Dale Morris hikes a hundred kilometres in the Cederberg Wilderness and is bowled over by the rugged peaks, Baltic weather and hobbit-like hospitality
Words and Pictures: Dale Morris, www.geckoeye.com
Ah, the Cederberg Wilderness Area! Just a couple of hours from Cape Town, it’s a pretty popular destination and plenty of hikers, climbers, birders, plant fanatics and outdoorsy types know it well. But me? I hadn’t been there before, but I sure made up for it by joining the inaugural Cederberg 100, a week-long, hundred kilometre hike through the region. In the cold.
The Cederberg 100 is a slackpacking affair, which means you don’t have to carry any serious baggage with you, or make any fires, cook any meals and do any dishes. Packs are transported by bakkie between destinations, or are carried by the local Gautrain equivalent (the donkey cart). If your legs get heavy the cart will probably transport you as well.
Each night you stay in a local home in one of the fourteen Moravian villages in the area, or else you are put up in a custom-made hikers’ house or a local bed and breakfast. The hike is fully guided by local village residents, so there’s no chance of getting lost and, if you are a seasoned hiker, you won’t find the distances between destinations particularly challenging.
It’s a ramble rather than a march, starting at Driehoek Farm in the shadows of Tafelberg and Sneeukop, and ending further north at Pakhuis Pass, not far from Clanwilliam. But just because it’s a slackpack trail doesn’t mean it’s easy. The Cederberg is a tad hilly after all. As I stood huffing and puffing atop the Gabriel’s Pass at 1 430 metres above sea level, I began to wonder if I was up to the task, but long-time Cederberg wanderer Rudolf Andrag was there to offer encouragement. A dedicated fan of the wilderness and a committed conservationist of both the wildlife and the people of the Cederberg, Rudolf has been traipsing along these steep and winding paths since the 1940s. “This is the inaugural Cederberg 100,” he told me from somewhere inside his hooded jacket.
“And it’s glorious weather for a mild hike like this. Really feels like winter doesn’t it?” Well, it was!
The Hens (as I named the group of three ladies who were with us) clucked and twittered in agreement. Even Aiden Ponce, my buddy who I bring with me on these sort of outings (because he’s less fit than me), was looking at me, mockingly. “Come on, Dale,” he sneered. “Don’t be such a sissy.”
I had Man Flu, courtesy of the Icelandic conditions. But although the climate and my dripping nose had dampened my physical resolve, my spirit remained buoyed. Never before had I set eyes or feet (or any other body part) upon the awesome peaks of the 71 000 hectare Cederberg Wilderness. Nor had I seen the stunning floral displays, the Black Eagles or the quaint little hobbit-like villages secreted in the mountain folds. It was all a delightful surprise, and it didn’t feel like I was in Africa at all. More like Scotland, or somewhere up high in the Andes.
Early on in this odyssey of inclement weather, I paused on a rise overlooking the tiny village of Langkloof. Across its valley, a snow-clad mountain named Tafelberg rose ominously into a grey and swirling storm. Below us, the sounds of barking dogs and vociferous chickens blended with the smells of chimney fires and good home cooking. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the mountains of Wales, so dissimilar was it from anything I had seen, smelt, heard or felt before on the great African continent.
“Ooh, I would love a nice cup of tea,” twittered one of The Hens. And as we entered the little village and met with our elderly hosts for the night, a china teapot materialised along with some rusks, as if by magic. We took off our shoes and wet outer garments and were ushered by Anne and Kosi Salomo into their tiny kitchen where an old iron stove radiated waves of blessed heat. The ceiling in this cottage was low, the doorways built for little folk, and the thick insulating walls made the rooms feel small and comfy. It was the ideal home for Anne and Kosi, neither of whom was much taller than five feet. Aiden, a relatively tall chap, continually bumped his head on light fittings and lintels. ‘Hobbits town indeed,’ I thought to myself.
Many, many moons ago in the 19th century, the Moravian Church set aside a large tract of land adjacent to what is now known as the Cederberg Wilderness Area. Mission stations were established, and sanctuary was given to followers in the form of villages to stay in and land to farm. Today, pretty much every resident of the fourteen villages and settlements that dot the area are members of the Moravian Church.
“But there isn’t any real industry here,” old Kosi told me through the interpretation service Rudolf had offered. His voice was a sing-song version of Afrikaans, with a tuneful tonal range. “We grow rooibos tea and plant vegetables and the like, but otherwise our young folk feel they need to leave in order to find work.” Tourism, however, has been identified as a really good means to provide jobs and stability to the residents of the Cederberg. Visitors and hikers can stay in local homes. Taxi (donkey cart) drivers are a profitable attraction, while infrastructure improvements, trail maintenance and guiding services all provide money for what is essentially a hand to mouth economy.
Each leg of the Cederberg 100 is guided by a local from the nearest village, so by the time we finished the trail, we had met and been guided by no less than six guys. They took us on our daily outings between villages through gorgeous mountains and past the strange sculpted sandstone formations that so typify this beautiful wilderness.
The Cederberg 100 offers some of the best hiking in Africa, especially in winter when the peaks are wearing their Alpine attire. Each morning we awoke to chilly (sometimes outright freezing) weather, a hot breakfast and some good, old, horrible instant coffee before being met by our local guide for the day. Some were quite shy, but knowledgeable on the route, others were chatty and full of info about the local history, flora, fauna and geography. None seemed bothered by the weather.
The rain and snow had caused tiny streams to turn into rivers and cascades, and we spent many an enjoyable hour making detours to avoid being swept into the wilderness by class five rapids. Thank heavens for the guides’ knowledge on where we needed to go and which rivers were safe to cross. Each evening, cold but uplifted by the sights and sounds of the day, we would shuffle into a village – Eselbank, Kleinvlei, Brugkraal, Heuningvlei and Boskloof, each with its own quaintly dilapidated edifices and characters. Portly ladies with hair curlers would fuss and cook for us, and local men would play a ditty on their guitar or tell us all about the excitement of living in a Moravian village in the Cederberg. Just last year, a man had a chicken that laid an egg with two yolks. Imagine that if you will!
It’s a cliché, but in the Cederberg Mountains, time really has stood still.
We missed out on some of the highlights on our hike – a walk to Wolfberg Arch, a trip over this peak or that – but Rudolf and the local guides all advised that the weather would likely kill us should we insist. Wisely, we didn’t, and instead stuck to the donkey trails, or wandered through glens where flowers of every shape and colour had erupted.
After seven days of hiking, I was done (literally). But I had seen most of what the Cederberg Wilderness has to offer and I was left wanting more, perhaps next time in the spring. I had seen little Moravian villages populated by small Moravian people. I’d seen flowers galore, rock formations and caves, snowy peaks straight out of the Andes, and leopard spoor on the soft, damp earth. We had met the locals, tasted their food, slept in their beds and rode on their donkey carts. And we had climbed rare cedar trees (for which the area is named). And come the end, I had acquired several new blisters, a taste for traditional bobotie and a deep respect and love for the Cederberg Wilderness that will see me heading back this way as often as I can.
Hiking in the Cederberg
Not everyone can manage seven full days of hiking but don’t worry, you don’t have to miss out. The Cederberg Heritage Route is a non-profit organisation that supports local communities and habitat conservation through hiking trails, and has helped to maintain a number of guided or self-guided trails and accommodation options throughout the region.
027 482 2444, [email protected], www.cedheroute.co.za
More information on things to see and do in the Cederberg visit www.cederberg.com