Cederberg Mountains: The Secret Diamond of the Western Cape

Cederberg Mountains: The Secret Diamond of the Western CapeThe Cederberg Mountains are arising proudly at the northern border of the Western Cape and they seem, with their calm and untouched nature, as if nobody has ever explored this secret treasure. Even tough it is one of the most overwhelming hideaways in the Western Cape. This is why.

I don’t know if Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has ever been to the Cederbergs, the approximately 100km long cordillera north of Cape Town, but I think if he had been there he would probably have cancelled some shots in New Zeeland and moved to the indescribable sandstone landscape to lens all those scenes with trolls and orcs in dark caves and magical canyons in South Africa – which is by the way the native country of LOR author John R.R. Tolkien. When I was there, among the incredibly beauty and mighty rocks, crawled through narrow caves – just like in my childhood adventure fantasies – and finally reached the high plateau, it was impossible to grasp what I could see; impossible to believe that this rough and bizarre formed cliffs partly covered with white sand and rare plants are a real setting formed by nature and time, and not by your fantasy or Hollywood.The Cederbergs are a 162.000ha large area, 200km north of Cape Town and world famous for their rooibos tea, since rooibos grows nowhere else in the world. The Mountains sprawl from the Pakhuispass in the north to the Grootrivier in the south and offer an unbelievable scenery and a lot activities. For a few years the area has been explored as a paradise for boulderers and climbers and of course hikers or just nature lovers. The hiking paths have an overall length of 254 km which are divided into several trails leading either, for instance, to the magnificent Maltese Cross (a 20m crag pillar) the Wolfberg Cracks (a 30 m deep gorge), or the Wolfberg Arch (a picturesque sandstone dramatically arching under the sun on the high plateau).

But climbing and bouldering are not the only activities and furthermore, it’s inadvisable to do it in the period from December to February, because it is to hot and dry. We had our trip in the middle of March which was still incredibly hot. The best time to go for an adventure trip would be in spring, from August to October, when the area is covered with colourful carpets of many endemic fynbos plants. However; there is still a lot to do in high summer, since there are paradisiacal waterfalls and rock pools, were you can cool down by diving from fawn vast cliffs into the refreshing water, or you can visit the cool caves of the bushmen and admire their rock arts.

The Trip to the Surreal

„If the paradise really exists then I’m sure that it must be looking like this“On Friday evening, our group of eight twentysomethings finitely managed to pack two small Opel with tents, sleeping bags, climbing boots, lots of food and of course water. We squashed in the cars for a three hours ride from Cape Town to the Kromrivier camping site – a peaceful and quite area east of Citrusdal. The lady leading the accommodation welcomed us smiling, even if it was Friday night, eleven o’clock when we arrived (why aren’t young people able to hold appointments as “we start our trip at four to arrive before nightfall”?). The camping site is bordered to the Cederberg Wilderness Reserve and a 15 minutes car ride away from the great hiking path of the Wolfberg Cracks, where we started our 18km and 8 hours journey to the Wolfberg Arch the next day.

Unfortunately, that day we proved again our inability of holding our own arrangements and started our trip hours later as firstly planed. Since you have to drive along lots of dirt roads, you have to show your driving skills, otherwise your petite little car will break down, as our Opel did which suddenly lost cooling water. We wasted hours on phoning our car hire company and on explaining them our plight.

Finally, shortly after 12 o’clock, we made it to the gates of the Wolfberg Cracks to start our unforgettable trip trough another world. Thank God, that we bought our permits to the reserve before. Normally you only get them until noon. With good reasons. Already on the first few meters of our trip we realised that this is going to be a stiff piece of work. Firstly because the sweat was running down our bodies just like Canadian waterfalls, yet before climbing one single rock. Secondly, we saw a few people already coming back from their trip, who – instead of saying “Hi guys” – greeted us with: “Good God. Do you have enough water?” or just “ Are you nuts?”. I’ve never thought, that I’ll ever have to envision what could happen if I don’t have enough water with me, but walking six hours to Wolfberg Arch in the summer heat is so damn strenuously that I asked myself how to allocate my water the best.

The first part of the Wolfberg Cracks path was a pretty exhausting hike in perceived 50 degrees Celsius under the burning sun. The few of us who just joined the trip because of my persuasion power, not because they like hiking, already started to moan while sliding their feet through the dust. But they should be surprised by the amazing stone formations, that would present themselves to our eyes, just like the shady shoulder of rock where we had our first stop. Yet here, at this quite unspectacular place – compared to the things we were still about to see soon – also the two girls who had been unsure if it was a good idea to join the nature addicts knew that it was worth it.

Especially for the boys it was fun. Now they had an excuse for grabbing the girls’ botties, helping them to get up the mountains. Hanging on those rocks, knowing that you can’t go back now, you have only one choice – namely to climb that rock and to feel like being Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. But you will make it; with great team spirit and your own will to pull yourself up through the half dark kloof, which is just illuminated by the few sunbeams creeping through the small slits and making the place a surreal scenery, you will reach the high plateau. As we did so, I slowly took a deep breath of virgin air, the wind dried me from my sweat, while I tried to understand the presented image of vast rough stone formations. But I couldn’t. The endless view over the peaks of the Cederberg Mountains just made my flesh crawl.

But this should not be the end. There was still the Wolfberg Arch waiting to be explored by us. So we tightened the belts of our backpacks, and tried to make a quick getaway, since the sun was about to set soon, and you really don’t want to make it all the way down when it gets dark. From far away this stone arch looked so small and being only a few minutes walk away. Just as we started, we realised that this is going to be a pretty long hike through dried plants, rough rocks and pleasing silence. We could not hear any single noise except of our breathing, our shoes shuffling through the white dust and from time to time also a low sigh, as one of us realised that all his water was almost empty.

Majestically stood the Wolfberg Arch in front of us as we arrived an hour later. Standing exhausted under the arching stone in the red orange gleaming evening sun let us feel as we are the kings of the world with the rock being our crown. I could have spend hours just on sitting there at the same place and on staring at the few white clouds which hung over the dark grey stones. It was the place for trying to apperceive my existence and to forget about time. Unfortunately the sun was against me and it was setting faster than I preferred. Heavy-hearted we had to stand up and to make our way down again, which took us two hours and which was surely the hardest part of the hike. Everybody was tired and thirsty.

When we reached our camping site again I slumped immediately on the ground and as I tried to get up again to get everybody a half cold beer – which we really deserved – I felt like being an eighty year old woman who is limping cranked to a bucket with cold water and still warm cans of beer. Every single part of my body was hurting and I didn’t even realise that those parts – like muscles in my legs – really exist. But I never felt so alive.

Just relaxing – this was the plan for the next day. So we fought ourselves through high grasses and a muddy baboon area to get to the rock pools, hidden among light brown ledges. With the big fishes swimming in this petite lake and the waterfalls running down among rocks and deep green plants, we felt again as being at some artificially made up place. “If the paradise really exists, then I’m sure it must be looking like this” were the words of Sophia, a girl that at first needed to be persuaded to join the trip. “Thank you for taking me with you”, she added as she realised that this two day were something special. Two days you’ll never forget again. Something you’ve learnt from, even if you can’t explain what. Neither to others nor even to yourself. But as we silently packed our car and started out to go back home, everybody knew that he has to try to keep the feeling of timelessness and freedom.

Special Thanks to Miha for the permission to publish this article on my website!

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