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Back road bliss

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There’s nothing quite like a long back-roads trip to purge the mind of clutter and angst. Ensconced in the new diesel-sipping Nissan X-Trail,Nick Yell took his better half on an 800 kilometer journey through some of the Klein Karoo’s most impressive dirt track passes and alluring side routes.Words and pictures by Nick Yell

Night is falling and we’re heading up a muddy dirt track towards our overnight accommodation at Ladismith Country House, about 10 kilometres into the beautiful mountainous region behind Ladismith in the Klein Karoo. With a restless wind blowing the fallen leaves across our path, our thoughts turn to the witch, who, when trying to cross the Klein Swartberg range one night, was apparently thwarted by the Toorkop’s domed peak (at 2 197 metres high, it’s one of the highest in the region). Angry that a mere mountain peak should block her path, the witch smote the peak in two with her wand and flew through the gap. Or so local legend has it.

SA4x4 July 2012 issue

DRIVING THE QUIETEST AND QUAINTEST ROADS THE KLEIN KAROO HAS TO OFFER

Our Nissan X-Trail’s roof lights (integrated into the front of the roof rails) illuminate a sign pointing to a hiking trail named after another local legend, Stanley de Wit. According to Ladismith Tourism, the story behind the naming of the trail is as follows: “Stanley de Wit, born and bred in Ladismith, installed a light on the cliffs of the Elandsberg.

Stanley was a keen mountaineer and during several trips up the mountain he noticed a perennial stream cascading down a vertical rock. Th is made him hit upon the idea of installing a light which could burn permanently and could be seen from town. When the fl ow is weak, the light burns dimly and when strong, it shines brightly, thus alerting townsfolk to the stream’s strength.” Fiendishly clever, we thought.

Sitting around the dining-room table at Ladismith Country House enjoying some fi ne food and wine a little later on, my girlfriend and I discussed the exciting prospect of fi ve days off work and our plans to tour a number of the more scenic gravel passes and lesser-known dirt tracks that make the central part of the Klein Karoo such a pleasure to travel through. Passes such as the Rooiberg between Van Wyksdorp and Calitzdorp; Prince Alfred’s Pass joining Uniondale and Knysna; Montagu Pass between Herold and George and the Gysemanshoek Pass linking Brandrivier and Heidelberg. But a number of the highlights of our upcoming back-roads trip were minor, secondary roads such as the Groenrivier Road between Calitzdorp and Kruisrivier; part of the old wagon trail in the Attaqua’s Kloof that runs through Bonniedale Farm (they have excellent 4×4 tracks here as well) and the section of pastoral perfection that is the secondary link between Riversdale and Suurbraak.

And, what made the prospect even more exciting was the go-pretty-muchanywhere vehicle I’d borrowed for the trip: a Nissan X-Trail d-Ci LE. It’s not really a vehicle that has immediate sex appeal when you fi rst lay eyes on it, but it does everything so well, so eff ortlessly and so automatically that it adjusts your aesthetic sensibilities and you realise that outward appearances are not everything.

The Rooiberg Pass is a most welcome back-road detour off the R62 when travelling between Ladismith and Calitzdorp. Built in 1928, apparently by Van Wyksdorp residents using only spades and wheelbarrows, this remarkable pass transits the 60 000 hectare Rooiberg Conservancy, an area rich in fynbos, subtropical thicket and succulent Karoo species – some 3 300 in all. But it’s only aft er you’ve passed through what looks a bit like a quarry cutting on the Van Wyksdorp side, that the splendour of its montane scenery is apparent.

Even though we didn’t need it, I selected the ‘Auto’ mode on the All-Mode 4 x4 i system – this automatically senses and delivers the torque requirement for each wheel. Having travelled this pass a few times before on my adventure motorbike, I knew there were a good number of hairpin bends with large grained, loose gravel surfaces ahead and I wanted to see how the X-Trail’s various drivetrain and traction control systems worked in these circumstances. Th e short answer is that, even going at speed, it worked incredibly well. Between the independent suspension system, the wide tyres (Dunlop 225 / 55 / R18), the ‘Auto’ 4×4 system and the traction control system, it was almost impossible to lose control of this vehicle around these tricky corners. Th ankful for our safe passage thus far, we deposited a rock on the traveller’s took in the view of the Langeberge in the south, the Swartberge in the north and the razorback hills – which seemed to be marching in rigid formation from Calitzdorp towards Oudtshoorn – to the east. In the old days, travellers apparently stopped and prayed here, also giving thanks by depositing a stone each time they made the diffi cult trip and asking God for help with the steep descent into Calitzdorp that lay ahead. As with all of the wineries in Calitzdorp these days, De Krans’ expanding range is well-worth sampling. Gone are the days when these cellars only produced good port and traditional port wine cultivars; now they also off er a range of many of the more popular stand-alone cultivars, such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Aft er tasting a range of these, my girlfriend and I decided to buy their Chenin Blanc, Relishing Red (blend) and Tinta Mocha, an interestingly wooded Tinta Barocca with a subtle coff ee and chocolate fl avour.

