Nestled in the triangle of Clanwilliam, Calvinia and the Tankwa Karoo (National Park) lies the Biedouw Valley. This valley stretches from the Cederberg Mountains to the R355 (that takes you from Inverdoorn Nature Reserve up to Calvinia).
At the confluence of the Doring and Biedouw rivers (and also the border of the Northern and Western Cape) you will find the little oasis of Uitspankraal. A cluster of buildings carved out of the landscape and home to Jai Yen Yen and the Madwaleni ‘watering hole’.
To get here you will need to do a fair amount of kilometres. It is about 1200 kilometres from Johannesburg, although only around five hours from Cape Town. If coming from the south you can choose between the efficient N7 or slightly more picturesque R44 which comes through Wellington and Porterville.
The Karoo Northern Cape Route
From the Northeast, I would prefer the N12 over Kimberley as opposed to swinging around Bloemfontein. From Kimberley, you enter the magic of the Karoo, with grand, expansive skies and open horizons. Hardly a tree interrupts the view and the road can be seen stretching out ahead for miles.
Distances on the R63 also morph into triple figures between settlements: Britstown, Carnarvon, and Williston are all very remote, looking a little sad and neglected.
Small towns! Towns with barely a church spire, an old (questionably open) hotel, a single fuel pump and a restaurant touting the best Karoo lamb in the land (also a highly questionable statement by our own experiences).
The isolation seems to increase the further you travel west. The vast open countryside unfolds endlessly with every cresting of a hill. Apart from the ever-present coal trucks, traffic has become just a word, the city a memory. Progress is sedate but persistent.
A local farmer’s bakkie flashes past on an urgent mission heading the other way. Perhaps to collect a couple of cows from a neighbour’s farm. A farm that could stretch for hundreds of square kilometres.
Rusty signs intermittently proclaim ominous names like Moedverloren or Kompromise and literally-labelled hamlets like Weltevrede, Halfpadrivier or Die Bos.
Just past Calvinia – which is quite a bustling agricultural town with a dramatic backdrop of the Hantam Berge – you take a left onto the R364. Depending on the rainfall, of course.
In the dry season, you can cut through on the R355, but the Doring River likes to force spontaneous changes in travel plans by flooding periodically, making the crossing impossible for anything short of an expedition-equipped Landcruiser.
And even then, in the really heavy rains, it rises to over a metre depth with a strong current that can sweep away even the most intrepid traveller.
The R364 comes up through the lovely Botterkloof Pass and the tiny village of Doringbos with its low concrete bridge that can also be impassable at times. A few valleys further on you will find the Englishman’s Grave. An innocuous little monument with a single gravestone under a tree which makes one wonder what the person did to warrant a special dedication.
Right here is where the R364 dirt road from Calvinia (which can present ruts and some muddy pools) meets up with the well-paved tar road coming from Clanwilliam over the Pakhuispas (another dramatic mountain pass). It is a rather strange alignment of road conditions, but this is where you turn left and head towards Wupperthal, continuing once more over an unnamed dirt road.
A flower carpet
At the right time of the year, you will encounter wildflower growth in these parts, where nature turns a beige and featureless landscape into a carpet of colour. Oranges, whites, blues and yellows stand out in stark contrast to the dry, dusty terrain.
This occurs during July and August in just the right conditions, and although you have been overwhelmed already by the austere countryside, this vivid display of rich colour grabs your attention.
It is a completely wild, natural and intensely colourful random event that is as powerful a display of Mother Nature’s boundless energy as anything man could hope to accomplish. You can’t help but look around at the remote challenging conditions and shake your head in wonderment.
The Biedouw Valley
About fifteen kilometres from the Englishman’s Grave the Biedouw Valley opens up beneath you. The kaleidoscope of flowers presents itself in the valley below, a striking contrast to the surrounding greyish, dusty outcrops.
Down in the valley is a road leading off to the left. It has a road sign that says Uitspankraal, with no other numbers, markings or indications. It is down this road that you will find the Biedouw Valley.
The valley stretches at least thirty-five kilometres, basically following the Biedouw River to the intersection of the Doring River. Along this length, there are half a dozen farms and a couple of farmhouses.
