Klein Karoo | Beyond the maps
Think Southern Cape and Little Karoo and you’re probably thinking mountains, speed cops on the N2, Thomas Bain’s legacy of passes, aloes, and ostriches. And some of the best gravel-travel options south of Tunisia, of course.
You won’t be missing the mark by too much. But, as I discovered, Southern Cape and Little Karoo standards such as the well-trodden Swartberg Pass and Seweweekspoort are just the tip of the whale’s tail that is gravel travel in this region.
On an exploration of this mountain- and river-rich region you will find it offers much to keep everybody from an adrenalin junkie to a family busy for anything from a long weekend to a ten-day holiday.
The trip with my guides, Nico and Danette Hesterman, started on coastal dirt roads before heading inland across the mountains.
Our route took us across three major mountain ranges, over six dirt passes and through a dirt poort, along countless dirt roads, and past seven nature reserves.
Before the trip ended eight days later at De Vlugt, north of Knysna, we also had a ride on South Africa’s only hand-drawn ferry, drove a few top 4×4 trails, followed ancient elephant migration routes, tasted witblits, learned about succulents, and listened to some tall tales.
How you want to tackle our selection of things to do on the next few pages, is up to you: you can explore them individually on a day trip, or, like us, you can link them all and turn it into a safari in your own country.
Right, let’s buckle up …
1. A ferry, ferry slow crossing
When last did you cross a South African river by ferry, never mind a hand-drawn one?
Well, there is still one place where muscle power will get you and your vehicle across: the pontoon ferry across the Breede River at Malgas, south of Swellendam.
It might be a crab-paced crossing, but the uniqueness and nostalgia of the experience more than compensates for the pace. As it’s the last hand-drawn ferry in the country, take the kids along for the experience – it might be gone by the time they’ve grown up.
And feel free to give the two strong ferrymen a hand, or to pay them more than the R35 it costs to cross the river.
2. Get all historical
The region is not just all dirt roads, passes and trails. If you’re not careful, history will ambush you and take you back to a nearly-forgotten age. It almost did that to us on the dirt road from Vermaaklikheid to Jongensfontein and Still Bay.
The Trekkers’ first homes.
Drive some 8 km south of Vermaaklikheid to the private resort settlement of Puntjie at the mouth of the Duivenhoks River. Park at the gate and go walkabout among the simple thatched 18th century kapstylhuise, the first dwellings − after covered wagons − the trekking Boers built.
Visit the cave of ancient art.
At Blombos Cave near Jongensfontein you could rub the noses of Eurocentric visitors in the fact that art and man’s capacity for abstract thinking originated in Africa, not Europe.
In this very cave evidence was found that our ancestors had crafted stone and bone implements and engraved ochre pieces with geometrical patterns − some 40 000 years before their European counterparts did so.
See how the San and Khoi fished. In Still Bay, visit the stone fish traps during the outgoing tide and watch locals harvest the catch the way stone-aged man and the Khoisan did. Visit www.stilbaaitourism.co.za for more information.
3. Down the real McCoy
Calitzdorp prides itself in the title “The Port Capital of South Africa”, but if Danie Grundling has his way, Calitzdorp should also be known as “The Witblits Capital of South Africa”.
On a guided tour of Grundheim Wines’ stills and cellars Danie can show you how 50%-proof witblits called Danie se Withond is double distilled only from grapes until it earns its label tagline, “Die ware Jakob” (the real McCoy), or how Boegoeblits is made from freshly picked buchu and witblits.
While the rose-petal liqueur goes down like a soft, sweet rose-scented elixir of the gods, Boegoeblits is a potent, pungent regmaker that leaves your mouth and throat afire.
So, should you get motion sickness from driving the region’s dirt roads, passes and trails, why not visit Grundheim for an antidote (anyway, that’s what you could tell the kids). Visit www.kleinkaroowines.co.za for more information.
Pg 2 | Die Hel in …
4. Go to, well, Die Hel
Just about every 4×4 man and his dog has entered Gamkaskloof from the Swartberg Pass side, but did you know there’s a 4×4 trail that leads to novel easterly views over South Africa’s “Lost Valley”?
