Hundreds of years ago, explorers brought home tales of strange monsters. One of these was a race of “dog-headed men”, which they called cynocephali. Today, reports of this “monster” are thought to have their origin in sightings of baboons, whose Latin species name remains cynocephalus. Baviaans is the Dutch word for baboons, and the Baviaanskloof (baboon gorge) is most certainly the ideal habitat for these family-orientated apes, and for the leopards that prey on them. Both species have a difficult history with humans in this area, with baboons being hunted for their pelts and leopards blamed and shot for stock losses.
Happily, today baboons have only the leopards to worry about, and the local farms proudly proclaim their leopard-friendliness, seeking alternative methods of protecting their sheep, such as the introduction of Anatolian sheepdogs.
The Baviaans area of the Eastern Cape is a marvel - a vast land of craggy beauty in the Karoo Midlands, encompassing the Groot Rivier, Groot Winterhoek, Langkloof, Baviaanskloof and Kouga mountains, with the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve wedged in the green valley between the latter two ranges. The Baviaans Municipality covers an area of 7 727 square kilometres, encompassing the Baviaans and Steytlerville, with Willowmore as the administrative hub. Agriculture (mohair and wool production and ostrich farming) and tourism are the cornerstones of the area’s economy. The Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve covers 90% of the local municipality area.
Uniondale, Avontuur and De Vlugt are towns often visited or passed through by those visiting the Baviaans area, but they are technically in the Western Cape, while Willowmore, Baviaanskloof, Steytlerville and Patensie are in the Eastern Cape.
The R329 from Willowmore meets the R75 at Wolwefontein, which continues to Kirkwood and Addo, forming the shortest route from Cape Town to Addo. This route is generally the second choice, given the popularity of the N2 Garden Route. The Port Elizabeth and George airports are nearest to the Baviaans (about 165 kilometres away).
Visitors exploring Baviaanskloof can choose the main R332 route through the remarkable Nuwekloof Pass, which was cut through the earth by the famous “colossus of the roads”, Thomas Bain, and on through Studtis to Patensie (known as T1). There is also the more straightforward R329 from Willowmore to Steytlerville, or you can take the Winterhoek/Grootrieverpoort route (T3). One of the most rewarding routes to Knysna is from Uniondale down the incredible Prince Alfred’s Pass, another of Bain’s legacies, which has amazing views and superb birdlife, including Cape sugarbirds and rock thrushes. Unfortunately, what often happens is that places such as Uniondale and Willowmore seem like little more than useful pit stops on the way to somewhere more rugged and exotic, but these little towns are bright, quaint, quirky and well worth exploring.
Travelling on the N9 from Graaff-Reinet, the Karoo breaks out into undulating hills of scrub. Winding down the dirt roads into Nuwekloof Pass, curiosity is replaced by awestruck amazement at the cliffs of red rock towering on either side of the cleft. As you loop slowly through this rocky landscape with a craning neck, it seems so extraordinary and alien that you would hardly be surprised to see dog-headed men loping around.
The area has a “wild west” atmosphere and was once feared because of the bandits and scoundrels who took refuge in its caves - hence local names such as Moordenaar’s Kloof (Murderer’s Gorge). Baviaanskloof has some blood-curdling ghost stories linked to it and is the resting place of South Africa’s only mummy, which was found in 1999 and nicknamed Moses. He is 2000 years old and likely to be an ancestor of the Khoisan people. You would think twice about venturing out at night in this eerie place, where leopards roam in the shadows, but the brave will be rewarded with overwhelmingly beautiful star-gazing on clear nights.
The Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve encompasses 500 000 hectares of protected land collaboratively managed by Eastern Cape Parks and is the third-largest wilderness area in South Africa. It is a world heritage site because it contains seven out of eight of South Africa's biomes, with aloes, spekboom, fynbos and 17 protea species. There are 310 recorded bird species, including sparrowhawks and jewel-like malachite sunbirds. The Mega-Reserve encompasses the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, an area of about 250 square kilometres wedged between the Baviaanskloof and Kouga Mountains, with more than 50 mammal species, including Cape buffalo, kudu, Cape leopard, mountain zebra and, of course, baboons.
