Frenchmen on the Moon: Encounters with Klipvis in the Tanqua Karoo


The long road: The R355 from Ceres to Calvinia in the heart of the Tanqua Karoo. Beware of lurking ‘klipvis’!

Since I began my studies in botany, I have found myself using all sorts of weird and wonderful objects for the purpose for which they were not intended in the name of scientific research. I have processed seed collections using a toilet brush. A car floor mat is also an excellent and most useful tool for this.

In this spirit about 18 months ago I was hunting for corner markers for vegetation survey plots that could be hammered successfully into concrete hard renosterveld clay soils. What better than tent pegs… I had recently brought a lovely new tent and its pegs jumped into my fieldwork box and headed off to the field. The tent pegs worked perfectly and stayed in my fieldwork box. I thought no more of it until last weekend….

I was keen to attend a meeting for the Karoo Biogaps Project in the small town of Matjiesfontein, about three hours out of Cape Town, just that little bit too far to comfortably drive alone for one day. I found a couple of friends to join; “Oh you can also give us a lift to Afrika Burn at the same time. Don’t worry, just a small detour. Camp with us then you can drive back the next day…”. Plan made.

Afrika Burn is South Africa’s equivalent of the Burning Man festival. It is held each year in the middle of the Tanqua Karoo, South Africa’s driest desert. Each year around 10,000 people converge in the desert dust in this remote corner of the country. Vast sculptures grow, art, creativity and performance are shared, memories are made and much fun is had.

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Top: This charming soul greets visitors as they arrive at Stonehenge NR, the site of the famous Afrika Burn festival. Above: Sculpture at Stonehenge Nature Reserve. Photo © Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


We left Cape Town on Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, loaded two weeks worth of camping gear into my small car in the dark and headed north. With the meeting and talks complete, we headed with colleagues for a field visit to a farm east of Matjiesfontein.

There we asked the farmer for directions for our onward journey; “Take the road to the left, take the middle fork and head along the river. There you will find a good road. Keep going until you reach the main road”. It seemed straightforward enough.

As we headed west the road conditions rapidly deteriorated. We inched our way over endless corrugations too deep to ride over at speed, with intermittent rivers of sand and sharp corners, heading uphill, heading downhill. Progress was painfully slow as we rattled our way westwards towards the ‘main road’.

As dusk fell, the exhaust pipe fell off. We peered into the half-light to fix it back on. The brake light also fell off the back window, swinging pathetically by its wire. We had been driving for four hours and had not seen a soul.

Further back we had passed a farm offering guest accommodation, with an optimistic cellphone number on the sign. The last cellphone reception we had found was five hours away from this achingly beautiful and remote corner of the Karoo desert.

Apparently, I was told, there are wild beasts lurking along the R355, the main road between Ceres and Calvinia. This road is one of the remotest in South Africa and bisects the Tanqua Karoo from north to south. It was here our journey would lead us to get to the main Afrika Burn site.

These wild beasts are known as ‘klipvis’ or rockfish translated literally from Afrikaans. This is the name given to the sharp stones that line this road, famous for being thrown up by vehicles and slashing car tyres.

The side of the R355 is lined with dead car tyres, slashed to pieces by the attack of the klipvis. It didn’t inspire confidence. My friend Dave kindly informed me that in attending no less than eight Afrika Burn Festivals, not once had he made it there without getting a puncture. We were prepared, or so we thought…


View across the vast open spaces of the Tanqua Karoo west towards the Cederberg Mountains in the distance, including the appropriately named ‘Tafelberg’. Photo © Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


Onwards we drove northwards into the night. When we were almost there we heard the dreaded hissing sound of my now rapidly deflating tyre. We pulled off the road and with great purpose hauled out the spare tyre and jack. Unfortunately, some helpful soul who replaced my car tyre previously had done up the wheel nuts far too tight and left it impossible to undo. We were left with a cracked wheel spanner and going nowhere.

There is something very humbling about being truly stuck in the middle of nowhere. Nobody knew where we were and the nearest cellphone reception was but a distant memory. There was nothing to do but to wait for help to come past. And we had no clue how long that could be. We were stuck on South Africa’s remotest road several hundred kilometres from the nearest town. We sat and we waited. Not a headlight or a car in sight.

There was nothing for it but to hunker down for the night. There was a strong wind howling across the desert, making our compulsory roadside stop a truly uninviting campsite.

