The Cederberg has a magnetic appeal. It ticks all the right boxes: adventure, scenery, great campsites and bucketloads of character, and it’s tucked away down a rough gravel road. Could life get any better?
It’s not far from Cape Town – yet, surrounded by the towering peaks, crests and plateaus, you feel a million miles from anywhere. The infinite open space gives you a chance to breathe, think and relax. Whether you just want to go camping, and soak it all up that way, or drive, hike, climb and explore, the Cederberg has it all to offer those privileged to venture there.
We didn’t have enough time on this trip to explore as we’d have liked to. So we chose to navigate the main artery through this pristine wilderness area, a road that tracks from north-west to south-east. Okay, ‘main artery’ is a bit misleading; it’s a gravel road, at least for most of the way – a portion near the CapeNature camping area of Algeria has been paved. In places the gravel’s got some serious corrugations, countless winding climbs and breathtaking descents – altogether enough to put our Nissan X-Trail towcar thoroughly through its paces.
You’ve got two options for getting to this road: from the Clanwilliam side, via the N7, which is the main route from Cape Town to Namibia, or from the Ceres side, where a veritable web of roads spins its way in through the Skurweberg and Swartruggens mountains. We chose to head straight to Clanwilliam, overnighting at the Yellow Aloe Guest House (tel 027 482 2018) before entering the Cederberg Wilderness Area. If you want a bit of pampering before roughing it in your tent, camper or off-road caravan or trailer, here’s the place to stop over. Covering some 71 000 hectares, this is a proclaimed and protected area that stretches from the Middelberg Pass at Citrusdal in the south, all the way up to the region north of the Pakhuis Pass, which is up the road from Clanwilliam. Most of the terrain is rocky, rugged and impassable, except perhaps by hiking boot or maybe horseback. It’s also extremely mountainous, with mainly dry mountain fynbos vegetation. The landscape is unique, barren and beautiful. Catch the slopes in the right early morning or late afternoon light, and they glow bright orange, which I’m sure has a lot to do with the Table Mountain sandstone that is the principal rock type in the mountain range.
Early in the morning, with the sky a crisp, deep blue, we drove through Clanwilliam to the starting point of the ‘trans-Cederberg road’ – but please don’t quote me, that’s the name I made up for it! Just outside town the road skirts the expansive Clanwilliam Dam, a water-sporting mecca, and then it forks. Take the left and you effectively cut the corner into the mountains. Head to the right and you continue along the edge of the dam, all the way to its southernmost reaches, treating yourself to the most magnificent vistas. Naturally, we headed right. We stopped so often to take photos that three guys touring through the Cederberg on mountain bikes, panniers packed to bursting, must’ve passed us four or five times. We certainly weren’t hurrying. Soon after the dam ends you reach a crossroads. You can either continue south to Citrusdal, right to the N7 or left towards Algeria, the CapeNature camping area, and into the Cederberg Wilderness. We headed left.
The road abruptly starts climbing into the mountains up Nieuwoudt’s Pass. We encountered many smiling campers in their sedans, SUVs and bakkies packed with equipment and bicycles, heading down in the opposite direction, clearly rejuvenated after their weekend camping stint in the mountains. This is a popular mountain biking area: I’m keen to return soon, mountain bikes strapped to the roof or bike rack, for some self-propelled exploration and fresh mountain air. The descent of Nieuwoudt’s Pass into the valley on the other side has sharp drop-offs to the left, into the Rondegat River Valley, so it’s important to have your wits about you, especially if you’re towing.
The Nissan X-Trail we used was the six-speed automatic 2.0 dCi 4×4 LE model with All-Mode 4X4 selectable using a dial on the centre console. I flicked over to auto 4×4 the moment the tar turned to gravel. You can also choose 4×4 lock, which, as you’d expect, ensures all four wheels propel the vehicle at all times. For most of those mountain climbs, and the descents, power to all four wheels was a must, especially when towing. This 2.0-litre turbo-diesel managed admirably, considering the weight of the braked off-road trailer in tow and the looseness of the terrain in places. For any gravel road destination, as well as soft-sand driving, this Nissan will get you there in comfort. It’s a wonderful vehicle companion for the leisure lifestyle.
The Cederberg is an adventure-lover’s paradise. But don’t be deceived – that’s not to the exclusion of families with young children, or even young-at-heart couples who love touring, exploring and seeing interesting and beautiful new places. Driving this road through the heart of the Cederberg you’ll be constantly treated to breathtaking scenery, on both the macro and micro scale. Rock art is one of the region’s specialities. Even right there, where the road forks after leaving Clanwilliam, there are wonderfully preserved examples not far from the road. It’s believed that there are more than 1000 rock art sites, some of them created around 10 000 years ago by San people living in these mountains.
Then there’s rooibos tea. No, I don’t mean stopping on the roadside for a cuppa. This area is rooibos central when it comes to growing and cultivating the famous crop, which is about as South African as you can get. Look carefully and you might catch a glimpse of the bushes growing high in the mountains, waiting to be harvested during the summer months. Bouldering. What on earth, you might ask, is that? Well, recent years have seen this globally popular variant of rock climbing take off in the crags of these mountains. The rock faces and formations are perfectly suited to the sport, and there are more than 1500 documented bouldering ‘problems’ or routes, which novice and experienced climbers alike use to test their abilities. And if you’re not quite up to scrambling over rocks, the many hiking routes are more than reason enough to head to these parts. The Wolfberg Cracks walk, which takes about three hours in total, heads into the mountains from Sanddrif. Yes, you can camp at Sanddrif, but this is all private land, and you need to obtain a permit from Dwarsrivier, in the south-eastern sector of the conservancy.
Another not-to-be-missed day hike, which I’d only recommend to in-shape walkers, is the trail from Dwarsrivier to the Wolfberg Arch, which takes seven to eight hours. You’ll need to carry lots of water on this route, but the destination makes it all worthwhile. You can cut the walk in half by starting at Keurbosfontein. There’s a range of other routes, and I’d suggest you get in touch with CapeNature to find out more.
This is easily the most popular camping area in the Cederberg, and it’s controlled by CapeNature. You encounter it not long after descending Nieuwoudt’s Pass. Recognisable by the vast stand of tall trees, mostly gums and conifers, as well as oaks and indigenous species, it has that Canadian mountain feel to it – until you look past the trees towards the surrounding slopes that are densely crowded with the yellow-orange boulders unique to the Cederberg.
The campsites are large, and ablution facilities adequate, and the river running right through the camping area has a magnetic effect on campers in hot weather – and in summer it can cook up here! Several rewarding walks head out from Algeria, the main one being the three-hour return hike to the waterfall. Don’t forget your cossie.
If you tow slowly and carefully, you’ll be able to get a standard on-road caravan to Algeria, assuming you don’t mind everything rattling and shaking around inside en route. But for most this is a destination for tent camping, or off-road trailers or caravans. There are also a few self-catering cottages for those who prefer that sort of thing.
The road is long
Swing a left out of Algeria and the trans-Cederberg road continues. The paving lingers for a while, before the rough gravel kicks back in again with a vengeance. Taking it slow offers the best rewards, in terms of making the most of the scenery and preserving your vehicle, and gives you the best perspective from which to appreciate the vast solitude. Stopping and climbing out your car often to take photos and look about is like stepping onto a moon landscape. The quietness engulfs you, and the sound of the gravel under your shoes is the only constant that keeps you grounded.
About 1.5 km before you reach Dwarsrivier, you’ll come upon the parking area for the short walk to Lot’s Wife. Pull in there, and just a few hundred metres along a path through the fynbos will have you pondering this peculiar rock formation. But interesting rock formations abound in these parts, so if you’re interested in such things, you’d better add a few days to your trip. The Maltese Cross hike from Dwarsrivier car park is a three-hour return route that shouldn’t be missed. Reach the cross and you’ll know why; this enormous rock formation towers over the surrounding landscape, looking like something made by creatures from another planet. Birders too will delight in all this region has to offer. It’s not just about rocks and fynbos here. Well over a hundred species have been recorded in the wilderness area, including the rarely spotted rock kestrel and jackal buzzard, and a variety of sunbirds.
Who knew that delicious wines could be made in this harsh environment? Dwarsrivier Farm is the home of Cederberg Wines, and the popular Sanddrif Holiday Resort close by belongs to Cederberg Private Cellars. If there’s one spot you should stay over at when in the Cederberg, then Sanddrif’s the place. As I mentioned, it’s the starting point for the Wolfberg Cracks walks and the longer Wolfberg Arch trail, but it’s also a beautiful campsite, self-catering destination, mountain biking base and rock climbers’ paradise. Then there’s Maalgat, a brilliant natural swimming hole roughly 50 metres by 30 metres, and surrounded by cliffs up to 11 metres high. If you’re brave, or crazy, enough, nothing’s more exhilarating than jumping in from one of the high points. Getting to the pool takes about 35 minutes by foot, downstream from the resort. No day visitors are allowed, so you have to be booked in as an overnight guest.
Another reason for a Sanddrif stay is stargazing at the Cederberg Observatory, also at Dwarsrivier farm, founded in the 1980s by a British astronomer named Peter Mack, who recognised the potential of the area. The first telescopes were erected soon afterwards, and more development of the facility took place during the 1990s. With little to no light pollution, viewing celestial bodies from this vantage point is an unforgettable experience. The viewing experiences usually start at 20:00 and last about two hours. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org (Afrikaans) or Chris at email@example.com (English), or visit www.cederbergobs.org.za. These tours only take place on selected Saturday evenings, weather permitting, and naturally when there’s no full moon. Permits for several Cederberg activities can be obtained at Sanddrif, although overnight hiking permits have to be secured through CapeNature.
A bit of luxury
Winding our way out of the Cederberg we tracked left to Ceres, past the right turn to Kromrivier. Soon afterwards the road meets a T-junction, where left takes you to the Nuwerust Rest Camp (www.cederbergexperience.co.za), and right goes in the direction of Ceres. Finally, with the road having returned to tar, we turned left, joining the R303 through the picturesque Koue Bokkeveld and Skurweberg mountains. The famous Gydo Pass lay ahead, our final obstacle before descending into the Ceres Valley. This pass was built in 1848 by Andrew Geddes Bain, forming the link between the Warm and Koue Bokkeveld. The 6.5 km of road comprising 27 twists and turns is a motoring enthusiast’s dream, but it takes some willpower to draw your eyes away from the awe-inspiring views of the valley and back to the road. Sneaking through the hamlet of Ceres we continued through Mitchell’s Pass and on to Fynbos Guest Farm – not their charming campsite, but the comfy cottages and neighbouring restaurant, the Grain & Grape, for our ration of pampering after the ruggedness of the Cederberg. But our stay there is a story for another time.
Why the Cederberg?
This mountain range is possibly the most splendid and striking in the entire Western Cape – a bold claim, considering that the Table Mountain range, the Swartberg and other prominent players all compete for that distinction. But what sets it apart is that it’s a declared wilderness area, and there aren’t so many of those left. The presence of endemic animal and plant species, awe-inspiring rock formations, leisure activities both thrilling and laid-back, and a cornucopia of charismatic campsites and self-catering destinations, make this a true all-in-one exploration experience. If you’re ever in the Cape, or headed this way, three to five days enjoyed here will certainly be time well spent.