Our Hidden Gems

By Stef Terblanche


Our regular feature in which we explore some fascinating off-the-beaten-track places and unique experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.

Tankwa Karoo National Park …pure tranquillity, astonishing nature

Thousands of people fly over it weekly on the busy air shuttle route between Cape Town and Johannesburg, without realising what an absolute treasure lies in the veld far below them. About 3 to 4 hours’ drive from Cape Town, just east of the Cederberg Wilderness Area and northwest of Sutherland, lies the Tankwa Karoo, and at its centre the national park of the same name.

Many people have the misconception that the Karoo is just one big dusty plain with little to do or see, a place that you speed through as quickly as possible. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the entire Karoo is filled with nature’s abundant diversity of life and geology, history and culture. And the Tankwa Karoo and its national park is one of its true gems.

The Tankwa Karoo National Park, managed by SANParks, lies on the edge of the Great Karoo escarpment and comprises around 146,373 hectares. Here you will find a wondrous world of high biodiversity that switches between three ecosystems of pure dry desert, open grasslands and the Roggeveld Mountains in the east, from where the park derives much of its water. From August to mid-September, the park transforms itself into a wonderland of wildflowers.

It is home to some very unique little creatures that include lizards, tortoises, orb-web spiders, skinks, toktokkies and the cute little mongoose. Among its many larger inhabitants are aardvark, leopard, bat-eared fox, springbok, steenbok, kudu, grey rhebok and the black-backed jackal. The Khoisan people who lived here originally told the story that these jackals got their saddle-like black back when, in ancient times one of them offered to carry the sun on his back, with permanent consequences!

Since 2004 SANParks has been engaged in one of the largest single relocation projects of antelope into the Tankwa Karoo National Park, bringing in Cape mountain zebra, gemsbok, red hartebeest springbok and eland. The project was aimed at restoring large mammals as a key driver in maintaining the area’s biological diversity. The park is home to 780 plant species and still counting and has 187 bird species. Of the latter, 18 bird species are endemic and almost completely restricted to the region, making it an essential stop for any birdwatcher in South Africa.

To give some idea of how important this park is in the natural scheme of things, Tankwa Karoo National Park lies within the Succulent Karoo Biome. The Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot, the only arid region recognised as a hotspot, stretches along the Atlantic coast of Africa, from southwestern South Africa into southern Namibia and is one of the 25 richest yet most threatened homes of plant and animal life on the planet. While biodiversity hotspots cover only 1.4% of the earth’s surface, they contain 60% of all terrestrial species diversity.

The region and the park are named after the Tankwa River that runs through the park and is its main water provider. Nobody knows for certain what the Khoisan name Tankwa means but is said to variously mean ‘turbid water’, ‘thirst land’, or ‘place of the San’. Humans have lived here for some 10 000 years – first the San, or Bushmen, followed by the Khoe pastoralists with their large herds of livestock, then by trekboer farmers and their herds, and lastly by permanently settled farmers. Over the years their presence degraded the veld, but since the park was proclaimed in 1986, it has been largely restored to its former natural glory.

Activities in the park include self-drive game viewing, birdwatching, taking on one of several 4X4 trails in the park, or going to the two excellent viewpoints at Gannagga Pass and Elandsberg. Due to its sensitivity no hiking or cycling trails currently exist, except for in the immediate vicinity of their overnight accommodation. A variety of accommodation options are available, from self-catering farm cottages to a guesthouse complex and camping sites. As facilities differ at campsites in respect of water or electricity, it is best to enquire before booking. Gannaga Lodge is a private guest lodge situated within the park.

During a visit to the park there are plenty of experiences to be enjoyed both inside and outside the park, such as visiting Middelpos, said to be the smallest village in the country; driving, hiking or cycling up the Gannaga Pass to the top of the Roggeveld Escarpment; or get a list of all the plant species from the park’s office and go do some plant spotting. Along with nearby Sutherland and its massive telescopes, this area is also renowned for star gazing, with the night skies putting on spectacular display every night. And of course, once a year on a nearby farm the Afrika Burn spectacle takes place.

Main access routes to the park are from Calvinia, Ceres, Sutherland and Matjiesfontein. Travel times within the park are restricted and visitors are advised to fill up with petrol at the last town as there is only diesel available inside park.

