DeZeekoe in Oudtshoorn

Heat shimmers in waves off the tar, the air is as dry as ostrich biltong and smells faintly of the fynbos that thrives on either side of the road in the rich rust coloured earth. Mountains frame the views in distant washed out greys and the land changes to shades of green as we turn off to De Zeekoe.

DEZEEKOE TREE DI BROWN

This luxury accommodation is on a working farm on the R328, just ten kilometers outside of Oudtshoorn .  It is far enough to get the rural feeling but a five minute drive will get you into town so it really offers the best of both worlds.

Farm life

De Zeekoe has three separate areas offering accommodation to cater for different needs. The luxury suites are at the main reception next to the restaurant and pool flanked by a true Karoo wind pump, play area and fire pit.

DEZEEKOE FIRE PIT DI BROWN

At the top of the hill are the self catering stone cottages offering privacy and views forever and down in the dip are the rustic wooden chalets overlooking the dam.

DEZEEKOE ROADS DI BROWN

Bellowing cows joined the dawn chorus and sunrise called my name. The tick tick of the huge water sprayers drew me like a magnet pulling me in for an unplanned shower, and the horses in the field laughed.

sprinklers early DeZeekoe morning DiBrown

The colours are on steroids and I have to drag myself away to go for breakfast.

DeZeekoe farm machinery Di Brown

This huge digger passes me on the farm path. There is something very sexy about these giant working vehicles.

DeZeekoe farm living Di Brown

The farm is already busy with farmy type activities as I wander back to my room to shower, dress and head off for food.

SMITSWINKEL FRONT DI BROWN

Fed and well coffeed up, it’s time to visit some locally recommended places and Die Smitswinkel is the first stop. The interior is a great collection of #Karoomobilia, I just quickly made up that word, but think of little wind pumps, mugs, keyrings, meerkats, carpets, clothing and of course food, all made in true Karoo style or depicting something iconic from the area.

OWL SMITSWINKEL DI BROWN

Good for an hours browsing at least.

SMITSWINKEL SHOP DI BROWN

Then  go out the back and top up with some more coffee, this time from Blacksmith, the roasters with heart. Called the Blacksmith Coffee Movement,  it’s about making fantastic coffee with a good conscience. Fair trade principles are adhered to, and the Barista Upliftment Program offers real hope and opportunities for the youth. Please go and look at their website, buy their coffee and drink some goodness.

BLACKSMITH COFFEE DI BROWN

Oudtshoorn is a perfect starting point for a circular drive you will never forget. You need an early start and a whole day to really enjoy this, and probably the next two days to return to your favourite finds.

Some highlights of this route include R328. Known as the Cango Route, there are plenty of attractions on the 50km you travel before reaching the start of the mighty Swartberg Pass. Olive estates, Karusa Winery and Tapas, Kobus se Gat country pub, Wilgewandel Holiday Farm and Bella Mia Olives and Pottery to name just a few.

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Plan a day or three to visit and explore the fine wines and ports from the Klein Karoo Wine Route.

Take your time as you navigate the Swartberg Pass, stop at the viewing points and marvel at the genius engineering of Thomas Bain. The building of the pass was completed in 1886 and used only by carts and wagons. The first time a car  traversed the pass was in 1904.

swartberg pass views Di Brown

These views have to be photographed somehow, and I was forced by Anje to resort to extreme measures to get the shots I wanted.

ROOFTOP DI BROWN

We left too late to do the whole route and after passing signs telling us that the road might be closed we passed a lorry coming the other way who said we could continue. We got totally side tracked by the burned veld and the proteas that survived, that we never made it to the top.

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flower Di Brown

Burned proteas Swartberg pass Di Brown

Earlier in the year when I planned to drive this amazing pass, a short way up, this happened and the pass was closed. Maybe next time 😦

OVERTURNED TRUCK ON SWARTBERG PASS DI BROWN

On completing the drive over the pass, you can either carry on for about 10km to the town of Prince Albert, well worth a visit, or turn right onto the R407, continue on to the N12 and drive along the prettiest pass in South Africa, the Meiringspoort Pass.

