Long before the modern road and rail system, getting to Sutherland called for plenty of grit. The closest railway station was at Matjiesfontein, 110km to the south. From there, the mail and goods had to be hauled by wagon, a four-day trek across expanses of Karoo flatlands culminating in a bone-jarring heave over the Verlatenkloof and Rooikloof passes of the Roggeveld mountains. There’s still a sign at the bottom of the Verlatenkloof Pass warning: “Fasten safety belts and remove dentures”.
The topmost, steepest section of the pass is called Dankie-en-asseblief (thank you and please), “thank you” because the wagon made it to the top and “please” to ask for help the next time.
Today it’s much easier.
Sutherland is in a remote area of the Northern Cape province. Unless you’re flying in by small plane – in which case you will be able to land at Sutherland’s airstrip – getting there involves driving significant distances along some of the country’s major road arteries. South Africa’s national highways are well-maintained and will take road travellers most of the way to Sutherland before it’s necessary to branch onto smaller roads.
Distances by road from major South African centres:
From Cape Town: 350km.
This is the most common route. Take the N1 north. At Matjiesfontein, follow the Calvinia signs. Stay on this road all the way through the town and keep driving. The road is tarred all the way to Sutherland.
Distance by road from other centres:
From Durban: 1 248km
From Johannesburg: 1 150km
From Bloemfontein: 763km
From Kimberley: 668km
From Pietermaritzburg: 1 202km
From Grahamstown: 662km
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The Forgotten Highway
This was the first main route leading hunters, explorers and fortune seekers from the Cape of Good Hope to the interior and the great north. With the advent of tarred super-highways, the route was largely forgotten until 4×4 enthusiasts led the charge to explore its extensive unpaved sections and started calling it The Forgotten Highway.
Heading out of Sutherland, take the R356 or, 26km out of town, turn right along a road marked “Posroete”. This takes you along the Nuweveldberge escarpment with spectacular view over the Swartberge.
Ouberg Pass 45 kilometres from Sutherland and 1 404 metres above sea level is one of the most spectacular routes across the Roggeveld mountains. It was picked out by pioneer farmers when the choice of travel was foot slog, horseback or ox wagon. Nearly 100 years later, in 1969, the first proper road was finished over the pass.
A number of other very scenic, although sometimes rough, routes exist around Sutherland.
One of them is the Kromkolk Trail via the Uranium Ridge Pass. Another is the Sterboom Pass route, which has spectacular panoramic views. Alternatively, take your off-road vehicle to one of the Banksgate trails and explore the heart of the magnificent Nuweveld Mountain Range.
For a less rigorous drive, head out of Sutherland towards the Skurweberg (you’ll see the sign about 2km outside town). This is a beautiful drive with sweeping views of the Roggeveld.
Discover Sutherland will gladly advise you on selecting routes.
With its naturally occurring wild rye grass, early scouts identified the area as good livestock country, particularly suited to sheep farming. Enter the noble Merino sheep breed, originally imported from Spain, which has long been the backbone of Karoo agriculture, producing wool and all manner of crafty by-products, from crocheted bedspreads to those snug sheepskin slippers … and of course the truly, utterly, famously delectable, toothsome Karoo mutton and lamb.
Sutherland’s agricultural forefathers date back to the 17th Century when courageous farmers set off from the safety of the Cape of Good Hope, pressing northwards along the West Coast before veering into the interior in search of pastures for their flocks. The first sheep station was set up in the Bokkeveld, near today’s Niewoudtville. Later came the stations at Voor and Agter Hantam outside Calvinia until they reached the high, cold Roggeveld Plateau. It was then that the tradition of migrating sheep to ‘legtplaatse or ‘oorlêplase’ from the cold Roggeveld to the warmer Tanqua-Karoo during winter began. Today it is still practiced and some farmers undertake the annual migration in the old-fashioned way, literally walking their flocks to winter grazing. The custom is a charming remnant of a slower way of life, redolent with historic and cultural significance to the people of this district.
The Roggeveld District was big on horses in the 1700’s. In fact, farmers were so proud of their local breed they resisted cross-breeding with Arabic and English horses.
Goats have always been suitable for farming in this district and most farmers today still keep them.
There was a time when the district experienced great wealth due to the ostrich feather trade, but today ostrich farming is not part of Sutherland’s agricultural scene. For that you have to go to the Klein Karoo (Little Karoo).
A fledgling olive industry started recently near Calvinia, but at the end of the day sheep ranching is really what it’s all about in Sutherland.
The KhoiSan, Basarwa or San people are the original inhabitants of Southern Africa and have a tradition of hunting and gathering. They have no warrior tradition. Their distinctive languages contain at least six vocal clicks, giving their speech a rapid-fire effect.
They often refer to themselves as the “First People”. Cave paintings dating back 20 000 to 30 000 years have been found throughout the sub-continent, leading a growing number of archaeologists and palaeontologists to believe that the San have occupied Southern Africa for at least 100 000 years. Some argue that the Kalahari fringe may therefore be the true “cradle of humankind”. This thinking is supported by genetic research indicating that all human beings share DNA which can be traced back to a !Kung woman who lived in the Kalahari region around 50 000 years ago. Black African (Bantu-speaking) peoples did not reach Southern Africa until around the beginning of the 1st century AD and Europeans arrived in the mid-17th century.
This country was a tough place marked by droughts, violent robberies and armed conflict between the new pioneers and the Bushmen of the region. The first farmers endured lonely, hard lives fighting for survival in this harsh environment of extreme temperatures and undeveloped territory.
Explorers like Thunberg, Von Meyer and Lichtenstein all wrote about the uncomfortable small houses that farmers lived in due to the lack of timber for building. Simple, two-roomed dwellings were the norm. The kitchen served as the living and dining area while the only bedroom would double as a storage room. Meals often consisted of fatty goat’s meat, milk and, if grain was available, rough bread.
But their struggle and endurance bore fruit, so much so that when the German explorer, Dr Henry Lichtenstein, visited the district in 1803 he was deeply impressed. By then there were already about 80 000 sheep in the district. Hunting wild game also played a large part in survival in the early days. Old records tell of an eland shoot on the farm Hartebeesfontein, where 17 antelope were shot, smoked and dried in the chimney for biltong. With a history like this, it’s little surprise that meat is still the staple diet of Sutherlander’s.
Lichtenstein respected the hardworking, devout character of the people he found in the region as well as their tremendous endurance. He admired their simple way of life and healthy habits and was impressed by their culture and language, referring to “…their concise, yet expressive African Dutch language”. He explained in his journal, “…the result of their living so extremely secluded from the world (is) a circumstance which preserves them from temptation to many vices…” All this went into the making of a tough yet endearing community.