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Text: Marion Whitehead. Article from the August 2012 issue of Getaway Magazine.
The hulking mass of the Gifberg looms above the plains south of Vanrhynsdorp in the Western Cape and glows orange in the late afternoon sun. Yield to the temptation to explore the mountains here and you’ll be rewarded with a great little-known back-road adventure.
If you want to sample some of the more remote mountain scenery our splendid country offers, the farm roads over Ouberg and Gifberg passes in the northern section of the Maskam, a mountainous area north of the Cederberg, fit the bill perfectly.
You’ll cross the arid Knersvlakte south of Vanrhynsdorp, then wind through craggy buttresses to the high plateau where some of the most northerly fragments of the Cape Floral Kingdom and fields of rooibos tea grow in the sandy soils. Cool, clear water seeps out of the rocks, giving the Matsikamma range its name (matsikamma means ‘mountains that yield water’). The springs tumble over the rocks, scouring out natural spa baths to delight sweaty hikers. Spring brings an extra bounty of blossoms bursting from the earth.
It’s another world up there, where city stresses are just a fantasy and the most onerous task is getting out of the vehicle to open and close numerous farm gates -1 counted 10 on this route.
What you’ll see
I recommend driving up Ouberg Pass and across the highland plateau of the Matsikamma Mountains, then down the spectacular Gifberg Pass so that the amazing views on the latter hit you square between the eyes on the descent. A 4×4 isn’t necessary, but a sturdy high-clearance vehicle is advised for tackling this rutted gravel route with patches of soft sand.
Leaving Vanrhynsdorp on the gravel route signposted to Urionskraal, you travel west through farmlands along the Troe-Troe River towards the sheer cliffs of the Bokkeveld Mountains, then south across the Knersvlakte, it’s reddish earth dotted with quartz stones, low bushes and hardy succulents.
It’s worth stopping at Waterval Resort to see the 380-metre Maskam Waterfall, a remarkable sight in such an arid region. A silvery veil of water falls in three dizzy drops to a deep, sandy-bottomed pool surrounded by lush vegetation.
Beyond the resort, the road narrows as it approaches Ouberg Pass up the Matsikamma Mountains and climbs between a tumble of boulders, sculpted into strange shapes by aeons of harsh weather. Watch out for klipspringers darting across the road.
Ouberg Pass is an easy, if rutted, ascent and amounts to sneaking up the mountain on a side route, which is why it’s preferred by the local farmers in their bakkies going to town. It can be shrouded in mist when clouds roll in off the West Coast, giving it an other-worldly feel that gets the imagination working overtime. As you top out, you’ll notice fynbos growing beside the road: bearded proteas, dense clumps of restios and the bright yellow heads of cone bushes.
At the first of many fields of rooibos tea, you encounter gate number one. I found it open so, knowing the farmers’ rule, I left it as I’d found it. On the high, undulating plateau of the Maskam, the sandy road continues through a series of livestock camps and past a farmstead, with gates two, three, four and five. It’s definitely an advantage to have a willing passenger to open and close them on this trip.
There aren’t many signs to Gifberg Pass: you just carry on driving more or less west along the most well-defined road, without turning off onto farm roads to the south. Five kilometres from the sign at the beginning of Ouberg Pass, you ford a stream running over a shelf of rock just below a deep pool of clear water. It’s a delightful spot to plunge in and a local farmer said there are even better pools higher up, almost like natural spa baths.
The next few gates pass in quick succession, but number eight sits between two concrete pillars on a rocky slab and looks rather old and rusty – don’t be discouraged; this is the correct route. Continue through the next couple of gates.
Once past Gifberg Holiday Farm, the road winds between impressive outcrops of large boulders and throws a hairpin bend as it climbs a koppie. At the T-junction, turn right and you’re at the top of Gifberg Pass, which descends into a deep kloof where an old stone oven built by a local farmer provided the road builders with fresh bread as they toiled here in 1917.
Study the rocks east of the eucalyptus trees carefully and you may see a craggy crocodile and a tortoise head. Past the next bend is an area nicknamed Jurassic Park because of all the dinosaur shapes in the rocks.
On either side of the pass, the arms of the Matsikamma Mountains stretch north like the horns of a large bull. Beyond the foothills, the view tapers into infinity.
The narrow pass is cut into the side of the cliff and is so steep that nearly one kilometre has been tarred to make it navigable in wet weather. Do as the locals do and stop to fill your water bottles at the roadside spring; the water is clear and tastes delicious.
From the first terrace, fynbos gives way to renosterveld and September bushes, yellow daisies and finger euphorbia give a totally different texture to the amphitheatre of towering rocks. The next steep tarred descent is shorter and ends above a dam fed by a big waterfall off the mountain. The last descent is through soft shale and then you’re back on the plains of the Knersvlakte, heading to Vanrhynsdorp on a long, straight road, the Gifberg glowing behind you in the setting sun.
