On the Rock
Words Fiona McIntosh, pics Gallo/GettyImages, africa media online, courtesy images
'Last year was a very big milestone for the South African rooibos industry,’ Gerda de Wet, communication manager for Rooibos Ltd, explains as we tour their factory. Finally, after a 20-year battle, rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) received Geographic Indicator status. This means that nowhere else in the world are the producers of redbush teas allowed to use the appellation ‘rooibos’. It’s similar to the bubbly industry: South Africa produces some fantastic Méthode Cap Classiques, but we cannot call them Champagne.
We’re in Clanwilliam, the market town that is the northern gateway to the Cederberg. Some 200km from the Mother City, this mountain wilderness, part of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site, is a place of rugged beauty, with orange sandstone cliffs and unique flora. It is somewhere that I regularly visit for an adrenalin fix. But this time we’ve decided on a slow tour, taking in not just the breathtaking adventures and scenery, but also the area’s diverse history and culture.
‘Rooibos is endemic to the Cederberg, and Clanwilliam is the hub of the rooibos industry,’ Gerda continues as we inspect the wide range of products on sale. In addition to the regular and flavoured teas, there’s even rooibos ‘espresso’, all kinds of sauces and other delicacies, and health and beauty products. I leave with a bundle of beautifully presented gifts.
We’d planned only a brief stop in Clanwilliam – one of South Africa’s oldest towns, celebrating its 200th anniversary last year – but that changed when we bumped into the charismatic owner of Yellow Aloe Guest House, Cheryl Spilsbury.
‘You can’t rush through!’ she exclaimed. ‘There’s so much to do in both the surrounding area and the town.’ And so, with map in hand, we set off on a glorious ramble past the lovely church, the jail and the magnificent old buildings of the main street. Discovering that the community-run Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project offered rock-art tours, we booked one for the following day, then we returned to the Yellow Aloe and checked in. Cheryl was right – there was more than enough to keep us busy for a week.
Our tour of the Cederberg had begun three days earlier. Deciding to take the road less travelled, we entered the region by way of Ceres and the dramatic Gydo Pass. Tar gave way to gravel as we made our way through the Koue Bokkeveld. ‘Cold goat country’ it certainly was; the peaks on our left were sprinkled with snow.
Once in the Cederberg proper, the magnificent rock, multi-hued bands of the Swartruggens flank the snaking gravel road as it cuts through the desolate landscape. Over the steep hills we went until we reached the lush oasis of Mount Ceder, where we washed off the stresses of city life in the cool mountain stream, then, after feasting on local fare, collapsed in our cottage. Breathing fresh air is exhausting!
Equipped with permits, the following day we headed north to the Stadsaal Caves, one of the most accessible of the Cederberg’s numerous rock-art sites. Beautiful paintings of elephants that once roamed the area grace the walls of the site closest to the entrance gate. In contrast, the walls of the main chamber – the vast Town Hall Cave – are inscribed with the names of several members of the Nationalist Party, including that of DF Malan, South Africa’s first Nationalist prime minister. A popular theory is that the Nats met here to plan their 1948 victory, which heralded the start of the apartheid era.
Nearby Truitjieskraal, for which permits are also required, is a majestic maze of weathered, sand-stone cliffs and pinnacles, so we spent the afternoon exploring and watching intrepid rock climbers scale the orange walls, before continuing to Kromrivier, a charming working farm and riverside holiday resort.
To my delight, I discovered that the owners, the Nieuwoudt family, had launched a craft brewery since my last visit. After a late-afternoon horse ride, we indulged in a few glasses of their award-winning Chubbyhead stout, accompanied by cheese and cured meat platters.
‘Who started the brewery?’ I quizzed our pretty hostess. ‘Me and my sister Tania,’ grinned Melanie Nieuwoudt. Clearly, I was not the first to express surprise that these two young women are the master brewers.
Sanddrif Holiday Resort, at Dwarsrivier, is only a short drive over the pass, but we spent a night there, revelling in the majesty of the towering golden cliffs. Both farms have mountain-bike trails ranging from easy to technical, and hikes along the rivers to inviting natural pools, and to the region’s most iconic landforms, the Wolfberg Cracks, Wolfberg Arch and Maltese Cross. There are also rock-climbing routes aplenty, so these are excellent bases from which to explore the wilderness.
