From Cape Town to Onverwacht in the Riviersonderend Mountains (Part I)

In July, we spent a weekend in the Riviersonderend mountains, staying in a little stone cottage at Onverwacht Flora, a mountain top farm near the famous Boesmanskloof trail between Greyton and McGregor.

This is Part I, and here are the links to the other parts:

  1. Exploring the surroundings of our Kliphuisie (Part II)
  2. A hike into the depths of the river valley (Part III)
  3. A visit to the peaceful Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary (Part IV)
  4. Exploring the unfinished road at Die Galg (Part V)

———–

In the weeks leading up to my birthday on Sunday, 18 July, I’d been trawling the internet for an interesting place to stay, phoning and emailing various places, but nothing had really jumped off the computer screen at me, and shouted, “Hey! THIS is the place!”

At least not until I found Onverwacht Flora, a little mountain top getaway in the Riviersonderend Mountains, near the famous Boesmanskloof trail that leads from Greyton (on the south side of the mountains) towards McGregor (on the north). When I read the description and saw the pictures, my heart started to race. Pittapatta-pittapatta….

Our route from Cape Town to McGregor (Screen Capture from Google Earth)

Bye for now, Cape Town

When we left Cape Town, it was drizzling steadily. We quickly stopped at the local KwikSpar on the way out to buy a few bags of firewood, as there wasn’t any available at the farm, and we had been warned that it would be VERY COLD in the mountains this weekend.

It is definitely winter in Cape Town

As soon as we had crossed Sir Lowry’s Pass and passed Botrivier, the last of the grey clouds dissolved into blue sky. I’m always amazed at how different the weather can be, just within an hour’s drive of the big metropolis. As we drove east towards Caledon, the blue-purple mountains in the distance became clearer and more defined against the luminous blue winter skies that I love so much. Rolling green fields on either side of the road made the sky seem even bluer and deeper.

For me, there is always something magical and exhilarating about leaving the Mother City, of climbing out of the embrace of her high folded mountains, and setting off to explore the country that lies beyond. It’s like leaving the safe and familiar nest of home and embarking on an adventure, though always with the knowledge, that deeply rooted certainty, that you will return, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, your head filled with impressions of the new places you’ve explored, the new people you have met, the new friends you may have made, the connections that have been created and strengthened, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the different environments… Oh, and the stories. The photographs and stories you bring back home with you to share with your loved ones.

Blissful sigh.

In the Overberg, on the far side of the Hottentots Holland Mountains, it feels like spring-time!

When the sky is so blue, and the fields are so green, and the mountains are so glorious, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of joy at being on the open road again and that tingling sense of anticipation.

Timeless music

As we listened to the Afrikaans music of the two Tydloos [meaning ‘Timeless’] albums on our iPod, plugged into the radio via the iTrip (a combination we had bought for our trip to Ireland), we were both struck again by the sense that this kind of music, these particular types of melodies and rhythms are just so perfectly suited to road trips in this country.

Even though we don’t understand all the words, it paradoxically made us feel more at home than listening to the music we usually listen to at home. It felt as though these songs had emerged from the land itself, and that they were anchored in a sense of earth-connectedness, an awareness of history, a markedly slower pace of life, and a strong kernel of patriotism. I find it quite difficult to articulate the emotions it awakens. Suffice it to say, that we contentedly hummed and sang along to the tunes, feeling the demands and cares of our lives back in Cape Town just floating away into the blue-blue skies above us.

Can you hear the Song of the Open Road, calling you, calling you…?

And the highest peaks of the range of mountains that reared up along the northern horizon were dusted with snow! Would this finally be the year when I would build my first snowman? Perhaps even on my birthday?! I kept a close eye on the snow-covered mountain peaks, drinking in the sight, and hoping, hoping…

Detour via Genadendal and Greyton

Just before Caledon, we turned left onto the R406 towards Genadendal (“Valley of Grace”), a small village on the south-facing foothills of the Riviersonderend Mountains. It was a beautiful area, very rural and idyllic. We pulled off onto a gravel road to a farm to take a photograph of the nearby mountains with their snowy caps.

A farm road near Genadendal – snowy peaks in the distance

Look!

Snow snow snow!

OK, I know, for Europeans and Americans this ain’t a heck of a lot of snow, but it was still very picturesque.

With its original buildings (a church and a school) dating back to 1738, Genadendal is the oldest Moravian mission village in Africa. It was founded by Georg Schmidt, who taught the Khoi living in the surroundings mountains how to read and write; he also baptised them, which caused some upset among the religious authorities, because he was not an ordained minister (see here).

