An astonishing mountain wilderness of fynbos, indigenous forests, gurgling streams, deep pools, towering peaks, mysterious caves and dramatic rock formations.
About three hours’ drive north of Cape Town, far from the hustle and bustle, lies an astonishing mountain wilderness of fynbos, indigenous forests, gurgling streams, deep pools, towering peaks, mysterious caves and dramatic rock formations.
This beautiful place, “up here”, is the Cederberg mountains, which includes the Cederberg Wilderness Area managed by CapeNature. The area is a favourite with both local nature lovers from around the Western and Northern Cape and with people from much further afield. In fact people from all over the world regularly return to the area for its exhilarating mountain hikes where they can return to and be one with nature, breathing the clean and crisp mountain air surrounded only by nature in all her glory.
At first glance you won’t notice much wild animal life. But leave the roads and campsites and venture along the hiking trails deeper into the hills and the mountains to the higher streams and waterfalls, and you’ll spot them – the great variety of creatures that have roamed here in their mountain kingdom for thousands of years.
Among them are caracal, rock hyraxes known as ‘dassies’, meerkats, bontebok, gemsbok, porcupines, honey badger, the Cape clawless otter, aardvark, African wild cat, lynx, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, Cape fox, grey rhebok, klipspringers, duikers, grysbok and chacma baboons in addition to many other small mammals, reptiles and birds. And if you are lucky you might spot one of the very elusive leopards that also still live here.
Unfortunately the earliest human inhabitants of this area are mostly long gone, but their ancient rock art survives in abundance, and tells the stories of the rich and rewarding lives once lived up here.
The Cederberg is a prime area for ecotourism, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. Despite the different spelling, the mountain range is named after the endangered Clanwilliam cedar which is a tree endemic to the area. The spelling is a result of the English and Afrikaans variants of the name having been combined – Sederberg and Cedarberg, giving you Cederberg.
The Cederberg area is an absolute paradise for camping, but also has many excellent self-catering cottages, and is popular for hiking, swimming in the mountain pools, viewing a treasure trove of San rock art, exploring the dramatic rock and cave formations, climbing the mountains, spotting the wildlife, bird watching, bouldering and rock climbing, among many other activities. Or you can just park off in the shade of a tree beside a mountain stream and take in the awesome scenery all around, before dozing off. Yes, this really is paradise.
Parts of the Cederberg wilderness area also lie within the famous wildflower region that stretches across Namaqualand, the Cederberg and West Coast. Here, each year with the onset of spring the veld erupts into a colourful spectacle of wild flowers.
There is also even a wine estate high up in the mountains, making it the highest winery in the country. Two historical missionary villages, Wupperthal and Elandskloof, are situated within these magnificent mountains, and nearby is the historic town of Clanwilliam and its similarly named dam, a favourite with water sports enthusiasts.
Close by is also the only region on earth where the famous rooibos grows from which is produced the much sought-after tea of the same name, while boegoe, a plant from which brandy and medicine is made, is also found in the area. Of course, both rooibos and boegoe were already known to the local Khoisan for thousands of years before the first European settlers came to know their magical qualities.
The entire Cederberg wilderness area encompasses about 71,000 hectares of rugged, mountainous terrain and lies 200km north of Cape Town. It stretches from the Middelberg Pass in Citrusdal to the area north of the Pakhuis Pass near Clanwilliam. It forms part of the Cape floral region and is a World Heritage Site, covered in mountain fynbos, including the laurel protea, the red disa, rooibos, and the rare and endemic snow protea, while the rare Clanwilliam cedars, can be seen higher up along the mountain slopes and cliffs.
On a recent visit to the area we left Cape Town at midday on a Friday, following the N7 north towards Namibia. Soon we passed the little hamlet of Philadelphia – always worth a stop for lunch or just coffee and cake – and then followed a succession of some of the country’s oldest towns – Malmesbury, Moorreesburg, Piketberg, and Citrusdal. Already when you pass Moorreesburg, you’ll start noticing mountains to the east on your right, being the Groot Winterhoek mountains, another superb hiking region and wilderness area.
From Citrusdal the mountains become the Cederberg mountains, and between the road and the mountains you’ll be joined by the clear waters of the Olifants River. A couple of centuries ago this river formed the northern border of the Cape Colony. Beyond that the land was known only to the Namaqua and other Khoi tribes with their great cattle and sheep herds who lived there, a few European elephant hunters and explorers, and of course the roaming San hunter-gatherers.
