After an early morning breakfast facing a lazy Karoo sunrise and one last swim in the magical waters of Warmwaterberg Spa we were soon back on Route 62 drifting endlessly towards Ladismith and deeper into the Karoo. Ladismith passed in a flash and if it wasn’t for a single left turn it would have been totally without event. The road snaked its way through majestic mountains as the scenery changed before us, cliff faces towered over us as the road wound itself down into tight valleys of dry splendor. The remains of old dirt roads carved into the mountainsides brought to mind images of hardy folk traversing these rough terrains generations ago.
On the other side waited Calitzdorp in infinite patience, a fertile valley that was originally a lake. The soil is mainly alluvial and agricultural crops are grown 1 km on either side of the rivers (Nels and Gamka meaning lion in khoi). Early writings prove that the khoi called Kannaland ‘the valley with no grass.’ Evidence of early San and Khoi peoples are evident in numerous rock paintings found in the surrounding mountains. In 1821, land was granted to JJ and MC Calitz who named it Buffelsvlei. This name was derived from the local vegetation and animals found here, in 1853 the Calitz donated land for a church and school to be built, as Oudtshoorn proved to be too far to travel for their monthly Nagmaal. Today, this Klein Karoo thriving community is known as the Port Wine Capital of South Africa, and the Fruit Basket of Kannaland. Port-grape varieties prefer a hot, dry, climate such as that of Calitzdorp. There are quite a lot of similarities between the climate of Calitzdorp and the Douro valley in Portugal. The poor, well-drained soils of Calitzdorp, where vines struggle to ripen, are very suitable for port wine production. Old Buick’s stood juxtaposed along the main road, their only purpose seemed to be to add to the old world wonder of a small town. Stopping briefly at a liquor store we purchased a few beautiful bottles of port to take home as gifts, a must for any traveler, before tackling the last stretch towards Oudtshoorn.
The area in which Oudtshoorn is situated was originally inhabited by the Bushmen, as evidenced by the many rock paintings that are found in caves throughout the surrounding Swartberg mountains. The first European explorers of the area was a trading party led by a certain Ensign Shrijver, who were guided there by a Griqua via an ancient elephant trail in January 1689. The expedition reached as far as present-day Aberdeen before turning back and exiting the Klein Karoo valley through Attaquas Kloof on 16 March of the same year. However, it was only a hundred years later that the first farmers started settling in the region. The first large permanent structure of the Klein Karoo, a church of the Dutch Reformed denomination, was first erected in 1839 near the banks of the Grobbelaars River. The village (and later town) of Oudtshoorn gradually grew around this church; it was named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, who was appointed Governor of the Cape Colony in 1772 but died on the voyage out.
At one time there was a large Jewish immigrant population mostly from Lithuania and the town was known in the Jewish world as “Jerusalem of Africa”. The main reason for the large rise in prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become extremely popular as fashion accessories in Europe; they were especially popular for use on hats. Between 1875 and 1880 ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1,000 a pair. The farmers of the region, realizing that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their other crops and planted lucerne, which was used as feed for the ostriches. Owing to overproduction, the ostrich industry experienced a sudden slump in fortunes in 1885; the town’s misery was compounded when it was hit by severe flooding during the same year, which washed away the nearby Victoria Bridge that had been built over the Olifants River only the year before. The ostrich industry recovered only slowly and it was not until after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 that a second and bigger boom started. It was during this period that most of Oudtshoorn’s famously opulent “Feather Palaces” were built. This boom peaked in 1913, before collapsing in 1914. As a result the region’s economy was ruined and most farmers returned to more traditional crops.
Outdshoorn is a town with the most ‘sunny’ days per year in the whole country, 365 sunshine days, 4 summers and sunny, dry winters await the visitor to the Klein Karoo. Shielded from the coastal belt by the mountain ranges the Klein Karoo also enjoys many windless days. Ostriches are still found in great numbers and the region produces the best feathers, leather products and ostrich meat in the world. But the world’s biggest bird is just one of the many attractions in this area of exceptional contrasts and natural beauty. It is also home to the spectacular Cango Caves, Africa’s largest show cave system.