Building the passes
The Gifberg and Matsikamma Mountains are the northeastern section of the barrier of Cape Fold Belt mountains that force the mighty Olifants River to turn west towards the Atlantic Ocean. Ouberg Pass roughly follows a wagon track that wound between the rocks up the eastern side of the Matsikamma Mountains. In 1914, farmers petitioned the government to build a road southeast from Vanrhynsdorp to the Koebee Valley. This was constructed around 1918 and branched east from the old wagon track just beyond the top of Ouberg Pass. The route west towards Gifberg is also a farm road.
Gifberg Pass is an older route, thought to have been a track made by elephants, nature’s own bulldozers. They were followed by the Khoisan and, when farmers settled on the Maskam, they used the path to take their pack donkeys from the plateau down to the plain to trade their produce.
Local historian Christo Paulsen of the Vanrhynsdorp Museum says the roads department widened the route in 1917 into a road for motor vehicles. The old oven on Gifberg Pass was probably the site of the builders’ camp and up to 17 large loaves of bread were baked in the old stone oven each day by Mrs van der Westhuizen, the foreman’s wife. On the rock face in the pass, you can still see marks left by the drills used to set charges of dynamite for blasting.
Picnic at Waterval Resort and see the Maskam Waterfall as it plunges over the rocks to the plain below. It dries up at the height of summer, but starts flowing again after autumn rains.
Day visitors pay R10 a person (children free) – it’s an honesty system, so remember to drop your money into a slot in an old milk can at the entrance. Tel 027-219-1005.
Get succulent savvy - see a wide range of the hardy plants for which the area is famous at Kokerboom Nursery, one of the largest of its kind in the world. You’ll want to take home some stone flowers or bababoudjies. Tel 027-219-1062.
Swim in natural rock pools on the Maskam plateau. There are lots, which you will stumble across when walking up a river or while hiking at Gifberg Holiday Farm – be sure to look out for rock paintings as well. You can also challenge your 4×4 on an 11 kilometre trail from the resort to the Doring River – intermediate skills required for the mostly rocky route, which has some sandy sections. Costs R30 a day visitor and R50 a vehicle for the 4×4 trail. Tel 027-219-1553, cell 078-614-6484.
Drive more passes in the area: Koebee Pass is east of Vanrhynsdorp and Vanrhyns Pass on the R27 to Nieuwoudtville.
Go wine tasting in Klawer (Klawer Wine Cellars and Stellar Organic Winery, both off the N7), Vredendal (10 wineries) and Lutzville (three wineries), www.tourism.matsikamamun.co.za.
Turn off the N7 at Vanrhynsdorp, follow the signs to Kokerboom Nursery in Voortrekker Road and continue past it on the Urionskraal road towards the mountains for 26 km. Turn right at the sign to Waterval (S31°44’45.52″, E18°55’41.052″) and drive up Ouberg Pass (S31°48’0.14″, E18°54’56.87″), west across farm roads on the high plateau, then down Gifberg Pass (S31°45’56.05″, E18°46’12.67″) and return to Vanrhynsdorp.
Where to eat
Muis Huis in Vanrhynsdorp is a restaurant, farm stall and gift shop rolled into one. It serves homely food (try the mutton pies and chicken mayo on ciabatta) in a friendly ambience. Tel 027-219-1232.
Oppie Dek Coffee Shop at Gifberg Holiday Farm is a must – stop for its delectable chocolate mousse cake and good coffee served on a deck overlooking a dam dotted with water lilies. Book for light meals such as sandwiches, burgers and quiche. Tel 027-219-1553, cell 078-614-6484 .
Tourism information office at Vanrhynsdorp Museum and Old Gaol.
Tel 027-201-3371, email email@example.com, www.tourism.matsikamamun.co.za.
Where to stay
Near the bottom of Ouberg Pass, Waterval Resort offers spartan self-catering farm cottages, which are very basically equipped, and camping facilities on the bank of the Sand River. Swim in rock pools or a small swimming pool, enjoy the kids’ playground, explore the kloof dominated by a waterfall and do a four-hour circular walk up to the top of the plateau.
Costs R250 a night for an open-plan cottage (sleeps four) or R350 a night for the one-bedroom units (sleep four). Take your own towels, bedding, soap, wood and pots if you don’t like cooking in aluminium.
Day visitors pay R10 an adult.Tel 027-219-1005,
email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.watervalresort. co.za.
Gifberg Holiday Farm, on the Maskam plateau beyond the top of Gifberg Pass about 29 km from Vanrhynsdorp, has simple, comfortable self-catering family chalets which sleep four to 13 people. Activities include short or long hikes to the spectacular kloofs on the farm, swimming in rock pools or the garden pool, viewing rock paintings and a 4×4 route.
Self-catering accommodation costs from R140 to R180 a person sharing and R100 a child. Day visitors pay R30 a person.
Tel 027-219-1555, email email@example.com, www.gifberg.co.za.
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