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The Forgotten highway


Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.

Though his original intention was to follow the Forgotten Highway through Tulbagh, Ceres, and off through the Tankwa Karoo to Sutherland, Richard van Ryneveld found himself frequently sidetracked. Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.

Moving house can be a nightmare, but in my case it led to buried treasure – the discovery of a book The Forgotten Highway through Ceres and the Bokkeveld by Dene Smuts and photographer Paul Alberts.

The orange dust-jacketed book was a forgotten gift from my wife, who knows about my love of the Bokkeveld and Tankwa Karoo. While supposedly busy packing a mountain of boxes in the garage, I started dipping into this gem. The first thing that caught my eye was a black-and-white portrait of Sarel van Huffel with his wife Anna and their two sons at Visgat, the generations-old farm in the Witzenberg Vallei. The memories started flooding back. I had accompanied Oom Sarel’s two shepherds, Jan Baadjies and Flip Mysner, some sixteen years before on their yearly sheep trek – from Visgat in the Witzenberg Vallei, over the Skurweberg, and down to Dadelboom, their winter grazing farm in the Tankwa Karoo.

We walked for some nine days and it was one of the highlights of my life. As I was randomly scanning the extracts from the journals of the early travellers, like the botanists, Thunberg and Burchell, Henry Lichtenstein, a German doctor, and later writers like EE Mossop, Jose Burman and Lawerence Green, I could almost smell the dry dusty veld of the jagged Skurweberg. In my mind’s eye, I could see the highways and byways of old, beckoning me once more.

I’ve been hiking and tramping in the mountains for many years. I have also owned a selection of old ‘crock’ 4x4s in my time. I’d often wondered whether it was possible to apply some of the hiking wisdom and methodology to overlanding.

I punted this concept to my friends at SA4x4, and after a week or two of deliberation and discussion, found myself driving a plum-red Suzuki Jimny out of their parking lot, en route to Tulbagh.

Packing the Jimny is simple. Remove the back-seat headrests, pull up the buttons atop the seats, fold down, and voila; you have a helluva lot more space than you would imagine. If the Suzuki were my own I would remove the back seats completely, and maybe fit a roofrack for a really extended trip. But I had plenty of space as I left for Wellington, and then Tulbagh, on the R44.

Just before you get to Tulbagh, you cross a bridge and enter the Nuwekloof Pass. If you look to your right, you’ll see a long dry stone wall with the railway line running above it. This was the old pass. It’s hard to believe, but the first route through these mountains to Tulbagh was bundu-bashed in 1658! Let the writer Jose Burman tell us more: “Pieter Potter, surveyor in the Harwaeden party, when unable to walk up the overgrown Tulbagh Kloof, climbed a neck a few miles further north and was able to look down into the Tulbagh Valley/Land of Waveren.

This route over the neck became known as Roodezand Pass/Oude Roodezand Kloof (later shortened to Oudekloof when the Nieuwe Roodezandskloof – later shortened to Nieuwekloof – was opened through Tulbagh Kloof!); it became the main route to the farms in the Roodezand/Land of Waveren area in the early 1700s, until replaced for wagons by the Nieuwekloof in the 1760s.” (Burman, 1963:49-50; 1988:74) Another early writer, EE Mossop, tells how the early Harwaeden party ‘found rhinoceros among the pack oxen one morning!’

Things were a lot more civilised at Rosette Jordaan’s Kliphuis, a guest cottage high up in the shadow of the Witzenberg Mountain, where I’d overnighted. In the north, the mountain-tops were slowly being brushed with warm orange morning light. Once again, I could only sit back in awe as I realised that the first route to Ceres was over the Witzenberg Pass, built in 1780 by Field Cornet Pienaar. This route led over the Witzenberg into the Agter Witzenberg Vallei. From here it continued out of the valley via the Schurfdeberg Pass, and down to Ceres. You can no longer drive the Witzenberg Pass, but I believe that this year’s Cape Epic MTB race follows this old route. I have to say that I was glad to be in the Jimny’s air-conditioned cabin; it still gets pretty hot in this part of the world in March.

It’s difficult to believe, as you cruise up the Michell’s Pass to Ceres, that this pass – once known as Mostert’s Hoek Pass – was so severe that at the steep top end, the wagons had to be taken apart and carted up, using donkeys and sleds. The only all-year-round access to Ceres (until 1780, when the Witzenberg and Schurfdeberg Passes were built) was via Worcester and the Hex River Pass! For many years my travel ethos has been blatantly cribbed from John Steinbeck’s marvellous travel book, ‘Travels with Charley’: a tale of his journey around America with his dog, Charley. It goes like this: “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This, to the practical bum, is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next, he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last, he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.”

I felt I had earned the bum sobriquet with flying colours, but Steinbeck was a little better organised. Logically I should have stopped in Ceres, visited the Ceres Transport Riders Museum, and kept heading north. But the Skurweberg and Visgat were calling. Perhaps I would find some remnants of the Witsenberg Pass, and perhaps even a hint of the Skurfdeberg Pass! After seeing the pictures of the van Huffels in the Forgotten Highways book, I’d managed to get hold of Charles van Huffel. Sadly, his father, Oom Sarel, had passed away; and Tannie Anna was in an old age home. I arranged to camp next to the river where I had camped a few times in the past. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no camping or accommodation in the whole Witzenberg Valley, but I would still recommend a drive down to this almost-forgotten hideaway. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this valley dwarfed by the Witzenberg Mountains and the Skurweberg. The grass of my camping site had just been mown, so I didn’t bother to put up my tent; I just made a bed of soft grass with my Therma Rest on top. It was still hot in the valley, and a shirtless young man came mooching up in the gloaming to talk to me.

On this trip, serendipity was to hand out a couple of cosmic klaps, as my beloved is wont to say. The evening shadows were lengthening when the young guy approached. I wasn’t really looking for company, but it turned out that young Petrus, or Jan Piet as he is known, was the son of Jan Baadjies, the shepherd I’d trekked with all those years ago into the Ceres Karoo. In fact, I had met Jan Piet as a young kid when he’d helped corral the sheep down on the farm at Visgat. Early the next morning, who should come walking by, but Jan the shepherd himself, with his dogs Robbie and Vaaltuin. He is still working with the sheep, although his sidekick, old Flip Mysner, is now retired and living on the farm. But it was my next two serendipitous moves that were to hand out the biggest cosmic gift of this trip. First I called in at the Transport Riders Museum in Ceres. It houses a collection of treasures of early life in the Cape. The selection of wagons and carts is worldclass. Bertdene Laubscher, the museum manager, is every journalist’s dream.