Ever wanted to hike the Spanish Camino de Santiago? You can practise right here at home with the Karoo’s gruelling Tankwa Camino, but it’ll take grit.
What is the Tankwa Camino?
- The Spanish Camino de Santiago is a famous pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain to the shrine of St James in the town of Santiago de Compostela. It is long and arduous, but not as tough as the Tankwa Camino in the Karoo, say those who’ve tackled both.
- The Tankwa Camino was started by Danie and Rhina Pieterse and is in its fourth year of running (when I did it in 2015).
- In its first year 45 people participated, about 70 people in the second year, and in 2015 50 people tackled it in April.
- It is 256.6km long and walked in 10 days.
- I took 430144 steps, consumed 27 litres of water, passed 24 windmills, spotted four springboks and ended with two blisters on my feet.
I hit the road and the road hit back
I used to think school was hard, or getting a degree, landing a good job. Getting over heartbreak, that’s supposed to be disgustingly grim. Until day three of the Tankwa Camino.
Roughly 60 kilometres in, a blister boiled between my big toe and what felt like the rest of my foot. The heat was torrid, my backpack too heavy and I’d walked more consecutive steps than ever before in my life – 138756 to be precise. I stop, untie the laces on my running shoes, take them off, lay out the yoga mat and close my eyes. What. The. F#@cking. F#@k. Am I doing. This. Is hell. And there are still seven days left to go.
The Tankwa is a hard place. Stringy succulents, shade-scuttling toktokkie, unkempt sheep, they know what it means to survive and walking past the desolate-looking farms tended by hard-skinned farmers hammers in the message – out here, endurance wins. There’s something invigorating about discovering the limits of your body and there’s no place more fitting to do this than the Karoo.
Rhina and Danie Pieterse are Karoo souls and together with their family they put on a show for the walkers willing enough to conquer the 250-kilometre track from Calvinia to Ceres, setting up a stage roughly every 25 kilometers. The refuelling station consists of three to four enormous potjie pots, an army-brown kitchen shelter housing the most delectable Afrikaans treats (think cinnamon-sprinkled pumpkin fritters) worth taking steps towards, a squadron of multicoloured tents and dusty landscapes that burn when the sun goes down leaving only white sparks in the dark sky.
In its fourth year, the Tankwa Camino has become the ultimate trail for many. Most of the participants have tackled the Fish River Canyon, clambered along the Otter Trail, run comrades (more than once), completed the Ironman Triathlon and now face the toughest of them all – this, they say, the Tankwa Camino.
Those who had also walked the famous Camino de Santiago say the Tankwa version is much tougher. In Spain, you can stop walking when you’re tired and rest in the nearest hostel, but here you have to walk the 25 kilometers to camp, the terrain is much more rugged, it’s hotter and at the end of it all you have just a five-litre bucket of water with which to wash yourself.
In my infinite wisdom, I do the Tankwa Camino first. My walking CV? Um, a one-day 12-kilometre trail near Joburg and couple of half-day climbs in the Drakensberg. Three weeks prior to the departure I was assigned to the trip and hot damn I was going to finish it, blisters and all! There was a 13-year-old boy striding ahead and 78-year-old Oom Allie who walked every single step even if it took him longer some days. I had zero excuse. Everyone has a reason for tackling this arduous Tankwa trek: death, life, doubt, retirement, courage, an anniversary and, for many, simply leisure, but at the end of the day there’s more laughter than loathing around the campfire.
The good thing about walking through the desert is that it gives you time to think. A hell of a lot of time. There were several points on day three when I was unhappy. Suffering as I was, memories muddled in my mind of happier times and I asked myself if I was happy with my life. Out there in the craggy Karoo, it occurred to me that I was asking the wrong question. One big lesson I take from the Tankwa is to always ask, both myself and others, ‘Could you be happier?’ If the answer is yes, then make that change. Look after yourself.
After a rest, pampoenkoekies, a foot soak and a lie down, looking at a neon sunset from a khaki plateau surrounded by maroon mountains and having walked 74 kilometers, honestly I couldn’t have been happier. Or prouder. At 100 kilometers, my body was in the groove. I’d changed back to my hiking tekkies and nothing could stop me.
I wish I could say the same for others. The blisters I got were pea seeds in comparison to the palm-size bloating I saw on some feet. Afternoons were reserved for blister conferences. It was as though the ground was scattered with broken glass because everyone limped from the coffee station to the toilets (three plastic chairs with a hole cut in the seat and a dustbin underneath) to their tents. We were all dejected if someone had to ride in the truck to the next camp because of blisters.
If nothing else, walking the unending and harsh Karoo is a poignant reminder of how thinly the soul is spread in the whirlwind of everyday life. In the clutter of WhatsApp, traffic horns, load-shedding woes and success contests, two functional legs and true sentience is neglected.
Hearts break and swell on this dusty road. In suffering community is forged, mental strength is tested and there is both brooding and bonding over blisters. When last did you do something to fill your heart?
The Tankwa Camino starts in Calvinia
Drive up the N7 from Cape Town towards Vanrhynsdorp and turn east over Van Rhyns Pass heading towards Calvinia. The 422-kilometre trip takes about five hours. Think about this on your drive, as you’re going to walk half this distance.
What to pack
There’s a lot of gear you need for the Tankwa Camino – camping equipment, plus breakfast, lunch and drink for 10 days. These are the things I was incredibly happy I packed:
- Leisure Quip 5-litre collapsible bucket from which to wash and to soak my feet with epsom salts. R110, makro.co.za
- A 500ml rugged Stanley flask for spirit-lifting tea and coffee. R580, campandclimb.co.za
- The Front Runner Expander Chair was hardy, comfortable and packed down to a tiny size. R895, frontrunner.co.za
- Lightweight, UV-protective, wicking technical apparel that was good for layering as we were awake and out of our tents from 5:30am and walking the last few kms in the midday heat. It rained, reached 30-degrees and dipped to cold temperatures at night.
Also read: What to pack for the Tankwa Camino
Where to stay
This 10-day trek means you will be away for 12 days – the first and last night are spent in Calvinia, where you can stay in one of the historically renovated homes reflecting the Victorian heritage of the town and operated by Hantam Huis. It’s safe to leave your vehicle here. Eat a full breakfast before your departure. From R395 per person B&B. calvinia.co.za
Eat and drink here
Dinner is provided every night (except the last) including the night of registration on your first evening. Meals such as lamb pie and bobotie are R85 each at Calvinia Hotel. calviniahotel.co.za
The quirky turquoise Tankwa Padstal is the highlight of the walk – take cash for roosterkoek burgers and beer. Local farmers visit the camps with ice-cold beers too.
Need to know
The Tankwa Camino has Green-Flag hiking status and operates as a slack-packing trail. In 2016 four walks are planned and limited to about 50 people per walk. You carry a daypack filled with your food for the day, water and other essentials. The rest of your food and camping gear is packed in one black box which is transported by truck each morning to the next camp. You are responsible for setting up your own tent. Each evening there’s delicious boerekos cooked by Rhina and her team in enormous black potjie pots. On my walk, mostly Afrikaans was spoken and I was one of a handful of English speakers; I understood everything and got to practise my language skills.
The next available slots are available in 2017 and it costs R5500 a person to join the Tankwa Camino – this covers infrastructure costs, water (hot and cold), dinner, fresh fruit along the walk and afternoon treats served with tea and coffee plus the return transfer from Ceres to Calvinia. For more info, visit tankwacamino.com
Also read: How to survive hiking the Fish River Canyon
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
Please note that prices are subject to change at each establishment or supplier’s discretion. Please be sure to check with them before travelling.