Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld

mapNorthern Cape Index

  1. Climbing the Highveld
  2. Strolling Calvinia
  3. Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange
  4. The Lord of the Flies visits Augrabies Falls
  5. A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington
  6. When Giraffes and Necking, Tourists Beware!
  7. Kilometers Pass more Quickly than Miles
  8. Ancient Rock Art in the Cederberg Mountains

July 2, 2016

With four weeks left in the high school quarter, Natasha and I began designing a road trip to take place during the winter quarter break. She was excited for the opportunity to show me one of her favorite places on earth. We would venture north to visit the Northern Cape and the Cederberg Mountains!

Our journey started from the Canal Walk Shopping Centre. This huge mall at the northern edge of the city serves as a destination for the entire area. We picked up some last-minute groceries at Woolworth’s and visited the ATM. With those errands complete, Natasha slid behind the steering wheel of The Strawberry (my trusty Honda Jazz) and merged onto the N7, heading north. In almost no time at all, we had left Cape Town behind us.

Since our trip took place right after the winter solstice, the rainy and cold season had begun pelting the Cape. We passed into rolling hills that had become green from undergrowth and the occasional alfalfa field. Like most other national roads in South Africa, the N7 was only a divided highway within the city limits; it settled down to two lanes in each direction or even one lane in each direction as we left urban areas behind.

After a couple of hours on the road, Natasha took an exit to drive us into the town of Piketberg. It sits near a massive gravel processing plant adjacent to a substantial, long mountain. We hoped to find a bottle of sherry or hanepoot (a dessert wine) that is produced locally. What we had forgotten is that we were arriving in this town on the first Saturday morning of the month: it was payday! Pedestrians were everywhere, crossing the highway into town quite haphazardly. The banks were thronged with people in long lines. The Mr. Price market area we pulled into was full to bursting with cars, and the masses of people on foot made navigating quite a challenge. We parked on the street and walked to the “bottle store.” We found plenty of customers, and the shelves were lined with Sedgwick’s Old Brown, a rough, sweet sherry. It wasn’t what we sought, so we returned to the road, and I took the wheel.


This view comes from a rest stop just south of the pass into the Cederberg area.

The next part of the drive brought us into the Cederberg Mountains. This beautiful area will be featured later in this trip, so I will reserve a full description for a later post. Off to the east, I saw a tributary of the Olifants River curving lazily back and forth. Natasha confided that the river is a favorite for a “Nappy Run:” one wears a life preserver upside down (with his or her legs going through the arm holes) while tied to or curled around another person who is similarly following the current. Since the temperature has hovered in the low teens here (that’s Celsius; think of a high of 60 degrees Fahrenheit), this hardly seemed the time to jump in the water.

I pulled off the road at Clanwilliam, which will also serve as the last place we stay on this trip. As we entered the central business district, another massive group of people pulled into view. We parked on the main road near a Super Spar supermarket. I hustled into the bathroom, which was a crowded, unpleasant space. When I emerged, we visited the wine shop at the front of the grocery. In no time at all, we had found a red muscadel and a Medium Cream Fortified Wine (local code for “South African Sherry”) from Orange River Cellars. We bought the sherry for R60, the equivalent of $4 U.S. As we returned to the main road, a “bakkie” drove by. It trailed two over-sized flags for the Democratic Alliance (opposition) party, and a candidate inside used a public address system to make his case for re-election.


This church seemed like an ideal place to pause for lunch. A beautiful tree provided shade.

From there, we drove four or five blocks to a comparatively sedate place. We parked next to a church close to the Living Landscapes Project, a site which had previously served as a field school for the University of Cape Town Archaeology Department. In the past, undergraduate archaeology students came here to learn how to make detailed field notes, recognize stone tools, and sift through talus slopes. We took a walk toward the river next to some real estate development projects that had long since been abandoned. As we walked back toward the car, Natasha spotted a boggy area and wisely doubled back to find a dry route. I thought I could clomp through with my running shoes and immediately gained two socks, soaked right through.


This view looks east from the outskirts of Clanwilliam, across the Olifants River.

Not so much later, the N7 reached a town called Vanrhynsdorp, and we turned east onto the R27 highway, which required us to make quite a few turns to follow it past the square. As we continued east, it seemed the rest of the traffic vanished; it was a quiet, peaceful drive. When we stopped at a rest area, Natasha spotted several weaver birds flitting among their nests in the trees. I collected a few photos of them until one demonstrated his displeasure by bombing poor Natasha.


At the left, a weaver bird. At the right, a weaver bird nest. Caution: do not look at weaver birds from directly below!

In the distance, we could see what looked like a massive ridge in our path. Soon it became apparent that we would be climbing this daunting wall. The speed limit dropped to 70 kph (what one might expect for a commuter highway in the city), and the road angled up, sharply. The Strawberry labored a bit under the strain, but we powered ahead in fourth gear, dropping only occasionally to third gear. The climb seemed to continue for quite a while, when we decided to pause at a scenic overlook that was quite close to the top. A family of Muslims had paused there, too, perhaps for prayers as the sun was westering. I hadn’t realized it yet, but that pass had taken us from the Western Cape to the Northern Cape.  The view was fantastic.


Peering over the edge of the highveld, you feel as though you are looking from an airplane.

We reached the crest in just a few moments more, and I was startled to realize that this ridge was actually an escarpment. These few miles east of the N7 had brought us to the highveld (pronounce the ‘v’ as an ‘f’), a central plateau that reaches a peak near Johannesburg. The lonely road brought us to Nieuwoudtville, a sun-baked town that specializes in indigenous plant bulbs and wildflowers. I was thrilled to find a gas station, as I was down to one-fifth of a tank. We stopped at Protea Motors, even though the Trelidoor across the entrance made it seem closed. A woman trudged over to fill the gas tank. Natasha wandered over to the space that would be a convenience store in the United States. She gasped. She was looking through the windows at a motorcycle museum! On a day it was open, we might have spent some time there, but instead we continued back to the R27 highway and pressed onward.


It is both the only gas station in town and its only motorcycle museum!

Around an hour later, we approached a pair of buttes, and the road curved gently to the left. There, nestled at the base of a butte, was our goal, the small city of Calvinia. We checked into the Tarantula self-catering bed and breakfast. We were delighted to discover a very modern space with a full kitchen, a braai area, an outdoor fire pit, and a bathroom with an epic shower. We also realized that the setting sun was little protection from the howling, frigid wind. We scuttled inside and were soon eating dinner.


10 thoughts on “Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld

  1. Pingback: Northern Cape: Kilometers pass more quickly than miles | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Northern Cape: Strolling Calvinia | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Northern Cape: Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange | Picking Up The Tabb

  4. Pingback: Northern Cape: the Lord of the Flies visits Augrabies Falls | Picking Up The Tabb

  5. Pingback: Northern Cape: A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington | Picking Up The Tabb

  6. Pingback: Northern Cape: When giraffes are necking, tourists beware! | Picking Up The Tabb

  7. Pingback: Northern Cape: Ancient rock art in the Cederberg Mountains | Picking Up The Tabb

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