Just about every region in the world has somewhat whimsical stories of semi-mythical beasts and mysterious wild hominids.
You know the kind? Hairy creatures with big feet that dwell in the never regions of back of beyond.
The Himalayas has its Yeti. There are Orang Pendeks (or little men) purportedly skulking in the dark forests of Borneo, and the Amazon has lost tribes of large breasted warrior women (if you know where to look).
The folded mountains of the Southern Cape have Katot Meyer; a bearded shoeless fellow who roams the hills and rants at bushes.
“I hear he hates alien vegetation”, one Oudtshoorn resident told me when I made some journalistic enquiries recently. “Saw him pulling out black wattle saplings with his teeth”
“He wont get into a vehicle with electric windows”, said another.
“He has a very big beard” said a lady who once thought she had seen him rock hopping down a dry riverbed.
Eventually I found someone who possessed a mysterious looking hand drawn map depicting mountains, unmarked roads and various place names. In the tattered right hand corner, where traditionally a pirate ship would have been illustrated, there was instead a sketch of an ox wagon.
“This is his map”, the man told me. “Keep it. If you intend to seek him out, it will prove invaluable in the coming days”.
The Man With The Beard
OK, so I’m exaggerating a little bit, but Katot Meyer, a man who loves the wilds, does indeed have a quite a large beard and its true that he doesn’t do footwear.
“I prefer vehicles that are mechanical rather than electrical”, he told me when I met him at Bonniedale guest farm between MosselBay and Oudtshoorn. “That way you can fix them yourself if you break down in the wilderness”.
“By the way, are we driving in that thing?”
That thing to which he alluded, was in fact, a shiny new state of the art 4×4 Mitsubishi which I had borrowed for my 450km trip with Katot along some of the Western Cape’s most beautiful and little known ancient Ox Wagon trails.
“Does it have wind down windows?”
I lied of course, but by the time he noticed a lack of handles, we were way too far up into the mountains for him to change his mind about travelling with me.
Ever since he was a small clean-shaven shoeless child, Katot Meyer has been exploring the bush. When he grew up he became an agricultural engineer; a sort of water wizard who helped farmers with irrigation and the likes.
“It was a great job”, he told me as we slowly drove over gravel tracks and rocky sections on the Attaquas pass. “It kept me outdoors and away from the office and it also gave me time to explore and search for old ox wagon trails; a personal passion of mine. These mountains are covered in them if you know where to look”
The Mountains he was referring to were the Outeniquas and the Langeberg, the Rooiberg and the Winterhoeks as well as the Tsitsikamma range; and the Swartbergs.
The History Of The Oxwagon Trails
“Long before Thomas Baines, or anyone else for that matter, began designing and building roads in this region, farmers from the north would make their way over the mountains to the coast by following old elephant tracks and bushmen trails.” Katot told me whilst we stopped for tea at the site of an old English military outpost.
The small and crumbled building overlooked an absolutely magnificent valley where fynbos plants swayed in the cool clean air and sugarbirds flitted between protea flowers the size and shape of dinner plates.
“Eventually some of these byways were developed into very busy highways. Take the Outeniqua pass for example. Hundreds, if not thousands of vehicles use that stretch from the coast to the Karoo daily. But this one here; the Attaquas pass; it was the very first official ox wagon trail in the region and although it was a super highway in its day, the only traffic you’ll now find is the occasional tourist or two”
Stretching for some fifty kilometers in a north easterly direction, the Attaquas pass was once the “N1” of the South; a busy thoroughfare that was in use from 1689 through to 1869 before being replaced by the shorter and less taxing Robinsons pass.
In the year 1842 alone, the official toll of wagons passing through was 4280.
In other words, it was a very busy road. But now it stands almost silent.
A little ways down the road, Katot stopped me once again for another cup of tea and to show me the crumbling ruins of an old saloon style hotel.
“These sorts of places were very common along popular ox wagon routes”, he told me as we picked our way carefully through collapsed rooms and crumbling patios.
Trees grew up through the floors and I spotted a barn owl roosting in a corner before it hissed at me and flew out through a hole in the roof.
