“This is our BEYOND LOCKDOWN Story: 9000km, nine diverse provinces, a dozen ecosystems, hundreds of handshakes and hugs, and a thousand smiles … this is exactly what ‘With You for the Long Run’ is all about.”

The ‘Rainbow Nation’. This is how the irrepressible Archbishop Desmond Tutu often referred to South Africa, and with good reason. When you head northwards onto the N7 from Cape Town, you watch as Table Mountain – one of the ‘seven natural wonders of the world’ – recedes in your rear-view mirror, while the tapestry of wheat and canola fields of the Swartland unfolds up ahead.

You immediately get the feeling that this is the start of an important journey, and it definitely does not take long for the scenery to start changing. Within a couple of hours, the rugged Cederberg peaks begin to boom skywards to the north-east, with the desolate Knersvlakte undulating westwards towards the freezing Atlantic Ocean. We could certainly not have chosen a better place to start our BEYOND LOCKDOWN journey …

Now is probably is a good idea to tell you more about our expedition … I mean, the winter sun is beaming in across the Western Cape’s diverse scenery and next to me, in the driver’s seat, is Peter Van Kets, my world-famous adventurer mate; And if you don’t know me yet, I am ‘Die Oom’, an award-winning adventure photo-journalist and author, and in this case, the storyteller about to spirit you away on our incredible expedition.

The author, Jacques Marais.

This would be our fourth ‘Beyond Expeditions’ project in a series of African adventures, driven by ISUZU and supported by DUNLOP, all while exploring the breathtaking outdoor playground that is the African continent. Our original intention this year was a four-country journey with a focus on desert rhino conservation, but as they say in the classics: “then COVID happened”. We therefore completely re-imagined our 2020 plans and came up with the concept for ‘BEYOND LOCKDOWN’.

First off, we wanted to symbolise that there will be an eventual end to all the mental dissonance and financial pressures around the hard lockdown, and secondly, we felt we had to find ways to help those who have been hardest hit by the lockdown. “There is no denying the devastating effects the pandemic has wreaked on the lives of ordinary South Africans in the local tourism-, travel- and hospitality industry”, explains Peter Van Kets. “Our mission will be to help those small community operators at grass-roots level by creating visual collateral for them and exposing their businesses to our extensive social media networks”.

Peter van Kets.

And the best way to do this would be to take the road! Our never-say-die Isuzu vehicles and the indestructible Dunlop Grandtrek Tyres made for the perfect partners as we went feral along a clockwise route meandering through some of SA’s wildest and most remote corners. Deep inside, we felt this would be our most meaningful and heartfelt journey yet, connecting a dozen or more community tourism operations left reeling due to the pandemic meltdown.

Read on and join us as we depart on three unforgettable weeks of adventure, tripping deep into the heartland of this incredible country we call home. These are just a few of the incredible characters we met and the breathtaking destinations we got to experience …

The team’s Isuzu Mux and D-Max vehicles were fitted with Dunlop Grandtrek Tyres.

My Name is Oubaas…

Namaqua West Coast | Doringbaai

“This is the dorpie that I grew up in”, explains Oubaas ‘Johannes Denzel’ Gertse as he rows his tiny wooden ‘bakkie’ boat onto the windswept Olifants River estuary, nodding obliquely in the direction of the mission village of Papendorp sprawling along the river bank. There are fifty, maybe sixty, houses dotting the Strandveld shoreline, and most of the people who live here are subsistence fishermen, depending on the river and nearby ocean to feed their families and themselves. “It is a hard life, but it is a beautiful life”, he says in Afrikaans, wistfully patting Blackie, his little dog perched on the gunnel next to him.

Papendorp is pretty much as far off the beaten track as any tourist can get, languishing at the very end of the R326 district road. To get there, you have to turn off the N7 at Vanrhynsdorp, and then cruise via the ‘bossieveld’ of the Knersvlakte region until you hit the forgotten stretch of coastline undulating here along the remote edge of the Maskam Municipality. Diamond smugglers, kreef divers and bokkom fishermen used to be the only visitors, but these days, die Weskus is nou die ‘beskus’ – www.namaquawestcoast.com

My Name is !Xopan…

Kgalagadi Desert | Bokspits 

“Ek ken hierdie duine soos die palm van my hand. Dis mos my strate dié … dis waar ek loop, want dié is my plek. Ek is ‘n Kalahari Kind. Ek is ‘n trotse Boesman. Ek is !Xopan”!

It was an icy day when we met !Xopan in the dunes of Erin Game Ranch, a !Khomani San Community Farm near Bokspits on the Northern Cape’s Red Dune Route. Together with the inimitable Vinkie Van der Westhuizen, he took us on one of the most authentic Kgalagadi experiences I’ve had in all my life.

It was freezing, and at one stage !Xopan had to borrow my down jacket to keep the biting cold at bay, as he was only in a loincloth to show how his forefathers would have hunted a hundred or more years ago. His spirit and smile never wavered, though, and that night he regaled us with impossibly tall Kalahari tales as we tucked into traditional Noord-Kaap fare around their flickering Kalahari fires.

‘Khomani’ means the ‘forgotten people’, but – like the blood-orange sand of the Red Dune Route – you will find it impossible to erase them from your memory once you experience their encyclopaedic knowledge of the arid veldt, or witness their rich, yet humble and unfettered, lives – www.khomanisan.co.za

My Name is PC…

Karoo Gariep Conservancy | Hanover 

We have left behind the seas of sand shaping the vast swathe of the #Kalahari, and sailed the tarmac tides into the heart of an endless grassland ocean. YR.NO pinpoints us at ‘Faugh a Ballagh’ – an ancient Irish war cry translated as ‘Clear the Way’ – but our view from a lone koppie looks across the ‘mini-serengeti’ of the Karoo-Gariep Nature Reserve.

PC Ferreira and his family are deeply rooted to this land upon the sedge-lined shores of the windswept Seekoei River. “Here on the Gariep plains, it is about more than just family, though”, he explains. “No man can be an island: our workers, our neighbours, our friends, they are all family, and the only way we’re going to ever get through this COVID thing is to stand together”

That night, I think about the hard road ahead as I sit on a shale-shocked outcrop while shooting the billion-star sky. But tomorrow looms, and we will bullet down a gold-washed jeep track; paddle the glacial chop of the Seekoei and stand entranced at the petroglyphs dating back to when Khoisan ranged upon these plains – www.karoograpiep.co.za

My Name is Galefele…

North West | Mahikeng 

Around three decades ago, I was joined on a weekend quest into the thorny back-country of #Bophutatswana, then a so-called independent ‘homeland’ or Bantustan. My fellow adventurers were an Australian, a Brit and a Dutchman (and yes, I know it sound like a joke just waiting for a corny punchline).

At the time, Paul Newling, Gijs Labaar, Neil Ingham and I worked with the Anglo American Corporation, based in Klerksdorp, of all places, and the best way to survive mining anti-culture was to get the hell out of Dodge whenever the opportunity presented itself. Which is why we ended up at a shebeen near Mahikeng (then #Mafikeng), paying our Black Label school fees in 750ml instalments.

The following morning, we woke in sleeping bags, to a sub-zero dawn and scattered around my old Mercedes 240 Diesel in a roadside picnic spot. Massively hung over and in need of immediate sustenance, the best we could do at the time was to find a Wimpy and regroup over oily bacon, hash-browns and weak coffee. This was when we recalled the tales of Lotlamoreng Cultural Village. One of the ‘Kidarele Bar & Lounge’ locals had regaled us with a story of this famous Zulu sangoma constructing a tourist village nearby, and this sounded like a damn fine babbelaas plan.

We eventually found Lotlamoreng and got to meet the incredible Credo Mutwa. It was a bizarre day of bone throwing and strange portents, and over the years, I’ve kept in touch with Lotlamoreng, which somehow this connected me with  Galefele Matlhwăi Molema, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time during our Beyond Lockdown road trip.

Story telling, Groot Merico Style.

“We sometimes bring the Boy Scouts here, but other than that, nobody visits the statues”, Galefele explains. “That’s why a few friends and I began the ‘Mahikeng Cultural Society’ so that we could try to preserve the statues. I mean, this really is ‘Afro-Sci Fi in it’s infancy, and Credo captured the whole concept of chituari, or alien beings, perfectly here”.

It was such a privilege to have this considered, intellectual and gentle-hearted giant of a man as our guide and interpreter to the Lotlamoreng story. The village is unfortunately in disrepair, and is minimally maintained only through the passion of Galefele and a handful of colleagues … www.tourismnorthwest.co.za / mahikengsociety@gmail.com

My Name is Romy…

Mariepskop | Hoedspruit 

Today, we stood atop Mariepskop, named for the erstwhile Pedi Chief, Maripi, and as in Karen Blixen’s book, ‘Out of Africa’, we felt the energy of this remarkable continent deep within our bones. And once again, we could only marvel at the diversity we are blessed with here in this intoxicating country of ours.

