Article Words : Will Gray | 22 January

South Africa: Discovering the fascinating landscapes, wildlife and history north of Cape Town

Incredible birdlife. Ancient rock art. Wild rapids. We head north from Cape Town to discover there’s more to South Africa’s buzziest area than the eastern Winelands…

There was nothing cute and fluffy about Big Bunny. It rumbled ominously and spat water over the rust-coloured boulders that clogged the river downstream. Ian Morgan, my rafting guide, led us to the riverbank where we beached our inflatable kayaks and set off on foot to scout out the rapid.

On the previous day of our four-night Orange River expedition we had tackled Scorpion, Corkscrew and Screwdriver – rapids that you expected to have a few twists and turns, or a sting in their tail.

We had prepared ourselves for the ups and downs of Dolly Parton and had no choice but to portage around Ritchie Falls. But as hard as I stared at Big Bunny, I couldn’t find anything that resembled a fluffy white tail. Instead, Ian pointed out stopper waves, boils, strainers and a particularly vicious looking boulder half-obscured by the flying spittle of the rapid.

 Rafting on the Organge River (William Gray)

My two other guides, Jan and Geoff, went first, paddling kayaks heavily laden with food and camping gear. For a moment it looked as if they might make it. Their kayaks bucked and spun, almost vanishing from view as they clawed through the rapid. Then Big Bunny bit back. The half-hidden boulder caught both kayaks broadside and, with a sharp kick, flipped them over.

I watched the upturned rafts disappear downstream, Jan and Geoff clinging on, helpless to do anything until Big Bunny had finished chewing them over. Ian gave a wry smile and scratched the stubble on his chin.

“Maybe we should try a different route through the rapid,” he murmured.

As we walked back to where we’d left the inflatables, my mouth felt dry, but there was a ripple of anticipation spreading through my body.

Ten days earlier, I had set out from Cape Town following an unorthodox route north in search of a wilder, more rugged and adventure-packed corner of South Africa. Big Bunny seemed like a fitting climax.

 The Orange River, Big Bunny (William Gray)

You can’t help but linger in Cape Town. No matter how often you visit this remarkable city – slipped audaciously between the ocean and a flat-topped mountain at the very tip of Africa – you feel almost compelled to do the sights.

So I took the ferry to Robben Island and watched the penguins at Boulders Beach; I dawdled along the precipitous Chapman’s Peak Drive and strolled the new ‘Boomslang’ canopy walkway at Kirstenbosch gardens. From wave-pummelled Cape Point to the tranquil V&A Waterfront, Cape Town cast its spell.

It was only when I joined an off-road scooter tour on Table Mountain that my thoughts turned to the north. Weaving down a gravel track on the fat-tyred two-wheelers, we paused at a viewpoint overlooking the city and Table Bay beyond.

It’s a view that never lets your gaze settle. Similar to a path through a forest, the coastline draws your eye and leads you onwards – a filigree of surf curving seductively northwards until it’s snuffed out in a haze of sea spray.

 Table Mountain (William Gray)

Like the surf, my destiny pointed in a singular direction. There’s no denying the fact that in the 90 minutes it takes to drive the 120km north from Cape Town to Langebaan, you could not only reach the vineyards of Stellenbosch but squeeze in a couple of cellar tours as well. Yet as tempting as it was to follow the well-trodden path east of the city to South Africa’s famed Winelands, the north promised something altogether wilder and more interesting.

The R27 highway clips a sprawling mosaic of sandy beaches, lagoons and antelope-nibbled strandveld before reaching Langebaan. On the way, I sidetracked into the West Coast National Park, swerving past a sunbathing tortoise and pulling over to outstare a steenbok, its enormous ears splayed out like a pair of fuzzy radar dishes. Kudu, gemsbok, eland and zebra are also found here, but the wildlife is upstaged each spring by vast carpets of flowers.

The best displays were draped between the hills of the Postberg, near the tip of the club-shaped peninsula that separates the ocean from Langebaan Lagoon. White, yellow and orange daisies embroidered the strandveld: nature’s very own confetti.

At Indigo Blue, a chic, self-catering beach house in Langebaan where I spent the next couple of nights, you could almost belly-flop from the terrace into the lagoon. Making the most of a mirror-calm morning, its owner, Marie-Louise Kellett, took me sea kayaking.

