(first posted 11/22/2012) We’ve done the paved road to Grahamstown to death, so when we decided to attend the National Arts Festival this year, I grabbed my pink highlighter and drew a new route in my map book. It would indeed be possible to travel on gravel for most of the way. We’re ready to go just before eleven on a Friday – food, drinks, bedding, tools, reading matter, brake fluid, jumper leads and lots of guts – and we head out to Ceres from Stellenbosch, past the back of Paarl. The rain is falling steadily and you can’t help but marvel at how beautiful Bain’s Kloof Pass is.
(click on all photos for full size)
The vegetation is lush and the waterfalls and rivers babble. The 404 sings. We go through Ceres and follow the R46 to the Karoo Poort. The initial idea was to have lunch in Sutherland and spend the night in Merweville … The map book and the road have different ideas. We quickly realize a commercial map book doesn’t give you the full picture. The road numbers on the signs differ from those on the map, and we start driving on instinct.
By 1.30 pm we hit the gravel road, 143 km from home. It’s cold, sopping wet and the mountains are covered in snow. It’s a muddy road and I remember my father’s advice: “Keep it in second and don’t go too fast.” The mud splashes all over the car, windscreen included. I just keep the wheels straight, even if the rear end sways a bit at times. Meanwhile, the turnoffs we can’t find on the map require all our concentration. Some distance further we’re back on good gravel, but the flood damage to the road makes the driving tricky. I know you’re not allowed to brake or turn the steering wheel too much; there is only one direction and that’s straight.
After about 60 km of trouble-free gravel driving, we cross our first river on a causeway. The rain stops occasionally, the veld is beautiful and we stop whenever we want to. We make it through a mud bath, despite the car wiggling a bit. A muddy hill, however, is another story and I start worrying when we hit an incline. But we make it up unscathed and I am quietly grateful the 404 doesn’t really have enough power to spin the wheels.
Just before the turnoff to Sutherland we pass Zeekoegat, a waterfilled pan. The Karoo landscape remains beguiling and ever changing – mountains, koppies and valleys. This may be the biggest difference between the tar road and the gravel road through the Karoo. The tar road is flat, it becomes boring and you think the entire Karoo is flat. On gravel, it’s completely different, specially after good rains. And the Karoo isn’t flat. It has descents and ascents and causeways and rivers and erosion ditches. At 4.30 pm we reach the end of our first gravel road stretch at the R354 gravel road to Sutherland – 117 km of gravel in three hours. We feel as if we’ve been away for days.
Driving up the Verlatekloof Pass is wonderful, and we enter Sutherland just after five. Straight to the hotel, and yes, they have room, even if it is Friday. After Jeanine – dressed in a coat and beanie – serves our lamb curry at the bar and listens to our stories of the varying conditions of the region’s roads, we go to bed. Fortunately, the room has a heater on the wall and an electric blanket. After breakfast at a table flanked by two gas heaters, we’re back on the road.
We hit the R354 tar road to Matjiesfontein, and about 10 km outside town we turn left to Merweville. The gravel road looks good, the veld is beautiful and we give it gas. Soon we see giant pans of water and it starts drizzling. We stop to admire the pans flanking the road. Shortly after this, we see the first of two vehicles on the gravel road that day. The woman behind the steering wheel of the VW Touran stops and tells us excitedly that the road is terrible.
She had to wade through a river that came up to her knees to see if she could drive through. Her GPS said it was the only road from Merweville to angebaan. “It’s not a road for an ordinary car,” she says. I wait a second or two before answering: “Lady, this is no ordinary car,” and wonder if she really took off her shoes and rolled up her pants. It’s cold and wet, and here and there the water runoff has damaged the road badly.
About 18 km past Melkseplaas we reach Soutdrift. We stop. The tiny pillars of the causeway protrude above the river. Would this be the deep river? We slowly drive into the water, in second gear. It’s not deep at all and we easily go through. What is the problem? But wait, 2 km further we encounter a real river.