The some 11-km To Hell ’n Gone 4×4 Trail will take you to a lookout above Die Hel’s dangerous The Ladder, a hazardous footpath up the western exit out of the Kloof on which old Klowers transported their produce to sell it.
If you go early enough you can see Gamkaskloof waking in the east with the rising sun and, in the west, the Swartberg and Seweweekspoort Peak − at 2 325 m the highest in the Western Cape − erupting skywards in the crisp morning light.
But this unique opportunity does come at a price – the trail is open only to guests at the four-star Bosch Luys Kloof Private Nature Reserve.
If you don’t want to stay over at Bosch Luys Kloof, you can always drive from the R62 through Seweweekspoort with its rugged beauty of contorted rock layers and down the short but attractive little Bosluiskloof Pass to the Gamkapoort Dam. It might not be as novel as easterly views over Die Hel, but it’s free.
Visit www.boschluyskloof.co.za for more information.
5. Tackle a top trail – and scale dunes, mountains
As the region’s 4×4 trails outnumber its mountains, you’ll need a sabbatical to visit them all. Here are five trails we visited that will whet your appetite.
The Southern Cape’s own Namib.
Why drive all the way to Namibia or the Kalahari to find huge dunes to charge up when there’s some in your backyard?
Beats me too, especially when you can do just that at Riekie van Rensburg’s Vleesbaai 4×4 Dune Route near Mossel Bay.
The 12-km trail, one of the few places left where you’re still allowed to drive on dunes this close to the sea, is a moderate 2-3-grader.
Except, of course, for the ego-crushing Grootrug dune …
As you send sand flying up sky-scraping dunes etched against the Indian Ocean, you too will understand why people from afar come here to play in the sand – this is not just a trail, this is 4×4 heaven.
Also read: Vleesbaai 4×4 Trail
Follow elephants and ox-wagons.
Looking for more steep climbs? Then try Bonniedale Holiday Farm’s trail, deep in the Outeniqua Mountains.
Once you’ve mastered the two rugged, protea-lined 17 ½ km trail sections (graded 3-4) from down in the Attaquas Kloof to the top of the Outeniqua and Langeberg mountains respectively, you’ll have earned the distant views towards the Indian Ocean in the south and the Little Karoo plains in the north.
Deeper into the Attaquas Kloof, we halt at the ruins of a blockhouse on the rocky Attaquas Kloof Ox-wagon 4×4 Trail, get out among flowering proteas such as the red mimetes and fill our lungs with the kooigoed-laced mountain air.
“Pity the poor British soldiers who had to man this blockhouse,” Nico says.
“They must have been bored out of their skulls, because the Boers never even came through the kloof.”
A national monument, this 3-4-grader runs from Bonniedale over the Outeniqua Mountains to the Little Karoo.
The 20-km trail is also part of the 450-km Ox-wagon Route that winds along back roads and farm tracks from Heidelberg all the way to De Vlugt, following roughly the same route to the interior used by early pioneers such as Isaac Schrijver in 1689.
What’s more, you’ll follow in the footsteps of the herds of elephants that, centuries ago, first lumbered along the route over the mountains to lead their calves from the wet coastal forests to drier climes.
Also read: Bonniedale Attaquaskloof
What’s with the pyjamas?
The lions its name refers to may have been shot out long ago, but at the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn you could still spot game such as the endangered Cape mountain zebra, if you’re lucky.
But one thing you’re assured of is postcard views over the Outeniqua Mountains and Little Karoo if you tackle the two-grader Zebra Crossing 4×4 Trail up the Gamkaberg to the Oukraal campsite.
To see what else is up there, visit www.capenature.co.za
Succulents, er, rock.
If, like the succulent expert Louis Jordaan at Minwater Eco Adventures, it’s plants and their medicinal use that tickle your fancy, why not combine the trail graded 2-5 there with an outdoors botanical heads-up about quaintly-named plants such as ghaap, concertina bush, sosatiebos and koesnaatjie during a walkabout?
