Ox Wagon Trail, southern Cape
Trail Review

Words & Images Andrew Middleton & Kayla Cloete Words & Images Andrew Middleton & Kayla Cloete

Scroll down to watch the video.

Wanting to follow in the footsteps of adventurers past is an often-used excuse for modern explorers to leave the house. And when you consider the Ox Wagon Trail, its name alone conjures up the spirit of adventure.

Historically in use by westerners since the 1600s, and before that by elephants and Khoi San people, the route is of important historical and ecological significance to the Attaquaskloof and Outeniqua regions.

The Trail itself stretches around 450km, and follows exactly the same path that trekboere, hunters, traders and military personnel used for centuries. Had the Ox Wagon Trail not been there, supplies wouldn’t have made their way to many a Boer soldier during the Boer War, and Witblitz could not have been smuggled as effectively as it was.

Starting in Heidelberg and ending near Knysna in Die Vlugt on the Prince Alfred Pass, this route takes four days to complete; but if you wish to explore the region in more depth, there is comfortable accommodation conveniently situated along the way for every evening.

Starting from Heidelberg, your journey begins its winding path through Ertjiesvlei se Berg into a hidden valley of lush green hills that was known to early travellers as ‘Land Van Egypten’.

Today the pass roads are good gravel, and offer a spectacularly scenic drive to the back end of Bonniedale Holiday Farm in the Attaquaskloof Mountains.

Hosted and owned by Nico Hesterman, an amateur historian, ecologist and 4x4 route master, Bonniedale Holiday Farm lays claim to 1650Ha of 4x4 paradise and deep history. It’s a must-see if you are interested in ruined old forts and a multitude of ancient wagon trails, 4x4 routes, rivers and dams. It’s also the first stop-over for those following the full Ox Wagon Trail.

Of course, as with many old farms, tall tales circle around the campfire. One such tale (this one true), is of a nasty piece of work who’s now buried on the farm.

Known best for murder and theft, Gerrit Johannes Swanepoel, or ‘Bloubaard’, was a farmer in the area during the 1800s who had an unusual way of making extra money. Famous as the last man to be publicly hanged in South Africa, he would (more often than not) kill the workers he had just paid, by launching them off the surrounding cliffs and taking his money back. It was, however, his penchant for cattle theft that was his ultimate undoing. After buying cattle, he would ambush the sellers, kill them and take back his animals. This of course roused the suspicions of local authorities, and it was the testimonies of an accomplice and the girlfriend of a man that Swanepoel had murdered that led to his ultimate demise on the 28 April 1856, in York Street, George.

Festooned with rock art protected by a million angry bees, haunted valleys of slaughtered Khoi tribesmen, Bloubaard’s grave, spectacular rugged beauty and 35km of technical 4x4 trails, Bonniedale is somewhere you could easily spend a few days exploring. From here, one heads over the Attaquas Mountains toward Louvain.

Day two of the trip brings travellers past old English forts, which, thanks to the cunning of the Boer adversaries, were rendered useless as the commandos simply diverted around Attaquaskloof instead of pushing through it. English soldiers guarded these remote forts for four years, seeing no action bar that of the local wildlife.

Along the route, old aloe plantations used as kraals for oxen are visible – overgrown but still intact – while a steep, rocky ascent begs the question: “How on earth did they pull fully-laden wagons up here?” While blood, sweat and death would often be a part of the answer, the steeper sections of the trail were actually conquered by linking 26 oxen together and having a Khoi man stand next to the back leg of each ox with a sharp tool. On a countdown, every man would poke his respective ox, causing all 26 beasts to jump simultaneously, and thus violently yanking the wagon over huge rock steps.

Luckily for us, our low range gears do the dirty work while a warm heater staves off the cold, and (as luck would have it) the old Ox Wagon Trail passes near one of South Africa’s oldest wineries! Established in 1858, Grundheim Wines was also the inspiration for the name of another oxwagon route – ‘Witblits’ Pass, where one of SA’s most famous and potent beverages was smuggled during the prohibition era. The owners say that when fuel was difficult to come by, Witblits was used for lighting lamps; and that it’s even good enough to power an old tractor!

After the first slow section of the trail leaving Bonniedale, the second half is much easier going, winding its way along well-maintained gravel roads through rural farmlands and defunct tobacco plantations.

