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Into the Karoo - a Photography and eBiking Road-trip.

As it so often does, this adventure started while sharing a bottle of wine with friends Bruce and Sharon. We’d been chatting about some of the amazing cycle rides and photographic trips we’d had over the past few years and the Tankwa Karoo National Park popped up. It’s one of our favourite places and we had unfinished business in the area - having ridden up the formidable Ouberg Pass near Sutherland on motorbikes, we now wanted to ride down it on our ebikes. So we put together a route - Karoo National Park to start with (it’s been ages since we’d been there), onwards on the backroads via Oukloof Pass and Fraserberg to a little farm stay called Blesfontein Guest Farm right on the edge of the Roggeveld Escarpment. From there we’d tackle Ouberg en route to Elandsberg Camp in the Tankwa Karoo National Park.

We’d always thought that the Karoo National Park just outside Beaufort West in the Western Cape was a small little National Park with a few mountain zebra wandering about the place. Well, not so! Certainly it’s located on the edge of the town but at 90 000ha it’s hardly small and there’s way more to it than mountain zebra - way more!

The beautiful rest camp at Karoo National Park. A stitch of 4 individual photographs in Adobe Lightroom. Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70mm lens. 1/40 sec at f11. ISO 100

We checked in, unpacked and headed out on our first game drive towards Lammertjiesleegte in the east of the Park - just a short one as it was late in the day - longer drives would have to wait for the next day. Game viewing was good - look, its not the same high intensity parade of wildlife that one sees when Kruger is at its optimum, but we came across good sightings of kudu, hartebeest, ostrich and, of course, mountain zebra. We’re used to working out of game drive vehicles so being confined to our relatively small Pajero swb took a little getting used to, but the versatile Sony 200 - 600mm lens on my A1 and Pat’s 70 - 350mm lens on her Sony A6600 worked well in the confined space, Pat working out of the left window and me on the right, sometimes shooting across each other when circumstances permitted.

One of the attractions of the Karoo National Park are the magnificent vistas and I zoomed out to 200mm show off the dramatic mountains. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/320 sec at F7,1 ISO 500.

It was just after sunrise in the Lammertjiesleegte area when we came across this small herd of zebra, their fur and the gorgeous blond grass backlit by the early morning sun. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/320 sec at F6,3. ISO 500

The next morning we headed up Klipspringer Pass, the first part of the 45 km Potlekkertjie Loop. The steep tar road winds its way up the Nuweveld Mountains (once on top gravel replaces the tar), the early morning sun lighting up its rocky crags. We stopped at some of the view sites along the way, shooting with my wider 14 - 24mm and 24 - 70mm Sigma Art lenses, looking for interesting landscapes and more graphic pics of the outcrops and valleys. Alas, there were fewer animals and bird sightings here than at Lammertjiesleegte, but the scenery was breathtaking and we shot a bunch of pics including some multi-image panoramas that we’d later stitch into panoramas in Adobe Lightroom.

Incredible views of the Karoo from the view site at the top of Klipspringer Pass. Shot on the Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70mm lens. 1/60 sec at f9. ISO 100.

We reluctantly left Karoo National Park (after a really enjoyable stay there) taking what I think is the P0584 - a farm road towards Fraserberg that takes in the Oukloof Pass up the Nuweveld Mountains. It was our intention to ride the Kloof on our ebikes, taking it in turns to drive the vehicles but we’d grossly underestimated how long it would take to do the 280km journey to Blesfontein Guest Farm just outside Sutherland. Riding Oukloof would, alas, have to wait for another time.

Sutherland is one of the (if not the) coldest places in South Africa and we arrived at the nearby Blesfontein at about the same time as a wild, windy cold front blew in. The dull overcast weather combined with the flat bossie covered Roggeveld seemed to offer little in the way of photographic opportunities so we set up a crackling wood fire in the hearth of our chalet and prepared for coffee and, later, some other warming beverages. How wrong can one be? I should know at this stage that, the worse the weather, the better the photographs.

We stopped for coffee after negotiating the Oukloof Pass that tracks the Koekemoers River up the Nuweveld Mountains. A stitch of 4 photographs shot on the Sony ZV-1. 1/250 at f4. ISO 100.

I looked out the window. Outside the land was ablaze with lovely warm afternoon light contrasting with the dark brooding clouds that had blown in. Panic! WHERE’S MY CAMERA? I grabbed the closest thing - my “every day carry” the little Sony ZV-1 and bolted for the door. They say that when there is nothing to photograph, shoot the light. And I did. It was wonderful and it didn’t seem to stop. Even after the sun had set the magic continued with small shafts of warm light spotlighting clouds in a sea of blue. A windmill, a dam, all looking awesome, juxtaposed against a dark brooding sky. As I trudged back to our room, now freezing cold (well, there was no time to dress appropriately) a previous blog post I had written popped into mind. One’s inclined to thing that “I’ve got the shot” or “the light’s bad” and write off further photography. Well, the shoot’s not over until it’s properly over! Remember that. And one day I might even take my own advice….

