Song of the Open Road

(with apologies to Walt Whitman)

Photo credits: Bradley Millar

In our family Sunday afternoon drives were always a treat..  After lunch we would pile into the car and head out into the country, just driving along, enjoying the scenery, singing songs, laughing and chatting.  Every now and again it was a good space for my Dad to deliver a little bit of a lecture on whatever irked him about our behaviour.  Clever old chap, he had a captive audience.

One of my favourite places was, and still is, Meiringspoort.  “It is to this day undoubtedly one of the most scenic mountain passes in South Africa.  Stretching through a massive cleft in the Swartberg Mountain Range, this natural passage forms a convenient link between the Little and Great Karoo.”

The rich diversity of flora and fauna as well as the interesting rock formations and rock strata is indescribably magnificent and beautiful.

George and I love taking drives out into the country.   However, a favourite holiday is taking a slow drive to our destination.  We love exploring little roads and unbeaten tracks.  We stop along the way to chat to folk, visit an interesting “Padstal” or simply just enjoy the view.   The passing scenery, framed by hills and mountains, the shape of trees, the colours of vegetation, embraced by the sky, provide rest and restitution for mind, body and soul.   (I will never understand how some folks choose to read a book instead of enjoying the beauty of earth and sky).

On one particular excursion whilst chatting and listening to music we came across an interesting little turnoff, driving down this quaint road where we were met by a very angry farmer brandishing a gun, who told us in no uncertain terms to get off his property. Believe me we made a very hasty retreat!

When we started dating, I regaled George with stories of my childhood, places we had lived, with particular emphasis on Oudtshoorn and the Little Karoo, so much so that we arranged a road trip to Oudtshoorn.  On entering the Little Karoo, George looked at me and said “What to do you like about this semi-arid khaki looking place”, very calmly I responded “Wait until you experience the veldt bathed in moonlight.” Much to my joy and delight, our little drive along a moonlit country road certainly convinced him of the beauty, the air of mystery, the stillness and the magic of that pre-historic space.

Last year we embarked on a very interesting road trip, the first leg or our journey was to an interesting placed called Vanwyksdorp (or so I thought it would be). It is rather drab and sad, however our accommodation on a nearby guest farm more than made up for the disappointment of the place.

Before I continue with my story, I have to mention that I am  married to a very patient and longsuffering husband. This is especially the case when it comes to directions and road trips – our trip to Vanwyksdorp turned out to be an epic affair.  “Gail, how far is it to Vanwyksdorp?” George asked. I responded: “I think three, maybe four hours away!”  The way we go about things it was close to five and a half hours away, thank goodness we had made ample padkos to tide us over to the next day as the one and only restaurant in the dorp does not open for night time trade.

However, our accommodation more than made up for the lack of eateries and night life. To my delight, the cottages were gorgeous and well-appointed, and to George’s slight disappointment, there was no TV.

The moon rise over the escarpment, the sound of owls hooting right outside our window and the occasional sound of a dog barking, the stillness and pitch black night more than made up for the comforts of a restaurant and TV.

The next morning, after having breakfast in the one and only coffee shop, we headed off to Sutherland via the Anysberg Reserve. Please, do yourself a favour…drive that route! It is very gentle and pleasing to the eye. The veldt, in thanksgiving for a bountiful rainfall, presented a magnificent show of flora.  We kept stopping along the way to breathe in and enjoy the crystal clear air and inspect interesting and colourful flora.

The very friendly and gracious folk of Sutherland more than make up for the sad air of neglect and shabby appearance of this quaint town which is a great pity as it is home to South Africa’s Large Telescope (SALT).  With a mirror that measures 11 meters in diameter, it is able to capture some of the most detailed images of the night sky and has been used for a wide range of scientific research, including the study of distant galaxies, properties of the stars and the nature of dark matter. It is certainly a must-see for astronomy enthusiasts. The telescope is located at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) complex, which also includes several other smaller telescopes and research facilities.

Sutherland did not disappoint as it presented us with a beautiful and clear night sky to view stars, planets and the moon. Oh my spirit! It is such an awesome experience.

 As I sat there soaking up the wonder of the heaven, I was struck by how small and insignificant we really are.

Matiesfontein, a little oasis in the heart of the Karoo was such a personal highlight.  I had the pleasure of working for David Rawdon, the Laird of Matjiesfontein from 1968 until his death in 2010.  The village is made up of the hotel, a coffee shop, restaurant, bar and museums. I plan to write about my experiences working in the hotel industry. I will however say this – working for David was an experience of a lifetime.   He was a hard task master, all of us were in awe of him and I guess a little afraid.  I learned very quickly to follow instructions as given.  He would often say to us: “listen, 67 trains pass through Matjiesfontein on a weekly basis, if you don’t do as I tell you to, you are more than welcome to catch one of those trains and buzz off!”. I am being polite, he said something very rude!

We journeyed through the “Seweweekspoort”, a rugged mountain ravine that lies at the start of the Klein Swartberge. It features a combination of some of the most beautiful vertical rock folds in the country that combine to form a narrow little pass through which a road winds. It is so majestic, words cannot do it justice.

Due to time constraints we did not get to experience everything on offer there. We do however plan to take a really slow amble through that very awe inspiring place.

I think it is fitting to give credit to the good folk of the Karoo for their indomitable spirit, their kindness, their love, their warm hospitality and a sense of humour par excellence. This is what makes everything about this country so worth while.

Diving through an open box car you lie there til your breath comes back, then standing in the doorway you’re the king as crowns of hills and towns go by and night time eats the summer up and spits the stars across the sky”  – The Art of Catching by Rod McKuen


De Rust Heritage website

SA-Venues website

Watermill Farm Cottages, Vanwyksdorp

 Primrose Cottage, Sutherland

Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein

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  • Sanette Cavallari

    Traveling through your eyes to placed where I would love to go, is such an awe inspiring experience.
    Breath taking photos!

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you Sanette, maybe we should plan such a road trip when next you visit SA.

  • Terence

    Beautiful images painted through your words.

  • yes, there is nothing like driving through on the road from nowhere to nothing and enjoying the delights along the way.