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These days I can do live video chats with my mate Colin while he sits in the remote Australian Bungle Bungle National Park, many thousands of kilometres away. Imagine if early explorers like Jan van Riebeeck had this kind of communication capability? When the first non-indigenous people started settling and farming in the interior of South Africa, if you wanted to chat to a neighbouring farmer, who might only be 20 kilometres away, you got on your horse and took a gentle canter over to his place. Or you could write a letter. Back then, many weeks and often months would pass by before letters were delivered, depending of course on the distance the letter had to travel and how often the postman called to collect or deliver letters.Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

Return to Sender - SA4x4When planning a 4×4 trip to the Cederberg I got to hear of what is known as the Old Postal Route. It runs from just north of Wupperthal towards an old farm by the name of Elandsvlei which lies on the R355, that famous very long dirt road which connects Ceres and Calvinia, with not too much in between. This route was walked weekly by a young girl whose job was to take mail from the farming settlement of Elandsvlei to the missionary station at Wupperthal, before returning along the same route. After chatting to those in the know, and because I was on my own, I decided to do the Old Postal Route the other way around, starting at Wupperthal and ending at Elandsvlei as it is supposed to be easier that way.

Modern communication is just mind-blowing. It’s influenced the way we think about, plan and go about our travels.

As they say in the classic travel tales, just getting there was fun. As it was late afternoon when we entered the Cederberg from the west, our first night was spent at Sanddrif, which lies in the Cederberg Conservancy, a 172 000 hectare wilderness where hiking and mountain biking are the most popular activities. The resort issues permits for several of the nearby popular hikes and areas including the Maltese Cross, the Wolfberg Cracks and the Wolfberg Arch. Our visit was at the end of summer and the sun had baked the countryside brown while the grape and citrus farmers were about to start the annual harvest.

Winter was not far away but it was hot nevertheless, and so after setting up campsite we headed for Maalgat, one of Sanddrif’s most popular activities where one can jump off high ledges into a big swimming hole. The place was humming with dozens of kids jumping off ledges of various heights while adults looked on in horror.

To get to the start of the Old Postal Route we had to head north once we reached the Matjies River; a sign warned us that this was road was only suitable for 4x4s. After the busy campsite of the night before, it was good to have this little piece of the Cederberg all to ourselves – we didn’t pass any other vehicles all day. The early morning light painted the surrounding mountains bright red, and the air was crisp and clean and so we drove with our windows open. The going was slow due to the never-ending bed of solid rock that we were driving on. We passed the little town of Eselbank, which could very easily be used as a location for the next Mad Max movie.

An old washing machine and tumble dryer stood abandoned in one of the yards; there was no structure or purposeful design to the town layout. It did not matter though, as the people were friendly and welcoming.

Once at the top of Eselbank Pass, Wupperthal beckoned for the first time. It’s a town famous for some very good surrounding 4×4 tracks, some of which are pretty rocky and rough. In fact we could see some of them from up here. It was a public holiday and the village seemed deserted – maybe they had a big party the night before. I enquired for the sake of the article about petrol availability and was told they were out and waiting for the truck. Luckily we had a full jerrycan. About half an hour out of town we reached the start of the Old Postal Route, which starts on the Biedouw 4×4 Trail. Straightaway we began the 700 metre climb up the Kraaiberg Pass; the hillside was covered in dry and dull looking red aloes, which were waiting for the first winter rains. It wasn’t long before we were on top of the Tra Tra Mountains and the pass. From far away it had looked a lot worse than it actually was. Coming down this pass would be a different story with all the loose rocks, steep gradients and switchbacks, but our Hilux went up easily in high-range first. The flat top of the mountain is farming area; some parts were ploughed and brown while the rest was covered in rooibos, a product for which this area is world famous. Another section was cordoned off and some cattle were grazing away.