About 29km from Citrusdal we turned off to the right where a signpost indicated Algeria and the Cederberg mountains. We drove along a good gravel road through farmlands which after some distance climbed steeply into the mountains via the Nieuwoudts Pass, with high drops on one side, so exercise caution when driving there. We came to our destination some 18km on…CapeNature’s Cederberg Algeria Campsite on the banks of the small Uitkyk River, near the confluence with the Rondegat River, high up in the mountains. By now the city and everyday life had already been left far behind, and all around us were just the mountains and the sweet silence and fresh air of nature.
Cederberg Algeria Campsite
Coming to the campsite we were greeted by a tranquil picture of a small dam in the river with water cascading over a low wall and flowing across a low-water bridge, grassy banks, tall trees giving plenty of shade and a backdrop of towering mountains. High up, the trees were alive with the sounds of birds, while below the river gurgled gently along its course.
After taking care of formalities at the CapeNature office, we pitched our tents in a secluded spot right next to the river which provided a pleasant soundtrack for the next two days.
There are 48 campsites at Algeria for tents and caravans. You also have the option of booking one of their excellent self-catering cottages. There are a number of older cottages to which were added 6 brand new cottages in 2015. The modern two-bedroomed cottages that accommodate 4 adults and 2 children each come with electricity, bathroom with a shower and toilet, a kitchen with everything you need, a big stoep with beautiful views over the mountain and undercover braai facilities and inside fire places for winter. On a previous visit I went there in winter, an experience that is one of the Cape’s best-kept secrets shared, well, by the many Cederberg addicts from near and far.
CapeNature also operates a number of self-catering cottages elsewhere in the Cederberg region as well as another excellent campsite and cottages at Kliphuis situated on the flower route to the Biedouw valley and Wupperthal on the north-eastern side of the mountains, in the northern section of the Cederberg reserve near the Pakhuis Pass. In addition there are quite a number of private B&Bs/lodges/self-catering cottages in the area as well as private campsites at places such as Sanddrif, Driehoek, Jamaka and Kromrivier.
The facilities at our campsite at Algeria were excellent, while I have never heard of anyone complaining about any of the many other accommodation options in the area either. During our visit, there were not that many other campers. An overland truck filled with young Scandinavian tourists only stayed for one night before continuing their African safari to the north. But even at peak periods when the campsite is full, it never feels like it is crowded, and you will always find a nice secluded spot and plenty of quiet. And the mountains are huge and wide for losing yourself.
After having settled in we decided on a walk downstream along the river to a natural pool well-known to regular visitors for a late afternoon swim. There are various rivers in the Cederberg area and along the course of most of them you will find large pools for swimming as well as waterfalls. And of course, still within the Cederberg wilderness area going north closer to Clanwilliam you’ll find the large Clanwilliam Dam.
Following the river we passed lovely little white-sanded beaches and sheltered coves and made a note to return at some point to spend a lazy morning on “the beach”. We also had much fun along sections of the river, slipping and sliding and shouting like children along the natural water slides formed by the river water rushing through narrow channels over smooth rocks.
Downstream we came upon the large and deep natural pool with its dark water, a lovely pool for swimming. There were quite a few visitors sitting in the sun on the surrounding rocks or lazily floating around the pool, for late afternoon is the best time to come here to cool off. For the adventurous there is also the challenge of climbing up onto the high cliff on one side and taking the plunge down into the pool. As your feet hit the water and your body slices down through the darkness it feels like you are travelling down a bottomless body of water before being ejected out like a cork, gasping for air. It’s great fun but can be a bit scary if you’ve never done it before.
Back at our campsite we lit a fire for a braai (barbecue), opened a bottle of good Cape red wine, sat back, listened to the night sounds of the mountain veld, and watched as the sky darkened and then lit up with billions of sparkling stars. What a spectacular end to the day!
Caves, rock art and wine
The next morning we drove down to the famous Stadsaal Caves with the ancient San rock art nearby. You need a permit to visit the site, obtainable from Algeria Forest Station. But you can also buy one at Dwarsrivier farm, home of Cederberg Private Cellars. Visiting the Stadsaal Caves and San paintings at Stadsaal and Truitjieskraal are an absolute must. To get there from Algeria Campsite follow the dirt road for about 38km going south over Uitkyk Pass, onto Dwarsrivier farm and Cederberg Private Cellars and carry on until your reach the turn-off sign to Stadsaal Caves and the Elephant Paintings.
