Posts Tagged With: karoo

VII: Graaf-Reinet & Camdeboo National Park

May 31st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

Packing up a frozen frost covered tent is never fun.  Winter has seemed to set in a bit earlier here.  I again had a short drive of about 140km (86 miles) to the town of Graaf-Reinet.  The town itself is set inside Camdeboo National Park, and is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa.  It is filled with tons of old colonial Dutch buildings.  It is a town I would call quaint, despite its population of over 30,000 people; it often seems more like a town of a few thousand.  I got settled in at an equally quaint home turned guesthouse called El Jardin.  An extremely nice old Afrikaaner couple, Terrence and Nita, ran it.  The rest of the day was spent running errands to the post office, grocery store, permit office, and bookshop, where I found a cheap used copy of a Drakensberg hiking book for later adventures.  The book I was looking for, and subsequently purchased was recommended to me by one of the guys in the Eastern Cape Hiking Club I met in Lesotho titled Around Africa on My Bicycle.  Riaan Manser of South Africa wrote it about his amazing adventure circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa on his bicycle by himself.  The book made an excellent companion on the many lonely nights of camping, and I highly recommend reading it.  I also took the time in town to stop by a couple museums as the town has a good bit of history, both recent and ancient.  I first went to Die Ou Biblioteek (The Old Library) museum.  Half of this museum is home to a nice sized fossil collection of dinosaur bones found in the area.  The other half features exhibits on Robert Sobukwe, a native of Graaf-Reinet, and one of the founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  The second museum I stopped by was Die Ou Residensie (The Old Residency) museum.  This was basically a large collection of old photographs, old cameras, and also a rather huge collection of old guns.  My interests lay in the photographs but I enjoyed the rest as well.  When I came back to the guesthouse Nita told me Terrence had gone to the boys club and would be home at 6:30 and that she would have tea and homemade rusks for me in the morning before I left to go hiking for the day.  Nita was also kind enough to pass along the recipe before the end of my stay, so I thought I would share it with everyone.

Nita’s Delicious Homemade All-bran Buttermilk Rusks

Melt 500g (17.5 oz.) Margarine.

 Add 2 cups of brown sugar; 2 cups buttermilk; 2 eggs beaten;

1kg.(2.2 lbs.) self rising flour; 1 dessertspoon (2tsp.) of baking powder;

 5 cups all-bran.

Mix well.

Place in greased baking pan.

Bake 1 hour at 150°C (302°F).


Cut into squares.

Dry out in oven at 60°C (140°F) for 1 hour



Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

June 1st:  Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

After a quick cup of rooibos tea, a few rusks, and an orange I was off to the trailhead on the south end of town.  The first part of the Eerstefontein Trail, just over 2½ km, takes you between the north ridge of Spandaukop and the south ridge of the Valley of Desolation.  From there I would head in a huge loop of about 9½ km skirting my way along the edge of the Valley of Desolation, and then through the open plains of the Karoo, and back between the two ridges.  I set off from the trailhead about a quarter to eight at a brisk pace to warm myself up in the chilly morning air, taking in all the splendid scenery.  It often felt as if the dinosaurs had left, but all the plants remained.  I had just wound my way between the two ridges and had followed the trail down into the thicker, denser foliage when I first heard the odd noises up ahead.  The sound was a mix between a grunt and a bark, similar to the sound of a choking dog about to vomit.  I was perplexed, a bit tense, and excited.  There are no large predators that could eat me here, but the park is home to a plethora of other animals, one of which I was determined to find out about very soon.

I proceeded slowly unsure of what I might find around the next bend.  To my surprise it was three large Kudu, and to their surprise, a human, which caused them to go crashing through the shrubs next to me.  The distinctive calls soon became commonplace as they were always one step ahead of me for the first half of the trail.  It was a whole new experience getting to encounter the African wildlife on foot, I got a small taste in Dwesa, but here in Camdeboo I felt much more at ease with the lack of big predators, and the wide open spaces.  The animals were much more skittish when approached on foot and my only glimpses tended to be their rear ends while in flight of the unknown intruder, me.  The only creature I managed to sneak up on was a roosting owl that seemed just as startled as I as I unknowingly approached him.  On foot you get a much better sense of scale as well, not only with the kudu, ostrich, zebra, and steenbok, but of the landscape as well.