After arriving at Louvain Guest Farm for your night’s R&R, just remember to take it easy on your newly acquired Witblits stocks, as the next day past Knysna is a long one.

Leaving from Louvain’s self-catering accommodation, the Ox Wagon Trail winds its way up and through the Langkloof Valley towards George, along what was known as one of the most challenging and deadly passes during the 18th century – Duiwelskop Pass.

The pass was re-aligned by Thomas Bain in 1864, and is what currently constitutes the tight and technical 30km 4x4 trail. Used by timber merchants transporting wood from Graaf-Reinet south, Duiwelskloof became disused when the Montagu Pass (1847) and Prince Alfred Pass (1867) offered safer and faster alternative routes.

After Duiwelskloof Pass, the road enters pine plantations with a hilarious 30km speed limit (max achievable speed in most sections is walking pace) and later opens up onto the Seven Passes route to Knysna where you can get a decent lunch.

As we’ve been out of signal range for almost three days, entering the relatively large coastal town initially feels a bit strange, as does the negotiating of human traffic and other cars on tar roads. We are quick to leave this all behind us once more, as we make our way through Gouna Forest and Prince Alfred Pass before stopping at the lovely Outeniqua Trout Lodge.

The lodge is only 55km from Knysna (about an hour-and-a-half’s drive) but a world away in feel, being deep within the mountains.

Day four, and the final leg of our journey, takes us to Katot Meyer’s 4x4 tracks known as the ‘Burchell’s Track’.

It’s only a couple of minutes away from the Trout Lodge and offers a variety of difficult 4x4 sections, many of which become impassable after rains. The amount of effort that Katot has put into his trail is beyond anything you’re likely to come across elsewhere: there are signs on important plant species, and detailed hand-drawn maps. There is even a bust of William John Burchell, the famous botanist, author and ecologist who navigated the area with his bespoke wagon especially designed for rough terrain.

Burchell’s Track is situated in the Pietersrivier area, and is a place especially established for modern man to experience the history of early explorers. (It’s encouraging to know that most of the money made from the 4x4 trail goes straight back into nature conservation.) The +- 20km route is mapped in the most impressive detail, and carries up to a Grade 5 rating in places.

In conclusion, please note that if you don’t like long days behind the wheel, and/ or have no interest in history and nature, and if your 4x4 is to you a precious pavement prowler that avoids puddles like the plague, then the Ox Wagon Trail is not for you. The gravel sections of the route are perfectly suitable for a softroader, but to truly experience this marvellous area, you’ll need a proper 4x4 – any modern one with low range will be just fine.

Also, though the trail takes four days, there is accommodation at every stop; and it is highly recommended that you add a couple of days to your trip to explore Bonniedale more thoroughly. It’s simply far too large and diverse to get to grips with it all in one passing.

Of the trails I’ve explored in the last two years, the Ox Wagon route ranks right up there among the best long-weekend escapes. It’s perfect for a family outing which won’t trash your vehicle – just remember to bring your history books.

SPECIAL MENTIONS

Katot Meyer

A historian and ecologist at heart, Katot is a legend in the Western Cape 4x4 community for having spent thousands of hours developing his trails and maps promoting the area’s trails and rich history. Katot can be found running around Pietersrivier barefoot, maintaining his trails; or at Attakwas, his guesthouse in Oudtshoorn.

Nico Hesterman

Like Katot, Nico is passionate about nature and history, maintaining the massive farm of Bonniedale with the help of only his lovely wife Danette, and one worker. His trails are all well maintained, so much so that Nico has been banned from renting jackhammers from the nearby hardware store as he works them too hard.

ISUZU OFF-ROAD ACADEMY

To test yourself, the Isuzu KB and the Trailblazer range to its limits, the Isuzu Off-Road Academy offers a variety of courses to suit your needs. The academy aims to teach existing and prospective owners exactly what Isuzu KBs are capable of off-road while educating drivers how to operate all of the Isuzu’s 4x4 systems when venturing out on their own.

Off-road driving techniques in a variety of conditions including sand, mud, cross-axle situations and emergency recovery procedures are covered, aiding safe exploration through our country.

Various courses are available, ranging from a half-day course to familiarise drivers with the KBs 4x4 systems, moving on to a full-day and an advanced two-day course.

