Eastern Cederberg | Bathtubs and 4×4 tracks…
The rugged Eastern Cederberg, called the Red Cederberg by the locals, borders on the Tanqua Karoo and Ceres Karoo. Besides finding a panacea, Deryck van Steenderen realised expensive tyres are worth it and that a good map is essential.
I’m no Darwin, but if you ask me, snoring is an evolutionary development aimed at scaring away wild animals.
Thanks to my travelling companions, this groundbreaking theory was tested thoroughly on a trip to the Eastern Cederberg … and proved. For four nights we slept under the stars in leopard country, but there were no fresh animal spoor around our camps in the morning.
Of course I was unaware of this effective self-defence mechanism when tour guides Chris McDuling and Philip Sackville-Scott invited me along on an adventure to plot a five-day route that links various Cederberg 4×4 trails.
The plan was to explore the lesser-known eastern part of the Cederberg, the part bordering on the desolate Tanqua Karoo and Ceres Karoo.
Five days, four (sleepless) nights, nearly 900 km and a seriously refreshed soul later, we’ve proved an evolutionary theory, heard about the healing properties of dassie urine, met a German couple who bought a remote farm, thinking it was near Somerset West, saw a 200-year-old prickly pear and met tough people who still farm the way they did a century ago.
Oh, and we drove some seriously challenging trails, and had a grand time doing it too.
Pg 2: DAY 1
DAY 1: Everything but the bathtub
We set up camp in the dark and sleep under the stars.
I wake up during the night to a deep rumbling sound wondering who had left the light on. A full moon illuminates the night sky, so bright with stars you don’t see in the city it takes me a while to find the Southern Cross.
Only then do I realise the rumbling isn’t a Cape leopard stalking us, but my companions’ snoring.
Despite the snoring, I lie with a smile on my face − what a day it’s been. Earlier today – much too early for a December Saturday morning – I met Chris and Philip at Chris’s Cape Town home, from where we would leave in Phil’s Land Cruiser.
The Cruiser’s rugged all-terrain tyres seemed to be an expensive overkill, but I was made to eat those thoughts.
Packing gear for five days, with no intended replenishment stops, was challenging. Thankfully, the cast-iron bathtub Chris was planning on taking for a lady who is building a guesthouse in the mountains near Wuppertal didn’t fit.
After last-minute shopping in Ceres – loud, deep base booming from the locals’ cars, the shop-front windows vibrating in time – we left for the Cederberg via Prince Alfred Hamlet, the Gydo Pass and Op die Berg, where we turned north-east into the Koue Bokkeveld.
About 18 km down this tar road a gravel road turns off to the right. Five kilometres further, a sign indicates Klein Cederberg and Lord’s Acre. Curious, we turned off.
A weather-beaten, sunburnt man greeted us in a foreign accent.
Werner Wullschleger – artist, philosopher, farmer and missionary – runs Klein Cederberg with his wife, Ludvika.
They have converted an old pioneer house, built in 1774, into an art gallery and breakfast room for their B&B cottages. With low doorways and few windows thanks to the Dutch lintel tax, followed by the British glass tax, the house is surprisingly cool in the heat of the day.
Outside, there is a 200-year-old prickly pear, while inside, stashed in a corner of the bar, are bottles of medicinal dassie urine called Dassie Force. Werner swears this home remedy is virtually a panacea, curing everything from cancer to diabetes.
The San scraped dried dassie urine from the rocks, mixed it with water and used it as medication. Werner’s modern brew on the other hand, is combined with a wild-herb tea.
His international customers apparently swear by it, but I wasn’t quite so brave …
As it was getting late we pushed on over the Katbakkies Pass to the Kagga Kamma Private Game Reserve, hoping to make the gate by 6.30 pm and camp there.
Our luck was out; the gate at the Bushman-themed upmarket resort was closed. Luckily, an observant employee saw our lights and came down to open for us. Sheepishly we went to meet the manager.
