Cederberg | Shooting the breeze
The Cederbergers gave it to Johan de Smidt from the shoulder during a family-friendly roundtrip that takes you away from the crowds.
Oom Dial from Langkloof suddenly became very ill during the long winter rains,” Rika recalls. “He lay there in the house where he lived with his wife, children and grandchildren for ten days before they could get him out.
“Meanwhile, the floods had washed away their clay oven. It was their only means of baking bread, so they had very little to eat.”
Rika du Plessis, CapeNature’s reserve manager at Matjiesrivier, pauses to sip her coffee as she warms to her subject − the characters of the Cederberg she has come to know in the six years she’s been in this`wilderness area between the Cape West Coast and the Karoo.
Characters such as Oom Daniël “Dial” Veloen, in his seventies at the time, who in July last year fell ill during the relentless winter rains, which often cut settlements here in the Cederberg off from the outside world.
“How did they get him out to hospital?” I wonder.
“No, he was dead.”
Welcome to the Cederberg: an honest, straight-shooting world where the sparsely covered soil seems to support only the bare minimum and they call a cowpat a cowpat.
Rika tells of a meeting where a farmer suggested cedar tree saplings needed fertilising. The saplings, she replied, needed no such thing, as “a cedar tree doesn’t grow in sh*t”.
Still, among this apparent harshness is where baby pink March lilies reveal why they’re also called naked ladies as they perch atop elegant bare stems after mammoth displays of spring flowers, where a trinity of grey rhebok scamper up the mountainside and where a francolin pair with twelve chicks have a twilight dust-bath.
These contrasts make for the Cederberg’s allure, drawing snow-seeking tourists who, along with inhabitants of the scores of little hamlets, can suddenly find themselves isolated from the outside world for more than a week by floods, while the withering sun can turn the area into a dustbowl at the end of a long dry summer.
Pg 2: Into the mountains
Into the mountains
It’s the first morning of our three-day December roundtrip that saw the missus, myself and our twittering trio of teenagers sleeping under a bewitching full moon at Sanddrif in the Southern Cederberg last night.
We’re planning to drive the “tame” western part of the Cederberg. From Matjiesrivier and Sanddrif we’ll drive to Jamaka Farm in the Central Cederberg and on to Wuppertal in the northeast before returning to Matjiesrivier over the slightly wilder part − what Peter Slingsby calls the Eselbank 4×4 Route on his Cederberg 7.1 map.
Admittedly on the last leg of the route we did encounter the odd, knackered Ford Bantam bakkie redlining it to Eselbank, one of Wuppertal’s 11 satellite hamlets. However, you stand a better chance of making it with an intact sump tackling that part of the Cederberg in a 4×4.
We knew we were in the wilds when that grey rhebok family scampered up the foothills soon after the tar road from Op die Berg turned into dirt at the turnoff to the Ceres Karoo and Kagga Kamma.
Northerly views seemingly stretching all the way to the Gariep, even at twilight, are your reward for stopping atop the Blinkberg and Grootrivier passes on the way to Matjiesrivier.
Now if that blasted biker behind us will just dim his blinding brights, I may be able to see the road ahead.
Hey, wait a minute − that’s no headlight − that’s the full moon rising from behind the Blinkberg!
It’s the Navara’s headlights that are carving a path through the thickening darkness by the time we reach the turnoff to Clanwilliam and Algeria at Matjiesrivier. We start our circular journey by turning left onto the dirt “highway” along which lies the popular campsite Sanddrif.
The tent is pitched under a Sanddrif poplar to avoid a full-moon-induced insomniac night and we fall asleep on the wings of a whirring African nightjar.
Pg 3: Craving caving
The less fortunate locals are kept awake by the full moon – a cooing dove wakes us long before the first light of sunrise.
Good thing too, because if it’s cool air you crave here in summer, you’d better be up before dawn. At 4.22 am it’s a refreshing 16 °C with wet dew underfoot, but this temperature will double today.
First we drop in at Matjiesrivier to meet Rika and to scramble around the Stadsaal Caves, exploring the veritable art gallery in the complex of sandstone shelters where the Bushman shamans left their dreamtime rock paintings millennia ago.
