Most people head up to Namaqualand during the annual spring flower season, but for those who prefer peace and quiet, rather travel during the secret ‘Green Season’…
Intrepid travellers who venture along the lesser gravel roads high along the western reaches of the Northern Cape, where arid desert land tumbles towards the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean, will be lucky enough to discover ‘Eenkantland’.
This ‘Land on the Side’ is also known as Namaqualand, and the region’s Namaqua Coastal Route traverses the north-western parts of the area. It is a place of stark, jaw-dropping beauty, where a semi-desert inland escarpment transitions into a turbulent shoreline.
Here, rich and varied botanical biomes have been savaged by a vigorous climate, and these extreme elements have shaped a space which is rugged beyond belief. Look closely, and you will find that the arid earth bristles with a profusion of bulbs and succulents, while quiver trees and dramatic granitic outcrops lie stacked against the time-warped horizons.
During spring, and seemingly overnight, the dusty valleys and plains of Namaqualand are magically transformed into a floral wonderland. ‘Bloom Season’ is boom time for the local tourism industry, as an influx of floral fanatics arrives from all over the world.
There’s an alternative plan: skip the crowds and head up to Namaqualand during autumn, when the secret ‘Green Season’ reigns supreme. Myriad life-forms other than flowers await you, all superbly adapted to this harsh habitat, and with any number of wonders sure to ‘wow’ visitors to the fascinating Namaqua Coastal Route.
Pick any given gravel road and set off on your journey of discovery; chances are you will not see another vehicle for days. These forgotten tracks offer the best way to experience the striking landscapes, fresh air and star-studded night skies up close and personal.
And, as you throw up a dust trail beyond the arid plains − and the outcrops abundant with semiprecious stones, crystals and similar geological treasures – you will eventually reach the freezing Atlantic Ocean on its rugged coastline. A unique culture awaits, with quirky villages such as Kleinzee, Koiingnaas and the fabled Hondeklip Bay just begging exploration.
One thing is for sure: you had better bring your bakkie, because here you will be able to explore for days! And if you do visit, there are several places you do not want to miss…
OK in Okiep
This quirky little dorp has to be the best place to kick off a journey on the Namaqua Coastal Route. Situated just to the east of the N7, and about 10km beyond the regional capital of Springbok, the country hotel here makes an excellent base. (It’s also a superb stop-over on the long drive from Cape Town to Namibia.)
Fantastic hospitality and proper country cuisine are guaranteed by Malcolm and his staff, and the surrounding rocky outcrops offer a springboard into a true adventure paradise. We were lucky enough to scout the area during a recent Open Africa recce, with a view to creating a 12-day BIKAMINO (think mountain biking ‘Camino’) route here.
Dirt roads and dual-tracks trip into a landscape brimming with imposing quiver trees, and rugged granite formations aplenty. Copper was discovered here in the 1850s, and within a year, Okiep became the world’s largest copper mine − with mainly Cornish miners settling here in search of fame and fortune.
These days, Okiep’s treasures are found in nature, rather than deep under the ground, and the annual flower season remains the premier drawcard. Personally, though, I’d go from March to May, when verdant succulents sprout on the plains, and bulb plants are in full flower. No buses − and considerably fewer tourists − means that you will have all the fresh air and wide-open spaces to yourself.
Potential Routes: The endless plains and koppies around Okiep means great off-road exploration, with dozens of remote roads and 4×4 tracks taking you into the vast Sandveld surrounds. Some of the options like the ‘Pipe Track Route’ require access permission beforehand, so double-check with Malcolm at Okiep Country Hotel.
Less than 20 minutes from town, you will find the dramatic Goegap Nature Reserve, just off the N7 from Springbok. Here you can lose yourself in an arid ‘mini-Richtersveld’ of note, with both the reserve roads (which are accessible to high-clearance vehicles), or a more technical 60km 4×4 route. The latter meanders along sandy tracks and over granite inselbergs, but should not pose any problem to intermediate drivers.
If you want a whole day of play, head out onto some of the most scenic public roads in the Northern Cape. And ‘public’ means that you may bump into a few farm bakkies on a busy day, but that’s about it. Kick off along the R355 past Platbakkies en route to Gamoep. Here you will find yourself in the proverbial middle of nowhere, and with dozens of unmarked route options enticing you onwards.