The Portugalsrivier is no joke. It’s not in flood, but it’s full and a good 100 m wide. And considerably fewer poles at the side of the causeway are exposed above the water than at Soutdrift. But I don’t feel like removing my shoes – and besides, we’re not driving an ordinary car. In second, not too quickly and not too slowly, we drive through. A tad on the deep side, water is all you see before you. We make good progress, but about three quarters of the way through, the 404 starts sobbing a bit and the revs drop.
Against my dad’s advice, I switch to first and keep the revs high, but now we run the risk of even more water washing onto those deeply set spark plugs …We drive in silence. You can feel the tension. It feels like ages, but on we go. Finally, the bonnet lifts, but the 404 stalls right there. There is water to our right and both of us get out on the left. We walk around the car and, to our relief, we see we’re about a metre beyond the stream. Phew!
I get in on the right, but the car won’t start. I open the bonnet and remove the distributor cap. I dry everything, replace it and turn the key. And what do you know, we make deep tracks out of the Portugalsrivier. We have a good laugh, because things could have been different. If you know a 404, you’ll know we haven’t really left the river behind. The water down at the bottom of the spark plugs turns to steam, which rises up the bakelite housings of the plug springs and we lose spark again.
About 14 km further we dry those housings a last time. The front brake drums also lose their spunk, but recover once the spark plugs are firing again. There is still water damage on the road surface and we wince every time we bump into ditches and potholes. Everybody warned us about the steep Rooiberg Pass near Merweville. The road is indeed narrow and terribly steep, and I keep the car in first.
Then the Karoo unfolds before us among koppies that almost look like Golden Gate. You can see forever, but you have to keep your eye on the road because it’s not a short drop. And then you’re at the bottom. The sun starts shining and it almost looks like savannah with shrubs here and there, but there are almost no succulents. You occasionally see springbok and other game.
There are more farms with people on them here, the road is nice and even and we can press on at about 80 km/h. Shortly before three, we see Merweville’s high church tower. We’ve completed the second gravel road shift – 111 km, of which 101 km were on gravel. We’re not too bothered about the three and a half hours we drove today. Time isn’t in a hurry out here. Few people, many words.
We spend three days in Tries se Skuur, Merweville, and next time we’ll go for a week. There are just too many interesting people to chat to.
We get away on Tuesday afternoon. It’s about 45 km between Merweville and the N1 at Prince Albert Road, and parts of it are gravel and parts tar. They’re working on the road and there’s also a small stretch of gravel next to the new road. It’s lunchtime, and from Prince Albert Road we drive 30 km along the N1 to Kruidfontein. Here, with 496 on the odometer, we turn right and start our third gravel shift. The sign says Prince Albert and we pass farms watered by the Leeu River. It’s a beautiful road. After 10 km we turn left to Seekoegat. We encounter more farm gates and many causeways, and in places the road is a jeep track. It’s a hilly landscape with lots of thorn trees.
After 42 km from Kruidfontein on the N1, we encounter a big farmyard with numerous buildings. Klein Waterval perches atop a deep riverbed with rocky banks. The road is rimmed with tall wire fences – this is game country. Then you emerge from this uneven landscape onto flatlands again and the vegetation is sparser. In the distance the landscape is rimmed by the Swartberg. After Seekoegat, we cross the N12 between Beaufort West and Oudtshoorn.
We have to push on to Rietbron, with its springbok on the church tower. It’s just after 4.30 pm and we’ve driven 136 km since turning off the N1. Rietbron lies ahead of us, but we are unsure whether we should turn left or right. We turn right on the R306 to Willowmore, but after 10 km we realise we’re wrong. Back in Rietbron, we’re told we have to take the Groblersdal road. We drive further up the main road and turn right onto the Groblersdal road. And yes, here is a springbok on the church tower.
I’d like to hear that story one day … The road is good and we drive at 80-85 km/h. In the distance to the south we see the Baviaanskloof Mountains. And then … the car doesn’t feel right. The rear tyre is punctured, but it’s still intact. Twenty minutes later the spare wheel is on and we’re back on the road. About 184 km from Kruidfontein we reach the N9. We turn left to Aberdeen. The mountains are lovely shades of pink and purple. We drive around the empty Beervlei Dam next to the N9.
