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As the wheels hit the gravel of the Swartberg Pass a feeling of ‘aah, home’ rushes over you.
Around the bends Witdraai greets you – named after the white sandstone deposits – then another ‘draai’ awaits called Skelmdraai, where panoramic vistas stretch out onto the horizon as far as the eye can see.
Here, where klipspringers hop along the sand- and limestone ridges and distinct baboon barks echo in the distance between the dense mountain fynbos, a heavenly solitude find its way into your soul. The pass crests the Swartberg range at an altitude of 1 575 m before it takes you down below; one dramatic switchback view of “wow” to the next while meandering from hairpin bend to hairpin bend.
The Swartberg Mountain range divides the Groot Karoo from the Klein Karoo and the pass was officially opened on the 10th of January 1888. Along the 24 km of road historic tales and ruins from yesteryear are packed around each and every corner, waiting to be explored, waiting to hear questions of curiosity, “what is this” and “what is that”.
There is Die Stalletjie (Little Stable) that was used to feed horses and mules for the post coach, the Hotelletjie (Small hotel) refers to a tiny hotel that was known as the Victoria Hotel at one stage and there is also the Blikstasie – an old gaol – as convict labour was used to build the road and pack the stone wall; a wall where no cement or building material was used to keep the rocks secure and intact, a wall that still lives to this day to tell the tale.
As the kilometres tick by another bend, another turn and another story unfold.
And geological facts that will knock the socks of your feet as it ties millions of years with what you are witnessing in front of you, with what lies behind, with where you are standing at that very moment.
Stories often forgotten, facts often overlooked if you tackle the pass on your own.
But what if you had a chance to hear it all? What if you had the chance to soak it in while a Swartberg specialist shares his mountain enthusiasm with you? What if you had the chance to travel with and tap into the golden pot of information True South Travel so eagerly wants to share with the world?
Then the stories get a colourful meaning, the history comes alive, the geology takes you back to a time when the Swartberg Mountains used to be seabed and nature – the sights, the sounds, the smells – intertwines with who you are and that ‘ahh home’ feeling climbs deeper and deeper into your whole being.
Watch the video below of the Swartberg Pass round trip that took us from Oudtshoorn to Prins Albert for a lunch stop, to Meiringspoort and finally to De Rust where we stopped at De Rustica Olive Estate, before we headed back to Oudtshoorn.
Talking to Jan Bester from True South Travel
Jan Bester is the owner of the eco-tour company True South Travel, and he has been a specialist guide in the Swartberg Mountains for more than 10 years. His passion for the area is tangible. His excitement to share the wow-moments, the views, the geological wonders and fascinating bits of information adds to the experience and what might look like 20-something kilometres of gravel travel, gets turned into a treasure chest of finds, a journey of exploration that is more than meets the eye, more than what you could have ever bargained for.
Apart from his avid appreciation for nature, Bester is also passionate about leaving a legacy through encouraging responsible tourism practices. As the founder of the H.O.P.E Foundation he believes in empowering the local community and in association with the Landmark Foundation there is also the Leopard & Predator Project in the Swartberg Mountains; the ongoing leopard project is now one of the largest studies in world using GPS collars and survey cameras to help them understand the relationship between people and predators.
Jan finds fulfillment in introducing his guests to the simple things in life which restores purpose and says, “some things you just can’t buy with your VISA card…”
While exploring the area with Jan, a few questions came to mind. Here’s what he had to say.
For a lot of people, a mountain is just a mountain, but there’s definitely something special – even magical – about the Swartberg Mountains. What is it about the area that draws you back time and again?
The Swartberg Pass epitomises a bygone era when things were simpler, and people were in harmony with nature. A time before technology hijacked our lives and where people did not feel awkward when surrounded by the silence of nature and their own thoughts.
What is a hidden secret or titbit of information that not a lot of people know about the Swartberg region?
This UNESCO World heritage site treasures multiple spectacular caves in the limestone belt at the southern foothills of the mountain. These caves still offer mesmerising live crystals, stalagmites and stalactites, and remind us of how it used to be before humans invaded the region.
Tell us more about how the H.O.P.E Foundation is changing the lives of people in the community.
