The Swartberg Mountains in the Western Cape are perhaps one of the least visited yet most spectacular regions of South Africa.
There are sedan friendly routes, over, through and around them and there are numerous ‘add-on’ 4×4 tracks that will challenge and reward those of us who love the low range.
I recently spent five days with my wife and two local Swartberg experts, Nico and Danette Hesterman, exploring the best of what’s on offer. And of course, it all started in Oudtshoorn, the largest of the Klein Karoo towns, and one which proudly declares itself the “Ostrich Capital of the World”
You can find plenty of excuses to stick around in Oudtshoorn for at least a few days, especially if you haven’t been there before, but we headed 20kms north towards the foothills of the Swartbergs to set up residence for the night at the Cango Mountain Resort; a place of shady lawns, ancient oaks, swimming pools, good camp sites and reasonably priced self catering chalets.
From there, its just a short ten kilometer drive to the world famous Cango Caves: a series of seemingly endless tunnels and chambers that have been carved into the mountains by the passage of time.
There are regular guided one hour tours to some of the most dramatic formations in the caves, but for the more courageous there’s a special ninety-minute ‘adventure’ route though constricted burrows and tiny spaces.
Only those with smallish waistlines should attempt this option, especially in light of an incident some years back when a 100kg woman got stuck in one of the smaller tunnels. Apparently, it took nine hours, a team of rescue workers and a large pot of Vaseline to free her.
From the caves, we headed back to camp and took a short excursion to the Koos Raubenheimer dam for evening sundowners. This picturesque little stretch of water is nestled among towering peaks and swaying fynbos, and I am told is a good place to catch a bass or two.
The following morning we travelled ten kilometers east along the well graded Oudemuragie Road to the Rust en Vrede waterfall.
Here, we took a little walk down a dark and shady kloof where metal bridges and concrete paths lead to an 80 meter drop cascade.
The Swartbergs, in general, are rocky and bare but for the thin layer of fynbos and karoo vegetation, but inside this sheltered little kloof there is a lush forest of evergreen trees and ferns.
To my knowledge, there is nowhere else quite like it, all along the whole 230 kilometer length of the Swartbergs.
We then continued along the same road, skirting the Swartberg foothills and passing though an agricultural landscape of seed fields and vineyards before pausing at De Rustica Olive Farm.
Here we met the management team, Joop and Precilla Steenkamp, who oversee the annual production of 200000 liters of award winning olive oil.
Precilla suggested an olive oil tasting session; so there we stood, with little plastic cups in our hands, supping away at a variety of oils as if they were fine classy wines.
“Can you detect the cut grass flavour infused with overtones of pepper?” she asked as I quaffed down a gulp of their top branded product.
The taste hit me like a sniff of chilli pepper and caused me to cough my complimentary slice of bread onto the floor.
But this seemed to delight Precilla
“A cough is the mark of a good quality oil,” she told me
It was a ‘unique’ experience, but I think I’ll stick to wine.
We then continued our Journey eastwards to the N12 and then north up through the little dorpie of De Rust and on to Meringspoort.
There are three historical routes traversing the Swartbergs from the Klein Karoo to the Great Karoo, and Meringspoort must surely be the most beautiful of them. 25 kilometers long, this tarred and twisting stretch of road crosses the Groot River no less than 25 times as it snakes its way through a dramatic narrow kloof.
The road itself dates back to the 1850s and was the main route through the mountains until numerous flooding incidents convinced the authorities to build an alternative, and as such, the Swartberg Pass was commissioned and opened in 1888.
There are plenty of laybys and picnic spots along the route, and if it’s a hot day, do as we did and take a short walk to the Skelm waterfall where rumour has it, a mermaid resides.
After passing through Meringspoort, Nico directed us onto a dirt road detour that took us north/west through succulent Karoo scenery and pretty farmlands alive with angora sheep and Lamas (Yes, Lamas!). Look out for the ‘Middle water’ junction on your left just after exiting Meringspoort.
Nineteen kilometers later we hit a T junction on the tarred R407 where turning right would have taken us all the way to the eastern limits of the Swartbergs and onto Willowmore.
“From there you can circle back to De Rust and Meringspoort via the N9 and R341” Nico told me.
