Tankwa Karoo has always taken up space in my mind as some sort of mythical location, a stark wonderland where people go to get lost, lose themselves or find themselves. I think much of this has to do with the Afrika Burn photos I always see, a festival which takes place on a farm in the Tankwa area. When I set about planning our epic road trip route, I came across this relatively small SANParks patch on the big map of South Africa, and I knew I had to see and experience it for myself.
The gravel road to Tankwa stretches on forever …
It’s funny because we were quite excited for all the starkness we would experience in the mostly semi-arid and desert-like places we’d be visiting – the Northern Cape, parts of Southern Namibia, the West Coast and the Karoo. But when we came across a group of South African travellers just outside the small town of Kleinzee on the West Coast, one gentleman in particular went to great lengths to try to convince us not to proceed with our plans of going to Tankwa because there was, according to him, “absolutely nothing to see there, no vegetation, no animals, nothing!!”. The irony of these comments in lieu of our surroundings during that very conversation, which were very sparse indeed in terms of animals and vegetation and what he might deem “things to see”, was not lost on me.
and ever …
Despite these warnings and urgent demands that we change our plans, we had no such intention. However, Tankwa would prove to be one of the most challenging places we’ve ever been, though not for the reasons the old gent indicated.
Firstly, getting to Tankwa proved to be the biggest challenge we as drivers, and the Ossemwa as a very non-offroad vehicle, faced. Our plans went a bit south where we stayed near Clanwilliam (more on that some other time!), and as such, we decamped and left later than intended. Luckily not as late as might have been the case if we ended up hiking first to a waterfall we wanted to see. We shelved the plan and decided we best get on the road as it was already nearing 11am. Off we set, thinking we had a beautiful tar road ahead of us, and would be at our next destination in a few short hours.
and ever …
Fate often plays a role in these types of situations. As it happened, we knew there’d be nowhere to stop for supplies in Tankwa itself, so Tall Dark & Handsome came to a screeching halt when he spotted a farm stall off the road, shortly after we left our Clanwilliam campsite. There we did indeed find ice and meat, and some much-needed information. We discovered that the tar road would soon cease and we had nothing but gravel ahead of us, no matter which route we took to Tankwa. And so, not even 25km from where we originally started, we came across a fork in the road. Left, gravel and the loooooong way around to Tankwa via Calvinia. Right, gravel and the “short” way to Tankwa. It seemed like an obvious choice. We may never know if it was the worse or better decision.
The “short” road would be anything but … as we travelled for a while, we voiced that it didn’t seem “that bad” but we soon found that we were meant to make a turn and from here, it became a difficult road in bad condition. Surprisingly, we also seemed to be driving on a road that went through farms. We must have stopped on 15 occasions to open and close farm gates and drive through them. This was entirely new to us, having never experienced roads that went through farms. And then we came across a dry river bed. You must understand. The Ossemwa is basically a station wagon with good clearance. We stared at this boulder-ridden and very sandy riverbed and knew we were in for a challenge. We couldn’t go slowly over the rocks, because the sand would get us. We couldn’t go quickly over the rocks, lest we hit the samp. In the end, Tall Dark & Handsome took on the challenge and opted for ‘semi-fast’, with some mindfulness about keeping the big rocks on the left.
The first (and more chilled) dry riverbed crossing
We made it! But the challenges kept on coming. We were faced with quite a climb up a very rocky road to the escarpment, which we only just managed with a few loud scrapes and bangs, and a few scary slides. When we got onto the escarpment, we were finally blessed with flat and easy-going gravel for the first time. By this stage, the mere 200 km journey had already taken hours and we were hardly half-way. We were starting to worry about getting to the SANParks office before the 5pm closing time.
Just when you think you’ve made it…
Folks, never rush. We reached Tankwa’s entrance gate (no reception or staff) with 30 minutes to spare to get to the office in the middle of the park. Despite many warnings from another seasoned traveller (in the same group as the old gent who wanted us to cancel our Tankwa leg) about going very slowly in the park itself, due to the sharp little stones all over the road, we relaxed, thinking we were home free, having made it into the park and being minutes away from the reception area. But alas, Tankwa started its hard lessons on our arrival by first shredding our rear right tyre to absolute pieces.
Tankwa’s famous tyre-shredding skills
Oops! And you may not believe us but this was the first time we had a flat in 10,000km or more (more than half of which was on gravel). And our spare was the marie biscuit type, those tiny “half tyres”! That’s how much we believed we didn’t need to worry too much about spare tyres. Tall Dark & Handsome went about changing the tyre and soon, someone pulled up next to us in a Mercedes G-Wagon, a very friendly couple who we would meet again! The driver immediately told us that he’d already lost two tyres to Tankwa and gave us a “good luck to you”! They did offer us some relief by indicating that the reception was close and still open. So, after a quick tyre change, off we headed (at snail pace, now being very worried about our lack of further spares and the sharp stones) to reception.
