Back to the beginning
Determined to re-explore his roots, Nick Yell, revisits a special cave in the Baviaanskloof
When I first stayed in Dassiebak cave 15 years ago (aka the “Honeymoon Cave”), I promised myself I would return with my wife one day. The fact it’s a different wife I’ll soon drag into the cave simply points to the evolutionary nature of life.
I’m thinking this as Annette and I make our way towards this date with our distant past. In a determined effort to arrive there in a serene back roads state of mind, we get off the congested N2 outside Swellendam and make for the R62 via the evergreen Tradouw Pass.
If you only take one Karoo dirt track in your life, the Swartberg-hugging Groenfontein back road between Calitzdorp and the R328 outside Oudtshoorn should be at the top of your list.
If you take one Karoo dirt track in your life, the Swartberg-hugging Groenfontein between Calitzdorp and the R328 outside Oudtshoorn should be it.
The first 15km, showcasing the Calitzdorp Dam and sheer-sided kloofs, dotted with aloes, rivers and a clutch of restored old houses on smallholdings, are definitely the most entertaining. The remaining 14km to the left turn at Kruisrivier are by no means boring; it’s just a more open country road with slightly less visual variety and intensity.
From here we wind our way along the good alpine dirt track, past the Swartberg Private Game Lodge, for another exquisite 12km of dirt before it morphs into a tar road that brings us to the T-junction with the R328 (11km). To the left is Prince Albert (31km over the gravel Swartberg Pass) and Oudtshoorn to the right (38km — all tar).
We pick up our next Zen-dirt track off the N12, halfway between Oudtshoorn and De Rust, the Dysseldorp-Daskop back route (73km, dirt) to Uniondale. It entertains us with a similar variety of views and topography as the Groenfontein back road, the biggest difference being that the Kammanassie Mountain peaks are not as lofty as the Swartberge’s.
Sated on scenes of red aloes punctuating the tangled thicket clinging to rocky slopes, we make for our brunch stop in Uniondale. Fittingly, for a town whose biggest attraction is a ghoulish apparition, we stop outside a restaurant-cum-pub called The Hungry Ghost.
While waiting for our takeaways, host Warwick recommends we visit the newly erected statue of the Uniondale Ghost on the edge of town. We take his advice and in-between mouthfuls of the juiciest burgers we’ve ever eaten, we marvel over the motion embodied in this statue of the restless soul and wonder where the sculptor referenced his inspiration*.
Our next dirt track comes up just 10km out of Uniondale. It’s the first of the two best options (when approaching from the south) off the N9 to access the western end of the Baviaanskloof; the second is longer, but involves more tar and slightly less gravel.
A few kilometres on we pass Hartebeest Post, a rustic old farmhouse I’ve stayed at many times. Memories of the clanking old windpump silhouetted against a dazzling canopy of stars, and a blazing fire in the large inside hearth, pass pleasurably by my mind’s eye.
With a number of game farms along both these routes you’re also likely to see a variety of game. Today we’re treated to a large herd of springbok grazing contentedly in the lush Karoo veld that has sprung up after the good rains this winter, and more is forecast.
Strictly speaking you don’t need a 4x4 until you reach the entrance gate to the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve World Heritage Site, meaning that sedans should normally be able to travel the first 71km of gravel (the total length of the kloof is about 125km) in dry weather without a problem, while a 4x4 or AWD SUV is recommended for the next 54km.
Our journey through the dramatic red and orange buttresses of Nuwekloof Pass reminds us of the awesome power the geological forces of 100 million years ago unleashed here, resulting in a deep gash in the earth that was the beginning of today’s Baviaanskloof.
Rietrivier Farm’s owners, Boetie and Henriette Terblanche, were in the vanguard of the agri and eco-tourism renaissance the Baviaanskloof experienced in the new millennium. Not only has their novel cave accommodation found resonance with adventure seekers and nature lovers for decades, they’ve also always provided much-needed tourism information.
It’s been a long drive and Annette and I are keen to get to our isolated cave a couple of kilometres up a side-kloof. The first thing we do after dumping our bags on our sensitively domesticated cave’s tiled floor is flop onto the double bed and bury ourselves under the soothing sounds of nature.