We first stopped at Cederberg Private Cellars at Dwarsrivier farm to purchase some of their superb wines – cultivated, produced and sold here at South Africa’s highest wine estate. This unique wine farm is a ward all on its own and one of only a handful that do not fall under any of the officially designated wine districts or regions…all because of its very unique terroir. The award-winning winery is owned by the fifth-generation David Nieuwoudt who is also the winemaker. You can sample their superb wine range – both red and white – under the labels Cederberg, Five Generations, Cape Winemakers’ Guild, Ghost Corner, Waitrose and Longavi.
From the winery we travelled on to the Stadsaal Caves and the San rock art. The Elephant rock art is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, the San first having started this practice around 5,000 years ago. The paintings depict three groups of people and a herd of elephants. But you will find many more San paintings here as the Cederberg is one of the best areas for ancient San rock art in the world, with over 2,500 discovered sites. These paintings tell the touching stories of how these ancient people lived in and around the Cederberg for thousands of years.
The Stadsaal Caves are another of the Cederberg’s unique attractions. The name is derived from the Afrikaans word for ‘city hall’ and is said to have officially become the name of the caves after the erstwhile National Party’s leaders held a planning meeting there just before coming to power in 1948. But the large central domed cave has been used as a meeting place for people since centuries before that. Nonetheless, over the years the caves have become home to a collection of graffiti on its walls dating back to the 1800s. Much of it consists of the dated signatures of famous people like the erstwhile prime minister DF Malan and the later prime minister PW Botha, as well as famous Springbok rugby player turned politician, Dawie de Villiers.
The area is littered not only with these caves, but also with fascinating rock formations that are unique to the Cederberg. The rock layers here – sediment left behind by ancient glaciers – consists of a hard layer that forms the mountain peaks, and a softer layer that has been sculpted over centuries by wind and rain into the many fantastic shapes and caverns found here today. These rock formations change shape as the sunlight shifts across the day, and you will find photographers spending hours here just to capture the changing shapes and reflections of light on the yellow to red rocks.
When it comes to hiking trails, the Cederberg has an impressive number and range of offerings that vary from longer, difficult routes to shorter and very easy ones, but all being absolutely fascinating and passing through some astonishing scenery. Some of the hiking trails will take you to the rock art described above, while others will take you to landmarks such the Maltese Cross and Wolfberg Arch or any of a number of lovely and refreshing waterfalls and mountain pools.
The Cederberg wilderness area is divided into three blocks or zones and there are daily limits placed on the number of hikers allowed into each, so advance booking is advised. Day hiking permits for the Wolfberg Arch are available from Sanddrif, Driehok and Keurbosfontein. Day permits to visit the Stadsaal Caves are available at Algeria, Driehoek, Sanddrif, Kromrivier, Nuwerus and Oasis. Permits for Pakhuisberg and rock climbing are available at the information centre in Clanwilliam. Apart from CapeNature’s regular campsites at Algeria and Kliphuis (and the private campsite mentioned) there are some very basic hikers’ overnight huts on some of the trails.
Having limited time on this visit, we opted for an old favourite, the approximately 3-hour Waterfall Trail. The trail leads from the forest station at Algeria up to the Middelberg Waterfall along a well signposted route. It’s a rather sharp ascent but the reward is well worth it. At the waterfall you can swim in the small mountain pool before enjoying a picnic lunch and watching the world far below.
For those with more time on hand, the Cederberg Heritage Route is highly recommended. It consists of a collection of six community-based hiking trails in the Cederberg mountains, ranging from two to seven days. These trails are fully inclusive of all accommodation, meals, donkey cart drives, and entrances and park fees. Hikers stay at comfortable guesthouses, guest cottages or homestays, including in the picturesque and historic Moravian mission village, Wupperthal with its historic mission church and shoe factory. The hikes are escorted by local community members.
Coming to the end…
All too soon our weekend in the mountains was over. To really do justice to a visit to the Cederberg mountains and wilderness area, you would ideally need to stay for a week. This visit of ours was confined to the Algeria area, while the entire wilderness area is so much bigger. For instance, there is an entirely different section with its many own, unique attractions to the north around Clanwilliam and the Pakhuis Pass. To find out more about this absolutely beautiful and fascinating part of South Africa, or to make bookings, you can visit the following websites:
- Western Cape Tourism / Cederberg: cederberg.com
- Cederberg Conservancy: cederberg.co.za
- CapeNature: capenature.co.za/reserves/cederberg-wilderness-area