One of the greatest advantages of experiencing new 4×4 tracks is the taking of roads less travelled to get there. And the back roads from Bot River to the Karoo National Park, via Sutherland, certainly made a worthwhile detour.
On our first day, my travelling partner, Lionel ‘Tau’ Williams (his Setswana nickname, meaning Lion, will be explained later) and I got off the N2 as quickly as possible and made for Swellendam on the Klipfontein dirt track. From there to Sutherland, we chose dirt tracks wherever we could, losing ourselves in the world behind the scenes − passing through towns and waypoints such as Suurbraak, Gysmanshoek Pass (a Grade 1, 4×4 track, especially after heavy rains), Brandrivier, Ronnie’s Sex Shop, Plathuis, Hondewater and Laingsburg.
But the most pleasing and scenicallyspectacular back road we travelled in our quest to reach the 4×4 Eco Trails of the Karoo National Park was the 230km dirt track from Sutherland, over the flourishing Bo-Karoo landscape and down the dramatic Rooiberg Pass to the moon-like landscapes of the lower-lying Koup Karoo around Merweville.
From this quaint Karoo town (with its Edwardian-styled houses, some with decurved corrugated iron roofs topping their stoeps, the authentically renovated Karoo cottages, and the imposing NG Church overlooking all from Letterkop hill), we made our way to our overnight stop at Olijvenhuis cottage just outside Beaufort West some 130km away.
Having confirmed our trip to the park only 10 days before we were due to leave, we’d not been able to secure accommodation in the park itself. But this initial disappointment eventually led us to this brand new self-catering cottage (which was excellent value) on a small olive farm just 5km east of Beaufort West, and only about 12km from the Karoo National Park.
Even after a night of ‘kuiering’ around the braai fire in our cottage’s muisboskerm boma, Tau and I were in the bakkie early that morning and in the Park before 7.30am. Having phoned ahead the day before, we had already worked through the disappointment of not being able to do the short (6.2km) yet challenging Pienaar’s Pass which park officials claim to be a Grade 5 route. However, we were instead looking forward to our planned circular route up the Klipspringer Pass, onto the Doornhoek Picnic Site, and then following the Nuweveld, De Hoek, Sandrivier, Afsaal and Kookfontein loops before heading back to the rest camp via the Potlekkertjie Loop — a distance of some 100km, of which 88km is dirt track.
“Jô, boet, we’ve had an exceptional gamespotting morning so far,” I said to Tau as we tucked into our homemade tuna-mayo sarmies and flask of coffee at the Doornhoek Picnic Site, “but what do you think our chances are of seeing one of the 14 lions they have here?”
“Well, you’re the one who gave me the nickname. Have I ever let you down before?” he retorted, a little smugly.
Even though I’ve seen hundreds of lions when I’ve been in Tau’s company over the years, and very few in the company of other travelling companions, I was a tad sceptical; in a 90000 hectare park, surely it was going to be a bit like looking for a yellow needle in a haystack?
But we hadn’t driven more than two kilometres after our brunch picnic when we were facing two juvenile lions playing in the road… and in a shallow ravine behind them, there were more juveniles, an adult female and the big man himself.
After half an hour of lion-watching and Tau singing his own praises for being a lionmagnet of note, we set off on the start of our 4×4 Eco Trail odyssey. Secretly, I think both of us knew that the best of the gamespotting was behind us, but we were there to ramble along the old farm tracks and get a sense of the freedom offered by the desolate expanses before us.
From a 4×4 point of view, the first few kilometres of the rock-strewn jeep track we took looked quite promising; but the undulations and surface smoothed out after a few kilometres when the route morphed into a fairly ordinary old farm track. But, a couple of kilometres on, we came across a wooded section into which the road disappeared.
A signboard informed us this was an area called Spookbos, because some skulls had been “…washed out after a heavy rainstorm many years ago”. There seems to be some uncertainty about whether these remains were of deceased missionaries who’d been stationed near here, or were perhaps those of earlier Xhosa tribesmen who may have been killed in a clash of sorts. Whatever the case, as hard as we looked for the “ethereal wisps” (spooks) locals claim to have seen here, we saw nothing.
About 15km later, we saw a turn to the right that looked like it might take us to a heavily-vegetated section that lay in the shadow of the imposing Nuweveldberge. We soon discovered that this was the De Hoek Loop that eventually leads to the Embizweni Cottage, one of the two isolated wilderness self-catering options that had been first on my wish list when I had tried to book accommodation in the park.