There’s an old photographic expression attributed to American press photographer Weegee (1899 - 1968) who when asked how he got his amazing photographs said, “f8 and be there”. And that applies - it was cold, windy and rainy yet if I wasn’t there I would never have seen this…

Not the most pleasant place - cold, windy and a drop or two of rain. Photographically though, it was gorgeous. Sony ZV-1. 1/30 at f4. ISO 100.

It was freezing the next morning as we headed out on our bikes. (click here to read about the mountain biking at Blesfontein). The mercury had dropped below zero overnight and even though we were wrapped up in our best cold weather gear our eyes and noses dripped in response to the icy cold onslaught, the occasional splatting of rain/sleet not helping matters. We were headed to the escarpment about 5km away and it was worth the ride. It seemed as though we were on the edge of the world, the whole of the Tankwa Basin, 1000m below us, stretching to the Cederberg Mountains in the distance. If only the light wasn’t so flat and miserable…

If you're into mountain biking you may like to check out our Blesfontein ride report.

We stood and stared - the views from the top of the Roggeveld Escarpment into the Tankwa Basin were unbelievable. Sony ZV-1. 1/200 at f4. ISO 100.

That afternoon, in spite of the grey overcast weather Bruce and I loaded the cameras into the Pajero and headed to the escarpment, hoping for some of the previous day’s magic. Well, what greeted us will take a way better writer than me to describe - I’ll let the photographs do that. Suffice it to say that it was breathtaking. It was also incredibly cold, the strong easterly wind threatening to blow us off the top of the cliff, the rain and sleet not making things any easier. The worse the weather, the better the pics… Tripods were the order of the day, my new Leofoto LS-284CEX keeping things steady in the blustery conditions. A very happy Bruce and I returned to warm log fires and equally warming beverages.

It was one of the most dramatic, wild scenes that I have been in - I set the camera up on my tripod and Bruce pushed the shutter release (couldn’t get my remote release to work! Grrrr!). Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70 ART lens. 1/250 sec at F11 ISO 100.

The following morning, now en route to the Tankwa Karoo National Park, Bruce and I rode down Ouberg Pass on our bikes while Pat and Sharon picked their way slowly down the steep, rutted, 1:6 gradients in the cars, both the Pajero and Land Rover in 1st gear, low range. The riding was good and, now in much warmer conditions, we continued along the Tankwa gravel roads for about 30km before jumping into the cars to get to the National Park in time. By this stage Pat and Sharon, desperate for a ride, managed to get in a similar distance as Bruce and I drove to Elandsberg Camp where we were staying, unpacked and cooked supper in time for their arrival.

On the way down Ouberg Pass - a stitch of 4 photographs shot on the little Sony ZV-1 that I carry while cycling.

Tankwa Karoo National Park is hardly about game viewing. Sure you see the occasional herd of springbok, oryx and, if you’re lucky an African wild cat but, for us anyway, it’s about the vistas and solitude. And the riding. The roads and tracks can be a little sandy in places but it’s part of the fun and lowering the tyre pressures helps no end.

Do have a look at our Tankwa ride report.

Shot from the door of our chalet: this little Cape bunting was sipping water from a leaky pipe a few metres away. The 200 - 600 was not quite long enough so I switched the full frame camera to APS-C format and enjoyed an effective 1,5X increase in focal length. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/2500 sec at F6,3 ISO 500.

They’re cute, but man four-striped field mice are fast so I have quite a few pics of empty rocks! This is the same location as the Cape bunting images and I was very happy to get them as they are not easy to shoot in the wild. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/2500 sec at F6,3 ISO 500.

The dry conditions and a slightly leaky water pipe at our chalet attracted all manner of beasties and sitting against a nearby wall with the 200 - 600mm Sony enabled me to pick off some very useful pics of Cape buntings and four-striped field mice. The early morning and late afternoon light is wonderful for landscapes, the difficult thing being to find some structure or other subject to include in the photograph. We did shoot some star trails with pretty good results but a fairly bright moon meant that conditions weren’t optimal for night sky shooting.

We’ll be back for more. We still need to ride up Ouberg Pass on our ebikes (😳😳😳) and, in spite of a number of attempts to ride Oukloof Pass, it still eludes is. Next time then…

I focussed this low angle shot on the little bush in the centre of the road and had Bruce, Sharon and Pat ride past on either side of me resulting in a slightly “different view of mountain bikers. Sony ZV-1. 1/169 at f10. ISO 100.

We thoroughly enjoy the chalets at ELandsberg Camp at Tankwa Karoo National Park - they are large, very comfortable and have stunning views over the park. Sony ZV-1. 1/500 at f4. ISO 100.

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