News > Beyond the Baviaans, and back again - 1 May 2019 - 7 May 2019 4x4 trip review
Beyond the Baviaans, and back again
With its namesake baboons and prize buffaloes, wild proteas and
aloes, breathtaking views and startling rock formations,
the Baviaanskloof is more than just a 4x4 playground.
The Baviaanskloof, offers up a decent challenge for those off-road enthusiasts who also happen to be towing an off-road trailer. But geologists and nature lovers will equally be at home in the area and in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve. You could easily drive through it all in a single day, but that’s a massive injustice as it would be far too hurried.
“This is still a fairly unknown mountain range to northern members of the camping and off-road fraternity. When I tell them that these southern mountains also offer lekker trails and campsites, they ask ‘Where is that?’” says Gerald O’Brien, Halfway Toyota’s off-road specialist.
To get there, we drive through the Gamtoos Valley – world renowned for being a first-class citrus growing region. The trees are starting to bear fruit and the smell in the air is wildly attractive. I’m riding shotgun in
Gerald’s Toyota Hilux 2.8 GD-6 4x4 Raider with Old Man Emu raised suspension and BF Goodrich K02 tyres, towing an Imagine Trailvan off-road caravan. There’s about R200 000 worth of accessories on the Hilux, but the rock sliders, steel bumpers and even the lift kit are not really necessary for this route – a standard 4x4 bakkie will ace it.
THE PREVIOUS DAY, Gerald and I arrived at John and Catherina Wait’s Innikloof, which is 11 km northeast from the small town of Hankey to meet the rest of the convoy. We were on strict instructions to not socialise
too late as the early morning start would give us a taste of the days to come.
Joining Gerald and me on the excursion are Chris Beater and Sonya Marais in a Hilux 2.8 GD-6 4x4, towing an Echo Chobe off-road caravan, and Gavin and Kathy Nicholson in their own 2.8 GD-6 4x4 automatic Hilux equipped with a long-range fuel tank of 60 extra litres. Both Hiluxes run on the standard Bridgestone Dueller AT 265/17 tyres. Also along for the trip are Zandy and Jan Greef in their beefy looking Ford Ranger Wildtrak 3.2 4x4, towing a Bush Lapa Baobab.
Innikloof campsite is in a grass-covered clearing with around 10 stands that aren’t demarcated. You’ll have to bring your own braai if you want to cook your meat right in front of your stands, but if you don’t mind using the massive fire pit, then you can use one of the grids next to the sinks by the ablution block. A two-minute walk from the campsite takes you to a nearby stream with a natural pool that’s great for cooling off. The ablution building itself is constructed of zinc and wood, with a single separate toilet. The other two rooms remind you of your bathroom at home, with a toilet and a large shower cubicle. You also aren’t bothered by the shower curtain because the stall is wide enough to fit a rugby prop comfortably. There’s plenty of hooks on which to hang your towel and clothes plus shelves for your toiletry bag. Hot water is provided by gas geysers, so there’s never a shortage. You’ll have to bring your own toilet paper, though. AFTER COFFEE AND RUSKS, the padkos is packed and two-way radios distributed among the drivers, before Gerald calls everyone together for the morning’s briefing. Today’s drive is a long one because we’re headed for Bhejane Game Reserve and will be passing around the northeastern edge of the Baviaanskloof by way of the Antoniesberg Pass. It’s regarded as one of the country’s top passes by off-road enthusiasts and just the sort of enticement we need after being forced to turn in so early the night before. Shortly after entering Patensie, we miss our turnoff. To be fair, it is an unmarked and unnamed dirt road – for those following in our treads, you’ll find it at S33.739319 E24.778748. The couple of wrong turns we make turn out to be a blessing in disguise as we could see to a flat left rear tyre on the even ground next to the Quagga Primary School. We’re back in action after a quick tyre change with an audience courtesy of the pupils on their first break and some helpful directions from a teacher. After taking the correct turnoff, the next landmark is the signpost that tells you the road ahead will see you meet up with the R75 in the direction of Uitenhage, but it’ s here that we swing left toward Grootrivierpoort. Drive through the farmgates(remember to close them behind you if you find them closed) and you’ ll get to the sign that announces you’ re in the Cockscomb section of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve.If you’ re worried about a permit, relax– you don’ t need one here. THE ANTONIESBERG PASS doesn’ t have a fancy sign that announces we’ re on it, just a regular warning road sign that cautions there’ s a mountain pass ahead with two sharp bends in the arrow. The conditions on the day favour our group’s standard bakkies, though all the drivers are experienced at off-road driving. The pass is a bit steep and the loose gravel threatens to turn into marbles if you descend too quickly. There are only two sections with real jagged rocks that makes us slow down to a crawl – after one tyre incident, we take care to not get another sidewall nicked.
