Gamkaberg | Little Karoo, big retreat
With so much on offer to those seeking a quick and easy Western Cape escape, Gamkaberg Nature Reserve and its equally appealing surroundings should have a place somewhere on your to-do list, says Matt Covarr
While the grand Outeniqua Mountains dominate Tuscan-styled villas and designer beachwear along the well-trodden Garden Route coast, they form one the country’s greatest cultural divides, separating a ritzy, fast-paced world from the old-world charm and open space of the Little Karoo.
With this in mind, and a vehicle filled to the rafters with camping equipment, we’re taking the slow lane over the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn to see for ourselves what Gamkaberg Nature Reserve in the Little Karoo and its surroundings are all about.
The drone of the Land Rover’s 750 x 16-inch tyres soon fades away as we turn off the old concrete road that links Oudtshoorn to its tiny but noteworthy neighbour Calitzdorp.
As the Landy rolls along one of the hundreds of gravel tracks that link lonely farmsteads to each other throughout the area, ostrich heads turn in unison as they watch us pass by.
A donkey cart loaded with firewood passes us in the opposite direction, its driver casually lifting his hat to greet us as we rattle past.
It’s just another bucolic spring day at the foot of this isolated mountain range between the Outeniqua and Swart¬berg mountains that rises up in shades of blue and green above Cape Nature’s information centre at the reserve’s base camp, some 6 km off the concrete road to Calitzdorp.
Pg 2: Where mountain …
Where mountain zebra roam
In a last-gasp attempt to protect the remaining endangered Cape mountain zebra and their natural habitat, this little-known 9 480-ha reserve some 32 km southeast of Calitzdorp and 33 km southwest of Oudtshoorn was declared in the mid-seventies.
Numbers at the time had dwindled to below ten. Thanks to conservation efforts back then – and more recently the management of Cape Nature – the mountain zebra numbers in Gamkaberg have now grown to over 50.
While these shy and skittish animals may not always gain a tick on your Gamkaberg checklist, they may be spotted in the more open areas on top of the mountain itself. Other wildlife sightings may include eland, grey rhebok, klipspringer, red hartebeest and kudu.
However, there is more to this reserve than wildlife sightings, such as its unique plant species.
This is the Little Karoo in all its floral glory − a mixture of fynbos, sub-tropical thicket and succulent Karoo vegetation, with rarities such as the golden pagoda protea (Mimetes chrysanthus) ranking it within the top 35 areas globally for biodiversity.
For those who don’t get to see the full range of animal species on their trip to Gamka¬berg, the Cape Leopard Trust’s camera project is the next best thing.
This visual record of Gamkaberg’s elusive wildlife offers a privileged insight into animal movement and behaviour and comprises some 35 mammal species.
Set up in a number of areas in the reserve, these hidden cameras have recorded close-range images of aardvark, aardwolf, African wild cat, baboon, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, bush pig, caracal, honey badger, kudu, leopard and Cape mountain zebra, all of whose candid portraits are regularly posted up in the info centre.
The project includes the installation of a number of additional cameras outside the reserve. These areas fall within the greater Gamka conservation area, which comprises owners of private land collaborating with Cape Nature in setting aside tracts of land for conservation and the formation of links to the mountain reserve via corridors.
Pg 3: Chattering larks, but…
C-c-c-hattering larks, but it’s c-c-c-old!
With Gamkaberg’s rugged rock face dwarfing us at the information centre, and after a sneak preview of what the mountaintop has on offer (thanks to the information centre’s excellent exhibition displays), we take to the narrow four-wheel-drive track clinging to the steep side of Tierkloof, a deep gorge offering access to the mountaintop.
This is the start of Gamkaberg’s Zebra Crossing 4×4 trail, some 35 km of mountain track that will have your vehicle clambering over large rocks, dipping into valleys and climbing up inclines as the track winds through some of the Cape’s most awesome scenery.
This route up the mountain is much more exciting, dramatic and popular than the route via the southern boundary gate.
The Land Rover’s bonnet is soon pointing skywards as low-range drags the vehicle at snail’s pace up what seems like a near-vertical concrete jeep track, the side of your vehicle feeling as if it’s hanging over a near-vertical cliff edge.
Within a few kilometres, we’re on top of the world, looking out over endless valleys and gorges, over the Outeniqua Mountains to the coast and inland to the Swartberg mountain range and the Great Karoo beyond.
As the track steps its way across the rocky terrain, the fynbos and plant diversity is second to none − dabs of colour fill every gap between the quartzite and shale rock littering the landscape.
A variety of protea and aloe species rise out of the ground like perfectly-crafted sculptures; from a rocky ledge above us two klipspringers sound an alarm call − a reminder why Gamkaberg is a must for anyone wanting to get away, for a week or just a weekend.
While you could venture up onto the mountain for the day via the Zebra Crossing 4×4 trail, camping on the mountain top and waking up surrounded by nothing but natural Karoo is an unforgettable experience.
What adds to the camping appeal of Oukraal campsite, some 15 km from the entrance, is that it has one of the best locations and is only accessible by foot or four-wheel drive.
Boosting its allure, all campsites here are booked exclusively, ensuring your night on top of the mountain is spent in pure solitude.
After a two-hour crawl along a trail descending into valleys and climbing onto plateaus, we reach a sign indicating the campsite. The only campsite on the mountaintop, it is so discreetly built around massive quartzite boulders that without the sign one could quite easily miss it.
This natural shelter underneath overhanging rock that was originally used by shepherds before the area was declared protected, has been carefully converted into rustic sleeping quarters − complete with dry stone walls, braai and water storage tank.
There is enough flat space for pitching a tent around the outcrop of boulders.
An added feather in Oukraal’s cap is its perfectly positioned toilet, which looks out over a range of mountain peaks that seemingly continue to the end of the Earth.
As with any mountaintop, unpredictable weather conditions can have temperatures plummeting as evening sets in. We soon have a roaring fire casting an orange glow over the shelter’s rock walls.
The bubbling potjie and crackling firewood compete with the distinct sound of clapper larks’ wing flapping carrying through the fynbos just after sunset.
Soon we’re digging into the bottom of our clothes bag for one more layer to keep the chill away. With the potjie served, washed down with a glass of port or scotch, our painfully cold first night on Gamkaberg soon has everyone in their sleeping bags, with only one or two dedicated firewatchers still chatting through clenched teeth around the campfire.
Pg 4: Hiking under …
Hiking under Verreaux’s eagles
The orange glow of sunrise oozing through the tent fabric the next morning dispels the icy chill.
From the centrally positioned Oukraal, the options are to continue along the remaining 20 km of the Zebra Crossing trail or simply walk, mountain-bike or laze around the campsite before heading off the mountain.
While the remainder of the 4×4 trail becomes increasingly challenging with large, loose rocks and steep climbs and descents, the views just keep improving.
We spend the day exploring what seems like a never-ending string of plant species smothering a landscape of rocky gorges and valleys − for those not remotely interested in flora, the incredible diversity of Gamkaberg’s plant life may spark an interest you didn’t know existed.
Birders certainly won’t find the area any less alluring, with over 200 recorded bird species, such as Verreaux’s and martial eagles, booted eagles and black storks being a few.
Birding among the acacia thickets is equally rewarding.
For those looking at getting some exercise and escaping the confines of a vehicle, the hiking trail down the mountain to the information centre may make for an exciting 11-km alternative back to the base camp.
While the top of Gamkaberg is certainly the highlight of a visit to the reserve, a less rugged and exposed camping option is the fully equipped Tierkloof bush camp, about 1.5 km from the entrance gate.
Perfectly positioned below the towering walls of Tierkloof, close to the track that leads up the mountain, the fully equipped, carefully designed camp blends into the natural surroundings and features everything from canvas safari tents to a plunge pool, all positioned around a central reed-structured living area.
With it being close to the track up the mountain top, more comfortable Tierkloof is alluring for anyone averse to Oukraal’s basic conditions. We, however, opt for another night at Oukraal, this evening being far warmer than the previous one.
As darkness sets in and a star-laden sky bears down on our cosy camp, the thought that the greatest camping getaways are often right on our doorstep shoots through my mind.
Pg 5: Simply smothered …
Simply smothered in charm
The next morning we make our way slowly off the mountain and back to the information centre at Gamkaberg’s base camp.
The Land Rover sways and rolls over the boulder-strewn track as the low range gearing holds us back down the steep road pitch.
We stop near Tierkloof to look up at the sheer rock walls towering over the mountain track, reluctantly taking our leave of this diverse and breathtaking piece of mountain paradise.
Fortunately, the Little Karoo charm doesn’t stop here.
After two days of camp kettles, potjies and Oukraal camping, the lure of a good, old-fashioned Karoo breakfast makes a trip to the nearby village of Calitzdorp the logical next step.
We exit through the reserve gate and the tyres are soon humming along the old concrete road again as we head for classic Karoo culture and the port capital of the country.
Venturing off the town’s main road, lined with some of South Africa’s most bland 1970s architecture, takes you into another world of quaint, South African cottages, each one smothered in charm.