As this was farmland, every so often we would encounter a gate which would have to be opened and closed of course. Eventually we reached the Agtersfontein farmhouse. It’s a tidy-looking place with an electrified fence for the baboons, but there seemed to be no-one about on this public holiday. We knew they don’t mind people driving the trail, so we pushed on. After about 15 minutes we passed trig beacon number 870 and my cellphone started to beep; this was the only place on the trail where it had signal – a useful note for the memory bank if you need to contact someone on the day you’re doing the trail. We stopped here for a comfort break as the bouncing about was starting to take its toll on our party. The ever-rising mercury wasn’t helping matters either. One thing about this trail is that it’s pretty isolated and has not been maintained so is overgrown in some parts and the natural vegetation will make good contact with your beloved 4×4. If you are driving a new big body Range Rover then maybe this is not the trail for you unless you have more cash than brains. We passed the turn-off to the Kliphuiskloof 4×4 trail which goes towards a campsite at the Doring River, but I’d been told that it was rough and shouldn’t be attempted by one vehicle. I consulted my Slingsby map and saw that soon the contour lines would be numerous and close together, which means only one thing: the descent of Karretjies Pass.

The pass blew me away. I had no idea that places like this existed in these parts of the world. It’s like the Grand Canyon of the Tankwa Karoo. A stop and look-out over the canyon and the far off Doring River is a must. It’s harsh country, but breathtakingly beautiful, and I feel that this pass alone makes this trail worth the drive. The trail officially finishes at the Elandsvlei farm which lies on the banks of the Doring River and a few kilometres after the end of the Karretjies Pass.

Several magazines and websites hint that the accommodation options on the farm are going to be renovated, but this is rather diffi cult to believe. Th e farm reminds me of a Zimbabwean farm – when we drove through the property people were busy stripping anything useful, from doorknobs to barn doors, and loading up their loot onto trucks. Th e farm recently exchanged hands and so for now it’s in limbo until the new owners decide on the way forward. Don’t let this put you off from doing the trail – the views from Karretjies Pass and the fact that you won’t see another tourist while on the route makes up for it.

We drove down to Cobus se Gat which lies on the banks of the Doring River, but this too had been smashed up and so I decided to go and fi nd a better campsite. Th e road from Wupperthal to the start of the trail was 17 kilometres and the trail was 53 kilometres long – so roughly 70 kilometres in total. I’m sure that if the young lady who used to deliver the post wanted to she could knock about 20 kilometres off that distance if she took some of the shorter more direct trails. Still, walking 50 kilometres over two days just to deliver mail is not to be scoffed at. These days, postmen often use bicycles or motorbikes when delivering mail. They also get special gear to protect them from the elements. There was none of that back when this was still an active postal route. Thank goodness I had a Hilux!

Not too far away from Elandsvlei and on the eastern side of the R355 lies the Tankwa Tented Camp, which is in the private Stonehenge Nature Reserve. As we needed a place for the night and did not feel like driving anymore, we decided to try it. We were the only guests staying there and the staff, who hail from Malawi, were very helpful and did everything to make our visit a comfortable one. They stoked the donkey so our showers would be hot, brought us hot water for coffee in the morning and made sure we had enough wood for our braai. Nothing was a bother for them. It’s a pity that SANParks staff don’t carry out their work in a similar manner.

We headed on into the Tankwa Karoo National Park, having officially completed the Old Postal Route. As the crows flies the park reception was only a few kilometres away but the closest entry for us was about a hundred kilometres away and so we had to take the long way around.

The reason why we decided to include this area in our trip is that I wanted to drive the Gannaga Pass which exits the park and takes one towards the village of Middelpos. It was along this route that post would travel from the Roodewerf farm community (today the park HQ) and on to the town of Middelpos, a former farm and trading post.

A great feature of the pass is once you start to reach its summit you can not only see a massive part of the park but you can also get some sort of an idea of where you came from. The impressive pass was built during the Depression years as General Jannie Smuts tried to provide work for the unemployed. The Cederberg Mountains, Tra Tra Mountains, Doring River and other significant landmarks we had adventured through over the last few days are all visible from up here. One can do just the pass as a morning or day drive if staying in the park, and it’s a great spot for a sundowners.

