At the end of May, we spent a couple of days at the delightful Somerset Gift Getaway Farm, tucked away in a narrow little valley at the foothills of the Langeberge, just outside Swellendam. This is Part VII of the story of our stay in that area. Here are the links to the other parts:
- Swellendam, here we come! (Part I)
- A river ramble to Baboon Kloof with a happy dog (Part II)
- Lunch in gaol, a berry liqueur tasting, and yawning horses (Part III)
- A challenging hike to waterfalls and rock pools in the mountains (Part IV)
- A new friend, a short canoe trip, and happy horses (Part V)
- Across Tradouw Pass to Barrydale (Part VI)
On the R62 to Montagu
It was already 13h00 by the time that we left Barrydale and headed towards Montagu on the R62. Not having driven through this area before, we were amazed at how lush and fertile this valley along the northern foothills of the Langeberge was. About 11 km outside Barrydale, we passed the Joubert Tradouw Wine Cellars.
There were rows upon neat rows of colourful vines and a whole range of fresh fruit on both sides of the road. The gentle curves of the Op De Tradouw Pass took us across rolling hills, as the clouds dropped lower and the rain began spitting again. On our right, we passed the turn-off to the 54 000 hectares of the 5-star Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, whose rates are just waaaay beyond our humble budgets.
As we descended into the next valley, the mountains in the distance were shrouded by precipitation-heavy clouds, the grey stripped haziness in the distance indicating that it was indeed raining in the distance. In the foreground, tendrils of smoke rose out of the chimneys of small labourers’ cottages in the midst of symmetrical rows of light-green, dark-green, yellow-fruited trees, yellow-orange shrubs and vineyards. A tiny dog ran across a muddy yard, splashing through the puddles. Near the Ravenna Mountain Retreat, where you can attend photography courses), a donkey was eating its way through a pile of orange-fleshed fruits or vegetables, that could have been discarded pumpkins or butternut.
Near the Poortjieskloofdam appeared a series of large signs in Afrikaans:
AMPER DAAR [Almost there]
The last one indicated the turn-off to Rietrivier Cellar and Restaurant. Clever, to build up one’s expectations like this, isn’t it? 🙂 In addition to offering wine tastings and selling wines, they also have a restaurant, which is open from Tuesday to Saturday, serving breakfast as well as ‘boerekos’ for lunch. Next time perhaps! 🙂
A group of little kids were excitedly playing soccer in a muddy field adjacent to the road. They were evidently enjoying their game. The landscape here was just lovely: a patchwork of golden-yellow vineyards, open fields, small herds of black-headed sheep, whitewashed labourers cottages, a row of red flowering kannas along the road, purple bougainvillea offset against the green orchards.
The high mountains on our left were powerfully folded in on each other, their tops in the clouds. As we passed a sign announcing Montagu Guano Caves (website), the sun lit up the side of the mountain as though a divine being was shining a floodlight on the area. Interestingly, there is a Christian Guest Farm here, which is named after the caves.
Not having heard of these caves before, I did some research on the ‘net, and discovered that they are in fact a heritage site. Prehistoric peoples seem to have lived here, or used the caves for sacred rituals, as artifacts and rock paintings have been found here by archaeologists. There is a fair bit of controvery about these findings and about the identity of South Africa’s first colonists (if you’re curious, you can download an article here).
More recently, the caves are inhabited by bats, whose guano was used as an excellent, nutrient-rich fertiliser by the locals. The caves are the second largest colony of bats in South Africa, with seven different bat species having been identified here. (I wonder where the first largest colony is situated?) A video clip of the caves and what they look like inside can be found here.
Over the Cogmans Kloof Pass from Montagu to Ashton
In the distance up ahead lay the town of Montagu, encircled by mountains, which, today, were covered by bunched up cauliflower clouds. (You can find a short history of Montagu here.) We cruised slowly through Montagu’s main road without stopping anywhere, and shortly after leaving the southern outskirts of the small town, found ourselves on the Cogmanskloof Pass to Ashton, the final stretch of the R62.
[The information below was extracted from the well-researched and very readable book, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross, Chapter 17: Cogmans Kloof Pass, pages 108-113]
This pass, which follows the course of the Kingna River, was not named after a Mr Cogman, as I had originally surmised, thinking that this had to be an important man in the area at the time. Rather, it was the name of a Khoikhoi clan or chiefdom, known as the Cogmans, Kogmans or Kockemans, who must have lived in this area. The original route through the Langeberge to the farms that had been granted to settlers to the north of the mountains from 1725 onwards, actually followed the riverbed. As a result, the road traversed drifts with heavy sand, as well as rough boulders, and it was liable to frequent flooding, which made the road impassable and effectively cut off the farms beyond.
It was only when twelve people were swept away and drowned in one such flood in 1867, almost 150 years after the first farms had been established, that the authorities finally decided that a better road had to be built. The work halted a couple of years later, without having been finished. Thomas Bain, already a well-known and respected builder of passes, was commissioned to survey the kloof, which he did in 1872. The new route was finally opened in 1877.