You may keep west to meander closer to the N7, driving roughly parallel to the highway past Anegas, to eventually reconnect with ‘civilisation’ at the rather-sleepy Kamieskroon, where a ‘packet cappuccino’ from the ‘Kuiervreugde’ Coffee Shop may just prove to be the cherry on the top. (Or not.)
The mountains further inland also beckon, and you could include a visit to the historic (and rather scenic) little mission village of Leliefontein. Keep left at the junction just past Pedroskloof Farm and follow the signs to Leliefontein, where you could arrange a traditional meal at ‘Lena se Kookskerm’ if you book well in advance.
OKIEP: MORE THINGS TO DO
Flowers: Spring flowers emerge in late July/August, depending on rainfall. The surrounding countryside turns into a technicolour carpet of colour with the arrival of gousblomme, vygies and the full gamut of wild flowers.
Biking: The Okiep area is perfect for mountain biking, with any number of routes ready to entice the fat-track tribe into the Sandveld ecosystem. The Nigramoep Road passing through Schaap River Canyon is a challenging day ride.
History: Take a trip back in time by booking an excursion from the Country Hotel to one of the old copper mines, or visit the great Nababeep Museum for a historical overview. The ‘Cornish Pump House’ is the only remaining structure of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and features an intact steam engine. The smokestack (1880) was a ventilation shaft for the Cape Copper Company and is now a national monument.
Botany: There are some excellent quiver-tree specimens within easy walking distance from Okiep. Plan your hike to have sundowners as the sun sets over the coastal plains.
No Worries in Naries
One of my best Northern Cape discoveries has got to be Naries Namaqua Resort, a classy destination tucked away along the Kleinzee tarmac drag. This delightful resort is exactly 27km along the R55 from Springbok and is enveloped by the renosterbos ridges lining the inland escarpment.
Naries is more than just another guest farm, and mainly targets an outdoor crowd keen on combining a unique fresh-air escape with a high level of comfort. The superb accommodation ranges from luxurious Nama ‘Mountain Suites’ – set into a dramatic rock outcrop – to self-catering cottages and a Manor House.
A 20km-odd trail system is perfect for trail running and hiking, but also works on an MTB if you have an intermediate skills level. This part of the Northern Cape is a special place; and best of all, is still pretty much undiscovered.
Potential Routes: There is a veritable pick-’n-mix of drives around Naries, from chassis-breaking descents to winding tarmac passes, not to mention those endless gravel roads.
Cruise onto the tar road dipping westwards towards Kleinzee, and you’ll immediately bomb onto Spektakel Pass. Here, you plummet off the edge of the escarpment onto the coastal plains below, with spectacular views onto the distant Atlantic Ocean.
Naries itself boasts the odd bit of gravel roading − all directly accessible from the various accommodation options – but you’d soon get bored. Rather head via Nababeep onto the remote Nigramoep back roads to explore the Schaap River Canyon, or blast onto the gritty Eskom maintenance track just across the R55.
There is a guided 4×4 option from Naries, and the best man to do it with is Oom Dudley Wessels; you can reach him on 083 305 2569. Get ready for a low-range shake-rattle-and-roll as you grind onto the Buffelsrivier plains in the midst of a series of scratchy renosterveld kopjes.
The terrain is gnarly to say the least, with jagged boulders, deep erosion ruts, loose gravel and loads of washouts, so make sure you are a skilled driver. The route crosses private land; both a guide and the necessary indemnities are a prerequisite.
NARIES: MORE THINGS TO DO
Run/hike: The well-marked Naries trail network is perfect for trail-running and hiking. Traversing the rugged terrain provides an opportunity to enjoy breathtaking views and observe a large variety of rare succulents.
Bike: Saddle up and turn your MTB onto the Naries hiking trails and dirt roads for an easy backyard crank. There is a good map, with colour-coding making it easy enough to find your way. All in all, you have about 20-25km of footpaths and roads to explore. Skilled riders (preferably with a long-travel bike), can blast onto the gritty Eskom track; the terrain is gnarly and will test you to the limit.
Relax: You’re never going to beat the Naries Lapa for views or star-gazing. This glass-fronted structure overlooks the Schaap River canyon and boasts a waterhole where gemsbok, aardvark and a full range of desert mammals can be spotted. Spektakel Pass is also a stunner of a sundowner spot.
For the full story, grab the September issue of SA4x4 Magazine while you still can!
By Jacques Marais