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo



At around the halfway point the signage became less frequent and the trail began to thin.  I kept following it until it was just a whisper of a line in the tall grass. From the right angle it appeared to be a trail, but as I soon found out these were often more deceptive than informative.  The signs were also poorly thought out from the beginning, using green signs on a green pole that was roughly the height of the surrounding green grass.  The hike soon turned into a huge game of I, Spy.  The game began easy enough in the open rocks and grass where I could easily climb atop a large rock and pick out the next sign or cairn telling me where to go.  I would then bushwhack a few hundred feet, and repeat, until I made it to the sign.  The trail ebbed and flowed with a few hundred feet of good trail that either ended abruptly or split into four or five other games trails.  I continued with this way finding for about 2km or so until I hit the bottom of the valley I was in.  The next 2-3km was crossing the flat arid valley floor.  The signs seemed to all but disappear, and there were no more rocks to get a good view.  I was fortunately not lost at all, as I could clearly see the two ridges I needed to get back between; it was just a matter of getting there.  I was able to pick a sign out here and there with the help of my camera lens and binoculars, but in the in-between I went with the good old fashion walkabout.  These misadventures often led me to find interesting animals and places, with the most notable being stumbling upon a past nesting area of an ostrich.  The ground was littered with bits of ostrich eggshell, which were astonishingly hard and thick.  I finally came across a dried up riverbed as I was nearing the ridge I needed to cross.  Remembering my previous crossing of the same dried up riverbed on the way in led me back to the trail I need to be on, so I could get out easily.  I carried on through the heat of the midday sun the remaining 2½km back to the car feeling quite beat as I added plenty of time and distance to the original mapped trail with all my extracurricular activities to find my way.

The previous night Nita had also tipped me off about the basaar happening at the large Dutch reform church at the center of town were a bunch of people bring homemade food to sell to raise money for the church.  I had worked up a mighty appetite and hadn’t had a good home-cooked meal in a few weeks.  Nita had recommended the pancakes.  I left the trail with pancakes on the mind and made the short drive to the church.  It was packed with people but I managed to spot the sign that read pankoek and bee lined it to the stand.  It turned out their pancakes are more or less crepes, regardless I wolfed down three of them and a can of ginger beer, which provided me with the energy I needed to finish off my day.  From there I soldiered on, driving up the road to the top of the Valley of Desolation to stumble my way through another 1½km of much better marked trail to get to the overlook point of both the entire town of Graaf-Reinet and the Valley of Desolations huge dolomite pillars.  I then made my way back to the guesthouse feeling accomplished after hiking somewhere between 17-20km.  I was in desperate need of a soak and found relief in the tub as I washed away the day of hiking from my skin.  As I scrubbed away with soap I could taste the salt in the bathwater from my sweat and I felt more like an olive in brine then a man in a tub.

Giant Grasshopper

Giant Grasshopper

Valley of Desolation

Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park/ Camdeboo National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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VI: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

May 29th: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

I slept in, getting up at half past six.  I had a short couple hour drive about 200km(125 miles) north to Cradock, and just beyond that Mountain Zebra National Park.  The drive was one of the more fun roads I had driven with bending turns and rolling hills that seemed to last forever.  During my drive I worked my way from the lush coastal forests to the arid Karoo.  I made a short stop in Cradock to re-fuel, buy more food, and use the Internet, which unlike most of South Africa was surprisingly quick.  This dusty computer in the corner of a small electronic shop finally gave me the opportunity to get the plane tickets for Sarah and I to fly from Cape Town to Durban after we met up.  I was then off to Mountain Zebra National Park. I set up my dust-covered tent and went for a short hike to get my legs moving again.  In the vast majority of national parks and reserves in South Africa you have to remain in your vehicle when you are in the park, with a few designated areas where you can get out.  It is understandable from a liability perspective for the parks because there are a number of dangerous animals most people wouldn’t want to run into on foot.  It was hard for me to get used to at first since I am used to the freedom to explore in the parks and forests of the USA.  Mountain Zebra National Park was a good mix of the two.  It had cordoned off hiking areas that contained no large predators, and the largest area of the park containing roads for viewing from your car.