Before CapeNature took over Matjiesrivier it was a privately-owned farm, the last owner being Wynand du Toit, a recce captain in the former South African Defence Force.
Du Toit spent more than two years as a prisoner of war in Angola in the 80s after being captured on a mission near Cabinda.
Ambling through and clambering around in the Stadsaal Caves you can just picture the faithful gathered around some bigwig at the first National Party meeting in the Cederberg held in these very chambers decades before Du Toit’s name would become a household one.
Trapped under a scorching sun, already riding high on its relentless course to midday, we beat a successful retreat to Sanddrif’s cool pools.
We spare a thought, not for the unfortunate Du Toit, but for the poor Scouts from all over the planet on their annual adventure camp.
The first patrols we come across are from Jo’burg and George. They are everything but mentally prepared for their march and now they’re trying to bum a lift from us.
As we’d learn from our own senior Sea Scout (no name, no pack drill) − herself on temporary AWOL from the rigours of the camp − the panting patrol courted confinement to hard labour for the rest of their ten-day adventure for risking that. Good thing we only offered a word of encouragement.
At Sanddrif we yield to the sweltering midday heat and change our minds about reaching the Northern Cederberg for a concert at Bushman’s Cave Open-air Theatre.
We decide to rather retreat into the cool waters of Sanddrif’s Maalgat and Rietgat pools for the afternoon before facing the sun’s bombardment again.
Late afternoon, when the heat relents to a tolerable if still hot 30 °C, we pack up and set out on what would turn out to be a scenic circular drive through the Central and Northern Cederberg.
Although one could spend a week exploring activities off the dirt stretch from Sanddrif to Algeria, we press on as we’re on the run like the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland (“I’m late, I’m late …”).
Thankfully, it’s chill-out time at sunset on the road between Dwarsrivier and Algeria. We stop just before the Uitkyk Pass and watch the clouds turn pink and baby-blue behind a picturesque valley to the south. Once at the top of the pass, you’d swear the view stretches all the way to North Africa’s Algeria.
Just after the eponymous Cederberg campsite, we turn right onto the 28-km stretch to Clanwilliam.
A pair of horses are grazing gracefully in front of the f
armhouse at Jamaka Farm, to which we would be returning in the evening.
On the way to Clanwilliam you’ll drive through wild, dense vegetation, but the magic is suspended the moment you hit the built-up banks of the Clanwilliam Dam shortly before dirt gives way to tar.
After veering right onto the R364 at the T-junction in Clanwilliam, we toast a great soul as we pass the grave of poet C Louis Leipoldt along the Pakhuis Pass.
A few kilometres after the top of the pass, we turn left, past Elizabethsfontein and through the Agter-Pakhuis where the intimate mountain landscape hardens into a Karoo-like flatness.
Continuing along the loop, we pass the Bushman’s Cave Open-air Theatre where a concert is underway.
Just before descending the tame Kraaibos and Nardouw passes and before turning left at the T-junction on the R363 back to Clanwilliam, we encounter the family Frank ’n Lyn. Mom has summoned her round dozen of francolin chicks for their nightly dust bath − right here in the road. We slow down so she can lead them off.
At dusk, the road is evidently for the birds – Namaqua doves and pied crows feed on its border, while two guinea fowls scamper up a bushy embankment and Cape canaries flit away before the bakkie.
Back at Jamaka Farm we’re relieved to find the owners, Katrin and Jannie Nieuwoudt, still have a last stand for us in the chockfull campsite.
Pg 4: Carols in Wuppertal
Carols in Wuppertal
We spend the next morning exploring the organic farm’s campsite on the banks of the Rondegat River, hiking up the Rooiberg trail and competing with dung beetles and tortoises for foot space on the River Trail running under a leafy canopy and past refreshing pools.
A congenial Jannie fills us in on how his health-conscious German wife had a hand in getting him to start the Western Cape’s first certified organic citrus farm.
