Oasis on SA’s ‘Death to Tyres’ road

The road is famous for its treacherous terrain, earning it the moniker "Death to Tyres" due to its sharp shale and corrugation.

This place, I told my driving buddies as we waited for our lunchtime burgers to arrive, holds some fond memories… though for all the wrong reasons. “This place” was the Tankwa Padstal, a legendary oasis on the R355 that arrows through the Western Cape’s Hantam Karoo from Ceres to Calvinia. Not only is the R355 the longest gravel thoroughfare in South Africa, it also carries the reputation as being the “Death to Tyres” road because of its corrugation and the razor-sharp shale that covers most of its 295km length.

The accuracy of its reputation can be attested to by countless travellers and visitors to the annual Afrika Burn gathering. I, too, have been its victim; nogal on both the first and second times I drove it. The first was a Saturday afternoon in mid-summer a few years ago. It was the first leg of a marathon trip in a Mercedes Benz GLS SUV from Stellenbosch to the Augrabies National Park in the Northern Cape.

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A roadside misadventure on the way to Calvinia

Everything was going smoothly, though the day was hot as a bastard, and I pulled into the Tankwa Padstal for a refreshing drink, knowing that my first overnight stop was Calvinia, a mere 105km away. Crucially, I discovered the place had Wi-Fi. There is no cellphone reception anywhere in the Hantam. One of the massive Merc’s front tyres blew out when I bottomed out in an unnoticed streambed at Shredded and ripped off Berlin TRAVEL Destination next page 4 Zipping into action speed 20km up the road.

Picture: Jonathan Crawford/Jim Freeman

Horror of horrors, I found the spare was a “Marie Biscuit”, one of those joke tyres designed to get you no further than 10km on a perfect German road surface. It was well after sunset when I crawled, chastened and shaken, into Calvinia. Luckily I was able to persuade the local Hi-Q owner to open up and effect the repairs and fitment. The plan for the return journey was to stick to the tarred N27 all the way from Upington to Vanrhynsdorp where I would join the N7 and have an easy run home. I made good time and it was only lunchtime when I spotted the roadsign saying “R355 Ceres”.

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Stranded on R355 with Flat Tyres

What were the chances of lightning striking twice, I asked myself and, with more balls than brains, took the road a second time. I’d made it about 50km when the tyre-pressure warning light came on. Out came the dreaded “Marie Biscuit”. Even driving at the proverbial snail’s pace, it lasted only 20km before it totally shredded. I was still more than 30km from Tankwa Padstal and stranded with no way to call for help.

Might I add that the R355 carries very little traffic and only one vehicle passed in the next two hours. The second – it was now around 4.30pm – was a farmer in a bakkie. He stopped. He made some caustic comments about the intelligence of people driving the “Death to Tyres” road on ultra-low profiles before jamming a few emergency repair plugs into the first tyre and reinflating it with his portable air compressor.

Picture: Jonathan Crawford/Jim Freeman

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Challenges on a journey to Padstal

By now I knew I had to make it to the Padstal from where I could call for help. I drove very, very slowly. Three kilometres out, the warning light came on again. First yellow then, too quickly for my liking, red. I limped up to the gate of the Padstal in pitch dark. It was shut. Fortunately I found a spot where the Wi-Fi still worked and I was able to place a call. A flatbed recovery truck from De Doorns arrived well after midnight. We loaded the Mercedes and set out for “home”.

Naturally, we had a puncture: that made it four in 14 hours. By the way, don’t order anything to eat at Tankwa Padstal. The so-called “UFO Cheeseburger” was inedible and a total rip-off at R160. Guess that’s what happens when there’s no competition for hundreds of kilometres in every direction.

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