After dinner I took a short drive on a couple small loops to watch the sunset, but I found much more to keep me occupied.  Lo and behold about 15 minutes into the drive I found a pair of the elusive Cape Mountain Zebra grazing on the edge of the mountainside.  The Mountain Zebra were hunted into near extinction in the early 20th century with as few as 100 remaining but through conservation efforts after the 1930s the population is now just over 2,000.  The mountain zebra are generally shorter and stockier then Burchell’s Zebra and are built for climbing steep terrain.  They also have a reddish nose and a dewlap, which is a loose fold of skin on their neck, which aren’t found on Burchell’s Zebra.  The rest of the drive the sightings were sparse with a few Kudu and Eland.  The mountains are different then any I have seen before with grassy slopes interspersed with giant rolling bald sections of smooth barren rock.  The sweet thorn that grows everywhere makes the environment seem all that more harsh.

May 30th: Mountain Zebra National Park

One of the most spectacular sunrises yet, I was up at six and was able to get to the top of the plateau that overlooks the park just as the sun poked its head out from behind the mountains.  From the plateau I was able to head out on some short drives to spot animals in the morning light.  I was not disappointed and saw herds of black wildebeest and springbok.  The highlight of the day came around 10 a.m. when I came across a group of about 10-15 buffalo.  The huge, but often shy creatures were packed into a dense thicket and it was hard to get a clear view, but I did spot a few little ones who would occasionally get away from their parents and poke their head out to see what hubbub was all about.  During the heat of the day I relaxed in the shade of my tent to enjoy the mountain views and the smaller creatures of the Karoo.  My favorite being the small mice that would constantly be popping up on rocks checking if the coast was clear.  They also had the amazing ability to navigate up and into sweet thorn trees to munch on the seedpods.  With unbelievable speed they would weave their way through the tangle of massive thorns on the branches.  The tree also provided them cover from hungry birds with the large thorns preventing a safe landing spot.  To cap off the remaining hours of daylight I took a short hike to watch the baboons from afar chase each other around on the giant rocks.  I returned to my campsite for another redundant meal, one which I had the last four meals, of bread, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sun-dried fruit and buttermilk rusks.

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I: To Cape Town and Beyond

Cape Town and beyond from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Oude Molen Community Garden


Sarah and I arrived tired and exhausted from our 20 hours of travel from Chicago to Amsterdam then from Amsterdam to Cape Town.  Passing over the Alps we were treated to clear skies and great views of the French Alps.  We continued into clouds over the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara, the Sahel, and the tropical jungles of the Congo before descending into darkness for the rest of the flight to Cape Town.  After getting off the plane we parted ways, each of us off to our respective destinations. Sarah went off to her geology field camp, and I was taken swiftly to a mental hospital, to be clear, an abandoned mental hospital on the outskirts of Cape Town, which had been repurposed as an eco village.  Oude Molen Eco Village contains living quarters, a farm stall, restaurant, guesthouse, and a working farm.  I awoke the first morning to the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster in a new and different world and was presented quite the welcome as I stepped out the door.  The clouds had just broken, the rain stopped and the sun emerged to create a spectacular rainbow stretching from the top of Table Mountain down to the heart of Cape Town.  My first morning got off to a slow and gradual start.  The night before I had been picked up from the airport by Helen, one of the two owners of Oude Molen, and discussing my previous farming work back in the states at Growing Power in Milwaukee.  She told me about her partner, John, and his ambitious plans to add a large aquaponics system to his permaculture garden.  Helen had told John about my arrival, and he was eagerly awaiting me with tea in the morning and a number of questions about installing and running aquaponics systems.  A good deal of my first morning was spent with John, which was nice as I could help him with what I knew and pick his brain a bit about Cape Town and South Africa before I set out on my own.  In the afternoon I made my first foray into the city of Cape Town, catching the train for 6 rand (about 75 cents) into the city.  It was a bit of an information overload, like the first time in any unfamiliar city, and I spent the afternoon running errands, and finding a cheap cellphone to keep in touch with Sarah so we could meet up easily in 4 weeks time.  Not normally being a big city person I am usually keen to get out as soon as I can after flying in, but Cape Town is definitely one exception.  It is as if you took the mesas of western Colorado and put them in San Fransisco, and then added it’s own unique landscape.  It is a city for everyone, and probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to.