The surface of Langebaan Lagoon was a deep blue, like royal satin pulled taut, as we paddled out to Schaapen Island – a kelp-wrapped sanctuary fussed over by nesting cormorants, terns and gulls. Turning south, we headed deeper into the lagoon, the tide ebbing to reveal a distant sandbank rimmed with a pink mirage of flamingos.

As we span our kayak round to depart, I threw one last glance back, only for Marie-Louise to proffer a hot tip.

“They’re not the only birds drawn to this coast,” she prompted. “If you’re heading north, be sure to drop in at Lamberts Bay.”

 Sunrise by the Orange River (William Gray)

Driving north from Langebaan, sea mist flirting with the coast road, I followed Marie-Louise’s advice to discover thousands of Cape gannets nesting on an island linked to Lambert’s Bay by a harbour breakwater.

A continuous airborne contingent of the seabirds circled overhead, like flakes of white ash spiralling above a bonfire. Every few seconds, one would lower its webbed feet and ‘backpedal’ using its metre-long wings before stalling clumsily in a thicket of angry, upturned bills.

How they found their partners in the homogenous mass of densely packed gannets amazed me – but soon enough I’d see a pair of the blue-eyed birds rattling their bills together, bowing solemnly and tossing back their heads in an effusive display of avian affection.

Bird Island is one of the most accessible gannet colonies in the world – and for a self-confessed seabird nut like myself, it’s worth the 280km trip north from Cape Town in itself. Not far from Lambert’s Bay, however, lay another equally captivating gem on the road north.

 Rockart in Buchmans Kloof (William Gray)

Riven by gorges and chiselled into a sharp relief of sandstone ridges, the rust-coloured Cederberg mountains were once home to the southern San, a hunter-gatherer people that enjoyed almost exclusive human occupation of southern Africa for about 100,000 years.

But the arrival of strangers – first the pastoral Khoekhoe and Nguni and then European colonisers in the 17th century – signalled their tragic demise. In just a few hundred years they were enslaved, absorbed and killed off, and by the mid-1800s the San were extinct.

What’s particularly special about the Cederberg Wilderness Area is that you can not only learn something of how the San lived, but you can also glimpse into their minds. Painted in caves and shelters throughout these ancient mountains is their rock art.

Recognised as the ‘world’s largest open-air art gallery’, Bushmans Kloof is custodian of no fewer than 130 San rock art sites. At the heart of the wilderness reserve, an idyllic thatched homestead pampers guests with fine dining, infinity pools, sumptuous suites and a luxury spa – exclusive access to the rock art comes with a five-star bill, but it’s a price worth paying.

Over the following two days, my guide, Jannie, showed me extraordinary scenes of San striding single-file across sandstone rock faces, some with bags and karosses, others bristling with quivers and bows. Equally vivid in 10,000-year-old red-ochre paint were processions of elephants and the unmistakable shape of an aardvark, eland and hare.

 Hiking Crystan Pools Trail in Bushmans Kloof (William Gray)

“When you first look at them,” said Jannie, “the paintings seem to simply portray a narrative view of the San’s daily life – like an ancient diary.”

But he was quick to correct this preconception. An arresting study of San hunters firing arrows into an adult elephant, its calf with trunk raised in supplication, surely couldn’t be taken literally.

“The lightweight arrows used by the San could never have pierced elephant hide,” he explained.

Then there was a surreal sequence of a human transfiguring into an antelope. These, along with the supernatural creatures and strange patterns of curves and zigzags, suggested that at least some of the rock art had been envisaged by shamans as they entered a trance.

The spellbinding San art of Bushmans Kloof evokes a certain melancholy too. As we hiked the Crystal Springs Trail, walking single-file through drifts of Clanwilliam daisies and squirming through a ravine to wade barefoot in a hidden pool, it was not hard to imagine others, from a long time ago, treading the same path.

