Swartberg Nature Reserve 4x4 TrailEnquire Now
19km from Prince Albert
29km, 3-4hrs, Grade 2-3
+27 21 483 0190 www.capenature.co.za
Configuration: Out and back.
Terrain: Rocks, sandstone, challenging ascents and descents.
This is a self-drive route; no guiding is needed. You will need a permit and a minimum of two vehicles (maximum four). The best time to tackle the route is in spring and early summer. In winter, with snow and heavy rain can make the trail particularly challenging. There are no facilities along the route except for the Bothashoek overnight hut. Self-catering accommodation and camping are available in nearby Gamkaskloof. Prince Albert also offers a vast range of accommodation options and other commodities. The Swartberg Pass itself and the descent into ‘Die Hel’ Gamkaskloof may not be strictly for 4x4s only, but the routes are impressive. Mountain biking, swimming, hiking and the Donkey Trail can be tackled in the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
The 121 000ha of the Swartberg Nature Reserve is between the Great and Klein Karoo. These mountains are part of the Cape fold mountain range and the impressive rock formations in the Swartberg and Meiringspoort passes are definitely worth a visit. The reserve is home to grey reebok, klipspringer, baboon, duikers and steenbok as well as the shy badger, aardwolf and leopard. A variety of bird species graces the skies, including the rare black eagle.
The Swartberg Nature Reserve 4x4 Trail will take you through mountain fynbos, rewarding you with sweeping views of hundreds of kilometres in almost every direction over the Great Karoo. You can see all the way to the Nuweberg Mountains near Beaufort West in the north and the lush Outeniqua Mountains to the south.
The trail sets off about 500m southeast of the ‘Ou Tol Huis’. From here, it runs east for approximately 14km along the northern slopes of the Swartberg range. It runs through deep ravines and valleys like Ribbokkloof and Voetpadrivier, contouring Gousberg and crossing over at Luiperdnek to reach the Bothashoek overnight hiking hut.
The terrain consists mainly of Table Mountain sandstone. The trail climbs high into the crags in places, sometimes by almost 1 000m in just 3km. There are some very challenging ascents and descents. The altitude rises from 1 583m to 1 722m above sea level.
On your way back along the same route your perspective changes and you will have the opportunity to spot Seweweekspoort Peak, the highest peak in the Western Cape. Remember to book and obtain a permit. The trail is open for a minimum of two and a maximum of four vehicles at a time.
The overnight hut at Bothashoek can be booked if you feel like doing this trail over two days. The hut has a kitchen area and three bedrooms with four beds each. If you opted for one of the self-catering houses or camping in Gamkaskloof you still have some driving to do after the trail. The turn-off to ‘Die Hel’ is about 2km back along the road towards Prince Albert. The self-catering units vary in size, sleeping between three and eight people each. Solar panels provide lighting (but no electric points) in all the houses.
There are also ten shaded camping sites with ablutions, but no electricity. Swimming is possible in the Gamka River, while hiking, fishing and mountain biking options are numerous.
You can reach the Swartberg Nature Reserve by turning off the N1 towards Prince Albert at Prince Albert Road, 86km after Laingsburg if you are coming from Cape Town. You can also access the Swartberg Pass and Reserve via Oudtshoorn. Follow the N12 from George to Oudtshoorn and then the R328 from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert.
The Central Karoo falls within the Western Cape Province and embraces the south-western region of the vast and semi-arid Great Karoo. In keeping with the typical character of the Karoo the area is sparsely populated, with just a few towns scattered across the plains amongst large sheep and game farms.
Beaufort West is the main town of the region, with the nearby Karoo National Park being a big visitor draw card to the area. The region is home to two popular villages - Matjiesfontein, alongside the N1, and Prince Albert, tucked snugly at the base of the Swartberg Mountains.
In the north of the region the landscape has a prehistoric appearance, with conical hills and flat-topped ridges peppering the encircling horizon. A slight surge of the imagination could spark images of smoke and ash and oozing lava, with dinosaurs stomping along the valleys and gorges - a scene, perhaps, from the region eons ago.
Further south the countryside loses altitude rapidly, tumbling more than 1 000m down the slopes of the rugged Nuweveld Mountains. It then levels out onto a vast plain that sweeps towards its southern boundary at the Swartberg Mountains, over 100km away.
Many travellers only pass through the region along the thin line of the N1. The Nuweveld Mountains north of Beaufort West may look interesting, but the plains to the south are more or less featureless. However, this perception should be tempered by the fact that the area contains more species of flora than the entire United Kingdom.
As with much of the Karoo, one has to get out on foot and explore to discover its true appeal. The region has a good choice of guest farms offering a range of Karoo experiences. Beaufort West, the northern ‘gateway’ to the Western Cape, is a busy town and one where many travellers stop in to refuel and have a bite to eat. Recently it has seen an increase in the number and quality of its guesthouses as tourism in South Africa’s platteland catches on.
The Central Karoo is more suited to the explorer than the tourist - to those who enjoy seeking the less obvious joys and novelties, and who enjoy the experience of the journey as much as the destination.
Look out for
The Karoo National Park- On the outskirts of Beaufort West this 88 000ha park conserves the habitats and wildlife typical of the plains and mountains of the semi-arid Karoo. It is ostensibly a scenic park but there are a number of creatures to look out for during a game drive. Plains game includes gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest and plains zebra in the low-lying areas, while klipspringer and Cape mountain zebra can be seen in the mountains. Top species to spot are the desert black rhino and the recently introduced pride of lions. For birdwatchers the list of around 200 species is quite impressive for the region. The road network has been upgraded to allow access to some of the mountains as well as the plains, and for the adventurous there are two easy 4x4 trails heading into the western reaches of the park. Day visitors are welcome. Accommodation is in chalets and caravan and camping sites.
Matjiesfontein - On the N1, 240km from Cape Town, there is a unique Victorian village which has changed little since its establishment in the late 19th century. The Lord Milner Hotel and other buildings seem to send one into a time warp. For those who enjoy antiques and Victoriana, the Marie Rawdon Museum is fascinating.
Prince Albert - This charming Karoo village at the base of the Swartberg Mountains has a large following of avid fans. It is situated on the R407, 45km south of the N1.
Meiringspoort - This scenically spectacular road is situated on the N12 as it meanders through the Swartberg Mountains. Once in the poort (narrow pass between precipitous mountains), the serpentine road winds around sheer cliffs of orange rock and across the mostly serene waters of the Groot Rivier (Great River), which it crosses 25 times. It falls within the Swartberg Nature Reserve and there are numerous well-maintained picnic sites along the way, some with braai facilities. It is easy to spend half a day exploring the pass. Make a point of stopping at Waterfall Drift picnic site and taking the short stairway to view the waterfall with its 60m drop.
The Swartberg Pass - This sinuous gravel road climbs and dips between Prince Albert and Matjiesrivier valley near the Cango Caves in the Klein Karoo. It is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular mountain roads in the world.