There are several ways to travel across the world. You may decide to do it by plane, train or by boat. All have those elements that magically transport you to a new adventure. I still remember the first time I got on a long distance flight to Asia, or the day I quietly sat and watched the world speed past on a train. But I must be honest here…for me the biggest transformation happens behind the wheel of my trusted SUV. Theia has been with me for a bunch of awesome road trips and some lekker (slang for great) long distance drives. This December, I have decided to swop the usual road trip for an epic 4×4 trip, my first ever, and to top it all -I am going to do it solo!!! So how does a novice -‘soft roader’ go about this? With lots of excitement and caution, all in one.
But first, I have decided to try my hand at some novice 4×4 trails leading up to the big one. So it got me researching my options…and this one peaked my interest. Introducing the Caracal Eco route
The picturesque route allows you to experience a wide range of Namaqua habitats, from mountains, planes of wildflowers to the coast. The route starts at the world famous Skilpad Wildflower Reserve, now part of the Namaqua National Park, where the parks’ offices are situated. The road then descents down the Soebatsfontein pass, before turning north to the Wildeperdehoek grass plains. For the more adventurous and for those with time on their hands, it is possible to include a detour which includes the Wildeperdehoek pass. From here the road goes through the Namaqua flatlands. This area is renowned for its ‘Riethuis quartz’ and the dune areas, which has a dry fynbos type growing here. Crossing the main Hondeklip Bay road you will enter the Namakwa Coastal section of the park, which consists of 50km spectacular coastline, before ending at Groen river mouth.
In terms of 4×4 degrees of dificulty, this one is described as easy to moderate, with occasional sandy sections along the coast. Some sections are steep with dongas(deep ravines) and a 4×4 vehicle is essential.
The driving distances range from 176km – 200km, depending on which tracks you select. The complete route can take 6 – 8 hours. Add another 2 hours from Groen river back to Skilpad if you are a chalet resident. The route can either be done in sections or completely over 2-3 days….or longer if you get stuck in the beautiful camps along the way by choice.
Best time of year to attempt this according to the experts? All year. In wet season/ flower season certain sections may be closed. The route may also be closed or changed after heavy rains. Please contact the Park in advance during the wet season (June – September)
(Now for the bit of mandatory homework information on how to get to the starting point, which we always include: To get to Namaqua National park (Skilpad Office) take the N7 to Kamieskroon. Turn into Kamieskroon, then immediately left past the Hotel (only in Africa will destinations be earmarked with points like…Hotel, Post office and police station…and if there are more than 1200 inhabitants…the place of Worship) Follow the gravel road (which passes underneath the N7) for 21km to the park.
About the route : There are several numbered and un -numbered ‘caracal’ signs to indicate the route. It is essential to obtain a booklet at the park for following the route. The booklet also contains grid reference points.The Park’s offices and the Skilpad Rest Camp is situated at this point. The disturbed farmlands are famous for their annual wildflower blooms which attracts tourist from all over the world and botany lovers in particular in the flower season. Out of season the area attracts game, particularly hartebeest and smaller antelope.
From Skilpad the route goes towards Soebatsfontein, past the viewpoint and down the cement road as you decent down the Kamiesberg mountains. Continuing along this road you will get to the Ecoroute turnoff. The section between the turnoff and Kookfontein is one of the best game viewing areas during certain times of the year. You will also have to cross the beautifully named Swartlintjies river, which may be impassable in the wet season.
The track winds it way past Kookfontein, which is an abandoned settlement based around a permanent fountain. There is a swimming hole (occasionally filled with water) and some shady palm trees-perfect to escope the mid-day heat.
The route then takes you into the Kamiesberg uplands and its spectacular vistas and plants. from here it will also take you over the Wildeperdehoek pass. The Wildeperdehoek pass was constructed in the late 1800’s, for transporting Copper Ore from Springbok to Hondeklip Bay. The road was constructed under the supervision of Patrick Fletcher, who used convicts as his labor force. The method used is similar to Bain’s methods. If you turn East the road will take you to Springbok, turning West will take you further on the Ecoroute and/ or to Koingnaas and Hondeklip Bay. Now, Koingnaas is probably the best kept Wes Coast secret ever… who would not want to spend a night sleeping under the stars in old diamond diver quarters?? but that is a story for another day…
From the Wildeperdehoek pass the route will take you through one of the few grassy areas in Namaqua; pass the ‘Riethuis quartz,’ and rare Arid fynbos with beautiful views which make one stop for a moment and take it all in.
Following the stunning Ecoroute will bring you to the Hondeklip Bay road. Here you cross the Hondeklip Bay road to get to the coastal area. Please remember to close the gates! If you turn towards the coast at this crossing you will get to the small town of Hondeklip Bay. It used to be a port for copper ore exports and later a crayfish factory, but both these activities has long since ceased. The bay is pretty, there is an eery old shipwreck (the Aristea) and the beaches to the south of the town are stunningly beautiful. There are various private accommodation options in Hondeklip Bay.
After you have crossed the Hondeklip Bay road you will enter the Groen- Spoeg coastal section of the park. In 2008 this section was made available for inclusion in the National park purposes by De Beers Consolidated Mines. The vegetation type is the Namaqualand Coastal Duneveld, and is one of the few unspoilt sections of this vegetation type left. The whole coast provides excellent viewing of vygies in the flower season. The scenic Spoeg river estuary is an excellent birding spot, particularly for waders. The caves are a historical and cultural landmark, where signs of sheep farming, 2000 years ago, has been found.
The tracks south to Groen river splits continuously and join up again. Some tracks are currently being rehabilitated. Please note: strictly no driving is allowed on closed tracks or on any beach.
The Groen-Spoeg coast is relatively untouched by human activity. Apart from one fountain there is no fresh water along this 50km stretch of coastline. The cold Benguella current causes regular mist, which in turn nourishes the unique plant species of this section. The intertidal zone has an exceptional high biomass of various organisms, in particular mussels, limpets and rock lobster. (remember you would need a permit for any lobster fishing, and it is prohibited in certain stretches along the coast, so do your research)
Rocky shores and white sandy beaches seem to continue forever, with countless beautiful little qaint bays along this whole coast. Look out for Heavisides’ dolphins in the bays. This specie is endemic to the west coast. You will also cross the Bitter river dunes (sand movement corridor). This is a good example of a dynamic, moving dune system. This particular system is in pristine condition, and the only unspoilt and properly functioning system left on the South African coast. The system is protected in its entirety and is a major conservation feature of the park.
And all to soon it is onto Groen river mouth: This is the end of the Eco Route, or alternatively the start if you want to do the route ‘in reverse’. Turning to the coast you will get to the Groen River estuary and Groen river lighthouse (not open for visitors unfortunately). Turning inland will take you to the N7 and the town of Garies, and back to the Skilpad chalets if you are a resident. The Groen river estuary is one of the saltiest on the South African coast. The estuary is often visited by pelicans and flamingoes. Groen River estuary can be reached from either Garies along a 70km gravel road, or along a coastal track from Lutzville.
In short, I have decided to attempt this route in August, September as this would be prime flower season. Hope to see you all on the road in your Safari Odyssey hired 4×4 🙂
Ecoroute Start: Skilpad Office, Namakwa National Park (S30˚09.489”; E017˚46.429”)