The year spent working in Ireland had flown by and an annual trip to my home town and Mother City, Cape Town, was fast approaching. Sadly, a week before my departure on 12th December, a frail Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, to whom all South Africans have owed so much, breathed his last and passed on from his earthly existence. The state funeral was scheduled for the first Sunday after my arrival in the village of Qunu, where he grew up however with my hiking buddy Ralph having arranged and booked a hiking trip to the Cederberg, some 2 to 3 hours drive from Cape Town, I would be missing all coverage of the event.
Having had keyhole surgery performed on my left knee towards the end of October in Galway, to repair torned cartilage, I was somewhat doubtful as to whether it was the sensible thing to do to attempt a fairly strenuous hike only 6 weeks after the operation, however my fears were allayed on the advice of Dr Paraic Murray, who was of the opinion that such activity would hasten recovery rather impede it. Having extended ourselves physically and mentally on the now well-documented, legendary cycle trip a year before in searing temperatures at times exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, I was hoping that such gratuitous torture would not be repeated. Deciding that this year’s experience should be shared with a wider group, Ralph arranged for a few of his acquaintances in the Cape Mountain Club, namely Kevin, his wife Yolanda and Santie Gouws, to put us through our paces.
It never ceases to astonish me what a small world we live in. Upon learning of Santie’s occupation as a concrete engineer on the drive up from Stellenbosch via Ceres to Op-die-Berg, gateway to both the central and eastern Cederberg, I was astounded to learn that she was acquainted with a one Reinhold Amtsbüchler, Austrian by birth and one of South Africa’s leading concrete experts, having received an award as concrete achiever of the year for 2013.
Married to one of my second cousins, I had last spoken to them an estimated twenty-odd years ago after they had moved to Johannesburg. Whilst spending 3 months working as a student at Siemens in Erlangen, then West Germany, in the European winter of 1979-1980, I made my way to Vienna to be with them for Xmas, at a time when they were still based in Europe. I therefore resolved to make it my mission now to re-establish contact with them – the key was that Santie had Reinhold’s all-important contact details, having spoken to him recently around the time of his retirement.
As a wilderness area, the primary Cederberg activity is eco-tourism, including camping, rock climbing and hiking. The main campsite, Algeria, is operated by CapeNature, while others such as Sanddrif, Driehoek, Jamaka and Kromrivier are privately operated. There are several notable mountains in the range, including Sneeuberg at 2026 metres and Tafelberg at 1969 m. The area is home to numerous day and overnight hikes including the popular and spectacular Wolfberg Arch, Wolfberg Cracks and the Maltese Cross. My last hikes in this particular section of the Cederberg had been to Crystal Pools, accessible from Algeria Base Camp and a scorching walk with Ralph in 40+ degree temperatures from the the old Moravian mission station of Wupperthal to Algeria (known to the two of us as The Hike of Warm Beers).
The dominating characteristic of the area is sharply defined sandstone rock formations, often reddish in colour. In caves and overhangs throughout the area, San rock art can be found, evidence of the earliest human inhabitants. Indeed, I had explored some of the rock art in the eastern Cederberg with my close friends Ian and Lily, members of the Eastern Cederberg Rock Art Group [reference], otherwise known as eCrag. European settlement brought forestry and some agriculture, and led to massive destruction of the local cedar trees, large numbers having been felled as the wood was in great demand for construction – some 7 200 trees were used as telephone poles between Piketberg and Calvinia. Fires added to this destruction and the cedar tree is now on the brink of extinction. Some years ago I took part in a weekend activity In 2004 the Cederberg Wilderness received World Heritage Site status as part of the Cape Floristic Region. In October 1997, the Cederberg Conservancy was constituted as a voluntary agreement between landowners to manage the environment in a sustainable manner.
On the dirt road heading all the way to Cederberg-Algeria, we stopped off for lunch at Cederberg Oasis, a backpacker, camping and caravanning stopover in the Cederberg Conservancy. The off-the-beaten-track eccentric architecture and decor, along with the substantial collection of caps hanging up in the bar area, was perfectly matched by the somewhat unconventional management team. We were handed a menu offering a variety of lunches, though in reality, the only dish available was hamburger and chips. The padded seats seemed familiar, suggesting that the owner had once been connected to the Spur Restaurant franchise, where he had possibly honed his skills as a chef.
The target was Driehoek, where we would leave our vehicle parked under the trees at the old Welbedacht Forest Station, before attempting the relatively short walk up along a Welbedachtkloof (gorge) to Welbedacht Cave, where we would be spending the night. Plenty of fresh drinking water was to be found from the mountain stream. Having spent several hiking trips in the company of Kelson, Ralph had jacked up in his repertoire of culinary skills somewhat, now supplementing pasta meals with sliced dried tomato fried in olive oil. Old habits die hard though and condensed milk in tea remains an essential necessity. Unfortunately, he seemed to have overlooked the basics by forgetting to pack in a ground mattress, so the wife (despite not being there to defend herself) got it in the ear for interfering with his packing routine, much to our amusement. Bats paid us an early visit after nightfall however for all intents and purposes, I got in a reasonable night’s sleep.
