Helskloof Pass (Noordoewer)

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Helskloof Pass with its breathtaking geology Helskloof Pass with its breathtaking geology - Photo: Trygve Roberts

This amazing and very different pass has a surreal feel about it and it's easy to see how it earned its name. It's barren and virtually devoid of plant life or water leaving one with a distinctly vulnerable feeling. The striking feature of this pass is the narrow valley where passing travellers have built hundreds of thousand of stone cairns along the sides of the track - a modern day ritual to ensure you have a touble-free journey over the pass.

Confusingly, there is another Helskloof Pass just 70 km to the north-west of this one on the western side of the Richtersveld National Park most famous for its endemic Helskloof aloe. We distinguish the two passes as Helskloof (Cairns) and Helskloof (Aloes) for ease of reference.

This pass is quite long at 14,4 km and has an altitude variance of 360m, producing an average gradient of 1:40. Due to the isolated nature of this pass, we recommend travelling in a small convoy of at least 2 vehicles. The pass connects Eksteenfontein in the south with Noordoewer and Vioolsdrif in the north. We recommend a high clearance 4x4 and two spare wheels. Please carry emergency drinking water with you.


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[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]

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Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.

Digging into the details:

Getting there: From Eksteenfontein take the main gravel road south-east out of the village. Remain on this road for 7,5 km and take the minor gravel track to the left at GPS S28.860949 E17.311958. Remain on this road which heads east and later north-east for a total of 16 km to arrive at the southern start of the pass.

The approach road from Eksteenfontein to HelskloofThe drive between Eksteenfontein and Helskloof offers rugged scenery / Photo: trygve RobertsFor those wanting to drive the pass from the opposite direction, from the border control point at Vioolsdrif, take the slip road off the N7 to Noordoewer, remaining on the southern side of the Orange River. Remain on this road for 23 km as it meanders amongst citrus farms. The road is generally in good condition until you reach the last farm, where the surface immediately deteriorates into a 4x4 track. There are no turns-offs so you can't get lost. Just after the last farm after passing through a closed gate, the road swings down a barren, rock strewn kloof - this is the northern start of the Helskloof.

A special note to all potential visitors, everyone will need to traverse the 23 km section along the Orange River regardless of your direction of travel. The farmers have erected sign-boards as a plea to not drive dust and create dust. As a sign of respect to these farmers, who produce the food that we all eat, keep your speed below 40 kph and the dust levels as low as possible.

A lone quiver tree slihouetted agianst the desert skyline / Photo: Trygve RobertsWe filmed this pass from south to north from the Eksteenfontein side. Eksteenfontein, perched on the very edge of the Richtersveld World Heritage Site, has one of the most interesting histories of any South African town. Most of the people there come from Baster ancestry. These people of mixed blood (in Afrikaans, 'baster' means ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixed’) were forcibly removed from the white farming area near Pofadder in the Northern Cape in 1945.

Their new home in a ‘coloured area’ was negotiated for them by a Reverend Eksteen and had the unpromising name of Stinkfontein ('stinking spring'). The oldest people of Eksteenfontein still remember the month-long trek to their new home – made on foot and with carts pulled by donkeys and oxen.

There were no roads, and the brackish water en route made many sick. When they arrived they had to cope with a sometimes hostile Nama people who had lived here for centuries. The settlement, named in honour of the pastor who had helped them find a new place to live, became something of a town of last resort for marginalised and disaffected people.

No one had any idea then, that their new home – the Richtersveld – would one day be recognised as one of the foremost floral destinations in the world. This botanical wonderland became a World Heritage Site, declared for its natural and cultural importance, in 2007. It’s an intriguing town to visit – and not only because of the floral bounty or the stock farmers who migrate with their livestock according to the seasons.

You can stay in the middle of town at a comfortable (but basic) guest house owned by the community, or take a slow donkey ride to the Rooiberg Guest House 15km away. Enquire about sampling traditional food like delicious bread cooked on an open fire or dumplings cooked in goatsmilk, or seeing a demonstration of the 'Nama Stap' ('Nama Step') – a traditional dance.

