West Coast | Caracal 4×4 Eco-Route
A lush Namaqua National Park gave Johan de Smidt the orange-carpet treatment when he had a crack at their new 4×4 eco-route. Along tracks to the West Coast, he found twitchy gemsbok, saucer-sized vygies and pottery shards at a former Bushman settlement.
Heaven knows what will run out first if the route gets any better than this − the memory cards or superlatives.
For the herd of alert red hartebeest snapping up their elegantly curved horns behind a clump of quiver trees across the rivulet form such a calendar picture, I’m worried it will crack the camera sensor.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the same hands-on Namaqua National Park staff who – with some help from the elements – had rolled out the orange daisy carpet in the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve, have told them to pose for us.
Equally well-timed is the July launch of the route to coincide with an early unfurling of spring flowers and flowing rivers in the normally arid park, some 20 km from the N7 town of Kamieskroon.
So thrilled have we been in the past hour since we started on the new Caracal Eco-route, we’ve only covered ten of the route’s some 200 km.
That’s a serious distance, but then it stretches from Skilpad to the Groen River Mouth on the West Coast in the far southwest of the park’s new 34 000-ha section.
At this rate, it’ll take us three days instead of the planned two to reach section ranger Piet Schreuder’s house at Groen River Mouth.
To top it all, our talisman in the Navara is ebullient game ranger Dirk van Schalkwyk who leads us to some of the park’s secrets: shards of pottery at a rock grooved by Bushmen sharpening arrows and a rock where tuskers used to rub themselves.
Furthermore, there are skittish gemsbok whose behaviour seem to indicate illegal hunting in the park. “I’ll have to return tonight to keep watch,” Dirk muses aloud.
Bushmen hunted here
It’s probably possible to do the route in 4-7 hours – if you take all the shortcuts and drive as if your house is on fire.
Ours wasn’t, so it took us fourteen hours as we stopped often and explored on foot.
If you really want to take the long way home, do as Piet suggests and complete the route over six days.
After waiting for those carpets of shy orange daisies (Ursinia cakelifolia) at Skilpad to come out and play despite the icy wind, Vanessa and I only extracted ourselves from our snug cottage at 11.30 and started on the route down the Kamiesberge.
You could do the same if you’re sleeping over at Luiperdskloof, a mountain cottage some 50 km from Skilpad, as it might take you five hours to get there if you take all the detours.
However, if you’re aiming for Platduin, the route’s first campsite some 11 hours from Skildpad (if you’re taking it easy), you’ll have to start at sparrow’s.
The first of five sections on the easy route, graded a moderate 3 in its most difficult parts, is a tame stretch of some 40 km from Skilpad down the Kamiesberge onto plains rich in game such as gemsbok and springbok, before an at times rough mountainous stretch of about 20 km.
A 30 km stretch of major gravel road connects the mountain section to the fourth, 45 km arid-fynbos stretch before the final, some 60 km coastal section from the Spoeg River Mouth to the end at the Groen River Mouth.
Apart from a former Bushman settlement next to a permanent rock pool and an oasis around the fountain of Kookfontein, the highlights of the first section are abundant game such as those photogenic red hartebeest.
We find the first of 14 numbered route signs − each marked with a caracal symbol − 16 km from the reserve.
The drive-by-numbers route means you don’t have to worry about getting lost, even if you don’t have a GPS.
Keep your eyes peeled for game now, as one of the best shots at seeing buck, especially in the dry summer months, is after the sign.
Just remember to watch out for flash floods in riverbeds shortly after rains.
Fortunately, the Swartlintjies River − at the bottom of a hill complete with quiver trees and all − is a trickle when we reach the crossing.
We turn off to a bubbling fountain at the nearby Kookfontein, where we find shady palm trees, a swimming dam and a mystery rock with a smoothly-worn angular strip just below shoulder-height.
“Elephants probably used to rub themselves here,” Dirk speculates. Campers will soon be able to try and figure it out for themselves, as a campsite with basic ablutions is being planned here.
Soon afterwards, we’re standing on a knoll where Bushmen left behind signs of a settlement. About halfway between the third and fourth signs, Dirk has lead us down a sidetrack at a spot he calls Dikmelk-khous (“Thick-milk drinking place”).
The permanent rock pool at the end of the sidetrack must have been what attracted the Bushmen to settle on this rise.
Dirk hunts around and finds shards of pottery and ostrich shell.
He also points out three parallel, smoothly worn grooves in the rock where the hunters probably used to sharpen arrows.
They feel so near, you half expect them to pop out from behind a nearby dikmelkbos.
Returning from the time warp to the route, we turn off on a mountainous loop to Luiperdskloof cottage and the Wildeperdehoek Pass.
If your house is on fire, continue past this turnoff on the shortcut to the coastal section. Fortunately, our only emergency is the lack of radio commentary on the crunch first test between the Boks and the Kiwis.
Pg 2 | In the leopard’s lair
In the leopard’s lair
We’re now driving into the Kamiesberg uplands. After rains this means packing stones into a young donga blocking your path, and skirting an impassable section up the mountainside.
We pass smooth rock faces and drive around large, rounded boulders, which geologists call gneiss of the Kookfontein subgroup − coarse volcanic rock that erodes easily and results in poor soils where mostly succulents such as cheerfully-flowering vygies seem to have gained a foothold.
Apart from the vygies, views over the plains, now far below, and all the way to the West Coast we’re heading to, reward our arrival at the mountaintop.
A short distance further we turn off to the park’s leopard heartland − Luiperdskloof and its eponymous cottage 4 km away.
A horned skull of a small buck, possibly a klipspringer, is lying next to the cottage. It was probably killed by a leopard, Vanessa suggests.