View of Table Mountain from the east

View from Table Mountain

The next day in Cape Town I made the most of being a tourist and got an early start to ride the cable car that takes you from the base to the summit of Table Mountain.  From the top you get an excellent view of the city and the surrounding bays, and is a good point to start hiking.  Table Mountain is over 3500 feet above sea level, which by mountain size seems pretty small, but it shoots straight out of the sea making the sheer rock faces look all that more daunting.  The cape peninsula also provides the perfect microclimate for the fynbos, which is the name of the biome found in the area.  The fynbos is home to its own unique floral kingdom and has over 9,000 different species of which over 6,000 are endemic, existing only on this little sliver of land in South Africa and nowhere else in the world.  Needless to say I spent the whole day exploring the unique landscapes on and around Table Mountain.  Scattered around on top of Table Mountain are little dassies, also known as rock hyrax.  They are about the size of a guinea pig, and are very interesting creatures with their closest living relative being the elephant.  They have very rubbery pads on their feet with sweat glands to help them stick to rocks while climbing almost vertical pitches.  They also seem to be one of the lazy animals I have ever seen, and on a nice sunny day you can find tons of them sprawled out on rocks just soaking up the sun.

Looking down on Cape Town from Table Mountain

Lionshead from Table Mountain

Proteas on top of Table Mountain

Lazy dassie sunbathing on top of Table Mountain

The next day, May 17th, I awoke early, stopped to say my goodbyes & well wishes to Helen & John, and then took the quick train ride again from Pinelands Station to Cape Town.  My original plan, based on the routes shown on the map above the ticket window, was to ride the rails northeast from Cape Town to the city of Bloemfontien, and from there venture into the small mountainous country of Lesotho.  To my surprise, although I caught on very quickly afterwards, all the routes on the map had been cut except one, Cape Town to Johannesburg.  After some deliberation I decided to purchase a ticket to roughly the halfway point, which would take me to the city of Kimberly.  Kimberly is a diamond-mining town and was home to Cecil Rhodes, and the De Beers Company.  It is about 80km north of Bloemfontein, and was my best bet for a jumping off point.  I bought the ticket and then waited for about 45 minutes as it was “processed” by the lady behind the counter while I waited on the benches.  I finally got the ticket and lugged all my gear down to sleeper car 11H and found myself across from a short, stocky Afrikaans man. He repeated the same routine of drinking a beer, snacking, and napping for the first 8-10 hours, which was then followed by a lumbering sleep with a snore that put the train whistle to shame.  I on the other hand spent the first 8 hours pretty much glued to the window watching the landscape slowly change from the capes fynbos, to the vineyards of Paarl & Stellenbosch.  The train stops as we passed through the wine lands were filled with hawkers selling fresh grapes to the passing train cars. I was easily won over by the one vendor’s shouts of “get the sweetness! 5 rand! Taste the sweetness”. I got 2kg of grapes and was not disappointed as the sales pitch lived up to its name as I mowed down the fresh grapes.  The vegetation slowly thinned out into jagged peaks covered in thick shrubs, and eventually into the sparsely covered karoo with its rocks, shrubs, and prehistoric looking succulents.   It was a dream come true, at least the daylight hours, as the train acted as a never-ending safari, with the only downside being I couldn’t stop when I wanted to take a picture.  Passing through the wine lands I was fortunate enough to spot a caracal not far from the track lurking in the brush. When the land gave way to the karoo it was open season as I spotted a number of springboks, ostriches, and elands.  As night fell I began to prepare myself for my arrival in Kimberly.  It was a 17 hour train ride with a projected arrival time of 3:30am, a tricky time indeed as nothing is open and I couldn’t very well go meandering around town in the dark alone with all my belongings.  I went to sleep around 8pm and was up about a quarter to three.  As 3:30 came and went, and the train hadn’t made a stop I began to feel a bit uneasy.  I set out to find a train employee to find out where we were.  I finally found someone who told me the train was running late, although they had no idea how late.  Afraid to go back to sleep and miss my stop I stayed up until we finally arrived in Kimberly 3 hours late at 6:30am.  Being late was actually beneficial though, as it now made my 3:30 am arrival dilemma null and void since the sun was now beginning to rise. However, it did cost me a bit of time I could’ve spent sleeping had I known the actual arrival time.