One of my all-time favourite back-road sections is the Groenrivier dirt track between Calitzdorp and Kruisrivier. Travelling along this route, which meanders between the rounded rumps of the Swartberg foothills and through water-rich kloofs with fern-bedecked rocky ledges, we take in the many restored old houses along the way, some of which now have a decidedly Provencal look about them. Instead of following this delightful road all the way to the T-junction with the Swartberg Pass road coming out of Oudtshoorn, we opt to head back to the R62 via the beautiful red stone hills and pass the eponymous guest farm surrounded by these ochre-coloured mountains. Th eir existence is due to the deposit of stones and soil carried by the restless waters of the Great Karoo when its prehistoric glacier melted and the resulting inland sea’s fast-fl owing rivers headed for the coast. Because they fl owed so fast they were able to carry great loads of heavy material, but at points – like around the red stone hills region – slowed down enough so that gravity wrested the material from the water, allowing large deposits to build up that eventually grew into large hills, and even mountains. If you look closely at a cross-section of the enon-conglomerate that forms these hills, you’ll notice the large array of stones that are set into the compacted red silt that surrounds them.

Aft er a brief food stop at the eclectically-stocked Smitswinkel Farm Stall back on the R62, we make our way through Oudtshoorn and De Rust, picking up some provisions along the way for our four-day sojourn in the hills surrounding Prince Alfred’s Pass. It’s to be a total rest and unwind in a candle-lit stone cottage with wood-fi red boiler, far from city comforts.

Heading through Uniondale Poort towards Avontuur it becomes decidedly chilly and we’re grateful for the X-Trail’s heated seats, which warm one’s derriere and deliver heat to the small of your back – most welcome aft er a long day in the saddle. We reach Cloud Cottage just aft er sunset, and it’s exactly where Christopher said it would be: “Eleven kilometres from Avontuur down the Prince Alfred’s Pass, turn left and drive 100 metres to the parking area.” Don’t you just love it when a host knows how to give directions? And he’d even lit some lanterns for us in the cottage so we wouldn’t come to grief in the darkness.

Th e next four days pass in a blissful blur of late mornings, long hot baths, time spent absorbing the spectacular mountain views through the well-positioned windows, chopping wood for kindling, hikes through the rampant proteas, watching the milk goat herds toil up and down the slopes, enjoying braais and good red wine, reading books, playing cards in front of the fire and generally wondering why on earth we didn’t live like this all year round. Before taking the long road home we stop in at Angie’s G-Spot – a must-see restaurant and accommodation establishment in the hamlet of De Vlugt – owned and run by one of the most genuine and earthy couples on the planet: Angie and Harold. With pot-bellied pigs and an assortment of other pets running about, it’s an entertaining stop-over. Instead of making for Knysna, we opt for the dirt track that runs from De Vlugt to the N9 on the George side of Uniondale. It’s a wonderful drive along a twisting and scenic road that exposes the more Karoo-like nature of this ever-changing transitional zone. Prior to tackling the absorbing and historic Montagu Pass between Herold and George, we drop in at the boutique Herold winery and are pleasantly surprised at how the new owners have upgraded the tasting facilities – light snacks are now available, too. We’re particularly impressed with their eclectic white blend called Skaam Skaap; a Shiraz / Cabernet Sauvignon blend called Red Men, and, of course, their signature Pinot Noir.

After making a call to Nico and Danette Hestermann of Bonniedale Farm, they give us permission to drive through their land and join up with the western section of the old Attaqua’s Kloof wagon trail, a route which eventually connects you with Herbertsdale or Van Wyksdorp. It’s another section of challenging dirt track that I’ve tackled on my adventure motorbike before and I’m keen to see if the X-Trail can also take this rutted jeep track in its stride. This is by no means a difficult 4×4 section, but it would pose some challenges to a conventional sedan. But the X-Trail seems to iron out the rumpled landscape with ease, soaking up the suspension-jarring corrugations particularly well.

The Gysemanshoek Pass, off the Brandrivier road between Lemoenshoek (outside Barrydale) and the R323 (linking Riversdale and the R62 outside Ladismith) is our next challenge. It’s another up-and-down jeep track with large grained, slippery gravel, the odd bit of mud and a minor water crossing. As we crest the summit of the pass, my girlfriend and I are in awe at the profusion of proteas in the well-hidden valley that unfolds. But, once again, the X-Trail seems undaunted by any of the small obstacles in its path and we decide to test the Advanced Hill Descent Control function on a steep and slippery descent. This feature only works in the ‘Lock’ setting of the All-Mode 4×4 system and combines both engine and wheel braking to control the descent of the vehicle – very efficient, we discover. With the beautiful back roads section (this is truly Old MacDonald dairy farming country) between Riversdale and Suurbraak safely under our belts and our stomachs filled with roosterkoeke from the BP petrol station at Buffeljagsrivier, we reluctantly re-enter the mainstream traffic of the N2, bound for Bot River via Swellendam and Riviersonderend. And, although we’d much rather be on the back roads, the X-Trail’s sedan-like alter-ego even turns the boring blacktop into a tolerable experience.