Hidden away in the Gifberg mountains up the West Coast, that dramatic backdrop to Vanrhynsdorp, Gifberg Holiday Farm’s primary focus is producing rooibos tea. But its rugged wilderness area boasts a wonderful network of family- and pet-friendly hiking trails. So when our friend Theresa Horn booked a weekend away there with her dog Lulu (and tantalised us with images of waterfalls, gorges and rock formations that she’d seen on the website), photographer Shaen Adey and I decided to tag along.
As we swung off the N7 and headed towards the Matsikamma Mountains, about ten kilometres from Vanrhynsdorp, it was clear we’d been lucky with our timing. The fields on either side of the road were speckled pink. Closer inspection revealed that the candelabra lilies (Brunsvigia bosmaniae) were in flower, their large, spherical flower heads producing a brief, but dazzling display in the otherwise bare, sandy veld.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the scene, but driving beneath the golden cliffs that flanked the twisting Gifberg Pass was equally spectacular. By the time we reached the top I was wondering why it had taken me so long to visit this remote mountain wilderness.
At Gifberg Holiday Farm we inquired about the hiking trails. “I suggest you start with the two-kilometre Pothole Route that starts behind your cottage,” Jansu Huisamen explained, handing me a map. His father Jan had been a big walker who, when the farm first opened to visitors, leapt at any opportunity to show fellow hikers around.
“Then, about 15 years ago, when my mom turned the old farmhouse into a guest house, we decided to mark the trails,” Jansu continued. “The routes are excellent so we thought that they’d be a big attraction and bring us more guests. Running them and the other visitor facilities is now a full-time job for my wife Maureen and me.”
After settling in, we headed out on the circular Pothole Route, which wound over koppies and through sandstone rock formations that reminded me of the Cederberg. To Lulu’s delight, Jansu’s golden Labrador, Lara assumed the role of unofficial guide. She led the way, bounding from boulder to boulder, scooting down chutes and snuffling in the vegetation for dassies. Lulu, a more skittish Weimaraner, followed nervously.
A dam of lillies
The first part of the walk, with its rock art site, far-reaching views, dazzling pink volstruisvygies (Cephalophyllum spongiosum) and a variety of Crassulaceae, was a great introduction to the area. But it was the second half of the trail along the Gifberg River that blew us away. Here, carved into the bedrock of a smooth-sided gorge, were magnificent potholes – a geological phenomenon to match that of Bourke’s Luck.
We explored for a while, then cooled off in a deep pool with a sandy beach, before climbing to the top of a burnt orange cliff face for sundowners. Studying the map we decided to go big the next day on the 19.2-kilometre Bushman Route.
“There’s plenty of water on the way down to the Doring River,” Jansu advised “but you’ll need to carry it from there back to the farm.” Lulu’s water bottle and bowl were added to the backpack.
The forecast was hot for the next day and we were a little concerned when a somewhat overweight Lara followed us to the trailhead in the morning. “Don’t worry about her,” Jansu reassured us. “She walked the trail with three different groups last week.”
From the Oppi-Dek coffee shop, the path took us past a dam covered with water lilies, from where we followed a sandy track through the veld, crossing the river a couple of times. There had been no rain for ten months and the effects of drought were apparent. The water level was low, exposing the dramatic russet colours of the polished sandstone river bed.
After a couple of kilometres, a sign on the left-hand bank took us up to First Cave, which featured faded paintings of eland, after which we continued to the protected Sleepers Cave, a few hundred metres further on.
A steep climb to the plateau
The overhang had some striking, well-preserved images including a long panel of sleeping figures, many covered with karosses painted in rich yellow ochre. A closer look revealed bows and arrows and bags above their heads. “If you look in the big horizontal crack in the rock above the painting you’ll see pegs from which the Bushmen who stayed there hung their bags,” Jansu informed us. “That’s what’s depicted.”