There’s a river crossing thrown in on the pass as well, as you descend right down to the Grootrivier. For much of the year, it’s a little stream that barely makes it over the small concrete bridge, but fortunately for us there had been massive rain in the region just before our trip, so today the water comes right up to the axles – making ideal photo opportunities. This is also a good spot to stop for lunch – but only pull over if you’re in a fairly small group, otherwise you’ll block the road. The climb up and away from the river on the other side is also quite steep, but most vehicles with torque shouldn’t struggle much. At the pump station a few kilometres farther on, the road improves drastically and it’s clear that this section of the route is still used and maintained often. As we pass the Hadley Guest Farm, the charred landscape shows signs of a recent veldfire, but the aloes are still standing proudly. The dirt road road is smooth and wide enough for you to get up to a comfortable 80 km/h, but before you head straight to Cockscomb, you swing off to the left at the sign that points in the direction of Steytlerville, where you can fill up on fuel. The town also has the names and family crests of the town’s and surrounding areas’ people proudly displayed on banners hanging from the streetlight poles in the centre divide all along Piet Retief Street. IT’S ANOTHER 50 KM from Steytlerville to Bhejane Game Reserve, where we spend our second night. The reserve is owned by Philip and Adriana Theunisen who have 26 hoofed species on the farm, which is also open to hunting. A father-and-son duo were up in the mountains and we heard the distinct crack of a high-calibre rifle ricocheting off the mountain face early the next morning. Bhejane’s campsite is a two-stand affair. They’re large enough to each take two small off-road caravans.
The bush is dense enough to hide your neighbours, and the only time you’re likely see anyone else is if they’re making their way to the ablutions. If you aren’t camping with a caravan, you’ll be pitching your tent on dirt. Each stand has its own braai pit, surrounded by a reed wall, with grids and a potjie tripod for you to cook the way you choose. There’s also a regular domestic plug point at each stand, and there’s a light you can switch on and off next the fire. The ablution block is between the two stands, and it is a basic raw concrete structure. In front, under cover, is a double sink with dry section and a shelf for your dirty dishes and equipment. Inside, the toilet bowl and cistern are modern, but the shower stalls only have netting across the entrance for privacy. The one shower is located inside and though there’s one rail to hang a towel on, you’ll have to leave your clothing on the floor or bring in one of your camping chairs. The other shower is on the outside and built up with concrete to around head-height. And to keep out any unwanted attention, there’s shade netting above that. This layout is mirrored on the ladies’ side. Of course, the big game here is the centre of attention, but there are other species willing to show off if you’ve got the patience to wait. A curious banded mongoose caught the whiff of bacon on the braai fire the next morning and poked its head out the brush near the benches to find the source of the delicious aroma, but as everyone moved to grab a camera it quickly darted off. If you catch Philip in the right moment, he might be on his way to feed the buffalo, and you can ask to go along. They’re easily spooked though, and recently trampled a calf in a panic, so he prefers to go in with his old Toyota Hilux and if you can squeeze into it, then that’s a highly recommended method of observing them up close. Also, if you’re there on the weekend, there’s a strong chance that Adriana’s baked something she’s willing to share with hungry campers – in our case it was massive balls of vetkoek. Perfect for the post-buffalo viewing munchies. They also keep your firewood pile properly stocked. AFTER TWO NIGHTS at Bhejane, it is time to once again hit road in the direction of Willowmore. You’ll pass the Fullarton rail station, which is nothing more than a raised platform on either side of the tracks – reminiscent of a scene from a spaghetti Western, especially considering the environment. If you keep your eyes open, you might also be able to spot goshawks and our national bird, the blue crane.