We took this route, as we felt sure we would see Kudu somewhere along the way, perhaps even an African wildcat or a Black Rhinoceros. But, although it was a relatively scenic detour that traversed some varied topography, it didn’t yield the sightings we sought. A little despondent, we stopped for a coffee break under a lone shade tree towards the end of this loop, and there, on a distant hilltop, stood one of the largest herds of gemsbok we’d seen.
Although we later saw more gemsbok and hartebeest, a few springbok here and there, and enjoyed the organ-pipe ridged mountains that accompanied us most of the way, the driving highlights and 4×4 challenges along the remainder of the largely Grade 1-2 route were few and far between. They were mostly limited to several steep inclines and declines, a mildly-challenging pass at the apex of the Nuweveld Loop, a number of rocky, dry riverbed crossings, and a touch of sand on the S6 detour which rides atop a high riverbank.
A Karoo thunderstorm preceding our arrival, or a downpour during our drive, would definitely have added to the difficulty and fun factor. So, if you’re into a bit more of a challenging drive and want to muddy your 4×4 up a bit on the road to or from Cape Town, you’d best book into the park in the peak rainy months between November and March.
Better still, wait until Pienaar’s Pass opens up again and test your skills for real.
Province: Northern Cape
GPS: (Rest Camp): S 32° 20.12’ E 20° 29.16’
Nearest town: Beaufort West – 5km
Directions: Depending on which direction you are coming from on the N1, the Park’s entrance gate will be either 5km from Beaufort West or 5km before it.
Nearest town & fuel: Beaufort West – 5km
All year round, from 5am to 10pm (Overnight guests only)
Day Visiters 7am – 6pm in winter and 6am to 7pm in summer
Terrain – Jeep tracks and old farm tracks wind their way across flat land with a few undulations, minor passes and some dry, rocky and sandy riverbeds to cross.
Grading – 1-2 (In very wet periods this may rise to a 2.5-3). Note that this grading excludes the short 6.2km Pienaar’s Pass which, according to park officials, is a Grade 5
Around 110km of 4×4 Eco Trail track is currently available to the public (excluding Pienaar’s Pass and the Klipplaatsfontein and Leeurivierspoort Loops — yet to open) of which we did around 90km — four hours with stops
Will I get lost – No, the map provided is good, and there are route-markers
Recovery facilities – Rangers in bakkies do patrol from time to time, but it’s best to inform reception of your movements
On-site compressor – No
Min/Max number of vehicles – Two is suggested for Pienaar’s Pass; wellequipped single vehicles should be fine on the other routes
Time of year – All year, but go in the rainy season between November and the end of March if you want more of a challenge
Diff-lock – Not essential, unless it’s very wet
Tyres – All-terrains
Minimum ground clearance – 180mm, but 220mm is suggested for Pienaar’s Pass
Recovery points – Always a good idea
Sand tracks – Not necessary
Underbody protection – Not essential
Softroader-friendly? – Yes, the Eco Trail routes should be do-able in a softroader, unless there have been heavy rains
What vehicle were we driving? – Isuzu KB300 LX 4×4 Extended Cab
Precautions – Nothing to speak of on the Eco Trail we did
Wife and kids: Yes, there is much for them to see and do, like walking the Fossil Trail or the two longer hiking trails, bird-watching, guided game drives, a visit to the Interpretive Centre (it explains the ancient ecological and cultural history of the Great Karoo), eating in the Rest Camp’s restaurant and shopping for souvenirs at the wellstocked shop, or taking a drive down to Bulkraal Picnic Site for a swim and a braai
Pets: not allowed
Camping: There are 24 grassed camping and caravan campsites with communal ablutions (shower and baths) and kitchen facilities with stove plates and scullery. All caravan sites are equipped with 220V power points – priced from R250-R330 per site
Chalets, Cottages and Wilderness Houses: a variety of quality accommodation is available — rates are around R440-R700 per person sharing per night
Other: As we were unable to get accommodation in the park, we stayed at Olijvenhuis, a lovely self-catering guest house just outside Beaufort West. We paid a frugal R500 for the cottage per night. Contact Woksie on 083 282 9809
Tel: Reception on 023 415 2828, or Central Reservations 012 428 9111
Cost: No costs for the 4×4 Eco Trails, but there is a levy of R260 per vehicle for Pienaar’s Pass. As Day Visitors, we paid only R44 per person and had an excellent day out
Overall Venue Rating: 7/10 (Pienaar’s Pass excluded in this rating)