We landed at the Cape Town airport in the early evening after a breathtaking view of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean, the silhouettes of familiar mountains and the lights of a city that had resigned itself to the onset of darkness. Getting through immigrations wasn’t quite as easy as it should have been, because fingerprints were required of all my ten fingers, and I have only nine and a half. Digital processing (pun intended ๐Ÿ™‚ ) was therefore not possible, but I was escorted to another officer who processed my request to enter the country ‘the old way’ and dutifully stamped my passport. Feeling hungry, we then went to look for something to eat. We found only a handful of fast-food outlets and had a perfectly horrible meal at a place called ‘Steers’. After that, things were to get much, much better.

Cape Town, of course, is known for its excellent restaurants and nearby vineyards. We visited some of both over the next few days and became very happy people.

Lunch near Franschhoek

After those initial days in Cape Town we went to pick up the first of two vehicles that we had booked, a Nissan ‘bakkie’, converted into a 4×4 camping vehicle, which turned out to be a Toyota Hilux, just as well. We spent the rest of the day shopping for groceries and a few useful things, such as a lantern, a collapsible bucket, a bird guide. The next day, we took the Hilux to a 4×4 training area, where Trevor Knutsen taught us the basics of driving on sand, mud, gravel and rocks, as well as how to tackle steep inclines, choose a line on treacherous trails, and what to do when things don’t go as planned. With that knowledge and those skills acquired, we felt ready to drive off into the African bush.

We headed north-east and camped shortly before Ceres, and learned our first lessons. Like: you don’t leave any part of the car open and you don’t both sit with your back turned to it, not even to enjoy the setting sun. If you do, you may find that those cheeky baboons (bobbejane in Afrikaans) that ran right past you on their way to somewhere else have come back and raided your supplies without making a sound.

The following day, we reached what would be an undisputed highlight of our trip through South-Africa: Tankwa Karoo National Park.

Our first night in Tankwa Karoo NP

And the next morning.

South Africa has many National Parks, of which the Kruger is undoubtedly the most famous. What made the Tankwa special for us was theย  fact that it has a few spots where camping in the wild is allowed, and besides that, it is remote and much less visited than the Kruger. We were alone, we did not feel we had to tick off the obligatory ‘big five’, it was perfect. We followed a 4×4 trail to reach our first camp in the park by late afternoon, folded out the rooftop tents, poured ourselves a glass of wine, listened to the birds and contemplated. This is not something you just do, it needs some settling into. We were going to get plenty of practice.

What followed was unforgettable. The day came to an end. Even as it touched the horizon, the setting sun was too bright to look into. Jupiter was the first ‘star’ to become visible, then came Sirius and Canopus, the Southern Cross and its pointer stars. While the birds still skitted around us, the western sky took on a blood-red colour, darkening by the minute. Low above the horizon, the familiar shape of Orion appeared.

A cold wind started dropping down from the surrounding hills. We became aware of the sounds around us – there were none. We stopped talking and listened, just listened. Perfect silence. More stars appeared, until the Milky Way left us absolutely speechless. The cold wind became periodic, then sporadic. It seemed to want to stop, but it would later come back to rage all night and make our tents shake violently. By sunrise, it would die down to a lull once more.

Second camp in the Tankwa.

We would drive through the park the next day, spot many animals we had never even heard of, set up camp in a different location and once again do lots of contemplating. We would travel on to visit the Karoo National Park, which draws much more visitors and which, precisely for that reason, impressive though it was, would not end up on our list ofย  favourites. We would continue east to Graaff-Reinet and the Camdeboo NP, and yes, this did come in second after the Tankwa. Ah, the Tankwa…

The town of Graaff-Reinet is on the left, with Spandaukop on the right.

Charlotte overlooking the poetically named ‘Valley of desolation’ near Graaff-Reinet.

After the National Parks, the animals, and long drives through a stunningly beautiful country, we found ourselves in Ladybrand, near the border with Lesotho and its capital Maseru. We didn’t know it yet, but Lesotho was going to be a very different experience. To be continued…

(Here are some of the animals we encountered. Charlotte took most of the animal shots).

Steenbok.

Gemsbok

Greater Kudu.

Springbok.

Cape Mountain Zebra. Nearly extinct a hundred years ago, now numbers are growing thanks to conservation efforts.

Klipspringer.

Red Hartebeest.

Common Eland.

Rock Hyrax (klipdassie in Afrikaans)

Blesbok.

Crag Lizard.

Flamingo.

White-backed Mousebird.

This Cape Bunting and…

…this Bokmakierie kept us company during our first evening and morning in the Tankwa.