22 SEPTEMBER 2008
A walk in the wild
Day 1: Krakadouw pass (12 km)
BEYOND THE CREST of the saddle at Krakadouwpoort is quintessential Cederberg: a sandy track winding into an elemental realm of rock and cedar. The air is filled with the chatter of European bee-eaters, their bellies flashing aquamarine blue as they hawk insects in mid-flight. I pitch the tent beneath a waboom and set off to fetch water from the Heuningvlei stream. Over the Karoo, lightning flashes from a steel grey sky and all night the tent is buffeted by the downdrafts of thunderstorms chasing across the Tankwa to the north.
Day 2 and 3: Krakadouwpoort to Wupperthal (26 km)
By morning there are tendrils of cloud billowing through the poort. I break camp and head to Boontjieskloof hut beneath Klein Koupoort where I spend the day in the open doorway reading and listening to the wind in the thatching as clouds drift past and thunderheads continue to prowl the Karoo. From Boontjieskloof the path follows the course of a long, slowly dipping valley past Grasvlei, Agtervlei and Kleinvei, each of these no more than a handful of dwellings with plots of vegetables and rooibos tea clinging tenaciously to the wilderness around them.
On a causeway over the Dassieboskloof River just past Kleinvlei, a ramshackle cart drawn by a pair of white ponies and russet-brown donkeys rattles past. The four men on board wave and cheer as they lurch across the causeway and disappear in cloud of dust on the far bank. The silence settles in once more and I watch small cigar-shaped mountain fish feeding on insects drifting in the current at my feet.
We arrive in Wupperthal during the late afternoon just as the sky begins to darken and the wind tosses the blue gums in the main road. Wupperthal was founded as Rhenish Mission town by the Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leopoldt's grandfather in 1830 and not much appears to have changed since then. A brass band practices in the town hall and there is an air of expectancy as the town prepares to celebrate Christmas Eve. We head toward the Mission Store where the two women behind the counter are cashing up.
They want to know if this is my first time in Wupperthal. “I’ve been here once before”, I reply and ask if they remember Oom Bard Valentyn and Worgie Meyers. “Those two both passed on many years ago,” they reply.
Worgie was a cantankerous poet-seer who could look into your soul and tell your fortune. He also knew how to rob honey from wild bees. Oom Bard had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He told stories of smuggling wine over the Kouberg pass hidden in a bag of fodder - a transgression which in those days could see you banished from the mission.
We check into one of the thatched cottages near the old church for the night - the Palmhuisie has views of Singkop and walls five foot thick. At 3.30 pm the storm breaks and a warm soaking rain begins to fall. By late evening the rain clears and Singkop looks newly washed, a burnt sienna against the white clouds.
Later, sitting in church, I listen to the Christmas story I know is being told at that moment in far-flung villages like these around the world. It's dark by the time the service has ended and another storm is sweeping through the valley. A group of children bearing candles and singing carols files out of the church. A bolt of lightning illuminates their faces as they pass the old Mission store. It lights up the bluegums lining the road, the horses grazing in the paddock and the white-washed cottages against the hillside. The children shriek with laughter, thrill to the storm and struggle to relight their candles. Later in the cottage, my body is lulled to sleep by the gentle sound and earthy smell of rain on thatch.
Day 4 and 5: Wupperthal to Sleepad hut (23 km)
It's Christmas day and a steep climb awaits out of Wupperthal towards the Skerpioensberg and into the heart of the Cederberg. At Kleinvlei, a heady fragrance of fresh rooibos and woodsmoke lingers on the still air, a lone figure tends a vegetable patch on the commonage and a group of children play in the muddy streets. A young boy pushes a wire car and an old man sits on his porch. They are his grandchildren, he tells us. I ask if they will celebrate Christmas in Wupperthal this morning. “No, we'll hold our own klein diensie later.” Yes, they have a dominee – and their own church.
The trailhead is behind the graveyard and two of the children show us the way. After a hard climb keeping to the ridges above the Dassieboskloof River, we arrive in the Vogelslang Valley at the foot of the Skerpioensberg. A cold wind blows as we set up camp below Turret Ridge where four klipspringer look on from the cliffs above. To the southeast, layers of shadow and light drift over nameless sandstone ridges.
Later that night I wake in the tent. It's 4 am. The wind has dropped and the moon is out. White swathes of mist have slipped between the rocks and cedars, muffling all sound. I can hear movement outside the tent, the dull thud of hooves against sandstone. Clip-clop, first the one side, then the other. Every now and then there’s a short, sharp nasal cry; the klipspringer again. I drift back to sleep with the image of these hardy antelope among the mountains in my mind, silhouetted by mist, fur edged in moonlight.
By morning the mist has lifted and the vast bulk of Sneeukop looms briefly through spiralling columns of vapour. We shoulder our packs and head over the saddle. The trail winds over hillsides of restios and ericas and crosses cold clear streams. There are more cedars here than I have yet seen; contorted into arabesques and leaning at acute angles. Everything is jewelled by the dew, shining in the early morning light. Close by Crystal Pool, we catch up with the four klipspringer. Momentarily suspended between curiosity and fear they stare at us. We feel as though we've stumbled through a portal into the inner sanctum of the mountains.
Engelsmanskloof is the northern gateway to the high Cederberg and from Crystal Pool it's a short stiff climb to the shale band below Shadow Peak. A hundred-or-so years ago a Boer commando passing through here was stopped by a lone Englishman without a gun. He insisted the Boers turn back. His persistence or foolhardiness must have tested their patience and they shot him. At first this incident strikes me as slightly comical, but then on this morning, surrounded by the cedars and watched over by klipspringer, the thought of this brutal incident is troubling. We reach the shale band at the top of the kloof and set off at an unhurried pace towards the Sleepad hut.