On either side, the hills rise silently watching over you as you pass by. Fields of multi-coloured flowers offer some rich tapestries and a scattering of low river crossings need to be traversed as the road switches back over the river.
Be aware, as the road has those sharp-edged little stones that like to pierce your tyres. The local advice is to lower your pressures to under two bars to combat this. Ignore this at your peril, as to my chagrin, I suffered two punctures within ten kilometres, forcing us to abandon the vehicle to procure a couple of replacements.
Fortunately, the local way of life includes fantastic neighbours where you can park your car overnight while you shoot through to Clanwilliam (quite the mission) with a two-hour journey down said dirt road and then through the Pakhuispas. At least the tyre dealer had some stock – I guess this isn’t unusual for them. Although you do pay a premium for the service. Fair dues.
At the end of the valley, you will find Kyle along with a fridge full of cold beer, a small pool in which to cool off and a couple of energetic Boerboels. The buildings are set right alongside the road just a stone’s throw from the river. There are a couple of trees here, unusually. These were planted not too long ago and form a welcome haven from the Karoo conditions.
Kyle – and his old man – run the place, offering a spot to chill after your long travels. The sign hanging over the pub says Madwaleni, which, in the literal sense, means: ‘Place of Rocks’, and an accurate description of the surrounding landscape. But on a deeper level it means:
You’re on your way, on your journey. You’re not there yet, but right now you’re exactly where you need to be (Madwaleni).
Jai Yen Yen
And that is the primary vibe here. Along with Jai Yen Yen. Which is a Buddhist saying that translates as ‘cool heart’.
“Jai” means “heart” – the organ which allows us to express our emotions, and “Yen”, designates freshness or calm.
So, essentially: relax, take it easy, chill. It is also used to cheer up someone as well. For example when you’re a little stressed from your dry and dusty travels and a long day behind the wheel, pull up and grab a rock to ‘park off’.
Depending on the water level, you may not be able to cross the Doring River on your way to Tankwa Karoo. So you have a couple of choices. If you’ve arrived on a bike, Kyle can help you across on the SAS ‘Wilde Hond’, a small ferry built out of a grid and a couple of large water barrels. This can be used to float your bike across the waist-deep water.
It isn’t large enough for a 4×4, so you might be forced to buy a couple of cold ones from Kyle’s fridge, and perhaps camp on the river’s edge waiting for the water level to allow passage. Or just kick back and enjoy the scenery.
And it is spectacular here. If you’ve been through the Karoo, you will know how open, empty and barren the landscape is. It is dry and unforgiving, hot and endlessly featureless.
But there is space here. A lot of it. Room to slow down, to hear the silence. To take your foot off the accelerator for a moment, or a little longer.
We’re back to basics here: some sunshine, a patch of shade, a beverage and the trickle of water as the river continues along its way, as it has done for centuries.
It’s a pretty special place. Type in ‘Uitspankraal’ on Google Maps and you’ll naturally find this little oasis. And it does literally mean that: ‘Uitspan’, which derives from the old days of the Great Trek when intrepid adventurers set out from the Cape into the hinterland in search of adventure, or perhaps a better life.
They would load all their possessions onto a wagon which would be drawn by oxen; dragging, sweating, and carving their way over the rocky hills and valleys. At the end of every day, they would unyoke (or ‘uitspan’) their cattle to graze, and after a week of hard driving, they would spend a couple of days in one area to rest and recover.
The oxen would be grazing far and wide until a young man was sent out to find and recover them, ready for the next leg of their journey. Uitspankraal is probably one of those regular stops those ox-wagons made through this part of the country, and the Biedouw valley in particular.
Right where you need to be
It is hard going out here, it’s a harsh environment with many rocks, river crossings and long days in the relentless sun. Perhaps not dissimilar to a modern-day 4×4 on a personal expedition to discover this amazing country.
The Biedouw Valley is off the beaten track, a little sidestep off the usual route. But that gives it its charm, its very attraction. A place to relax, take it easy and find yourself exactly where you need to be.