This will take you into De Rust. Visit the Village Art Scene, enjoy a donkey cart ride, and do not miss the Doornkraal winery just out of town or Mons Ruber  directly opposite. Pot stilled brandy, witblits and entertaining conversation await you. From there a drive of 25km will take you back into Oudtshoorn.

Curious ostriches come to say hi, or buzz off from their home on the lower slopes of the Swartberg Pass.

Hello ostrich Swartberg Di Brown

Driving back into De Zeekoe the dipping sun got our attention and the race was on to find the best spot for some pics.

DeZeekoe road Di Brown

DeZeekoe river sunset Di Brown

We raced around the farm like lunatics, stopping to gasp, click and do another 360 scan before we finally settled at the river.

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Joggers and cyclists passed us as we sat here in awe.

DeZeekoe irrigation Di Brown

We waited until the very end, silent, humbled by the show that the Karoo sky put on.

The next night we went to the dam and were rewarded again with a spectacular show.

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The only sounds are the birds and the frogs and the click of a camera.

 

DeZeekoe sunset over dam Di Brown

DeZeekoe dam sunset Di Brown

DeZeekoe is a nature lover and photographer’s dream.

An activity not too miss is a Meerkat Encounter on the property. Ethical, incredible and discounted to DeZeekoe guests, you can read about my experience here.

When just sitting is an adventure. The meerkats at De Zeekoe Reserve.

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The ground crunches icily as I stomp my feet, and my hands ache when the warmth from the mug of hot chocolate restores some feeling. The greens and orangey reds of the landscape are just starting to show as the sun prepares to break the horizon. Looking up I see clouds as the sky starts to lighten.

Apart from the chattering of teeth it is silent, the birds should be chirping but I think they probably froze to death in the trees last night. It is minus 2 degrees and I am so cold I could cry.

 Welcome to Oudtshoorn in winter.

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This path leads to the the other side of the ridge on the right where we walked to observe the meerkats

I am standing with our guides Dolf and Jaco, and seven other people in a clearing on the De Zeekoe Reserve, getting ready for our meerkat encounter.

The briefing for the meerkat encounter is short and sweet.

 You may talk, you may take photos. You may not get out of your chair, or make any big movements.

You will do exactly what the guide tells you to do, or you will be escorted away from the site.

You are not the number one priority, the meerkats are. We are on their turf.

Every evening before sunset, Devey, Dolf or Jaco from Meerkat Adventures go to the De Zeekoe Reserve to see where the meerkats are bedding down for the night. Meerkats are nomadic squatters, not known for their domestic skills so when their house is really dirty, they just move, usually to the burrows made by other creatures in the veld. As they are in the habit of urinating and defecating where they sleep, they usually move home every few days. This gives the vacated home a chance to air, beetles come and eat the faeces, the fleas and parasites die off, and the house essentially cleans itself.

The experience

We are each given a folding chair and a blanket and we start the 1 km walk to where the meerkat family bedded down last night. The walk is easy and warms us up a bit, then we get to the site and arrange our chairs about 10 meters away from what looks like a few small sandy areas in the fynbos.

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This is the view from our chairs as we sat and waited for the meerkats to make an appearance.

Now we sit and wait.

The meerkats will not emerge from their warm, smelly burrow until the sun is shining. While we wait, looking miserably at the clouds blocking the sun, and getting colder and colder, our guide and meerkat lover Dolf tells us about these suricates, how they live and why there should be no human interaction with them. His stories and observations are educational, funny and very interesting.

After almost an hour of sitting shivering we are thrilled when a head pops up and a meerkat emerges. He stands, has a scratch, looks around and disappears back down into the burrow.

We are hoping he is going to wake up the rest of the family but apparently he has decided it is not sunny enough to warrant getting up, and has gone back to bed.

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Checking out the weather, and deciding it is still too cold to start the day

Eventually, about an hour later, one by one the family emerges. The sun has broken through the clouds, and we watch their antics with delight.

They scratch, they sniff one another and they stand up straight facing the sun. The darker patch of fur on their bellies acts as a solar panel and warms up their internal organs.  They do this until they feel energetic enough to head off into the veld to find food. This is important, and not to be confused with idle sunbathing.

