Tankwa tranquility & Gannaga glee

KarinP's picture

Points: 0

“I really have a need for open spaces,” I said to my husband earlier in the week. We had been booked to go on Donford’s Tankwa trip, but that was cancelled when they were short of the required 30 riders.

“Let’s go anyway,” came the laconic reply.

 One option was to stay in one of the self-catering houses in the Tankwa Park itself (131 000 ha of open space, aaah), but that would have meant lugging water as well as food etc along, and we decided that’s probably a better option for a trip when you can persuade friends to haul some essentials along in a car.

 A bit more internet research (how did we cope beforehand?) and we found the Gannaga Lodge and yes, they had space for us and yes, they cook as well.

We left Newlands early on Friday morning, stopping 1km later at our local coffee shop. As a bike needs fuel, so (some) people need coffee, and indeed a lot of our weekend riding is spent looking for good gravel to take us to the next cup of coffee.

Bains Kloof felt a lot better than it has in the past (“You’re still way too slow in the corners. You’re going to fall over,” Gavin said supportively), and we soon stopped in Ceres to refuel.

A local farmer pulled in next to me.

“Wa’antoe is julle op pad?”

“Tankwa, Gannaga, Middelpos. Ek soek ooptes en rus vir my siel.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Jy moet maar oppas hoor, die R355 gooi deesdae mense bietjie plat.”

 Wide open roads: Straight as an arrow...Wide open roads: Straight as an arrow...

Not quite what you want to hear when you’re about to embark upon new roads. As it is, I take a while to settle when first making the transition from tar to gravel. Not yet having too much in the way of references for different kinds of gravel; it takes me a while to learn to trust a road. But soon the lull of the Heide’s on the gravel and the open spaces did the trick and I could feel the city stresses falling away with every km we went deeper into the Ceres Karoo.

Just past the Tankwa turn-offJust past the Tankwa turn-off

Here be dragons

‘Tracks for Africa’ has put a cautionary on the road leading from the R355 to Tankwa, saying it ‘likes tyres’. The sharp, flinty stones particularly liked Gav’s rear tyre, and we had to stop for a puncture as we got to the Park – a cut inbetween two knobblies had punctured all the way through.

Puncture: Fortunately the only one of the trip; quite surprising given the road surface at timesPuncture: Fortunately the only one of the trip; quite surprising given the road surface at times

We did not feel like fiddling with removing wheels in the middle of nowhere, so simply pumped in ‘tyre weld’ and set off slowly. I have to confess that I was quite happy with the excuse to ‘have to’ ride slowly, as it gave me the chance to really look around; notice the different vegetation, count a few sheep, smile at the bokkies hopping across the road, marvel at eagles drifting above, and so on.

We stopped briefly at the Park Head Office to present our Wild Card and find out a bit more about the accommodation. (Market research, you know). “The park is quiet at the moment,” the friendly lady at reception said when we explained we wanted to do a 200-odd km loop from Gannaga Pass down Ouberg Pass and back through the Park the next day. “You are welcome to turn-off and look at the houses, just not if you see a car parked there.”

We still had some 25km to go to Gannaga, and the road steadily got worse, being rather corrugated in places. Oh and did I mention the little river beds, filled with sand? Gazillions of them? I may even have muttered a gentle ‘eek’ or ‘ oops’ or ‘#$%^&**()’ into my helmet from time to time.

Gannaga is up the-e-e-ereGannaga is up the-e-e-ere

Gannaga Pass slowly but surely drew closer. Being impressively poor at riding cones and usually forgetting to look “through” a corner, once I saw the Pass in all its glory I was a bit, well, concerned.

Spoeg my kind, spoeg

My grandmother had a ‘bygelofie’ that spitting wards off evil if you saw a crow.  Gannaga meaning ‘ place of the crows’, I was very glad when I finally spotted some, spitting furiously to try and get me up the Pass in one piece.

