Magnificent mountains, unique fynbos vegetation, glorious seascapes, wetlands, vineyards, golden fields, citrus orchards, semi-desert, half a dozen nature conservation areas and the extraordinary bloom of wild flowers in spring - there is much to discover on the South African side of the Cape to Namibia route. There is plenty to do, too: water sports, hiking, 4x4 trails, quad biking, horse riding, bird watching. And each of the little hamlets and villages has its history and cultural heritage and a story to tell. There is much to learn about the early inhabitants who left their mark with rock paintings, the pioneers, the missionaries and not least the adventurers who endured great hardship in their quest to strike it rich.
The Cape to Namibia Route is so incredibly diverse that you are spoilt for choice. It consists not only of the N7, from Cape Town straight north into Namibia, but also encompasses highways and byways to the west and east which add their own local flavour. We had just a few days to spare and opted for a detour to the sea to see places we haven't been before.
Determined to take a closer look at every little town and village along the Northern Cape section of the N7 we happily pass Malmesbury - the largest town in the Swartland, agricultural centre, start of the Swartland Wine Route, all that and more but still almost in Cape Town - and Moorreesburg and only pulled into Piketberg, 115 km out of town.
Piketberg is nestled against the mountain of the same name, the top of which can be reached via the Versveld Pass. The views of Table Mountain and the West Coast are spectacular and so are the weird and wondrous rock formations. The impressive Dutch-Reformed church and the large museum are rather unexpected in a village of this size.
The towns and villages on the N7 are not very far apart. Another 47 km and we are in Citrusdal, often called the Gateway to the Cederberg. Citrusdal, on the Olifants River, got its name for good reason: it is a valley planted with orange trees, the centre of citrus cultivation in the Western Cape. It is also famous for its Baths, dating back a hundred years and fed by hot mineral springs, and for hiking trails in the foothills of the Cederberg.
Our next stop is Clanwilliam, 56 km further north. This is a very likeable little town, one of the oldest in the country, with a lively attractive main road. The old prison building at the lower end is a national monument now, and the former church hall houses the tourist information office. It is lunchtime and there are more than enough coffee shops and restaurants to choose from. Clanwilliam is the heart of rooibos country. It is also known for its annual flower shows, its shoe factory and the holiday resort at Clanwilliam Dam.
We don't continue on the N7 but take the R364 to Lamberts Bay. The coast is only 60 km away, this must be the shortest distance between the N7 and the sea. At last we seem to have left the hustle and bustle of city life behind for good. All of a sudden we have the road all to ourselves. The air is wonderfully fragrant - there are rows and rows of rooibos on both sides of the road.
Halfway from Clanwilliam we come to Graafwater which from the road looks like just three houses. But since we are on a road trip with a mission we drive into the village and find well-kept houses with pretty gardens and a protea farm and rooibos factory to boot. There is also a nature reserve in the vicinity and an overhanging rock, called Heerenlogement, which early settlers used as a shelter for the night. Graafwater came into existence when the railway line from Cape Town to Bitterfontein was built in 1910.
A little further to the southwest is another tiny hamlet, Leipoldtville, named after Friedrich Leipoldt, the son of Rhenish missionary Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt who established Wupperthal southeast of Clanwilliam in 1830, and father of much-loved poet and paediatrician C. Louis Leipoldt.
Almost in Lambert's Bay, we notice the shimmer of yellow dunes to the right, and plenty of signboards advertising quad bike adventures in the sand.
Lambert's Bay is a name known to ornithologists all over the world because of its Bird Island with the only colony of gannets that can be reached by foot. Access to the island is well hidden behind old fish factories in the centre of town, but a visit is definitely worthwhile. Apart from penguins and cormorants the island has one of the largest gannet colonies found on the South African coast. It distinctly resembles an airport: at the 'runway' on one side birds are lined up waiting their turn to take off, while from the other side bird after bird comes in to land. It is non-stop coming and going, busier than Heathrow. There is a hide in make-belief rock from which the birds can be observed from closest quarters and there is also a lot of information about the times when guano was collected all along the Atlantic coast and for a short time was worth its weight in gold. There are tales of shipwrecks, how survivors lived on penguins and penguin eggs; how eggs were later harvested in such horrific numbers that the African penguin was close to extinction, and other follies like introducing animals which caused havoc among endemic species. Lambert's Bay has beautiful beaches and plenty of holiday accommodation. If you spend the night you have to make a booking at the Muisbosskerm or Bosduiklip for an opulent 18-course-dinner al fresco.