We moved on to Middelpos where the van der Westhuizen family run just about everything. If you want fuel, a drink, accommodation, food, postal service, a boerboel or a goat then you need to consult them. While the place started out as a farm many moons ago it became a thriving trading post which served the people from Calvinia, Williston, Sutherland and Ceres. I noticed a boerboel warning sign as I took a stroll down the main road and later when I looked at the town’s website I noticed that the van der Westhuizens breed with these dogs and also with goats. So if you are looking for a boerboel (or goat) you might want to take a drive to Middelpos.

Our Cederberg trek back into time along some of the Old Postal Route was the perfect way to see the area, as today these tracks are no longer main travel or logistical routes. The upside of this is that you have the place to yourself and you get to see areas other tourists don’t. Which is why you bought a 4×4 in the first place, right?

Where we stayed

Sanddrif – 250 kilometres from Cape Town, this is a long-time Cederberg favourite, as there’s lots to see and do. Tidy campsite and clean ablutions. Chalets available for non-campers. Campsites cost R140 for a site (up to four people) and an additional R35 per person after that. Only eight people allowed per site.

Call 027 482 2825 for more info.

Tankwa tented Camp – Situated on the R355, not far away from the Elandsvlei farm and bordering the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Camping costs R60 pppn. Warm showers, wood and cold beers available.

For more info call Henk on 082 457 6145. Tankwa Karoo national Park This is where we planned to spend the third night of our trip but sadly there was a problem with our booking at the very popular Elandsberg Wilderness Camp and so we had to move on. Nonetheless it’s a great place to stay if you want to continue to explore the area’s backroads and routes.

For more details call SAN PARKS 027 341 1927.

Route – We entered the Cederberg Mountains from the west, taking the Algeria turn-off on the N7 between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam. After crossing the Olifants River (a nice place for a quick dip) we negotiated the Nieuwoudt and Uitkyk Passes and spent our first night at Dwarsrivier. The road north from the Matjies River towards Wupperthal is 4×4-only, according to signage. The actual Postal Route starts just south of the Biedouw River and takes you east to the Elandsvlei Farm. From here we headed to the Tankwa Karoo National Park via the famous R355, before exiting the park via the pretty Gannaga Pass.

FUEL – Don’t expect to find fuel in the Cederberg – the supply at Wupperthal is erratic to say the least and the nearest towns are distant. Plus if you are driving sand or rocks in low-range your consumption increases. So find out the location of the last fuel station before leaving the tar and fill up. Those with long-range tanks will be okay. I took along a full jerrycan and made good use of it.

Where to buy Provisions – You’re going to be in the wild so bring along what you need. One can re-stock with basics at some of the farmstalls or general dealers along the way. To get to the routes you will pass some lovely fruit sellers. So stop and purchase some of their produce.

Essential gear – Slingsby Map, swimming trunks and a fridge to keep the drinks cold. You don’t really need much else.

Convoy or solo – We did it solo and because of this we did the route from west to east, which is easier. They say you should do it in more than one vehicle. If doing it solo do tell someone of your movements so they know where to start looking if things go awry. I took along a 25-litre water container and knew that I could run to get help if necessary.

Road Conditions – Nothing hairy or scary on this route, just lovely gravel, slow-going rocky passes and other long fl at rocky sections. My mum was not too happy with all the bouncing about on the actual Old Postal Route.

Maps and Directions – Tracks 4 Africa and if you want a map it has to be the Slingsby Cederberg Map – nothing else comes close.

Vehicle required – Any 4×4 (even those without low-range) will be able to do the exact same route that we did. Some will just have to be more careful than others because of ground clearance and capability, but all can safely complete it.

RISK – It gets bloody hot in the summer and bloody cold in the winter – something to keep in mind when exploring these back routes. The place is as safe as houses – great for a family-and-friends 4×4 trip over a long weekend

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