Just about every region in the world has somewhat whimsical stories of semi-mythical beasts and mysterious wild hominids
You know the kind. Hairy creatures with big feet that dwell in the back of beyond. The Himalayas has its Yeti. There are Orang Pendeks (or little men) purportedly skulking in the dark forests of Borneo, and the Amazon has lost tribes of large-breasted warrior women (if you know where to look).
The folded mountains of the Southern Cape have Katot Meyer – a bearded, shoeless fellow who roams the hills and rants at bushes.
“I hear he hates alien vegetation,” one Oudtshoorn resident told me when I made some journalistic enquiries recently. “Saw him pulling out black wattle saplings with his teeth.”“He won’t get into a vehicle with electric windows,” said another. “He has a very big beard,” said a lady who once thought she’d seen him rock hopping down a dry riverbed.
Eventually I found someone who possessed a mysterious-looking hand-drawn map depicting mountains, unmarked roads and various place names. In the tattered right hand corner, where traditionally a pirate ship would have been illustrated, there was instead a sketch of an ox-wagon. “This is his map,” the man told me. “Keep it. If you intend to seek him out, it will prove invaluable in the days to come.”
OK, so I’m exaggerating a little, but Katot Meyer, a man who loves the wilds, does indeed have a large beard and it’s true that he doesn’t do footwear.He also prefers “vehicles that are mechanical rather than electrical,” as he told me when I met him at Bonniedale Guest Farm between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn. “That way you can fix them yourself if you break down in the wilderness. By the way, are we driving in that thing?”
The ‘thing’ to which he alluded was a shiny new, state-of-the-art Mitsubishi 4×4 which I’d borrowed for the four-day 450km trip I’d be taking with Katot along some of the Western Cape’s most beautiful and little‑known abandoned ox-wagon trails. “Does it have wind-down windows?”
I lied, of course, but by the time he noticed the lack of winder handles we were too far up in the mountains for him to change his mind about travelling with me. Ever since he was a small, clean-shaven, shoeless lightie, Katot Meyer has been exploring the bush. When he grew up he became an agricultural engineer, a sort of water wizard who helped farmers with irrigation and the like.
“It was a great job,” he told me as we drove slowly along the gravel tracks and rocky sections of Attaquaskloof Pass. “It kept me outdoors and away from the office, and it also gave me time to explore and search for old ox-wagon trails, a personal passion of mine. These mountains are covered in them if you know where to look.” The mountains he was referring to were the Outeniquas, the Langeberg, the Rooiberg, the Winterhoek, the Tsitsikammas and the Swartberg.
“Long before Thomas Bain, or anyone else for that matter, began designing and building roads in this region, farmers from the north would make their way over the mountains to the coast using old elephant and Bushman trails,” Katot told me after we stopped for a cuppa at the site of an old Anglo-Boer War fort.
The small, crumbled building overlooked an absolutely magnificent valley where fynbos swayed in the cool clean air and sugarbirds flitted between protea blooms the size and shape of dinner plates.
“Eventually some of the trails developed into busy highways. Attaquaskloof Pass was the first official ox-wagon trail in the region – and a superhighway in its day. But the only traffic you’ll find on it now is the occasional tourist vehicle or two.”
Measuring about 50 kilometres in length, Attaquaskloof Pass was in use from 1689 until 1869, after which it was replaced by the shorter and less taxing Robinson’s Pass. In 1842 alone the official number of wagons that used it was 4 280. In other words, it was indeed a busy road. But today it stands almost silent.
A little way further on Katot stopped us for another cup of tea and to show me the ruins of an old saloon-style hotel. “Places like this were common on the popular ox-wagon routes,” he told me as we picked our way carefully through the collapsed rooms and crumbling patios. Trees grew up through the floors and I spotted a barn owl roosting in a corner before it hissed at me and flew out through a hole in the roof.
“If you were a wagon driver, this is where you’d come for a rest and a meal and to water and feed your animals. It was also where you could hire a full span of fresh beasts should your own be too tired to continue. These days you can travel over the mountains in a matter of minutes, but back then it could take you days, if not weeks.”