Elands Bay is a pretty seaside resort and surfers' paradise 34 km to the south, with great seafood and endless bird watching opportunities at Verlorenvlei which boasts about 240 species. But not for us this time, we are headed further north, to Doringbaai.
Here is a secret which road maps do not easily divulge: there is a well-kept direct gravel road for the 45 km stretch from Lambert's Bay to Doringbaai. It is a railway service road and the fee of R30.00 saves you quite a roundabout way on the ordinary public gravel road via Vaalvlei.
The dark line of the toll road takes us through a landscape of red sand dotted with shrubs of different shades of green. There are some sharp bends but there is no corrugation until right at the end. Almost in Doringbaai, the railway line comes to life. We watch in awe as a seemingly unending train rolls past at a leisurely pace, and now it dawns on us: this is the famous Sishen to Saldanha line, built for the sole purpose of transporting iron ore from Sishen in the Northern Cape to the port of Saldanha 860 km away at the south-western tip of the Western Cape. Some 20 years ago this train made it into the Guinness Book of records as the longest goods train in the world with 7.3 km of 660 loaded trucks, pulled and pushed by 16 locomotives. The regular length is 4 km of 342 wagons and 10 locomotives. An endless line of wagons has already rolled past when I start counting, and lose track before I have reached 100, while the end of the train is still out of sight.
Doringbaai is a lovely little place, really small with a tiny supermarket, a bar, a restaurant and B&B accommodation all in one cluster overlooking the bay and the jetty with the crayfish factory and lighthouse. Apart from crayfish packaging and exporting there is diamond mining on the sea floor.
In years gone by the bay was used as an anchorage on the sea trading route. Provisions were shipped in for places further inland, like Vanrhynsdorp, and transported there by camels.
The bar is quite busy when we arrive around sundowner time, but later we are the only customers in the cosy Cabin Restaurant, decorated with nets and other things to create a marine theme. The restaurant specialises in really delicious seafood. Outside, part of a boat is sticking out of the deck. It was the bow of a diamond mining motorboat which sank in Doringbaai harbour. The bar is quite well stocked with wine from cellars in Lutzville and Vredendal. When you visit small places like this it is, by the way, a good idea to find out beforehand whether they have bank or credit card facilities. Where do the friendly people of Doringbaai go for serious shopping, we wonder. "There is a supermarket in Lutzville, just 40 km away", smiles Trevor, the barkeeper, "and what we don't find there we look for in Vredendal".
We make a promise to ourselves that we will be back soon as we continue north the next morning.
It is just 8 km to Strandfontein, a beautiful drive along the coast. This is very obviously a holiday place, the seaside resort of the hot inland towns of Lutzville, Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp. It is an assortment of mostly newer houses and mansions built against a slope with fantastic views, there is a very attractive camping site almost right next to the glorious beach, but if there is a business centre we didn't find it. Strandfontein somehow does not have much soul.
Next we make a quick detour down to Papendorp, a small settlement overlooking the Olifants River Estuary. The estuary is listed for future recognition as a RAMSAR site. The wetlands are an important habitat for migratory birds. Residents in Papendorp make their living manly from fishing in the estuary. Ebenhaezer, a dot of lush green on the other side of the river, consists mainly of farmers. This is another former Rhenish mission station, established in 1831 by Baron von Wurmb who just a year earlier had founded Wuppertal together with Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt.
From Papendorp it is only 21 km through beautiful scenery to the friendly little town of Lutzville on the Olifants River. Quite suddenly the West Coast flora gives way to vineyards and fields of potatoes and vegetables. Bougainvilleas in brilliant colours spill from the gardens of neat houses. We pass a number of tractors pulling trailers full of grapes are on the road. It's the middle of February and grape harvesting is in full swing. Lutzville is the most westerly wine-producing area in the country. It is also the place where the famous All Gold brand comes from.