The vast crenulated cliffs and unspoiled mountains, indigenous forests, and pure mountain streams, pools, and waterfalls offer secluded malaria-free hiking. Self-catering chalets, huts, camping and caravan sites are distributed throughout the park. Although this area may seem dry, it never runs out of water due to deep underground springs. This can sometimes put a glitch in travel plans because the numerous rivers cross and flood the roads. While water is plentiful, petrol is scarce and is available only at Willowmore, Studtis and Patensie.
This is a mecca for adventurers who want to give their 4x4s something to bite their tyres into. It is extremely unlikely that those without a 4x4 will be able to make it all the way through Baviaanskloof, and even 4x4 drivers may have some hairy moments. You can make it through the whole park in a day but that really isn’t something you’ll want to do, given the beautiful scenery and the natural pools to bathe in along the way.
Craggy overhangs on the route preserve San rock art and many resorts recommend trained local guides who give tours to these sites and can educate visitors about the medicinal uses of the plants and other natural resources. The locals are welcoming, extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the area and the Baviaanskloof Tourism Office makes sure that the special art and craft talents of the locals are available to tourists. The joy of this area is taking it slowly and enjoying the parched vistas and aloes and finding the little treasures on the way, such as Vero’s Restaurant near Studtis, which serves tea, coffee, cold drinks and roosterbrood alongside a marvellous garden with odd totemic sculptures made of discarded items such as dolls’ heads and old number plates.
Look out for
Smitskraal day visitors area is a picnic spot on the Kouga river banks. Visitors may swim in the river. Day visitors’ permits are available at the Baviaans Tourism Office in Willowmore, Makkedaat Caves, Zandvlakte Guest Farm, Komdomo Office in Cambria and at the eastern and western reserve gates.
Makkedaat Caves is cave accommodation tucked away behind indigenous bush on Rietrivier farm. Far from being rudimentary troglodyte fare, the caves are spotless and stocked with useful implements, comfortable bedding and even lovingly tended pot plants. It is a not-to-be-missed experience of being immersed in the stark, isolated beauty of the Baviaanskloof valley. Hans Jumat gives guided tours.
Sewefontein Community Farm boasts seven natural springs where tourists can sample the fresh mountain water and hike along the fountains. Guided tours are offered to the artesian borehole or the old wild fig-tree forest. Picnic and camping sites are available.
Middle Keurbooms Conservancy – a number of biomes meet here: renosterveld, fynbos, valley bushveld and riverine forest. Landowners have ensured the conservation of a large area, which will form a link in the Addo to the Eden wildlife corridor, allowing animals to move between the new Garden Route National Park, Soetkraal Nature Reserve and Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area.
Nature Field Guides - nature enthusiasts can learn about the Karoo with a local guide trained through the Baviaans municipality and qualified in nature field-guiding and level-one first aid. Contact, Pieter Maganie of the Cedar Guesthouse and Retreat Centre. Ask him about the Cob Cottage (an extraordinary house built entirely of organic materials) and Martha’s Restaurant.
Gamtoos River Valley - an hour from Port Elizabeth, this warm, welcoming farming area hosts Hankey, Loerie and Patensie, is the eastern gateway to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness area and offers historical landmarks, game reserves, farm activities and hiking trails.
Elands River Valley is 52 kilometres from central Port Elizabeth and is the eastern end of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve. It offers various eco-friendly accommodation camps and other activities.
The Tsitsikamma National Park (two to three hours away) encompasses the exquisite Tsitsikamma Mountains and a stretch of the Indian Ocean from the Bloukrans River in the west to Clarkson in the east. Tsitsikamma means "place of sparkling water" and is lush indigenous forest, with ancient yellowwood, stinkwood, hard pear and ironwood trees. It has hiking and walking trails, include the Otter Trail. Blackwater tubing, canoe trails, a tree-top canopy tour and the world's highest commercial bungee jump (216 metres) are among the other attractions.
Groendal Wilderness Area has rugged terrain, streams and vast ravines encompassed by the Groot Winterhoek Mountain range. Wonderful hikes are to be had.