Easter in the N. Cape

The Easter weekend is South Africa’s traditional weekend for a pilgrimage to the coast or to family residing further afield. The ensuing chaos is a SANRAL [South African National Roads Agency ie: toll co.] bonanza.

N, Far E & SE attract more than their fair share of traffic – we avoid those sharp-ends like we would one prick too many.

With that in mind, we chose to meander through the eye of the storm & cover portions of South Africa where somnolent ideals are still pedalled by big-sky dreamers ie: we’d head W / then SW / turn NW & return home via the rising sun. We also thought we’d camp.

Wet weather was forecast for the weekend & so it was; most of the country gloried in soaking rains. There are few spectres more arresting than standing water in the desert.

We stopped at Kambro Farmstall for the night; roughly half-way between Johannesburg & Cape Town. Sebastian loved the working-farm bits & bobs – we braved a rare hour spent alone.

Our travel-preparations usually drill down to the minutia, particularly when we camp. We find that an oversight is almost always exploited by the vagaries of Chance. Our toiletries’ had been overlooked in the ‘I thought you packed it‘ last-minute QC check.

This wasn’t awfully good news…

Neighbours detest a peculiarly flavoured camper on a downwind day – we’d have to replace the kit – & we did, at Kimberley’s North Cape Mall. 

The hole that is Kimberley is best enjoyed, in a blur, from 30 000 ft & at a cruising speed of 500 mph. We weren’t that lucky, unfortunately. A catatonic queue for toothpaste & a roll-on is a tooth-grinding affair in our books; a look we sustained, in silence, for some time – at least until the rains started somewhere near Prieska. Sungazers were lost in the moment & so were we.

We imagine country-folk are deeply rooted in the land. Cookery, we assume, is a cottage industry central to this culture – ie: befrocked magicians, in homespun, conjuring up 5-star culinary marvels from little more than a small bag of brown sugar, fermented cactus-juice & some elbow grit. Sadly it isn’t (always) true…

Alisha auctioned off an arm & bought a jumbo-sized bag of ‘buttermilk’ rusks. One powdery mouthful, post a brief, but truly moving, opening ceremony, was enough to consign the balance to the darkness under the table. The dogs aren’t talking to me.

A crowing cockerel had me up & about, one or two moans before sunriseIt’s the only thing for it really. Before that, however, I was reminded why the roof-tent keeps its own company; a mean-spirited misanthrope at the best of times.

The rain’s drip-drip had provided a salubrious, earthy tang to the immediate surrounds – the harbinger of all that is beautiful in this part of the world.

Descending the tent’s ladder, in pitch black, in flops & jocks, is no small feat. Rain-water had collected on the tent’s fly-sheet overnight; the same canvas I steadied-on to avoid plummeting to my death after stepping onto ‘a rung’ which turned out to be thin air… There are few things more rousing than icey water on one’s visage [& more] at 4:30 in the morning. This unexpected immersion was especially tickety-boo… I might have used bad words & let go. It was a brisk plummet to a stoic bounce down below; an involuntary start but a beginning nevertheless.

From so humble a beginning, a new day – a tarried day spent traversing a slice of South Africa that we had, until then, largely ignored. As it turned out we’d left the best for last but before that, these: – If conceptual thinking divides us, ‘Travel‘ must be the panacea, surely? Would history read more gently if we spent less time in committee & more time in the open air? In reality, sadly, the futility of greed, deceit, ideology & self-aggrandisement is, & will always be, a quixotic quest.

The next leg of our odyssey turned coastal ie: roughly westwards, via the Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve. We spent the night at Jakama Organic Farm… Clanwilliam’s ‘highly-rated’ Ode to Joy!

Jakama is exotic ugliness unfurled in the foothills and shadows of the Cedarberg Mountains. Cape Town’s hipsters & skinny jeans descended on this Glastonbury for some sleep & love under the stars; erecting a favela of faux yurts & ‘living-naturally’ on green happiness. The more physically useful ran or cycled their ‘new way to be’

  … and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. [Friedrich Nietzsche]

Meanwhile, for those of us not lost in personal discovery, the glampsite boasted cold-water showers, dank sites and exotic pine, blue-gum & wattle; an arboreal ‘convenience’ for those having troubles with their bowels – every tree a lavatree.    

‘Your body is a forest.. thick.. scented.. wild’ [anon].    