The Cederberg Brewery at Dwarsrivier also produces excellent craft beer, but the farm is better known for its Cederberg Private Cellar, the highest altitude winery in the Cape, which is particularly famous for its reds, including an award-winning Shiraz. The surrounding high peaks cut out most of the light pollution from settlements outside the valley, so a real treat on a Saturday night is a visit to the observatory, where local astronomy buffs lay on a short yet informative slide show before opening up the telescopes to public viewing.
As we left the neat vineyards behind on the drive out, Tafelberg with its distinctive ‘spout’, came into view. It’s a tough full-day hike to the summit of the flat-topped mountain and back, but the weird and wonderful landforms – which include a much-photographed ‘spacecraft’ – make it well worth the effort if you’re a strong hiker.
A steep descent down the Uitkyk Pass brought us to CapeNature’s headquarters at Algeria, another popular base for hikers and adventurous types. We then followed the bumpy dirt road along the eastern shore of the Clanwilliam dam, past Strassberger’s shoe factory and its lovely handmade leather shoes, and into Clanwilliam.
After a fascinating tour of the rock-art sites of the Jan Dissels Valley with a knowledgeable guide from the Living Landscape Project, we sought Cheryl’s advice again. ‘I have got the perfect soft adventure for you,’ she insisted. ‘A half-day mountain-bike tour with Nature’s Playground to a remote mission village deep in the Cederberg.’
Riding a rugged jeep track didn’t sound ‘soft’, but this was certainly no ordinary mountain-bike tour! On this excursion, we were able to relax, as our electric bicycles carried us up hills, past the wind-sculpted boulders of Rocklands, and down an exciting track to the whitewashed buildings of Heuningvlei, tucked away on the flank of the mighty Krakadouw. This route requires you to have a permit, so it’s off limits to most tourists. A donkey cart loaded with other excited visitors passed us on the final steep descent – another community-run project that saves visitors the long drive around to the village and at the same time gives insight into the lifestyle of the people of the area.
Thanks to early August rains, the wild flowers for which the Cederberg is famous were already impressive. So, after returning to our cars in Clanwilliam, we drove up the Pakhuis Pass once more and then on to the Biedouw Valley, one of the floral hotspots of the Cape. The normally drab road-sides were ablaze with colour as tiny orange, white and purple daisies smiled at the sun. The transformation brought a smile to my face too. I felt rested and inspired – the Cederberg is a remarkable place that refreshes the soul.
You’re in the Cederberg, but now where to stay? These are some of the best spots in and around Clanwilliam
1. Clanwilliam Hotel
Centrally located on Clanwilliam’s charming main drag, this stylish hotel is the perfect base from which to explore the town and northern Cederberg, or to recharge your batteries while chilling by the pool. 027 482 2888, www.clanwilliamhotel.co.za
2. Clanwilliam Lodge
With its dedicated spa and beauty salon, and a sparkling pool surrounded by four-poster daybeds, this elegant lodge is a tranquil oasis where you can unwind and enjoy a little pampering. 027 482 1777, clanwilliamlodge.co.za
3. Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat
This luxurious Relais & Châteaux property boasts dramatic scenery, superb accommodation, sublime food, guided and self-guided walks to see rock art and spring flowers, and a range of spa treatments. A complete spoil worth saving for! 021 437 9278, www.bushmanskloof.co.za
4. Yellow Aloe Guest House
Far-reaching views, chic decor, a wonderfully eclectic garden and friendly, helpful staff make this small, pet-friendly lodge a firm favourite with regular Cederberg visitors. It serves the best coffee in town too. 027 482 2018, www.yellowaloe.co.za
5. Sevilla Rock Art Trail
Visit nine different caves – each with remarkably well preserved and easy to locate rock paintings – on this short interpretive walk along the Brandewyn River. Then overnight at one of the self-catering cottages, decorated with San-style murals. 027 482 1824, www.travellersrest.co.za
Source: Cape Etc
Truitjieskraal Rock Climbing
Wolfberg Arch Trail
Wolfberg Rock Climbing
Sanddrif Crag Rock Climbing
Maltese Cross Trail
Pakhuis Pass to Heuningvlei Trail
Bushman's Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat