What do you do when you’re in the Tankwa Karoo and you forgot to pack lamb chops for dinner? Gideon Brückner had to make a desperate plan.
Gideon Brückner gets chop fever in the Tankwa Karoo.
My wife Elsabé and I love the Tankwa Karoo and we travel there for weekends whenever we can. So it was this time: We both longed for crisp air in our lungs and to braai a few chops while looking out over Pramberg turning red at sunset. Elsabé made a few quick calls: She booked an overnight stop at Sadawa Game Reserve north of Touws River, followed by two nights in the Tankwa Karoo National Park. We left Somerset West early the following morning and filled up at De Doorns – petrol stations are scarce in the Tankwa. We turned off the N1 onto the R46 and headed into the great wide open. Soon we were at Sadawa. The next morning, a woman called Daleen who works at the game reserve showed us a sneaky short cut that would get us to the Tankwa Karoo National Park much faster. We headed off with joy in our hearts.
A couple of hours later, Elsabé sighed. “Oh, goodness,” she said in English. I knew it was trouble. My wife is from the old Western Transvaal and only resorts to English when something is really bad. The short cut road was horribly corrugated. Since I was already holding the steering wheel of the VW Tiguan quite tightly, she didn’t notice how my grip intensified. I glanced over at her. “What’s the matter?” I asked, assuming that she was upset by the state of the road. But it was much, much worse. “I forgot to take our meat out of the freezer at Sadawa.” Now I clenched the steering wheel with everything I had. I had heard her just fine, but I wished I hadn’t. In my mind’s eye, I was
standing over a bed of red-hot coals, holding an ice-cold beer. But this mental picture lacked a crucial detail: There were no mutton chops spitting fat as they sizzled on the grid. We were already 140 km from the game reserve and turning around wasn’t an option: We had to watch our fuel level and we’d already survived two hours of corrugations. Surely we’d be able to get a braai pack from the little shop at the national park? “We have some bacon and eggs,” Elsabé said, searching for a silver lining. “That should get us through tonight and tomorrow…” But she knew it and I knew it: Bacon and eggs are fine, but they’re not chops on the braai. We drove on in silence and when we arrived at the park reception office, the woman behind the counter told us what we didn’t want to hear: “We don’t sell any meat. You’ll have to drive to Middelpos, 50 km from here.” Our shoulders slumped. It was noon on a Saturday and it had been a tiring drive. But we had to have chops. “Why don’t we drive to Middelpos tomorrow and see?” Elsabé suggested. “On a Sunday? What if the shop is closed?” We asked the receptionist to please phone Middelpos. “They’re closed on Sundays,” she reported back. “And they close at 1 pm on a Saturday.” By now it was 12.10 pm. Elsabé took the leap: “We could make it if we leave now.” I turned to the receptionist. “What is the shop called?” “It’s called Die Winkel,” she said. “There’s only one shop in Middelpos.” She could see that we were beyond help, but she could also probably sense our desperation. “It rained in the Renosterberg last night,” she said. “Drive carefully!”
We were already making long strides towards the Tiguan. The road was good for the first few kilometres and I pushed the speed limit, but a bit further on a dust cloud loomed. I prayed that it would be a car travelling in the opposite direction, or one that would soon turn off. Overtaking is difficult on these roads. Just before we got to the foot of Gannaga Pass, the dust cloud disappeared. Yes! But then I had to hit the brakes. The road was heavily rutted, most likely due to floodwater having rushed across. The Tiguan shuddered and nearly skidded, but I maintained control. “Look!” Elsabé shouted. My heart sank. Up ahead on the pass, we saw a police van – the source of the dust cloud. The reason the cloud had disappeared was because the van was driving so slowly, blocking our way to the most coveted chops in all of the Karoo. The driver of the van was taking great care up the pass. Overtaking wasn’t an option: Gannaga Pass is way too narrow and windy, with a steep drop-off on one side and cliffs on the other. It was 12.30 pm. At this point, Elsabé wavered. “Let’s relax,” she said. “Why don’t we just turn back and enjoy the afternoon at our chalet?” But I was beyond reason. My yearning for a picture-perfect Karoo braai had turned my heart dark as coal. A lust for meat had taken hold of me. I had chop fever, and there’s only one cure for chop fever: lamb chops! The Tiguan also seemed to have succumbed to the fever, like it too wanted to feast on a carcass come nightfall. In front of us, infuriatingly, the police van pottered along, blissfully unaware of our desperation. We reached the top of the pass and I overtook the van near Gannaga Lodge. Middelpos was still 20 km away. The muddy road snaked around a koppie and the Tiguan leant into it with gusto. “There’s a Shell garage in Middelpos,” Elsabé said, looking at Google Maps on her phone. “They always have a little shop at a Shell. We can check there if Die Winkel is closed.” It was 1.10 pm when we tobogganed into town. I prayed silently that the shop would still be open. We saw the Shell first: two fuel pumps and a quiver tree. Next door was Die Winkel, where we came to a halt in a cloud of dust. Two people exited the shop carrying plastic bags. It was open! We ran inside, just in case someone was waiting to close the door. The only shop in Middelpos was very much like the general dealers you used to see in the platteland. Elsabé and I split up like hungry dogs, sniffing the shelves on the trail of meat and meat alone. Elsabé found the freezer first and started digging. But all she managed to find was offcuts, more suited for making soup. No chops. We waited for the cashier to serve the last customers, then we approached. The news was bad. “We’re out of chops, I’m afraid,” he said. “But let me see what I can do. How much meat are you looking for?” Hope flickered in my heart. “Say about four chops and some boerewors?” I asked tentatively, hoping not to sound too greedy. “Okay, wait here,” he said. He walked to his bakkie, got in and drove away. Minutes later he returned, carrying a frozen pack of chops and another pack of frozen boerewors. He even apologised! “It’s a tweetand ewe,” he said. “Sorry about that. Let’s make it R110 for the lot.” I was so elated I couldn’t care less how old the sheep was when it became chops. And I would have paid R500 – or more. I counted the money hurriedly and handed it over, worried that the bounty would disappear in front of my eyes.
Back at the top of Gannaga Pass, we stopped at the viewsite and looked out over the beautiful Tankwa below. We felt like we’d won the lotto. The two life-saving packages were next to us on a rock, thawing in the sun. As we drove down the pass, we started planning dinner. Should we have our meat with baked potatoes, sour cream and leeks, or maybe with some mieliepap tart? “We’ll make both!” Elsabé decided. Back inside the park, we found our way to our chalet in the Elandsberg wilderness camp and climbed stiffly from the Tiguan. I opened the boot to take out our precious cargo. I looked at Elsabé and she looked at me. No, it couldn’t be. We checked the back seat of the car. Nothing. We checked the boot again. Still nothing. And then I saw it: The two packs of frozen meat, still thawing on a rock at the top of Gannaga Pass…