The southern start of Helskloof passApproaching the pass from the southern side / Photo: Trygve Roberts

The longer you stay in Eksteenfontein, the more you’ll be drawn into the everyday lives of these interesting people. Go to a church service and listen to the Eksteenfontein String Band (known as the 'Snar Orkes'). Go and visit a nomadic livestock farming family nearby. You’ll feel a whole new appreciation for the sustainable relationship the Richtersvelders have with their arid yet beautiful land. [Info on Eksteenfontein courtesy of SouthAfrica.net]

Most of this pass is not really difficult in terms of sharp corners or steep gradients, but the track is rough and long sections consist of soft sand. The track crosses the dry river beds many times and disappear from view sometimes, but you'll quickly pick the track up on the far side by scanning ahead over the next 50 metres or so.

[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts}

Pink quartzitePink quartzite / Photo: Trygve RobertsThe geology is astounding and varies enormously. Make sure you've allowed plenty of time for photo stops as some of the rock formations are mind-boggling. There are a few huge granite boulders right next to the track, where sign boards explain their composition and how they got there.

Without doubt the most unusual feature is the valley of stone cairns. Legend has it, that anyone travelling through this 'hellish place' must stop and build a cairn or your journey will not go well. The cairn valley starts about 2 km from the southern side and lasts for almost a kilometre. Every square metre of the barren and rocky landscape is occupied by a cairn. Some are small and others are almost works of art, where the creators have gone to considerable trouble to create their personal monument to stand in perpetuity in the hot desert sun.
The local Richtersvelders refer fondly to the cairns as "Boesmantjies"

The cairns are built on either side of the track and go quite far up the hillsides. You're welcome to find a space and build your own cairn. Take a photo and remember this journey for the rest of your life. Of the 680 passes we have filmed to date, we have never come across anything quite like this.

After the cairn forest, the valley widens and the going is a bit easier. You can never quite relax on these roads as there are thousands of rocks, ruts and boulders (and the inevitable corrugations) to quickly bring your speed back down to under 20 kph.

A small part of the cairn forestA small section of the cairn forest in Helskloof / Photo: Torte276Here and there a scraggly tree ekes an existence out of the river bed and shade for a picnic spot is at a premium in this kloof. Eventually the track exits the kloof at the 14,4 km mark at the final crossing of the river bed. Soon you will reach an outlying farm, where you must please close the gate and as mentioned earlier, please keep your speed down to under 40 kph to help the farmers along the Orange River keep dust off their crops.

The track is now a proper road and much smoother and heads east along the southern bank of the Orange River for 23 km to terminate at an intersection with the tarred N7 main road known as the Cape-Namibia Route. Turn left to cross the border into Namibia or turn right and head south towards Springbok. 

[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]

Noordoewer is a town in the ǁKaras Region of southern Namibia. Its name means 'North Bank' in Afrikaans, in reference to the north bank of the Orange River, on which it is located. The village lies opposite the South African town of Vioolsdrif, to which it is connected by the road bridge which forms the northern end of the South African N7 and the southern end of the Namibian B1.

Orange River at NoordoewerThe Orange River at Noordoewer / Photo: Tadpole farm

Noordoewer is known for grape production and adventure canoeing and is an important border post on a crucial transport route between the two countries. It is planned to upgrade its status to that of a town.

The Richtersveld is a mountainous desert landscape characterised by rugged kloofs and high mountains, situated in the north-western corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province. It is full of changing scenery from flat, sandy, coastal plains, to craggy sharp mountains of volcanic rock and the lushness of the Orange River, which forms the border with neighbouring Namibia. The area ranges in altitude from sea level, to 1,377 m at Cornellberg.

Located in South Africa's northern Namaqualand, this arid area represents a harsh landscape where water is a great scarcity and only the hardiest of lifeforms survive. Despite this, the Richtersveld is regarded as the only Arid Biodiversity Hotspot on Earth, with an astonishing variety of plant, bird and animal life, much of which is endemic.

Scenery - Helskloof PassScenery along the Helskloof Pass / Photo: Trygve Roberts

Part of the area is inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List due to its cultural values, but remains a favourite amongst nature travellers to South Africa, the landscape is sometimes described as "martian". Though barren and desolate at first glance, closer examination reveals the area to be rich in desert lifeforms, with an array of unique species specially adapted for survival.

