Time Travel in the Cederberg
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
As I look at my calendar, I see that nearly two weeks of chronological time have passed while I have immersed myself in a Cederberg experience. The Cederberg Mountain range is located a few hours north of Cape Town in the Western Cape of South Africa. An ancient rocky, remote landscape with few human inhabitants and astonishing natural beauty allowed me to slip into timelessness. Each day, I peeked around another corner to discover something unexpected.
I didn’t expect the flowers. The Cederberg is part of the Cape Floral Region, designated as one of the six Floral Kingdoms of the world for the diversity of plant species, some of which pre-date the ice age. I arrived in the area as the wildflowers bloomed. The riotous colors of the wildflowers carpeting huge swathes of seemingly inhospitable landscape created a beautiful contrast
The area is also known for rock paintings created over the past thousands of years by the hunter-gatherer, indigenous San people. Human and animal images grace the landscape and can be found throughout the region.
Then there is Roobois. If you have ever drunk a cup of Rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis)
you have literally tasted the landscape of South Africa’s Cederberg, the only place in the world where it is cultivated and processed. The tenacious plant is able to thrive in the harsh, semi-desert landscape. Rich with nutrients and antioxidants, Rooibos tea is an iconic staple in South African households. Rooibos tea, like black and green tea, of the Camellia sinensis family, is also processed via fermentation which brings out a robust depth of flavor.
The Cederberg is a compact mountain range, but not one to be trifled with! Remote valleys, very little cell service, big elevation changes, rocky, rough terrain, and extreme weather make for challenges and hardship. It turns out I needed a lot of help in the Cederberg. Every time I found myself in a pickle (which was surprisingly frequent), someone was there to help.
I left Cape Town and the 21st century and all of its amenities to drive north to the Cederberg. I usually book my accommodation ahead of time but felt confident that a camping venue would have a spot for me upon arrival. The campground did not. I drove down the road and gratefully found accommodation in the staff quarters of another lodge. The kind manager took me under his wing to provide me a safe refuge with the provision that I keep mum and leave early in the morning so as not to draw attention to my unsanctioned stay.
The next day, I made my way to Gecko Creek Lodge, set up camp, and headed out for a little exploratory cycle up Nieuwoudtpass, hoping to drop over the pass into the next valley. Two-thirds of the way up the pass, my brand new rear tyre exploded off the rim. Not wanting to damage the exposed rim and looking at this mishap as a training opportunity for an upcoming race that has portions of portaging, I heaved the bike onto my neck/back and started walking down the hill. Three rather elegant ladies in an SUV stopped and insisted that we would “make a plan”. Ultimately, that plan had me sitting in the back of the SUV with the rear door open, making my body into a human bicycle rack. I held my bicycle off the rear of the vehicle while perching my bottom precariously on the little narrow seat-back storage spot. We bounced along the corrugated road and the ladies introduced themselves. At regular intervals, I told them, “you can let me off here?” to which they invariable replied, “nonsense.” They drove me up and down the rutted track and deposited me with great glee to my exact campsite.
Back at Gecko Creek, I was greeted by a group of dusty, tired, happy cyclists who had just finished their first day of a multi-day tour of the area organized by daytrippers.co.za. Steve, one of the owner/guides, generously helped me put a new tyre on my bicycle and shared some helpful tips for installing a tubeless tyre without a compressor. The hacks are priceless
and give me a lot more confidence. I spent the evening chatting with the owner/guides, Di and Steve, and their longtime friend and driver, Bruce. I had heard of Di long before I met her as she has quite a reputation for her endurance cycling. Di and Steve and Bruce have all completed the Freedom Challenge, Race Across South Africa, and are an integral part of the history of the race. Freedom Challenge racers are small group population-wise in this large country and yet, they seem to pop up, much to my delight, with great regularity in my path.
My next cycling outing had me leaving on a three-day backpacking trip through the Cederberg. I woke up to a windy morning and set off pre-dawn for a long day’s ride. I started up Nieuwoudtpass and the wind got stronger. I got off my bicycle and pushed. As I rounded the final corner with 200 meters to go, the gale force wind funneled over the pass without respite. I hugged the rock side of the pass, but the wind still whipped me and my bicycle in the direction of the cliff. I dropped my bicycle and dropped to my knees. My bicycle clattered to a stop. I managed with great difficulty to retrieve my bike and get turned around to go back down to Gecko Creek to rethink my itinerary! Shiva I and Wessel, the managers, greeted me with warmth, a smoothie, and a cup of tea. Sitting out of the wind at Gecko Creek in the warm sun, I began to doubt my experience. “Had it really been that bad?” And then I shook sand and small rocks out of my hair and looked at the damage to my leather saddle. I decided, on Shavandi’s recommendation to drive to my next accommodation.
