It’s about 160km, give or take a metre or two on either side, from the House of Light & Shadow in Richmond, Northern Cape, to the Karoo Roos padstal outside Middelburg, Eastern Cape.

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Equine company on the R398 between Richmond and Middelburg in the Karoo.

That’s if you venture out on the R398, a dirt road that embodies all that is intriguing about the Karoo: big spaces, dolerite ridges, the constant comfort of a distant, iconic mountain peak, massive fields of “drought food” (prickly pears), Boer War-period barbed wire fences and those funny, cone-shaped hills that bear an uncanny resemblance to the bra Madonna wore onstage back in 1990 on her Blonde Ambition world tour.

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Time for a dip in a lovely Karoo dam in the middle of nowhere – don’t feed or annoy the algae.

The Song of One Bee Buzzing

Also a variety of windpump models, some dead, some still whirring and hauling fresh groundwater up into sinkplaat dams lined with algae colonies, lonely farmsteads and their attendant groves of Lombardy poplars that become white ghost trees in winter, strange and weathered road signs and, when you stop and listen, a wondrous silence broken only by the song of one bee buzzing.

Jules and I had attended the 2015 Richmond Boekbedonnerd Festival, possibly the final one ever, in late October. I read two extracts from my book of reporter’s war stories (The Journey Man) to a rather bemused room full of mostly elderly book lovers who were polite enough in their response.

I could, however, sense that they had come to Richmond to be fascinated by more ethereal subjects than the Carlton Hotel Bomb Siege of 1980 or the Scope Magazine antics of photographer Les Bush and myself. It was, possibly, not the right audience for The Journey Man.

The presenter just before me, however, really grabbed all of our attention.

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The landscape of the Karoo – and the conical hills that are often called (for some reason) Die Pramberge.

Loving the Landscape

Liana Jansen, a landscape architect, spoke about a publication she had recently edited, which detailed the Biesjespoort Rock Engravings north of Augrabies, up in the Kalahari.

“Walking the land is perpetual engagement with the environment” she told us. “The body is attuned to the landscape.”

We were going to stay on for some more book festival shows, but both Jules and I were now inspired to seek out some landscape for ourselves in the Karoo Space bakkie.

First, however, we had to stock The House of Light & Shadow (Die Huis van Licht en Schadu) with some of our books.

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John Donaldson and a dog called Potlood outside The House of Light & Shadow in Richmond.

John & Potlood

The owner is John Donaldson, and when he wears his big leather hat he’s a dead ringer for a Dorsland trekker. Nearly always at his heel is the faithful and aptly-named Potlood (Pencil), a little mixed grill of a dog.

John runs a row of well-stocked bookshops on the main street of Richmond. Somewhere inside there is the stuffed top half of a giraffe and a bar. Behind the counter are two pairs of rather strange strap-on breasts. Hmm. What’s this then, John?

He smiled behind that Trekboer beard.

“Figure that one out for yourself.”

The smousing complete, we headed north out of Richmond on the N1. Within minutes we had turned off onto the R398 to Middelburg, and the fun began.

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Slippery when wet – fantastic in the dry weather.

Friendly Horse Road

The first song on the extensive memory-stick medley I recorded for this trip was Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. It was just too jangly on the brain for this drive, so I flipped forward to Dr John singing Iko Iko, the New Orleans Mardi Gras number. Better.

To me, the R398 will always be The Friendly Horse Road. That’s because, some years ago, Jules was nuzzled by a farm horse around here. He playfully nipped her hair in greeting, when we stopped to photograph the herd at roadside.

And, true to form, there they were again. A little more feisty and spooked than before, though.

As always, the bakkie loved this dusty route, as it stretched over the Bo-Karoo veld like a kid’s discarded shoelace. Despite a half-torn home-made sign that warned of a “bad road” ahead, it was easy to traverse in the dry summer. When it rains, it might well be another story.

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The ever-present Compassberg (middle distance, left) that guards Nieu-Bethesda village.

The Majestic Compassberg

We were, for the first part of the drive, always in sight of the majestic Compassberg, the peak that broods over the village of Nieu-Bethesda over there, far away, tucked into the folds of the Sneeuberge.

As we neared Middelburg, the witch’s hat of the Compassberg disappeared and before us, in the distance, stood the loaf-shaped mountain called Tafelberg, guarding the N10 access to our home town of Cradock.

“Mountains” I mused to Jules. “Can you believe that someone can own a mountain?”

And the dolerite ridges, black blocks of ironstone – friends to the farmer and the anti-fracker alike.

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A dolerite ridge and its attendant windpump working the water source.

The Ironstone Ridges

Dolerite, more than any other rock formation, has definitively shaped the Karoo. Nothing more than 182-million-year-old magma, it has fertilised the ground and created concentrations and direct pathways for groundwater.

Farmers seek out dolerite because they know along its heat-fractured edges are cracks that are like sponges, holding water. You park your windpump right by dolerite, if possible.

Dolerite has also, it seems, burnt off much of the gas that the frackers seek. South Africa has been ranked fifth and then eighth in the world for shale gas reserves, but if the latest evidence is true, then we have recently just fallen off the map of countries remarkable for shale.

Dolerite is also very hard and prohibitively expensive to drill through. It is guaranteed to make life costly and tricky for a fracker and is a very risky business for a local. Because if a dolerite dyke is pierced underground, who knows where the polluted water will end up?

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Cloudy – with a chance of alien landings.

Alien Landings in the Karoo

Dr John moved on to his snazzy rendition of Makin’ Whoopee, followed by Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and I was suddenly back in East Texas, circa 1981, crossing the States in my beat-up old eight-cylinder GMC panel van. The old Journey Man days.

Ah, but I don’t believe they have gorgeous blue cranes in Texas. Driving on, we saw a courting pair of national birds dancing in the distance.

We stopped, switched off the engine and listened to their chirrups as they flapped about each other in a most familiar way.

I looked at a windpump on the other side of the road. Above it hovered a cloud, in the distinct shape of a flying saucer. Could it be? Perhaps. Aliens have landed in the Middelburg district before. But it was just a cloud. A sudden thermal drift up there turned the flying saucer into a Merino sheep.

On the old R398, if you make the time and indulge your senses, there is always a good chance of picking up some roadside magic. Some good old Karoo Mojo. Makin’ Whoopee indeed…

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