Welcome to the historic mission station of Genadendal

When I popped in at the Information Office in one of the lovingly restored buildings that are clustered around the historic church square, the helpful lady on duty explained that they currently had an exhibition on the said George Smith, with photos and colourful posters on display all around the office. While I moseyed around inside, Richard busied himself with the camera outside, taking this picture of the lovely old Moravian church that forms the central point of this village.

The Moravian church in Genadendal

[PS: In case you are wondering why this photo – and the next few photos – are a little wider than the others, it’s because someone inadvertently changed the setting on the camera from normal to wide… But it doesn’t look half bad with landscape photos, so I might start playing around with that setting deliberately.]

As we left the church square, we passed this friendly sign! I don’t think there are many places in South Africa where you find official signs in German. (Incidentally, “Auf Wiedersehen” means “Goodbye”, but more in the sense of “until we meet again”.)

Yep, that’s definitely German!

Just a couple of kilometres east of Genadendal lies the quaint little village of Greyton: another enticing weekend getaway destination! This time, though, we cruised through slowly, without stopping to investigate further, because a Kliphuisie (Stone Cottage) was waiting for us on the other side of the Riviersonderend Mountains!

Mysteriously, our navigator was convinced that there should be a road straight through a gap in the mountains to McGregor – and in fact, there would have been one, if the roadworks of 1937 had been completed.

In 1936, a team of labourers from District Six in Cape Town had been recruited to begin building a road from McGregor, in a southwesterly direction towards the mountains. They got as far as the top of the mountain near the place that is now known as ‘Die Galg‘ [“The Gallows”], about 15 km outside McGregor. They even made it a little bit further down towards Greyton, along the northern side of a precipitous gorge, but shortly afterwards, work ground to a halt. (Information from Chapter 25 of The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross.)

All that remains now is the old footpath through the valley, which is known as the Boesmanskloof. It is a breathtaking and fairly strenuous 14 km long hiking trail (Brochure (PDF) that takes the intrepid hiker all the way from Die Galg to just outside the village of Greyton. You can cover the distance in one day, or you can do it as a there-and-back trail, overnighting either in Greyton or on one of the farms near Die Galg. If you choose the former option, you will need to arrange transport back to your car.

From Greyton, we were somewhat surprised to find that the tarred R406, along which we had travelled so effortlessly from the N2 to Genadendal, had suddenly become an untarred, and decidedly potholey dirt road. Kerthunk! Ow!

Dirt road from Greyton to Riviersonderend

Our navigator was sure that this was the right road, however, and it didn’t seem as though we had accidentally missed a turning onto a tarred road, so we took it as one of those strange anomalies of regional roads, which are sometimes tarred – and sometimes unexpectedly not. We encountered a grader, busy scraping away a layer of stony soil – and hopefully filling some of the nasty potholes in the process? That road definitely needs some work.

A grader hard at work, roughing up the road surface

I had been distracted by the sight of snow on the mountain peaks, when Richard suddenly remarked, “That was a bag of firewood.”

“Eh?”

“In the road back there. Firewood. The bag must’ve fallen off someone’s bakkie.” [A bakkie is a small van, like a pick-up truck]

“Oh! Shall we go back and pick it up?”

“Should we?”

“Yes, we can use the wood. Turn ’round.”

Richard promptly swung the car into a complicated three-point turn that became more like a frantic seven-point turn because of the deep ditches hugging both sides of the road, and because our chosen u-turn spot neatly concealed us from traffic roaring down the hill. Fortunately, there was none. We quickly picked up the chunks of wood that lay scattered all over the road and stacked them in the boot, before swinging into another three-to-five-point turn.

(Note to reader: If that happened to be your bag of firewood, please let us know, and we’ll gladly reimburse you. You should also know that it was the driest and best-burning firewood of all the bags we had brought along, and in fact the only one that caught fire immediately. So, we are very grateful and hope that you were not inconvenienced. :-))

I snuck in a quick photo of the sheep grazing against the backdrop of the snow-covered peaks.

Sheep against snowy mountain peaks… not quite the Alps, but pretty nonetheless

Back on the N2

We finally reached Riviersonderend, where we turned onto the N2, our car no doubt heaving a sigh of relief that the dust driving was over for now. (She didn’t know, although she may have suspected it from past road trips, that there was a fair stretch of gravel road awaiting her on the northern side of the mountains. We promised her a thorough clean. Speaking of which… um… )

View from the Riviersonderend petrol station where we stopped for a quick leg-stretch

Isn’t this just utterly idyllic? Can you hear the bleating of the sheep blown softly towards you on a whispering wind?