After lying in this blissful state for some time, I reflect on a book I’ve just read (First People, The lost history of the Khoisan, by Andrew Smith) which once again emphasises the claim of the Bushmen (San) to the title of SA’s first people. It was the Khoi herders, then the Bantu-speaking pastoralists and finally the European colonists that lauded it over these egalitarian hunter-gatherers, causing their beleaguered survivors to move from caves in plentiful climes like these and become refugees in the arid wastes far to the north.
The Baviaanskloof is a treasure chest of SA’s anthropological story. Though not yet archaeologically proven, it is believed likely that hominids of 2-million to 3-million years ago were located here. What is beyond dispute, though, from the early human tools found here (hand axes and cleavers dating back 250,000 years), is that man’s ancestors have been in the Baviaanskloof at least since that time.
Further along the evolutionary timeline, evidence of anatomically modern humans (120,000 years old) found in the nearby Tsitsikamma coast’s Klasies River Caves, are believed to be from the Bushmen’s early ancestors.
Like the Bushmen of long ago, we get a fire going as soon as night falls and later cook meat on the coals. Happily, though, when a vicious storm breaks later and baboons start panic barking close by soon afterwards, perhaps signalling the presence of a hunting leopard (a previous guest saw one), we are more or less able to seal up our cave against the elements.
The closest we come to being pestered by wild animals is when two Namaqua Rock mice perform a lengthy pas de deux across the kitchen surfaces as they search for crumbs.
And when hot water issues from a shower head in the rock enclosed outside bathroom the next morning, we acknowledge we’ve only had the caveman-lite treatment; but it has given us a taste of what our ancestors experienced and certainly put us back in touch with nature.
* Sculptor Ian Visser, says he referenced the three most common aspects from the police reports regarding the motorists’ spine-tingling interactions with the hitchhiker ghost: the cold wind when she got in (wind in her hair), the smell of apples (apple in her hand) and her subsequent disappearance (white-grey colour).
Getting to the Makkedaat caves in the Baviaanskloof: From the north — take the gravel road 2.5km south of Willowmore, it’s about 40km to the Nuwekloof Pass and Rietrivier Farm is 10km further on the right; from the south — take the Hartebeest Post gravel road (turn right, 10km outside Uniondale) and drive for 48km until intersecting with the R332 from Willowmore; turn right and you’ll reach the Nuwekloof Pass after 4km.
What to see and do in the Baviaanskloof: There are eco and adventure tourism products aplenty with the following some of the most popular:
- Hiking — many day trails are located at different venues, but probably the most talked about is the 4-day, 3-night Leopard Trail (slack-packing) which can be booked through gobaviaans.co.za or call 074 939 4395.
- 4x4-ing — again there are numerous trails, including one on Rietrivier (Grade 3-4+), yet Doringkloof (call 063 431 6588) offers access to the longest (Kouga-Baviaans) and many other different trail options; but just doing the 54km ‘4x4’ stretch from the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve entrance gate to Cambria can be quite challenging.
- Observe unique fauna and flora in this ‘biodiversity hotspot’— among the special flora you’ll see will be very old cycads, the rare Willowmore Cedar, and many different types of fynbos; and as for fauna, yes, baboons top the list, but there are also kudu, hartebeest and buffalo, not to mention reptiles and plenty of birds.
- Swim to your heart’s content (two of my favourite spots are to the left of the concrete bridge a few kilometres before Grasnek Pass and Rooihoek camp site).
- Mountain biking — ride the epic dirt track through the kloof and the many other trails offered by most accommodation venues.
- Go back in time by staying in a cave and observing examples of rock-art (Rietrivier and other venues have examples, but most require you to pre-arrange guided trips).
What to take with you: Enough petrol/diesel, cash, Slingsby map; costume and towel, camera, binoculars, flora (‘Plants of the Baviaanskloof’ recommended)/fauna guides, sun cream, insect repellent, hiking boots, camping chairs, puncture repair and first aid kit, plus picnic snacks and cool drinks.
Best time of year to go: April — May, as well as September—December.
Useful websites: baviaansklooftourism.co.za (mostly western side); baviaans.net (mostly eastern side); baviaans.co.za (general); makkedaat.co.za (caves) and gobaviaans.co.za
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