The drive from Cape Town to Cederberg unrolled quickly from the dense mountains of the city into expansive farmlands. The yellow canola fields lie in bright, well-defined plots that speckle the otherwise verdant winter landscape. It’s the greenest drought I have ever seen. Though the vineyard vines are bare this time of year, there are still plenty of things in bloom. I haven’t been more than an hour from Cape Town since we landed a month ago and already I feel I have entered a completely different world within South Africa.
When the mountain range begins to come into focus on the horizon, I notice their soft and jagged peaks forming orderly rows behind one another like shark teeth, presumably steep valleys etching themselves in between each neat little row. I sit somewhat in awe thinking these mountains are unlike any I have ever seen before. But maybe that’s really true of almost everything you see in South Africa.
Entering the Cederbergs, citrus farms begin to dominate the landscape with their ripe, orange polka dots begging for a farm stall to stop at this time of year. Many of the orchards have already been picked clean, their harvests surely for sale at markets around the country. When we finally find a stand to stop at, I have the best orange I have had in my life. To be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever had an orange direct from the orchard, but it was so juicy and flavorful and sweet that it is now world-renowned in my opinion. I welcome any challenges to this theory, but I’m sticking by my statement.
Clanwilliam is the last town you will drive through before the Pakhuis Pass into the Rocklands valley and into the official wilderness. This is the last place for groceries, for gas, and for cell service. On the other side of the pass lies the 71,000 hectares (27.4 sq mi) of rugged South African terrain known as the Cederberg Wilderness. The vast scattering of dusty sienna-hues is more littered with boulders than any place I have ever seen. I guess it’s no surprise this is one of the three best bouldering destinations in the world.
Traveller’s Rest Cederberg
We follow the only road as far as Traveller’s Rest, a quaint lodge that caters to climbers, but offers rustic cabins and a cozy outdoor restaurant and sundries shop. While rock climbing is the reason most people come to Rocklands (this is the specific name for the rock climbing area), the unique landscape blanketed in mountain fynbos is enough for any outdoorsy person to enjoy. During our stay, a tour bus full of 65-80 year olds disembarks and I am sure they are not here for the climbing. More than likely, they have come to walk the 5km Sevilla Rock Art Trail, whose trail head is located directly on the property of Traveller’s Rest. If you’re visiting Cederberg, stopping here for dinner is a must as well. Charrrrity (with a hard-rolled ‘R’), who runs the joint, is a friendly but no-nonsense woman who seems as though she was born on this property and never left. Aubrey, an extremely good-natured and genuinely friendly guy will be your server and its quickly apparent he has also never left Traveller’s Rest. I’m not sure he even sleeps. I guess once you come to Rocklands, you can never leave.
Our cabin is quaint and perfect and rustic and cozy and exactly the amount of comfortable you would expect from such a place. The large fireplace offers plenty of space to braai (basically just BBQ, but it is a South African institution) and there is a second braai pit outside as well. The cabin is fully stocked with plates and glassware and the two bedrooms offer sleeping for five. The two small couches encircle the large fireplace and with no TV and no cell service and no internet, friends and the mesmerizing glow of fire will be your sole entertainment. Each night we bundled up and stood outside with our necks craned as far back as they could go, absorbing the multitudes of stars and the white gash of the milky way across the almost moonless sky. You don’t have to go too far in South Africa to escape almost everything. Of the four of us sharing this cabin I think we all agree we could easily spend a season in the beauty and simplicity of this place.
Climbing Rocklands Cederberg
Even though I lack the upper body strength, finger strength, skin toughness, pain tolerance levels, dedication, work ethic, and overall general fitness levels to be a rock climber, it’s still pretty sweet heading out with your rock climber friends and seeing what they can do. Off the well-worn trails, passages to climbing areas are marked by small cairns that scramble across the shifting, craggy lands into small pockets of perfect climbing conditions…apparently. I just hopped around on rocks and took pictures, but these guys wouldn’t shut up about how great it was.
Even if you’re not a climber, the landscape is captivating. It feels ancient and undiscovered with a dusting of something magical. There’s something Stonehenge-esque, as if every boulder was the last ruins of a long-disintegrated city. It wasn’t the raw majesty of Yosemite, but it was a feeling that this place was something nowhere else in the world could ever be. Tough bushes, taller than I am and topped with vibrant brushes of yellow enlivened the hike in every direction. The first spring flowers were even just beginning to open their petals to the quickly warming (and quickly cooling) sun.
Flowers of the Cederberg Wilderness
We visited Cederberg in mid-August, which would usually mean the start of the spring blooming season in South Africa. Just outside of Clanwilliam, the Ramskop Nature Reserve is a lesser-known gem for flower viewing fanatics. Sadly, with Western Cape in a severe drought, the flowers hadn’t yet enveloped the park. I can’t even imagine how stunning this place would be with the wild colors of South African spring in full bloom.
Had I been visiting this unique region with Hudson, we surely would have been planning hikes each and every day. There are no shortage of trails and the entirety of the wilderness is open to exploration. Since I was visiting with my rock climbing friends and we faced cold, windy, and occasionally rainy weather–and because I was coming down with a cold–I opted to spend a full day reading and adding logs to the fire, enjoying the many-tiered peaks from the window and sipping on rooibos tea with just a splash of whiskey. There are some times when you don’t mind rainy weather so much.
Rooibos Tea Farms
I almost forgot, the rooibos!! Another unique title Cederberg holds is: the only region in the world where rooibos tea grows naturally. This miracle tea has been drank and its leaves chewed for centuries by the indigenous Khoisan bushman as a cure for a multitude of ailments, but it wasn’t until the Dutch came that they were able to farm it on a larger scale. If you haven’t had rooibos (which is basically Dutch for red bush), you should. Not only is it strong and delicious, but it is caffeine free, low in tannins, high in antioxidants, and has been used to cure headaches, insomnia, immune deficiencies and digestive problems, among other things. Since I moved to Cape Town, rooibos is the only tea I drink. Not for the health reasons, just because it’s delicious and I love tea and it comes from three hours away.
Lambert’s Bay & Bird Island Nature Reserve
If you have a few hours to kill in the area or you’re tired of hiking or climbing for a day, stopping by Lambert’s Bay and the Bird Island Nature reserve is highly recommended. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Clanwilliam and the secluded beach at the north end of town is worthy of a few minutes–or hours of winter solitude. I’m sure in the summer it’s jam packed with tourists staying in the myriad houses lining the shore, all boarded up for the season. But for now, it’s just right.
After the beach, spend a few minutes watching the Cape gannets and crowned cormorants do whatever it is they do when there are thousands of them in one place. Something about scissoring or head bobbing, or who knows, but it’s cool to watch. And don’t miss the seals just chillin’ out at the edge of the island. There’s not a million ways to spend time here, but it’s certainly worth the R20 it costs to get in.
If you’re hungry, stop at Isabella’s for dinner and order all the prawns you can get your hands on.
And that about wraps up my time in the Cederberg Wilderness. As it’s only three hours from Cape Town, I will definitely be heading back here to explore more of the trails, tour some rooibos farms, and maybe even hit the beach in the summer. The coast line in South Africa is so far winning for best in the world, mainly just because there is so much of it, every little spot is unique, and they are all mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Lastly, since this trip to the Cederbergs two weeks ago, spring has officially sprung and I will be heading out to West Coast National Park this weekend to check out the spring blooms in…well, full bloom. Can’t wait to take a million pictures and try unsuccessfully to identify all the flowers.
If you recognized any of the vegetation in these photos, please let me know. I’m being a huge nerd and keeping a flora & fauna journal of my time in Africa. What? Botany is cool!