We could now continue north on gravel road to the small country hamlet of Koekenaap and via Landplaas return to the N7 at Nuwerus. But Vredendal, 24 km from Lutzville, wins. We simply have to see this town which quite often is the hottest in the Western Cape. We cross a little old bridge across the 'mighty' Olifants River which is not very wide at all. It has a muddy colour and flows lazily between reeds and lots of other vegetation. We also pass a masterpiece of engineering, completed in 1976: the impressive Sishen Saldanha Railway Bridge spans high over the Olifants River with a length of 1 035 metres. The deck of the bridge ultimately weighed 141 000 tons and had to be pushed into position with the aid of hydraulic jacks. The supporting pillars rest on pylons that were driven 45 m deep into the river bed.
Vredendal is a busy bustling town with all the facilities and shops one could possibly want. It is the centre of a large farming community on the lower Olifants River along the irrigation scheme and well known for its wines. Vredendal is the second last stop on the Olifants River Wine Route which starts at Citrusdal. And yes, it is another hot day in Vredendal.
Klawer is only 21 km southeast of Vredendal, but we are headed straight east for Van Rhynsdorp, also just 22 km away. The massive Matzikamma Mountains appear on the horizon, parts of them look like a gigantic rock castle.
The area of Vanrhynsdorp became known (as Trutro) through the expeditions made by Pieter van Meerhoff, the Danish surgeon in the employ of the VOC, as early as 1661. Three botanical kingdoms converge in Vanrhynsdorp: the Nama-Karoo vegetation, succulents in the Knersvlakte and Cape Fynbos on the mountains. This is where the arid north starts and where we cross from the Matzikamma District Municipality into the aptly named Hardeveld.
Our next stop is Bitterfontein. We leave the N7 with some expectation - because of the rare Bitterfontein Green, a green granite found nowhere else in the world, and to find the boerewinkel which we found enthusiastically mentioned in some publication. Bitterfontein does not look very inviting, just dry, dusty and hot, with a hotel, two shops and the railway station behind them and on the other side of that dotted against the slope the residential area. We find the boerewinkel and ask for Bitterfontein Green. The cranky saleslady seems to find her day rudely interrupted, she has never heard of any special green stone in Bitterfontein. Back on the N7 and a little past Bitterfontein we see it: huge blocks of granite loaded onto railway trucks and offloaded into the veld next to the siding. On the way to Garies we see several trucks with more blocks of granite on their way to Bitterfontein, the end of the railway line from Cape Town. A gravel road to the west leads to four little settlements with wonderful names: Stofkraal, Molsvlei, Rietpoort and Putsekloof. Rietpoort is another missionary village, tucked away between impressive granite formations. The inhabitants hope to attract visitor not only during the flower season but at any time of the year with donkey cart rides, traditional cuisine and traditional songs.
The border between the Western and Northern Cape runs between Bitterfontein and Garies.
And what a pleasant experience Garies turns out to be. Camel thorns in bloom and crimson bougainvilleas at the start of the main road which leads into a little business centre where accommodation facilities abound. Garies is clearly geared for the tourist rush during the brief flower season. The road continues into the Kamiesberg Mountains but we turn around at the large new Medi-Clinic and stop at the hotel for lunch. As we clamber out of the car we notice the left-hand fender has come loose. But first things first. Lunch first, then worry about the fender. "Is there perhaps a garage in Garies?" we ask the friendly waitress. "Of course", she says' "on the way out, you can't miss it." We don't and soon wish that this knowledgeable mechanic had his garage in Cape Town. He doesn't have the original clamps, of course, but he quickly and efficiently makes something provisional and directs us to the authorized dealer in Springbok, just to be on the safe side. Our car is in one piece again and he doesn't want a cent!
Not far out of Garies there is a turn-off to Hondeklipbaai. The name is fascinating enough to make us want to see this coastal resort, apparently named after a boulder close to the beach with some similarity to a sitting dog. But the road from Gariep, scenically beautiful as it is, should rather be travelled in a 4x4. The other road, just south of Springbok, 104 km back south and equally stunning, over the Messelpad Pass and through Namaqua National Park past Soebatsfontein, is a considerable detour. So Hondeklipbaai has to be another time. The harbour at Hondeklip was once used for shipping copper, brought there by ox-wagon from Springbok, until Port Nolloth became the easier export route.