One meerkat is on guard duty. He finds the highest point in the immediate area, stands up, his body is dead still but his head is moving continuously, watching for danger. He leans slightly backwards, the tail locks and bears most of his weight, his feet touching the ground only for balance.

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This one has been allocated guard duty for the morning

We have the privilege of watching the meerkats for about an hour and a half. The younger ones play, running, rolling and chasing each other in between stopping to scratch furiously as meerkats are flea magnets. Sometimes they huddle together to present a larger united front against a potential threat, like a bird flying overhead, or they sit and groom each other until one gets bored and runs off to play.

The older ones look on, and find a good place to stand and soak up some sunbeams. They chatter and look around, not paying any attention to us at all.

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Some take a little longer to wake up

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Look, it’s something!

Finally one by one they start to move, walking within a meter of where we are sitting. A few stop for a minute or two to stare at us, and then carry on. We watch as they disappear into the veld to find breakfast.

When the last one has disappeared from our sight, we pack up our chairs, roll up our blankets, and stretch our now frozen bodies to restore circulation before we start the walk back to our cars.

Meerkat lifestyle.

Meerkats live in family units, mom, dad and a couple of kids. They do not recognise one another by sight though, they rely on smell. Each family has its own unique scent, and to be accepted in the family territory, you have to smell right. Part of the morning ritual is urinating and rubbing on all the family members, marking them as OK.

Incest is frowned upon in meerkat land , so when the young meerkats reach the age of sexual maturity they are banished from the family and have to go off and find a wife and create their own meerkat colony.

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Am I not the most beautiful meerkat you have ever seen?

Dolf tells us a story about a teenage female from this family. A male from a nearby colony was on the hunt for a wife.  He got the attention of the young girl and persuaded her to go off with him for the night.

Maybe he was not Mr Right for her, or perhaps she was just having a moment of teenage rebellion and had not wanted to leave her family yet, whatever her reasons, she returned home the following morning.

Unfortunately, when she joined in for the morning sniffing ritual, she did not have the correct smell. She now carried the scent of her boyfriend.  The family tried to chase her away, but being a stubborn girl she wanted to stay.

The meerkats perceived her as a threat to their colony and they killed her. Her head was found meters away from the rest of her body.

This sounds like an extreme punishment for slutty teenage behaviour if we allow ourselves to humanise these creatures. It is easy to forget that they are nothing like us. Their actions were not extreme; they acted on instincts that are hardwired into them, and crucial for their survival.

Habituation

These meerkats have been habituated to seeing and hearing human beings.

Devey Glinister, the founder of Meerkat Adventures, started by going into the veld and sitting on a chair 100 meters away from the meerkats. He would talk, sing and shout and when he ran out of things to say he would read aloud from books. He gradually decreased the distance between him and the meerkats as they became accustomed to him and accepted that he would not interfere with them and posed no threat to their family.

He did this for a few hours every morning and every evening for over a year, before he brought the first group of visitors to see these comical creatures.

At no time has he touched, fed or interacted with the meerkats.

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Move up

Meerkats that have been separated from their colony and interacted with humans can never be reintroduced to the wild. They would be killed by the first wild meerkats they encountered as they would not have the correct scent to be accepted into the group.

To book a meerkat adventure go to www.meerkatadventures.co.za

The cost is R550 per person.

Visitors staying at the De Zeekoe Guest Farm pay a reduced rate of R450.

The guides are experts in these particular meerkats and can answer all your questions about the habits and rituals of this colony. They have never ending stories to tell as well as extensive knowledge of all the other small animals, birds and vegetation in this little piece of the Karoo.

They are totally committed to preserving both the meerkats and their natural environment.

Please think before you book any experience with wild animals.

I would love to walk with elephants, pat a cheetah, feed a lion cub and interact with any young animal, but I won’t.

In too many cases, where there is any human interaction involved, it means the animals have been trained, fed, confined and dominated. Many animals endure extreme cruelty as they fight against the unnatural behaviour they are being forced into. Wild animals should never, ever be trained.

None of this is fun for the animals.

