Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

During South Africa's national lockdown, the Beyond Expeditions duo of Peter van Kets and Jacques Marais took to the road to help save local tourism. Their 9 000km journey traversed all nine provinces of South Africa, including the Northern Cape, and aimed to kick-start some of the Rainbow Nation’s most unique community adventure projects.

This is our Beyond Lockdown story: 9 000km, nine diverse provinces, a dozen ecosystems, hundreds of handshakes and hugs, and a thousand smiles.

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Peter van Kets admires the famous red sands of the ancient Kalahari Desert. (Image: Jacques Marais)

The Rainbow Nation. This is how the irrepressible Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu often referred to South Africa, and with good reason. When you head northwards on the N7 from Cape Town, you watch as Table Mountain – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – recedes in your rearview mirror, while the tapestry of wheat and canola fields of the Swartland unfolds up ahead.

You immediately get the feeling that this is the start of an important journey, and it definitely does not take long for the scenery to start changing. Within a couple of hours, the rugged Cederberg peaks begin to boom skywards to the north-east, with the desolate Knersvlakte undulating westwards towards the freezing Atlantic Ocean. We could certainly not have chosen a better place to start our Beyond Lockdown journey.

Now is probably is a good idea to tell you more about our expedition. I mean, the winter sun is beaming in across the Western Cape’s diverse scenery and next to me, in the driver’s seat, is Peter van Kets, my world-famous adventurer mate. And if you don’t know me yet, I am Die Oom (The Uncle), an award-winning adventure photojournalist and author – and, in this case, the storyteller about to spirit you away on our incredible expedition.

This would be our fourth Beyond Expeditions project in a series of African adventures, driven by Isuzu and supported by Dunlop, all while exploring the breathtaking outdoor playground that is the African continent. 

Our original intention this year was a four-country journey with a focus on desert rhino conservation – but, as they say in the classics, “then Covid happened”. We therefore completely reimagined our 2020 plans and came up with the concept for Beyond Lockdown.

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Our adventurers hit the road to explore the sandy West Coast roads. (Image: Jacques Marais)

First off, we wanted to symbolise that there will be an eventual end to all the mental dissonance and financial pressures around the hard lockdown, and secondly, we felt we had to find ways to help those who had been hardest hit by the lockdown. 

“There is no denying the devastating effects the pandemic has wreaked on the lives of ordinary South Africans in the local tourism, travel and hospitality industry,” explains Van Kets. “Our mission will be to help those small community operators at grassroots level by creating visual collateral for them and exposing their businesses to our extensive social media networks.”

And the best way to do this would be to take to the road! We went feral along a clockwise route, meandering through some of South Africa's wildest and most remote corners. Deep inside, we felt this would be our most meaningful and heartfelt journey yet, connecting a dozen or more community tourism operations left reeling due to the pandemic meltdown. 

Read on and join us as we depart on three unforgettable weeks of adventure, tripping deep into the heartland of this incredible country we call home. These are just a few of the incredible characters we met and the breathtaking destinations we got to experience.

'My name is Oubaas'

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Oubaas Gertse demonstrates how to catch a snoek. (Image: Jacques Marais)

Namaqua West Coast, Doringbaai, 3 August 2020:

“This is the dorpie that I grew up in,” explains Oubaas (aka Johannes Denzel) Gertse as he rows his tiny wooden "bakkie" boat onto the windswept Olifants River estuary, nodding obliquely in the direction of the mission village of Papendorp sprawling along the river bank. 

There are 50, maybe 60, houses dotting the Strandveld shoreline, and most of the people who live here are subsistence fishermen, depending on the river and nearby ocean to feed their families and themselves. “It is a hard life, but it is a beautiful life,” he says in Afrikaans, wistfully patting Blackie, his little dog perched on the gunnel next to him.

Papendorp is pretty much as far off the beaten track as any tourist can get, languishing at the very end of the R326 district road. To get there, you have to turn off the N7 at Vanrhynsdorp, and then cruise via the bossieveld (shrub veld) of the Knersvlakte region until you hit the forgotten stretch of coastline undulating here along the remote edge of the Matzikama Municipality. 

Diamond smugglers, kreef (crayfish) divers and bokkom (salted dried mullet) fishermen used to be the only visitors, but these days, die Weskus is nou die beskus (the West Coast is now the best coast). 

'My name is !Xopan'

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!Xopan runs along an amber-hued Kalahari dune. (Image: Jacques Marais)

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Kalahari Desert, 6 August 2020:

"Ek ken hierdie duine soos die palm van my hand. Dis mos my strate dié ... dis waar ek loop, want dié is my plek. Ek is 'n kind van die Kalahari. Ek is 'n trotse Boesman. Ek is !Xopan! [I know these dunes like the palm of my hand. These are my streets ... it's where I walk, because this is my place. I am a child of the Kalahari. I'm a proud Bushman. I am !Xopan!]"

It is an icy day when we meet !Xopan in the dunes of Erin Game Ranch, a !Khomani San community farm near Bokspits on the Northern Cape’s Kalahari Red Dune Route. Together with the inimitable Vinkie van der Westhuizen, he takes us on one of the most authentic Kgalagadi experiences I've had in all my life.

It's freezing, and at one stage !Xopan has to borrow my down jacket to keep the biting cold at bay, as he is clad only in a loincloth to show how his forefathers would have hunted 100 or more years ago. His spirit and smile never waver, though, and that night he regales us with impossibly tall Kalahari tales as we tuck into traditional Noord-Kaap (Northern Cape) fare around their flickering Kalahari fires.

Khomani means "the forgotten people", but – like the blood-orange sand of the Red Dune Route – you will find it impossible to erase them from your memory once you experience their encyclopaedic knowledge of the arid veld, or witness their rich, yet humble and unfettered, lives.

'My name is PC'

Karoo Gariep Conservancy, Hanover, 8 August 2020:

We have left behind the seas of sand shaping the vast swath of the Kalahari, and sailed the tarmac tides into the heart of an endless grassland ocean. Norwegian weather forecasting and location app YR.NO pinpoints us as being at Faugh a Ballagh – an ancient Irish war cry translated as "Clear the Way" – but our view from a lone koppie looks across the mini-Serengeti of the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve.

PC Ferreira and his family are deeply rooted in this land upon the sedge-lined shores of the windswept Seekoei River. “Here on the Gariep plains, it is about more than just family, though,” he explains. “No man can be an island: our workers, our neighbours, our friends, they are all family, and the only way we’re going to ever get through this Covid thing is to stand together.”

That night, I think about the hard road ahead as I sit on a shale-shocked outcrop while shooting the billion-star sky. But tomorrow looms, and we will bullet down a gold-washed track, paddle the glacial chop of the Seekoei and stand entranced at the petroglyphs dating back to when the Khoisan had free reign over these plains.