrimage is about giving up the things you enjoy then let me try it. It’s about getting out of my comfort zone.”

And at our roadside camp there are plenty of others who have strayed outside of theirs. Magda’s big awning resembles a field hospital as hikers extract cleaning swabs, needles, Merthiolate and plasters from their first-aid kits. Some insist on draining their blisters with syringes, others swear that a needle and thread will do the trick. “I can’t wait for a pedicure, but the blisters must first heal,” comes a plaintive voice in the corner.

45. Tankwa Camino IMG_3075By the time day three dawns, several of my new-found friends have discarded their boots and are walking in strops with the steely determination of Kaalvoet Vroue. Although most people have found a rhythm, the sight of the long straight road through the empty landscape is disheartening. There are a few diversions that spark interest and discussion; the fence line that demarcates the boundary of the Tankwa Karoo National Park; signs to Stonehenge – home to the annual AfrikaBurn festival, occasional donkey carts, and the warm welcome and cold beer and snacks at the colourful Tankwa Padstal. But otherwise the dusty, gravel road just goes on and on and on. For days.

“If you don’t have anything to look at – like a tree – you start thinking ‘where am I going to rest?’ That plays with your mind,” says Gielie Hoffman, a sports psychiatrist who manages to stay upbeat despite being exhausted at the end of each day. He’s a big man, not built for distance walking. “I wanted to create a space that I can always go back to,” he admits when I ask why he signed up. “Where I know I was tough and resilient. Everyday life is too comfortable.”

On the penultimate day the scenery changes. Desolate scrub finally gives way to green trees and orchards: gravel to tar. The last campsite, on a grassy spot next to a dam, is glorious, but with only 15km to go most hikers are restless to get out of their boots and home to their soft beds. It’s been tough.

Despite never having hiked before – this trip was a 60th birthday present from a friend Dot McKenzie, who’s walking with her – Marina Pinel, dubbed Bionic Feet, is one of the lucky few to escape blisters. Tanith Grant, one of the youngest members of the group, was also lucky, with only one blister and black toenails as souvenirs. “I’d never done anything like this before. I scoured articles on the Tankwa Camino,” she says. “The photos showed lots of older, not-so-fit looking people doing it, so I thought surely it can’t be that difficult. I mean, it’s just walking. Anyone can do that, right? Wrong. It was harder than I expected but I enjoyed the Tankwa. It was bleak yet beautiful in its own way, especially the crisp, early morning starts. And I actually felt guiltily indulgent about having all that time just to think and meditate. It was almost like taking a ‘sickie’ and reading a book in bed all day, except the opposite in the physical sense, obviously.”

49b Tankwa Camino IMG_3102Henk returned to Cape Town fit, strong and ready to start the new stage of his life – one with lots of time for long-distance hikes. But despite her experience, Magda took strain. “The distances per day were so long that it became a walk for survival. No one cheers you along, or into camp. You arrive exhausted, then have to put up your own tent. That, and the absolute remoteness and monotonous landscape nearly killed me. One day it felt as if my whole being, including my brain, went blank. I literally could not put one leg in front of the other and ended up being transferred to the next stop in the bakkie. But at the end of the walk in Ceres, the workers clapped us in and shouted how proud they were of us. That felt good.”

“It wasn’t easy,” says Laurette. “More of an endurance event than a pilgrimage. I suffered, but it was a real eye-opener. I loved the quiet, the nothingness and the culture of the Hantam. And I discovered what I was capable of.” 

She found more than soul food in the Tankwa.

Up to it?

  • Although your bags are transported between camps this is a very strenuous hike for which you need to be fit and mentally prepared.
  • If you want to avoid blisters, train by walking long distances on gravel roads.

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