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Namaqua 4x4 Eco-Trail

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In Pella

-29.0334, 19.1558

600km, 54-72hrs, Grade 2-3

+27 27 712 8035 www.namakwa-dm.gov.za

Configuration: One way.

Terrain: Sand, rock, gravel and some dongas and river crossings.

This is a self-drive route. Spring and autumn are best; book ahead to get your permit as a maximum of ten vehicles is allowed on the trail at once. Several campsites and some guest houses or rafting operators can offer accommodation along the way. There are no other routes in the area. Swimming, birding, fishing and hiking fit perfectly into the schedule.

About

The Namakwa 4X4 route is assuredly the longest 4x4 route in South Africa. It starts at Pella, near Pofadder, and stretches for more than 600km along the Orange River to Alexander Bay, exploring one of the most isolated corners of South Africa. The beauty of the route lies in the contrast between rugged mountains, green riverbeds and sandy plains. It offers peaceful silence and a rich variety of succulent plants. The rugged kloofs, high mountains and dramatic landscapes that sweep away inland from the Orange River are worth the effort to get here.

The first section of approximately 330km heads out from the Pella Drift campsite to Vioolsdrif via Guadom and Kamgab. This section can be done in a leisurely three days. Most of the route runs parallel to the Gariep River. Apart from some sections among rocky outcrops, thick sand and the occasional muddy patch, the going is easy enough. After lots of zigzagging and negotiating a steep incline or two, the track eventually spits you back out onto the N7 just north of Steinkopf.

The second section covers the 250km-plus between Vioolsdrif and Alexander Bay. Put aside three to four days for this section and explore the unique mountain tracks of the southern Richtersveld. More rocks, sand and dongas will keep things interesting along this section as you head west along the Kristalberg road. You’ll reach the unusual Bakkranse campsite and then on to Beesbank before reaching Alexander Bay.

If you’re looking for some additional excitement during the trip, an optional section called the ‘Road to Hell’ can be accessed on the first leg of the trail before heading back onto the N7 north of Steinkopf. Do not try to attempt this detour if you are alone, without low range or don’t have recovery equipment. It is a 4km descent over the mountains into the Nougaseb Valley and eventually the Orange River Valley. The descent is gut-thumping and the climb back out simply horrifying. The pass starts at S 28° 51.042 E 17° 58.370. Invest in a good map and contact Piet van Heerden from www.virosatours.com.

There are no supplies available at any of the communities passed during the first section of the trail. However, Kotzeshoop, Eksteensfontein and Kuboes passed between Vioolsdrif and Alexander Bay on the second leg all have general dealer stores. Although some guest farms exist along the way, it is better to be fully self-sufficient and prepared to camp. Petrol is scarce, so pack a passport in case you need to pop over the border at Vioolsdrif to fill up.

Follow the N14 north-eastwards from Springbok to Upington, turning left to Pella before you reach Pofadder. Coming from Upington and Kakamas on the N14, turn right to Pella 24km after Pofadder. Pella is 13.5km further down the gravel road.

Namaqualand

Northern Cape

About

Three hours north of Cape Town, along the N7, lies Namaqualand, an area well known for its spectacular wild-flower displays in spring. However, it also encompasses the sublime mountain desert of the Richtersveld in the far north, and the wild and undeveloped coastline on to which the Atlantic Ocean breaks. To the east, from the heights of the Bokkeveld and Kamiesberg Mountains, the vast expanse of Bushmanland rolls, unbroken, to the horizon. 

Because of the region’s striking floral displays it is often referred to as the ‘fields of dreams’. This description of Namaqualand may seem a tad optimistic during summer when the barren earth slumbers, waterless, beneath a sizzling sun. But come spring, the turnaround is nothing short of miraculous.

What makes this natural display stand out above any other is that Namaqualand is essentially a desert (50 - 400mm annual rainfall). However, unlike the paucity associated with most arid areas, Namaqualand boasts an abundance of more than 4 000 plant species, and no other desert in the world puts on a spring spectacle like this one.