 Waterfall in Bushmans Kloof (William Gray)

Leaving the Cederbergs, I followed the N7, crossing into the Northern Cape Province on a quest. I entered Namaqualand, a 440,000-square-kilometre swathe of arid plains and hills in South Africa’s far north-west, in search of one of the world’s great floral spectacles but arrived at the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve in the middle of a downpour. Through the metronome of the car’s windscreen wipers I spotted the flowers. Lots of them.

But they were shut tight, their heads stooped to the ground. But I’d get another chance to see them. Until recently, remote Skilpad had always been a place for a flying visit, but a new seasonal tented camp now means you can linger. So I waited out the storm.

The following morning, blue skies and sunshine revealed a very different scene: a landscape gilded by flowering daisies; entire hillsides cloaked in flowers, molten orange under the bright African sun. Truly spectacular.

The mass flowering of Namaqualand each August and September is dominated by the golden Namaqua daisy, but it’s just one of the region’s 3,500 plant species – a third of which are found nowhere else.

 Namaqualand water pump (William Gray)

I spent the morning on a botanical ramble through the reserve, before driving west on gravel tracks towards the coast. Namaqualand’s floral cloak reaches all the way to the Atlantic, where Skilpad’s beachfront sister camp is located. There the ocean had been whipped up by the previous night’s storm into a ‘cappuccino coast’ of frothy spume.

Mesmerised by the sea, my thoughts turned from daisies to diamonds. This wild, remote shore is known as the Diamond Coast. An estimated 1.5 billion carats of gem-quality diamonds are found in these turbulent waters, washed out to sea in ancient rivers and carried north towards Namibia by littoral drift. Diamond surf divers have worked this shore for many years.

Following the coast north to Noup, I spent the night in an old surf divers’ hut – a cobblestone bolthole converted into one of the most remote self-catering cottages you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Exploring the strandline, I discovered hyena droppings, dolphin vertebrae, a seal’s jawbone and monstrous strands of kelp. How divers ventured into the surf to vacuum diamond-bearing gravel from the seabed was almost impossible to fathom.

 Diamond Coast (William Gray)

I traced the Diamond Coast as far north as Kleinzee. A busy mining centre until 2008 when De Beers scaled down operations, the town now lures travellers with its shipwreck trail and seal colony.

Turning inland, I followed a dirt road, snaking across rust-red plains. Occasionally, I glimpsed meerkats standing bolt upright beside their burrows like clusters of chimney pots. Ostriches strutted through the heat haze while pied crows and goshawks patrolled the lonely line of electricity poles that faithfully followed the track 100km to Springbok.

From there, the N14 arrowed east, no more than half a dozen stops in its entire 160km run to Pofadder, where I turned north one final time.

 Orange River rafting (William Gray)

The gravel road weaved through groves of quiver trees that rose defiantly above heat-stunned plains pockmarked with kopjes (small hills) of jumbled dolerite boulders. Nothing seemed more precocious in South Africa’s arid north, however, than the Orange River. One moment I was trailing a dust cloud through the desert, the next I was parking on a grassy riverbank.

It was there that I found my rafting basecamp, located next to the quiet Namibia-South Africa border post at Onseepkans, where I had passed a troop of gibbons making the crossing undisturbed.

 From there, we slipped quickly into the wilderness, tall reedbeds drawing a golden veil behind us as we paddled our five kayaks downstream.

 Camp on the beach (William Gray)

“Look,” my guide, Ian, whispered again and again, pointing out goliath herons, pied kingfishers and a Cape clawless otter.

I flopped overboard whenever I needed to cool off and we pulled ashore for gourmet picnics or to set up camp on sandy beaches surrounded by towering cliffs. Ian led the way, boulderhopping to a vantage over Ritchie Falls and fossicking for river-tumbled pebbles of basalt and agate. I cooked over an open fire, counted shooting stars and slept out in the open under the glittering arch of the Milky Way.

And then, of course, there were the rapids. When anyone asks me why they should go north instead of east from Cape Town, I tell them about the rock art and the flowering deserts, the diamond surf divers and the star-spattered night skies. Most of all, though, I tell them about the time I grappled with Big Bunny – and made it through, unscathed.

The author travelled independently. For a similar packaged itinerary, Cedarberg Travel offers a 13-night Cape-to-Kalahari self-drive.

 
Main image: Gannets at Lamberts Bay, Cape (William Gray)