Day 2’s target was Wolfberg Arch, which lay beyond the narrow shale band that is locally referred to as “Die Trap” or in English “The Step”, because of its characteristic manner in which it weathers. Millennia of wind rain hail and ice have transformed and weathered the sandstone into the most fantastic sculptural shapes so characteristic of the Cederberg. Following the path until it intersected a jeep track that runs along a shale band past Tafelberg, a smaller version of the mountain located in the Mother City similarly referred to for its flatness, until it reaches a plantation of ceder trees, we stopped for lunch. Despite being quite warm, a breeze made the journey bearable. Water was available in abundance at two distinct points along the jeep track. From here, the meandering ascent of Gabriel’s Pass takes one onto the higher terrain beyond. With Santie setting a mean pace, we reached the arch a couple of hours later. It’s a truly spectacular sight, no more so than at dusk and dawn, when bathed in the light of the setting sun. Stepping through the arch onto a precipice, the landscape to the north-east drops away towards Trekkloof. Adjacent to the arch lies a huge rock monolith that resembled a Hindu temple. Kevin was itching to climb up on top of the arch, however Yolanda was having none of it (he might want to view someone here who has done it).
With most of the afternoon ahead, we set up camp and then headed out for water, after Santie had done an initial reccie off the path heading to the Wolfberg Cracks. The narrow stream running through a gully offered an opportunity for a rinse and to relax and soak up the sun. Several other groups of people showed up at the arch but none were overnighting. Ralph and I had taken a risk in leaving tents behind, as rain had been forecast. As the sun set upon us, the wind factor chilled the air significantly, so after dinner, Yolanda, Kevin and Santie found shelter behind the arch, warming the innards courtesy of their secret stash of alcoholic beverage. I did not have much in the way of warm clothing, so Kevin graciously lent me a spare jacket for the night. An almost full moon rose across the night sky as I tucked into my sleeping bag. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Ralph taking pictures of the arch with the aid of a flash.
The following morning, Ralph summoned me before sunrise, so that we could capture Wolfsberg Arch in camera from the other (northern) side, which offers more in terms of shooting angles and opportunities, whilst the landscape itself below the arch, with its multitude of rock formations, is certainly worth exploring. After a light breakfast, we headed back the same way, down Gabriel’s Pass. Ralph and the others had planned an ascent of Tafelberg on day 3, where they would spend the night however with my knee taking a bit of strain after the recent operation some 6-8 weeks earlier, I opted to return to Welbedacht Cave on my own.
It’s not difficult to imagine why people go mad when they find themselves isolated in a wilderness such as the Cederberg. The terrain is prone to playing tricks on one’s imagination. Despite hearing baboons across the valley, I was unlikely to bothered by anything predatory. I still had a good deal of the day to while away, which was part of the problem, as I didn’t fancy the prospect of having to have a conversation with myself. Santie had lent me her gas stove to cook dinner however I was dying for a cup of tea – only problem was, Ralph had all the tea bags. I managed a wash in the nearby stream and dozed off for a bit. I even contemplated rejoining the others up Tafelberg. Sunset provided a renewed photographic opportunity, before settling in for the night. A pair of field mice scurried across the cave floor in their hunt for food. One buried itself inside an empty pasta packet I’d left out, pushing it along the stone surface in the process. Magical pulses of light emanated from the fireflies in flight. Soon a full moon rose from behind Tafelberg, bathing the entire landscape and much of the cave in eerie light, serving only to enhance its wonder and mystery.
I awoke early and left in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. I didn’t have any milk on me, so breakfast was going to have to wait until I had reached Ralph’s vehicle. It was a slow, ponderous amble down yet I was in no hurry. It’s a sumptuous valley, lush in its fynbos vegetation, the sound of rushing water deep in the undergrowth now more evident. As the terrain leveled out, I crossed a gorgeous stream, tempted to immerse myself fully, yet I knew that another crossing awaited me not far from where the vehicle was parked. The icy cold stream proved exhilarating yet chilled my body to the point of aching. The others arrived two hours later and similarly indulged themselves in nature’s pleasure, a fitting way to end any hike. Lunch at Cederberg Oasis beckoned, though we were left in no doubt whatsoever that hamburger and chips was not an option, but a certainty, downed with an ice-cold beer or cider.
It was on our way back to Cape Town via Ceres that, upon stopping off at the Cederberg Private Wine Cellar at Dwarsrivier, a wine estate that has witnessed tremendous growth and development, that I happened to open the glove compartment of Ralph’s vehicle to find a small wrist-held Garmin GPS, similar to one I had misplaced on my last visit to South Africa a year ago and identical to the one Ralph was also using. Since Ralph had just used his on the hike and therefore seemed equally bemused at the revelation, the great mystery of the elusive GPS had finally been resolved, after I had searched high and low for the damn thing, in the interim having purchased a new Garmin GPSMAP 62S. A positive way to end a hike in the company of a really decent bunch of people.
I stumbled upon a really neat website that refers to what a amounts to a real-world treasure hunt called Geocaching, essentially an outdoor recreational activity, in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device (see geocache phone apps) and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, anywhere in the world. A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook where the geocacher enters the date they found it and signs it with their established code name. One of the purposes of the activity is to provide people with an incentive to go see places they haven’t been before and perhaps, for non-regular walkers, to make a walk more interesting!
Out of curiosity, I did a search on the geochache website for Cederberg and a number of geocache spots came up. The webpage page here then referred to a geocache at Cedercracks, more popularly known as Wolfberg Cracks, not far away from the arch. Another location specified was Driehoek, where we left our vehicles when setting out on the hike and the Maltese Cross, across the valley near Sneeukop. It I had only known about this before we did the trip!