The Karoo

The bulk of this day will be spent in the car. We started out this morning in Royal Natal National Park and did some hiking, but we weren't out too long since we had a long drive ahead of us today.

We headed north to pick up the N5 road and, as we did, the terrain became more flat and prairie-like. We'll leave KwaZulu-Natal today and enter the Free State, formerly known as the Orange Free State—the state borders on the Orange River, and Orange reflects the Dutch who settled here in the 19th century.

Drakensberg Mountains to Graaf-Reinet

Drive through the Free State from the Drakensberg Mountains to Graaf-Reinet in the Karoo.

Not long after we found the N5, we ended up in a long traffic jam outside Kestell. We sat for about 40 minutes with no motion, engines off. Finally, a woman drove up the road on the wrong side to see what was happening. She was gone for awhile, out of sight over the distant hills, but she returned and told us that there's a major smash-up and it won't be cleared up for at least 5 hours. I've never heard of such a thing... Five hours!

We decided to return to a road we just passed and drive around this mess. We took two roads that essentially bypassed the accident, leading us through Bethlehem and toward the N1. The N1 is flat and featureless—like Kansas.

If one considers the frequency of car crashes, the N1 is the most dangerous road in South Africa—we would see two other accidents today. As we drove southwest, the horizon opened up and we could see out to quite a distance. We could also see rain showers moving across the planes.

Around 6 o'clock, the sun began to sink beneath the horizon. All the rain and clouds awarded us with a magnificent sunset.

We've lined up a place tonight in Graaff-Reinet, a small town in the heart of the Karoo. But, we need to get there by 9 o'clock tonight. With all this construction, that was going to be difficult. We made our way down the N1, past Bloemfontein, the state capital, and picked up the N9, which leads to Graaff-Reinet.

We arrived just in the nick of time, at about 9:15. The woman from our hotel called our cell phone when we were just a couple blocks away. We got checked in—our room was not warm and inviting, but it was luxe compared to our previous night's accommodations—and then ventured out to quell those stomach pangs. It turns out, everything closes in this town at 9 o'clock. Not one restaurant was open. We had to settle for a convenience store on the edge of town which sold some cooked food. My mouth was watering at the prospect of fried chicken, but, alas, they were out of chicken. We settled for grilled cheese with tomato. One of the more pathetic dinners we'd had, but it was food.

The next morning I was looking forward to a hearty breakfast, but given the state of the room I didn't expect too much. There was a bug problem in the kitchen and the room was well worn. To my surprise, breakfast was delivered to our patio table and it was great. It was so delicious, I wanted to personally thank the kitchen staff.

I have to say, Graaff-Reinet did not live up to our expectations. I thought it would be a quaint town in the middle of the desert. Instead, it was rather spread out and there was hardly anyone on the streets. We did not feel free to walk around town at night, there were just not enough people.

Graaff-Reinet and surrounding Camdeboo National Park

Graaff-Reinet and surrounding Camdeboo National Park.

Today, we will see the nearby Camdeboo National Park, which surrounds the town. First, we will drive up one of the nearby mountains to get a bird's eye view of the town.

On the other side of this mountain is the Valley of Desolation, a small rift in the side of the mountain. We ventured to the edge of the cliff and, even though Jackie has a fear of heights she pushed herself.

The mountain view of the arid Karoo was beautiful, it reminds me a lot of the southwestern U.S. The other section of the park was the wildlife area. We were hoping to see the rare mountain zebra. Instead, we saw springboks, a few buffalo, and some birds.

After the park, we headed for our next destination. We will revisit the Garden Route for a night, creeping ever closer to the Cape Town airport, where we have a flight to catch in a few days.

Our route from Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo to the Garden Route

Our route from Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo to the Garden Route, on South Africa's southern coast.

We stayed south on the N9, which ends up hugging the northern side of the coastal range, dividing wet from dry. Only small towns exist in this baked landscape. One of the towns along the way is Uniondale which, like every town, has a white area and a surrounding black township. The stark contrast between these areas is tough to comprehend, and the feelings conjured up are difficult to put into words.

Once again, green awaits us over these mountains—the clouds flowing over the mountaintops indicate there is moisture over them hills. Tonight we will stay in the coastal town of Wilderness along the Garden Route. But first, we must get over those mountains.