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Rushing to get things done is never good, and when our freelance journo in KZN was minus a vehicle to do a trail review, the task was dumped on my desk. “Find somewhere beautiful you’ve never been to before, and have fun.” That was my brief. Yeah. Life is tough. I have been burned before, though − driven hundreds of kilometres, only to find a place that’s no more than a few gravel roads masquerading as a 4x4 destination, or one somewhere with terrible accommodation. This time, though, luck was on my side: after five or six phone calls, I settled on Gecko Rock Private Nature Reserve – and wow! – what a place. It’s some 35km from Touws River on the N1 axis between Cape Town and Johannesburg, so would be a perfect Karoo stopover.
There are three main 4x4 routes: the Seattle Trail, the Boyz 2 Men Trail, and the 2x4 route that goes around the back of the farm. There are a few Grade 5 sections also, but they are under refurbishment at the moment so we avoided them. In keeping with the mountainous terrain and Karoo shale, there are extremely technical rock climbs that will test not only your skill levels, but also those of your navigator.
The Seattle Trail twists up and down the high mountain ridge that encircles Gecko Rock reserve. High vantage points are interposed with steep descents, sharp turns and even a riverbed section that wiggles its way through a gully below ground level. It took us about four hours to complete the Seattle Trail, and another hour for the 2x4 route – which is far more technical than the name suggests: 2x4 vehicles will need a diff-lock. In order to preserve the environment, the entire trail consists of natural terrain with no ugly cuttings or bulldozed areas.
The appealing thing is that you won’t feel battered and frustrated at the end of the day’s driving, as there are plenty of spectacular viewpoints and smoother sections to negotiate, in-between a handful of ridiculous, steep axle twisters that will push the tyres far above terrafirma as your vehicle’s articulation limits are breached.
Although owner Jonathan Deal is modest about the grading of his trails, keep in mind that he has clearly put in hundreds of hours to build them so that they will test the limits of a standard vehicle without destroying it. A shale rock-base often threatens tyres, so a good set of all-terrains will prove an asset. Our Trailblazer’s H/T tyres were kept pumped up hard to avoid sidewall damage (although we would never do this if hardier rubber were fitted), thus making steeper sections a sweaty affair.
All along the route, there are numbers next to the track which are linked with the pamphlet provided, to offer extra information along the way. The tips on what lines to take, as well as the ecological sights and smells, are described in detail at each point – this keeps the trail interesting, and helps one to avoid vehicle damage. If you still haven’t had enough by the end, an extended section with some more-extreme challenges is offered.
In 2002, the husband and wife team of Jonathan and Sharon Deal decided to ditch city life and move out into nature, where they began work on their new farm. Completely solar- and wind-powered, the off-grid 4000-hectare reserve is encircled by a large mountain, on which leopard, various large antelope and a variety of carnivorous birds live. But, alas, nature and the incredible quiet is often not enough to keep the majority of punters entertained, and neither can a 4x4 trail, which is where all the other activities come into play.
We didn’t sample the rock-climbing or off-road motorcycle enduro routes (but will, we hope, soon), but we did get to the rifle range where a variety of courses and guns are available. Jonathan, a certified competency instructor, demonstrates and teaches the safe operation of the weapons on offer. We did the introductory course firing a semi-auto version of the AR15 assault rifle used by most high-end security personnel, and used a 10mm Glock pistol for close-range targets. A wide range of weapons is on offer, including shotguns, hunting rifles, assault rifles and pistols; and there is also a variety of training courses to suit experts, beginners, or those looking to get their own gun licence.
The gun-training course we enjoyed was extremely-professional, and the campsites and chalets are equally well run. Hot and cold running water, gas stoves and brand-new buildings greet visitors. Even the campsites have flushing toilets, despite being 35km from the nearest town, and set on the side of a mountain.
Jonathan, who is also an author and photographer, offers photography courses as well as stargazing – which combine brilliantly if you’re an avid outdoorsman. Enough reason to start looking at Gecko Rock as more of a lifestyle destination than simply a 4x4 course by itself.
Originally named after an Indian Chief called Seattle, the 4x4 trail and farm operate under the legendary mantra, “Whatever befalls the earth shall befall the sons of the earth; man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it –whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” It’s a worthy philosophy, evidenced by the farm’s green operation and ecological focus. In addition, the 4x4 trails, with the shooting and the other activities, offer visitors a taste of the great outdoors − no matter whether you arrive as an individual, a couple, a full-size family, or as a large group. Go for the weekend with your wife and kids, or take your staff for team-building or a year-end function; you can’t go wrong.