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Big skies and distant horizons lure travellers

23 February 2004

The arid regions of the northwest have a unique charm

The roads are long and straight and keep disappearing into blue lakes cast by shimmering mirages. In the heat of day it is not uncommon to see even the vultures hunched under trees for shade.

This is the arid western, northwestern third of South Africa, where desert is relieved only by semidesert; where Kalahari meets Karoo. Horizons are distant and rain is a rare gift. The landscape is harsh, varying between vast scrubland, rock-strewn shallows and rises, dunes sparsely covered with vegetation, and plains on which ancient camelthorn trees brood. In the north, huge communal nests bulge precariously from telephone poles to which the sociable weaver birds miraculously affix them.

There is nonetheless something deeply appealing about this country. ?he people living here call it beautiful, but that seems too feminine a ` inscription for this hard land. The locals are right in pointing out, though, that more outsiders are disc weiring its mysterious attraction.

This is evident from the tourist establishments springing up and ft am the way life is returning to n any of the towns that until recently were becoming ghost villages a; young people drifted to the cities.

These days even the tiniest hamlets sport bed-and-breakfast establishments. You still see houses from another era with plaster peeling from the walls and rusted corrugated-iron roofs. But many others have been beautifully restored to serve as guest houses, curio shops and as homes for city people in search of more meaning to life. As a result, towns such as Prince Albert at the foot of the Swartberg- and Calvinia in the Hantamberg (so called after the Heyntame plant) are recapturing some of their past charm.

In many towns, though, the restoration has served to make the face-brick structures and soulless chainstore facades that have replaced many of the quaint old buildings look even more ugly by contrast.

Along the roads cutting across this vast plains and distant hills are fashionable signboards advertising private game reserves with names such as Jakkalsdraai. Like countless other reserves advertised in the brochures displayed in the information offices that virtually every hamlet now boasts, they offer safaris, four-wheel-drive trails, horse rides and mostly, big skies. They also offer nights under the bright stars undimmed by urban light pollution and silence, of which there is plenty.

Even hoteliers are turning their accounting eyes from their bars, where the local clientele has been keeping them in business, to the travellers passing through. These days, they prefer to sleep over rather than plan their trips so that they drive through at night.

The hotel owner at Brandvlei, a son of the district, put on an expression of mock puzzlement as he explained how tour groups on their way to and from the Cape, the Augrabies Falls and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are making a point of staying over these days.

One guest, writing in the hotel guest book, wondered what the reason could be for Brandvlei`s existence. It is a valid question. It is surrounded by salt pans and scrubland. One theory advanced by the locals is that it came about because it is more or less at the region`s centre. But distances between towns are such that any town could consider itself as being at the centre of its area.

Nevertheless, the boerekos served at dinner, the stories told along the bar counter in the amusing tones of Bushmanland Afrikaans, and, for birders the exceptional birdlife of the region, combine to make Brandvlei and its hotel worth dallying in.

It is so with practically every town we visited along a 6800km criss-cross tour of the region.

Each has its charm, and some have staked for themselves particular claims to tourist fame.

Kuruman, of course, has its wondrous `eye` from which, in the midst of that parched territory, miraculously gushes a constant stream of crystal-clear water. It also has its Moffat Mission, which the famous Reverend Robert Moffat, father-inlaw to Dr David Livingstone, built, and where he and his wife, Mary, served for 50 years. They played an important and colourful part in the history not only of the region but of the wider southern Africa.

But despite being the first to have made constructive use of the spring`s water by channelling it for 4km to its buildings and gardens, the mission today receives not a drop from it. The furrow, dug with primitive implements, is dry Much of the water goes instead to elaborately lawned homesteads in the town that it played a central part in founding. It deserves rehabilitation, if not for the mission`s historic and spiritual role, then at leasffia` its enormous tourism value.

Further on, the expanding vineyards of the Orange River - with its islands and network of canals - have breathed new life into riverside towns and their tourist trade. It has what is now called the Green Kalahari Route, with the town of Upington at its centre. It has grown into a bustling business centre with fine hotels and surrounding cellars producing wines that are steadily growing in quality.

At sun-scorched Noenieput in the north, close to the Namibian border, people still gape at cars turning off the main road for a drive through town.

Down south, the Carnarvon district has beehive-shaped corbel houses built from stone by early settlers that now offer novel tourist accommodation. The town has a Rhenish Mission which, as with the Moffat Mission, is central to its history and which richly deserves assistance in its attempts to construct a museum and facilities that could depict something of its colourful and often politically troubled past.

At Loxton, a road sign still gives distances to other towns in miles, while in Groblershoop, a severe penalty awaits a motorist who dares call out to the garage owner after hours to sell him a tyre.

Williston, wedged against a rocky outcrop, calls itself the tombstone capital because it is where people used to go long before their deaths to select tombstones.

Further ,south, the town of Loeriesfontein boasts an exceptional collection of windmills. Over the mountain from it, Nieuwoudtville calls itself the bulb kingdom for the many rare bulb flowers it has in its Wild Flower Reserve. A major contributor to the semidesert`s growth as a tourist attraction are its nature reserves.

By far the biggest, at 3,6 million hectares, is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which pioneered southern Africa`s impressive transfrontier-park programme with the amalgamation in 2000 of South Africa`s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park with the adjacent Gemsbok National Park of Botswana. Both countries now have fancy customs posts across the valley from each other, reflecting the pride taken in their joint reserve. Its main camp, Twee Rivieren, is top class, with aircooled thatched chalets.

At Mata Mata on the Namibian border and at Nossop on the Botswana side, the huts have only ceiling fans churning the hot air in summer. At the latter, leaving the doors open at night to let through a breeze means also letting in the jackals for buffet tours of the kitchen.

The park`s exquisite wildlife and timeless landscape hold such charm that it is no wonder it has regulars going back there year after year, and that it is drawing growing numbers of foreign visitors. What a pity, then, that the Northern Cape administration is so indifferent about the state of its connecting roads.

The Augrabies National Park is well known for its spectacular falls and surrounding scenery, and how reassuring to note that private and government efforts are continuing to bring even more of the countryside under formal protection.

The excellent chalets and restaurant offered by the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West have made it a favourite stopover for travellers between the Cape and the north. Its exceptional mountain pass and plains drive, its mountain scenery and its variety of game and birds make it worth a longer stay.

One of the region`s more secret jewels is the Witsand Provincial Reserve near Postmasburg. It is not particularly rich in animal life, but its scenery is magnificent. Its central feature is a series of white dunes covering a vast lake, with sands that roar when stepped on in hot and dry conditions. Its camp consists of rock and thatch chalets that are hidden from each other by shrub and arching acacia trees.

Another special spot is the new Vaalbos National Park near Barkly West. It is set on a 22 697 hectare nook of the Vaal River that once was a diamond-digging, site. It has three charming chalets built in the style of diggers` huts, with corrugated-iron exteriors covering wood panelling on the inside.

It is a meeting point of three habitats - bushveld, grassland and scrubland. Its animal life is relatively sparse, but its park-like landscape of ancient camelthorn trees feels uniquely African. Sociable weaver birds construct huge nests in the branches of a camelthorn tree in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park The Vaalbos National Park near Barkly West offers charming chalet accommodation built in the style of diggers` corrugated-iron huts The Vaalbos National Park`s landscape of grassland and camelthorn trees has a uniquely African feel.

Sunday Independent - 2004/02/22Leon Marshall