It’s a beautiful loop of some 215kms, and there are plenty of side trips, scenery and farm stays along the way. Instead, we turned west and drove for 45 kilometers along the North facing Swartberg flanks towards Prince Albert.
En Route, we stopped off at the charming Kredouw Olive Estate and guest cottages where Louisa Fouche and her husband Ian have created their own little slice of Karoo Nirvana.
Louisa is a lady in love with eastern philosophy, art and spiritualism. Ian, however, is more the traditional Karoo farmer and is very much involved in the tending of his nut and olive trees and the pressing of oil.
“Would you like to do an olive oil tasting?” he asked as we did a tour of his farm.
I politely declined.
Most intriguing to me was their “Karoo Virgin shop” which, despite the signage, did not stock virgins at all. They did, however, have some rather lovely olive oil products, made by Louisa herself.
Next down the road, we toured the cavernous cellar of Bergwater wine estate: where dozens of 50000 litre vats hold enough wine to give even Bacchus (the Roman god of wine) a babalas to regret.
Nico had volunteered to drive, so during the ‘obligatory’ wine tasting, I chugged my way through a great variety of samples before staggering out of their shop, weighted down with several cut-price cases of their champion brand.
In Prince Albert, we pulled into Gay’s dairy; a tiny little world-class cheesery where various types of delicious fresh milk products are made completely by hand (the old fashioned way)
You can visit their miniature ‘factory’ where a herd of 40 Guernsey cows work in tandem with a handful of staff.
The dairy itself is the oldest building in Prince Albert and dates back to 1756; and by the smell of things, some of their more ‘mature’ cheeses were not all that much younger.
It’s a fascinating place, and best of all, they do cheese tasting.
There’s plenty of other things to do in Prince Albert, and plenty of places to eat and stay as well, so spending a night here wouldn’t be amiss; but we opted to continue on to Weltevrede Fig Farm some 26 kilometers west along a ‘dead end’ dirt road.
As usual, the mountain scenery along the way was spectacular.
Weltevrede has been in the same family for seven generations, and there we met Liezl de Klerk, the current ‘Boss’ of a fig preserve legacy.
“We were the first fig farm in South Africa” Liezl informed us whilst stirring away at a huge pot of boiling jam “And our preserves and figs are sold all over the country”
Her husband, Jaco was out in the veldt somewhere attending the crops, but Liezl made us welcome and told us we were free to wander the orchards and eat as many figs as we cared to.
Weltevrede is situated in a lush valley oasis at the end of a sheer-sided kloof and is the epitome of peace and isolation.
They have a variety of farm style homes for guests, but they don’t have electricity. That night, We spent a very ‘romantic’ evening drinking too much wine by the light of a hurricane lamp, beneath the stars of a big Karoo sky, whilst munching on figs we had earlier picked.
It was bliss.
On the third day of our trip, we headed back through Prince Albert and then south onto the legendary Swartberg Pass:- The highlight of any trip to the Swartbergs.
Designed by prolific road builder, Thomas Bain, the Swartberg Pass must surely be one of the most iconic pieces of road in all of Africa.
Firstly, it cuts through an impressive orange rock canyon before winding its way up to a saddle atop the mountains. There are stone bolstered switchbacks and wonderful views galore.
We stopped for a picnic at the top at a place called the Ou Toll House (It’s a self-catering cottage administered by Cape Nature) and then proceeded to the ‘Swartberg 4×4 trail’.
“It was once possible to drive 50 kilometers all the way from here to Kleinvlei near the Meringspoort,” said Nico. “But landowner politics and erosion has now limited us to a fifteen-kilometre stretch.”
Although designated a 4×4 road, the portion we were permitted to traverse was not at all ‘technical’ or difficult.
I heartily recommend you make a day of it and stay at the very basic Bothashoek hut at the end of the trail. There are water and a gas cooker and very little else, but the location (in a sweeping glen surrounded by peaks) is lovely.
Back at the Ou Toll House, you are presented with the option of heading down the Southern facing portion of the Swartberg Pass (Towards Oudtshoorn) or driving 37 kilometers west along a gravel road to The Gamkaskloof, otherwise known as De Hel.