And she may well be right – the area has become somewhat of a leopard sanctuary. In fact, seven individual leopards have been photographed by camera traps in this area.
This number, says park man
ager Bernard van Lente, is surprisingly high in an area where Kamiesberg farmers have been actively killing them.
After the notoriously shy cats gave us the slip too we backtrack to the route and head for the Wildeperdehoek Pass, between Koiingnaas and Springbok.
Constructed in the late 1800s for the transport of copper ore from Springbok to Hondeklip Bay, the pass was hand-built with convict labour by Duncan Fletcher who copied the dry-wall stone-packing methods of master pass-builder Thomas Bain. The ruins of the old jail are still standing along on the road to Springbok.
From the top of the pass, the West Coast again comes into view in the distance.
We descend to the plains where the Navara leaves a dust trail along the good gravel road to Koingnaas and Hondeklip Bay before we turn of onto a jeep track leading into the dunes of the coastal stretch.
Seals and saucer-sized vygies
When the sun’s retreating rays catch the red roof of the abandoned Riethuis farmstead, we’re in Riethuis quartz area, geologists’ fancy name for a place where you’ll find many succulent species.
We stop just after crossing the dirt road to Hondeklip Bay where a laid-back Piet drags leisurely on a cigarette before getting out of his bakkie and welcoming us with a guttural West Coast accent that Vanessa battles to decipher.
As Platduin, the first campsite south of the Spoeg River Mouth, is still more than three hours of sandy tracks away, Piet suggests we spend the night at the nearby, private Eagle’s Nest Guesthouse.
Before following his tail lights into the fast-falling darkness, we shake hands with Dirk, who suggests we three do the route again soon before disappearing into the dark, probably to go and guard those jumpy gemsbok.
At sunrise the next day Piet leads us to the route’s coastal section. We’re now about to explore a part of the park that De Beers handed to Sanparks in November 2008.
The proclamation of this new proposed Groen / Spoeg river section of the park is imminent.
Even on the coast, the flower season is early and abundant. Saucer-sized volstruisvygies (Jordaaniella spongiosa) and purple daisy-like sambreeltjies lining rehabilitated jeep tracks are among the flowers in full bloom along most of the coast.
As the Spoeg River estuary, a haven for waders and twitchers alike, comes into view at the edge of the dunelands, we turn off to the Spoeg River Caves where signs of sheep farming 2 000 years ago have been unearthed.
Apart from the last properly functioning dune system on the South African coast, you’ll encounter a perennial fountain, a seal colony, five campsites and numerous postcard bays on the near-wilderness stretch between the Groen and Spoeg rivers.
You can’t miss the first campsite − you’ll see Platduin’s huge stone braai windshields from a distance south of the Spoeg River Mouth.
From Platduin we drive to the fountain to taste the slightly brackish but quite drinkable water before detouring, yet again, to the large colony of seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
Meanwhile, we’re passing one deserted and picturesque bay after another − Platbaai, Koringkorrelbaai, Sammy se Baai, Galjoenbaai.
After the sunbathing seals find our smell disturbing, we head for one of the park’s special features − the white dune system at the Bitter River.
As the Navarra slips and slides comfortably through the soft sand, we’re grateful for efficient 4×4, as it is here, we were told at Eagles Nest, where softroaders sometimes get stuck.
From the dunelands it’s a doddle to Piet’s house near the Groen River Mouth estuary and lighthouse where you can end the route with sightings of pelicans and flamingos. However, it’s way past Sunday lunchtime and we make eager tracks along the scent trail of his wife, Mariaan’s, cooking.
Now, if you want to leave part of yourself behind in this area, wear a peak cap into Piet’s house − it will join the rows of others hanging from the lounge ceiling, each with its own story.
The sun is dipping low when we reluctantly drag ourselves away from Piet’s stories and Mariaan’s boerekos, but we don’t mind the late return trip − our house isn’t on fire, is it?
Pg 3 | I want to go too
July-October. Certain sections may be closed in wet or flower season
Stay at least:
A solitary route through an unspoilt part of Namaqualand and the West Coast.
Cape Town: ± 500 km; Johannesburg: ± 1 250 km
Soebatsfontein (“fountain of pleading”) was where a farm assistant, Hendrik Stievert, was murdered by Bushmen in 1898 despite his pleas for mercy.
I want to go too!
Best time to go?
Spring-flower season (July-October)
4×2 or 4×4?
A proven 4×4 or a car with diff-lock is your best bet, as, especially in summer, soft-roaders sometimes get stuck in the dry, sandy sections.
The nearest fuel from Skilpad is at Kamieskroon (20 km) and Garies is 85 km from the Groen River Mouth.
Ensure you have enough fuel to drive 300 km, some in low range.
Where can we stay?
- Skilpad Rest Camp:
Depending on the time of year the four-sleeper chalets cost R395-R550 for two adults, R144 per extra adult and R72 per child.
A daily conservation fee of R18 per person applies.
Contact Elanza van Lente 027 672 1948, email@example.com or Sanpark’s central reservations office 012 428 9111.
- Luiperdskloof: R500 per night for six people (there’s no electricity or linen). Book at the numbers above.
- Campsites: Only conservation fees are payable while campsites are being upgraded.
- Eagle’s Nest Guesthouse: A self-catering house sleeps 9 at R375 per room (3 people per room;); 3 granny flats sleep two each at R400 per couple.
Contact Anna-Marie or Jofie 027 581 1846, 012 661 9935; firstname.lastname@example.org
What does the route cost?
R100 per vehicle plus the daily conservation fee. The route is free for Skilpad Rest Camp residents.
Can we get a guide too?
Yes, but inquire beforehand at the park office as this service is subject to availability.
Do I need to book?
No, but do collect a booklet and map at Skilpad Office.