Passing through without stopping we headed for the Swartberg Pass. The first road signs indicated that the pass was open, the clouds drew closer as we approached and by the time we started the assent a light drizzle was beginning to fall. Thomas Bain worked on the Swartberg pass with 200 convicts and lots of gunpowder. He eventually finished ahead of time and under-budget. But his real accomplishment lies in the fact that even today, more than a century after it was built, the Swartberg pass has stood the test of time. The natural divide between the plains of the Great Karoo and the lush valleys of the Little Karoo has always been the imposing Swartberg range of mountains. There was a time when these crags were impossible to breach, and people had to take circuitous routes to get to their destinations. Thus a road between Oudtshoorn and the charming village of Prince Albert became one of the first mountain pass projects through the Swartberg. Initially, the tender for the Swartberg pass was awarded to one John Tassie. But the mountain beat him, and he could only build six kilometres of road before going bankrupt. Enter Thomas Bain, an extraordinary road engineer dubbed ‘The Man with Theodolite Eyes’. He had learnt his craft from his father, Andrew Geddes Bain, a brilliant road engineer, paleontologist, geologist and explorer.
The clouds were thick as we approached the summit and the wet dirt roads raised question marks about the descent, a car sliding in mud on a dramatic mountain pass was not the kind of adventure sport we had in mind for today. As soon as we had passed the highest part the clouds parted and we simply had to stop the car and look out over the magic of this pass as it descended into the river crossings surrounded by the gigantic parapets of Cape Fold rock. More than 120 million years ago, the tectonic shifting of the earth caused these rocks to fold and thrust in on themselves, eventually taking on the appearance of flaky pastry. There has never been a need to tar this marvelous road. In fact, the locals are dead against it. The Swartberg mountain pass has extremely low accident levels, for which most credit Bain and his ‘Theodolite Eyes’.
Exiting the pass we found the tarred road to Prince Albert, which lies 650 metres above sea level and has 8000 inhabitants. It is both relaxed and lively, with many beautifully restored Cape Dutch and Victorian houses. The main commercial activity is Merino sheep farming, however, fruit and olives are also cultivated on the mountain slopes. Some farms have, years ago, specialized in Angora goats. The Mohair wool of Prince Albert is known to be of the highest quality and very much in demand. Prince Albert is a paradise for hikers and nature lovers with attractive destinations in the surrounding areas such as the Gamkaskloof Valley, Gamkapoortdam or the Meiringspoort Gorge. Every year in November a big Harvest Festival is held, with lots of dancing and music, a pageant and sports competitions. Just as popular is the Olive Festival in April, known throughout the entire country. And on Saturday mornings, there is a colorful street market in the market place next to the Fransie Pienaar Museum. On offer are products of the local farms like cheese, fruit and vegetables, delicious jams, cakes and bread as well as all kinds of arts & crafts.
After enjoying a late chicken pie lunch at the Prince Albert Hotel we took the Meirings Poort road back to Oudsthoorn, this pass was just as splendid as the Swartberg but in a very different way, the condition of the road is excellent and the meandering through the mountains, past waterfalls and picnic stops was nothing short of splendid.
Late afternoon we arrived at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge, a sprawling game farm in the fertile Cango Valley at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains, South Africa’s 6th World Heritage Site. Lush Succulent Karoo vegetation and a 5 ha natural waterhole create a haven for a variety of game species including: elephants, rhino and Cape buffalo (3 of the Big Five); giraffe; hippo; Cape Mountain zebra; Eland; Kudu and Springbok. Enthusiastic bird watcher’s will enjoy trying to identify the more than 217 bird species to be found in the area, the ostrich of course being the easiest. Situated 6,5 km outside Oudtshoorn, the Lodge is in the heart of ostrich country, half-an-hour’s drive from the Swartberg Mountain Nature Reserve and the isolated valley of Gamkaskloof (“Die Hell”). Accommodation is in luxury en-suite tents with air conditioning, which, like the conference venue, restaurant and wedding chapel are on the edge of the waterhole and offer breathtaking views of the Klein Karoo. Trained guides will escort guests on an early morning or late afternoon game drive (bush safari) in an open game viewing vehicle, with a pit stop at one of the lookout points, presenting the perfect opportunity for spectacular photographs and a chance to relax and enjoy the views. Ice-cold sundowners served on the lookout deck next to the open-air bar mark the end of a perfect day with the sun setting over the mountains.