Tally-ho to the Tankwa Karoo in a fiery red machine

Posted on 27 October 2021

Travel through the Swartruggens hills to the rocky desolation of the Tankwa Karoo in a fiery red machine? Yes please.

Words & Photos: Anton Crone

Allied fighter pilots of World War I would have found their nemesis in Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise known as the “Red Baron”. His aircraft was a scarlet Fokker triplane, his signature move: to attack out of the sun as he swooped in for the kill. How else could he avoid being seen in a bright red triplane?

There were no victory marks on the side of the FX4 when I picked it up from the Ford agent, no Spandau machine guns mounted on the bonnet. But the colour elicited a feeling of menace: I wouldn’t want this thing on my tail. Thankfully, I’d be behind the wheel, not in front of it.

Our destination was the western edge of the Swartruggens hills, the only exposed edge of the Witteberg Formation that lies beneath the Tankwa Karoo. The rocky heights are a complex chess game played by giants, towering stone figures waiting for the next move, and the best place to get in on this game is Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve.

A hike in Kagga Kamma’s extensive maze of rock is an otherwordly experience.

Lift off

The trip from Cape Town took us along the R46, a smooth ribbon of tar that unravels on Michell’s Pass as it climbs to Ceres. Switching to the R103 we rode the curves up Gydo Pass to the Koue Bokkeveld, where an endless wall of sandstone – the Cederberg proper – forms the eastern grandstand to this beautiful track. To the west, the Swartruggens rises in a more subdued fashion. That is, until you enter this menagerie of rock.

Tar manners were impeccable for this slightly oversized bakkie. Power and torque aplenty meant no gradient was a hindrance to upward mobility – at 132kW it is far more powerful than the Baron’s 82kW Fokker. The fiery red colour was a bonus. Those scanning their mirrors were clearly intimidated by the approaching threat. Even ‘No Yellow Line Driving’ trucks found the yellow streak quickly, and we flew past, unchallenged.

Kagga Kamma’s dining area is set amid sandstone illuminated by fire.

The tar runway ended as we turned to the Swartruggens. On a steady climb along soft pack grit, dusty straights and tight turns, the suspension was firmer than expected, making me wish there was more of a load to plant it. But that’s bakkies for you. Regular buyers would fit a canopy and load it with two and a half children, a 60-litre fridge (there is a 12v socket in the loadbed) and everything to sustain them, including bicycles and canoes. All my wife and I needed for the weekend trip was a bag of clothes and camera gear galore, which fitted on the back seats (leather/red trim) with space for a wingman.

Chess manoeuvres

The camera gear was unpacked on the final approach to Kagga Kamma. Here, the chess game starts to take form. You weave through great monoliths cut through by wind and water, revealing toothy sandstone figurines. From the air, Von Richthofen would have been impressed by rocky strata marching in regimented lines. On the ground it appeared more haphazard, like discarded pawns and errant bishops. In the nature reserve further on, the ancient game takes on even greater proportions.

An aerial view of the rock formations that line the road to Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve.

Kagga Kamma’s lodge and chalets are nestled at the foot of a shapely escarpment. The spa is resplendent at the crown, with views between spires of the surrounding bergs. The outdoor dining area is cocooned in stone where fire pits bring sandstone to life in a glowing dance. Some of the chalets are built into the rock. One – the Star Suite – is nestled against a giant boulder 3km away, secluded and discreet with its own natural rock pool.

In another sector of the reserve, we hiked amid an endless maze of towering stone figurines. Walking among them was a thrill, awakening an almost childlike mania for exploration. The rewards were hidden caves and grottos, portals to secret passages, smooth gullies and overhangs with rock paintings so clear it’s as if their creators would return that evening, a dassie or bushbuck for dinner.

Tankwa Padstal is a Karoo institution, akin to Ronnie’s Sex Shop along the R62, but infused with the wild spirt of AfrikaBurn and the gees of the Tankwa Camino.

Wild campsites and challenging 4×4 trails are another allure of Kagga Kamma, and we put the FX4 on trial with nary a complaint, even on the steepest sections where small boulders tumbled underfoot as I climbed out to plan routes over tricky sections. Ironically it was on a flat section that a tyre found the sharp edge of a rock, and exhaled, not surprising on rubber better suited for tar. If rocky trails are your thing, change the stock treads for reinforced off-roaders. If aerial combat is your thing, get a Fokker triplane.