This raw and uncharted assemblage of gritty peaks, eroded ridges and looming sandstone walls slab up from the Lowveld plains and technically forms part of the northernmost part of the Drakensberg ranges. Mariepskop (and the hide-away village of Phiring nearby) was our 7th provincial stopover and is a section of South Africa that I recall vaguely from many a family road trip up to KrugerNP when I was a child.

The dramatic Mariepskop itself was terra incognito for all of us, though. We ascended via a rutted track winding first via scraggly plantations and then primary Afromontane forests, before you eventually boom onto the unexpectedly vast fynbos summit.

The protea, restios and heather seem completely out of place, and you could as well be lost in the Groot Winterhoek wilderness of the Western Cape mountains. We were joined by ecologists from the ‘Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region’, who shared valuable input on the ecological importance of this incredible ‘Conservation South Africa’ project.

“Mariepskop rates as one of the best kept secrets in all of Mpumalanga”, enthuses Romy Antrobus-Wuth, one of our K2C BIOSPHERE guides, while we gaze in awe at the panorama from atop the 1900m summit. “It’s an incredibly special place and the biodiversity is totally unexpected as you climb from thorn-veldt savanna into cool Afromontane woodland, where evergreen yellowwoods, ficus, white stinkwoods and cabbage trees compete for the light, supporting dense stands of tree orchids and blankets of clivias on the forest floor”.

The vision for the ‘Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere Reserve is to become reclaim the ancient migratory routes for a wide range of fauna, while simultaneously establishing a protective area for the incredible bird life found within the wide-ranging biomes. The species count for the region in total is approximately 300, and includes grassland, forest and fynbos species.

What really excited us was their eco-tourism dream, and Peter Van Kets and I soon went feral within the untamed Mariepskop wilds, crawling through caves, jumping rock fissures and slithering amidst the dense undergrowth. Believe me, this is an untapped adventure playground, with untold trails, tracks and routes for trekking, trail running, rock climbing, mountain biking and outdoor adventure enthusiasts.

Hidden gems such as the breathtaking Klaserie waterfall see the eponymous river tumble along dozens of rock-slab steps before veiling into the forest thickets far below. Or you can hike into a wild kloof from Phriring Village, joining young and enthusiastic ‘From the Region for the Region’ eco-monitors for a day brimming with traditional culture and adventure. Best of all, this is but one of a hundred experiences awaiting you within Mpumalanga, the ‘Province of the Rising Sun’ – www.kruger2canyons.org

Taking the Road for Beyond Expeditions

The above excerpts are just a few of the local tourism projects we managed to highlight and support with our BEYOND LOCKDOWN Expedition, proudly driven by Isuzu and Dunlop. It will be impossible to revisit all those quirky characters we met during our 9 000km journey, and I wish it was somehow possible to personally introduce you to each and every one of them…

Drinking 70% proof mampoer with the ‘Donkieboer of Maratwane’; pedaling the streets of Jozi with Eelco Meyjes, all while viewing astounding graffiti art over the handlebars of our bikes; or free-diving into the vodka-clear ‘Marico Eye’, an inland dive site where the visibility and underwater scenes are sure to blow your mind.

We sated ourselves at a Harvest Festival table set under the spreading canopy of an ancient tree with the magnificent ‘Mountain Foodies’ of Magoebaskloof, and then reconnected with Mother Nature in the indigenous forests of Kurisa Moya. The rugged Mariepskop looming up from the Mpumalanga Lowveldt blew our minds with cliffs, chasms and crevices; we were seduced by the ocean adventures (and palm wine, and age-old fish kraal traditions) of the incredible Thongaland Region of iSimangaliso; and there is so much to love about the iconic Hole-in-the-Wall and Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast that I’m tongue-tied just thinking about it …

So, please see this as the beginning of beautiful travel tale, capturing but the tip of our local tourism iceberg … And yes, to do it justice, I will have to write a story about each of these destinations, and each of the characters, and each of their superlative adventures. Even then, I will not come close to capturing the grand scale of everything Mzantsi has to offer.

Here’s the thing: there is no other country like South Africa anywhere else in the world. And now that you can travel again, it is up to you to play local and stay local … Go on, visit these remarkable people and places, and help them rebuild the tourism industry that lies at the heart of our Rainbow Nation.

Tune into more of our Beyond Expeditions adventures at www.beyondexpeditions.co.za