This historical gravel road pass was built between 1867 and 1869. It's a long pass at almost 17 km and it has a substantial altitude variance of 383m which produces a fairly mild average gradient of 1:44, but the vast majority of the steeper gradients occur on the eastern side of the pass, where there are some steep sections at 1:5.
Fortunately it seldom rains here, so the road is generally quite safe for non 4WD vehicles. The scenery along which the road traverses is exceptionally dramatic with towering rock faces and a generally bone-dry river bed in view most of the time. This road is not suitable for cars lacking good ground clearance.
Goegap Nature Reserve
We now head north to Springbok and the nearby Goegap Nature Reserve. Springbok is of course the principal town in the region. It was called Springbokfontein until 1911, when it was shortened to Springbok. It is the main town of the Nama Khoi Local Municipality, which also includes a number of surrounding towns such as Okiep and Nababeep.
The town lies at an elevation of 1,007 metres in a narrow valley between the high granite domes of the Klein Koperberge (Small Copper Mountains). This name gives away the reason for the early settlement which gradually turned into a major commercial and administrative centre for copper mining operations in the region. While the town initially developed rapidly, this slowed when rich copper deposits were discovered in Okiep.
As the main source of water, Springbok continued to develop as the commercial and administrative centre for different mines in the area. Even though mining activities have dwindled, the town remains an important administrative capital in the region and due to its location a favourite stop-over for tourists on their way to Namibia. Today the main income is generated from tourism, mining activities, commerce and farming.
Springbok is especially fascinating since almost half of the plant species here are found nowhere else in the world. When the winter rain falls, the Goegap Nature Reserve, home to the Hester Malan Wild Flower Garden, with outcrops of granite, is covered in spring flowers like irises and orchids.
The streets lead off from a central little koppie which now shows off Namaqualand’s strange flora, such as the almost leafless Quiver tree whose branches were used by San people to hold their arrows. This area is famed for the incredible transformation which occurs every spring, when the near-lifeless scrubland explodes into colour from thousands of flowers hidden in the dry dusty earth, brought to life by winter rains.
The best time to visit the reserve to fully enjoy its splendour is from late July or August through to October, if you are wanting to see the spring flowers. (Depending on the rains the flowers may be earlier or later and this varies from year to year).The reserve with its granite peaks and sandy plains are dominated by Carolusberg, the highest point in the area. Goegap's wild flower garden contains an enormous collection of succulents endemic to the area. Besides the unbelievable number of floral species, Goegap Nature Reserve boasts a recorded 45 mammalian species including springbok, gemsbok, the endangered Hartman's Zebra and the aardwolf amongst several others.
We now head north to Steinkopf, then go gravel NW to Eksteenfontein.
The little town of Eksteenfontein in the Richtersveld World Heritage Site has a fascinating history. Those who ended up in this corner of Northern Cape province were victims of racism and apartheid rules. In the 1990s, fortunes changed as the people of the Richtersveld realised how valuable and sensitive the local plant life was.
The little hamlet is 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 north of what was then the Cape province, 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. There is a small tourism office where you can arrange a guided walk or even better make use of donkey cart. The museum is also a must visit.
Beyond Eksteenfontein the road rattles its way northwards (and we say 'rattle' because the corrugations on these roads are fierce and it's best not to tackle these roads in an ordinary sedan vehicle). A high clearance 4x2 bakkie, AWD or 4x4 is the way to go. And for those that have 4x4's please engage 4WD high range the moment you get to the gravel as it greatly improves traction and your safety. If you find your vehicle 'skating' on the corners or even on straight sections, it's probably because your tyres are too hard. Try deflating them to 1.4 bar and you will notice an immediate difference. At a speed of 70 kph the vehicle will 'float' over the corrugations, but this technique is best eased into until you have sufficient confidence in your driving skills and vehicle's handling.
Our route heads up towards Vioolsdrif and the Orange River, but first we have to tackle a long, winding, stony pass called Helskoof Pass. Pass naming (in fact any geographical feature) is often complex and confusing and this pass is one of them. There is another Helskoof Pass just a stone's throw away (pun intended) within the Richtersveld National Park, (which we will get to later in this series). Obviously the two passes named exactly the same cause havoc with GPS routes and navigation and doubly so for first time visitors to this area.
The most interesting (and hotly debated) feature is the thousands upon thousands of stone cairns that have been erected by well meaning travellers on either side of the pass. The myth goes that unless you build a cairn, your passage through the pass will not go well. Those against the practice suggest that the movement of stones and rocks from where they have lain for hundreds of years, can disturb organisms and insects in this harsh and barren landscape.
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. 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 Vioolsdrif in the north. We recommend a high clearance 4x4 and two spare wheels. Please carry emergency drinking water with you.
Next week we will explore the 7 passes inside the national park.
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Silly questions: "Why do Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?"