Cole Porter could have been thinking about
the Northern Cape when he penned the line “don’t
fence me in”. Turn off the N12 at Victoria
West and follow a route that celebrates the best
of what the province has to offer suggests Peter
The town of Victoria West shrunk in the Mercedes-
Benz Vito’s rear-view mirror, giving way
to an immediate emptiness. To the left, a few
merino sheep under a bent Southern Cross windmill
blurred into a woolly overcoat. To the right,
a fence held back a hurry of tumbleweed. And ahead,
the fine grey-black shoelace that is the R63.
In the USA they call these routes blue highways,
tarred back roads linking the past with the present.
Many of them, just like South Africa’s R63
out of Victoria West, go unused by the majority
of people. The perception is that just beyond
that tantalisingly decentlooking turn-off, the
road deteriorates into a gravel nightmare that
will scare the kids and irritate the car’s
internal organs. But often in South Africa that’s
not the case. During that bad-hair decade, the
1970s, it was a priority to link rural communities
with larger towns. The result is a network of
solid tar roads.
The R63, from Victoria West to Calvinia, through
Loxton, Carnarvon and Williston, is just such
a road. Instead of careering down the N1 or the
N12 to Cape Town then, turn off onto the R63.
Arabians in Loxton, crowded sky in Carnarvon
The sheep and windmill left behind in Victoria
West, the first port of call is Loxton, a town
that seems to get smaller as its overweight church
gets bigger. If you judge Karoo towns on the Pep
Stores scale – how big the store is and
how loud the music blares – then Loxton
is miniscule: it doesn’t even have one.
What it does have is the African-Arabian Wildlife
Research Centre, run by husband and wife team
Chris and Tilde Stuart. The pair, authors of several
field guides on African mammals, base themselves
in the tiny town. They also founded the African
Carnivore Research Programme. It’s an unlikely
place to find science.
It’s safe to say that, in this hidden,
empty part of South Africa, air traffic is not
usually an issue. That is, unless you time a visit
with the Carnarvon Fly-In. For one weekend every
winter the tiny town, 64 km from Loxton, hosts
a swarm of microlights and small planes that fly
in from all over the country. It all happens in
winter because the air’s calm then, and
it happens in Carnarvon because it’s got
a Heathrowsized airstrip.
The town itself is a two Pep Stores kind of place,
fairly large, brooded over by an Anglo-Boer War
fort on top of Carnarvon Koppie. On Market Plein,
next to the old market bell, the 147-year-old
Rhenish church sits firm. Well, sort of –
as local entrepreneur Henk van den Bergh relates,
the cockerel weathervane is skew, thanks to a
brawl of hunters who got drunk on the balcony
of a nearby hotel and decided to play target practice
with the unfortunate fowl. It hasn’t been
fixed since and now the cocked cockerel is something
of a landmark, along with the rebuilt corbelled
house next to the museum and the Blik Bar, with
its 4 000- odd beer can collection. Very odd indeed.
Henk’s a character. He runs the Ou Kraal
collection of budget guesthouses scattered throughout
the town. When he’s not behind the counter
at the Ou Kraal café or serving plates
of Van Wyksvlei lamb in his, yup, Ou Kraal Kombuis,
he keeps busy running a popular see-the-Northern-Cape
4x4 tour, which meanders all round the province.
Carnarvon is one of those onion Karoo dorps;
peel back the layers to find the good stuff. Go
and look at the abandoned railway station’s
mural; find the hidden antique shop in Church
Street; ask Henk to take you to the immense but
forgotten railway graveyard just outside of town.
Ever east – Williston calling
The 128 km stretch of R63 from Carnarvon to Williston
is vintage Karoo – beautifully empty, best
driven at sunrise when the whitewashed corbelled
houses along the route (there are four of them)
glow in the new-day light.
Williston, when it arrives, is quite a surprise:
it’s hidden behind a large koppie up from
the Sak River and bigger than you’d imagine.
But not that big. The Pep Stores, however, thinks
it’s downtown Jozi, blasting out Skop FM
to an unimpressed street. Increasingly the sound
of small-town South Africa.
Apart from the rather bizarre tombstone route
(sandstone gravestones styled – beautifully
– by the town’s craftspeople) there
are two things to recommend Williston. The funky
hotel with its ancient phone-by-the-bed system
is getting a revamp, care of the recently arrived
Grant family and, if it’s your cup of rooibos,
the Neerde Gerevormeede Kerk activities hall.
Hidden there in this most unlikely of dorps is
an important example of modernist design. Among
the Victorian frontages and Pep Stores 80s aluminium
cladding, it’s remarkable. The irony is
that few travellers have a clue of its architectural
Heading for THAT postbox
If Williston is forgotten Karoo, Calvinia is
very much remembered. The Hantam Mountain, no
tiddly koppie, looms large in the Calvinia rear-view
mirror. In its amphitheatre, the Akkerendam Nature
Reserve hosts two hiking trails which are great
for birding. The dorp, rapidly morphing into a
tourist destination of note, has taken up the
mantle of gateway to the flowers. Come late August
for the wildflower spectacular, and this town
The high streets – there are two –
bustle, the Pep pomp is drowned by yelling traders
and even the bottle stores are outnumbered by
real shops. You can’t get a table at the
Blou Nartjie without booking and forget about
trying to get a room at the 151-year-old Hantam
House unless you booked in January. Only the allegedly
largest postbox in the world remains untouched
– literally. It really needs a coat of paint.
I can see the sea!
The road beyond Calvinia and onwards to Nieuwoudtville,
Vanrhyns Pass and ultimately the sea, changes
its name to the R27, and the area might as well
be another country. The wild emptiness of the
R63 is replaced by a startling vegetative abundance.
As you approach Nieuwoudtville, nine different
veld types vie for dominance. In that wildflower
window between late August and September, it can
seem as if you’ve stepped off the moon into
Kirstenbosch. It’s mind-blowing, the Namakwa
Karoo, but it almost seems busy, compared to the
clean, pure Bo-Karoo.
It’s true, you have to be a certain type
to appreciate the Karoo. Like the finer things
in life, it’s best appreciated over time,
an acquired taste. And once you get its minimalist,
expansive appeal, the instantgratification destinations
can no longer hold you. You’re completely
smitten and that’s when you start to explore
the Northern Cape, the best province to go get
your fence-free fix of land, land and always more