Marie Biscuit spare tyre
Half an hour later, and we made it at almost 6pm! Luckily for us, a big crowd had recently pulled into reception and were taking an age to finalise their bookings, which meant the poor lady checking people in was still stuck there when we finally arrived. This group was big, about 4 vehicles and easily 12 people in the party. As soon as they heard we had lost a tyre, each driver indicated that they had lost at least one, sometimes two, tyres as well. In that friendly Saffa way, they offered to assist us with a fix or a spare. When they heard that we were driving a regular car, there were some shocked looks and shaking of heads and a muttering of “can’t help you there”.
We decided we’d be okay if we just took it slow. And so, after finally checking in, we must have headed out to our campsite past 6:30pm. It was a 12km drive and we were adamant that we would travel slowly and take it easy, lest we lose another tyre and be properly stuck. But Tankwa had other plans for us. As we drove out of reception, turning left to our camp, we heard an odd sound from the back tyres. We were sure we’d gotten another puncture and got out of the vehicle already feeling dismayed. But there was nothing. The tyres all seemed fine and we couldn’t understand why the car had jolted and make a racket. Shrugging, we got back in the vehicle and set off again. Soon enough, the problem became apparent. The rear left tyre drum brake was seizing intermittently, causing the vehicle to come to a halt. It didn’t seem like a massive crisis, though we weren’t sure what exactly was wrong, so we kept pushing. We knew we were losing light and that there was still another river crossing (said to be manageable with a vehicle with good clearance as long as it hadn’t recently rained) to do. So on we went.
That is, until the Ossemwa finally said “no more” and stopped dead. The rear drum brake had seized and would not release again. There we stood, 5km from our campsite, in the middle of nowhere, with no signal and no way to move forward or backward. “Right”, Tall Dark & Handsome declared, “we’re walking. Grab some essentials”. This left me feeling nervous, to say the least. The vehicle was on a downhill slope, though it seemed completely frozen. It was also positioned around a blind curve, and blocked a single file road. At this stage, I was trying hard to recollect what kinds of predators Tankwa boasted, and whether there was a likelihood of undocumented leopard.
So, slightly laden with “essentials” like our tent, sleeping bags, basic clothing and some food, and at almost 8pm, in the quickly-fading light, off we trudged to our campsite 5km in the distance. That was a long hour for us but we walked as fast as I could manage (TDH had to keep my pace) and eventually got to the site, which had only two camping spots. Here, we found some salvation in the form of Danie, a 4×4-driving gent from Pretoria who had already settled in for the evening (9pm, after all!), when we stomped into camp, breathless and frazzled. We must have been quite the sight.
Late-night braaiing after a very long day
Danie was gracious and helpful. He offered to take Tall Dark & Handsome back to the car with his bakkie so we could collect more of our things. TDH had packed some essential braai things (of course, guys!) and I set about putting up the tent and starting the fire, while they went back to the car. I would later find out that they managed to get the car moving forward somehow, and drove it all the way to the river crossing, which TDH (correctly) didn’t want to risk in the dark. Here, TDH left the vehicle a little out of the way, planning that we would return to it the next morning and see about that river crossing. We would definitely end up abusing Danie’s neighbourly helpfulness during our 2-night stay at the Langkloof campsite, as he helped us with messages to and from reception, amongst other things.
That first night, we managed to set up camp and have (a very late) dinner. We only finally got to sleep around midnight. Around 2am, I woke with a fright to the surprisingly loud sounds of some kind of herd moving around outside the tent, and a bizarre amount of noisy stomping coming from them. We would discover the next morning that a big herd of eland had moved through our camp looking for water (it seemed). There was a wind pump on our campsite that had a slight leak and they took advantage of this opportunity. The loud and incessant stomping was them attempting to turn the tiny rivulets of water into small drinkable pools, according to Danie. So after that bit of noise, we managed to get back to sleep again.
The next morning, we had breakfast and headed out on foot to go see about the car, now about 3.5km from the campsite. The riverbed crossing, in the harsh light of day, was a doozy. The previous riverbed crossing we had done only one day ago now seemed like a piece of cake in comparison. We spent a great deal of time just clearing boulders off the road, and tracking a path the Ossemwa might survive. Luckily for us, the Ossemwa was in a slightly better mood and actually graced us with continuous forward motion, though the sound of whatever was causing the seizing was still audible at all times.
Tankwa … watch your step
Some careful maneuvering later, and we crossed the river. Upon our return to the camp, we found Danie and family heading out to go do some sightseeing. We asked if they could stop at reception on the way and explain our predicament, and find out about some sort of tyre solution. During the course of the day, someone from SANParks also happened to arrive at our lonesome camp and we managed to hand our shredded tyre over, in the hopes they would find a replacement. We decided to just relax at camp, take the day to recover from all the recent ‘adventures’, and do as little as possible. TDH did take a moment to try and figure out what was inside the drum but decided he would rather not risk further trouble by opening it up when he didn’t know quite how to put it all back together again.