  • Contact Details: SANParks central at Tel +27 (0)12 428 9111, or call Tankwa Karoo National Park directly at Tel +27 (0)27 341 1927 or email them at tankwa@sanparks.org; Gannaga Lodge – Tel Johan Visagie at Tel: +27 (0)79 922 1688 / +27 (0)87 802 5206 / +27 (0)79 922 1688, or email gannaga@hantam.co.za, or visit website at http://gannagalodge.blogspot.com/.

Parys …bonjour, and welcome to the Free State’s best-kept secret

Free State Parysians, as opposed to French Parisians, are probably tired of outsiders joking about the name of their town in the Free State, just across the Vaal River from southern Gauteng. And rightly so. Many decades ago, it may have been apt when this town was just a dusty, uninspiring dot on the map surrounded by mealie and sunflower fields. But those days are long gone, and since then Parys has undergone a magnificent transformation quite worthy of its name which can quite aptly now be associated with ‘Gay Paris’, just on a smaller scale.

Today it is home to creative entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, pubs, beer brewers, spas, guest houses, an exciting array of outdoor activities, artists, antique dealers, art galleries, fantastic resorts, a ‘mampoer’ distillery, and so much more. It also lies within the largest and oldest verified asteroid impact crater on Earth, the Vredefort Dome, dating back 2,023 million years and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The asteroid that hit the area with the nearby town of Vredefort at its centre, a mere 15km away, is estimated to have been one of the largest ever to strike Earth.

And to top it all, right there on the town’s doorstep you can while away the hours on the tree-shaded banks of the Vaal River with its tranquil waters. The town is also host on the first weekend in November of each year to the Parys Dome Adventure Festival, and more recently also to the annual Free State Madeira Flower Festival. The latter is based on the annual Madeira Flower Festival, when colourful parades, dancers, townspeople and visitors from all over fill the streets, just like on the island of Madeira.

So, forget about those jokes, get in your car and head that way. Or miss out. Situated close to where the borders of Free State, Gauteng and North West meet, it’s only an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, half an hour from Potchefstroom, and less than three hours from Bloemfontein. And it has more to offer than anyone can fit into a week.

Just outside Parys you’ll find a farm growing South Africa’s only black raspberries, where visitors can pick their own berries in the harvest season from March to November. And 17km away you’ll also find the largest wild olive forest in the country.

In Parys your problem will not be how to keep busy, but rather to find time to do nothing. For golf enthusiasts there is a magnificent Nick Price-designed 18-hole championship golf course at Vaal de Gráce, situated on an island of exquisite quiet and beauty in the middle of the Vaal River. There is also another island golf course, the Parys Golf & Country Estate, one of the oldest courses in South Africa, but totally redeveloped in 2007 by golfing great Cobie la Grange. Just a stone’s throw away at Vanderbijlpark, on the banks of the Vaal, is the Emerald Resort & Casino.

Then there are riverside and other hiking trails galore, birdwatching locations, horse riding, visits to the cheetah-breeding centre, fly-fishing, hot air ballooning, stargazing, quad biking, mountain biking, 4X4 trails, abseiling, rock climbing, river rafting and more. One of the few places where the Vaal River has rapids, is in the vicinity of Parys, making it ideal for kayaking and white-water rafting. Nearby are also some excellent private nature and game reserves.

Wander through the town and you will find pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, bistros, galleries, and funky little boutique shops aplenty. The town also boasts three craft beer breweries and a brandy distillery that also makes a great variety of ‘mampoer’, that traditional South African moonshine that will set your stomach on fire. And there are literally dozens of places to stay in the town and the greater area around it, ranging from bed and breakfasts, guest houses, hotels, self-catering units to camping sites, and guest farms.

And just where did the town get the name ‘Parys’ from? A German surveyor, a Mr. Schilbach, who had participated in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War named the town, and a street was named after him. Because of its location next to the Vaal River, it is said the town reminded him of Paris on the River Seine, with both rivers sharing an abundance of weeping willows on their banks. Parys is the Afrikaans and Dutch version of Paris.

Darling … the flowers and satire darling of the Cape

From August until October, it’s wildflower time in the Western Cape and Namaqualand. So, if you are heading that way it’s the ideal opportunity to spend some time in the quaint little town of Darling, although any other time of the year is just as good. You’ll quickly find out why it’s the darling of the Cape.

Darling is internationally renowned for two things: it’s annual wildflower show held in late September, and Evita se Perron, home theatre of South Africa’s beloved satirist, actor, author and activist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, equally well-known as his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout. Uys will quickly tell you, “Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout is the most famous white woman in South Africa!”.

