Even the most adventurous 4x4ers don’t always want to push themselves and their vehicles to the limits. And besides, the less adventurous members of your family sometimes want to come along and enjoy themselves, too. Leeupan, near Van Zylsrus on the Northern Cape’s border with Botswana, offers an easy “Eco-Trail” that should please everyone.
“Okay, so do we take the right or the left fork, boet?” I asked my co-pilot, David Lowe, who was looking as dazed and confused as I was after our previous evening around the campfire.
Needless to say, he didn’t know; and it was only after much clicking in an Afrikaans dialect I didn’t understand, and animated gesticulations from a helpful farm worker, that we made our way through a nest of labourer’s huts and onto the perimeter track our hosts had told us about. In fact, they’d even drawn a helpful little map, but we were having problems deciphering how to get onto the track as the result of the intelligence-minimising effects of a good hangover.
Once on the track, though, things went pretty smoothly. With the BT-50s tyres suitably deflated for the sandy track, we burbled along at a stately pace and took in the vast spaces around us. The Kalahari, with its red-tinged sands, waving grasses and statuesque Camel thorn trees, has got to be the closest to natural parkland one is going to find.
Just before approaching our first farm gate — one of about 15 on the route – the track threw its first minor challenge at us. The sand had become noticeably thicker up a hill we were about to climb, and although I wasn’t expecting there to be a problem, David went ahead to open the gate so that I could power on through if I needed more momentum. In the end, no heroics were necessary, but it did give me chance to have some Dakar-Rally-like driving practice and to spray my unwary mate with sand.
As we got closer to the south-eastern boundary of the farm, we looked out for the some of the rarer game species our hosts had told us were stocked on the game farm next door. And, sure enough, within a few kilometres we saw a large herd of Sable antelope on the other side of the fence. Just a few minutes later, we fixed our binoculars on some of our hosts’ own stock of plains game, which includes eland, hartebeest and gemsbok.
There are very few hazards on this Grade 1 “Eco-trail” (some of the sandier sections may be classified 1.5, and the two dune rides a 2), but do look out for steenbok running in front of the car in some of the sections of long grass − we very nearly collided with one we’d startled. There are also a few aardvark holes along the northern-bound section, but they are easily identified if you know to look out for them.
About two thirds of the way around this perimeter track, we saw the turn-off to the “Picnic Dune” which had been labelled on the map. We hadn’t brought a picnic, but were keen to try out the dune. It looked quite tame compared to ones I’d driven at Daberas near Augrabies, but I’d learned not to assume too much before walking my intended route on these “give-way” surfaces.
Although I could’ve circled the dune and come at it from a more adventurous angle, it looked so pristine and unspoilt, with such sharp, crisp edges, that I was loath to desecrate what had taken nature so long to build. In the end, I decided to take a semi-circular path across the top of the dune, and it proved challenging enough having to keep up my speed so as not to be bogged down, while trying not to knock aspirant photographer David over in the process.
Soon after this entertaining interlude, we started the southward-bound section of the track. While taking in an excellent sighting of a Tawny Eagle perched on top of an acacia tree, I heard David exclaim excitedly that I should look at the road ahead. There were three bat-eared foxes doing a stiff-legged trot down the dirt track in front of us. It was such a special sight that if it had been the only thing we’d see that day, it would have been enough.
But there was more in store for us. On the bird front, we were gifted with a number of other good sightings, among which were plenty of Yellow-billed Hornbills, Pale Chanting Goshawks, Crimson Boubous (Crimson-breasted Shrikes) and my favourite bird of all time, the multi-hued Lilac-breasted Roller.
Apart from the main “Eco-Trail” offered at Leeupan − there are no lions, by the way − a lot of fun can be had exploring the tracks within the 300ha camping section of the farm situated across the gravel road into Van Zylsrus. Not only can you enjoy about 10 kilometres of farm tracks on that side, but there is another, more challenging, dune there which we still needed to conquer; and that was where we headed, straight after completing the “Eco-Trail.”
