While we were planning our ultimate road trip, I just knew that we had to visit Oudtshoorn and Die Hel (this is Afrikaans for The Hell). In fact our entire trip was kind of planned around The Hell (ok, its official name is Gamkaskloof, however this isn’t melodramatic enough).
The stillness of the Karoo was calling again. Yes we do have a secret love affair with the Karoo, and no, that isn’t weird.
As we set off on our journey we had to traverse the ever imposing Outeniqua Mountains. This can be done in one of two ways.
- The Outeniqua Pass, this is a tarred road (the N9) connecting George to Oudtshoorn and the Klein Karoo. The views are breathtaking as one would expect when you need to drive 12km to get over and entire mountain range. The weather can be rather moody too, with heavy mist and rain in the upper regions of the pass. After all, the Outeniqua mountains act as a natural barrier to all the ocean moisture coming in from the atlantic, depriving the Klein Karoo (the Little Karoo) of much needed rain. Greedy aren’t they?
- The Montagu Pass, again this connects George to Oudtshoorn, however its a gravel road, laying claim to being the oldest pass in South Africa. This pass has been mostly unaltered since its construction. By the way, this pass was built by convicts, true story. Its a mere 7.5km long. If we had done our research properly, and by we I mean me, Anthi, then we would have known that we would have had more than enough time to get to Oudtshoorn via this pass.
Alas, we left Wilderness feeling a little tired and we opted for the safer and more obvious route. This means only one thing, we will have to go back just so that we can drive our little Jimny all the way up the Montagu pass. The lesson in this? Sometimes it’s ok to follow your gut, also research better! Dammit!
Once over the green and lush mountains, we were met with open vast land. Grassy plains, lonely trees and the odd ostrich were the only things that broke the glistening horizon. If you know anything about South Africa and Oudtshoorn then you will know that this is the home of one of the largest flightless bird. Its one of the main attractions in the area along with the Cango Caves. The very reason for our visit.
We spent 1 night in the most quaint Karoo styled cottage that we would recommend to anyone visiting Oudtshoorn. A great benefit? A crystal clear swimming pool, very necessary in the very dry and hot Karoo. We desperately needed rest so we didn’t spend much time exploring the town, instead we settled in and relaxed for the evening.
The next morning we headed out for the Cango Caves. This is a system of limestone caves at the base of the Swartberg mountains They are a geological master piece with a rich history around how they were discovered. There are multiple chambers that extend for about 4km. Visitors are only able to access certain sections of the caves and we were very excited to head out for one of the tours on offer.
The caves are very dimly lit, as the artificial light damages the limestone and the heat from the lighting, along with the increased levels of CO2, because of all the visitors, creates an environment where fungus and bacteria starts to grow on the very delicate stalagmites and stalactites.
The tour guides are very knowledgeable who share interesting facts and myths and are more than happy to answer any questions you may have. It is absolutely worth a visit.
There are two tours to pick from, the Heritage and the Adventure tour.
The Heritage tour is only an hour long, for a mere R85. You could probably do this tour 5 times and still feel that you haven’t seen enough. There is just so much to take in and the rock formations are truly magnificent. The only drawback is that the lights are switched on for a couple of minutes at a time giving you very little time to take it all in.
The Adventure tour is not for the faint hearted, or so we hear. Its 90 minutes long and it will only cost you R105. This tour will lead you deeper into the caves. Again, we didn’t make the right choice on the day and opted for the shorter tour. The regret is real. If you are fit and healthy we would recommend the longer tour.
There is also a short film that is aired at the information center, this covers the history of the caves and also gives you a better view of all the chambers. All in all this was an experience of a lifetime, one that we would take again if we were given half the chance.
Our short flirtation with Oudtshoorn was over and now the Swartberg mountains stood before us, waiting to welcome us.
They are an absolute wonder, standing on average at about 2000m and spanning at about 230km from east to west. They separate the Little Karoo from the Great Karoo. Another fun fact? They are a UNESCO world heritage sight. Yet another reason to visit the area.
Deep in the heart of the Swartberg mountains is a beautiful and fertile valley. About 1km wide and 24km long.
The original inhabitants of the valley were the Khoi San and in the 1830’s the first farmers settled in the area. They farmed in the valley and lived in isolation for almost 130 years. Can you imagine that? In the 1960’s the first road was built leading into the valley, this facilitated in the exodus of most of the youth, soon after the older generation followed suit.
In the late 90’s the area was converted into a nature reserve and guest farm partly owned by Cape Nature and one of the original farmer families that first settled into the valley. Needless to say, this a unique part of the mountain complex, with a beautiful history.
It’s a place where you can truly connect with nature, you are able to disconnect completely from the outside world and just be. Something that we all need from time to time.
To access the valley you need to drive down the treacherous 45km Elands Pass. You can only access the Elands pass from the Swartberg pass that offers sweeping views of the Little Karoo. Your journey will take your about 3 hours from Oudtshoorn, if you are anything like us, it may take you longer, there is a photographic opportunity at every turn.
A 4×4 is necessary to reach the valley, we really don’t recommend attempting this journey with anything else. It is hands down one of the most rewarding drive, like ever. One hundred and eighty degree switch backs, sheer drop offs, steep climbs and mesmerizing views of the mountains. There are also a few water crossings, depending on how much rain the area has had they can be rather daunting to cross.
There is no cell phone signal in the valley and no access to fuel or emergency services. So make sure you are prepared. The road tends to be rather busy during the high season so if anything were to go wrong you shouldn’t be stranded for too long.
We opted to stay at the guest farm run by the Joubert family, Fontein Plaas. We knew that the camping facilities were going to be rustic, however they were definitely oversold. We paid Cape Nature’s camp site a visit and must admit that it’s better maintained, we would recommend that if you do decide to camp, rather do so at Cape Nature.
Some of the original houses built by the Kloovers (term used for the inhabitants of the valley) have been restored into self catering cottages that are tucked into the bush along the edge of the valley. Just note that there is no electricity except at Fontein Plaas where you will be able to buy refreshments, ice or have a light lunch, bookings are essential if you plan to eat there.
We spent two very hot and blissful days in the valley far away from reality and it really was one of the most relaxing times during our entire trip.
Just one tip, do not, and I mean DO NOT attempt to go for a hike after 8am. We did that and it was suicide. The heat was unbearable and we also crossed paths with a black mamba. Each time we approached an over grown section of the trail we would throw rocks at the bush in the hope of frightening off any snakes that may be lurking in the darkness. Any onlooker would have had themselves in stitches.
We got a little lost, not smart in 40 degree weather, thankfully we found our way back to our camp site, thirsty, hungry and very hot! To our dismay we found out that about 2km from our camp site there is a rock pool which is fed by a spring with fresh ice cold mountain water! We were so exhausted that we couldn’t muster up the strength to attempt the short walk, another regret. Are you noticing a pattern here?
For the remainder of the day we lounged under the beautiful trees, just being with nature. As night fell we watched the full moon rise and star gazed late into the evening. We spent two days in the valley, doing practically nothing and on the final morning we were sad to leave its serenity.
And so, we bid good bye to this little valley and the peace that it brought us. We hope that this little piece of paradise never becomes over commercialized as it will loose everything that makes it so very special.
Add this to your bucket list of places to visit in South Africa, it will not disappoint you.