If you haven’t been to the Swartbergs before, this side trip is an absolute must as
the views along this natural cul-de-sac are stunning, and at the end, you’ll be greeted by the remnants of a once thriving community.
For well over a hundred years, the ‘kloovers’ (as they were known) lived in relative seclusion, until in 1962 the road was built.
And that’s when everyone left!
Their village is now part of a Nature Reserve and their homes have been restored and converted into self-catering accommodations. There’s even a museum down there.
From the bottom of the south-side of the Swartberg Pass, we ventured south-west along a road that hugs the mountains and takes you through sections of wide open bush, small farms, and quaint little Klein Karoo communities en route to Calitzdorp, some 55 kilometers later.
It runs, more or less, parallel to the tarred R62, but is, in my humble opinion, a far more beautiful route.
At the halfway point we stopped off at the Kruisrivier guest farm where we met the madly eccentric Amanda Strydom; a lady of a thousand historical stories.
She, like most of the folk who live on and around the Swartberg, is enamoured by the past; particularly in the pioneer era of ox wagon travel and ‘hard times’ farming. The farm has been in her family since 1759 and preserving that history has been a lifelong labour of love for this chatty and outgoing lady.
The rooms of her guest house are as eccentric as she is and have been decorated with memorabilia from a bygone era: the most unusual of which is the ‘Honeymoon wagon house’ which, as its name suggests, has a full-sized ox wagon occupying most of the space.
“It dates back to the 1800s and was used by my family to get to Prince Albert and back” enthused Amanda “We also have an old wooden mill on the property that still contains much of the original farm tools of that era”
Turning right onto the Groenfontein road, we then journeyed through a region of whitewashed cottages, willow trees, green pastures and towering peaks. There are numerous places to stay along this section of road, including the Living Waters Guest Farm and the ‘Retreat at Groenfontein’.
At Calitzdorp we opted to do some more wine tasting, courtesy of the world famous Boplaas winery, and once again, I handed Nico the keys and slurped my way through a variety of award-winning samples.
The Nel Family, who have been making wine for six generations, have lost count of the number of prizes, their products have won, and the walls of their tasting room are decorated from ceiling to floor with cups and medals and glittering plaques.
Currently, the helm is being steered by the youthful Margaux Nel who, at just 33 years old, is the first female to become a finalist in the elite ‘Diners Club, Wine Maker of the Year’ awards.
Five kilometers further down the R62 at the place where the Gamka River has cut a mighty cleft through the Swartbergs, we took a north exit on dirt for Matjiesvlei where we spent the night, as usual, at a guest farm where pioneer history sets the ambience and theme.
There’s a little gem of a museum next to the river in what was once an old post office where you can see paraphernalia from a bygone era.
There are ancient typewriters, telephonic switchboards, costumes and photos; measuring scales, and bedpans on display. It’s a fascinating hoarders paradise.
Back in the day, it was a thriving community and a focal point for residents from De Hel who would walk alongside the Gamka River to go fetch their post. But like Gamkaskloof, Matjiesvlei is today, rather empty and more like a museum itself.
4×4 trailists can explore further, on a historic 15km path which was forged back in the 1800s by donkeys pulling bundles of timber out of the mountains.
Residents from Matjiesvlei used this wood to distil witblitz.
This ‘low range’ (grade 2 to 3) route crosses the river several times and takes in some very pretty scenery.
We then return to the R62 and onwards to the remarkable Seweweekspoort; the third and final vehicular route which cuts directly through the Swartbergs from South to North.
Just like Meringspoort, the Seweweekspoort route meanders through a narrow kloof of grand proportions, but the road is far more basic. It’s well-graded gravel, but by and large, Seweweekspoort feels wilder than its counterpart to the east.
Aristata, a farmhouse and campsite named after an endemic protea species, is situated in the very middle of the poort and is a good place to stay; but it was still early in the day, and so we proceeded to the end of the Seweweekspoort and took a right turn at a T junction down into Bosch Luys Kloof.
At the end of this winding steep road, you are treated to the sight of the starkly beautiful Gamkapoort Dam; a huge artificial body of water that sits atop what used to be the through route to Prince Albert.