The region is sparsely populated and its towns are small and spread out. Springbok, on the N7, is the biggest town in the region and is regarded as Namaqualand’s capital. It is a busy town and an important flower-viewing centre in spring, with the Goegap Nature Reserve nearby. Just south is the more laid back Kamieskroon and the increasingly popular Namaqua National Park. Along the coast, where diamonds are still mined in the sand and on the ocean floor, lie Port Nolloth, Kleinzee and Hondeklipbaai. This coastline is known as the Diamond Coast. Moving inland to the plateau above the Bokkeveld Mountains, Nieuwoudtville boasts more species of bulb plants than anywhere else on earth, and the area around Calvinia is rich in floral diversity. 

Further east, Sutherland perches atop the Roggeveld Mountains and is well known as the coldest town in the country. It is home to the South African Astronomical Observatory and SALT (Southern African large telescope). In the far east of the region near Fraserburg the Gansfontein Palaeosurface takes visitors way back in time. 

The landscape is characterised by granite domes and mountain ranges, long lonely roads and winding passes. In the Richtersveld and the Kamiesberg Mountains the Nama people follow a cultural way of life little influenced by modernity. Here their traditional matjieshuis (reed hut) and perhaps even the kokerboomhuis (quiver tree houses) can be seen. 

Look out for

Flower viewing - during spring, flower viewing opportunities are diverse.

The Richtersveld in the far north contains the highest botanical diversity and rates of endemic species of any arid region on earth and supports more succulent flora than anywhere else in the world. 

The Coast has many places where flowers grow literally onto the beaches of the rugged, unspoilt shore. The best displays are seen while driving along the coastal plain (called the strandveld) south of the diamond-mining town of Kleinzee, and around Hondeklipbaai. 

Along the N7 gravel backroads loop into the mountains and farmlands providing plenty of day-drive opportunities. Near Springbok the Goegap Nature Reserve is often blanketed with petals. Further south near Kamieskroon is the Namaqua National Park with a large flower section, in what was formerly called the Skilpad Nature Reserve. 

The Bokkeveld plateau - Nieuwoudtville and the surrounding area have more species of bulb plants than anywhere else on earth, adding another dimension to the flower spectacle. Further east along R27, Calvinia stands at the foot of the Hantam Mountains and its Akkerendam Nature Reserve is good for a drive or a walk. 

Namaqua National Park - 22km from Kamieskroon is a developing park, which has grown to a present extent of 141 000ha including a stretch of coast between the Spoeg and Groen Rivers. The peak visitor season in the park is during the spring flower displays but any time of year is good for a drive around to see re-introduced game, take up the 4x4 challenge, or just enjoy the scenery. The park has few facilities, but they do have four fully equipped self-catering chalets for overnight visitors, all with electricity, indoor fireplace, and outdoor braai. Hikers can undertake two trails of 2 and 3 hours respectively.

The Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in the far north of Namaqualand is recommended for those who enjoy the bumps and grinds of off-road driving. The mountain desert scenery is sublime in its starkness and there are views that really leave one breathless. It is joined to the Namibian side by a pont over the Orange River at Sendelingsdrift. There are two wilderness camps and a number of campsites with very basic facilities.

The Richtersveld Community Conservancy - Adjoining the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park to the south is the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, a designated World Heritage Site. This incorporates the Nama settlements of Lekkersing, Eksteenfontein, Kuboes, and Sanddrift. It is one of only 34 biodiversity hotspots worldwide as recognised by Conservation International, and one of only two existing in a desert.

Tankwa Karoo National Park - This desert park is accessed off the R355, which runs south from Calvinia towards Ceres. It straddles the boundary between the Northern Cape and Western Cape and incorporates some of the Roggeveld Mountains and the arid low-lying areas to the south. At 130 000ha it covers a vast area of the succulent Karoo. Accommodation is in original farmhouses, purpose-built cottages and bush campsites that have no facilities.

Observatory - Outside Sutherland the South African Astronomical Observatory is home to a number of big telescopes. Guided day and night tours can be undertaken to the facility.

Palaeo surface - 5km from Fraserburg there are impressively clear trackways of large, four-footed, five-toed mammalian reptiles in the fossilised mud. The prints are of a Bradysaurus that passed that way approximately 190-million years ago.

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