Trip through Karoo to Stellenbosch

Mar 3rd, 2010, 11:01 PM
  #1  
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Trip through Karoo to Stellenbosch

We are planning a road trip, off the beaten track, from Clarens, Free State to Stellenbosch.
Will travel via Western side of Lesoth to Graaff Reinet.
1. Understand that Valley of Desolation and Camdebo are worth a visit. What about Nieu Bethesda?
2. Any information on Swartberg Pass welcome. Roads are untarred. Do we need a more sturdy car than a regular sedan?
3. Does anyone have info on Dennehof in Prince Albert? They apparently organize tours through Swartberg and Meiringspoort Pass.
Elisabeth54
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Mar 4th, 2010, 06:33 AM
  #2  
 
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Any information on Swartberg Pass welcome. Roads are untarred. Do we need a more sturdy car than a regular sedan?

We drove the pass in a sedan - it was fine. Here is what I wrote to family and friends after driving the pass in December 2004:

"From the caves, we headed north to enjoy what most people consider to be the highlight of a visit to the Klein Karoo, traversing the Swartberg Mountains to Prince Albert, a charming village that lies in the Groot Karoo, 100-km north of Oudtshoorn. The Swartberg Pass is a 27-km narrow, gravel road that was built between 1881 and 1886 by legendary engineer Sir Thomas Bain, who warned that the road would have to be steep. He wasn’t kidding! As we tackled the steep ascent, we had wonderful views of the Klein Karoo below. At times, the road barely clung to the mountainside, and was held in place by stone retaining-walls. Cresting the pass at 1420 metres, we were able gaze out over the Klein Karoo to the south and the Groot Karoo to the north. The pass connects the Little Desert with the Great Desert, the vast dry land that stretches for hundreds of kilometres to the north, which we crossed in November on our drive south from the Kalahari. Directly below us at the summit lay a huge gorge that cut through the mountains, revealing sheer walls of red rock. The northern descent on the narrow road was even more hair-raising than the ascent, with ten kilometres of zigzags and steep gradients, and nothing between us and the abyss than Robert’s very firm grip on the steering wheel. It was a magnificent drive! Prince Albert was a typical Karoo dorp (small village), with its large Dutch Reformed church, wandering goats, residents sitting on the edge of the pavement along main street watching the world go by (perhaps the reason for the signs you see everywhere in SA which read, “Pedestrians – See Them, Don’t Crush Them!”) or progressing slowly on ancient bicycles, shops with such old-fashioned window displays that you might think they were museums, and its endless, deep blue sky. Afrikaans was the predominant language. We stopped at Sampie se Plaasstal, a farm stall, to sample locally produced padkos (food for the road). Graham agreed with our assessment that koeksisters are disgustingly sweet, and that dried fruit rolls of fig and peach are delicious."

Does anyone have info on Dennehof in Prince Albert? They apparently organize tours through Swartberg and Meiringspoort Pass.

I don't have any personal experience, but the owners Ria and Lindsay are, according to Frommer's, "not only very good at running their Karoo chic guesthouse, they act as an informal tourism bureau for the area."

Will travel via Western side of Lesoth to Graaff Reinet.

We drove the route west of Lesotho from Bloemfontein to the Drakensberg Mtns. Here is the bit of my trip report from May 2005 that overlaps with your route.

"Leaving Northern Cape, we ventured into the Free State, the South African province which lies landlocked at the centre of the country. As we approached Bloemfontein, the provincial capital and the judicial capital of South Africa (there are three national capital cities, the others being Cape Town and Pretoria), the landscape began to change noticeably, from semi-desert to rolling farmland. Sheep were replaced by cows, and we passed kilometre after kilometre of bright yellow sunflowers, stately corn, and golden wheat fields. We passed through several farming towns, all dominated by enormous grain silos.

After overnighting in Bloemfontein, where we sampled the local beef and found it as good as any we have eaten in Alberta, we left the N1 and headed southeast towards the aptly named “mountain kingdom” of Lesotho, the country which is entirely surrounded by, but completely independent of, South Africa. As we drew closer to Lesotho, we caught glimpses of the life of the local Basotho people. The highway bisected settlements of shacks with their tin roofs weighted down against the wind with large rocks. It was Sunday, and there were streams of people walking barefoot along the highway, heading to church in nearby tiny communities. Near the town of Thaba Nchu, we passed two cow herders, resplendent in their colourful Basotho blankets, which they wore like cloaks, as is traditional. Women and young children, who beamed and waved as we passed, sold sheepskins and apples from flimsy stick booths along the highway. The expanses of corn, sunflowers and hay bales continued, and rows of poplar trees, which were a lovely autumn gold, appeared. We passed huge fields of gorgeous mauve, pink and white cosmos (flowers), prompting Laura to comment that her high school biology teacher, Ms. Belt, would love the fields, as they were perfect examples of incomplete dominance. We drove through the cherry producing area of South Africa, but the cherry season was over and the orchards bare. Drat! Cherries have always been my favourite fruit.