Uys and Tannie Evita are known for their sharp-tongued, witty political commentary that has had South Africans and visitors from abroad in stitches for decades, and provoked the ire and laughter in equal measure of presidents and politicians from apartheid to the present. Nobody escaped. He’s also produced many plays, revues, films, videos and books. Closely associated with both the famous Space Theatre in Cape Town and Johannesburg’s Market Theatre during the 1970s and 1980s, Uys has written and performed 20 plays and over 30 revues and one-man shows throughout South Africa and abroad.

IF you have been to Darling before, you’ll be familiar with the landmark Evita se Perron: the town’s erstwhile train station which Uys has turned into a cabaret theatre and restaurant, filled with apartheid era relics, signage, photos and symbols, the things he so effectively attacked with his satire in his own theatrical “liberation struggle”. In the garden named Boerassic Park – a word play of ‘Boer’(Afrikaner) and ‘jurassic’ – you’ll find a mesmerising collection of statuettes, sculptures, collectables, strange objects and other contrivances.

Here you will not only meet Tannie Evita, but several of his other characters too, like Ouma Ossewania, Bambi Kellermann and Bokkie Bam. In the restaurant you can feast on a variety of breakfasts, while the lunch menu offers traditional bobotie and rice, chicken schnitzels, pizzas, steaks, burgers and boerewors rolls… and another South African tradition, fish and chips. The dessert menu will end your sweet tooth cravings for at least a year.  There are also vegetarian options, while wines are sourced from the local cellars and estates.

Upcoming shows in September through to December at Evita se Perron include ‘Tannie Evita praat kaktus’, ‘An audience with Pieter-Dirk Uys EISH’, ‘When in doubt say darling’, ‘Adapt or fly’, and ‘The echo of noise’. There will also be visiting performers over this period. For dates and bookings go to http://evita.co.za/.

And just as the veld of the Western Cape and Namaqualand finds itself in full bloom, carpeted in colourful wildflowers from horizon to horizon, Darling hosts its internationally acclaimed Darling Wildflower Show from 20 to 22 September, presented by the Darling Wildflower Society established in 1915.

The Darling Wildflower Show – the 102nd one this year – celebrates an integral part of the Cape Fynbos Kingdom comprising of Renosterveld, Rietveld, Sandveld, and Strandveld where more than 1 200 different species of flowers can be found. Thanks be to its founding pioneers, Frederick Duckitt of Waylands, Suzanne Malan of Die Pastorie, the wife of a local pastor Mrs Albertyn and a Dominees Luckhoff.

The West Coast flower region, an integral part of the Cape Fynbos Kingdom. Of its more than 1 200 species of flowering plants, about 80 of are endemic to the West Coast and known nowhere else. Darling lies within the Cape West Coast Biosphere reserve in the centre of the threatened lowland sandplain and renosterveld fynbos. Darling’s veld is unique in that it consists of an intermingling of various veld types. This situation is found nowhere else in the world. Darling contains more than 10% of the species count of the Cape Floral Kingdom in less than 1% of the area. It has been said that if there was ever a ‘Golden Mile’ of the plant kingdom anywhere in the world, it must exist in Darling.

Also taking place in Darling from 4 to 6 October is the popular Rocking the Daisies Music Festival. This eco-friendly music and lifestyle festival takes place at the Cloof Wine Estate and offers the best in live entertainment, top music acts, arts and crafts, lifestyle exhibitions and gourmet food. Over 10 000 people attended last year. The town is also something of an artists’ haven and hosts the Voorkamer Fest arts festival, a unique house-to-house theatrical extravaganza that offers acts of all kinds.

While you are in Darling you can also visit the nearby Tienie Versfeld Wildflower Reserve, the very interesting Darling Museum, a number of estates and cellars such as Darling Cellars, Tukulu, Withington, Cloof, Ormonde and Groote Post, visit the Darling Renosterveld Local Nature Reserve, the !khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre, and plenty more. The town also has many different types of accommodation, restaurants, bars, interesting little shops and more.

Inviting our readers…

We invite our readers to share with us their stories of Hidden Gems they have discovered across South Africa. It can be a place, a town, a resort, a national park, a hiking route, an experience… just about anything as long as it is something or someplace extraordinary, preferably off the beaten track, that other people may also like to experience. Readers can email us a description of no more than 500 words plus 4 good quality, high-resolution pictures (1MB or larger) to admin@mzanzitravel.co.za. Write ‘Hidden Gems’ in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!