“Untarred” is a euphemism. The stretch of road from the eastern gate of the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area at Komdomo Campsite, through the Grootrivierpoort, was still relatively tame, with scenic drifts and hardpack dirt. But now I’m bouncing over loose stone and corrugations on Combrink’s Pass, and I’m very grateful I’m behind the wheel of a Mahindra Pik Up.
Visitors usually travel “downhill” through the Baviaanskloof, from Willowmore to Patensie, but I started at the eastern end this morning, hoping that the wildest section of the kloof would clear my city head quicker.
Combrink’s Pass is narrow and full of blind corners, with a chasm on one side. Yes, a chasm. I wish I hadn’t noticed that… If another car were to approach, I don’t even want to think about having to reverse to a place where we’d be able to pass each other.
But the landscape is incredibly scenic. I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. The inspiration for this trip came from a woman called Pikkie Daniel from Paternoster, who couriered me a book called Baviaanskloof – A culture-historical view: Nuwekloof to Kruisrivier by Colijn Scheltema and Naomi Haupt from the University of the Free State. Pikkie had inscribed my copy: “Dis ’n Godsmooie wêreld – geniet hom”. It was all I needed to plan a trip to this “heavenly place”.
Aloes, cycads and spekboom decorate the mountain slopes. The Mahindra is handling the terrain well. I’m using the Slingsby map of the Baviaanskloof and it suggests I should switch to low range, but the bakkie is still climbing with ease. A sedan would never get you this far – Thomas Bain barely tamed the landscape with his road.
On the Bergplaas plateau, I pull over to stretch my legs and work up the courage for the next hurdle: Holgat Pass. Combrink was just a warm-up – Holgat is 5km long and features the narrowest stretch on the R332. Many of its bends are so sharp that I have to do a three-point turn to get around. There’s a cement track to help with traction, but it’s crumbling from use and I crawl down in first gear to where trees and shrubs form a dense tunnel over the road. I make eye contact with vervet monkeys in the thickets, and then I see the Smitskraal picnic site. Thank goodness! I need a breather before I tackle Grasnek Pass.
Grasnek turns out to be a little easier to traverse. The cliffs have made way for a valley with kudus, vervet monkeys and the first Baviaans baboons I’ve seen. I pull over at a drift, take off my velskoens and wade into the cool water. Something makes me look up. There it is: a brown hooded kingfisher.
The sun is hanging low, but the farm Zandvlakte should be nearby. I was on the road all day and only drove about 70km! I page through Pikkie’s book to make sure I saw everything this part of the kloof has to offer. A handwritten note falls from the pages: “Unbelievable drive. A true wilderness!”
A plant with a dress code
Early morning, I climb into Pieter Kruger’s bakkie – he’s the owner of Zandvlakte. It’s always fun to drive around a farm with the farmer. You learn the unrecorded names of ridges and koppies, you think about yesterday, and you catch a glimpse of what tomorrow might look like in this place. Because every kraal and ruin has a past, every patch of land a future.
Pieter sees it as his duty to rehabilitate his part of the kloof and he can tell you a lot about the impact players in this process – the spekboom being the main one.
Over the last few years, more than four million spekboom have been planted on Zandvlakte with the help of international funding – the first step in the enormous task of transforming this agricultural land into a natural habitat once again.
We continue south, to the base of the Kouga Mountains, and get out of the bakkie to inspect one of these special plants. “It needs to grow a little dress, see?” says Pieter. “The lower branches growing out to the sides are important. They provide ground cover to protect the organisms in the soil so they can produce nutrients. As the plant grows, a small water ‘sponge’ is formed beneath.”
He kneels and digs a handful of soil out from under the plant.
“Look,” he says. “See all the dead leaves? This is where new soil is formed. Fungi consume the plant matter using the sugars of the spekboom to release nutrients and glomalin, which turns the soil crumbly like cottage cheese and lets oxygen in.”
He steps about a metre away and kicks at the ground – it’s hard clay. “We used to have an annual rainfall of about 300mm, but for the last seven years we’ve had half of that. When it does rain, the water flows away because the soil is too hard. The soil here used to be fertile, so we planted fields and built weirs to protect the fields. But that also disturbed the natural flow. This place is growing more arid. If we keep interfering with nature, how do we expect it to recover?”
Pieter dreams of rehabilitating the entire district, but how long will that take?
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