Calvinia’s roadside adventures and charming respite

Delve into the journey of resilience, local character, and the surprising hospitality of this small South African town.


My first memories of Calvinia in the Northern Cape are not happy ones. I arrived in town after dark on a Saturday after limping 100km and more across the Tankwa Karoo in a R1.8 million SUV that was equipped with a “Marie Biscuit” spare tyre, one monster Bridgestone with which it came fitted having acquired a vicious slash along its side.

It’s not for nothing that the R355 (stretching 250km from Ceres to Calvinia, is the longest dirt road in South Africa without town, petrol station or cellphone reception) is known as the “Death to Tyres Road”.

The shreds of rubber that litter its entire length are grim testament to the razor-sharp rocks that lie in ambush for even the wariest driver. The first thing I saw on entering Calvinia was a tyre fitment centre.

It was closed and in desperation rather than real hope, I dialled the after-hours number. A very grumpy voice answered. I told him my problem and said I had to be in Keimoes the next day. Could he help? “You’re lucky the Springboks are playing so k*k. I’ll be right down,” he said.

Small stylish car. Picture: Jim Freeman
Small stylish car. Picture: Jim Freeman

A small town’s ingenuity shines

The funny thing about people in small towns is that they are generally able to make a plan in the face of the absurdist adversities. “Yes, we can fix it,” he said after arriving with a handlanger on the back of his bakkie, “but it will take a couple of hours and it will cost about a grand.” I did what any dispirited desertcrosser would do in the circumstances… I headed for the bar at the Calvinia Hotel.

Things got a lot cheerier and I booked in for the night. The same hotel (and bar) saw me again one Sunday a few months ago, this time from choice rather than circumstance. My friend Peter and I were in a much more humble (but oh so stylish!) Fiat 500X.

So we avoided the R355 and approached Calvinia from Vanrhynsdorp, stopping only for a couple of cold ones at the Bagdad Café at the foot of the Hantam escarpment. The Calvinia Hotel, a member of the Country Hotels group, offers 24 large air-conditioned and en-suite rooms.

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Embracing change amid industrial shifts

These were in the final stages of modernisation when we arrived and renovations should be complete by now. We’d arranged to interview the the local newspaper at his printing shop early the next morning. There was no chance of us oversleeping; dawn was not even a glimmer in night’s eyes when trucks started rumbling past.

I learned later that the closure of the Sishen-Saldanha railway line had resulted in a vast flotilla of massive trucks with additional trailers ferrying ore from the Northern Cape mine to the export harbour on the West Coast. Many of the trucks were registered in Mpumalanga, I was told because that’s where the fewest questions were asked of their owners.

Calvinia's Postbox. Picture: Jim Freeman
Calvinia’s Postbox. Picture: Jim Freeman

From gigantic postboxes to unexpected eateries

My repose rudely interrupted, I got up for a sightseeing walk before breakfast. Calvinia has little history to speak of. It was born, grew up and continues to serve the needs of the local wool and mutton-farming community. That is not to say, however, that the town is lacking in charm and quirkiness. For instance, right next to the obligatory Dutch Reformed Church is a structure billed as the world’s biggest postbox.

It used to be a working feature until the effective demise of the Post Office. Across the road is the Morris Café, so named because of the green and gleaming Morris Minor parked out in front. The only jarring note – apart from the greeting hoots by oreladen trucks to one another – came from a sign pointing the way to Tarantula Self-catering.

Owner Frans Botha is a bit bemused by the fuss. “It’s just a name taken from a popular song some years ago,” he smiles. No, there are no spiders. The Tarantula Guest House carries a four-star tourism grading and is one of the most popular accommodation facilities in town.

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