Words & pics by Kate Collins
A steep cement track marks the start of the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve’s 4x4 trail. We arrive a day before we aim to try out the route and have the entire place to ourselves. Around me wild grasses and arid fynbos glisten in the late afternoon light, inviting us to take a stroll through this bewitching landscape of rugged rocks, succulent plants, fynbos, forest and subtropical thicket.
A quarter moon shines down as darkness creeps in. Watching the campfire outside our cottage, we listen to nature’s stereo system of frogs and insect sounds. Being in this environment, a sense of calmness and contentment settles in.
We’re up early to meet reserve manager Tom Barry. It’s my third visit to Gamkaberg and this reserve between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains is now one of my favourites. Gamkaberg derives from the Khoi word ‘gami’, meaning lion. The reserve was established in 1974 to conserve a local population of the endangered Cape mountain zebra.
We ascend the first part of the 4x4 route that’s known as Zebra Crossing. Tom tells us that he can’t guarantee seeing zebras: “These particular zebras like to keep themselves hidden. If we want to see them, we’ll have to look extra hard.”
On Lawson’s Pass, named after one of the early reserve managers of Gamkaberg, Brett Lawson, we ascend on concrete slabs, inching our way forward to higher and more exquisite mountain views. We stop at the viewpoint, a spot that would be very hard to simply drive past. Tom directs us to the bench area and we look over the grand mountains of Gamka and beyond to the Swartberg. “Look,” says Tom, “you can even see as far as Ladysmith from here.”
Below us Tom points to the Tierkloof Trail, a two-day hiking trail covering 27,5km. “That section of the Tierkloof Trail is also known as leopard highway,”’ Tom says jokingly. It’s here where Tom and the team from the Cape Leopard Trust have laid camera traps to gather more information about these elusive cats. The leopards are secretive, so much so that in the 20 years of Tom having lived here, he’s only ever seen three.
Back on the drive we hit a rocky dirt road. It’s here where a 4x4 becomes a necessity. We bump along looking at the magnificence of life teeming around us. A Southern pale chanting goshawk catches our eye as it glides through the skies. On either side of us, the pink shades of suikerbossie proteas line the roadside, fat and in full bloom. Tom tells us the scenery on the 4x4 trail differs vastly from what hikers encounter on the Tierkloof hiking trail. “Hikers walk through a canopy of olive tree forests, it’s a very different vegetation.”
We drive slowly onwards, in anticipation of what we’ll see next. We spot a herd of twitchy hartebeest, their red coats blending in beautifully with the red and brown grass around. They spot our vehicle and gallop off, stopping every now and again to check us out.
Our destination for the day is the Oukraal campsite, where we will picnic before making our way back to Tom’s office. Not far from this, I spot zebra. We’re thrilled to see them even though they’re tiny specks in the distance. We bring out binoculars and look at them properly. They seem to be aware of us, but realise that we’re too far away to be of any nuisance to them.
We stop the car to walk towards a higher vantage point. The sweet smell of buchu fills the air. Along the walk Tom stops to overturn rocks. He’s looking for the rain mountain frog that likes to shelter under large rocks like these. “They have very grumpy expressions on their faces, it’s quite comical,” he says. We keep looking for the frogs but don’t find one. Instead we come across a very well camouflaged tarantula and have the fleeting glimpse of a skaapsteker slithering across our pathway.
The reserve has around 50 zebras, but we see only four of them. The numbers are a big jump from the mere seven Cape mountain zebra that the reserve started with and their numbers are excellent for the conservation of the species. “They’re in really healthy condition,” says Tom. “Gamka is a good home for them.”
At around noon we arrive at Oukraal. This is the camping spot for both hikers and 4x4 users, but can be booked by one group at a time only. It’s a 16km drive to get to Oukraal but as Tom says, it’s not a place to visit and leave. You want to overnight to get a feel for the place. The stone structure has overnight beds and mattresses, plus seating both under the covering and outside for fireside chats and cooking. The place has a cosy feel to it and although basic, it has rainwater tanks, a cooking area and a place to sleep. It’s up to visitors to bring bedding, food and firewood.
This picture of Oukraal will soon change to give visitors an even more enjoyable stay and Tom is very excited about the developments. Four stone shepherd’s huts are being built, each sleeping two people, to accommodate a total of eight. The huts, built to have a low impact on the environment, will be a basic covering, offering visitors privacy and space. Because of the stones used, they’ll also blend in beautifully with the surroundings. The Oukraal shelter will remain as it is and will be used as a communal area.
Seeing Oukraal as it is now, I look forward to coming back to test out the new shelters. “I love that the reserve is expanding,” says Tom. “There are so many exciting challenges.”
We wind our way back on the southern drive and return to our accommodation for the night. We now face the breathtaking Outeniqua Mountains and Tom describes how the landscape comes alive with flowering plants after winter rains. We spot some klipspringer that look like statues on the rocks ahead and I realise how special it is to enjoy this trail at our leisure, taking in the smells, sights and sounds.
While the 4x4 route is not all that challenging, the Gamkaberg wows with breathtaking vistas, plant and animal life. All you need is enough time to take it all in.
Getting there: Gamkaberg is around six hours’ drive from Cape Town – take the R62 to Calitzdorp.
Rates: Zebra Crossing 4x4 trail costs R200 per vehicle. The Stables base rate for 1-4 people R640 during peak times, R480 during off-peak times.
Bookings: CapeNature 0861 227 362 www.capenature.co.za/contact.htm
Source: Wild Magazine pp 84 - 87