We gave botanical aficionado Louis half a chance and he gave us a crash course on the 6 000 plant species that have rooted in the Succulent Karoo.
And in the shady campsite he might just brew you a masterful cup of campfire coffee too to revive you after a hot drive.
And if you do get that sabbatical, visit www.4x4ineden.co.za for info on all the region’s trails.
Pg 3 | Listen to tall tales
6. Listen to tall tales
The isolation in the Outeniqua Mountains might be good for the soul, but you know you’ve been there too long (or have had a mead or two too many) when a sudden gust of wind becomes the ghost of a murderer or a Bushman hunter who wanted to fly …
Beware Bloubaard’s ghost.
Serial killer Bloubaard Swanepoel’s get-rich-quick scheme involved killing cattle-trading clients and driving the goods back to his farm Rietfontein, northwest of Bonniedale across the Outeniqua Mountains. Unfortunately for the bearded one, it only worked four times out of five − one of his intended victims escaped and spilled the beans.
Bloubaard’s hanging on the George village green in 1857 was apparently the last such public event in the country.
If you prefer a Bushman myth, the sudden gust of wind that inexplicably rises in Attaquas Kloof could be the hunter with a quick-flaring temper who turned himself into a hawk the better to see his prey.
While it’s easy to discount ghost stories as old-wives’ tales, what if science finds grizzly evidence for spooked workers’ and horses’ refusal to walk on a certain track in Groot Kloof, off Attaquas Kloof?
Especially if that evidence involves the discovery of a graveyard in an area where Isaac Schrijver’s expedition massacred scores of Khoi in a counter-attack.
Returning from a livestock-bartering trip in 1689, Schrijver’s party was attacked by the Attaqua Khoi who took their cattle and sheep. Schrijver followed their spoor the next morning and killed 41 Khoi in the selfsame Groot Kloof.
Mead and roosterkoek.
Over a brunch of freshly-baked roosterkoek on the banks of the Gourits River, Aloe Guest Farm owner Kosie Sauerman entertains us with tales of riotous mead drinking on a farm that almost scuppered a group of churchgoers’ devout intentions to attend Pinkster (Pentecost).
“Wat neuk julle met Pinkster as dit karie-tyd is, (Why bother with Pentecost when it’s mead time,”) the farmer remonstrated with his leaving guests.
7. Don’t pass up this chance
If you follow in our tyre tracks, you’ll drive six dirt passes, including the well-trodden ones like the Swartberg Pass. However, you may not be that familiar with the following three passes:
The what pass?
You’ve probably never heard of the Cloete’s Pass on the R327 north of Herbertsda
And there’s good reason for that: you’ll struggle to find picnic spots, hairpin bends and other tourists on this dirt road that links Route 62 with the N2 close to Mossel Bay.
But it does have some historical significance, though.
Look carefully and you’ll notice ruined blockhouses built during the Anglo-Boer War to block the Boers’ passage from the Little Karoo to coastal towns.
From a bridal path the pass graduated to an ox-wagon route that has simply been upgraded over the years.
Its first recorded use was in 1868, but by then it was already a well-used route.
So why drive it?
Well, how many of your friends can say that they’ve crossed the Cloete’s Pass?
Stop and smell the buchu.
The Rooiberg Pass road, connecting Calitzdorp to Van Wyksdorp and the R327 some 55 km to the southwest, doesn’t look like much at first. It’s just a dirt road winding through mountains.
But then, as the pass undulates along a well maintained dirt road, it starts calling for you to stop, inhale deeply and marvel at the views over all the major mountains that define the Little Karoo − the Outeniqua Mountains in the south, the Langeberg in the southwest and, to the north, the Swartberg.
One of the pleasures of cruising along back roads is slowing down when you get that first whiff of fynbos or buchu and winding down the window to take a deep hit of it.
And on the Rooiberg Pass you may just overdose on a heady mixture of scented mountain air and seemingly never-ending views.
A princely pass.
There’s enough history to the 150-year-old Prince Alfred’s Pass that traverses the Outeniqua Mountains between the Langkloof and Knysna to fill this magazine.
Built by the colossus of South African roads, Thomas Bain, and a labour force of convicts between 1863 and 1867, some consider it Bain’s finest piece of engineering.
I don’t know much about engineering, but the R339 must certainly be Bain’s most spectacular road, cutting through thick indigenous forests and snaking over a seemingly impenetrable mountain range.
My guide to this mountain masterpiece is bearded and barefoot local conservation legend Katot Meyer, who probably knows more about the pass than Bain himself.
Instead of a GPS, says Katot, he uses the CSPS − the Common Sense Positioning System.
But this doesn’t prevent him from showing me the pass’ sights and sounds, like the 1 050 m summit at Die Kruin, Tiekieliefiedraai, (Ticket of Leave corner) where the convicts received their freedom when they completed the pass in 1867, and the pass’ stone retaining walls of up to 16 m high that has changed little over the years.
If you feel like more history or adventure, you could always drive the nearby Burchell’s Track and follow a nearly forgotten ox-wagon track of another pioneer who traversed these mountains some forty years before construction on the pass began.
About a decade ago Katot discovered part of the original ox-wagon route of William Burchell, the famous British botanist, on his family farm near De Vlugt.
That’s where you can access a pristine valley in the Outeniqua range on
this 20-km 4-5 grader.
Visit www.burchell4x4.co.za for more information.
Pg 4 | Know before you go
Know before you go
Can I go in a 4×2?
The whole route (4×4 trails excluded) could be done, with some variations, by SUV or 4×2.
Best time to go?
The coastal section would be the best bet in summer when the interior might be too hot to your liking, or if you want to do some whale watching. The cooler months from spring to autumn might be the best time to venture inland.
Need a guide?
To plan your own trip, speak to Nico Hesterman of Bonniedale Holiday Farm
(044 695 3175). He knows the region better than most and can advise you about the route and accommodation.
If you want to do a guided tour, contact Philip Sackville-Scott
Tel 021 558 3930;
Cell 082 446 1981;
Where can I stay?
Being a tourist hot spot, the region offers a range of accommodation, from basic bush camps to luxury lodges.
Here’s where we overnighted:
• Holdall (Still Bay).
Self-catering beach house that sleeps 20.
R5 000/night in season,
R2 000/night out of season.
Contact Gerrit or Christina Mars
Cell 082 352 5583,
Cell 084 337 1601;
• Cannon Valley Estate (near Vleesbaai/Gouritsmond).
Self-catering beach houses, fully-equipped caravans, camping.
From R75 (per person)-R1 200 (per cottage) per night.
Contact Jan or Belinda Naude
Tel 044 695 4735/1060,
Cell 082 493 9750;
• Bonniedale Holiday Farm (near Herbertsdale/Mossel Bay).
Camping, caravans, chalet, guesthouse, B&B.
From R70-R300 pppn.
Contact Nico or Danette Hesterman
Tel 044 695 3175;
• Tierkloof Bush Camp, Gamkaberg Nature Reserve (near Calitzdorp).
From Peak rate for 6 people: R960.
Tel 044 802 5310;
Tel 021 659 3500 (reservations);
• Bosch Luys Kloof Private Nature Reserve (near Ladismith/Seweweekspoort). Luxury cottages, guest house.
From R995-R1 295 pppn.
Contact Gerhard & Ans Rademeyer
Tel 023 581 5046;
• Kruisrivier Guest Farm (near Calitzdorp/Oudtshoorn).
Self-catering cottages, campsite.
From R120-R350 per couple.
Contact Basie or Mandi Strydom
Tel 044 2133 788;
• Outeniqua Trout Lodge (De Vlugt, along Prince Alfred’s Pass).
Timber cottages, tipi-style tent camp.
From 350-R550 per couple.
Contact Naomi or Ingo
Tel 044 752 3140;
* Drive Out travelled as a guest of Nico and Danette Hesterman of Bonniedale Holiday Farm