We stand on a rock overhanging the edge of the Bokkeveld Mountains, gazing at the flat plains of the Knersvlakte below. I feel giddy at the prospect of the sheer 600-metre drop, and sense of space it evokes. Photographer Shaen Adey, Theresa Horn and I are in the Northern Cape’s Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve, just outside Nieuwoudtville.
A pristine wilderness with 150 kilometres of marked trails, breathtaking views, weird and wonderful rock formations, rock art sites, swimming holes and diverse fauna and flora, the rugged reserve is a great destination for both day and overnight hikers. And while the mountain wilderness doesn’t have the eye-catching daisies of the more popular Namaqua destination, in spring the veld is carpeted in flowers.
Huge botanical variety
Curious about the origin of the name Oorlogskloof (war cliff), I study the information boards as we organise permits at the reserve office in Nieuwoudtville. Apparently colonisation of the area by Europeans in the early 18th century brought the settlers into confrontation with the indigenous Khoi. According to historian Nigel Penn, this reached a climax on 25 September 1739 when a trekboer commando attacked the Khoi near the present-day reserve and the place was named ‘Oorlogskloof’, a name it retains to this day.
Established in 1983, the reserve is a huge 4 776 hectares. One of the most varied botanical areas of the Northern Cape, Oorlogskloof is the transition zone between the fynbos and Karoo biomes and so has a rich flora, including a large number of endemic species, some of which are identified on boards along the paths.
Leaving the trailhead at Groot Tuin on the 52.2-kilometre Rock Pigeon Route, we are soon in the thick of it, scaling ladders up and down steep rock steps and picking our way down vegetated kloofs.
We reach the first overnight hut Brakwater in the Rietvlei River Valley, in a couple of hours. From there the path climbs steeply then follows along the edge of the Oorlogskloof River Canyon. This is a scenic stretch, with great views of the Rietvlei and Oorlogskloof Rivers below and we stop several times to inspect dazzling April Fool lilies (Haemanthus coccineus) and the dried flower heads of candelabra lilies (Brunnsvigia bomaniae).
We climb a steep slab with the aid of a rope and reach the base of steep cliffs. We then follow the cliff band to a dammed seep where we fill our water bottles before shimmying up a long ladder. The trail follows the escarpment edge, offering superb views over the deeply incised river valley to the other side of the plateau. “This place is amazing,” exclaims Theresa. “So vast. It’s incredible not to see anyone or any sign of habitation.”
Ropes, ladders and steep cliff faces
After a relatively flat section through mountain fynbos alive with birds, it is a steep descent back down to the river where we go for a welcome swim in a rock pool. Now following the stream bed we boulder-hop and push our way through reeds and riverine thicket. It is tough going, but glimpses of March lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) and birdsong provide a distraction.
Another steep climb takes us back to the base of the cliff band where we startle the trail’s namesake, the Rock Pigeon. Making our way round to a dry waterfall I see the full effect of the drought. The previous time I hiked the route I had to crawl, gingerly, through a slippery rock tunnel behind the crashing falls.
A very steep, loose downhill takes us to the Kameel se Gat overnight hut, perched just above the riverbed. After clambering down to swim in a deep pool we sit watching the birds and eating our meagre rations. From past experience, I had insisted that we carry small packs.
The section between Kameel se Gat and Doltuin, the next overnight hut, is my favourite part of the trail. It starts with a steep climb from the long bridge over the river but we take it slowly, stopping to gaze back at the orange cliffs of the escarpment edge, and the route of our steep descent from the plateau.
Continuing on up, we reach another dammed pool. Then the fun starts as we work our way up through the seemingly impenetrable cliffs by way of ropes and chains. Squeezing up through narrow chimneys, my companions concede that we were right to go light. The trail splits at the top of the chimney. We can follow another route back to base, but we continue on our chosen path, picking our way across the surreal, rocky landscape in moody light.
Keeping your wits about you
Moving fast we have to keep our wits about us. The path, which largely stayed close to the escarpment edge, takes some unexpected twists and turns, sometimes ducking down into steep-sided gorges filled with stands of huge waboom (Protea nitida). The geology is fascinating, with dome-shaped, sandstone koppies sporting necklaces of quartz pebbles.
After the 15-kilometre mark, the route veers away from the cliffs, weaving through sugarbushes (Protea laurifolia) towards Suikerbosfontein camp. The next overnight hut, Doltuin – the name of which is derived from the Afrikaans dolwe, a reference to the digging up of small patches of land on which the pioneer farmers established small-scale farms – is in a great location, but there is no water.
