Best Northern Cape 4×4 trails
By Patrick Cruywagen
My first Northern Cape encounter occurred 20 years ago, just after I matriculated. A nightmarish two-day bus trip from Cape Town ended at 8 South African Army Infantry Battalion in Upington. I wasn’t alone, as more than 1 000 other men standing on the parade ground had endured a similar ordeal. I wanted out of this hellishly hot hole and a week later (after a successful officer’s course selection) I was back on a bus heading south to Oudtshoorn. I vowed then and there that the Northern Cape would never see this soutie again.
But I have since returned at least 30 times. I’ve paddled the Orange River, slept next to the cold Atlantic Ocean in an old divers’ cottage at Noup and run the Augrabies Extreme Marathon. With each trip, I fall deeper in love with this hot, dry and adventurous region. Oh, and did I mention the vineyards?
The Northern Cape is among the most underrated tourist areas of our country. As a 4×4 destination, it might not have mud but it has rivers (mostly of the dry type), rocks, red Kalahari sand, fascinating wildlife and plenty of uninhabited space.
In this list of my favourite 4×4 trails in the Northern Cape, I’ve tried to include a little of everything. Some trails can be done in a Toyota RAV, while for others you’ll need low-range or diff-lock. Start your engines and engage 4×4!
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park 4×4 trails
To get from the southern entrance of this cross-border reserve at Twee Rivieren to the most northwestern corner at Union’s End will easily take a day. This is just the South African section of the massive park – if you have a 4×4 it becomes even bigger.
The 4×4 routes here cater for everyone: they’re guided or self-drive, long or short and accommodation includes fenced or unfenced campsites and comfortable wilderness chalets. Just 11 kilometres from the southern entrance along the road to Nossob lies the first 4×4 trail, the 13-kilometre Leeuwdril Loop. While park officials recommend a tyre pressure of 1.6 bars on the gravel roads, I say go even lower to about 1 bar on this trail that takes you over a series of dunes. It’s a good introduction to what to expect from the 4×4 routes in the park and all makes of 4×4 should be able to comfortably complete it. The trail can only be driven from east to west, so don’t expect any oncoming traffic unless someone is going the wrong way.
If you want a guided multi-day wilderness experience, I strongly recommend the three-night, four-day Nossob 4×4 Eco-Trail. In even months, it starts at Twee Rivieren and at Nossob in odd months. The trail follows a sandy private road to the west of the main road, so you won’t see any other tourists along the way. You have to be completely self-sufficient; only long-drop toilets, bucket showers and cement braais are available. You’ll need to take along water for the shower as well as wood, a grid and meat for the fire.
Two of the unfenced wilderness camps – Gharagab and Bitterpan – enjoy pretty high occupancy rates and are reachable only by 4×4. These off-the-beaten-track camps have units made from natural materials, which offer all the comforts of a regular chalet such as kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, fridge and utensils. The faraway Gharagab is my favourite because of its remote location and the good animal sightings it offers. While having a braai outside the chalet, I saw an adult leopard come down to the waterhole and some lions moved in not long after sunset, announcing their arrival with loud roars.
Just north of Nossob Rest Camp, you can head into the Botswana section of the park and do either the 257-kilometre Polentswa Wilderness Trail or the 191-kilometre Kaa Game Viewing Trail. Game here isn’t as plentiful as on the South African side of the park and I prefer to head east from Nossob on the 4×4 track to Bosobogolo Pan, which forms part of Mabuasehube. This 170-kilometre trail can be travelled in both directions, but don’t attempt it in one day; stop over at the Matopi campsite. The great thing about this campsite is that you couldn’t be further away from civilisation. No fences or fancy facilities; just you and the Kalahari bushveld. This is lion country and it’s not uncommon for a pride to wander through the camp, so you need to be vigilant. If you have youngsters in your group they need to be briefed regarding safety and bush etiquette.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate (guided or self-guided)
Length: Shortest trail is 13 km, the longest takes four days.
GPS: S26° 28’ 33”, E20° 36’ 46” / -26.4758, 20.6128 (Twee Rivieren entrance)
Trail costs: Nossob 4×4 Eco-Trail costs R2 180 a vehicle, including camping. Leeuwdril costs R180 a vehicle.
Tip: Trails need to be booked in advance.
Getting there: Take the R360 north from Upington towards Askham for 250 km.
Where to stay: Various accommodation options from unfenced wild camping to chalets are available throughout the park. Camping is from R195 a site a night and self-catering is from R665 a two-sleeper unit a night. There is a daily conservation fee of R50 an adult and R25 a child (free to Wild Card holders).
Tracing the length of the Orange River from Pella, a little town with a big yellow church, to where it flows into the cold Atlantic Ocean between Alexander Bay and Oranjemund, this trail can be divided into two stages. The first 328-kilometre stage stretches from Pella to the Vioolsdrift border post and has three beautiful, informal campsites on the riverbank, each with nothing more than a big tree to camp under.
