From picturesque Nieuwoudtville we drove up a low dorsal in the fields, etched with mesmerizing green and orange patches, and doing so we left the Namaqualand proper behind, having changed provinces, switched weather patterns, traded low lands for higher grounds and returned to the Karoo which had been my first off-the-road crush when I initially visited South Africa.

As if a magic slate had been shaken, flowers thinned then dispersed, dryness returned and the road that had been rigidly straight wound its way through low arid mountains where another canyon lay buried deep into the veld – we would come back the next day. Our primary objective was Brandkop, a sheep farm only twenty kilometers east of Nieuwoudtville. We had finally scored the rental of a full-fledged self-catering house in the beloved middle of nowhere.

Our first task was to find the farm from which we were to pick-up our keys. Brandkop appeared far below as we rolled down gentle hills, along with the fleeting and incongruous vision of what looked like a damful of water. We turned right following a crude sign and proceeded through a short stretch of completely abandoned farm houses.

Ghost farm

Their walls were tired, stained yellow by the years like the fingers of a lifetime smoker. Some doors lay smashed but most stood defiantly closed and intact, keepers of a defeated past. Too many roofs were shattered though and dust swirled around in the early stages of returning to the Earth what belonged to her. Idling through the ghost farm, my imagination took over. The whistle of an old train blew and I glanced at a lonely rider standing next to his horse, watching us go by, perfectly still if not for a corner of his mouth jumping in a nervous tick as a fly buzzed it. This was the Far West too, west of an African East that had also seen its share of pioneers and fighting.

We entered the farm’s main compound and parked outside an ordinary looking house, greeted at the door by the farmer’s wife, two kids and as many boerboels, the fiercest guard dogs around. She welcomed us in Afrikaans, provided directions back out the main road to our cottage along with keys for both a gate and the house itself, and handed over the lamb sausages and chops we had ordered in advance knowing that they would be fresh from the farm. We chatted about the area for a while, drought taking center stage, and she explained that but for the remaining north dam that had water, they would be out of business. Then we were on our way.

A few harsh kilometers later, we found a metal gate and unlocked it while warily eyeing workers who were idling near a truck in an adjacent field. This was very isolated and we did not like making a statement about our entry on fancy wheels – the word Tourists might as well have been plastered on the truck’s metallic paint.

The cottage was hidden from sight almost three kilometers from the main road at the end of a narrow dirt path wandering lazily through an extremely dry plain surrounded by low hills. We had expected some flowers despite the move east, being only a stone’s throw from our previous stop, but this was an entirely new landscape, lunar, confusing and tortured. Our objective finally appeared at the foot of a small and perfectly shaped conical koppie, a mini volcano-like outcropping of slaty rock that had stood watch there for millennia.

From Google, the cottage and pans easily visible. Click on the map to see it larger and then zoom out!

Parking sloppily in front of the house, we took possession and explored the premises. The little bungalow featured two bedrooms and their attached bathrooms in the back, and a frontal communal room with a fireplace at one end and the kitchen at the opposite. It was rustic and a bit dusty, and we found towels but no soap of any kind. Then to our surprise, we heard chirping and the sound of flapping wings. Looking up we realized that a couple of mossies (sparrows) were flying under the thatch canopy, seemingly quite distraught by our arrival.

So Marie and I spend a while trying to push, guide, flush and coax the birds out the main glass double-door in the front, but its level was obviously much lower than the wooden beams the birds were retreating to, and they did not seem to understand the maneuver. Worried they might have been stuck inside for a long time, I hoisted a bowl of water to the top of one of the shower walls.

Having offloaded, we then walked around the perimeter, attempting to understand the mysterious geography. A strange, steeply banked artificial wall ran from us to the next koppie, and from there it again cut across the horizon to the west, as far as the eye could see. Our dirt road seemed to venture onto the narrow wall and we drove down it a few hundred meters, only to stop and back up carefully upon deciding we were likely to get stuck in a dead-end far away, with no maneuvering space.

Marie stares at the pan

These looked like dam walls, and they fit the brief descriptions we had read, but the world here was so incredibly dry and desiccated it was almost impossible to imagine water filling the pan. It would take such an extraordinary amount of rain for that to happen that we wondered if maybe these dams had long been abandoned.

Our excursion for the day was to Calvinia, some hundred kilometers to the east, where Marie remembered eating a very nice meal many years ago with her mom on a similar flower trip. It was a long, boring drive without much happening, our good speed seemingly diluted by the relative emptiness that engulfed us, the way I imagine interstellar travel would be, but we had a purpose. Having had only a vague memory to work with, Marie actually managed to have us stop to get our bearings right in front of the very restaurant we had sought.

Walking in with delight, we grabbed a table outside in a tiny backyard and had a delicious, down-to-earth lunch while weavers visited the branches of a tree next to us. We had gambled our travel to this distant little town – or shall I say planet – with the meal in mind and we enjoyed it thoroughly. The restaurant doubled as a funky store and we bought enamel plates and bowls which, I was assured, were made locally so we gratefully accepted the chips that give them their consecrated look

Back at the cottage in late afternoon, we took a long walk along the dam wall and then through the pan, looking for clues from the past and stopping for rare flowers. Reaching the far wall, we climbed and emerging at the top spooked a couple of bokkies down on the other side that took off in gracefully frantic jumps over low bushes, as if spring-mounted. On that side was a greener, even larger pan than ours. The hydrology mystery deepened.