We left before first light – of the happy broccoli that is – not the sun.

Earlier that afternoon we’d stopped somewhere near the Botterkloof Pass – the Bushman’s northern keeper. Meld the fragrance of a rainswept Karoo to these forbidding mountains & it’s difficult to imagine YHWH is far away. We were, however, low on fuel, food & drink. That mud fell on me; my motley crew ‘desperate‘ at the time. Retail-conveniences in the Karoo, on Good Friday, are fat-chance. Fortunately Clanwilliam offered some relief, if nothing else.

Talking about relief – listen to this. Post falling out of the nest (see above), I’d availed myself of the  facilities for the day’s 1st -wi. What used to be (in my 20s & 30s) a single poster headline & the good stuff scribbled above the trough, is now all the ads & some contemplation through the nearest open window.

To amuse myself, whilst hanging about, I assessed the audible traverse time of vehicles on the freeway nearby. 58 seconds for a sedan outta the north [ave.] & 34 seconds for one headed north from the south – a function of the northerly wind methinks; the Karoo Africa’s pre-eminent [unheralded] sounding-board. It’s a geographical pin-drop but a loud echo on the tin.

Fast-track to Saturday – a full dance-card scratching the nether ends of the West Coast including whirls through the hamlets of Velddrif, Langebaan, St Helena Bay & to the West Coast National Park. Fish in tins might advance the common good, per the Omega 3 fad, but I find little romance in discarded fish-offal – a constant that permeates the West Coast. That said, the villages are quaint & the people quirky.

Langebaan, & for our purposes here – the West Coast National Park – South Africa’s only non-estuarine tidal lagoon – protects approximately 30% of the country’s salt-marsh habitat.

What you may not know, however, & please pay attention class, is this: – Over the last few decades there has been a 40% [approx.] decline in Zostera capensis, the local seagrass. That has had a cascading (-) effect on the invertebrate biomass – & the wading birds that eat them. There are fewer birds today than there were yesterday & probably more today than there will be tomorra – & a similar act plays out most everywhere else.

Fortunately, in the intertidal zone [betwixt high & low tides], lurks a small gastropod  – the Assiminea globulus. This endearing operculate keeps a lid on the losses, & is the favoured prey of the Curlew Sandpiper – hence the prevalence of said sandpiper going about it’s business on the sandy substrate. Unbelievably, the invertebrate biomass peaks in October & February which coincides exactly with the ‘fattening comings & goings’ of the annual shorebird migration. Clearly an evolutionary co-inky-dink…

As beguiling as the Curlew Sands are, & especially in aggregation before their impending departure – for the birding cognoscente, time is a thief; more is… better. More effort, however, isn’t.

Crawling on the meniscus of the littoral zone, to see shorebirds, is a dirty business & not considered pucker. Nobody likes a wackadoo.

To solve this conundrum the authorities have appended three ‘long-walk’ bird-hides to the general offering. Armed with a map & an overnight survival kit, birders who complete the trek & who are still in good spirits, are rewarded with close-up (?) views of wading birds poking [in the sand]. At Geelbek [‘the hide’] those views improve from 2-hours before the rising (semidiurnal) tide ie: the birds come to ya as the tide comes in

Hidden betwixt the Curlews were two avian chefs-d’œuvre – the Broad-billed Sandpiper & a Lesser Yellowlegs – aptronyms of their more endearing features & the raison d’etre for this, the most southerly leg of our journey to the ends of the earth. In attendance with us the very individual who first discovered the Legs some weeks before – her Pesach meal, a formal sit-down btw., cooling its heels, at home, in Cape Town. Rare birds tend to have an extraordinary impact on otherwise functional people. In our case we’d driven across the country for ‘a glimpse will do‘.

We headed north one-up, not two – & miserable for it. Such are the vagaries of birding. I won’t prattle on about the details; suffice to say we had a blast despite the ‘something fishy’. We did, however, hand over hard-won loot to the proprietor of our scheduled stop in Citrusdal; a misnomer btw. – ‘Detritusdal‘ the more appropriate handle. One look at the ‘kampterrein‘ [a farmyard with roaming, defecating livestock] & we turned tail – I did, at least. Alisha is tougher than the eye suggests. I won the day, however, a rarity in itself.