Temperatures are extreme, and in summer can reach over 50 °C. Rain is a very rare event.

The northern part of the area was proclaimed as a National Park in 1991 after 18 years of negotiation with the local community, who continue to live and graze their livestock in the area. It has an area of 1,624.45 square kilometres.

Sacred petroglyph A huge rock right next to the road called a petroglyph - Dont write your name on it! / Photo: Trygve Roberts

In June 2007, the "Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape", just to the south of the National Park and an area of equivalent size and beauty, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike the National Park, the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, which forms the core zone of the World Heritage Site, is not subject to diamond mining and is as a result the more pristine of the two areas.

The climate here is harsh with temperatures of up to 53 °C having been recorded in mid-summer. Nights are cool and bring with them heavy dew. This unique climate is what has fostered such a unique ecosystem. With water so scarce, life in the Richtersveld depends on moisture from the early morning fog. Locals call it 'Ihuries' or 'Malmokkies' and it makes survival possible for a range of small reptiles, birds and mammals.

Near the northern end of the Helskloof PassAmazing geology along the pass / Photo: Trygve RobertsThe park boasts excellent bird watching opportunities, as well as a diverse range of animals including grey rhebok, duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, kudu, Hartmann's mountain zebra, baboon, vervet monkey, caracal and leopard. The threatened Richtersveld katydid is endemic to the area.

The area is home to a number of rather unusual plants, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. Chief among these is the "Halfmensboom" (Pachypodium namaquanum). Literally translated, this means "half-person tree" and the name comes from the tree's resemblance to the human form; its top consists of a grouping of thick, crinkled leaves, generally leaning northwards, which can make it look almost like a human head. These trees are revered by the indigenous Nama people as the embodiment of their ancestors, half human, half plant, mourning for their ancient Namibian home.

HalfmensThe icon of the Richtersveld - The Halfmens tree

Also found here are gnarled kokerbome, other tall aloes, and a variety of other unusual succulents, such as Aloe pearsonii which is only found in the other Helskloof Pass, inside the national park and nowhere else in the world.

The area is inhabited by Nama and other peoples. The local community, which owns the entire area, manages the National Park in conjunction with South African National Parks and is entirely responsible for management of the World Heritage Site. Both areas are used by traditional nomadic/transhumance herders to practice their ancient lifestyle and culture. It is the last place where the traditional way of life of the KhoiKhoi (of whom the Nama are the largest surviving clan) who once occupied the entire south-western part of Africa, survives to any great extent. The World Heritage Site is declared under the cultural criteria of the World Heritage Convention although it is recognised that the cultural values of the community and their continued existence are intrinsically connected to the environment. [Source - Wikipedia]

If you don't own a 4x4, hire one -  but make sure that you get to drive this extraordinary route through this pristine mountain wilderness, whereafter you will be left in awe by the deafening silence, the inky blue skies and the astounding variety of the geology.

This is not a place to rush through. The road surafces are universally rough and speeds are by necessity fairly slow, so make sure you allow enough time in your planning for just putting your feet up - watch the blaze of stars at night - climb a granite peak - take a refreshing dip in the Gariep - and become one with one of the most unique mountain deserts in the world.

You can access any of Richtersveld passes by making use of the hyperlinks provided below:

Halfmens Pass
Akkedis Pass
Richtersberg Pass
Domorogh Pass
Helskloof Pass (Aloes - Richtersveld National Park)
Helskloof Pass  (Cairns - Eksteenfontein - Noordoewer) The page you're on.

Fact File:

GPS START  S28.814508 E17.426018
GPS SUMMIT S28.815089 E17.433316
GPS END  S28.712209 E17.467241
DISTANCE 14,4 km
TIME REQUIRED 60 minutes
SURFACE Gravel / Jeep Track
DATE FILMED 21.07.2016
NEAREST TOWN Eksteenfontein (23 km)

Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Helskloof Pass (Noordoewer) Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in Google Earth and most GPS software)


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