Chickens scratch busily in the dust next to garden gates that stand permanently open; a small dog lifts its head off the polished concrete doorstep to give a half-hearted bark before it falls asleep again in the morning sun.
For a town as small as Calitzdorp, walking around the character-laden streets can keep one busy for hours, but it isn’t all there is to do here after breakfast at what is one of the Little Karoo’s greatest eating establishments, and certainly a must for anyone emerging from Gamkaberg on an empty stomach.
Rose of the Karoo off the main road serves wholesome, home-cooked meals throughout the day.
The restaurant’s book display and homemade eats may also have you stocking up for the journey home.
However, visiting Calitzdorp without tasting some of the world’s finest port, would be like going to Paris without visiting the Eiffel Tower.
Three wineries, all on the outskirts of the little village, produce their own unique blend, with port being the town’s speciality.
Calitzdorp’s poor, well-drained soil and hot climate are similar to the Douro Valley in Portugal, where port originated.
Venturing from winery to winery, sampling the best of what Calitzdorp has to offer can easily have you wondering why you didn’t opt for an extra night on your Little Karoo adventure.
With so much on offer to those seeking a quick and easy Western Cape escape, Gamkaberg and its equally appealing surroundings may well already have a place on your hit list.
Gamkaberg is a combination of rugged natural beauty and idyllic camping, surrounded by some of the Cape’s most scenic mountain ranges, topped off with the option of a lazy morning exploring wineries and streets that ooze a distinctive South African charm.
Getting into your vehicle and taking the tar road home may be the last thing you feel like doing after a trip to the Little Karoo − rest assured though, this is a part of the country that will always have you coming back for more.
Whether it’s a trip to the top of Gamkaberg, camping under the stars at Oukraal camp or letting time fade away while you discover the villages of the Little Karoo, this is the place.
So dust off the South African road atlas, dig out the camping gear and explore − Gamkaberg may be just the place to start.
Pg 6: Quick facts
I want to go too!
What can I see and do there?
Camp under a blanket of stars at Oukraal campsite; grab the chance of seeing the rare Cape mountain zebra in its natural habitat; hike or drive the mountain tracks through some of the area’s most spectacular flower and plant species; enjoy a visit to the port capital of South Africa, Calitzdorp.
Things not to miss?
Spend at least a night on the mountaintop to experience a sunrise over the Outeniqua Mountains. A breakfast at Rose of the Karoo in Calitzdorp is a must.
The best time to go?
All year. While summers can be extremely hot, Tierkloof bush camp has a plunge pool and plenty of shaded areas to escape the heat. In spring and early summer, Gamkab
erg bursts into colour with wildflowers.
How long should I stay?
A weekend should be sufficient. Spend one night at Oukraal and the other at Tierkloof bush camp.
4×4 or 4×2?
A 4×4 with low-range is the best option. Tracks range from gravel to large rocks and boulders with extremely steep inclines.
What must I take along?
Self-sufficiency is the best approach. Take plenty of warm clothing and a good sleeping bag − even if weather conditions seem good during the day, temperatures can plummet as night sets in. Bird books, plant books and binoculars are handy, while a hat is advisable during summer.
Should I take spare parts?
Take a good toolkit and basic spares, as getting a broken down vehicle off Gamkaberg may be difficult.
Where can I stay or camp?
- Oukraal campsite, the only camping area on the mountain, offers rugged camping in a stone shelter.
- Tierkloof Bush Camp is a fully equipped self-catering camp with safari tents, plunge pool and central reed-structure living area.
- A basic campsite and converted stables, sleeping eight people, is situated near the entrance gate.
Are water and firewood available?
Firewood is supplied at Oukraal. Additional firewood is sold at the information centre. Drinking water is kept in containers while two rainwater tanks hold washing water. Tierkloof bush camp, the campsite and stables have drinking water.
What does it cost to stay there?
- A daily conservation fee of R25/adult and R12/child is payable by those without a Wildcard.
- In season and on weekends, Oukraal and the Stables campsites costs R35 pppn.
- Tierkloof Bush camp is charged at R480 (weekdays) to R640 for up to four people and an additional R110 (weekdays) to R150 pp for up to eight people.
- The Stables at the entrance gate are charged at R120 (1-4 persons).
Should I book?
While it is possible to visit Gamkaberg on a day trip, it is vital to book all accommodation through Cape Nature before arriving. Contact Cape Nature for further information on 021 659 3500 or firstname.lastname@example.org
How do I get there?
The reserve is signposted from Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. Get onto the old concrete road, which runs parallel to the R62 between the two towns. Signs will direct you onto the 6 km of gravel road to the reserve gate. The gate is roughly 32 km and 33 km from Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp respectively.