South Africa’s favourite desert padstal was maliciously burnt down but miraculously rebuilt within three months. This great little good-news story has become part of Karoo legend.
Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
The Tankwa Padstal (80km north of Ceres, 160km south of Calvinia, all on the stony R355) 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 re-opened. 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, building supplies, sweat equity and Granny’s decor oddments) by the bikers, bloggers and Burners who love this place dearly.
“Burners?” I hear you ask. Yep, I’m talking about AfrikaBurners, those thousands of warm-hearted, creative desert festinos who visit a nearby farm in autumn for nigh on a week of Dryland Mardi Gras, putting on the Ritz out here, in these dusty wastelands.
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 that is 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 back-roads 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 that is actually a trading store, restaurant and bar in one heavenly spot.
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. One of those old desert crusties actually offered co-owner Wally Lange a crumpled ten-rand note and said, “Money for one brick for the new padstal, meneer.”
We returned to the Tankwa Padstal last spring. The first friendly face we saw belonged to Susan Lange, wife of co-owner Hein Lange who was away at the time. Susan was in the trading store, which was still selling 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 read, ‘Solar energy used. Please decide what you want before you open the door’.
Wally Lange presided over the Werkswinkel Bar next door. Entering this eccentric establishment, we were pleased to note that the old braai grid full of Barbie dolls (obviously known as The Barbie-Q) had been re-created in the new setup. The original had, in effect, been toasted in the blaze.
There are good signs all over the place, like ‘We do not have WiFi. Talk to each other’. There was 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 told us the story of the fire. On a Saturday, September 21, 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 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.” Which is just the way one would expect Wally Lange to put it.
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. The fire was one of those events that really define where you are in the world. Before the incident, Hein and Wally and wives Susan and Henrietta were just boogieing 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. The Wild Dog Adventure Riding motorcycle club set up a fund and collected money from all over the country. On their fund website, 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,” said 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.
“If the arsonist meant to destroy our business, his work had the opposite effect,” said 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 that people will specifically come here from relatively far-flung places like Modimolle or Pretoria. He concedes, “This is a very faraway place.”