I did take off my helmet first.

Relax. Stand up. Look up. B-r-e-a-t-h-e, I kept on telling myself.

Soon I had to concentrate so much on finding a clean line in between the loose stuff that I forgot to be nervous about the U-turns and drop-offs, and you know what - the Pass turned out to be a jol.

Gannaga Lodge (restaurant entrance)Gannaga Lodge (restaurant entrance)

Gannaga Lodge is just past the crest of the Pass, and we were greeted by the effervescent Robert, a retired law professor from Edinburgh who came to Middelpos on a birding trip some 10 years ago; fell in love with the area and now spends six months of the year in South Africa. He assists as Manager of the Lodge on weekends and speaks Afrikaans with a delightful Scottish burr.

The Visagies had turned the old kliphuis (where Ouma and Oupa used to live) into a guest house with five en-suite double bedrooms, a lounge and a lovely stoep where the latter part of the adage  ‘sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits’ certainly applies.

One of the roomsOne of the rooms

So I sat on the stoep and supervised for a bit while Gavin took off the tyre, before being dispatched to go and find some carton to put the wheel down on, then some water and soap, then…

One other couple had booked a room in the Lodge for the weekend, and soon arrived. They turned out to be a delightful couple from the Grootvadersbosch area and fortunately had brought a mountain bike along. Keith was quite happy to lend a ‘foot pump’ and a hand, so I could go back to supervising.

Sunset: Time for a well-earned dopSunset: Time for a well-earned dop

We had booked our accommodation on a DBB basis (a real bargain at around R350 pppn) and soon wandered across to the restaurant building for a dop in the bar and to listen to some of the fascinating stories Robert had to tell. With only the four guests there, the friendly staff had set tables in the bar, white linen napkins and pretty flowers and all. Dinner was cooked by the farm/lodge owner, Johan, who also happens to be the police chief at Middelpos. And can that man cook! Delicious soup, melt-in-the-mouth lamb, 3 veg, all beautifully presented.

Johan, chief cook and bottlewasher: ... owner of Gannaga Lodge and local Police ChiefJohan, chief cook and bottlewasher: ... owner of Gannaga Lodge and local Police Chief

After supper the negotiations started. “Johan, we want to do about a 200km trip tomorrow as well as look around in the Park,” we suggested. “Do you think you can ask Koos from Middelpos to open the petrol pumps for us on Sunday so that we can get more fuel to get back to Ceres without a problem?” No problem is too big or small for Johan: We were given some 5litre jerry cans to take with us to Middelpos and instructed to leave the full cans at Die Winkel or behind the blue wall at the petrol pump. Someone will pick them up and bring them back to the Lodge.

So gesê, so gedaan.

Jerry cans tied to the bikes: ... ready to be taken to MiddelposJerry cans tied to the bikes: ... ready to be taken to Middelpos

We stopped for a while in Middelpos, which was a rare hive of activity with an athletics day for the locals. 

Middelpos main road: Shop on the left, post office aheadMiddelpos main road: Shop on the left, post office ahead

Active trading at Die Winkel on a Saturday morningActive trading at Die Winkel on a Saturday morning

In the middle of nowhere, en route to OubergIn the middle of nowhere, en route to Ouberg

Bikes refueled, we then meandered around to Ouberg Pass, where my eyes went very wide when I saw the road falling off the edge of the earth.

“So,” I fished, “is Ouberg about the same as Gannaga, or…”

“It’s a bit steeper and the turns are a bit tighter,” my ever-comforting husband replied.

The road just drops off the edge of the Earth...The road just drops off the edge of the Earth...

Eventually I had run out of snacks to eat and bushes to water, and had to tackle the descent. “Push your bum out!” Antoinette said when we rode together down Swartberg Pass at the Bike Fest. “Look through the corner!” Gavin reminded me. I did that, also trying furiously to remember what Lourens had said at Klipbokkop about using engine compression to brake on a steep downhill.

