4 days along the Molopo
The Molopo River starts in Lichtenburg, where it bubbles out of the ground, and ends near Augrabies where it joins the majestic Orange River. This is how one follows it from eye to mouth.
When travelling from Gauteng to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Richtersveld, you’d probably take the quick and easy N14 through the southern Kalahari. There is, however, an alternative to this dead-straight highway: a dirt road less travelled that follows the Molopo River.
The Molopo is rather enigmatic, as nobody is certain where its source lies nor how old it is. Geologists suspect that the Molopo River as we know it today is relatively young in geological terms. At one of its possible sources, it flows strongly and then it suddenly recedes in a clump of reeds. A few kilometres farther, its dry bed winds through a valley that could only have been carved by a giant river – something the Molopo isn’t. At one point the Molopo disappears utterly after it flattens out on a pan surrounded by dunes… and just a few kilometres on, the river pops up again amid rocky ridges.
We followed this vague and furtive river to see if we could make sense of it.
THE ROUTE STARTS at Lichtenburg in the North West Province. There are a few fountains in and around this town, and any (or all) of them could be the true source of the Molopo River. The river flows mostly underground and only occasionally comes up for air.
Take the R505 regional road northward for 30 km until you reach a signpost directing you to the Molopo Eye. This fountain is generally regarded as the source of the Molopo, but according to research conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand that is not the case.
Back in the day, there used to be a holiday resort on the shore of the Molopo Eye, but the site has since been closed and you can only get access to the large fountain if one of the landowners next to it invites you there. If you don’t have permission or an invitation (As was the case with Cyril. – Ed), the watchman at the gate won’t allow you access.
Now drive 17 km westward to the famous Wondergat. This sinkhole is 15 stories deep and is fed by the
subterranean Molopo River. In the nineties it was a popular haunt for scuba divers, but nowadays it is considerably quieter at Wondergat and you should consider yourself lucky if there’s a diving event during your visit.
About 12 km west of Wondergat, the gravel road joins the R49 regional road at Buhrmansdrift and you turn left toward Mahikeng. Mahikeng is a hive of activity and people aren’t particularly bothered by traffic rules – so watch out. Head west on the N18 highway, turn right onto Bray Street and turn left (S25.86463 E25.60793) after 1,7 km on an unnamed paved road. This road leads you along the Molopo River to the Mmabatho and Disaneng dams that provide drinking water for the residents of Mahikeng. Halfway between the two dams (S25.86341 E25.44987), the tar road becomes a gravel road.
After 29 km you’ll arrive at the Disaneng settlement – turn right at a spaza shop (S25.79451 E25.24533), drive past a school and then cross the Molopo’s dry riverbed. On the outskirts of the settlement (S25.78146 E25.26492), follow a salmon-pink twin track through the bushveld (with the Molopo River on your left) to the border with Botswana.
Where the Molopo first touches the border, you’ll encounter one last puddle through which you can drive. Engage four-wheel drive and build up momentum, because it’s extremely muddy – this is also the last time the Molopo shows its water.
The wooded twin track follows the
border fence to the Makgobistadt border post – you can’t really manage faster than 30 km/h here – and from the border post you continue farther along the fence past Dinateng where the twin track joins a wide dirt road (S25 .75161 E24.48389). You can make up for lost time here, but keep your eyes peeled for donkeys and cattle that seem to deliberately walk into the road when you approach them.
Follow the road next to the Molopo River (now to your right) in a northwesterly direction to the Boshoek anti-stock theft police station and from there to the Paddon farm community where the R375 regional road continues farther north along the Molopo to Bray, followed by Donkerhoek, after which the Molopo curves down to the south and on to Mokopong.
The reason why the Molopo makes such a large half-circle turn is because it traces
go! Drive & Camp July 2019
This sinkhole is 15 stories deep and is fed by the subterranean Molopo River.
the upper rim of the Morokweng crater. This crater measures 70 km across and was formed by a 5 km wide asteroid which impacted here some 145 million years ago. The crater is no longer visible on the surface and it was only detected in 1994 when scientists studied shards of the asteroid found buried underground.
From Mokopong, follow the R379 directly southward to the Molopo Nature Reserve. It should be dusk by the time you arrive. Quickly pitch your tent in the Phiri camp and head over to a hide next to a nearby waterhole – with luck you’ll make it in time to see game taking turns to drink before they disappear into the bush for the night. After the braai, snug in your sleeping bag, you’ll hear brown hyenas sniffing around your tent, hoping to find T-bones and ribs.