Easy it hasn’t always been, even in this more temperate part of the Cederberg. “I would ask my neighbour, a trained nurse, ‘How can you poison your children like that?” Jannie recalls, “and she would say, ‘Ja, but Jannie how can you farm profitably organically?’ ”
We make a mental note to support his cause by returning to come and pick mangoes during the harvesting season from May to July. (Sadly, a fire claimed most of the orchards in February. However, the campsite escaped damage.)
As we’re leaving after lunchtime to return to Bushman’s Cave and its San paintings, Jannie tells us that during the Veloen family’s flood ordeal in the Langkloof, campers at Jamaka Farm were also cut off from the outside world for ten days by floods. Fortunately, no hearse had to visit these quarters then …
It’s 32 °C when we stop at the Clanwilliam Spar for a cold Coke around three to help us make it to Bushman’s Cave. At Clanwilliam we veer left onto the now familiar R363 and turn right to Bushman’s Cave after the expanse of the Bulshoek Dam.
At the archer roadsign indicating the cave, we turn off. After passing evidence of a rip-roaring picnic on the theatre’s lawns last night, we clamber up ladders to view the well-preserved rock art.
It’s time to complete the rest of the northern loop back to the R364 connecting Clanwilliam and Calvinia.
Just before the Wuppertal turnoff, we stop near England − or part of it anyway − at the Englishman’s Grave that apparently belongs to the Anglo motherland.
The grave marks the spot where Lieutenant Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes of the Gordon Highlanders was killed on a scouting mission in 1901 during the second Boer War.
His mother travelled all the way from England to the spot to have the Celtic-cross memorial erected.
There’s a frisson of excitement in the Navara as we turn off south onto the 32 km stretch to Wuppertal soon after leaving the Englishman’s Grave and descend into a landscape that falls away for kilometres.
Our expectations of a desolate, picturesque place are met when we reach what’s called a View of Africa on Slingsby’s map. It almost seems to stretch all the way to the continent’s southernmost point at Agulhas.
In the still stifling heat of late afternoon we descend on the Hoek se Berg Pass, passing what in spring would be flower viewpoints.
We glance longingly down the road at the turnoff to the Biedouw Valley. We’ll be back at the earliest whiff of blooms.
Tracks leading to the settlements of Sandwerf, Menskraal and Kouberg and a turnoff to Heuningvlei tantalise us off the main route.
Finally, the snaking road spits us out at the missionary station of Wuppertal in the back-of-beyond Tra-tra Valley.
Finding the campsite occupied by a Scout operations headquarters where we’re informed the vandalised ablution blocks have no water, we grab the chance to experience village life.
No sooner are we ensconced in the mauve-themed guesthouse Love and Grace than the hamlet − brass band and all − empties onto the opposite embankment to sing Christmas carols. What timing! We’re chilling in the shade of our whitewashed thatched cottage, soothed by the strains of Away in a manger − a memorable herald of an imminent Christmas.
How much more authentic does Silent night not sound here in this mission village, sung by a small band of the faithful gathering against a backdrop of red-clad mountaintops, than it does competing with the cacophony of a hundred clanging tills in a suburban shopping mall.
The angel on top of the Christmas tree is that, apart from a quartet of inquisitive village youths, a hen clucking by with her clutch of chickens and a pig giving our kitchen the once over, there is no one else around – just the villagers and us.
In fact, Love and Grace hasn’t seen visitors for the past two months, we’re told. They don’t know what they’re missing …
Pg 5: Dust to dust
Dust to dust
During an exploratory sunrise stroll through the village in the coolness of the next morning, a cow eyes us with big black eyes over a kraal wall.
“Is that your cow?” I ask an old-timer sitting on his stoep.
“Ja, I’m going to slaughter her today.” Jawellnofine.
Clasping a rifle barrel with the butt slung casually over his shoulder, another villager ambles past. We’re admiring the handiwork of a woman whitewashing her house when the shot rings out. There will be fresh cow in Wuppertal today.
Having spent another day either cooling down in river pools bordering the village or recuperating from the previous days’ heat, we wait till the temperature has dropped around 4 pm to set off on the final stage of our trip.
We head out on the Eselbank route just when, as if on cue, two men come rolling into the village on a horse-drawn cart. Out here, who cares about the fuel price or what the latest bakkie boasts …
After breezing up the tame Eselbank Pass, get out at the top and savour the silence and your last view of the other-worldly Wuppertal in the distance.
The dirt track winds around towering obstacles of red rock until we reach a sign after 11 km promising pools and a waterfall. Eager for a late-afternoon picnic, we turn off.
A swim in a
rock pool – the Red Cederberg a veritable screensaver background – and a snack later we temporarily lose the plot when we find a gate blocked by a herd of cattle. Let’s just say that after unsuccessfully exploring a maze of jeep tracks east of the waterfall, we got back on track.
It’s in the sticks of this wilderness area, halfway between Wuppertal and Matjiesrivier where the circle of our route will close, that we reach a faint jeep track to Oom Dial’s Langkloof in a Red Cederberg vivified by the setting sun.
With the Wuppertal carols still ringing in our ears, we can almost hear the heartrending hymns on that day after the rains had cleared and Oom Dial’s remains were returned to the Cederberg’s dust.
“On the tenth day the sun came out and they took him to the dodehuis (mortuary),” Rika recalls. “They buried him the following Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was there.”
Pg 6: Quick facts
What else can I do?
Farmer Koos Mouton will tell you a week won’t be enough to explore even the magnificent canyon on his Jonkershoek farm, let alone the whole of the Cederberg. However, these nine things are a start to must-do Cederberg activities:
Southern and Central Cederberg
- On the way to Matjiesrivier from Op die Berg, stop off for a bite at the Cederberg Oasis Cafe & Restaurant (027 482 2819);
- Pedal the Wolfberg Mountain Bike Trail that begins at Sanddrif (book at Dwarsrivier, 027 482 2825);
- If you want solitude, camp at Dwarsrivier’s ten-stand Kliphuis, 5.5 km from Dwarsrivier;
- Drive to Dwarsrivier to taste the award-winning wines of Cederberg Cellars (027 482 2825). Owner Ciska Nieuwoudt recommends the shiraz made from the local vineyards − at 1 036 m above sea level, the highest winery in the country. You can also refuel and do basic shopping at Dwarsrivier.
- Hike up to a waterfall from Algeria (021 659 3500). (The popular Algeria campsite has been temporarily closed due to fire damage.)
Northern and Western Cederberg
- Book for the Heuningvlei walk & donkey-cart ride (027 482 2444) between Heuningvlei and the Pakhuis Pass;
- Have a picnic while listening to local singers at the Bushman’s Cave Open-air Theatre and drive the nearby 4×4 trail (027 482 2918);
- Ogle the Biedouw Valley’s flowers in spring and explore 4×4 routes in the area such as the Biedouw River 4×4 Trail (027 482 2845);
- Spend a night in a self-catering cottage in Wuppertal (027 492 3410).
(Note: the Wuppertal Tra-tra 4×4 trail is closed until further notice due to dangerous conditions.)
- For more information on the Cederberg, see Drive Out #24.
Pg 7: En Route
What vehicle were you in?
Nissan Navara twin cab 2.5 litre 4×4
The best and worst of it?
The Navara dealt competently with the route and provided a comfortable ride for the family; the worst was the dust covering the luggage under the canvass load-bay cover.
How far did you travel?
Return trip from Op die Berg: 380 km
10 km/litre on the open dirt road
Mostly good with rocky patches over Eselbank
Did you use diff-lock or 4×4?
No, but it could be necessary during the winter rains
Best things to do?
Stay overnight in Wuppertal, drive from Wuppertal to Matjiesrivier and stop for a swim at the pools along the way
Best places to stop en route?
Atop the Blinkberg and Uitkyk passes for views over the Southern and Central Cederberg respectively
Slingsby’s Cederberg 7.1
- Kromrivier (self-catering cottages, camping): 027 482 2807;
- Sanddrif (self-catering cottages and campsite) or
- Kliphuis (camping): 027 482 2825;
- Jamaka Farm (self-catering, camping): 027 482 2801;
- Oude Muur (camping): 027 482 2918;
- Wuppertal (self-catering): 027 492 3410.
- For more options see Slingsby’s Cederberg 7.1 map
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