A River runs through – Exploring life along the Olifants River, Western Cape

For an amazing and unusual journey, we followed the course of the Olifants River, from its mountain source to the ocean, and discovered a whole new world.

Our journey became a heritage trail, cultural experience, scenic ecotourism and adventure travel…all in one. You couldn’t ask for more.

South Africa is usually depicted as a country of exquisite natural beauty with an astounding variety of wildlife, a dynamic mixture of cultures, bustling modern cities, majestic mountain ranges, endless dry plains and thousands of kilometres of stunning coastline. Often absent from this ‘world in one country’ narrative is any mention of our many beautiful, lifegiving rivers that find their way to the sea through some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of our country. With hundreds of rivers in 223 river eco system types and linked to 792 wetland eco systems, there is  much to choose from. So we chose one, the Olifants River in the Western Cape, and decided to follow its course on a combined road and hiking trip, from source to mouth, to see what gives. The river’s name is apt, for the countryside through which it flows is every bit as big and majestic as Africa’s biggest land mammal, and if a river has an elephant’s memory, this one can attest
to witnessing a large slice of South Africa’s gripping history.

You can follow its ever-changing flow by kayaking or river rafting along sections of the river, or hiking along its banks, driving by 4X4 vehicle, on a motorcycle or bicycle, or simply in
your everyday car. The river flows t hrough a r egion s teeped in history, soaked i n blood f rom w ars, o ffering s ome o f t he m ost b eautiful n atural scenery in South Africa, producing some of the rarest products in the world, and has been home to poets, governors, Khoisan, settlers, missionaries, farmers, fishermen, soldiers, bandits and many, many other interesting and historical characters.

All along the way there is plenty of affordable accommodation, lovely eateries and pubs, and good roads to travel on. And much to learn, see and enjoy. Instead of travelling overseas for your next holiday, this is the way to go…at a fraction of the cost. Especially for those who earn and spend in rand. The river also passes through much of Namaqualand, famed for its natural, annual wild flower spectacle. For most of the year much of the north-western part of this region appears arid, but as spring approaches after the winter rains, the area explodes into a dramatic kaleidoscope of colour as endless carpets of flowers erupt, covering the entire veld. Certainly one of the natural wonders of  this world.

The arid and rugged mountainous terrain stretching out around parts of the Olifants River was also the world of the Bittereinders (those who fought to the bitter end) after the two Boer republics’ capitals had fallen to the British during the Anglo-Boer War, and most of the conventional Boer forces had surrendered. Consisting of small groups of highly mobile Boer fighters on horseback, they fought a protracted guerrilla war against the might of the British forces for another two years.

The Bittereinders that penetrated the British-ruled Cape Colony were led, among others, by General Jan Smuts, the later prime minister and statesman, and engaged in many a battle with the British up and down the Olifants River. The remains of a military blockhouse built as part of the British attempt to counter the Boer raids, still stand in a remote valley in the Cederberg Mountains. But as General Smuts quipped many years later, these blockhouses failed in their mission because they were usually only erected after Smuts and his men had passed through an area and were already long gone.The Boers even raided as f ar south as Saldanha Bay, where in the only naval battle of the war, they fired with their Mauser rifles at the HMS “Partridge”, and the ship returned fire with its massive naval guns.

However, leaving flowers and the Boer war aside, we began our journey near the river’s source in the Agter Witzenberg, in one of the most enchanting wilderness and mountain areas of South Africa. This is the Cederberg, Witzenberg and Winterhoek mountain regions, favourites with nature lovers, hikers, explorers and campers. The Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area with its many freshwater springs, streams, pools and exceptional rock formations lies about 120km north of Cape Town, near Porterville, and adjacent to the Olifants River. It plays a big role in the protection of the Cape’s unique mountain fynbos and wildlife, and is also a source of water for Cape Town.

From its source the river flows north along the eastern side of the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, then cuts through the Winterhoek Mountains into a valley where it then flows through intensely irrigated fruit-farming districts, passing the tiny settlements of Theerivier and The Baths, and on to the citrus farming district of Citrusdal. The area was originally populated by the San and Khoi people, of whom many ancient rock paintings survive here. In the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area we hiked along one of the many scenic trails with incredible rock formations and many springs, passing De Tronk – used for overnight accommodation – to where the trail ended with a steep climb down to a deep, dark mountain pool in which we cooled off. Heaven on earth.

Leaving the mountain wilderness area behind, we followed the R365 and the N7 to Citrusdal, then doubled back up the valley to Mcgregor’s Cottage and Camping. Tucked into the valley at the foot of the Olifantrivier Mountains and a minute’s walk from the river, this delightful cottage is set in a beautiful garden overlooking orange orchards with stunning views, offering comfort and all amenities. But for those who want to be closer to nature, there is a lovely camping site as well.

Just down the road lies The Baths and the small, hidden away settlement of Theerivier. The hot water spring at The Baths was used by the early Khoi and San people who lived here. When the first European settlers arrived in the area around 1720 it led to clashes with the original inhabitants, causing the acting governor at the Cape, Daniel van den Henghel, to erect a building there to establish the Cape’s authority over the valley.

This building was later renovated for the personal use of Governor Rijk Tulbagh and the occasional use of a number of leading families as the Cape. After falling into disrepair and several owners later, it was eventually sold to one James McGregor, whose descendants today run it as a spa with lovely accommodation and facilities for visitors seeking peace, tranquillity and the legendary healing qualities of the hot spring water. The history of the place and the family who own it, is fascinating one.

The area is of course also known for something else with astounding healing properties: the buchu and rooibos plants. In fact the region is the cradle of South Africa’s indigenous ‘pharmaceutical’ industry where these t wo plants and various other herbs and plants were first discovered and used extensively by the Khoisan over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Here you can follow the Buchu Hiking Trail and learn more about the medicinal qualities of Agathosma Betulina, known locally as buchu. The two species of the plant, as well as the rooibos plant, are endemic to this Western Cape region. Today buchu is cultivated on a commercial basis for its essential oils, while tea and brandy is also made from the leaves. Rooibos tea has become world-famous for its taste and its claimed health benefits as a cure for everything from nagging headaches, to insomnia, asthma, eczema, bone weakness, hypertension,allergies, and premature ageing. Some say it even helps prevent cancer.