A huddle of sheep in the chilly winter air

Travelling inland to McGregor

On the N2 once more, smoothly tarred and pothole-free, we fairly zooted along until we came to the turn-off signposted Stormsvlei/Bonnievale.

Our car purrs along contentedly

We turned left here, and found ourselves on a winding road through low mountains, the R317.

From Caledon to Onverwacht in the mountains (Screen Capture from Google Earth)

It wasn’t a spectacularly scenic pass, but I was struck by the large number of flowering aloes lending welcome dots of bright orange colour to the otherwise drab hillsides. Unfortunately, none of my attempts to capture these spectacular aloes, as we followed the curves, left, right, left, right, was in the least successful.

We cross a small pass en route to Bonnievale and Stormsvlei

The sunlight straight from the front didn’t help either, which explains the glare on the road surface.

Don’t you just love these open roads??!!

Before we reached Bonnievale, our navigator directed us left onto a shortcut signposted ‘McGregor / Robertson’.

Turn-off to Robertson and McGregor

Shortly afterwards, she took us through Robertson, and onto the small side road (tarred! yay!) to the quaint village of McGregor. It has grown since we were last here some years ago, with more shops and restaurants available, but it is still charming. McGregor is particularly well known for attracting artists, nature lovers, spiritual seekers (who like to stay at the Temenos retreat centre) and holistic healers:

“It’s not really clear why so much holistic healing is available in the village. The most likely theory stems from McGregor’s important position as one of the sacred sites of Southern Africa, with converging ley lines resulting in a high level of natural energy. This is confirmed by the numerous Bushmen paintings and other artefacts found in the valley.” (http://www.mcgregor.org.za)

The main road through McGregor

We followed the main road all the way through the village and out on the far side, where tar gave way to gravel once more.

And out the other side of McGregor

Into the mountains beyond McGregor

It was a good gravel road, though, nice and wide, well-graded, and without any potholes, and it led us straight towards the Riviersonderend Mountains, whose southern slopes we had been admiring from the Genadendal/Greyton side.

I love unusual signs like these – clearly, this farm is being kept in the family!

The road went snaking up the mountain, across barren and burnt hillsides.

We later heard from Sandra, our friendly host at Onverwacht, that the mountains here had been aflame for two-three weeks over December/January this year with raging wildfires. Vast mountain areas covered in spectacular fynbos and under cultivation as protea plantations were razed as a result of the carelessness of individuals who neglected to douse their camping fires properly. Thank heavens, none of the houses burnt down, although it was plain to see how terrifyingly close the flames had gotten to the mountain top cottages. And even more miraculously, no one was killed – although lots of animals had died or been badly injured by the fires.

It was a sobering reminder of the devastating impact such carelessness can have, so we made a point of dousing our nightly braai fires with water, just in case the wind came up and fanned awake the smouldering embers.

The view from the pass across the fire-burnt hillsides

Once we had reached the crest of the ridge, the road flattened out, leading straight towards the area known as ‘Die Galg’ [the Gallows – sounds ominous, doesn it? I wonder what the story is…], which marks the start of the Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail.

Arrival at Onverwacht Flora

Shortly before, however, we spotted the sign to Onverwacht Flora, the mountain getaway of Japie and Sandra Oosthuizen, which they are kind enough to share with city folk like us who long for weekend getaways in the brisk, clean mountain air!

This road leads to Die Galg, where it comes to an end

I rather like the rusting old car that says ‘welcome’. We puzzled whether the word ‘Geduld‘ was supposed to be the surname of a person, which is quite possible, or whether it was a gentle instruction to exercise more patience! (Which is definitely a quality I could use, having been too restless and impatient to hang around when the angels were handing out positive qualities to souls waiting to be born… once I had been assigned ‘curiosity’, I wasn’t going to hang around… Well, next life perhaps!)

That’s our turn-off!

The view from the narrow, stony farm track up onto the final ridge was so marvellous, that Richard didn’t mind exercising some geduld of his own, so that I could take a panorama shot.

Panoramic view from the farm road

And THEN, we were suddenly there – at the top of a ridge, a steep-sided river gorge separating us from even higher mountains peaks reaching up into the blue sky.

Click here to read Part II!

The sign says it most eloquently: There is no place like this place anywhere near this place, so this must BE the place. 🙂

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