One of the greatest difficulties they encountered was how to get around or through the Kalkoenkrantz; previously, the road had skirted the krantz by following the actual river, which was clearly hazardous. A tunnel was thus ‘dug’, using a limited amount of dynamite (they ran out of supplies) but primarily gunpowder, which was particularly dangerous. The unlined tunnel was 16 metres long, and had a five metre high arched roof. The curve out of the tunnel on the Montagu side was particularly sharp.
There weren’t many places to stop along the pass, barring one or two picnic sites, and the traffic was quite heavy, with numerous exhaust-fume-belching lorries. Suddenly we came around a sharp bend to see the famous tunnel up ahead through a rocky outcrop known as the Kalkoenkrantz.
An old fort is right at the top, but as it is constructed from the same rocks as its surroundings, it is very well camouflaged. This was built by the English in 1899, during the Anglo Boer War, and it is basically just a blockhouse without a roof, and with gaps on the north and south walls, presumably for firing weapons.
The road was finally tarred in the early 1930s. In the 1950s, the road was upgraded once more, and the alignment of the roadway improved to accommodate the faster vehicles of the day. The route was also redirected to cross the river twice across bridges.
In January 1981, when the floods (which devastated the town of Laingsburg on the N1 to the north) destroyed the famous Montagu Hot Springs Complex and caused widespread damage throughout the area, the flooding Kingna River swept away one of the new bridges too. Ironically, this meant that Bain’s original and clearly well-designed road now had to be used instead, until the modern road could be repaired.
In 2003 (The Star newspaper article and News 24.com article), and again in 2008 (News24.com article), there was serious flooding in the area, causing widespread damage to buildings, vineyards, roads and infrastructure.
All too quickly, we reached the town of Ashton, just on the southern end of the pass through the Langeberge, and about 10 km from Montagu. The main road through the town seemed to be taking us through the industrial area, and we were stuck behind a slow-moving lorry packed high with crates. At last, we left the outskirts of Ashton behind us.
Coffee and cake at the Birds Paradise in Robertson
Richard programmed the navigator, instructing it to take us to somewhere mysterious in the next town of Robertson, some distance away on the R60. And that is how we suddenly found ourselves pulling into the parking area at the Birds Paradise.
The park is home to a large range of species of birds, monkeys, lamas, crocodiles and even ponies. This place is ideal for families with kids. While the parents can have some refreshments in the indoor coffee shop, which adjoins an art and craft and curio shop, the kids can have a great time in the play-park. We were hungry again by now, so we had two cappuccinos, a chococcino, a plate of waffles with cream, and a large piece of granadilla cheese cake to share. We thought that this would entitle us to access the main animal sanctuary concealed at the back. Sadly it didn’t (we had misunderstood the info sign), so we just strolled around the outside part of the sanctuary instead.
The final stretch home via the Du Toits Kloof Pass
Back on the R60 once more, we passed the well-known Graham Beck Wine Cellars on our left. Shortly afterwards, we saw a stationary train just sitting there at a siding on our right, with a large sign announcing that this was the Gospel Express.
Intrigued, I looked this up on the internet later: It is a Christian centre, located about 10 km outside Robertson, and it is indeed parked at the Vink siding along the Cape Town to Port Elizabeth railway line, near the Vinkrivier.
“This 11-carriage passenger train comfortably accommodates and caters for up to 80 people, consisting of 3 main-line sleeper carriages with 2, 4 and 6 bed compartments, 2 dining carriages where wholesome meals are served and the oldest carriage of its kind in SA has been converted into a chapel. On the grounds of the Gospel Express Camp is the Christus Prayer Garden with prayer bays for quiet contemplation, an Assembly Hall to host many indoor activities and a large playing field for varied outdoor activities. The surrounding area offers plenty of variety with well-marked mountain biking routes, nature walks and hiking trails.”
Now isn’t that fascinating? Mystery solved! And if you want to know a bit more about the history of this unusual camp, you can find it here.
We passed a dam with red flags fluttering from little wooden boats, with the names of women on them, like Diana and Nicole. What was this about? Ah! It was the Rooiberg Wine Cellar.
The landscape here was quite beautiful. In the foreground were golden vineyards and open fields, meadows with rotating irrigation sprays; beyond these were rolling hills, and beyond those a range of high rugged mountains. When I pointed out the snow on the high peaks, we pulled over into a picnic area to take some photographs. The air outside the car was icy-cold.
Just outside Worcester, we turned onto the N1, towards the scenic splendours of the Du Toits Kloof Pass.
At its highest point, the pass is 820 metres above sea-level.
Instead of taking the toll road through the interminable tunnel (which I still find rather unsettling and claustrophobic, even though we’ve safely driven through it many times already), we followed the old road.
Waterfalls were cascading down the ravines.
From up here, the views are simply awe-inspiring, even when you’re just below the level of the lowest clouds.
We cast one last look back at the massive range of mountains.
We made it into Cape Town just in time for the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic – which, luckily for us, was confined to the outbound lanes.