Setting off on a round trip from Cape Town to the Garden Route, we explored the heartland of South Africa along Cape Route 62, with its vast mountain ranges and pretty historic farming communities
Everyone I knew who had been to South Africa had travelled the Garden Route. That is, everyone but me. I have always felt that if something is that popular, then I don't want to know. I hate crowds, and all the commercialism that they bring. So when a friend suggested that we visit the Tsitsikama National Park, situated along one of the most beautiful stretches of the Garden Route, I was a little unsure.
Starting from our base in Cape Town, we hit on the ideal solution. We would avoid the much travelled N2 on the way out, travelling along the less busy Cape Route 62 (www.route62.co.za) as far as George. This would allow us to explore a quieter and more remote side of the Cape, before reaching the popular coastal stretch. It was a brilliant decision. We discovered amazing landscapes, and were privileged to experience a most unique and rewarding welcome, while staying on a remote farm near Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo.
We left Cape Town, heading east through the famous wine growing areas of Stellenbosch and Paarl. At first the road was busy; the scenery interesting but not spectacular. Then as the miles clocked up, we left the traffic behind. Feeling like pioneers, we travelled along endless straight roads and climbed over formidable mountain passes. At the top of Cogman's Kloof between Ashton and Montagu, we left the car to admire the English Fort of 1899, a reminder of the Anglo Boer War. Further on we crossed the Tradouw Pass above Barrydale, and finally the incredible Outeniqua Pass overlooking the sea above George. The road was long but never boring, for every mountain form was unique. Differing geology, changing weather, and the procession of the day imbued the rocks with colours that ranged from a dark and inky black, through mauve to glowing orange.
Route 62 is said to include the longest wine route in the world. It feels as if every last crumb of soil has been scraped from the mountain sides and deposited in the valleys, where a succession of vineyards and orchards softens the landscape. We stopped for lunch at The Orchard in the pretty town of Montagu. The main street is lined with historic white-washed Cape Dutch buildings, housing craft shops, guest houses, cafes and a museum. The cafe garden offered us welcome relief from the midday heat, with its little fountain and shady parasols. My smoked springbok salad was freshly prepared and delicious (R50), and of course we sampled an excellent local sauvignon blanc from Robertson. It was cool and refreshing with hints of melon and elderflower:
The Orchard, 58A Long Street, Montagu. Tel.0236143454
Montagu is known as the gateway to the Klein Karoo. We planned to stay in this region near the farming town of Calitzdorp, which is separated from the Great Karoo by the dominant Swartberg Mountain Range. Our destination, Living Waters in the Groenfontein Valley was certainly off the beaten track. Our apprehension increased as the unmade road out of town seemed to go on forever. We had been warned that our cottages would only be lit by lanterns at night. That was fine by me, I wanted to experience rural South Africa. But we hoped that our travelling companions would feel the same way.
A warm welcome
We spent two nights at Living Waters. It was an experience that I shall treasure. Our hostess Erika Calitz, and her team could not have been more welcoming. Originally part of a larger farm, the land now supports a few horses, donkeys and vines. Although it is primarily a family homestead, Erika and her husband have developed a unique and innovative tourist enterprise in the form of "The Donkey Trail ". They also offer standard bed and breakfast accommodation in the old farmstead, or in one of two traditional cottages. My husband and I occupied the smallest cottage near the head of the valley. It was simple, and utterly charming. Sheltering under the brooding Swartberg Mountains, I knew that this was the South Africa I most wanted to see.
During our short time at Living Waters we were looked after with enormous care. We were offered a riverside picnic, horse-riding, and a guided early morning walk into the mountains. A recent fire had blackened the fynbos vegetation, and our guide Mackie told us in halting English how everyone had loyally pitched in to fight the flames. In spite of a current drought, green shoots were already poking through the charred earth. We spotted footprints of baboons, but they were too busy raiding the vines for grapes. Little do they realise when they post their lookout to watch out for humans, that a patch of vines is reserved especially for them. Such is the rapport between the owners and their environment.
On our second evening we were treated to an evening braai of chicken, karoo lamb and the essential boerewors sausage. Sparks from the wood fire crackled into the night air. We had no need for harsh electric light. As we headed for bed, we tried to spot the Southern Cross, and were dazzled by a panoply of stars so thick and bright, we stumbled towards our cottages in awe.
Although there are many activities to enjoy in the Calitzdorp area, such as a visit to port wine cellars, or to the Cango Caves, I guarantee you would be happy to spend all day dreaming beside the small pool, or looking over the valley. I cannot commend this place too highly. Erika employs and trains local staff, and their warmth and loyalty is supremely evident. Dinner, bed and breakfast costs R450 pp sharing; horse riding is R100 per hour.
The Donkey Trail
Recreating the path that residents of the old Die Hel or Gamkas Kloof community used to take to Calitzdorp with their produce, this trail takes you on a stiff two day guided hike with donkeys over the Swartberg Mountains. Starting from Living Waters, the second night is spent at a mountain camp, and the third at Gamkas Kloof, in renovated period cottages. This costs R2750 pp, inclusive of all accommodation, guides and meals (www.donkeytrail.com).
If you are very fit then go for it. I have no doubt that it must be a fantastic experience. We only walked as far as Base One, but how I wish I could meet the challenge of the steep climb we saw ahead. You may even be fortunate to spot one of the rare leopards that dwell up there.
Since a road was constructed leading from the Swartberg Pass into Die Hel, the last members of the community have left. You can now book self-catering accommodation here for yourself, in one of eight restored period cottages, but I am warned that the road down into Die Hel (or abyss) is difficult. In spite of its grim name, this valley is truly wonderful, and is firmly on my wish list. Accommodation in an eight person cottage costs R150-190per person sharing, per day. You can also camp for R160 per site, but brace yourself for the cold showers.
If you are travelling to Port Elizabeth, you can continue along Route 62, hitting the coast at Jeffrey's Bay. We left Route 62, however, at the historic town of Oudtshoorn, in order to complete our journey to Storms River and the Tsitsikama National Park. As we headed over the Outeniqua Pass towards George, glimpses of long white sandy beaches hinted at the beauty of the marine heritage coast that lay ahead. We were planning to walk the famous "Dolphin Trail". I shall write about this in my next guide.