Do you have a 4x4 and feel adventurous? Here is an itinerary for a day trip from Tulbagh which will take you on a long loop through no less than eight of the most spectacular mountain passes, deep into the heart of the Karoo, for an authentic experience like no other! This is the fourth in a series of articles highlighting what is possible using Tulbagh as a base.
We suggest you get going early, taking the R46 to Ceres via the lovely Michell’s pass. If desired, stop at the quirky Tolhuis halfway up or Dejabrew coffee shop just over the summit of the pass for a rib-sticking farm breakfast.
At the 2nd traffic light in the main road through Ceres, turn left and proceed through Prince Alfred Hamlet on the R303 right up the beautiful Gydo pass - do stop at the main view site for an eyeful of the fertile Warm Bokkeveld valley) to Oppiberg, where you will find yourself in the Koue Bokkeveld.
A little optional detour: The high altitude, fertile Witzenberg Valley lies hidden in a fold of the Skurweberg, about 20 km north of Ceres in a westerly direction. The Witzenberg Pass is the tarred access road that starts at the summit of the Gydo pass and ends at the southern head of this long and attractive valley. The well maintained gravel road passes through a nek in the mountains amongst weathered sandstone formations, revealing the starkly contrasting green orchards of the valley. Not many people drive this pass as it is a dead-end, but do take a few minutes to experience the heart of the Koue Bokkeveld!
Once through the town of Oppiberg, take the right hand fork to follow the gravel road P2244 through the Klein Cederberg pass, which is only 1,7 km long . There is a point near the summit which offers picture perfect views out over the valley with its orchards and dams and the towering peak called Sneeukop in the background. From thence proceed up the very steep Katbakkies pass, so named for the little pools of water that sometimes dot the landscape, which follows what was once an old sheep-trekking route over the Skurweberge. The pass is sometimes covered in snow during winter; the road is narrow and without markings, so take it slowly and enjoy the spectacular barren landscape.
The road flattens out on the upper plateau and you will pass the turnoff to Kagga Kamma game reserve and enter the Peerboomskloof/Skittery pass, also originally carved out by the local Khoi people as a cattle path. Farmers later used it as a wagon road to cross over the mountains from the Koue Bokkeveld to the Ceres Karoo. Only fairly recently tarred, it provides picture-perfect views of the amazing expanses of the Tankwa Karoo and the mountain range separating it from the Koue Bokkeveld. There is a treed picnic spot at the bottom of the pass.
You will then come to a T-junction with the R355 – turn left in the direction of Calvinia, and you will shortly arrive at the iconic Tankwa Padstal. Between nothing and nowhere, this is a very special place beloved of bikers, bloggers and burners (the event Afrika Burn takes place annually on the plains not far away) and latterly also hikers of the Tankwa Camino… Run by the Lange brothers and their wives, it speaks volumes about an alternative worldview and way of life - let them tell you how they came to set up in such a faraway place, and also the heart-warming story of how the farm stall was torched by an arsonist but rose from the ashes like a phoenix, brighter and better than before! An ice cold drink at the bar is such a blessing in this oasis, and the food conjured up in the rudimentary kitchen is surprisingly sophisticated, with some regular South African standbys as well. If you are lucky, you might witness the people of the earth, karretjiesmense, coming to shop in the trading store – their sole mode of transport over the vast distances of the Karoo being a donkey-drawn cart.
Once you have had your fill of ogling the interesting artefacts, endearing sayings and extraordinary items on the shelves, it will be time to head on home to Tulbagh again via Ceres. The R355 runs straight as an arrow through the seemingly endless plain until you come to another little oasis at Karoopoort. This short pass follows the course of a (mainly dry) river-bed through a natural gap in the mountains; thereafter look out for game as you pass the Inverdoorn game reserve on your left and finally meet the tarred R46 from Touwsriver. The ascent to the knock before heading down into the Ceres Karoo is known as the Hottentotskloof pass and the descent to the Warm Bokkeveld (and Ceres) as the Theronsberg pass. The three passes together form the original waggon route leading into the interior from Cape Town.
You will then have the pleasure of another sighting of the magnificent Michell’s pass as you descend into the Tulbagh valley… A long day of driving, but so worthwhile - definitely one for the bucket list!
Tips: Do take adequate drinking water & make sure your spare tyre is inflated. On the gravel roads, drive in the tracks with concentration to avoid a tyre being slashed by flint stones. Exercise extreme caution if there has been a snowfall or heavy rain and drive slowly generally. Remoter parts of the route are not covered by the cellphone networks, so do download a map before you set off.
Written by Wendy Upcott March 2018
(With acknowledgement to Trygve Roberts for his cyber Mountain Passes of South Africa)