Though based at Gerotek near Pretoria, the Isuzu Off-Road Academy can offer training in other major centres, whether or not you own an Isuzu or Trailblazer.

R500 – Half-day course
R1000 – Full-day course
R2000 – Two-day course

Contact the Off-Road Academy directly on 011 431 2000, or visit www.isuzu.co.za

TRAIL INFO

Bonniedale Holiday Farm

Originally a Fynbos Farm, Bonniedale Holiday Farm is now what owner, Nico Hesterman, describes as a “people farm”.

The land on which the farm lies was first discovered in 1689 by a European settler named Ensign Isaac Schrijwer. He was sent by Simon van der Stel to barter for cattle and sheep with the Khoi-Khoi in the Attaquas mountain range.

In 1860, a Scotsman was sent to set up a toll house and to supply produce, mules and oxen for travellers passing through the area.

In 1890, a local farmer, Mr Muller, bought the farm for 12 pounds. He started building the farmhouse in 1982, but was interrupted by the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War which caused him to finish construction a whole decade later.

Nico and his wife, Danette, run the farm as a holiday destination. They live in the main farmhouse and entertain guests from just about every neck of the woods. (Be sure to ask Nico about some of the guests who have visited the farm – the man is bursting with fascinating stories about guests who’ve made him question the limits of human stupidity.)

The farm has loads to offer its guests, from breathtaking views to many adrenaline-pumping 4x4 trails and mountain-bike paths.

The main dam fulfils all of the necessary requirements for a holiday hot spot with its swing bridge, paddle boats and canoes. Secluded rock pools and Khoisan rock art sites also await avid explorers – just ask Nico, and he will point you in the right direction.

There is no cell-phone reception or internet connection at the farm, so you might as well leave all of your techy gadgets at home. On the bright side, this ought to free up a lot of extra packing space for your sunblock (temperatures can reach up to 51 degrees C), hiking boots and mountain bikes.

PROVINCE
Western Cape

 

NEAREST TOWN
Mossel Bay – 66.6km

 

 


 

TRAIL DETAILS

Terrain
Mountains and river crossings,
steep ascents/descents

Guided/Unguided
Optional

Open/Closed
Call for a booking

Will I get lost?
No

Difficulty
3-5 (escape routes available)

BRING YOUR
Binoculars, a camera, your kids,
hiking shoes, bicycles and a
birding book.

GPS
S33° 52 20.64 E21° 51 46.08

VEHICLE REQUIREMENTS

Low-range
Yes

Diff-lock
Yes

Minimum ground clearance
240mm

Tyres
All terrains

Recovery points
Recommended

Underbody protection
Yes

Soft-roader friendly
No

COSTS

Trail
Ox Wagon Trail - R250 per vehicle

ACCOMMODATION
R100-R400 (Prices vary depending
on the type of accommodation
you book. You can choose from
basic tent camping, caravan
camping, self-catering chalets or
the family-sized guesthouse.)

 

 

CONTACT
Nico
Danette Hesterman
044 695 3175
083 660 0227
Visit www.bonniedale.com

 

 

 

 

Louvain Guest Farm

Louvain is a working farm situated halfway between George and Uniondale. This scenic farm offers visitors a taste of old world charm with its historic church and Cape Dutch-style cottages.

The farm caters for any sort of adventurer – including mountain climbers, bikers, hikers and fishermen.

Aside from the Ox Wagon Trail, experienced 4x4 drivers who visit the farm will find a short obstacle course available. Bikers can also have their share in the fun with the farm’s super endurance track and motocross track. For quieter souls, the farm has mountain-bike trails and fishing spots.

Bring your mates, your braai stuff, and some cold ones and enjoy the fresh mountain air at one of their self-catering cottages or campsites.

 

PROVINCE
Western Cape

 

NEAREST TOWN
George – 60.7km

 

TRAIL DETAILS

Terrain
Mountains and river crossings

Guided/Unguided
Unguided

Open/Closed
Call for a booking

Will I get lost?
No

Difficulty
3

BRING YOUR
Camera, your mates, bicycles,
hiking shoes and fishing gear.