Please also think about what happens to the cute baby elephant or lion cub when it is too big, or no longer cute enough to be cuddled. It has no skills to cope in the wild, so the chances are it is sold to the canned hunting industry, or used to breed the next batch of cuties to entertain humans.

It is unreasonable to expect the equivalent of a NatGeo experience that took months to film, in the half day you have allocated, and in my experience, wild animals are just not into selfies.

There is a far greater sense of achievement going into a reserve with a trained guide and the hope and anticipation of what you might see. Wild animals doing what comes naturally on their own turf is a very humbling experience. Often, when you have to work  to earn the privilege, the experience is so much richer.

If you would like to learn more about the sad and harsh reality behind animal interactions, search these tags on any social media platforms.  #BloodLions   #BredForTheBullet  or go to https://twitter.com/Blood_Lions 

Please help us to end the demand for animal interactions by sharing, educating and spreading the word.

48 hours in the Northern Cape

Endless horizons that fill your eyes and sear your soul.

A land of space, and time, and air.

In the words of Minister Derek Hanekom

“Northern Cape is a place of extremes”

As the largest province in South Africa it is extremely big covering more than 360 000 square kilometres

Desert, plains, rivers, pans and 6 National Parks.

Extreme weather with temperatures ranging from  -5 C to over 40C

KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER NATIONAL PARK

It is 6am and I am shivering in a desert. The sky is blue and the sun is rising but I feel like I am sitting on an iceberg.

While we wrap scarves around our heads, Rob our ranger drives  happily in his shorts! They breed em tough out here!

We are driving in South Africa but looking at Botswana as we leave the office at  Twee Rivieren.

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We stop to examine the huge sociable weaver nests that almost take over the acacia trees, appearing to break them in half as the weight becomes too much.

Not true says Rob. In the fork of these trees messy little creatures called Tree mice make their nests. Being too lazy to get up and go to the loo, they wee in the nest.

The high acidity in their urine rots the tree causing it to split and collapse. Personal hygiene is not one of their strong points.

A little further on and Rob points out a solitary male lion jogging along the old road.

He stops from time to time to sniff a tree, rub himself on the bark before urinating, marking his territory.

We chugged alongside this arrogant guy for a good 20 minutes, all eyes on him, while he never even gave us a look.

It seems he has really adopted the mantle of King of the Bush and does not have the time for a glance at mere humans.

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A Secretary bird strides out, looking extremely fierce and bad tempered.

They walk on the ground looking for snakes, and when they see them, they stomp  them to death before eating them whole.

Bigger than I imagined and not graceful in their beauty, these Secretary birds are like scruffy gangsters . I would not fancy meeting one of them in a dark alley!

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Did you know?

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park covers 1,6 million square kilometres and is totally self sustaining.

The only man made intervention are the waterholes.

Kgalagadi means Place of Pans.

It is not actually a desert, more of a giant sand pit  is how Rob the ranger describes it.

It is a huge sand mass the begins way up in the dunes in Namibia and extends into Botswana and the Northern Cape.

Visit the Face Book page for updated sightings. https://af-za.facebook.com/LatestSightingsKgalagadi

MEERKATS and WINDMILLS

Meet Prof Anne Rasa.

Mother to orphaned Meerkat, passionate about her Kalahari and devoted advocate of the little guys and the fine details.

Her desert haven is situated on the R360 about 30km before the entrance to the Kalagadi Transfrontier Park. Do stop, it is well worth it.

The Prof tells us that she believes one must walk in the Kalahari to truly know it. She offers night walks where she shows the bustling nightlife of the desert.

Beetles and spiders, scorpions and bugs, explained by a tracker and a biologist.

Day walks and drives are also offered , and the Prof is enthusiastic about educating young children about the area. From the geology and plants to the meerkats and the bugs.

The Prof is inspiring and as she talks and wanders around her piece of desert her passion is evident.

Although she was born and raised in Wales, there is no doubt that the Kalahari is where she belongs. She is one with this landscape.

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Sadly for us, but happily for the Meerkats, Anne had no orphans when we visited. When she speaks about these beguiling creatures her face softens and she sounds like a proud mum.

