There’s a saying in Scotland that sometimes the road less travelled is travelled less for good reason.
Philosophically, this dictum suggests that taking a specific course of action imparts no benefit or could even cause harm. In a travel context, it might simply mean there’s bugger-all at the end of the road and little worth seeing along the way.
So, it would seem at first glance, is the case with the road heading into the northern part of the intriguingly named Moordenaar’s Karoo* (Murderer’s Karoo) which straddles the N1 in the Western Cape and enfolds Laingsburg.
How could anyone who loves exploring South Africa NOT want to discover what the Moordenaars Karoo is about? Is it worth travelling 240km from Cape Town to find out?
If you are the sort of traveller who demands luxury and a reliable mobile connection, a trip to the Moordenaars is not for you. Ditto if you need other people for stimulation.
In that sense, the Moordenaars Karoo is not a destination in itself simply because the only accommodation of note in the region is the Lord Milner at Matjiesfontein about 30km from Laingsburg, a dorpie whose sole claim to fame is that it was devastated by floods in 1981.
Picture: Jim Freeman
Pretty much the only places to stay are farmhouses that offer basic lodging over the internet and whatever the Laingsburg tourism office is able to organise on your behalf. Also, with farms ranging in size up to and beyond 30,000 hectares, don’t expect to meet large numbers of fellow travellers each evening at the braai boma.
You’ll be lucky if your “hosts” are in residence; in my case, the farm foreman only pitched up the next morning to turn on the water and gas. However, if you revelled in the isolation of lockdown and your idea of heaven is more of the same but only in a different setting, a trip down (or up) the N1 could be just the thing to get your spiritual motor running.
If you’re extremely lucky, you might persuade farmer David Luscombe to open the gates of Faberskraal and guide you to some of the most perplexing structures in the entire Karoo.
I’m a sucker for bleak landscapes and Moordenaar’s has been on my bucket list for decades (if only to say “yip, been there”). Finally, a fortnight ago, I had reason to take one of the back roads to Sutherland.
As a youngster, I was captivated by Wilbur Smith’s novel Sunbird, which imagined that survivors of the fall of Carthage fled by sea to present-day Southern Africa and create a pre-colonial “European civilisation”.
Maverick historian Dr Cyril Hromnik postulates that, in reality, Indian traders left their part of the world 1,000 years ago and more seeking gold (without which no Indian marriage of note could take place and which was not mined significantly on that sub-continent).
They landed in Mozambique and trekked to the “Komatiland” of Sir Percy FitzPatrick’s ken to become the original plunderers of gold in Mpumalanga. While there, says Dr Hromnik, they bred with Bushman women, giving rise to a new people – that shared physical characteristics of the Bushman but were considerably taller – called the Quena or Otentottu, later corrupted to “Hottentot”.
Although the Quena absorbed some of the Indians’ skills such as building and were assimilated into the Dravidian (the proper name for those ancient traders) culture, they remained nomadic and moved on with their flocks.
That they came this far south is beyond question, insists Czechborn Dr Hromnik, because of the Dravidian flavour of so many local words.
One example is the kareeboom whose name, he says, is derived from Kari, an important Otentottu god. Trident-wielding Kari patrolled the border between life and death while the gnarled karee with its trident-shaped leaves stands sentry along riverbeds throughout the Karoo.
Hromnik feels his greatest validation lies in the presence of several otherwise inexplicable structures on Faberskraal. All this he tells me while we’re sitting around a braai fire. He promises to show me the first of these the next morning and heads inside to bed.
It’s a day short of the longest night of the year and an icy wind is skittering over the veld but I’m sleeping outside under a pepper tree next to the fire pit.
There’s plenty of firewood, the boma is encircled by a windbreak comprising layers of compacted scrub and I have a bottle of KWV 10-year-old brandy for company. I climb into my sleeping bag and enjoy a nightcap in the eerie semi-silence … just a Baltic breeze soughing through the tree’s upper branches and the spit-hiss of the flames.
Life doesn’t get much better than this. It’s still dark when we set out and, though the site we’re visiting isn’t far away, it’s been a few years since the doctor was here last and he wants to make sure we find it before the sun comes up.
I’m thankful we’re in a suitable vehicle (Mahindra’s top-of-the-range Pik-Up S11 2.2-litre turbocharged bakkie – appropriately named the Karoo for the South African market) because some tricky off-road driving is required.
The day was just breaking when, in the middle of nowhere on the side of a slate and gorse-covered kopje, we arrived at a drystone wall … rocks stacked carefully atop one another for more than a hundred metres, a metre wide and up to a nearly two metres high in places. The rocks have been neither hewn nor shaped.
The edifice can have served absolutely no agricultural purpose (especially for a nomadic people) but people went to great effort to collect the rocks and erect the wall over a considerable period of time. Why?
Dr Hromnik says Dravidian religion was cosmology-based and temple structures were aligned with the stars, sun and points of the compass. He points out a hollowed rock (it alone appears to have been hewn) about 20m from the wall. This is where the “priest” would have stood and greeted the holy day, he maintains.
The four annual solstices and equinoxes were of particular significance in the alignment process. Faberskraal, he adds, is rife with sites of Dravidian religious relevance including caves used as temples and standing stones. I find myself really wanting to believe as the golden early morning light brightens.
If you’re not fortunate enough to see the mysterious structures, I still recommend taking in the Moordenaar’s Karoo as part of a multi-day road trip once lockdown ends. You’ll experience the harsh beauty of the region but there’re plenty of ancillary attractions to stave off possible boredom.
If your departure point is Cape Town, drive to Matjiesfontein and spend your first night in the historic hotel. Get up early the next morning and take the main road towards Sutherland (continue straight across the N1 from Matjiesfontein) for about 40km before turning right onto the gravel road that takes you back to Laingsburg.
Stop the car regularly, get out and walk around. Look to the horizons, look at the ground around your feet and listen for the small sounds. Pack a flask and take snacks.
You can transition into the southern part of Moordenaar’s from Laingsburg, driving through the spectacular Seweweekspoort (much loved by adventure bikers) before emerging on Route 62 between Calitzdorp and Ladismith.
Alternatively, continue up the N1 towards Beaufort West but turn off for at least one night in Prince Albert. From there you can take the Swartberg Pass to Gamkaskloof and Die Hel (you’ll need a 4×4) or continue to Calitzdorp.
For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.