Upon leaving the train station I found no taxis, and no buses. Figuring I was perhaps too early I decided to set out on foot to find a place to stay.  I headed about 3km northeast to where a reasonably priced place was supposed to be, only to find out it was another 5-10km outside the city.  With only my feet to carry me I found it too impractical to be so far out of town because it would’ve been about a 20km round trip walk if I needed anything while I stayed there.  I backtracked the 3km I had already walked and continued south down the main drag another 2km, all this while carrying my 40-50 lbs. of gear on my back.  The weight I was carrying and the fact I had only eaten grapes for the last few meals, albeit vast amounts of grapes, on the previous days train ride was taking its toll.  I ended up heading into the tourist information center another half kilometer south for a break, and to see if I could get a better map and find some more information.  While I was in my last ditch effort to find an affordable place to stay, two backpackers stumbled in looking as worn down as myself.  They were Lance & Kristi, a couple from Illinois who were on their last leg of a 4-month trip through southern Africa.  They had run into the same problem I had a couple days ago, and had settled on an overpriced under construction guesthouse on the south side of town ironically named “Stay a Day guesthouse”.  They only intended to stay a day but had become virtually trapped in Kimberly and were on their third day of attempting to leave.  It became increasingly apparent that public transport had suffered some major cuts since 2010 when South Africa hosted the world cup.  Guide books, ticket offices, websites, everything lists all these trains, buses, taxi routes, etc. but when you enquire about them, or worse, when you assume they are functioning, when in fact they don’t exist anymore.  The only public transport left are mini bus taxis, which are unreliable, inefficient, and can be dangerous.  This is why the couple from Illinois was on their third day of attempting to leave Kimberly.  They were headed the same route I intended to go on the next day departing from Kimberly to Bloemfontein, and on into Lesotho.  The catch with mini bus taxis is that it must be full, completely full, every seat must be filled and are often times beyond the recommended capacity to depart, otherwise you just may not go that day.  This is what happened to them the previous two days.  Fearing this was a distinct possibility for me since I was planning the same route out I made a executive decision to join Lance & Kristi.  Whether I was the weight that tipped the scale in their favor or if it was just their lucky day, the mini bus taxi filled up for the hour and a half jaunt to Bloemfontein.  I learned two important things on my first mini bus taxi ride.  The first being that there is no place to stow baggage (although some do occasionally have little trailers) so everything you have must fit on your lap.  The second is that, seemingly, all the South Africans like to ride in the jam-packed mini bus taxis with the windows up with no airflow. As I soon found out when I was politely asked to “please close the window, the air is getting in my nose”.  Confused and now uncertain about where air was supposed to go and the function of the nose on my face I held tight for the short drive to Bloemfontein.  After the first success and with no real reason to stick around in Bloemfontein, and luck on our side, we found a mini bus taxi headed to the border of South Africa and Lesotho with 3 seats left.  We all squeezed in and headed to the border town and capitol of Lesotho, Maseru.  After the border formalities and a taxi ride around Maseru we were finding accommodation to be quite tricky again.  The one affordable place we found happened to be booked with all the 40 beds taken up by a church group.  The owners were kind enough to recommend us to another place, which ended up being nicer, cheaper, and closer to the city center.  It also happened to be an Anglican church with whom the owners were part of. We arrived and told the people at the church who had sent us and they fixed us up with rooms in the priest training center next to the church.  Maseru contains about 400,000 people in its massive sprawl, which is almost 50% of Lesotho’s population.  Lesotho is one of the poorer countries in Africa, and has an extremely high percentage of its population with HIV/AIDS, somewhere around 25%, and with the life expectancy of around 40-50 years, the majority of the population is quite young.  In stark contrast to other poor nations though, it has a literacy rate of about 85% and from my brief walk through the city that afternoon people were extremely friendly and welcoming.

Sunset over the karoo from the train


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