The ruins of the hotel were enveloped in utter silence and surrounded by wilderness, but I tried to picture what the place would have been like in its heyday. I imagined the sounds of horses and harness and creaking wagons and bellowing oxen. Piano music wafted from the bar and there were cowboys and mean looking gunslingers and fights over women and liquor. Katot reminded me, however, that most of the people who stopped there would have been pious Afrikaans farmers who didn’t do naughty things like that. They went to church and ate buttered rusks and drank tea. Well, that’s what he told me.
Attaquaskloof Pass, as stunning as it is, is actually just the first leg of the 450km circular route which Katot has been busily mapping, signposting and exploring for quite a few years now. “It starts in Heidelberg, or at Bonniedale Guest Farm, the choice is yours, and goes through the Langeberg via Attaquaskloof. You then journey through the Klein Karoo for a while, passing Volmoed and skirting Oudtshoorn, before heading back over the Outeniqua Mountains via the old Voortrekkers Pass, also known as Duiwelskop. This brings you onto the Seven Passes coastal road, which serves as an alternative to the Garden Route section of the N2.
“You travel east along the Seven Passes road before veering north again and back over the mountains into the Karoo via Prince Alfred Pass. You can pretty well do the whole thing without having to travel much on tar roads, and there are plenty of great accommodation options and camping sites along the way.”
The section of Attaquaskloof Pass we were on as he spoke was sometimes steep, sometimes rocky, but mostly simply slow. The scenery, though, was stunning to say the least, and it didn’t take me long to work out why Katot likes spending so much time up here in the mountains. This was his office, and a jolly nice office it was.
That evening, after leaving Attaquaskloof Pass and venturing through the arid Klein Karoo, we stayed at charming Louvain Guest Farm at the foot of the old Voortrekkers Pass, which dates back to 1776 and was widely known as a bugger to get over. Our super-duper 4×4 with computer-controlled suspension protested on the steeper sections and bottomed out on a few rocks when we took a detour to the top of the Outeniqua Mountains. Not for the first time did I wonder how on earth those farmers and their cumbersome wagons made it on these rough and rugged routes.
“You must remember,” said Katot, “that an ox‑wagon was a sturdy thing and pulled by up to 16 animals. The trails were also designed for them and they were designed for the trails. “That’s not to say there weren’t any accidents,” he continued as we bumped our way along frightening looking ledges and steep inclines. “Many a wagon went over the edge, taking its goods, animals and sometimes even people with it.”
I gulped hard at that and held onto the steering wheel so forcefully I felt my knuckles pop. After safely reaching the Seven Passes road, we travelled through Knysna’s famous forests before ending our journey at Katot’s very own private nature reserve, halfway up Prince Alfred Pass. Here we camped and sat around the fire and discussed the removal of alien vegetation (which Katot does indeed hate) while drinking more tea and braaing meat. I looked at Katot as he tended the fire, still regaling me with stories of the pioneers, and wondered at his bad luck in being born in perhaps the wrong era. With his bare feet, bulging beard and penchant for the simple things in life, I felt he would have been very much at home on an ox-wagon trail of old.
But then I thought about the four days I’d just spent with him. We’d travelled those same routes and we’d seen almost no one in that time. The modern world might have not existed at all (I didn’t even have cellphone reception). And I realised that, in a way, Katot was living in the past. A past which he had recreated for himself and now wanted to share with others.
Shoes or no shoes, wagon or no wagon, in my mind that makes him a lucky man indeed.
- Katot Meyer 044 272 0014 (don’t be surprised if he doesn’t answer – he’ll likely be in the bush somewhere)
- Katot’s Ox-wagon Trail info www.burchell4x4.co.za, www.bonniedale.com
- Bonniedale Guest Farm and Camping 044 695 3175, [email protected]. Owners Dannette and Nico
- Hestermanwill be able to tell you all about the trail.
- Vehicle courtesy of Mitsubishi South Africa www.mitsubishi-motors.co.za