Travel like a South African off- the-beaten track
Author: Mariëlle Renssen and Hirsh Aronowitz
The most compelling reason to visit this area is the striking natural features which are the focal point of this route. The compressed folds of the magnificent Swartberg offer high passes and high peaks, but also devilishly difficult trails into deep valleys – which make for exciting exploring on 4×4 routes, mountain-bike tracks and hiking trails. Winter snow-falls coat the tallest peaks, turning the air frigid, so bear this in mind when you put into place your trip plan.
The Cango Caves, part of a limestone ridge running parallel to the Swartberg Mountains, have been known to humankind since the early stone age. When stumbled upon by the early white farmers, the cave entrance bore many San paintings. Sadly they have not survived the vandals and huge influx of visitor’s but the fantastic dripstone formations are still a sight to see.
Prince Albert, just outside the northern entrance to the Swartberg Mountains, is a perfectly preserved little heritate village. Every street is lined with painted and primped historical homes, from gabled Dutch and Victorian to flat-roofed Malay.
Prince Albert is mainly a sheep-rearing and agricultural town, which is why its food festivals are so popular. Figs, stone fruits, olives and grapevines are grown here, while Gay’s Dairy is famous for it’s Guernsey milk and cheeses free of hormones and preservatives. In 2012, the village celebrated 250 years of existence, captured with great fun and quirkiness on the town’s dustbins, all painted by local artists and school kids.
One highlight of this route
Walk the Donkey Trail into Die Hel
Living Waters Mountain Estate (previously Groenfontein) lies 12km northeast of Calitzdorp. It is here that the two-day, 20km+ walking trail starts. The first day, about 14km, takes 7-8 hours, the second is 9km, takes roughly the same time.
It has been developed along the mountain paths donkeys once took when the hardy people living in Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) needed supplies from Calitzdorp. Walkers, who need to be fit as the route is moderate to strenuous, first climb up to Wyenek (wide neck) a 1,523m summit where they sleep in spacious two-man tents. The reassuring bit is that all the bulky backpacks are carried by stoic donkeys who accompany hikers, although the animal’s pace is entirely at whim. Day 1 climbs via a stretch called Zigzag, then just goes up, and up and up. But at the end of the day your aches and blisters are soothed by the beautiful waterfall-fed mountains pool at the camp.
Day 2 gives you wind-chiselled rock sculptures and views …jaw dropping views. From here you appreciate the forces that wrung and wrestled with the layers of rock, pushing and pulling them into compressed domes as far as the eye can see. The descent is difficult, steep, with jagged rock and loose shale, but the panoramas into Gamkaskloof and onto the hairpin tracks of Elandspad snaking into Die Hel are unforgettable. Your day ends at CapeNature’s cottages, little restored homes once belonging to the original inhabitants of the remote valley.
Maybe the best part, after all that arduous walking, is the vehicle ride back up Elandspad where, this time feet up, you watch the mountain drop away.
One thing to do and see – port and wine tasting
The vines of the Little Karoo wine region account for only 3% of the country’s vineyards, but he Portuguese port cultivars love Calitzdorp’s hot dry climate – which is why this town likes to call itself the ‘port capital of South Africa’.
The three largest cellars are De Krans, Boplaas and Calitzdorp Wine Cellar, but there is a handful of smaller ones, too, with interesting names like Du’SwaRoo and TTT Cellar (Things Take Time). Growing grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Souzo and Tinta Barocca, the wineries of De Krans, Axe Hill and Boplaas have all recently won awards (2012). As long as you not going anywhere, you won’t need much arm-twisting to pull in for the sweet nectar of the gods. Just remember, you’ll need to make an appointment at the smaller wineries.
To find more other interesting off the beaten track routes and activities for locals and tourists alike, buy South Africa for South Africans here.
copyright images & text insert from South Africa for South Africans, Mariëlle Renssen