Venturing Into South Africa's Interior

Posted on: 03 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

David Alston explores the heart of South Africa off the beaten track.

Clocking up nearly 4,000kms in two weeks sounds like a busy itinerary, but building in flexibility with only two ‘fixed’ bookings in National Parks proved to be the right decision for our foursome, who set out from Gauteng to discover more of what South Africa has to offer.

A stopover at Cradock en-route to the Addo Elephant Park proved to be the right decision, as we stayed in one of Sandra Antrobus’ beautifully restored Tuishuise, and despite it being a Sunday were able, thanks to helpful curators, to take in the Fish River and Olive Schreiner Museums, both containing a wealth of Eastern Cape and literary history.

Following the N10 coastwards, we arrived at the Park at lunchtime the following day. We stayed in the newly-opened southern section at Camp Matyholweni, which is just off the main road at Colchester, and consists of 12 very comfortable and well-equipped chalets set in secluded coastal bush. At present most of the game is some 20kms to the north and after a day driving around the main roads in the Park we were rewarded with numerous elephant sightings, a variety of antelope and some warthog.

And so on to our Land Rover’s first real challenge: the Baviaanskloof, reached from the East via Loerie, Hankey or Patensie - which somehow always seem to condense into one word.  All these towns are situated in a fertile valley and offer much by way of historical interest, particularly Sara Baartman’s (‘The Hottentot Venus’) grave in Hankey.

We entered the Kloof proper at lunch time, and three hours later emerged half-way along it at Zandvlakte, with the Land Rover earning its stripes, and the rest of us with a dose of vertigo from looking over sheer cliff faces of the single track road, where passing another vehicle is out of the question. We didn’t encounter any other traffic however, and in fact both the two initial passes can be easily handled by any respectable four-wheel drive vehicle, leaving one to enjoy the spectacular scenery and many river crossings.

Zandvlakte Farm offers comfortable accommodation as well as Piet and Magriet Kruger’s generous hospitality and many interesting facts and anecdotes about the Region.  We ambled out to the western end of the Kloof the following morning. After a pit stop at Uniondale, we descended the seemingly never-ending Prince Albert’s Pass to Knysna, starting among beautiful fynbos and ending in yellowwood forests just begging to be walked in.

We were able to get excellent excellent accommodation in Knysna at one of the Quay’s Townhouses right on the Waterfront for a very reasonable out-of-season price.  Our three days were spent doing the 5km beach walk from Brenton-on-Sea to Buffalo Bay, walking a forest trail near to Rheenendal, and generally ‘hanging out’ in the town to enjoy its many attractions, considerably enhanced by our not being there in the feverish months of December or January.

The mouth of the Breede River, vicariously known as Port Beaufort and Witsands, was our next port of call, reached via a detour off the N2 to the coast at Stillbaai, and a dirt road through pristine coastal bush via Vermaaklikheid.

A tremendous storm in the night and an overcast morning facilitated our decision to move on after a night in the aptly-named Whale Watchers Inn where we did indeed see whales frolicking close to the shore from the upstairs lounge. But for the weather, we would undoubtedly have prolonged our stay to enjoy more of the estuary and coastline.        

After brief stops in Swellendam and Montagu – whose attractions justified more time in the area – it was off eastwards again along the scenic R62. A chance meeting with a couple while filling up with petrol at Barrydale led us off onto a dirt road and over the Rooiberg Pass to Calitzdorp, via van Wyksdorp where there was wonderful scenery, another breath-taking pass, and nothing encountered except the odd snake on the road.

South AfricaBeing unable to get the accommodation we’d hoped for near Oudtshoorn, we were compensated by a further unplanned diversion on a deserted dirt road through another fertile valley next to a river, winding up to the foot of the Swartberg Pass. Both sides of the Pass are spectacular.  The ‘southern side’ with sweeping views back nearly to the sea, and the ‘northern side’ leading into Prince Albert through narrow kloofs and amazing granite formations. A puncture on the way down – the Landie’s only blemish of the trip – luckily occurred where we had stopped to admire the view, and other cars were able to pass.

Prince Albert proved to be our favourite ‘small town’, with its many restored homes, wide streets and water furrows, and a laid-back atmosphere with very friendly residents. Dennehof Guest House where we stayed was a winner, and the Koegelmander’s dinner rivaled many an urban establishment.

And so on to the N1 via yet another dirt road, which offered great backward-looking views of the Swartberg range, and then to the Karoo National Park just outside Beaufort West whose chalets afforded picture-postcard views of sunsets behind the mountain range above the town. There aren’t a lot of animals in the Park, but there are several good walks, plant and fossil trails, a 4X4 trail and a very instructive interpretive centre.

After two nights, we set off on our last leg of the journey to Graaff Reinet - via the almost deserted R61 to Aberdeen, and a very comfortably restored Cypress Cottage in the quiet end of town. This proved to be a great place to explore the Valley of Desolation, the newly-proclaimed Camdeboo National Park, and the various historical buildings and museums with which the town abounds.

The N9 over the Lootsberg Pass on our final morning brought our wheel full circle to Middelburg where we had originally branched off to Cradock two weeks earlier, and so back to Johannesburg, where we are already planning our next expedition.  

David Alston’s Key Points:

  • South Africa is indeed ‘a world in one country’, with great scenery and an incredible diversity of flora and fauna that warrants revisiting over and over again.
  • Accommodation in even the smaller towns is reasonable, comfortable and easy to obtain out-of-season with the help of the local Tourist Information Centres.
  • Without exception, service in all the diverse areas visited was friendly, helpful and efficient – getting to know the locals also pays dividends!
  • Don’t overlook ‘the roads less travelled’! With the exception of the Baviaanskloof, all the roads we went on were easily traversed by a conventional vehicle, and most of even our minor dirt roads are in excellent condition.
  • Finally, keep a flexible itinerary if at all possible. It enables one to stay longer in places you like and move on from those you don’t. But do book ahead if you are planning to stay in National Parks – they are obviously ‘top of the pops’ with locals and tourists.

By David Alston

Have you been to South Africa on holiday? Have you been on a walking or hiking trip?

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