Escape from it all: the road to nowhere leads to Gannaga Lodge in the Karoo

This remote lodge in the highest part of the Tankwa Karoo is a place where time stands still and the silence, sky and stars are endless, writes Claire Keeton

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By Claire Keeton

Chasing the sun to the highest point of the Tankwa Karoo, we wondered if our tin car, skidding across craters and mud, would make it up to Gannaga Lodge before it set.
Perched like a citadel at the top of the Gannaga Pass, the lodge is, as its owner Johann Visagie says, "in the middle of nowhere".
Almost a century old, the lodge is an enclave within the greater Tankwa Karoo National Park and the only private establishment there. The farm is so remote that Visagie says he has "caught 17 babies" helping his mother, who was a midwife.
History seeps out of the dust and Visagie, like Oom Schalk, is ready to spin stories from his stool at the corrugated-iron and wood bar in the lodge, next to a fireplace. No wit-haak trees here, though there may be leopards.
Once an aide to the judge president of the Western Cape, at a time when the navy boss was a Russian spy (this is true), Visagie says: "I was almost shot and blown up, before I decided to become a jeweller in Vanderbijlpark.
"I specialised in pearls and knew a wee bit about diamonds and sapphires. But I got gatvol with jewellery and came here and stayed," he says, though he had never wanted to farm. And that's how he ended up running a lodge with his friend, Scottish barrister Robert Black QC from Edinburgh University who, when his winter looms, flees south for six months to the Tankwa Karoo.
This is a place where time stands still and the silence, sky and stars are endless, unbroken by noise or pollution.
Gannaga Lodge is on the northern side of the 146,400ha Tankwa park, about 100km from Sutherland, the home of the SA Astronomical Observatory and SA's coldest town in winter.
Visagie sold off 4,000ha of the family farm to Sanparks, having no wish to farm merino sheep, keeping only 20ha. After his wife died years ago, his son Izak helps out with guests if he's around.
The original farmhouse was built around 1800, and the second farmhouse where guests stay dates back to the 1930s. Thick, stone walls in the lodge offer protection against the elements: penetrating cold (as on our trip in early winter) or heat in the summer.
The top of the pass on the Roggeveld escarpment is several degrees cooler than the plain below, where the AfrikaBurn festival is held every year.
In this flattened landscape 28km below the lodge, you also find the smallest village in SA: Middelpos. One man apparently owns the hotel, post office and store and when I drove into Middelpos with photographer Esa Alexander, it felt like a ghost town because we could not find a single person in the hotel. The "town" is the only place to buy petrol for miles.
But this obscure spot on the map is where award-winning Shakespearean actor Antony Sher was born, and his ancestors played a role in developing this outpost.
Now travellers are more likely to see Cape zebra and gemsbok than people in this part of the succulent Karoo, with low, greyish scrub bushes and sculpted rocks on the summit.
From a viewpoint over the Tankwa Karoo Basin right before sunset, we spotted a klipspringer, looking poised to leap off the edge. We hiked through melting patches of snow, after an unexpected early fall, onto a ridge to get another perspective on this hideaway. At night jackals howled.
If you want to disappear, Gannaga, not far from the R355 - the longest road in SA with no town or petrol station - is the place to go.
There are five en-suite rooms in the farmhouse, each with stoep and fireplace, plus five "stalls" converted from stables and a post office.
Rooms have white linen, fans and heaters, and lights that look like paraffin lamps. The original Kliphuis farmhouse is a separate, self-catering unit.
The lodge has a spacious reception area, lounge (with hundreds of books), bar and dining room built out of recycled stone.
Lamb is the most traditional dish on this down-to-earth menu.
Gannaga Lodge is on the northern edge of the Tankwa Karoo National Park, with Calvinia to the north and the Cederberg mountains to the west. Pop in to The Bagdad Café in Vanrhynsdorp on the way.
Ride 550m up the 6km of switchbacks of the Gannaga Pass. Explore the escarpment on a mountain bike or by foot. Swim. Read. At night, get star struck.
In winter, there is always a roaring fire. If you're snowed in, make a snow woman.
R600pp or R900 for two people per night in the farmhouse or the stalls. Kliphuis sleeps four, at R1,200 per night.
See or call 079-922-1688.

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