Pg 3: DAY 2
DAY 2: Route maps and real maps
This morning we set off exploring Kagga Kamma’s honey¬comb of 4×4 trails. Heading into the Swartruggens Mountains it was good to finally be out on a trail, in the middle of nowhere, the stress of city life slipping away.
The trails were at times hard going with loose rocks and steep descents.
We stopped at Joubert’s Kloof, a twitchers’ paradise, briefly got lost due to a navigational error (the trail map, GPS and out-of-date topographical map all differed) and discovered that wilderness camping at campsites such as Martiens’s Werf definitely means “bring all you need, including spade”.
Eventually we found our way again, exited the reserve and turned onto a dirt road leading to Die Mond, some 10 km to the northwest.
We crossed the border into the Northern Cape Province over flat, sunburnt, desolate plains covered in dusty scrub as the Ceres Karoo shyly began to reveal herself.
Life contains a myriad surprises, one of which is where the Matjies and Groot rivers join at a small lake. This lush oasis looks out of place in the parched landscape of the Ceres Karoo.
With its private campsite and chalets, Die Mond is a good stop for stripping off and plunging into the cool, clear water to wash the day’s heat and dust off your wilted body.
While debating the way forward, campers Bokkie Duvenhage and Alex Basson walked over. Alex, aka Die Bergman (the mountain man), is a retired schoolteacher who has been exploring the Cederberg for close on fifty years.
It is said that he has walked every path and mountain range in the Cederberg, laying out some of the hiking trails used today, and has amassed a wealth of information on the history of the area and obviously the best routes to follow.
We were determined to follow the Old Cape Road to Calvinia that runs along a jeep track from here to Aspoort, a few kilometers to the north.
Die Bergman warned us that we might not be able to cross the drift across the Doring River at Aspoort, but we decided to see for ourselves.
He was right. Much bush hacking and negotiating of rocky terrain later we conceded, concluding that we should invite the Land Rover Club to bring a few chainsaws and open up the overgrown drift again.
We headed back to the dirt road through wide open plains, turned towards Elandsvlei and the Tankwa River, 35 km to the north through the weather-beaten, barrenly hostile Jagvlakte and from there northwest to Koeskop and Cobus se Gat.
Crossing the Tra-tra River on Cobus se Gat’s 4×4 trail we headed up the Karretjiespas to Karretjies in the Tra-tra Mountains. Wilderness camping is allowed on the trail, but be sure to bring sufficient water with you.
Emerging onto the plateau we were dumbfounded by a network of canyons sprawling in front of us.
Overlooking Bobbejaanskloof with the sun setting behind us, I was amazed. I had always thought of the Cederberg as rocky, mountainous terrain with jagged, narrow kloofs. I had no idea that this vast and interlinking network of canyons even existed. And
tomorrow we would tackle a 4×4 trail that traverses these canyons.
Camping under the stars again on our second night we marveled at the vastness of the canyons. A gentle breeze picked up, cooling down our parched surroundings.
The evolutionary theory was tested again. Again it worked. Either that or the Cederberg’s leopards are really as shy as they are said to be.
Pg 4: DAY 3
Day 3: Bums glued to seats
The Kliphuiskloof 4×4 Trail is not for the faint-hearted. The trail runs from Agterfontein se Kloof to the Doring River, through Kliphuis¬kloof, traversing some of the roughest, rockiest terrain of the entire trip. (The only kliphuis we found was a small shepherd’s cottage near the Doring River.)
Descending and negotiating one particular bend there was a moment when we thought we might not make it. The pass is wide enough for one standard-width vehicle only.
With its fat takkies the Cruiser was a little on the broad side and we came precariously close to the well-packed edge. None of us said anything at the time, though visions of rescue operations to a tumbled Cruiser flashed through my mind.
The wilderness camping spots on the Doring River at the end of the Kliphuiskloof Trail offers mountain water, shade and contrasting views of barren mountains rolling down to the lush river.
A carefully-packed rock causeway made the river crossing easy, but judging by the number of hardened mud ruts it will be challenging in a completely different way in the rainy season.