THE NEXT MORNING, there’s plenty of time to drive around the reserve looking for wildebeest, eland, kudu, cheetah and the like. After a late breakfast you travel farther southwest, from the North West province to the Northern Cape, and back at the border fence in the Molopo’s parched bed.
Fifteen kilometres after leaving the reserve, you’ll reach your first farm gate – one of 47 (but it will soon feel like a hundred) on this stretch of road. At first there are four of them, on average 10 km
It should be dusk by the time you arrive. Quickly pitch your tent in the Phiri Camp and head over to a hide at a waterhole.
apart, and each one opens in a unique way. Some have a simple wire you loop over a post, while others resemble 3D brain teasers that require a bit of head scratching. None of the gates are secured with padlocks, but make sure you close each one behind you, unless the gate was already open when you arrived.
After the fourth gate, the gravel road grows increasingly wider and more corrugated until you reach the McCarthy’s Rest border post. A few metres before the border post (S26.20441 E22.57010) you take a twin track next to the border fence (it’s a light grey sandy track). After the seventh gate you may worry that you’ve gotten lost because weeds begin to obscure the tracks. It’s clearly not an oft-used trail and the only sign of civilisation is the perpetual border fence and intermittent concrete pillars with the abbreviation “RSA” stencilled on them.
By gate 10 the road once again shows signs of wear and you’ll occasionally come across a rusty windpump creaking in the riverbed. Now the gates follow faster and you must stop every 2 km or so and send your travel companion or child to wrestle them open. Gate 25 is secured with a padlock and you are forced to leave the Molopo here and turn south in the direction of Van Zylsrus. Tonight, you’ll sleep at the
Van Zylsrus hotel. Here you’ll be 25 km from the Molopo River – the farthest from it you’ll be during this trip.
You would have arrived relatively early at the hotel and there will be ample time for a power nap in an air-conditioned room or to float in the hotel’s swimming pool before sitting down to an à la carte dinner
AFTER A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP and breakfast, you head north to the Middelputs border post to resume your mission along the Molopo River. Shortly before the border post, turn left at a cattle chute (S26.68431 E21.88565) and follow a winding, rocky trail back to the Molopo. The road descends an ancient ravine to the dry riverbed below.
Geologists examining the sediments of the Kalahari determined that a forerunner of the Orange River carved this ravine in the Mesozoic era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. That river, however, has disappeared over the years and today the Molopo occasionally “flows” in the abandoned waterway of this once mighty river that never knew humankind.
Gate 31 is right in the riverbed, and over the next 50 km you will open and close another 17 gates. The surface of the twintrack ranges from hard soil to powdery sand that will torment adventure motorcyclists.
In the dry season, you won’t need to engage four-wheel drive, but your vehicle must at least have all-wheel drive and it’s highly recommended that you lower your tyre pressure. If it rained here recently, your convoy should consist of at least three vehicles. The Molopo quickly changes from mild gravel travel to a muddy nightmare known to seize even farm tractors.
After gate 47, the twin track rapidly turns into a bright white, graded gravel road that’ll take you to the Bokspits border post. Here you can decide if you want to follow the
The surface of the twin-track ranges from hard soil to powdery sand that will torment adventure motorcyclists.
red dunes along the Nossob
River northward to the Twee Rivieren rest camp to spend a few days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, or whether you want to follow the Molopo River southward to Andriesvale and visit the Molopo Kalahari Lodge. This lodge has a swimming pool where you can cool off and a bar where you can watch the Boks vs the All Blacks on a big-screen TV.
Guests often stay here rather than at Twee Rivieren because it’s more comfortable and private. They then drive 60 km to the park each morning and return to the lodge in the evenings.
THE NEXT MORNING you leave the Kalahari and follow the Molopo River southwards through the ZF Mgcawu district. The river is on your left, and there may be signs that it
recently held water. The river does indeed flow here, but only after heavy rains and even then, it moves slowly, and suffers the indignity of being absorbed by the ground before it gets the chance to reach the Orange River. Thorn trees and grasses grow in the Molopo’s dry bed and windpumps whistle cheerily in the Kalahari breeze while they fill zinc dams.