We traveled through Free State on the Highlands Route, which hugs the Lesotho border for 280km, and is one of South Africa’s most scenic drives. Nelson Mandela once described this area as gladdening his heart no matter what his mood, and it didn’t take us long to discover why. This northeastern corner of Free State boasts spectacular mountain scenery and magnificent sandstone formations. We paused in several of the charming villages that are strung along the Lesotho border, the most attractive of which was tree-fringed Clarens, a centre for arts and crafts. We strolled around President Square and purchased several wonderful souvenirs, including two of the conical straw hats which are worn by the Basotho people and unique to this area and Lesotho. We stopped at a large township on the outskirts of Clarens to watch youngsters in colourful clothing play soccer. Spotting us, they called and waved to us enthusiastically, so typical of the way we were received in rural areas, particularly by children.

Arguably the highlight of the Highlands Route was Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State’s only national park, designated as such for the outstanding beauty of the Maluti Mountains rather than its wildlife, although we did see zebra, eland, springbok, and black wildebeest roaming the grassy plateaus. We were amused to spot several cows grazing amongst a dazzle of zebras, and wondered how the cows came to be in the park. The red and yellow striped sandstone cliffs and overhangs glowed in the afternoon sun, and Laura confessed that she would be quite content to live out her life in this part of the country. Qwa Qwa National Park was another highlight of the route, with its massive and very impressive sandstone formations and wide open spaces. The San, who lived in the park’s many caves and overhangs, called the sandstone cliffs qwa-qwa, meaning “whiter than white”, as the sandstone, when exposed to the elements, is at first a whitish colour but assumes beautiful red and yellow hues as it weathers. We stopped at the Basotho Cultural Village, which offered a glimpse of the traditional lives of the Basotho people. The village consisted of a courtyard of beautiful Basotho huts, which progressed from organic, circular 16th century constructions to modern square huts with tin roofs and bright interior decor. Although activities were winding down for the day, people in traditional dress still wandered about, and two men were busy skinning a sheep. We admired the litema, the external decoration on the huts, which are applied by the Basotho women and still visible today in rural Lesotho and Free State. The decorations varied from intricate patterns that were scratched into the exterior red clay walls, to vivid, modern, brightly painted motifs...."

Hope this helps! Robin
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Mar 5th, 2010, 12:09 AM
  #3  
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Thank you so much, Robin, for taking the time to answer my question in such detail. I really appreciate this. I myself always write trip reports so you have inspired me even more by yours!

We plan to leave in two weeks time so maybe we will be in time to sample some cherries, who knows. We will take the mountain road from Clarens to Zastron and will stay overnight on a working farm. From there we will cross to Graaff Reinet. This is definitely "the road not taken" and therefore it was a bit hard to find accommodation other than self-catering.

Regarding the Swartberg Pass we are still debating whether or not to take an organized tour. That way neither of us will have to drive and we can both enjoy the scenery. Where did you stay in Prince Albert? We read many enthusiastic reviews on Mai's guest lodge.

You seem a very observant traveller. Do you have any more suggestions for the Stellenbosch/Cape Town area?
Appreciatively yours, Elisabeth
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Mar 5th, 2010, 07:06 AM
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I wouldn't hesitate to do the drive (of the pass) yourselves - there are many places to stop along the pass so the driver also may enjoy the view. We took a picnic lunch and made a day of it.

We didn't actually stay in Prince Albert - we did the pass as a day trip from Oudtshoorn. Mai's is not listed in my 2010 Frommer's - it mentions Dennehof (author's "my top choice") and Bergkant Lodge and Cottages ("most upmarket guesthouse in the village - delightful, but not sure it is worth the price"). If you go to Oudtshoorn, have lunch or dinner at Jemima's - it is wonderful and reputed to be the best restaurant in the Klein Karoo - but book ahead - it is very popular! We enjoyed a fabulous dinner there.

Are you looking for things to do in CT and Stellenbosch? Robin
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Mar 5th, 2010, 07:46 AM
  #5  
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Thanks again for your speedy reply. It's hard to choose between the different towns and accommodations offered.

We want to avoid tourist traps and thought that Oudshoorn might fall in that category.We thought of Prince Albert because, coming from Graaff Reinet we can easily do the Meiringspoortpass and arrive in Prince Albert in time to also relax a bit. The next day we could go South via the Swartberg pass (early in the morning) and drive on to either Stellenbosch or to the Robertson area. May's B&B in Prince Albert by the way has received glowing reports from many people via Tripadvisor.

Any advise on the towns along route 62? We don't want to rush it.
We've been to CRT and St'bosch some 6 years ago. Any info always most welcome though.Regards, Elisabeth
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