The one thing that would make this moment feel better was some dinner. We were well prepared with two weeks worth of food and a big gas stove with which to cook it….. “Where are the matches?”. The phrase that strikes impending doom and fear of starvation into the most determined of campers. The matches were not there….we thought happy in their absence tucked up safe and warm somewhere in Cape Town, as far away as they could be from this dark and windy roadside.

We desperately burrowed in the food supplies to hunt down what the raw food diet had on the menu for the night. There were potatoes and butternuts to sink a battleship. Enough dried pasta to feed a small army. We had many things that were inedible without being cooked. A squished pear emerged and was carefully placed to one side.

A few minutes later I found a hungry cricket licking his chops and tucking into our only pear. Clearly big juicy pears don’t land regularly in this corner of the Tanqua Karoo. The cricket looked like Christmas dinner had just arrived. I have never seen a pear so well enjoyed before.

I was so hungry at that moment cold tinned tomatoes looked like the best food on earth. We settled on chickpeas and salad. Not quite the King’s banquet we’d planned but enough to stop our stomachs eating their insides in the night. Dinner was lovingly prepared and just as we were about to tuck in THE MATCHES TURNED UP!

Suddenly a whole new world of culinary diversity and hot food opened before our very eyes. Soon the stove was bubbling and gnocchi was added to the menu. Never have I enjoyed a meal so much as that night.


Above: Desperate times: Our rudimentary roadside desert camp. Photo © Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


Stomachs full and purring contentedly in the heaven that is cooked food in the Tanqua wilderness we put up our tents and prepared to bed down for the night. And suddenly there was a beautiful sound of an engine in the far distance and lights appeared on the horizon. It seemed we were to be rescued after all. The lights grew closer.

We flagged down a big green truck: The Dag n’ Nag freight services. Sadly they did not have the tools we needed. We could do nothing but look on forlornly as they drove off into the night.

We had erected our tents without fly sheets as clearly, it was not going to rain in South Africa’s driest desert. By this point, the wind had picked up even more. We went to bed but I lay awake, trying to sleep in a tent in such high winds was like being in the stomach of some bright blue wild animal that was trying to fight its way to freedom. My weight was the only thing stopping the whole thing from flying away to some distant corner of the Cederberg Mountains.

Eventually, I dropped off to sleep but then woke with a start an hour or so later. It was 4 am and a drop of water landed on my nose. It was raining. In the Tanqua Karoo. Nothing like the thought of impending sogginess to bring a person to their senses and the guys leapt up to put on the fly sheets.

And then… I heard words that brought memories flooding back… “Where are the tent pegs?…….” Oh dear. My tent pegs were very far away…happily tucked up in our garage in Cape Town in my fieldwork box. In our bug-eyed state, a plan was made. Rocks and the spare car tyre were carefully attached to the guy ropes and we headed back to bed once more.

At 5 am the next morning our saviours arrived. They came driving a 1960s Chevvy truck formerly owned by Tropicana with green lights on the roof. They were three French solar pump engineers, whose names we never did find out. With good humour and better tools, they changed our flat tyre in a flash. If this was you and you are reading this, I thank you deeply. The rescue was sweet, so sweet.


Above: Rain in the desert: The rare sight of thunderstorms in the Tanqua. Photo © Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


We grabbed a couple more hours of sleep and emerged as daylight came. It felt as though we had landed on the moon. There was little vegetation surrounding us in this dry, dry desert. The Tanqua Karoo is also one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Our makeshift camp came with spectacular views across the dry stony flats towards the Cederberg Mountains in the distance.

We packed up camp and headed onwards, as our French saviours had kindly informed us that we had broken down just 3 km from the turnoff to the Afrika Burn Festival site. By the site of the road at the junction, we found none other than a farming couple who had set up a tent offering tyre repairs, vetkoek and coffee. After I’d dropped the guys off I returned and was fussed over like mother hen and tucked into delicious vetkoek with apricot jam and cheese washed down by beautiful coffee.

Meanwhile, my tyre was repaired, Karoo style. A piece of wood was carefully carved to the right size and glued into the hole. I was sent on my way, homeward bound. As I passed our camping spot once more a pair of bat-eared foxes trotted across the road. I like to think they were keeping us company that dark and windy night by the R355.




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