Willowmore is only 50 km from Bhejane, and because the road has been excellently graded and has concrete tracks in certain sections, you’ll reach it fairly quickly after breakfast. This is a great place to stock up on supplies. While you’re there, be sure to grab a coffee and traditional woodfired pizza from the Belly Deli. The neighbouring Cozy Shed also stocks locally made wool products and other crafts. You then leave town, heading south in the direction of Uniondale on the N9 before turning left onto another gravel road, the R332. Follow this all the way to a fork, and that’s where you turn right to get to Vaalwater Bush Camp. A further two kilometres down that road is where you’ll find the gate to your right. The reception is on the other side of the road, so first check in there with Hesme Scholtz. Vaalwater has to be one of the only campsites that straddles the border between provinces and if you’re standing in front of the gate of the 4x4 trail you could be shouting from the Western Cape for your spouse to bring the binoculars from the campsite in the Eastern Cape. The campsite itself is covered with lawn and there’s no demarcated stands. The tall blue gum trees provide plenty of shade, but they’re on the far edges of the campsite and the grass is not as green there, plus there are thorns. The centre is large enough for eight caravans, though there are just two old truck rims that have been welded to three metal rods for makeshift braais if you don’t have anywhere else to make your fire. There are two posts that supply electricity (remember to bring a 30 m extension cord), and two refuse bins. Even though Vaalwater is a stone’s throw from the road, you don’t have to worry about traffic disturbing your sleep because the road’s rather quiet – and we were there on a weekend. The ablution block here is a far cry from the rustic examples on the rest of the trip. It looks as if it was finished recently and painted a simple and plain white like the rest of the buildings in the area. On the men’s side, there are three washbasins as you enter the door, to the right – with space for all your toiletries. Each basin also has a mirror. There’s some liquid soap and small facecloths rolled up neatly in a basket so you can dry your hands.
If you plan to stay at Vaalwater for only one night, pack up early and tackle the 4x4 route first thing in the morning
Walk in a bit further and there’s two urinal basins, and then there are also two toilets. Plus three large shower cubicles. The dry section is very big and there are six hooks for hanging clothing and towels. There’s also a bench for you to sit on when getting dressed and tying your shoelaces. You shower behind a curtain, but at least the space is fairly big, so you don’t need to worry about it touching you when you leave the window open. Behind the ablution block is ample space on a stoep for washing your dishes and clothes. There’s a pool through a little gate on the far left side of the campsite. But looked like it hadn’t been maintained in such a long time that the frogs have made themselves at home in it. That’s understandable given the recent drought. A whole lot more exciting is the gate a few paces to the left. It’s a vehicle gate and the sign on it says 4x4 trail, which takes you down towards the dry riverbed and through another gate that marks the start of the 4x4 trail, but leave that for tomorrow and make yourself comfortable first. If you plan to stay at Vaalwater for only one night, pack up early and tackle the 4x4 route first thing in the morning, as the 5 km route will set you back an hour and a half if you’re fond of stopping for selfies. The track leads you through two gates and crosses a stream before it rises into the hills behind and above the campsite and chalets. TO GET INTO THE BAVIAANSKLOOF proper, go back the way you came and rejoin the R332, which is going to take you toward the reserve via the NuwekloofPass. The secluded valleys between the mountains create vast arenas that the old settlers discovered was perfectly fertile for agriculture. If you’re into geology, the strangely beautiful rock formations that make up this area of the Cape Fold Belt are also going to have you gaping up at the colours and stress lines of the sandstone and quartzite.
We’re headed in the direction of Bo-Kloof, which is only 36 km to the east, but you’re definitely going to be stopping for pictures along the way, including at the Makkedaat Caves, which are a must-see, even if you have no intentions of ever sleeping in a “cave.” Stop by reception and ask Henriëtte Terblanche if you can have a look around them, which shouldn’t be an issue. The caves are, of course, naturally formed, but they now boast extensive wooden facades that make them look like wood cabins. All of them sleep groups of eight or more and the caves are so far apart so there’s no running into fellow cave dwellers unless you want to. Further down the R332, see if you can make out the seven dwarves on the hilltop shortly after Duiwekloof. They’re formations in the rock but look as if they belong in a children’s book. When we visited, the road was quite badly damaged in sections, and looked as if it hadn’t been maintained in a while, but the deep ruts and debris lying about were caused by a flash flood a few weeks before we arrived. Tucked away almost in a little nook of its own are Vero’s Restaurant and the Baviaans Craft Shop. These are highly recommended, even if just for a roosterkoek and to browse through the colourful trinkets. Bo-Kloof’s campsite is located to the right of the road when you’re coming from the west, but the farmhouse and reception are to the left. This is where you’ll either find Quintis or Anita Bezuidenhout. In the event that they’re both not there, their capable son Ian will be able to check you in. This is also a good opportunity to purchase some of the honey that’s made right there on the farm, or any of the products the family also makes from the sweet substance, including salad dressing and honey vinegar.