My favourite is the site at Groot Melkboom – in the three times I’ve camped there I’ve always been alone. Another good campsite is Kamgab; you have to take a 20-kilometre detour along the dry Kamgab River snaking through an impressive kloof to get there. This is one of the few times you might want to engage low-range.
The trail starts with Charlie’s Pass from Pella to the river. Once the road moves from the river, you’ll see Klein Pella, the largest date farm in the southern hemisphere. Just before Vioolsdrift, there’s a turn-off called the Road to Hell. Don’t take it unless you’re experienced, in convoy and fancy a very technical drive; it’s a rough, rocky road and takes several hours to get to the river.
The second half is 284 kilometres long and goes from the border post to the river mouth. It turns away from the Orange River as it rounds the southern end of |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. There are three campsites on this section: Spitskloof, Tierhoek and Bakkrans (they’re not next to the river). There are some good view points and mountain tracks along the way, the best of which is Kristalberg Loop. You’ll eventually reach a T-junction where you can turn right to Richtersveld or left towards Alexander Bay, where the trail ends.
Difficulty: Easy (self-drive)
Length: 328 km (section one) and 284 km (section two)
GPS: S29° 02’ 00”, E19° 09’ 20” / -29.0333,19.1556 (Pella)
Trail costs: R150 a vehicle a section, including all camping along the way.
Tip: Take along a fishing rod as campsites on the first section are all next to the river.
Getting there: The turn-off to Pella is about 25 km west of Pofadder on the N14. From here, it’s another 10 km to the town itself where the trails starts.
Contact: Tel 027-712-8035/6 or 027-718-2986 (Namaqua Tourism office in Springbok). Search for 4×4 trails on www.northerncape.org.za
Riemvasmaak 4×4 trails
The town of Riemvasmaak was the first piece of land in South Africa to be returned to its original and rightful owners when the ANC came to power in 1994. Of more interest to me is the area surrounding the town, which hosts three 4×4 trails varying in length and difficulty.
Deurspring Trail is the longest at 71 kilometres, while Perdepoort (part of which lies on the Deurspring trail) is 48 kilometres. The shortest, but toughest is the Molopo Trail; it’s 41 kilometres long and you have to take care on the long rocky descent to the river.
There are almost 20 campsites on the three rocky trails, all of which are marked on a map available from the tourism office in town. Sadly, most of the campsites are overgrown and in need of TLC, so I recommend camping along the Orange River; there aren’t any facilities, but who needs them in such a dramatic riverside setting? I based myself at the kitted-out chalets at the hot springs. They’re just a few kilometres from town and have electricity, bedding, kitchen utensils and an outside braai area. Once the sun had set, I lay in warm water with a cold beer in hand; it was just me and millions of stars as company.
If you have a full day at your disposal, you’ll be able to drive all three trails, but I suggest you take your time and do them over two days. If you’re inexperienced, don’t do the Molopo Trail as there are alternative and easier routes to the river. I deflated my tyres to 1.5 bars because of the rocks; you don’t want them too flat as this could expose your sidewalls to cuts, but you also don’t want them so hard that the ride becomes uncomfortable.
Be sure to stop at the signposted rock art on the Perdepoort Trail and the rock formations at On Kai on the Deurspring Trail. Other popular activities in the area include mountain biking and hiking.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate, except for some sections of the Molopo Trail (self-drive)
Length: 41 km (Molopo), 48 km (Perdepoort) and 71 km (Deurspring)
GPS: S28° 27’ 09”, E20° 18’ 53” / -28.4526,20.3146 (start of all three trails)
Trail costs: R150 a vehicle a day, including camping.
Tip: Pack comfortable shoes for the hikes on offer.
Getting there: Cross the Orange River at Kakamas and follow the signs to Riemvasmaak.
Where to stay: A four-sleeper chalet at the hot springs costs from R375 a night. Khamkirri, which lies between Riemvasmaak and Kakamas, has camping, rustic permanent tents and self-catering river chalets and offers paddling trips on the river (cell 082-790-1309, email [email protected], www.khamkirri.co.za).
Contact: Tel 054-431-0945, cell 083-873-7715 (Riemvasmaak Tourism)
Augrabies National Park 4×4 trails
Most visits here consist of a hasty run to see the falls and grab a bite at the restaurant before heading off to some more exciting Northern Cape location. This is a big mistake. Rather take your 4×4 and explore all the gravel trails in the park (there are no official trails).
I’ve seen many disappointed tourists who’ve headed onto a scenic drive in a sedan, only to turn back after less than a kilometre or two because of the water crossings. However, the route is anything but hardcore 4×4 driving; any make of 4×4 can do it. Once you’ve successfully done the short water crossing just after the entrance to the greater part of the park, it’s nothing more than gravel travel but what a beautiful drive.
Don’t underestimate the interior of this park – the landscape is ever-changing, from lunar-type rock formations at Moon Rock to vast open expanses at the windmill near Volstruiswater – and you can easily spend a whole day exploring it. A round trip on the gravel roads to the Af en Toe picnic site is just short of 100 kilometres with lots to see along the way.
