The Tankwa Karoo National Park – about four hours from Cape Town, somewhere in that open space on your map between Ceres, Calvinia and Sutherland – protects a stark but beautiful swathe of countryside. Although the peaceful paradise that is the Elandsberg wilderness camp makes it hard not to loll about all day, here are seven things well worth doing if you can force yourself into action.
1. Drive the Gannaga Pass
Take a drive (or hike or cycle) up the Gannaga Pass to the top of the Roggeveld Escarpment. When we visited in summer, we were treated to good views but an icy wind was blowing near the Gannaga Lodge at the top. In winter, this pass is sometimes difficult or impassable because of slipperiness from rain or snow. Always check at the park’s offices at Roodewerf before you try to tackle the pass. The journey back down is even better than the climb; now the views below you are laid out to be enjoyed instead of hiding behind you as you climb.
2. Visit Middelpos
If empty Karoo dorpies appeal to you, drive on from the Gannaga Lodge at the top of the pass towards Middelpos about 30km away. This is, apparently, the smallest village in South Africa and started life as a trading post around 1860. Today it has a population of a few hundred and you’ll find a school, police station, hotel, general dealer and garage. It’s a desolate little place, so don’t expect too much – my taste in dozy small villages isn’t for everyone. We bought a cold drink at the quarter-stocked shop opposite the post office, had a look at what appeared to be an abandoned hotel (but wasn’t), saw three-and-a-half people and then drove back down the pass again, having ‘ticked’ another tiny dorp on our list of ‘lifers’.
3. Hike up Elandsberg viewpoint
If you have a 4×4 or high-clearance bakkie, don’t miss the drive up to the Elandsberg viewpoint behind the Elandsberg cottages. (If you only have a sissy sedan but are energetic, you could hike there.) The first part takes you up what’s the start of a 4×4 trail; it was closed when we visited because it was ‘just too bad’, according to one of the rangers. This section was very rocky. From where the 4×4 trail is blocked off and you turn left to the viewpoint, it’s about four kilometres to your destination and the going gets decidedly easier. Despite a roguish wind at the viewpoint, it was well worth the trip. Spread below us was a dead-flat valley floor with layer upon layer of small mountains popping up from it as far as the eye could see.
4. Game viewing at Tankwa National Park
Although game viewing isn’t the main reason to visit this park, a game drive in the stony desert area around the Oudebaaskraal Dam is probably your best chance of spotting some of the animals that have been reintroduced into the park, like gemsbok, springbok, hartebeest and Cape mountain zebra. You may even be lucky enough to spot a bat-eared fox and a tortoise or two.
5. Go plant-spotting
Go plant spotting in this part of the Succulent Karoo biome – some 615 species have been documented within the park boundaries. The Succulent Karoo is the only arid region in the world to be recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. (Cool fact: biodiversity hotspots cover just 1.4% of the planet but contain 60% of its land-based species diversity.) The park is an explosion of colour in August and September, which is probably the best time to visit. When we visited in late October, though, there were still lots of splashes of pink and yellow in the veld, as well as a few hoodias (Hoodia gordonii) covered with pinkish flowers that begged to be photographed. The San use hoodia to suppress hunger, but don’t go cutting any to experiment – it’s protected and park rules prohibit you from doing so.
6. Do some bird watching
Indulge in some bird watching. The park’s list includes 174 of the 178 species known to occur in the region and it’s a great place to spot Karoo endemics. In the area near the Tanqua Guesthouse you might even see Burchell’s courser on the patches of bare gravel. Birding is at its best from August to October, although most of the ‘specials’ can be seen all year round. At the Oudebaaskraal dam look out for water birds and waders like South African shelduck and avocet.
7. Star gazing
Take advantage of the pure air and clear night skies to do some star gazing. The lack of big towns with their multitude of lights nearby makes the skies around here among the blackest in Africa, the stars the brightest.
Visit the Tankwa Karoo National Park
Reservations: Tel 0124289111 or online at www.sanparks.org
Cost: R95 for camp site with no facilities; R200 for camp site with private ablutions. Cottages: from R545 for 2 people in restored old farm cottages, to R1305 for 1-4 people at the Elandsberg chalets, built in the old style with unbaked clay-and-straw bricks.
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