“If you were an ox wagon driver, this is where you came for a rest and a meal and to water and feed your animals. It was also a place where you could rent out a full set of new beasts should your own be too tired to go on.
We take it for granted that mountain passes can be driven over in a matter of minutes these days, but back then routes of this nature could take days if not weeks to complete”
The site of the hotel was an extremely quite place; silent and still and surrounded by wilderness, but I tried to picture what it would have been like way back in its heyday when the place was a hubbub of activity.
I imagined the sound of horses and cattle and creaking wagons and mewling oxen.
Piano music wafted from the hotel bar and there were cowboys and mean looking gun slingers and fights over whores and liquor.
But then Katot reminded me that most of these folk would have been very pious Afrikaner farmers who didn’t do naughty things like that….They went to church and ate buttered rusks and drank tea. Well, that’s what he told me.
On The Rocks
The Attaquas kloof pass, as stunning a destination as it is, was in fact just the first leg of a four day 450km circular route which Katot has been busily mapping, signposting and exploring for quite a few years now.
It starts off in Heidelberg or at the Bonniedale farm, its up to you, and then comes through the Attaquas. From there you travel the Klein Karoo for a while, passing Volmoed and skirting Oudtshoorn before once again heading over the mountains via Duiwelskop.
After that, the route takes you along the seven passes road above the coast before veering north again over the Prince Alfred Pass and back into the Karoo.
You can do pretty much the whole thing without hardly ever having to touch tarmac and there’s plenty of great accommodation or camping along the way.
The road over which we were traversing was sometimes steep, sometimes rocky, but mostly it was simply slow and somewhat stunning. The scenery was grandiose to say the least and It didn’t take me long to work out why it is that Katot likes to spend so much time out there in the mountains. This was his office, and a jolly nice office it was.
That evening, after leaving the Attaquas pass and venturing through the Klein Karoo’s arid rural landscape, we stayed at the charming Louvain guest farm at the foot of the old Voortrekkers pass (otherwise known as Duiwelskop)
This magnificent mountain road dates back to 1776 and was widely known as a bugger of a pass to get over. Our shiny super duper 4×4 computer controlled suspension car protested on the steeper sections and bottomed out on a few rocks when we took a detour to the top of the Outeniqua mountains.
History of the Oxwagons
Not for the first time did I wonder how on earth did those farmers and their heavy cumbersome wagons make it over these rough and rugged routes
“You must remember Dale” said Katot when I brought the subject up. “An oxwagon was a sturdy thing that was sometimes pulled by up to 16. You must also consider that these trails were designed for the wagon and that the wagon was designed for these trails”
“That’s not to say that there weren’t any accidents” he continued as we slowly bumped our way along frightening looking ledges and steep inclines. “Many a wagon careened over the sides, taking the goods, the animals and sometimes even the people with them”
I gulped hard at that, and held onto the steering wheel so forcefully that I felt my knuckles pop.
We then travelled along the seven passes way; a sort of back road alternative to the Garden Route section of the N2 highway, before passing through Knysna’s famous forests and concluding our journey at Katot’s very own private nature reserve half way up the Prince Alfred Pass.
Here we camped and sat around the fire and discussed the removal of alien vegetation (Katot’s pet hate) whilst drinking tea and braaing meat.
I looked at Katot then, as he tended the fire and regaled me with stories of past pioneers and I wondered at his misfortune of being born in perhaps the wrong era.
With his bare feet and his bulging beard and his love for the simple things in life, I imagined he would have been very much at home on an oxwagon trail of old.
But then I thought about the past four days I had spent with him.
We had travelled those same routes, we had seen almost no one in that time, and the modern world may well have not existed at all (I didn’t even have cell phone reception)
That’s when I realized that, in a way, Katot was living in the past. A past which he had replicated for himself Katot and now wanted to share with others.
Shoes or no shoes, wagon or no wagon., in my mind that makes him a very lucky man indeed.
Phone Katot on 044 2720014 (don’t be surprised if he doesn’t answer- he is likely in a bush somewhere)
Dannette and Nico Hesterman (owners of Bonniedale guest farm and camping) will be able to provide information about the trail.
Contact Number 044-6953175 or email them on firstname.lastname@example.org