From the Doring River we followed a jeep track up the mountainside beyond the causeway. On Slingsby’s map the jeep track stops, yet we followed it all the way into the Tanqua Karoo to a dirt road that links the agricultural settlements of Elandsvlei and Reenen.
The stark contrast between the mountain and arid fynbos of the canyons of the previous day and the flat, arid, succulent Tanqua Karoo was surreal.
Heading towards the agricultural settlement of Uitspan¬kraal, we noticed a duiker hanging from the fence, its hind leg caught in the wire. Bloody and with its nose in the dust, it was exhausted from the struggle. We freed it, but the light soon faded from its eyes.
We were now on the gravel road linking Wuppertal and Calvinia.
On Slingsby’s map the road between Gryskoppies and Uitspankraal is marked as a 4×4 section, but it was easy driving and I wondered why Slingsby had marked it as such.
Following our descent to Uitspankraal Chris and I waded through the Doring River (knee-deep at its deepest points) before attempting to cross it in the Cruiser.
The underwater boulders meant slow going but the Cruiser crossed without a hitch, I can imagine it would be a bit trickier if the water level was higher.
Safely on the other side, we grabbed our biodegradable soap, danced across the hot sand and headed straight back into the water. There’s something special about bathing in a wilderness river with indigenous fish nibbling your toes.
The minor gravel road that links Uitspankraal with Mertenhof, 33 km to the west, was in good condition and a welcome drive following the shake, rattle and roll of the previous days.
Driving along we came across a quaint, chocolate-box scene of two horses grazing in a field in front of a small white cottage. Unable to resist the photo opportunity we stopped – only to discover that it was in fact the guest farm, Enjolife.
Owners Moritz and Andrea Conrad, a young German couple from Munich, Germany, originally bought the farm thinking it was near Somerset West. I guess judging distance is relative to where you come from …
Following a brief but fierce tussle over the purchase of the last two Slingsby maps between Chris and I (I won the latest, 7.1 version) we set up camp in Enjolife’s shady campsite.
The fight for the hot shower was brief too, and the view of the stream from the flush toilet (with the door open) refreshing.
The vehicles-best-suited-to debate raged around the campfire as we all loudly voiced our opinions scoffing down Chris’s unusual but delicious cooking.
The baboons had come down from the mountain to raid the farmhouse that afternoon and we could hear them calling into the night. However, our evolutionary self-defence mechanism continued to be effective and we slept free of any interference.
Pg 5: DAY 4
Day 4: Donkeys, mules and asses
Donkeys of varied shapes and colours are an integral part of the local people’s daily life in the Eastern Cederberg. Seeing the variety, I secretly hoped we might find a quagga hidden away grazing in a secluded kloof.
At Kouberg, some 50 km down the road from Enjolife, we made a sharp right turn and headed northwest to Heuningvlei, one of Wuppertal’s eleven satellite communities.
We met with Abraham Ockhuis, a village leader, who showed us around Heuningvlei, recently renovated with the help of the department of environmental affairs and tourism and CapeNature.
The local inhabitants have built an affordable, functional and clean self-catering bunk house, started a small cedar tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) planting programme and communal food gardens, on top of offering donkey cart rides to visitors.
For a small fee, local donkey cart operators transport visitors along the Cederberg Heritage Trail between Heuningvlei and the Pakhuis Pass. Kidney belts would help.
The Kouberg Pass, leading down to Wuppertal, simultaneously provided a picture-perfect viewpoint and the last straw to break the back of a small truck’s clutch.
The driver greeted us cheerfully and assured us everything was okay, but after various stops we passed him twice more on the same stretch − his optimism waning, the Kouberg Pass chuckling.
An old Moravian mission station, Wuppertal lazes on the road between Calvinia and Op die Berg.
The plan was to find a link between Wuppertal and Cobus se Gat, east over Agterfontein se Kloof.
With this in mind, we took the dirt road from Wuppertal east to Beukes-kraal, along the Tra-tra River, through Prins se kraal, to Gert and Magrietta Farmer’s farm in Agterfontein se Kloof.
Gert and Magrietta are subsistence farmers eking out an existence worthy of respect on their isolated farm, accessible by a jeep track in the dry season only.
Although they told us of a way through used by the goat herders, they were unsure if we would be able to get through with the Cruiser. After much deliberation, we decided to save that adventure for another day, and retraced our tracks.
Back at Wuppertal we turned south towards Eselbank and camped at the Eselbank waterfall where the deep rock pool was a welcome refuge from the day’s heat and dust.
Another sleepless night beneath the stars with sawing from the left and right.
Pg 6: DAY 5
DAY 5: Heavy hearts and quiet beds
The road linking Eselbank to Onderhuis is marked as “four-wheel drive only” on Slingsby’s map. Someone had just forgotten to tell the driver of that passing, fully-laden Hyundai Getz.
Following a lunch of the biggest toasted sandwiches south of Cairo, at the Cederberg Oasis, we began the not-so-long haul back to Cape Town.
I was sad at having to leave the deso¬late beauty of the Eastern Cederberg with its colourful characters, grateful for Phil’s tyres and looking forward to a hot shower and a good night’s sleep, free from sawing, evolutionary or not.
What lay behind us five days and 880 km later, were vast canyons, hair-raising hairpin bends, a thoroughly tested evolutionary theory and a wilderness camp devoid of telephone lines and fences. I’m certainly going back for more.
Pg 7: Quick facts
I want to go too!
What must I take along?
Everything you need for wilderness camping – except the bathtub.
Trailer or not?
Most parts of the route are passable with a trailer although it is strongly advisable not to attempt taking one on the Kliphuiskloof 4×4 Trail. The sandbank exit of the Doring River crossing at Uitspankraal may also prove a little too challenging with a trailer.
Should I take spare parts?
Taking basic spares might save a long walk to the closest agricultural settlement …
How much water is enough?
Used conservatively, the Cruiser’s 45-litre water tank provided enough drinking and cooking water for the three of us for five days. We did replenish water bottles where possible and bathed in the rivers and rock pools.
How much fuel is enough?
Refueling places are scarce, the closest being Dwarsrivier and Kromrivier in the Western Cederberg. Ensure you have enough spare fuel with you.
4×4 or 4×2?
Apart from the Kliphuiskloof 4×4 Trail and the river crossing at Uitspankraal, the entire route is accessible to 4x2s with diff lock, although you could probably make the crossing in summer with a good winch.
Do I have to be an experienced driver?
If you want to make it out in one piece on the Kliphuiskloof 4×4 Trail, experience is a good idea. The rest of the route offers a great chance to gain experience.
Which map is the best?
We eventually used Slingsby’s Cederberg 7.1, with GPS coordinates, distances and clearly marked roads and tracks, obtainable from www.themaps.co.za/cederberg.asp, or from most information offices and accommodation establishments in the area.
Where can I stay or camp?
- Klein Cederberg / Lord’s Acre (B&B cottages):
Contact Werner and Ludvika Wullschleger 023 370 783; email@example.com
- Kagga Kamma (from camping to luxury rooms):
Contact Hein de Waal 021 872 4343;
- Die Mond (self-catering cottages and camping):
Contact Linda Hough 023 317 0668.
- Cobus se Gat
(from self-catering cottages and a furnished cave to wilderness camping):
Contact Ferdi Kotze 027 341 2131.
- Enjolife Nature Farm (from B&B to camping):
Contact Moritz and Andrea Conrad 027 482 2869; firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Heuningvlei (from B&B to a bunk house):
Contact Abraham Ockhuis 027 492 3252.
Other useful contacts
- Chris McDuling (Basic Tours) 082 566 7439
- Philip Sackville-Scott 082 446 1981;
- Rika du Plessis (CapeNature, Matjiesfontein) 027 482 9922; email@example.com
- Francois Smit (SA Route Owners and Operators Forum) 083 719 9135
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