GPS
S33° 48 53.28 E22° 38 42

VEHICLE REQUIREMENTS

Low-range
Yes

Diff-lock
No

Minimum ground clearance
240mm

Tyres
All terrains

Recovery points
Recommended

Underbody protection
Yes

Soft-roader friendly
No

COSTS

Trail
Ox Wagon Trail - R200 per vehicle

ACCOMMODATION
R80 per vehicle per night for a
basic campsite and
R175 pp per night for self catering
chalets

 

 

CONTACT
Florence Bester (bookings)
079 505 8509
Nico Bester (trail enquiries)
083 287 6927
Visit www.louvain.co.za

Outeniqua Trout Lodge

For those who would prefer a bit of luxury, the Outeniqua Trout Lodge is a mere 6km away from the Burchell’s 4x4 Trail (which offers only camping sites). You can see from the main road its magnificent log cabins which tower above the mountain valley on stilts.

If heights aren’t your thing, then you could always book one of their four spacious Indian-style tepee tents which you’ll find nestled in-between the Lodge’s pecan tree forest.

If you’d like something a little more historically accurate, you can rent Bain’s Retreat. The building, which is named after South African road-building pioneer Thomas Bain, was built in 1860 and served as a place for Bain to entertain his guests while the Ox-Wagon Pass was under construction.

Aside from luxurious accommodation, the lodge provides scenic picnic spots for day visitors and a large pool that is filled with pristine mountain water. As its name would suggest, the lodge also has two rivers and three soil dams available for fly fishing. But, before making the trek, be sure to check with management for availability and stocking of trout – while we were there, we met a couple of guys who’d neglected to do their homework and who were disappointed with the temporarily trout-less Trout Lodge.

 

PROVINCE
Western Cape

 

NEAREST TOWN
Knysna – 56.3km

ACCOMMODATION
R80 per vehicle per night for a
basic campsite and
R175 pp per night for self catering
chalets

 

GPS
S33°49 16.2 E23°10 55.6

CONTACT
087 808 2531 or visit
www.outeniquatrout.co.za

Burchell’s 4x4

The Burchell’s 4x4 camp was set up by local nature conservationist, Katot Meyer, in partnership with the Pietersrivier Nature Reserve, in order for the modern pioneer (i.e. you and your 4x4) to experience the rich history of the early travellers who designed the Ox Wagon route.

William John Burchell, who pioneered this section of the trail, arrived in the Cape in 1811. By 1815, Burchell had travelled an impressive 7200km across the mountainous Cape landscape. During his travels, Burchell made a remarkable contribution to science by collecting 63 000 specimens and objects and making accurate sketches of both plants and landscapes alike.

Wanting to preserve this rich history, Katot has set up detailed signposts all around his camp and the trail itself. There’s even a bust of Burchell on the hillside of a hiking trail in the reserve.

But, in order to get the most out of this historical route, Katot advises visitors to do some further reading before packing up their modern ox wagons and hitting the road.

Being a nature conservationist, Katot is first and foremost concerned with the well-being of the environment: be sure to take all of your rubbish back home with you.

All of the money received from the trails and his camp goes towards the various conservation projects that he manages, so you can sleep easy knowing that the money you’ve spent on a fun day out is going to a good cause.

 

PROVINCE
Western Cape

 

NEAREST TOWN
Knysna – 56.3km

 

TRAIL DETAILS

Terrain
Mountains and river crossings,
steep ascents/descents, slippery
clay (unsuitable when wet)

Guided/Unguided
Unguided (In the spirit of the
original pioneers, modern day
pioneers must forge ahead into the
unknown)

Open/Closed
Call for a booking

Will I get lost?
Possibly (although maps are
supplied and Katot will be around
to provide directions)

Difficulty
3-4

COSTS

Trail
R150 per person (minimum of 2 vehicles)
Drivers must have experience.
Mercedes-Benz W123 drivers camp
for free.

GPS
S33° 48 54 E23° 07 48

VEHICLE REQUIREMENTS

Low-range
Yes

Diff-lock
No

Minimum ground clearance
240mm

Tyres
All terrains

Recovery points
Recommended

Underbody protection
Yes

Soft-roader friendly
No

ACCOMMODATION
R25-R125 per night (prices range
according to one’s carbon footprint
– i.e. a bicycle and a tent will cost
you R25, and a 4x4 with a trailer
will cost you R125)

 

CONTACT
Katot Meyer
044 272 0014
Visit www.burchell4x4.co.za

Buy this issue at selected stores or you can also subscribe here.

Read 4322 times