The campsite is one kilometre in on the other side of the road and you round the base of the mountain to get to it. The grass here is so green that it almost looks as if the colour has been sprayed on, and the grass is thick underfoot forming a soft carpet. Ian comes around with a bakkie to make sure the ablutions are clean and to drop off a few bags of wood at the massive fire pit, and you’ll have the opportunity to pet one of the family’s livestock guardian dogs, though they’re no longer in the business of farming with sheep. There are seven stands, but if you’re all in the same group it doesn’t really matter where you pitch, though each stand does have its own concrete and stone braai. Bring your own grid though. Also, if you’re tempted to just braai on the fire pit then that’s also cool, as there are stone benches set around it. The only available electricity is from the plug above the wash basin in the ablution block, so bring an extension cable just in case you draw the short straw. The ablution facility is plain and rustic, with a single small shower stall and two toilets on the men’s side. The hand basin is on a small wooden shelf, and there’s no space to hang your clothes except over the door. If you get hot and bothered, take a dip in the dam next to the campsite and have a picnic under the acacia trees. DON’T DO IT ALL IN A DAY because there’s so much to see and do. Bo-Kloof also has a 4x4 route that we didn’t tackle, as well as the highly regarded Waterkloof hiking trail. Each of these will almost certainly take up more than half your day.
If you venture past Bo-Kloof, you’ll get to Sewefontein, which is also home to the Seven Fountains hiking trail and the Wild Fig Tree Forest. Turn in here and make your way to the tourism office and ask for Patrick Ruiters to take you on a short tour. The selfproclaimed “world’s smallest tour guide” has charming stories about the history of the region, the farm and the abundance of underground freshwater. He’ll take you to a borehole that’s been pumping out 50 000 litres per hour ever since it was opened on 16 February 1937. You’ll also get to stroll on the boardwalk between ancient wild fig trees. We’re well past the halfway point of the roads meandering through the valley before we get to the section of the Baviaanskloof that’s a reserve. Purchase your permits here and keep them handy to show to the official at the other gate when you exit. Here and there, you’ll catch glimpses of bushbuck and hartebeest among the foliage and you’ll almost certainly encounter troops of baboons monkeying about near the road. There are certainly sections where the road through the reserve is steep enough to warrant low range, but in recent times concrete tracks have been laid down to help traverse certain treacherously steep sections – which opens up the region to more people who want to tackle the route in all-wheel drive soft-roaders and even rear-wheel drive bakkies with decent ride height. The recent flash flood also meant that there were decent stretches of water crossings for us to tackle. After the splendour of the mountains, it’s back down into Patensie and then onto Hankey for one more night at Innikloof before saying goodbye the following morning.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
GROUPS: The Halfway Toyota Group regularly hosts 4x4 excursions to all corners of our country and beyond, including Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. This was their first trip to the Baviaanskloof, and was eight days long, with two nights booked at two of the campsites. Contact Gerald at email@example.com or Ryan at offroad@ halfway4ways.co.za
FUEL: If you fill up in Hankey or Patensie, you’re probably not going to need fuel until Willowmore. But if you start the trip on less than a full tank, you can always top up in Steytlerville.
ACCOMMODATION: If you’re not towing a caravan and aren’t fond of camping in a tent, then all the campsites also offer chalets so you can sleep on a proper bed.
VEHICLE: You don’t need to have a raised suspension or even all-terrain tyres, though the latter especially will help with certain section. Two of the vehicles on our trip were stock standard. Don’t try it without proper 4x4 though.