Somehow it all came together.

Then, about a third of the way down Ouberg Pass, I spotted a black cobra out of the corner of my eye. It was already upright, and only about a metre off the road. I suddenly found that it was much easier going downhill and around corners with a bit of speed.

Coming off Ouberg PassComing off Ouberg Pass

Back down on the Plains, we stopped sommer in the middle of the road for some snacks and to just enjoy the peace and quiet for a while. Over the two days we had so far seen only two other vehicles and one donkiekarretjie. Bliss.

Picnic stop in the middle of the roadPicnic stop in the middle of the road

We explored the Tankwa Park as we rode through, and I slowly came to terms with the loose gravelly bits and sandy river crossings.

Hello Sunday Roast, Christmas Lunch, Tjoppie, ....Hello Sunday Roast, Christmas Lunch, Tjoppie, ....

All too soon we reached the foot of Gannaga Pass again. This time round I knew what to expect and was able to really enjoy riding up the Pass, even managing to get out of first gear Wink

Gannaga, second time round...Gannaga, second time round...

What a view: It's not inside, it's on..... topWhat a view: It's not inside, it's on..... top

Playground near the top of GannagaPlayground near the top of Gannaga

When we got back to the Lodge, lo and behold, there were our three jerry cans waiting in the shadeSmile

Mobile petrol stationMobile petrol station

After a great shower and ice-cold beer back at the Lodge, Gavin went to have a snooze and I went to sit on the stoep to, well, sit.

You light up my life: Lamps are used to light the way between the House and the restaurantYou light up my life: Lamps are used to light the way between the House and the restaurant

If we thought Johan’s cooking was special the previous night, well, on Saturday he pulled out all the stops. Delicious butternut soup, even better lamb than the night before, and so on and so forth. Afterwards we all sat yakking to him and Robert.

“Africa Burn?” Johan laughed. “Ja, dis mos net so 60km hier af in die pad, en die Polisie gaan maak maar ‘n draai daar, meer vir die show. Die meeste ouens dink in ieder geval ons dra costumes pleks van the real thing, maar laat ek jou vertel wat ons al daar gesien het.” And did our eyes grow wide…

Eventually the talk turned to the farm and the Lodge. Johan is retiring in just over 2 years and cannot wait to move permanently to the farm with his family (at present they live in Middelpos and open the Lodge only on weekends to guests). The talk turned to the history of the farm, and Oupa who started it all. “Ja, daar is mense wat sê Oupa is nou nog in die huis,” he dropped. “Party sê hulle het selfs al vir Ouma ook in die nag gesien.”

That night, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay awake for a while, wondering if I could feel my way to the bathroom without having to open my eyes. Eventually I could not knyp any longer. A little later, the relief was due not only to having made it safely to the bathroom without bumping into either of them.

Gavin does not do mornings and prefers not to move much until he’s finished a second cup of coffee, so on Sunday morning I left him snoring happily and went to explore the farm and to trade more stories with Robert. “Come look at the old stable block which we are converting into another 4 bedrooms,” he invited. The rooms should be completed before Africa Burn, and have indeed been booked by guests who’ll be attending The Occasion.

Early morning on the farmEarly morning on the farm

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away around mid-morning. Gannaga Pass the third time round (albeit down this time) was even better; by now the ruts and loose stones felt like friends.

We had heard about the Tankwa Park’s stylish Elandsberg Wilderness Cottages and turned off to go and see what they looked like, discovering a corrugated gravel road from hell. The grader was standing next to the road; the road apparently gets worked over only when they expect guests.

Suffice to say that I was immensely impressed with the amount of shaking and rattling both body and machine could bear.

The view from one section of the stoepThe view from one section of the stoep

The Elandsberg cottages are amazing. Sleeping max four people, each has a tiny plunge pool to ward off the summer heat, and a lovely covered stoep. The five cottages are set well apart to offer privacy, yet if you want to wander across to the neighbours to share a bottle of wine, you can do so. There is also a “family house” for a larger group, again set well apart from the others. We’ll definitely be back.

I was not looking forward to the 4km back down the corrugations to the main road.

“You have two options,” Gav said. “Either ride just off the edge of the road, or on top of the middelmannetjie.”

Neither prospect filled me with any glee whatsoever.

The side of the road was soft and sandy, and the high middelmannetjie – well, I’m the one who’ll ride for miles and miles in one track to just avoid having to cross the darn wall in the middle of the road.

Stand up, look up, breathe. Relax. Breathe. Relax. I took a deep breath, and set off. And that’s when I had probably one of the biggest ooh-whaau moments in my year of riding a bike. Yes the sand at the edge of the road was soft, but if you just relaxed on the bike, kept it rolling and accepted the movement, it was fine. Yes the middelmannetjie was big and soft, but it actually rode like a squishy featherbed without being slippery at all. As long as the bike was rolling and you relaxed, steering by moving your body weight around and you stayed well away from the brakes, it actually was easy riding – and a thousand times better than bouncing over corrugations. You’re never too old to learn, né.

The road leading out of the Tankwa towards Calvinia was in an atrocious condition: Deeply corrugated, with long stretches of viciously sharp stones, high middelmannetjies, and lots of sandy river beds. Turning off onto the R355, the first 60km or so was not much better either, although the road surface changed dramatically once we passed Stonehenge.

The Kagga Kamma road: Stopping to wash visorsThe Kagga Kamma road: Stopping to wash visors

We turned off onto the Kagga Kamma road. This certainly counts as one of my favourite gravel sections: Great surface, incredibly scenic, and lots of rocks where you can look for ‘faces’.

Some 'rocks' love rocks...Some 'rocks' love rocks...

The awesome view from Katbakkies PassThe awesome view from Katbakkies Pass

We bumped into Du Toit from the Club at the petrol station in Ceres. He’s had some bad luck with the panniers on his bike, but soon headed off back to Cape Town. We finished our cooldrink and chips, and followed suit, back over Bains Kloof. Shoulders protesting loudly from all the bumpy roads and riding directly into the sun, I was not quite as happy as on the outward journey.

After the open roads and lack of traffic for three days, the late Sunday afternoon traffic on the N1 came as a huge shock, but that too eventually passed.

Later that night, as I relaxed in a bath filled to the brim and with a large Jameson’s in hand, I could feel my feet starting to itch again. “Gav, please bring me some “Go” and “Drive Out” magazines…”

Pepe's picture
Joined: 2007/12/01

Nice report Bella. Madie and I know the relaxing effect of the wide open spaces in that part of Africa. From the Bikefest we went via R62, Langebaan, Riebeek-Wes and then Ceres, R355, Gannaga, Middelpos and on to the family farm where madie grew up, about 30km from Middelpos and next to the Fish river, before taking the boring tar road via Brandvlei to Upington.

Work hard; play hard; never play when you work!

Joined: 2007/06/25

Well Bella you have done it again, a magic report nicely written with amazing photo's. Thank you for sharing.

That part of the Karroo is my Favourite Miles and miles on nothingness, stunning.

Think before you ink.

Trust is the most valuable asset.

I have the rest of my life to get old.

Hamid Khan's picture
Joined: 2009/06/14

Wow Bella , what an excellent report. It appears that you guys had a fantastic tiime , well done , oh ....and thanks for sharing your experiences, regards Hamid

Rhian's picture
Joined: 2009/10/29

Thanks for the report Karin, great one!

Need to get out there soon.


Pepe's picture
Joined: 2007/12/01


Madie spoke to her sister on the farm late last night and apparently Johan has had a stroke. He is in hospital, it is not going well.

Work hard; play hard; never play when you work!

Warren Ellwood's picture
Joined: 2007/06/18

Very nice report Bella. I will have to put the lodge on my to do list.