Day 6: Sleepad hut to Tafelberg (10 km)
At 1964 metres Tafelberg is the second highest peak in the Cederberg after Sneeuberg. It culminates in a flat-topped parapet bounded by cliffs a hundred meters high. On this morning, they brood beneath a layer of heavy cloud. Bars of shadow and light sweep across the ramparts that rise sheer to the summit. I’m taken aback at how steep the climb appears and from this angle.
At the top of Welbedachtkloof directly below Tafelberg, a path turns upslope towards Consolation Peak. At some point in the past, a portion of the parapet broke away from the main massif, leaving an isolated outcrop on its southern end known as the “Spout”. Tucked into the base of the Spout is Spout Cave and we head there now, following a short walk across a gentle plateau and then a final push up the scree slope. We abandon our packs in the cave and follow the cairns through the jumble of boulders that lie between the Spout and the summit massif itself. On the eastern flanks, a giant sandstone obelisk balances on the edge of the dizzyingly high sidewalls, while below the land drops away suddenly towards the Doring River and the Tankwa beyond.
Beside the obelisk, cutting into the cliffs, a boulder-jammed passageway marks the route to the summit. We start climbing; sliding under and over boulders. The head of the passage culminates in a narrow, steep sided cleft which we scramble up with aid of a chain, emerging into a world of rock and wind and big sky.
Honeycombed by weathering, the convoluted sandstone has been hollowed, cracked and hewn over inconceivable intervals of time. There is disorder and chaos, but their is symmetry too, recurrent patterns echoed through the furrowed surfaces. After the storms, there is water everywhere; collected in rock pools, percolating into the sandstone. The elevation, the views over the mountains, over the Tankwa plains, the gusts from the easterly wind, adds to the sensation of standing on an asteroid hurtling through space at a million miles an hour.
Day 7 and 8: Spout Cave to Sneeuberg hut (20 km)
The following morning we tumble off Tafelberg and head down Welbedachtkloof. A fire has raged through this kloof in recent months and it has claimed many cedars. This particular cedar – Clanwilliam cedar, Widdringtonia cedarbergensis - like its cousin on Mt. Mulanje in Malawi - is in fact not a cedar at all, but rather a cypress. Throughout the 19th century, the cedars were harvested for furniture and building materials. Their richly scented wood was once prized for its resistance to rot. Once common throughout the Cederberg, by the 1880s only a few specimens remained in the highest most inaccessible recesses of the mountains.
Having survived harvesting the species now faces new threats. Fires have burned with brutal intensity through the Cederberg over the last three decades killing several generations of trees — one of these fires was caused when a baboon electrocuted itself on a powerline.
Now, as we walk through Welbedachtkloof, it seems as if all the young trees have perished. The fire was so hot that it shattered shards of rock off the surfaces of massive boulders as it swept up the narrow kloof. Réne Spammer of Driehoek farm told me that in some cases the fire had burned the cedars to their roots. No trace of the living tree could be found - all that was left was a hole in the ground.
By mid-morning we've descended the kloof and crossed the Driehoeks River. We continue at a cracking pace across the valley toward Sneeuberg, our route following the Uitkyk Pass road for some way where a steady stream of cars pours into the tourist hot-spots. At Cederhoutkloof we leave the road, relieved to find ourselves back in the mountains.
Day 9 and 10: Sneeuberg to Kromrivier (21 km)
On the morning of the second day at Sneeuberg hut, I watch the early light catch the highest ridges of Sneeuberg itself. Somewhere up there on the slopes is the snow protea and even though it’s a little early in the season, I hope to see at least one in flower. We follow the path from the hut towards the Maltese Cross and then turn suddenly upslope at a steep angle. A stiff two hour climb brings us to the saddle immediately below the summit. Right there in the bowl of the saddle, is the first snow protea, a magnificent specimen, probably two meters across, with giant white flower heads. This rare protea is only found on the very highest peaks on the Cederberg between 1700 and 1900 metres. It grows close to the ground, hugging the soil where temperatures can drop well below freezing and snow blankets the mountains in winter.
From the saddle, it's another hour’s climb to the summit. The sensation of altitude is breathtaking. We stand over a kilometre higher than the Driehoeks valley and around two kilometres higher than the coastal plain to the west.
THAT AFTERNOON I stand on a rock outcrop overlooking a field of glowing red torch lilies. Male sugarbirds are calling from every stem. A fresh wind blows from the east once again and thunderheads build behind the Maltese Cross which stands like a dagger struck in the earth to the hilt. Later, I lie in its shadow and inhale the resinous scent of pelargonium crushed beneath my boots.
Behind us is almost a hundred-and-twenty kilometers of mountain wilderness. We carry within us the memories of cedars etched against blue skies, white thatched cottages in a mountain stronghold, water fetched from a stream, the discipline and simplicity invoked by walking for long periods in wilderness, the paring down, the silence, sitting beneath the shade of waboom on a hot day, crossing a river, pausing to look at the sky and wondering if the rain will come, the passing of day into night, night into day, watching Orion over the tent before drifting to sleep.
It’s New Year’s Eve and we walk over the saddle between Sneeuberg and The Pup, passing by way of Disa Pool where we scoop handfuls of mountain water as we have done so many times these past eleven days. Six grey rhebok bound up the slopes on the far side. A short while later we lay down our packs for the last time at Kromrivier.