About 80 km after leaving Andriesvale, the Molopo disappears on a wide open plain called the Abiquaput. The then Union of South Africa’s director of irrigation, AD Lewis, noted in 1936 that a dune with a “thousand-year-old” camelthorn tree on it obstructed the flow of the Molopo River. According to Lewis, the dune forced the Molopo floodwaters in 1894 and again in 1918 onto the Abiquaput Pan where it got absorbed by the scorched earth.
The dune Lewis refers to remains (S27.31545 E20.11861), but the thousandyear-old camelthorn is gone. Your GPS map clearly shows that the Molopo takes a sharp left here – right under the dune – and yet there’s no sign of a river.
A few kilometres south of the dune, you’ll meet up with the Molopo yet again. You can’t keep a good river down.
Eight kilometres farther south at the Noenieput farming community, you’ll notice the Molopo broadening on your left – still no water, though. An hour after you passed through Noenieput, the landscape changes from being decidedly two dimensional to a hillier terrain and the Molopo winds its way through ridges and rocky outcrops. The riverbed appears damp here and you may wonder whether it’s been raining or if the Molopo is considering emerging from the ground.
The gravel road takes you farther south, crosses the N10 highway, and ends in Lutzputs where you turn right and then left again after 4 km. Drive over the Biesiespoort dirt road pass (blink and it’s over), past the game fence of the Khamkiri Private Game Reserve on your right to the huge wine farms next to the Orange River. Slow down as soon as you enter the vineyards. The farmer won’t be pleased if you dirty his prized grapes with dust.
Turn right at a cold storage warehouse
(S28.70533 E20.58574) and drive northwest towards the Augrabies Falls National Park and follow the road signs to the village of Riemvasmaak. From there, follow the signs to the hot springs roughly four kilometres outside Riemvasmaak. The hot springs lie within the Molopo River, at the bottom of a canyon, and you can pitch your tent here (S28.46455 E20.28557).
An attendant watches the campsite from 9am to 4pm and you can pay the fees in cash. Tonight, is your last chance to braai next to the Molopo River. After dinner, soothe your aching muscles in the lukewarm water of the spring until the sun sets and the evening star winks from high above the canyon.
DECAMP EARLY if you want to watch the 7 o’clock news at home tonight.
Roughly 2,5 km from the hot springs, turn left (S28.45386 E20.29666) in the direction
of Blouputs. Thirteen kilometres later, after negotiating a lovely dirt road mountain pass, you’ll happen across a sandy plain. Take a twin track over this plain until you reach your old friend the Molopo River once more. Follow the riverbed – it’s best to engage fourwheel drive as the sand is deep – to where the Molopo ‘flows’ into the Orange River (S28.51759 E20.21497).
Take a selfie at the mouth and pat yourself on the back – you’ve made it! Scoop a handful of sand from of the Molopo’s dry bed and let it spill through your fingers. Reflect on when the Molopo was a comforting green ribbon through the red expanse of the Kalahari, remember a bright white road cutting through fawn-coloured plains and sociable weaver nests in the endless row of telephone poles next to the road. Now ask yourself whether you know the Molopo… or whether you’ll have to drive this route again one day before you can truly understand it.
HIT THE ROAD This route is mainly gravel and you may encounter oddities such as farmers grading the roads with trees (below). The Molopo flows strongly between the Mmabatho and Disaneng dams (below right).
FROM GATE TO GATE The gate to the Phiri camp in the Molopo Nature Reserve is always closed, but never locked. Let yourself in and pitch your tent. Rangers will visit you the following morning and collect your fees before issuing a permit. The border between South Africa and Botswana is little more than a livestock fence (top right).
TRACK UP The colour of the landscape along your way changes constantly. Sometimes the sand is orange, then pink, grey and fawn. Stop every hour, exit your vehicle and inhale deeply. It’s as if you can smell the colours.
MAKE LIKE A TREE Sociable weavers build their nests in trees and on telephone poles. The Kgalagadi isn’t as quiet as the Great Karoo, here you’ll constantly hear birdsong, even on treeless plains.
GO WITH THE FLOW The dry riverbed of the Molopo is broad near Noenieput (above) but shrinks to the width of a football pitch when it passes the Riemvasmaak community (right).
STAY Lichtenburg resort (left), Molopo Kalahari Lodge (above) and the Van Zylsrus Hotel (right). The Molopo’s mouth is unremarkable (bottom right), but the journey is worth it.