Looking across the pan to the far wall

Our first dinner was a delicious lamb bredie. We started a fire and ate inside as the evening had grown chilly. The birds had not yet found the exit and we had to close the doors on them for the night, carefully locking ourselves into our temporary bastion of light and warmth, a cold darkness spreading its shroud over the land as silence descended. For miles around us, there was absolutely nothing but bushes, rocks and sand. A fox cried.

I did not sleep so well. Our birds kept chirping and I felt nervous. The cottage only had one small window facing north and towards the approach from the main road, but it was in the other bedroom, ignored for its twin beds. There was no view out from ours other than a minuscule side window facing east. We would not have seen the lights of an incoming vehicle. Half-way through the night, woken up by a nightmare, I grabbed a blanket and went to sit on the couch next to the fire, having opened curtains in the second bedroom and obtained line of sight.

This reminded me of the comical perimeter watch I had held many years ago on a camping night in Paternoster. It was sad to think the fear remained. I am happy at night and obscurity is often a blessing. That imagination of mine is kept in check, despite hundreds of thousands of years conditioning my specie to fear the night. Animals don’t bother me. Monsters don’t visit me. The silence and noises of the night are my friends. It is, unfortunately, the human element that remains a tangible menace, whether real or hypothetical.

There we were, in the middle of much emptiness and kilometers away from any inhabited safety, and much further even from any form of law enforcement, which on top of everything might have been of questionable integrity. We carried with us more wealth than a local laborer would earn in a lifetime. We were alone. Had rented a cottage three kilometers from the road, having advertised our arrival and pitifully locked ourselves in with a minuscule padlock. The house keys had been handed over by a farm lady with two imposing guard dogs.

As much as we might have been sharks, at the top of food chain, I was feeling defenseless and exposed. How does one draw the line between carefulness and paranoia? So trying to fall asleep with one eye, I reasoned: nowhere in the area had we passed the usual outskirt shanty town, tight collection of motley shacks with an outer row of miserable open air toilets and the raw poverty that accompanied them. This was farmland, people depended on one another for survival, and according to Marie there would have been a stronger self-policing tendency than in cities. I dozed off.

First evening

With morning came relief. I made coffee and we sat inside shivering, waiting for the sun to do its magic. Then at some point, one bird just flew the heck out, as though it was a no-brainer. It took the second one much longer.

Our objective for the day was to find a famous quiver tree forest we had read about. Misled, we took off towards the east along the main road, drove much too far and came back empty handed. Then as a last resort, we ventured in the opposite direction and found a small dirt road with a sign just past our own entrance. The quiver trees had been staring us in the face, actually visible on an outcropping from our patio. They grow slowly and live a long time, the largest specimens spanning a few centuries. Yet simple flowers were more impressive to us, their fragility and ephemeral lives probably resonating better with ours.

We drove back west to go visit the second canyon and since it was in the Nieuwoudtville direction, we paid the small town a last visit to purchase soap and finally visit the Hantam National Botanical Garden which had eluded us the previous days. It was at that point that Marie suddenly realized her debit card was missing. We searched the car inch by inch, then drove back to the cottage and repeated the operation, unable to remember when the card had last been used, and thinking we would find it somewhere.

We did not. Our analysis lead us to think it had stayed in the ATM machine back in Garies. It was a worrisome thought even though the card probably could not have been used without a PIN. The search was so time-consuming that I abandoned the run I had planned along the walls of our dams for some ten kilometers of idyllic centering. Sitting on the stoep, we used G&T’s to cheer ourselves up as there was nothing else we could do for the moment, being well out of cell phone reception. Then Marie braaied the boerewors picked up from our host, it was delicious too.

For the second night I parked the Landcruiser immediately in front of the entrance door, in an innocent attempt at providing us with us a fast escape. The night was warmer and an open window offered extra advance warning of motor noises. There were none of course.

Southern Cross over the Karoo

In the morning, we packed up and launched south onto a long dirt road through a desolated mountain pass on our way back to the very civilized safety of Paarl. The fact that the crime rate was undoubtedly higher in cities than had been the case around us for those few nights could not damper my relief at the perspective of safe dreams. Living in a beehive of New York City’s magnitude, one gets used to the comfort of 9-1-1’s three-minute response time, anywhere, any time. How damaging that is to one’s affinity for adventure, I have only begun to understand.

But where we were retreating that evening, there would be no fear nor worry. We had been granted a very generous press invite at Babylonstoren after Marie had interviewed their fruit guru.

To finish the trip glamorously, we would spend our last night at one of the nicest wine estates in South Africa. Luxury was about to be redeemed.


«The Namaqualand Bloom» Series

Want to read the entire series of stories? Start here

Marie’s recount: Namaqualand