Here you can meet Fox Ledeboer: an unusual hermit like character who takes care of the sluice gates of a huge dam wall that holds back the mighty Gamka River.
It’s a rugged and windswept location, and bleak in a beautiful sort of way, and if you would like to stay there for a night, just chat with Fox who has some basic self-catering cottages.
For a more comfortable night, head back up the track to the Bosch Luys Kloof private nature reserve, and perhaps partake in their ‘To Hell and Gone’ 4×4 trail.
The 35 kilometer route is a ‘there and back’ trundle through stark mountain peaks to the western side of Gamkaskloof. It not difficult and the views are epic, but if you want something a little more challenging, ask about their grade 3 Shepherd’s trail and their grade 5 Wagon Route.
We instead carried on west along the picturesque R323 and marvelled at the cascade of clouds pouring over the Swartberg peaks like a giant slow-motion waterfall. We also took yet another short detour, hugging the mountains on our way to the Wagendrift camp.
At Wagendrift (a campsite with self-catering accommodation) we had the option of exploring numerous 4×4 (and mountain bike) routes, but alas, I had buggered one of my shocks by driving like ‘Michael Schumacher’ (or so Nico informed me) on the ‘Hell and Gone’ trail.
Instead, we chilled in a swimming pool under the shadow of the mighty Swartbergs and finished off our last bottles of wine.
On the final day of our Swartberg odyssey, we left Wagendrift and followed the Ladysmith to Laingsburg road around the Western extremes of the Swartberg range. The scenery is quite different in this region and is dominated by rocky koppies and vlaktes where sheep and cattle graze among quartz patches alive with babies bums (they’re a type of succulent plant, just in case you were wondering)
We then popped into Buffelspoort on the Southern side of the Swartbergs to check in on what was once a legendary 4×4 route through a kloof but is sadly still very much closed due to flood damage.
It was then a slow route back to Ladysmith on the R62 but not before taking no less than three little excursions into the Swartberg foothills, all of which gave us yet more views of alpine peaks and small-scale agriculture. Basically, take any public road heading towards the mountains and you’ll find yourself in a wonderland of scenic bliss.
Towerkop (one of the highest points on the Swartbergs) was clearly visible and looms above the landscape like a huge column of rock.
Keep an eye open for folk dressed up as if the last three hundred years had never happened. We spotted several groups and couples alongside the road attired in flowing dresses and bonnets for the ladies and dapper suits for the gents.
We assumed they must be Mormons.
If you don’t want to explore every nook and cranny, do make sure you at least take the Dwarsrivier loop route and pop into the Kkoedoeskloof county lodge and ‘biker’s’ bar. Its got an art deco 60s motorbike vibe and serves up a decent burger and chips. Along the same road, you’ll find the upmarket Hillock wines and also The Towerkraaltjie campsite which is home to the ‘Nuts about You’ packing station and the prettiest and possibly tiniest little church in South Africa.
You can pick up a bargain box of nuts for far less than you would in the shops.
There is no end of beautifully situated guest houses and farms between the Buffelspoort turn off and Ladysmith, and plenty of reasons to stick around for an extra day or two. But alas, my trip had almost come to an end.
We did one last off the beaten track; a 19 kilometer loop from behind Ladysmith (in a valley named Hoeko, made famous by C J Langenhoven) But then, all too soon, we were back Zoar at the foot of Seweweekspoort and our journey had ended.
My conclusion is that the Swartbergs are one of South Africa’s underrated secrets. After five days of exploration, I felt there were still plenty of places to see and experience at a much slower pace. Take five days if you must, but do yourself a favour, give yourself a week, ten days, a fortnight: or else, come back again and again and again.
Swartberg Mountain Fact File
The Swartberg Mountains are part of the Cape Fold Belt and extend for approximately 230 kilometers from South of Laingsburg in the west to Willowmore and Uniondale in the East.
The range is cut in half by the Gamka River which slices right through the middle, with the Klein Swartbergs to the west and the Groot Swartbergs to the East.
Roughly speaking, they are a barrier between the Klein Karoo and the Great Karoo and are the tallest and longest range in the Western Cape.
Most of the Swartberg peaks are higher than 2000 meters, with the loftiest being Seweweekspoort (2325m) and Towerkop (2189m)