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WAY Off the Beaten Path

Mom navigated, I drove.  The GPS had totally lost it … trying to send us back down towards the main roads, in the wrong direction, and “TomTom” was turned off in favor of directions from the website.
Directions:  Travel 18.8 km on the gravel road.  At the Y junction follow the main road left.  (The directions fail to mention the “4x4s only beyond this point” big red sign, though we noticed it as we bumped along in our little chevy sedan.)
Drive for 6 km.  Turn right on the small gravel road.  You still have 5 km to go.  (This small gravel road started with a big sand pit, which I revved up and skidded through, and small meant one car wide.)

At the next junction, turn right if you have a 4×4, left if you don’t.  Drive past several buildings and through two gates. (This turned out to be farm from some hardy family managing to grow something in this arid area.  We never found the junction with the alternate road, but given we had to drive the car through a small stream I think it’s conceivable we might have picked the wrong way).
And finally we bumped in to Blue Hill Escape, a nature preserve and research center run by  friends of my mother who she met while volunteering on an Earthwatch Macaw research project in Peru.  Driving down another bumpy roadish path and through another small stream and we arrived at our cottage.  
No electricity.  Wood burning stove for heat.  It was cold.  I was cranky and tired from driving all day. 

I was eyeing the sky which was threatening rain and planning our escape route – wondering how we were getting this little chevy back through two streams if it actually rained. I had an image of myself covered in mud pushing the car with my mom in the drivers seat spinning wheels. Generally when I travel, I like to have a good escape plan.  There may not be a quick escape from Blue Hill Escape if it rained. 
So we built a fire and put on more clothes and cooked dinner on the gas burners and went to bed early. And had the best sleep of the trip. 
We are at the western edge of the Little Karoo – an arid area north of the coastal mountains and the baby sister of the Great Karoo – the enormous desert area that makes up most of South Africa.  Karoo means dry thirst in the indigenous language. We have entered the western edge of the largest wildlife conservation area in the country – Baviaanskloof – and it is beautiful and remote arid country.  The mountains are red and yellow rock and they are covered with fynbos – a hearty plant that survives in this climate.  Succulents and Protea are blooming showy red and pink up the mountains.  And the roads stretch straight, as far as you can see up the valleys.
After a few days on the touristed (and honestly slightly dull) Garden Route along the beautiful coast of South Africa, we were ready for a change.  We stopped at a grocery store and gas station and then headed north over the gorgeous coastal mountains and then northwest through a green agricultural valley on the back side of the mountains.  Past ostrich farms.  Past orchards – the apple and pear harvest has just finished.  They can grow everything here in South Africa except for the tropical plants.

Luckily the weather cleared the next morning, and Alan, the owner and researcher here, took us on a walk to see some of the cave art done in the iron age by the local Khoisan people.   The figures are small – often just 6 inches – but many are gracefully drawn in red, yellow or black of antelope, baboons, hunters and a medicine man drawn with horns – part of his transformational magic.  Similar rock art is found in caves all over this area.

Hand prints over a yellow eland

Alan and his wife Anya bought this farm and live here with their two young children and his parents.  They put the farm in a conservation program in the South African Government sponsors to encourage land owners to conserve property and protect wildlife.  In return for not paying property tax, they conserve the land.  And this area is a haven for wildlife – so far we have seen baboons, lots of birds and most exciting two kudo- an odd looking large creature that looks like an assemblage of parts from a humpless camel, a giraffe with no spots, and a hornless moose that lopes along like an uncoordinated teenager on long knobby-kneed legs.  And today we have seen two little antelope called klipspringer that are adapted to hopping up the rock faces like mountain goats – they have unique rounded-toe hooves that let them move easily up the rocky slopes.
Alan also conducts research here – specifically on a bird called the Rock Jumper.  This bird is particularly vulnerable to climate change, so he and a team of students and volunteers are working to understand how climate change will impact the Rock Jumpers – a bell weather for other species in the Baviaanskloof vulnerable to climate change and rising temperatures.  He is currently applying for another Earthwatch grant to host volunteers to study the largest predator in this ecosystem, the elusive Cape Leopard, a beautiful creature threatened by farming and development.
They don’t take as many guests anymore – they seem to have made an exception for us and those who find them by word of mouth and online … and who find this remote area interesting enough to make the journey from the more comfortable touristy areas.  Now they mostly host volunteers who stay here for free in return for at least two weeks work on the farm’s projects helping with the research and running the farm … a fantastic opportunity for those interested in ecology and immersing in this area.  
Tonight they are cooking a braai – which we are looking forward to sampling.  A very traditional South African meat fest cooked on an outdoor grill. It included several treats off our food list including potjaikos, literally small cast iron pot placed in the coals.  Tonight our small pot is full of squash and potatoes and is served over a traditional corn meal porridge.  Yum.

And now as I write this tonight, we have built the fire and warmed the guest cottage and found the hot water bottles that are filled and tucked under our feet. The full moon is huge and the night sky is clear and cold and gorgeously star-filled. 
Tomorrow we head back out the dirt roads and backtrack to the paved road that we can take on to Port Elizabeth.  It will be a long driving day with rivers to ford and sand traps to rush through and baboons to dodge to just get to the main road.  
It’s clear this place isn’t for everyone. You have to work a little to get here and be here.  But after a lovely day here with wonderful company, the trek seems worthwhile – a reminder that making the effort to take the less travelled path is usually worth the trouble.

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