Unlike the pristine “Picnic Dune” we’d pussyfooted over earlier, with numerous car tracks already imprinted on its 30° slope, I had no qualms about adding ours to this one’s collection. For the next half-hour, we raced up and down the dune like kids in a sandpit. But, with the sun setting and a brace of cold beers waiting for us, we then trundled back to our campsite.
Province: Northern Cape
GPS: S 26, 9534220° E 21, 8769310°
Nearest town: Van Zylsrus — 24km
Directions: From Johannesburg — Take the N14 to Kuruman and then the R31 to Van Zylsrus. Just before Van Zylsrus, take the Askham road and travel for 24 km; Leeupan guest farm will be on your right. From Cape Town — Take the N7 to Springbok and then the N14 to Upington. 40km after Upington, turn left off the N14, and follow the sand and gravel road for about 200km before reaching the T-Junction with the Askham-Van Zylsrus road (R31). Turn right here, and after about 6km you will see the Leeupan guest farm sign on your left.
Nearest fuel & provisions: Van Zylsrus; but rather stock up in a bigger town.
Opening times: All year, but winter months are cooler, with less chance of rain.
Terrain: Predominantly flat grasslands with a few undulations here and there. Track surface is mainly sand over hard-packed ground, with a few thicker sand sections. The two dunes are optional, but provide a welcome bit of variety along the way.
Grading: 1 – 2
Distance: The “Eco-Trail” is 30km.
Time required: Allow 2 hours
Will I get lost? Not if you listen attentively to your host’s directions.
Recovery facilities: Only if your hosts are on-site and you have informed them of your ETA.
On-site compressor: No
Min/Max number of vehicles: Not specified
Best time of year: April to October
Tyre tracks: No
Tyre Pressure: I ran mine at 1.5 bar in front and 1.8 bar at the back.
Minimum ground clearance: 200mm
Underbody protection: No
Softroader-friendly? Yes, although these may have to skip the dunes.
What vehicle were we driving? Mazda BT-50 4×4, 3.2l turbo-diesel with intercooler.
PRECAUTIONS: The odd aardvark hole, and errant fauna straying across the track.
BRING YOUR: Wife and kids: This is a 4×4 excursion the whole family can enjoy, with no daredevil teeth-gnashing stuff to frighten the spouse or kids. And there is a plaas-dammetjie to cool off in at the main campsite, plus flush loos and hot water from donkey-boilers. For those who prefer to walk or mountain-bike, there is 10km or so of dirt track in the campsite area. The bird- and star-watching are excellent.
Pets: Well-controlled small dogs by prior arrangement only.
ACCOMODATION: There are two campsites – Springbok is the larger of the two and can comfortably accommodate around 5 vehicles (12-15 people − 6 in two-bedded tents; and Gemsbok which can take 2 vehicles and sleep about 6 people comfortably in the 300ha section of Leeupan guest farm allotted to campers. There’s no electricity, but there are flush loos, and hot water courtesy of donkey boilers. For non-campers, there’s Meerkat Cottage which is situated nearer the main farmhouse. It is self-catering, air-conditioned and fully furnished, and sleeps 10.
CONTACT: Lorraine de Bruine 082 438 3960
Website: None, but a great deal of information available on Google.
COSTS: No charge for guests staying on the farm.
Camping and chalet costs: From R100 p.p.p.n at either campsite in your own vehicle or tent; guests sleeping in the bedded tents at Springbok campsite will be charged R180 p.p.p.n. The rates for those staying at Meerkat Cottage are R250 p.p.p.n for adults and R80 per night for children under 12 years old.
REVIEWER’S RATING: Accommodation, environment & 4×4 Experience rating: 7.5/10 (Accommodation—campsite only: 7.5; Environment: 9; 4×4 experience: 6).
To contact Leeupan or to make a booking, fill out the form below.
By Nick Yell