Caroline’s Roadtrip – Part 1 – Off the beaten track in Gifberg
Guest blog and all photos by Caroline Elston
Packed and ready to go. My travel companions are 83 year old Mother, brother Carl and his partner Cecile – each with their own sense of adventure. There is a tangible air of excitement in our hired 4×4 (nicknamed Blesbok) as Carl, who will be doing most of the driving, takes the expression “off the beaten track’ rather seriously. Don’t get me wrong, we love ‘off the beaten track’ but not when it requires precision engineering to cross a raging river or descend an almost vertical pass!
Day 1 Destination – The “mountains that yield water” – Matsikamma
We leave in rain and thick mist and arrive at Gifberg hours later in rain and mist. Luckily, as we descend into the valley behind Pakhuis Pass the mist clears and we can see more of our surroundings. We consult Slingsby Map and decide to take the Rooibos Heritage Route past deserted farms with names such as Swaarmoed and Moedverloor which mean ‘despair’ and ‘courage lost’. We speculate as to why one farm is called Welgemoed which refers to a sense of wellbeing while the other names speak of sorrow, hardship and hopelessness
We stop and chat to the inhabitants of the last few remaining ‘riethuisies’. These Strandveld reed houses differ from the original haterbeeshuisies in that the thatch roof hangs over the walls creating eaves. They are made from local reed no longer readily available due to the agricultural conversion of the veld.
We are shown the ‘kook kamer’ (cooking room) which consists of a rudimentary chair, a smoke stained kitchen dresser and a few kitchen items. A number of scruffy cats are curled up enjoying the warmth of the fire and optimistically hoping for a breakfast tidbit. I emerge smelling like smoked bacon! The oldest inhabitant tells us he was born in one of these reed houses 70 years ago and his parents lived here for all their lives!
A fire burns in the old bakoond. When the coals are ready a loaf of bread will be baked and will be the main food source for this group for the next few days. I have many questions but sense a certain resistance to our curiosity. I leave wishing I knew more about their daily lives and this vanishing bit of heritage.
We continue towards Niewoudtville, passing through many farm gates, strips of Sandveld fynbos and large tracts of rooibos tea growing in sandy soil. A message on one of the gates instructs us to “stuur groete aan die mense by die huis” – an oft-used Afrikaans expression which leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy!
We stop to admire rocks that resemble artifacts from the Jurassic period and even find a clump of carnivorous plants growing next to what looks like the back of a large brontosaurus. I learn from Mother, who is an important source of knowledge on trips such as these, that wind has created these peculiar shaped rocks.
We enter Niewoudtville and turn left on the R27 to Vanrynsdorp. It’s getting late and there is a distinct sense of urgency in Carl’s driving as we summit Van Ryns pass and enter the Knersvlakte – home to a unique montage of succulent plants dominated by various species of what we commonly refer to as ‘vygie’. Sadly the cold weather does not favour this sun-loving species leaving us with a rather grey and uninteresting looking “vlakte’
The Gifberg Resort is our destination for today so after a speedy tour of Van Rynsdorp we head up the Gifberg pass in Maskam Mountains. The mist is incredibly thick, the pass steep, very narrow in places and according to all sources quite spectacular. With the help of ‘Mrs Garmin’ we eventually arrive at the resort which is carefully tucked away amongst orange coloured rocks. It is icy cold and Carl is commanded to get the log fire going and open a bottle of wine. Thanks to our spacious three bedroomed cottage my travelling companions are spared a night of my snoring and we all sleep very well.
We are up early the next morning – eager to explore the nooks and crannies of this remote mountain range, but the weather and Carl have other ideas. After consulting the resort manager/guide Carl announces that we are going to seek shelter from the elements in a cave above the Matjies River. We hurriedly pack the picnic basket, grab extra layers of clothing and set off in Blesbok. There are two parts of the discussion with Janse that Carl remembers: (a) turn right at a gate and drive past a big field and (b) there are 4 women camping next to the Doring River.
After turning right at several gates and passing acres of rooibos, Carl announces that he does not know where the ”bloody cave is” and his intention is to go down to the Doring River instead of the Matjies. Cecile and I have an inkling of what awaits as we, too, have read the article that is the source of Carl’s inspiration for adventure, but our protests falls on deaf ears.
At times Mother and I walk leaving Cecile to guide Carl over rocks and through dongas – it takes two and a half hours to cover 11 kms. As we negotiate our descent we wonder what type of women would do this kind of wilderness trekking without the help of the male species and we silently conjure up our own images. Imagine our surprise when we find 4 ladies in their late sixties. Imagine our even greater surprise when one of them turns out to be Julie, a neighbour of Mother’s from Kleinmond!
It is a lot warmer than higher up the mountain so we linger to enjoy the flowers and the birds. The yellow euphorbia is particularly beautiful and the mauve pelargonium complements the many shades of greens and greys. The rocks covered in bright orange lichen complete the picture and I wish I could remain even longer.