We left without so much as a by your leave & ended back at the point from where we had started earlier that morning: in Clanwilliam – fortunately not at HappyTown but at one of the local B&Bs. Unfortunately, the sun had set & holiday darkness, in the Cape, closes restaurant doors it seems… Perhaps there was something fishy in our demeanour? Either way, we snacked on a carb & sugar-induced nightmare of ‘will tomorrow never come?‘.

As it happens, the sun did rise & we tootled ‘up-coast’ as far as Springbok before turning further inland, to Pofadder, where we spent the night.

There are few [seriously!], if any, more aesthetically appealing vistas in all of South Africa than those on offer in & around Pofadder; a backwater town servicing vagabonds & providing some religious succour to the local farming community. The birding is quintessential & the portions of peace & quiet, generous. A brief glimpse of a Black-footed Cat didn’t hurt either.

Imagine our chagrin, if you will, when we were confronted, early next, by a monstrosity that can only be described as a spit in the eye & an affront to Shangri-la. Before I get to that – a small taste of progress, further west, at Aggeneys; a mining town built to exploit the region’s base metal riches. In its defence, & for what that’s worth, it does as the tin threatens – mine. Even so, a mountain of overburden dumped adjacent ancient rock formations, as yet untarnished, is sad & an ice-block of pee in a crystal glass of spring-water, on a hot day – depreciating…

The monstrosity I alluded to earlier, bears its fangs on the N14 nearer the western shores of Upington. Colloquially this Decepticon is called the KSO Tower – or the Khi Solar One for the rest of us. This mega ‘community-upliftment project’ [a solar power tower solar thermal plant (yessir)] focuses solar energy on a boiler some 200m overhead.  This pot-o-water superheats steam to a skin-wrinking 500-odd degrees Celsius – the energy which drives a turbine. The resultant 50 MW is sold to Eskom on a 20-year ‘the public pays pay more for it‘ deal. For the purists the plant covers 140 hectares, boasts a tower some 205m high, utilises 4000 heliostats covering 575 000 square meters of mirror surface & is a first for Africa.

Hardly impressive, really. Kids have used similar technology [ie: the sun & a magnifying glass], for eons & with some success. Ask the ants.

KSO was developed by Abengoa, a Spanish company; the very same company which initiated insolvency proceedings in 2015.

Handed to & owned by Khi Solar One (PTY)Ltd in 2015, an entity, in turn, owned by Abengoa (*51%), the IDC (29%) and the local community in their Khi Community Trust (20%), KSO is the first tower plant in Afrique to operate around the clock on solar energy only – a bold claim.

Goodie-gumdrops & a boon for the Spanish Empire. 

BTW. in 2014 a crane ‘accident’ killed 2 & injured more; blood & tears the playthings of power-brokers. Unrelated, but equally snazzy, is a Johannesburg civils group nobody’s ever heard of / from before. Here’s the fun bit – this same entity utilises a gmail address for official business; a frugal exercise, … obviously.

KaXu Solar One, situated 40 km NE of Pofadder & built away from the public eye; is owned by the same entities involved at KSO with one exception [a different community – ie: a different trust]. It’s the largest solar plant of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. A 100 MW [not really] of concentrated solar power [CSP] is on record. KaXu’s specs mirror those employed at KSO but are operated on a lager scale. There are, however, some interesting departures at KaXu. The mirror surfaces are parabolic ie: fancier, more expensive; and most obviously, there’s no pot-o-water overhead.

Are these plants long-lived? They don’t appear to be. Muerto by 2035 we’re told.  Eviva España!

What of the price tag you say? KaXu sets us back an estimated $900m & was financed offshore, mostly; although some scraps were offered to local entities incl. Firstrand & Nedbank. Abeinsa, owned by Abengoa, was responsible for the construction of the plant. At $10m per MW Spain must be thrilled. For context, the South African renewable energy target for 2030 is 17800 MW…    [KaXu + KSO] = 150 MW. We’re a little short, I think…

On the plus side, the EIA was conducted by Savannah, a Johannesburg company – & wholly-owned by women. This then girl-power at its best [I know…]

Once the shock had worn off, we continued eastwards & powered down for the night, under open skies, at the Witsand Nature Reserve – ‘home of (the) … Kalahari sands‘.

There are few, if any, more aesthetically appealing vistas in all of South Africa than those on offer in & around Witsand. Trust me.


More in the next…


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