We chose to leave well before dawn so we could drive into the sunrise and take full advantage of the quietest time on the roads while enjoying the beauty of a lightening sky. A careful calculation would see us pulling into the parking outside the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein at around 9 – breakfast time! Last year we discovered the breakfast buffet which instantly became the road-trip breakfast of choice if in the area, replacing Wimpy from annual trips to Knysna back in the 80s. (Secret: Wimpy is still an essential part of a real road-trip, having been consistently acceptable over the last 50 years.) The forecast, as per the previous blog, was for rain and the skies were cloudy all the way, casting shadows on vast vineyards in the Breede RIver Valley, swathing the high peaks of Du Toit’s Kloof in mystical mist where leopards lurk, and creating a real hallelujah sunrise on the road ahead.
It seemed that Saturday is a good day to head out into the country, as this was the first time I have ever gone through the Huguenot Tunnel without seeing a single vehicle going either way. The road in general was virtually empty, so much so that I kept taking a photo to record this unexpected pleasure. A single incident of a truck overtaking a truck as we approached was also recorded, as we had to veer to the shoulder to be rather safe than sorry, but otherwise good time was made with stress-free driving. Breakfast did not disappoint, and then we were into serious road-tripping.
Karoo lamb is a much-vaunted speciality due to its tenderness and distinctive flavour from the Karoo shrubs that they feed on. I have bought it from supermarkets, direct from highly recommended farms, and small town butcheries and so far have been less than underwhelmed by all sources. I have returned lamb chops to a top retailer as being too tough, an entire lamb to the farmer as tasting like goat (a billy-goat, at that) and generally find that the flavour is too strong for my tastes. I suspect that years of drought have adversely affected the livestock and that some have had to resort to the older animals and I have been unlucky, but my days of buying and trying are now over. I stopped in Laingsburg and bought 4 nice looking chops which I was charged R200 for. That should have been a warning – far too big for a lamb chop and the lady owner of the butchery thought I was a city slicker who would pay the rent. I told her if they were good I would stop for a whole lamb on the way back, but there was no need. They were the toughest chops I have ever paid so much for.
To the south we passed the Swartberg mountain range that separates the Little and Great Karoo, where rivers have sliced spectacular paths through these geologically awesome mountains – Seweweekspoort and Meiringspoort – while the northern landscape was characterised by low hills stretching beyond the horizon. The early pioneers with creaking oxwagons must have been made of steel to travel this harsh land without any of the basic conveniences we take for granted, particularly the women. The need to escape the Cape must have been overwhelming. Parallel to the road runs the railway line which used to be the backbone of the transport system in a time when you could wave to the steam engine driver and passengers from your car as you raced each other to the next siding, but has fallen into almost disuse, with sidings derelict and small towns almost unpopulated.
As we neared Beaufort West, the towering mesas of the Nuweveld mountains beckoned – the Karoo National Park was just kilometres away and no rain had fallen! This is one of the best run National Parks and our second visit, so we knew what to expect and were soon settled into a very comfortable chalet overlooking one of my favourite views – my version as painted later is above. Now to get out into the park!