Instead of Messelpad Pass we do with Burke's Pass just south of Springbok. It is a grand landscape of bare granite rock, reddish soil, yellow grass and shrubs, dry riverbeds which sustain green trees and shrubs, hardy sheep, and even fields of some or other grain. Only stubble is left, no irrigation equipment to be seen. Of course, this is winter rain country. The winter rains are probably just enough for one harvest.
South of Springbok, Kamieskroon is set among the granite rock formations of the Kamiesberg range. The 'kroon' is a 330m peak crowned with a huge, cleft rock, one kilometre from the village. Kamieskroon was originally founded in the 1860s in a narrow kloof 7 km north of its present position, but there was little room to expand and in 1924 the church council decided to rebuild the village at Kamieskroon.
Namaqua National Park (103 000 ha), 21 km northwest of Kamieskroon, is open daily. A circular drive and short walking trails let the visitor experience the incredible floral diversity of the area.
Synonymous with spring flowers, the Kamiesberg region extends the season with brilliant shows of Bulbinella latifolia.
Springbok, traditionally the centre of the Namaqualand flower show in spring, is usually seen as just another refuelling stop when you travel the long haul between Cape Town and Windhoek. Originally called Springbokfontein, the town was established in the narrow valley between the granite domes of the Klein Koperberge and owes its existence to copper-mining in the second half of the 19th century and a ready supply of water. In the late 1870s, rich copper deposits at Okiep saw most Springbok residents following their dreams to drought-stricken claims. The far reaches of the former Cape Colony saw a lot of fighting during the Anglo-Boer. The fort built by the British on the hillock in the centre of Springbok was blown up by a commando led by General Jan Smuts.
Springbok is the capital of the Northern Cape's Namakwa District Municipality. It is a surprisingly sprawling town with a large industrial area where we find the authorized dealer where our right-hand fender is clasped into place with a lot more fuss than in Garies. Regrettably, this time we cannot take a closer look at Springbok, either.
We are eager to continue on our way to Port Nolloth on the coast and return to the N7 for the last leg to Steinkopf. This is a name not easily forgotten once you have seen it spelt out in rock against the mountain slope, if only, because it's just 65 km to the Namibian border from here. But we turn west, onto the R382 to Port Nolloth, only 90 km away. I love our straight roads through vast open landscapes, a solitary line to the distant horizon. And I haven't been to this far north-western corner of the country before.
The scenery is still characterized by impressive mountains. Aninous Pass is in fact quite spectacular. As you drive down the long straight stretch and start to wonder about the fuss with all the warning signs to slow down you actually arrive at a sharp bend - very suddenly, it now seems, and too sharp for some, as the bent railings show. After the pass you are almost in the coastal plain, and when the skyline of Port Nolloth appears on the horizon, while you are still on a slight downward slope, the picture is not dissimilar to the last kilometres to Swakopmund in Namibia. There are just a lot more shrubs here on the otherwise desert-like plains. And Port Nolloth is nowhere close to being as pretty and neat as Swakopmund.
The town has no attractive centre and it seems that poverty is rampant. Too many men in various states of intoxication are hanging out on the streets, notably in front of the bottle store. The fishing permit system might be part of the problem. A young fisherman knocks on our door the next day. He is looking for petrol money to go out to sea and catch snoek. Just R100, he pleads and promises that he'll bring us four big snoek in return. He shows his permit and offers that we keep his most valuable document until he comes back with the fish. The quantity he is allowed to catch keeps him busy for two days a month, he says. Yes, he is happy with his quota, it keeps him alive. But only two days out at sea means 28 days of unemployment and idleness every month. Another unemployed fisherman offers to wash the dusty car almost as soon as we have taken our luggage into our lovely self-catering accommodation. He was a crew member on the last trawler of Port Nolloth's fishing fleet, he says. The big blue rusty ship sits on the beach, tossed out of the water together with two other boats during a formidable storm last winter. It was a small tsunami, says the fisherman, and it took his livelihood.
