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.

Go! Drive & Camp - - 4X4 DESTINATIO­N - Words and im­ages Cyril Klop­per

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.

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