I drove through the town of Clanwilliam and arrived at Traveller’s Rest where I had booked into a windproof, tiny cottage that shared a lovely, simple farm kitchen. The cozy bed with a heavy down comforter felt like a luxury hotel. I had the whole rustic accommodation block to myself with no human neighbors in site. I slept with the window shades open and the top half of the split door open so that I could gaze out at the night sky and stars in a landscape without light pollution.
The landscape reminded me of another much-beloved place. The rocks, the semi-desert arid landscape, farmland, the harsh beauty, the light, the wind, and the extreme temperatures share qualities with rural Montana. As I consider returning to America, Montana whispers to me. If I can love the Cederberg and feel at home, then maybe I can transition back to my homeland through the appreciation of the harsh landscape.
I spent a few days exploring the northern edge of the Cederberg Mountains. I cycled up Pakhuis Pass to take the Donkey trail into Hueningvlei and then down into the village of Wuppertal. I made a loop and came back passing the Biedouw Valley, richly recently in bloom with desert flowers, drawing scores of tourists in busses and private vehicles.
From Traveller’s Rest, I drove deep into the southern Cederberg and was delighted to stay at the Kromrivier Cederberg campground where each campsite has its own kitchen sink as well as an ablution block with a toilet and shower. I camped next to the river within walking distance, past the farm to the restaurant offering their own wines and craft beer.
The weather continued to be extreme. Most mornings, I woke up to a thin sheet of ice coating the nylon fabric of my tent and a hard frost on the fields. I’d had a suspicion of cold nights when I arrived and noticed that the wandering pony had a very thick and shaggy winter coat. One night the wind was so strong that it would seemingly lift the tent floor up and then alternately compress the tent poles and roof of the tent onto my body. Rain pelted my tent through the night and swelled the rivers. I spent the next day in the restaurant eating lovely meals and drinking hot beverages.
I cycled and explored the area. The days passed and I felt my mind quiet and my awareness expand.
I hiked in the area as well. Before a big storm, I hiked up to the Maltese Cross a massive pillar of stone in a wildly rocky landscape. I hiked fast, hoping to beat the fog that threatened to roll over the mountains.
A few days later, I went to buy a permit late morning to hike to the Wolferg Arch. The receptionist tilted her head indicating slight concern. With a little questioning, she admitted that it would be advisable to start much, much earlier in the day due to the length and challenge of the hike. I took her advice and postponed the hike until the following day.
There are two cracks through the rock wall halfway to the Wolfberg Arch. I had been told that the Narrow Crack was scenic and difficult, but highly recommended. It involves traversing an exposed ledge and then crawling/climbing up through some narrow crevices before popping out onto the plateau leading to the arch. I started early and hiked the steep rocky path to the base of the cracks. I found a ledge to the right of the Wide Crack. I crawled through an open tunnel and around an exposed corner, only to find myself in a gully that was too steep for me to climb alone. Discouraged and a little trembly, I crawled back to the start of the ledge.
I heard the voices of two hikers who started a while after me. Krynaew and Aiden are students at Stellenbosch University on holiday with friends. Of their group of 5, these two young men were the ones willing to get up in the cold, predawn hours to hike to the Wolfberg Arch. I asked if I could join up with them to get through the Narrow Crack and they gallantly agreed. We found the actual ledge just above my crawling ledge and were able to traverse it while standing upright. We then squeezed up and through the narrow crack with much hilarity and laughter. Krynaew has big ears that stick out from his head so we had to stop to let him wedge his head into places where the crack was narrow enough to touch both of his ears simultaneously. We popped out onto the plateau and walked briskly to the magnificent arch in a landscape that could be a setting for a film set on a distant planet. It was a lovely hike and I owe a debt of gratitude to the kind young men who made the route possible for me.
And then one morning, it was time to pack up and bid the Cederberg adieu. I am already nostalgic for the harsh beauty of the place. I am sensitized by the Cederberg and find the return to the modern world a bit jarring. The ancient landscape and raw beauty of the mountains made a deep impression on me. I have a new appreciation for Rooibos tea and love that it allows me to remember and absorb the essence of the Cederberg region wherever I am in the world.