Tankwa on Fire

Tyre duly plugged, we followed the sunrise the next day, a glorious descent down into the Tankwa Karoo all dark and secretive below, the sky aflame. There was a short stop at Tankwa Padstal to see the cars that had crash landed there, a slow cruise along the gravelly R355 stopping to chat with the dusty folk who were walking the Tankwa Camino, then a rocky scramble to the foot of the hills where we alighted at Tierkloof Mountain Cottages. Oh my, that view, you can stare at it for days. We did.

Tierkloof has three beautifully styled cottages, far enough from one another that they offer real seclusion – think sunset baths in outdoor tubs and showers. We were lodged in the aptly named Serenity cottage, the pool and the porch of which became our seats for the show that’s been running even longer than The Phantom of the Opera – that great double bill called Sunset and Sunrise.

Tankwa Padstal is a Karoo institution, akin to Ronnie’s Sex Shop along the R62, but infused with the wild spirt of AfrikaBurn and the gees of the Tankwa Camino.

One night we pulled a mattress outside and slept on the porch. The roar of a lion pierced our slumber in the early hours, carried on the air from Inverdoon Game Reserve 7km away. We woke again to the sky on fire and the contrail of an airliner piercing the rising sun.

During the long intermissions, we embarked on wonderful hikes into the valleys and over the hills. Near the cottages you can reach a small overhang above a natural pool. The cave is crudely walled with natural rock, the remnant of an ancient herder whose livestock would have drank here. Further up the valley, you go further back in time. Jagged ochre walls lean in on you, an ever-narrowing procession of rock. Examine the walls and you’ll see the ripple marks of ancient rivers. Look even closer and small fossils are revealed, prehistoric plants, traces of life from a long dead sea.

Close inspection of ancient worlds deserves contemplation, best done on porches overlooking grand panoramas. Back we went to watch every mood a sky can go through, waning from pink to purple to inky black as Earth rolled over. Serenity indeed. We sat and listened to the soundless night, our reverie cut by a pulsating red light moving across the black sky and the beat of an engine, a small plane bound for who knows where. Fokker.

Motoring match-up

Road-trip vehicle

Ford Ranger 2.0 Single Turbo Double Cab XLT FX4 10AT 4×4 HR

Unique styling inside and out, the latest connectivity features and significant upgrades make this an attractive option in the extensive Ranger catalogue.
Power: 132kW @3 500r/min
Torque: 420Nm @ 1 750 – 2 500r/min
Price: From R712 300

Nissan Navara 2.5 DDTi LE 4×4 AT

Important upgrades on this newly released Navara mean significantly improved handling and a more “upmarket” feel, which is welcome in respect of its ever-improving rivals.
140kW @ 3 600r/min
450Nm @ 2 000r/min
From R677 900

Isuzu D-Max 300 LX 4×4

Newly released and upgraded to keep up with the competition, much more connectivity, a little more luxury. Comes with legendary work ethic, and reliability.
130kW @ 3 600r/min
380Nm @ 1 800 – 2 800r/min
From R710 800

Stay Here

Multifaceted rock formations crown the ridge above Kagga Kamma’s lodge.

Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve

Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve
Staying at Kagga Kamma you are stepping into a remarkable landscape that you can explore at will or with a guide on foot, in a 4×4 or on quad bikes. A variety of other activities are on offer for the whole family, including star gazing, mini golf and life-size outdoor chess.

Huts and caves from R1 358 pp pn, bed and breakfast.
(Sky and Star suites are an additional R1 300 per room pn)
Camping from R105 per adult pn. Per vehicle per stay R209.
Self catering family chalet (up to eight adults plus two children) from R1 382 pn.
021 872 4343, kaggakamma.co.za

Tierkloof Mountain Cottages

Tierkloof Mountain Cottages
Three stylish self-catering cottages are perched at the foot of the Swartruggens with incredible views over the Tankwa. Everything you need is at hand, just bring food and refreshments. Each cottage offers a different take on the serenity of Tankwa life. All have their own pool (Dragon Rock has an additional wood-fired pool) at least one braai area and a wood burning fireplace inside. Wood supplied.

Dragon Rock: Max four guests. Week nights R2 400 pn. Friday, Saturday nights and public/school holidays R3 000 pn.
Serenity: Max six guests.
Week nights: R3 012 pn 1-4 guests; R432 per additional guest. Friday, Saturday nights and public/school holidays R3 765 pn 1-4 guests; R540 per additional guest.

The Fort: Max 10 guests
Week nights: R3 440 pn 1-4 guests; R145 per additional guest. Friday, Saturday nights and public/school holidays R4 300 pn 1-4 guests; R540 per additional guest.
021 788 5169, tierkloofmountaincottages.co.za

Rising up from the Tankwa Karoo floor, an early arrival at Tierkloof Mountain Cottages.

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