“The rock art in Sleepers Cave is about 400 years old, younger than most of the other paintings on the farm. We have more than 30 rock art sites, seven open to guests. As you hike, you’ll still see plenty of red ochre, which was used by the Bushmen in their art.”
The terrain became trickier as we approached the Klein Valletjie waterfall and followed the footprints along the exposed river bed to the precipitous Gifberg Waterfall. The area had recorded its lowest rainfall in a century and there was little water flowing, but you could see from the deep potholes and massive drop that the falls must be quite something when in spate.
Once we’d explored and spent time at the view site of the gorge below, we retraced our steps until we could see small white footprints heading up the cliff on the left-hand side of the river. A steep climb took us to the top of the plateau, from where the path followed the cliff edge. We had a bird’s eye view of the river and the falls for a short while, before the first challenge of the day – a short but awkward rock scramble down a gully.
Lara took it in her stride, fearlessly hopping down to a lower ledge. We slid down inelegantly, Theresa trying to coax her trembling dog from below. Lulu peered over the edge, retreated, looked again and ran around looking for other options. Finding none she started to whimper. We tried lifting her and encouraging her down a bushier route but the poor dog was terrified. Eventually Lara took the initiative, jumped back up the boulders and showed Lulu the way. A touching moment.
“The dogs were in heaven”
Just beyond the gully was Fertility Cave, a vast shelter with numerous paintings, some done by hand, others with improvised brushes. Although not as well preserved as those in Sleepers Cave, the variety of images was impressive with the most numerous being hand prints and paintings of elephants. “The elephant was a sacred animal to the Bushman,” Jansu told us. “Boys would go to this cave for initiation ceremonies. It’s their handprints that you see on the wall.”
A long, loose descent took us back to the river, where we all jumped into a pool to cool down. For the next few kilometres the path followed the river’s course, sometimes requiring us to duck and dive under the branches and fallen trees of the surrounding forest and at other times to boulder hop in the river bed or gain higher ground to skirt big pools.
There were candelabra lilies flowering here too, and clusters of vibrant daisies, pink and purple watsonia and pelargoniums, vivid vygies, striking blue crassula, yellow moraea, multi-hued oxalis and delicate disas also provided occasional splashes of colour. Slowing our pace to seek out the brave little flowers, we marvelled at the diversity of plants in this inhospitable rocky terrain.
The final few kilometres of the outward leg saw the path climbing again to avoid a densely vegetated section of the gorge, then contouring around into Bobbejaantjieskloof. We heard the baboons before we entered the kloof, then spotted them above us and across the valley, running down to the river. Something, perhaps a leopard or caracal, had clearly upset them. We scanned the slopes hopefully but saw nothing.
At the Doring River we stopped for a swim and lunch on a beach. The dogs were in heaven, jumping in and out of the water and chasing the fish. The vegetation down by the river was very different. Thorn trees lined the river bank, while botterboom and hardy succulents sheltered in the shade of dense euphorbia bushes.
A brush with a boomslang
The return leg traversed the other side of the valley, starting off with a sustained climb from the river. A pair of klipspringers bounced away as the path rounded a rocky buttress and swung away from the river taking us up to the plateau again, from where there were great views up the gorge.
The next section was tough going as we climbed in and out of small kloofs. The vegetation had changed again – little sundews and baby bum vygies sat among the white quartz pebbles on flat rock terraces, and we passed through little patches of forest.
Tiring in the midday heat we stopped for a break in a natural archway and gave the dogs some water. “Freeze everyone,” commanded Shaen suddenly. She’d seen a snake coiled around a branch just above us. “Boomslang,” insisted Theresa going in for a closer look. Shaen was not convinced. We backed off.
The adrenalin had kicked in so we were soon back on the trail, which continued winding around the krantzes on a sandy path until joining a farm track that skirted rooibos fields back to the coffee shop. It had been a spectacular and wonderfully diverse trail – one of the hidden gems of Namaqualand.
Pictures Shaen Adey and supplied