After about 15 km on good tar we turn right to Miller. I start worrying, because I don’t think I calculated my distances for today’s stretch very well. It turns into a sunset cruise. Later, the road deteriorates, with quite a few drifts. Weeds and bushes grow in the road here. At Miller, a tiny place, our sunset cruise turns into a starlight cruise and I start to wonder when we’ll reach Jansenville. The road to Klipplaat is in very good condition, though, and we see our first aloes in the dark. We drive into Klipplaat just before seven, 283 km from the N1. We drive up to the beautiful Victorian police station built of stone. The friendly policemen say we need to carry on straight to get to Jansenville.
We call the guesthouse to say we’re still coming. The police accompany us some distance past the town. We are quite surprised to find it’s a beautiful tar road. And for the first time since leaving Ceres another vehicle passes us. About 30 km further, we reach another set of road works and have to take a gravel detour.
It’s 7.30 pm when we reach Jansenville, about 390 km from Merweville. The other KFC Crowing cocks wake us. We eat and head off to Stokkies’s garage (Jansenville Motors) a short way down Hoofstraat. Stokkies’s real name is Timothy Yeyi. He speaks melodious Afrikaans and presides over one of the tidiest workshops I’ve ever seen. The floors are swept, the tools are neatly arranged in cupboards, the parts in rows on shelves, and one of the staff members is sweeping the forecourt outside.
In a jiffy the puncture is plugged and the wheel refitted. We use the opportunity to lubricate the front chassis and the steering mechanism, because we’ve put it through quite an ordeal in the past few days. All good, and we’re back on the road with a receipt for R30. We stop at the Koperketel with antiques from the Karoo and only get away after noon. From Jansenville we take the R75 tar road towards Port Elizabeth for about 28 km. Then you turn left on the R400 at the Waterford sign.
This long road runs east almost all the way to Grahamstown, largely along the northern border of the newly enlarged Addo Elephant National Park. Waterford is about 15 km further. The tiny community is situated around a huge Dutch Reformed church. The condition of the R400 varies, but you can usually drive at 80 km/h. Just after two, after our tummies have started rumbling, we find the KFC. No,not that one – this is an abbreviation for Karoo Farm Crafts, which is run from a converted water tank, about 67 km from Waterford. Greg and René Webster farm sheep, honey, olives, goats and cattle on their farm. She bakes rusks, serves light meals and sells her husband’s crafts, jam, honey and other products in the shop.
Before we know it, it’s 3 pm, and we’re back on the road. Now you start seeing angora goats. We cross the N10 between Cradock and Port Elizabeth and see Afrikaner cattle in the scrub.
The last town before Grahamstown is Riebeek East, about 135 km further on the R400. First you see RDP houses on the hill and then a tiny stone church surrounded by houses. And suddenly there are potholes everywhere – lots of them. A few kilometres further our adventure ends. It’s 4.30 pm and, with the trip meter on 1002.6 km, we’ve reached the end of the R400, here where it ends in the R350 between Bedford and Grahamstown.
Our fourth and final gravel shift was about 160 km of gravel road. We turn right. The R350 isn’t much to write home about. The sun is sinking as we drive into Grahamstown just before five, 1,024 km from home, most of which – about 680 km – was on gravel. We’d do it again tomorrow, but first there are a few other roads on which the 404 would like to kick up some dust …
Author’s PS: My first car was a 1969 Peugeot 404, which was a wedding gift (at half price) from my father. Since then I have never driven anything else than a Peugeot. I bought the wagon in 2007 and after some extensive renovations started using it for normal transport and for country trips. My wife uses our 1974 504GL and we also have a 1985 505 GTI, a 1959 403, which started me off as a collector in 1986 and brought me into contact with Peugeot clubs worldwide, and more recently I obtained a 1951 203 which was converted into a racing saloon in the 1960’s and used by its creator as a sprots saloon till last year, when I bought it from his widow. The 404 wagon is actually my work car, if I do not use my bicycle…
Editor’s PS: This article was first published in Drive Out. Now you know why I called the 404 Wagon “The World’s Greatest Wagon”. We’ll take a look at Dawid’s other Peugeots sometime, as well as a feature on their more recent rip across southern Namibia.