The Langkloof site is remote but well-equipped and a gorgeous place to spend some time
As such, we had one of our most relaxing days on the trip. We chased off some encroaching baboons, saw the eland who had kept us awake, and did some bird-watching. All the walking we had done to and from camp afforded us some lovely views and up-close encounters with Tankwa, and it was definitely not “barren” as some claimed. We managed to fit in a lovely shower too. By the end of the day, despite all that still loomed ahead, we were quite chilled and happy.
No photos of the 2nd river crossing, only dodgy screen grabs from a bad video
But oh, Tankwa … Tankwa was not done with us yet. The wind started coming up around sunset and became a furious thing that would not abate. By the time we wanted to get to bed, the tent would barely stay upright, and that with supporting ropes holding it in place. The tent cover flapped in such a maddening fashion, we thought we might go crazy. We took it off and lay looking at the full moon in the Karoo, a light so bright you thought you were lying under a Jozi streetlamp. The wind never let up but we tried to get some sleep. It may have been hours or it may have been minutes but suddenly, and inexplicably (for the Karoo in December), it started raining. It was a farce. Now we had no cover over us and were getting wet, and had to battle the elements (the wind was stronger than ever) to get the cover back on so we could pretend to sleep. That wind never did die down and I still remember the next morning trying to pack up the tent while the wind tried to pull it out of our hands and steal it away.
No photos of the 2nd river crossing, only dodgy screen grabs from a bad video
So, with our marie biscuit on one rear wheel and a seizing rear brake drum on the other side, and with very little sleep at all, we headed out to try and get back to reception, where hopefully a spare wheel had been arranged, so we could head to Sutherland, where we might get a new tyre, despite it being New Year’s Day. When we got to reception, we found our “spare tyre”, a used tyre from their fire engine trailer, a massive thing that barely fit into the Ossemwa’s wheel arch. Sadly, we don’t have a photo of this one big tyre on the lopsided car.
No photos of the 2nd river crossing, only dodgy screen grabs from a bad video
While we were attempting to fit this tyre, which required the Ossemwa be raised to absurd heights, our G-Wagon friends pulled up again and we spent a little time catching up on what we had all experienced in Tankwa. At this stage, the man quoted a review he had once read: “Tankwa cost me 3 tyres and my marriage”. Glad to have a spare wheel again, we headed out but soon were halted, not by the continuing seizing on the other tyre, but rather by the large wheel constantly catching on the Ossemwa’s arch, and as a result, getting slightly cut by the inside edge. With a multi-tool in-hand, TDH went about bending the wheel arch as far inward as he could to allow smooth forward motion of this ungainly tyre.
At this point, I’ll admit that we stood on the road, next to the car, asking ourselves some serious questions. We were 10km from reception at that point, and still had about 100km to go to Sutherland. It was almost entirely gravel. We were still dealing with the seizing drum brake, for as-yet unknown reasons, as well as the sharp Tankwa stones notorious for killing tyres. And we had a replacement tyre too big for the car. Would we make it to Sutherland? And once there, would we find petrol (suddenly a major concern as we were looking at a fuel gauge that would just get us to Sutherland) on New Year’s Day (a Monday) when all posters and signs we’d seen indicated that Sutherland didn’t offer fuel after 1pm on a Saturday?
We decided finally that we would continue on until the world and everything in it made it impossible for us to keep going. So on we went, at snail pace once more, on those treacherous Tankwa roads, to the far-off tar roads of Sutherland. We had gotten a tip, from someone at Tankwa reception, about finding the petrol station owner’s house just diagonally across from the petrol station and asking nicely if he would open for us, so we may purchase some fuel and possibly a tyre.
It was a long trip, bearing in mind we had hardly slept, but we made it to Sutherland! It was the biggest relief in the world to come across tar after what was by then hundreds and hundreds of kilometres on gravel. And unbelievably, the fuel station was manned. And wonderfully, we found the owner diagonally across from there but alas, he did not have the right tyre for us. And I wonder if you would believe me when I said that we decided on that afternoon that we would keep going on to Montagu (almost another 300km), to what was meant to be our campsite that night, despite the back wheel issues (one seizing drum brake, one oversized tyre). This only after determining that the road all the way would be tar. And we made it to Montagu all in one piece, pushing through the seizing drum brake issue by “driving fast” and “not stopping”.
The source of the drum brake seizing (on the left) and what it should look like (on the right)
When we went to get a new tyre the next day, and we opened up the drum brake to finally find out what had been going on in there, we discovered a broken metal spring (formerly from the brake shoes), which had been bouncing all over the interior of the drum. The shattered metal pieces had left a number of grooves all over the drum, and there they remain as a permanent reminder of Tankwa, along with the lines the place leaves on your brain and your soul.