Journey through the Centre of the Karoo – Join us on Route 63 from Somerset East to the Still Quarter of South Africa…
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, www.karoospace.co.za
It’s become an annual roadtrip, this spit of more than 700km between the Grassy Karoo and the Bossie Karoo, from Somerset East to Calvinia. We generally leave at dawn on a Sunday, arriving at our destination in the late afternoon.
It’s a quiet journey, especially once we leave Graaff-Reinet. We can drive and drive and drive and it feels like we own the tar, which is in rather good condition. There’s no one else around to argue with us on that. And when a truck does come barrelling over the horizon, the driver parps loudly and we wave madly, and we just know he was thinking the same thing: I’m the King of this Road.
If you’re driving through the small Karoo towns looking for a piece of biltong, a tsatske to take home, or a loo stop, they might look a little bleak to the untrained eye. The poverty, the occasional litter, the faded glory of grand old buildings left to their own devices.
So let’s show you the sweet spots of Route 63, right into the quiet heart of the Karoo. Let’s say we have seven days for the route, instead of our usual whistle-stop thing. Somerset East has a lot going for it.
We begin our first day in town at the Walter Battiss Art Museum. We’ve arranged the visit via the curator, Ros Turner, and for two full hours we are going to marvel at the genius of the King of Fook Island. Lunch is at the Multiplant Nursery Garden Café. As the name has it, we are surrounded by green and flowering things that grow, and the grub is tops.
The early hours of the afternoon are devoted to Toes-Up, after we check in at Glen Avon Guest Farm just outside town. This old farm has great heritage value, and a tour with young Greg Brown is just the thing for the late afternoon.
Following that we’ll whip into Somerset East for a quick sundowner (invariably a single-malt whisky) with Alan and Annabelle Hobson of the Angler & Antelope Guest House, so we can hatch some angling plans for the next morning.
The fishing is superb. Even though it’s Sunday, massive Karoo trout are biting on the flashback Mayfly Nymph lure. After the catch, we release the big fish and it flashes away through the clear waters. We have a picnic on a bridge overlooking the Little Fish: boiled eggs, ham and smoked trout.
We then head west through the Plains of Camdeboo, after stopping briefly in Pearston village to admire the art deco town hall and watch the kids play in the sudden downpour. Within the hour, we have met our hosts for the night, Arthur and Di Short of Wheatlands Farm, and moved into a dinkum feather palace. Wheatlands is full of stories about the top currency in the Karoo – wool, mutton and ostrich-industry legends of long ago. And cricket, always cricket. Wheatlands was also one of the very first mohair farms in the Eastern Cape, and still retains a proud tradition of producing a fine, strong Angora fleece.
Good morning. Our third day on the R63 takes us right into the Gem of the Karoo – Graaff-Reinet. It’s a short hop from Wheatlands, but that’s great because we have a full programme. Being a dedicated tourist is all about comfortable shoes, an acceptable level of fitness, a hearty appetite, an ongoing sense of curiosity and the ability to catnap when the opportunity arises.
Tonight we’re staying at Kambro Cottage, right next to the Andries Stockenström Guest House where we’ll meet the celebrity chef, Gordon Wright. Put a day with Gordon on your bucket list for next time – few chefs know their way around a kitchen, a vegetable garden, the open Karoo veld and an artisanal butchery quite like this guy.
We meet David McNaughton at the family bookshop on the main road and, after we pick out a couple of Karoo-themed books, he takes us for a late afternoon jaunt into the Camdeboo National Park. From the heights, we are treated to two majestic views – the Camdeboo Plains to the south-east and the oval-shaped Graaff-Reinet to the north.
Next morning we take a stroll around the historic old town district before breakfast and heading out, with Victoria West as our overnight stop. Passing through Murraysburg, well known for its adventure-themed farmstays, we are temporarily delayed by a massive flock of Angora goats leisurely crossing the road. We are now in the land of the meerkat on the mound, the Black Eagle patrolling the mountain ridges for unsighted dassies, the occasional Blue Crane and the very shy riverine rabbit.
We’re overnighting in Victoria West at the Moonlight Manor Guest House. Sven Anderson and Schalk Nel have come here from Pretoria and set up a rather classy establishment on a hill overlooking the centre of town.
Because we left late and tarried along the way, there’s not much time to do anything here but take a long stroll around Victoria West, where rush hour is all about a couple of bakkies with some blaring on-board livestock.
The next day we begin with our traditional early morning Karoo Town Walk, and it’s really the finest time to wander about admiring the Victorian-era architecture and watching the settlement come alive. After breakfast, we pack and make one last stop in Victoria West, at the Karoo Deli. Our mission is to load up with food and drink for tonight, when we’ll be staying over in a self-cater, corbelled house near Carnarvon.
This stretch of the R63 is all about windpump landscapes, and our brunch-time stop (for very good omelettes) is Die Rooi Granaat in the village of Loxton. You know Loxton. You’ve seen Loxton in movies, documentaries and any number of travel magazines. Loxton is a very popular Karoo destination, on a par with Nieu-Bethesda.
By the early afternoon, we have arrived in Carnarvon and here we’re popping into the famous Blikkies Bar at the Carnarvon Hotel. If you want an idea of how many beer brands there are in this wide world, just wander around the Blikkies Bar.
Just over 30km from Carnarvon is Stuurmansfontein, arguably one of the most beautifully restored corbelled houses in the Northern Cape. Here we’ll feast on our spoils from the Karoo Deli, toast the stars above us and marvel at how tough and innovative the early settlers once were. No deli feasts for those guys.
The next town on our route is Williston, and our base for the day is the Williston Mall. This is one of the eccentric success stories of the Upper Karoo. It’s a mad, charming, arty and quirky courtyard where you can drink killer milkshakes, nose through second-hand books, pick up a painting, a willy-warmer, an antique cake tin and maybe a postcard from the region. Co-owner Pieter Naudé runs the Doppies Bar at the Williston Mall, and it’s within rolling distance from Slopie se Kooi, where we’ve booked for the night. Pieter and his wife Elmarie founded the Williston Winter Festival, a celebration of the local Nama riel dance and life in general. Once you’ve chatted to them, I’m going to have to drag you away to our last port of call, Calvinia.
You’re now on the edge of Namaqualand, which is not only about springtime flowers – it’s a year-round destination. At Calvinia’s Hantam Huise we’ll be staying over in Die Boeke Huis, where famous writers from across South Africa have come to finish their various manuscripts and research projects. It’s Old School, quite venerable and very inspiring.
Before we prepare our vast meaty braai in the courtyard tonight, we should just quickly pop in at the Van Rensburgs, who own the well-known Bakes Bakery in Calvinia. Sonja and Dirk van Rensburg are always busy with projects at their place. Tonight, it seems Dirk is completing the restoration of an old Lister engine. He’s lighting it up on the pavement as we arrive. Sonja is finishing off one of her paintings.
We gather for wine at their lapa. They end up joining us for the braai. It’s a perfect evening in the Hantam, as we wind up our week on Route 63 with stories – and more stories.
What’s not to love about Route 63?
- The most affordable overnight town stops in South Africa.
- Heritage and history all the way.
- Quirky pubs and delis.
- Adventure opportunities for the outdoor types.
- A wide range of Karoo farmstays at low prices.
- Wide-open spaces for bikers and landscape lovers.
- A good, quiet road with minimal traffic.
- The sense of being in an undiscovered region.
- Some of the friendliest local residents you could ever hope to meet on your travels.
For a variety of accommodation options available along Route 63 see www.sa-venues.com