Our accommodation is in one of the beautifully furnished Bedrock cottages, with just a lovely little Strandveld garden and a road between our front stoep and the beach. One step inside and you immediately wish you could stay longer. Next to the three cottages is Bedrock Lodge and next to that, on the corner of the street, a very worthwhile little museum. These must be the oldest buildings in Port Nolloth. It is believed that they were built in the early 1880s or even before. Plans have surfaced from as far back as the 1850s. The main house was apparently imported in prefab form from Denmark as are the wooden wall panels. The wooden floors are from the Knysna forests. The Manager of the Cape Copper company lived in the south wing, while the Harbour Master seems to have resided in the main house to the north. The building was purchased by the Jowell family and Transport Company around 1950. This transport company was instrumental in linking these faraway parts of Namaqualand to the rest of the country. Jowell's Transport was based in Springbok. Most of the Jowell's houses in town, some of them dating back to the late 19th century, were sold locally in recent years. The museum was originally built as the Cape Copper Company's clubhouse. We feel quite privileged to live between such historic walls for a few days.
Established as a small-vessel harbour and railway junction in 1854 for the copper-mining industry, Port Nolloth's narrow, shallow entrance makes it unsuitable for ore carriers. It is, instead, a centre for the small-scale diamond recovery and crayfish industries, and the only resort on the Diamond Coast. Fresh fish and crayfish are available from the factory in season. Nama culture can be seen at Lekkersing, inland, north of Port Nolloth.
South, there is Kleinzee, one of the last restricted diamond mining areas which might be regarded as the centre of the Diamond Coast, the pristine shore between Hondeklipbaai to Alexander Bay. Previously forbidden, this part of the coast, the Sandveld, has remained virtually unknown to the public. And diamonds are not the only treasures: the Sandveld is home to many indigenous plants, animals and insects. Kleinzee has a seal colony of almost half a million animals.
In recent years this coastline with its flowing dunes and mysterious shipwrecks has been opened by De Beers for a variety of organised guided tours - several spectacular 4x4 routes as well as a guided tour of mining operations.
The next morning we drive 80 km north to Alexander Bay. Along the road there is much evidence of former diamond mining activities: heaps of excavated sand, some of them already overgrown as if they had always been there. Closer to Alexander Bay mining is still in progress close to the shore. But the town takes its name from Sir James Alexander, who shipped the Richtersveld copper ore he mined in barges down the Orange River for export from this bay. The discovery of diamonds, in 1925, by South Africa's best-know geologist, Dr Hans Merensky, resulted in a diamond rush, of course, and in 1928 in the Diamond Coast rebellion of 1928.
Today, Alexander Bay is no longer a high-security area and no permits are needed.
There is a boom but the guard simply opens it without as much as taking down the licence plate number or asking for the purpose of the visit. So here we are, in the country's north-westernmost little town. Which definitely has seen better times. More than anything else it is now a picture of desolation and decay. You wonder who wants to live here.
We have been told that the floating bridge at Sendelingsdrift, which takes vehicles over to the Namibian side, is not in operation at present because the Orange River, or Gariep, is in flood. We drive a little way along the river, which does not look one bit wild or turbulent, on a corrugated gravel road which not only leads to Sendelingsdrift but also into the Richtersveld National Park which is for 4x4s only. The Richtersveld is a vast mountain desert, seemingly devoid of life and yet a desert hot spot with the most amazing diversity of plant life. Some species occur nowhere else. Quiver trees, aloes and 'half-mens' succulents are characteristic of this harsh landscape where water is scarce and moisture comes in the form of early morning fog. The Richtersveld and Ai-Ais National Park in Namibia together form the tremendous Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
Namibia is hiding behind the river's steep northern bank, and so is Alexander Bay's Namibian twin, Oranjemund. We turn round and continue in the opposite direction, to the Orange River mouth. One the South African side it is a huge estuary, a birds' paradise. The road ends at the beach where you can view your surroundings from a ramshackle wooden lookout tower - if you are brave enough. There is also a big dilapidated building. A light wind starts to twirl some yellow dust around and adds to the feeling of desolation. Alexander Bay does have a green heart, though, with pretty houses and gardens, a school, a small shopping centre. We try to follow directions to a restaurant but end up driving in circles. When two people who we ask, don't know the way either, we decide to give up. It feels as if we have reached the end of the world.