I hope that Johan recovers fully as well. He sounds like an awesome fellow.


"Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, and does it improve on the silence?"

Geoff Russell's picture
Joined: 2007/09/25

Great report Bella I really enjoyed your style of writing.


Committee: Ride Captain

Cloudgazer Steven's picture
Joined: 2007/10/03

Great report.

I LOLed at the cobra bit, I'd also open-up after seeing one.

Those Elandsberg Cottages look great - got any more details about them?

There are so many problems in this world. Luckily there's a wristband available for almost all of them.
KarinP's picture
Joined: 2009/04/30

Hi all

Thanks - it's easy to write a report when the trip has been so awesome! Of course, for the Sutherland Winter Trip everything changes once that area has had rain Smile

Pepe, thanks for mentioning about Johan - I phoned and he answered the phone - came out of hospital today. He claims that he just wanted to see what it was like in a hospital but says he's fine. When I told him my mom always says "onkruid vergaan nie" (weeds don't die), he laughed a lot.

Cloud, yes, the Elandsberg Cottages really look awesome - peace & quiet & solitude with a touch of luxury.  The official Tankwa website is at http://www.sanparks.org/parks/tankwa/tourism/accommodation.php

I copy the following info from there (they have more pics at the above link).

Elandsberg Wilderness Camp

The development of the Elandsberg Wilderness Camp was initiated in September 2006 and completed by April 2008. The five cottages are situated 18km from the park offices at Roodewerf in the hills known as Elandsberg. Each cottage boasts beautiful views of the Karoo plains and imposing Roggeveld Escarpment.

By the use of the locally made unbaked clay-and-straw bricks with sections of walls built with rock, a bygone era is evoked, one of simpler times… Examples of this building method can also be found in the many ruins within the park.

  • 3 x One-bedroom Cottages, double bed
  • 1 x One-bedroom Universal Unit, double bed
  • 1 x Two-bedroom Cottage, 1 x double bed & 2 x single beds
  • Queen-sized sleeper-couch in living room
  • One bathroom (shower only)
  • Open-plan kitchen and living-room
  • Covered Braai / Stoep
  • Fire-place in living room
  • Splash-pool per unit
  • Accessibility by low-clearance vehicles hampered at present
  • Fully equipped with linen, towels, cutlery, crockery, cooking utensils etc.
  • Gas appliances
  • Paraffin lamps and candles (provided)
dtv's picture
Joined: 2007/11/06

Great report, Karin.  Was nice to see you guys in Ceres, and yes, that part of the world puts you in touch with yourself again.  I also came back via Bainskloof, but all that loose gravel on the surface does not allow any fast riding around the corners.....  For others: pse watch out for this on the Wellington side.

God gave you a gift of 86 400 seconds to-day.  Have you used one to say Thank You?

rynet's picture
Joined: 2008/03/17

Great report Bella Doll  Laughing thanks for sharing !, ps you getting good at this Cool

GeelKameel's picture
Joined: 2007/06/21

Great, baie dankie! Dis 'n lekker-lees storie uit 'n lekker-om-te-ry wereld.

'bly om te sien julle het dit geniet!

(In Aug 2007 het 'n klomp van ons daar rondgery. Fantasiese trip gewees. So lekker dat daar twee tripreporte geskryf is)


PeterO's picture
Joined: 2007/09/11

I was going to bed, glad I decided to just check the forum first.  Thanks Bella.  BTW Do you still have Bella?

If you can dream it you can do it!

KarinP's picture
Joined: 2009/04/30

Hey Pete, yes I pretty much use Bella on a day-to-day basis for commuting. Think I have used the car twice this year (when I had to lug lots of stuff around); the guys at the petrol pumps laugh their heads off when I arrive and ask for 5 litres of fuel. The Big Blue is for weekends - given the route that I take to work, it's just much easier commuting with a scooter Smile

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