They are human and comical in their interactions. She tells us stories of brothers and sisters, eloping couples,the birth of babies, fights and leaving home with such animation that you forget she is talking of Meerkats and not family.

The female meerkats have their babies and then pretty much carry on with life, leaving a babysitter from the group to care for the little ones. The mum does manage to fit in suckleing, but that is it.

Visit the Face Book page for more info  and do take time to read more about the meerkats and their stories here. http://www.kalahari-trails.co.za/en/

Annes trail costs are incredibly reasonable and I will be returning for a few days to learn about her Kalahari.

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HAKSTEENPAN

Haksteenpan,   This is only a small piece of it! The next jewel in the Northern Cape crown

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It is becoming well known as it is the site where in 2015 the Bloodhound Team aim to break the World Land Speed record by attempting to travel at 1600km/ph over a 20km track.

More info on the  World Record attempt here.
 http://www.bloodhoundssc.com/project/adventure/desert-race-track/hakskeen-pan

It is the location for Speedweek Kalahari that sees petrolheads from all over coming to put foot, have fun and not worry about noise bothering the neighbours.

Haksteenpan is really in the middle of nowhere. The closest settlement is Rietfontein, 60km away.

For more information on  Kalahari  http://speedweeksa.com/

https://www.facebook.com/KalahariDesertSpeedweek?ref=br_tf

10603877_558268904273980_3194366821722029327_oMedia Team 1 jumping in the desert to try to stay warm, strange at that may seem.

Being a mapmaker, I had to look it up on satellite imagary.
The 7km track used by Speedweek Kalahari   is clearly visible.

My measurements estimate the pan at about 21,4km in length end to end, and 8,4km at the widest point.

What the photos can not describe is the unique beauty of this landscape that becomes more interesting the longer you are there.

Malibongwe Tyilo and I spent a fair amount of time in the impressive MTN Media Centre, backed by a huge tower and a 150kw power plant, especially built for the World record attempt next year.

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Haaksteenpan was also the location for the WTM2014 celebrations.

Minister Hanekom, the Northern Cape MEC, tourism bigwigs, and representatives from the other provinces arrived en masse at Haksteenpan.

Locals came in their droves to party the day and night away, while others set up stalls to feed the party people.

The massive stage was jumping with DJ’s, singers, dancers and bands rocking the desert.

Derek Hanekom even managed a wiggle or two before his address.

The food and wine flowed, the smiles were huge, the chatter was loud and this party was on!

And then the sun went down. It went orange, then pink, then grey and then B L A C K

I have never experienced such total darkness before. The nearest town, which is tiny, is 60km away, there is no light pollution at all.
Although the visible stars are abundant and clear, the blackness is all encompassing.

It makes you walk in a really peculiar manner as you have no concept of when your feet are going to connect with the ground. Could this be the start of a new condition, the “Haksteen Hobble”?

Nothing could have prepared me for the creative drama that followed dinner. Orchestrated by Witch and Wizard, the light and sound show was astounding.

Entitled  “The Desert comes Alive” this magical show had the crowds screaming in awe.

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A videographer is bathed in luminous green as he captures this spectacle on camera

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To end off, fireworks burst high in the sky and go on for a spellbinding 15 minutes.

SA Tourism and Northern Cape showed us that that know how to celebrate in style.

The name Haksteenpan is synonymous with Speedweek Kalahari, but by next year it will be a name known all over the world.

Northern Cape tourism have embraced this opportunity to showcase their province and have already been commended by Bloodhound for their support and co operation.

Thanks to all at Northern Cape Tourism for organising, hosting and showing off . Special mention must go to Desti van der Merwe who acted as our guide,  George our tireless driver who took us safely over 600km in 48 hours, Minister Hanekom for the awesome giraffe selfie, and of course for being so inspiring and exited about tourism,  and Debbie Damant for everything else.

#Shotleft

For more information on the Northern Cape visit www.experiencenortherncape.com

Some highlights include:  Birds, meerkats, beetles and scorpions

The Augrabies Falls and the Roaring Sand Dunes

The SALT Telescope, extreme adrenalin adventures and the Big 5

The Orange River wine route, the Big Hole in Kimberley.