Be warned, if you plan to hike Oorlogskloof in the late summer months, make sure you top up your bottles whenever you can.
Ugene Nel, who manages an annual trail run and fun walk in the reserve, has told me about what flora and fauna to look out for, so in the morning we have our eyes peeled for Smith’s red rock hare (Pronolagus rupestris). The long-eared creatures elude us, as do the often-sighted Cape mountain zebra, but we see plenty of spoor.
“Until about four years ago we’d often see donkeys near Doltuin,” Ugene told me. “They were used by pioneer farmers to transport rooibos tea from the mountains to lower ground, but were abandoned when the farmers left.”
A regular visitor since 2011, Ugene has been a major force in the upliftment of the reserve’s facilities, fixing cargo rope at some of the challenging climbs and descents, cleaning out the fountains and helping the reserve management install donkey boilers and showers at the huts.
Following his instructions we find water and fill up at Granaalsdraai, a few hundred metres beyond Doltuin, before another stiff climb past Cape willow trees (Salix mucronata) sees us celebrating sunrise in the lee of towering golden cliffs, watching Verreaux’s Eagles soaring above as the full moon sets. Dassies scoot away and Cape Buntings sing as we sip our coffee and the pink sky turns to brilliant blue. Surely there isn’t a more perfect start to a day.
The next section reminds me of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, with wonderful sandstone sculptures, tunnels and arches to explore. We counted 11 arches in all; some we had to crawl through, others, over. The trail designer clearly had a lot of fun working out a route that links the most impressive geological features.
Dropping our packs at the junction, we take a short detour to summit Arrie se Punt, at 935 metres, the highest point on the trail, our efforts rewarded by spectacular views over the Klein Koebee River Valley, Knersvlakte, Vanrhynsdorp and the flat-topped Gifberg. Regaining the main trail we follow rock markers along the escarpment edge grateful that the sun is shining. It would be easy to lose your way in bad weather.
After several more tea and photo stops – we can’t get enough of this dramatic setting – we start the descent to the Pramkoppie hut, another lovely wooden chalet, surrounded by wild olive trees. With only 11 kilometres to go we push on, stopping to study little sunbirds and weavers, and to visit two rock art sites, as we climb back up to the plateau. (I think by now you have a feel for the nature of this trail: up, down, up, down.)
Once back up on the escarpment edge, the trail becomes more mellow, winding through reeds and ericas. Again, the views from the top over Knersvlakte and all the way to the Vanrhyns Pass are breathtaking. All too soon we can see the poplars surrounding Groot Tuin.
“You guys go home, just leave me here for another week,” says Theresa, only half-jokingly as we arrive back at the car. “This is my all-time favourite trail. It touched my soul: I felt I could let go and lose myself in the harsh, beautiful environment; walk for miles and miles; just be.” We feel the same.
Make no mistake, Oorlogskloof is not for the weak, but if you love rugged wildernesses, it’s simply magical.
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Up to It?
The multi-day trails – the Rock Pigeon Route (52.2km ) and the Rameron Pigeon Route (52.4km) – are tough, challenging trails that are only suitable for fit, self-sufficient and well-prepared backpackers, but the two-day hikes, the Leopard (15.5km) and the Rietvlei (17.9km) trails give you a taste of what this pristine reserve has to offer.
You can comfortably complete the multi-day trails in five days. If you are pushed for time it’s possible, if strenuous, to combine days.
The overnight huts, which sleep 12-16 hikers, are comfortable with bunk beds, mattresses, hot showers and solar lighting.
027 218 1159, [email protected]
When to Go
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
It’s cold in winter and hot in summer.
There are lots of scrambles on the multi-day trails which are difficult with big, heavy packs, so go light and factor in plenty of time, not just to negotiate the tricky terrain, but for flower and bird spotting, photography and other diversions.
n A good, safe, introduction to the reserve is to participate in Quantum Adventure’s annual trail run and fun walk. The next event is 18 April 2020.
Nearly two decades ago a new species of clivia was discovered in Oorlogskloof by the then reserve manager, the late Wessel Pretorius. Some 800 kilometres outside the previously accepted range of the genus Clivia, it was christened Clivia mirabilis by Dr John Rourke, former head of the Compton Herbarium at the Kirstenbosch Research Centre.
Describing it formally in the National Botanical Institute’s journal Bothalia in 2002 Dr Rourke said, ‘This name, which means astonishing or miraculous, was chosen to reflect our amazement at the apparently endless surprises nature still has in store for us in this part of South Africa.’
Photos by : Shaen Adey