There are also many beautiful places to see the canyon and river on the route; I like Echo Corner, which is a seven-kilometre detour off the main road. Here, you can clamber down to the river. Watching the sunrise at Swartrante is another memorable moment; the gravel drive is worth it just to see the rocks change colour. The deeper you explore these gravel trails, the worse they become, but even without maintenance they’re pretty tame.
Difficulty: Easy (self-drive)
Length: A round trip is just shy of 100 km
GPS: S28° 35’ 38”, E20° 20’ 16” (entrance to game area )
Trail costs: There’s no charge for any of these roads.
Tip: A tripod is useful when photographing the falls at sunrise and sunset.
Getting there: The turn-off to the park lies about 100 km west of Upington on the N14.
Where to stay: Two- and four-sleeper chalets cost from R760 a night, while camping from R180 a site a night. There is a daily conservation fee of R30 an adult and R15 a child (free to Wild Card holders).
Contact: Tel 054-452-9205, www.sanparks.org
Loch Maree 4×4 trails
You can’t go to the Northern Cape and not 4×4 on the red sand dunes. The working sheep and cattle farm of Loch Maree (named by a Scottish surveyor in the late 1800s) is one place where you can do exactly that. There’s also a 1 000-hectare reserve which is home to giraffe, springbok, zebra, hartebeest, ostrich, duiker and steenbok on the property.
About 90 kilometres south of Kgalagadi and 200 kilometres north of Upington, the farm is owned by Johann and Retha Staedler, who gave us enough farm bread, biltong and droewors to feed a small refugee camp.
Deflate your tyres before starting the well-signposted, 50-kilometre trail – the info booklet said 1.6 bar but you could go even lower to around 1 bar to make things easier. The route starts with a meander across the farm, but the cattle and gates are soon left behind and the red dunes begin. Gentle at first, they quickly increase in height and the climbs become more technical.
Just before the salt pan is an impossible dune – I didn’t manage it and took the chicken run instead. The pan is 13 kilometres in circumference and you have to drive around it before heading into the game area. Stop for sundowners at the viewing platform near the start of this section.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate (self-drive)
Length: 50 km
GPS: S27° 06’ 58”, E20° 29’ 52” / -27.1162,20.4977 (reception)
Trail costs: R100 a vehicle
Tip: Call beforehand to order beef biltong from the Staedlers.
Getting there: From Askham, head west on the R31 for 30 km and follow the signs.
Where to stay: The bush camp in the open veld costs R60 a person a night and the field camp has a lapa with a kitchen and indoor braai and three fully kitted chalets for R80 a person a night. DB&B in the farmhouse is R650 a person a night.
Contact: Cell 082-492-3469, email [email protected]
Dinky’s Dunes 4×4 trails
Some may argue that the small town of Pofadder is worth nothing more than a pee and a pie stop, but I love it. In fact, I once stayed over in the Pofadder Hotel just for the hell of it (yes, I was the only guest in attendance that night but it was a Sunday).
You have to go through Pofadder as you race along the N14 to or from the Richtersveld, Kgalagadi or Riemvasmaak, but have you ever wondered what lies before the tar? Well, just after passing through Pofadder and to the north of the national road lies Dinky’s Dunes, a large sheep farm with two 25-kilometre 4×4 trails. If you’re in a small group of five or less vehicles as I was, you can do both trails on one day. The first is nothing more than a scenic drive along the dune tops, but to get there you have to lower tyre pressure to 0.8 bar. What I love about this route is that it offers those classic Kalahari vistas over and over again, red dunes as far as the eye can see, broken only by the odd shepherd’s tree.
As this is a working farm, you’ll pass through a sheep-filled kraal and this made me wonder what it’s like living in the middle of nowhere. As a city slicker, I was jealous of the isolated existence here.
Those who want a more serious sand-driving challenge can do the second trail too. The dunes are higher and the driving far more technical. To make it even harder, you have to avoid white plastic poles sunk into the sand on the way up. I did the trail on a windy and rainy day and climbing wasn’t pleasant.
The trail has a campsite in a quarry. While most of the trails might have been of the red-sand variety I had to negotiate a rocky track to get in and out of the campsite. It’s not visible from the N14, so no-one will even know you’re there. I spent a cold, windswept night there, but by the morning the storm had lifted and I was greeted by sunshine.
Difficulty: Easy, moderate and tough (guided)
Length: Two routes of 25 km each
Trail costs: R150 a vehicle.
Tip: The quarry can get cold and windy during the winter or if stormy so bring along a decent sleeping bag, enough wood and some Old Brown Sherry.
Getting there: From Pofadder, take the N14 northeast. You’ll find the turn-off about 30 km down this road.
Where to stay: The quarry campsite has cement decks for tents, showers, flush toilets and braai areas for R50 a person a night.
Contact: Cell 083-399-0891, email [email protected]
Source: Getaway Magazine