When thinking about 4x4 challenges in the Eastern Cape, the Baviaanskloof first comes to mind. Everyone makes this a bucket list tick, but if you are in this part of the Karoo for longer, what else is there? Having headed inland after an Eastern Cape coastal escape, we decided on a detour toWillowmore where one of the attractions is called Finchley Farm: a working sheep farm with two historic guest cottages and a rustic campsite nestled amongst the acacias, just below a spectacular dam.
It’s a basic and unpretentious sort of campsite. Electricity is only on demand, the sites are partially grassed and tucked out of the wind, and water for the shower is heated with a paraffin-driven rocket boiler.
There is good walking and mountain biking in the area if you ask, and also the chance to scale the Aasvoëlberg which hangs over the horizon to the north – either on foot or by car. This was the next day’s mission.
We had a quiet night sharing the campsite with two bikers who headed out early while we tucked into a leisurely breakfast. After collecting the keys and detailed instructions from owners Joanne and Michael Kroon up at the main house, it was a 13km trek up the R407, then a shot right through Leeu Kloof on the district road to Strydomsvlei, where we were able to see just how true the Sand River was to its name. A cluster of rundown labourers’ shacks just through the kloof and a locked gate are the markers for the trail entrance.
It’s an alternatively rocky and sandy gravel track with signs that water damage is a strong reality when the river does come down in spate, though at the time the main problem was fine dust. One passes through a handful of farm gates, some of them locked, and finally through one heavily decorated with antelope horns, entering the trail proper.
Really one should be making like a farmer here: going slowly and counting stock, because it feels more like a farm access road than anything else – if you go straight that is. But take a sharp left (or right) after the gate and things get more interesting. A few rocky climbs, some narrow sections where you might want to get out and check wheel placement, and a few dips in and out of small river beds will keep your 4x4 spirit alive. There might even be cause to use lowrange. We did, mostly to ensure progress was slow and steady, finally ending up at a bird hide near a dam, after sharing the tweespoor with a few head of cattle.
This section joins up with the main access road, and after passing through another gate (we took a few detours to check the water reservoirs around which sheep are clustered), one drops towards the main river crossing – again over the Sand River, which was in a perilously low state, with just a trickle running when we arrived on the scene. The drought was in full force in this region at the time, with little respite despite rains on the coast.
From here the track transforms into a recently constructed dual concrete road, interspersed with a full-width concrete road, which rather spoils any 4x4 fun one might have had heading up towards the cluster of antennae on the top of Aasvoëlberg. It is steep though, and the concrete strips offer a tyre-shredding drop-off if you lose vigilance, but as a driving challenge it is a doddle suitable for any sort of vehicle. Our suggestion: rather try it on a mountain bike for a proper sweaty challenge.
The huge roundabout views from the top are worth the drive, however, with Willowmore a cluster of houses to the south, the N9 in view heading north towards the almost empty Beervlei Dam, and the full majesty of the valley one has just come up stretching away to the west.
That’s it, mostly. The farmer told us about a hiking access road down to a waterfall (which would not have been flowing in any great volume), involving a walk of some 30 minutes. However, we couldn’t find the start point – it could be signposted for more clarity. Again, this would have been a chance to spot some game – apart from the dassies, a pair of Klipspringers, a few Impala and the lone tortoise we did happen upon.
Our timing was not perfect, having made a late start into the region’s typical sweltering sun, so we might have missed out on the more exotic birdlife sightings the Aasvoelberg is renowed for, including the Cape Sugar Bird. Yet it was very still and peaceful, with some evidence of the proteas and fynbos that is unusual in the Karoo. It is also visually dramatic, with giant sandstone buttresses ranged on either side of the valley, overlooking our progress as we made our way downward towards a shepherd’s hut marking the trail midpoint. Here one can take a sharp fork towards the southern rim of the valley, and a more challenging track similar to the northern loop on the opposite side of the valley.
Taken at a leisurely pace, one could spend a few hours exploring the waterfall, reservoirs and sheep camps: we took just under three hours dawdling about, covering some 23km each way of relatively easy driving.
Then it was back to Finchley Cottages, retracing our route along the R407 to return the key and map. If one wants to give the family a non-challenging Karoo outing, the trail is worth a shout. Certainly the views from the top of the Aasvoëlberg justify the drive, but, in our case, the timing and drought were against it being a proper nature ramble.