The H.O.P.E Foundation (www.hopefoundation.co.za) focuses not only on the well-being of the children of the Cango Valley but we also aspire to empower local communities by training indigenous Khoi guides. Our region is blessed with the abundance of indigenous knowledge and we want travellers who visit our region to experience the Swartberg Mountains through the eyes of a descendant of the first people who inhabited this region.
As an eco-tour operator, how can each individual take up the responsibility as custodian of our natural environment and heritage, in their immediate surroundings?
I believe that in principle we should all take responsibility to become ‘change agents’ at an individual level. We live in an era of self-centredness and non-accountability. Nature can no longer afford our consumer-paradigm. We need to fundamentally change the way we look at life and the environment around us. The current course we are on is not sustainable if we want future generations to enjoy the same privileges as we have.
Apart from the Swartberg Mountains and all it offers, what other natural areas in the region are close to your heart?
This is a difficult question to answer. For more than 12 years I have travelled our beautiful country as a national guide. I personally like to escape to the peaceful tranquility of the great open plains of the Great Karoo. I love the Anysberg reserve. I am also fond of the Baviaanskloof in the Eastern Cape.
To keep up with Jan’s mountain escapades and travels, and to book your own unique experience with him, visit his website and follow him on social media.
And visit www.truesouthtravel.co.za to find out more.
Photo by Jan Bester
Things to do in the Swartberg Mountains
But wait, there’s more.
With True South Travel you can have a myriad of experiences in the mountains. This eco-tour company – with a knack for exploring and showcasing the nooks and crannies of the area – also offers the following to those visiting Oudtshoorn:
Swartberg Hiking Trails: Put on your hiking boots and discover one of the numerous hiking trails with a qualified eco-guide. There are two circular trails (both of moderate intensity) and should you wish to do something a bit longer, an overnight mountain hut can be organised for multi-day hikes. The diverse fynbos, prolific bird life and jaw-dropping panoramic vistas are only a drop in the Swartberg bucket of what you can look forward to when exploring the area on foot.
Bird watching: The area boasts four vegetational biomes which plays host to up to 280 bird species; whether you are an experienced bird watcher with the finest Swarovski binoculars, or a novice just starting out, prepare to arrive and leave in fine feather.
Stargazing: So often we refer to all that glitters above at night as stars, but thanks to True South Travel’s skilled guides you’ll be able to learn and spot some of the Southern Hemisphere’s stars, planets, constellations, galaxies and globular clusters. And when you’re done spotting the big five during the day, you can meet the high five at night with an hour long stargazing experience. There’s only one way and that’s the Milky Way and what better place to see it than from the Klein Karoo, or even better, from the Swartberg Pass? While True South Travel can bring their stargazing tours to you (to a few different accommodation establishments on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn), you can also experience this unique offering from the Swartberg Pass.
Gamkaskloof Trip: This secluded kloof – often referred to as ‘Die Hel’ – that was once home to a community that lived in isolation from the outside world and if you want to take a step back in time, be amazed by the mountain folds, the ruggedness of nature and completely switch off from the world and the beep of your phone, then Gamkaskloof is a trip to add to your bucket list. It can be done as a day trip (about 8 hours) or as an overnight trip.
And if you are a Geocacher you definitely should make your way to the Swartberg Pass. There are a few caches along the pass. So why not see if you can find them all?
More about the Isuzu mu-X’s OOMPH along the Swartberg Pass
On a previous trip to this region and down into Gamkaskloof, I used the Isuzu KB (now hailing, the Isuzu D-MAX), but this time I used the Isuzu mu-X.
The Isuzu mu-X is powered by the good old trusty Isuzu favourite, a 3.0-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine with peak outputs of 130kW and 380 Nm. This 7-seater has ample space (yes, even if adults occupy the extra seats in the back). It is available in either a 2×4 or a 4×4 and the Terrain Command Dial on the latter – with electronically selected modes of 2 High, 4 High and 4 Low, makes this vehicle the perfect off-road explorer with a ground clearance of 230 mm and underbody protection. It has a combined cycle consumption figure of 7.3 L/100 km, but for more information, head over to Isuzu’s website.