Roadtrip Up the West Coast to the Orange River

Last updated: Jun 08, 2015

In the early days of Spring 2013, I took to the road in the direction of the Namaqualand Desert Region in the Northern Cape, one of my favourite parts of our beautifully diverse country.

I was eager to get on the road, hoping to escape the wet and miserable Cape Town weather. I headed for the Cederberg, as my plan was to pass through this awe inspiring mountain region to get to my first stop, Clanwilliam.

As I got to Ceres it was still pouring down and I realised that this was not your average cold front and it wouldn't be so easy to escape! Nonetheless, I continued toward the Cederberg. Turning off from the R303 onto a dirt road, I could see the Cederberg in the distance breaking through the dark rain clouds to reveal some blue sky and hopefully some better weather.

The clearing of the sky was short lived and as the sun set behind the mountains, the night revealed a much more ominous looking landscape, with jagged mountains nestled in dark storm clouds, the dirt road getting increasingly muddier and not a soul to be seen for almost a 100km. As the barren earth's ability to absorb water was abolished, each low water bridge flowed faster and deeper than the previous and at some points I had to get out of my car to gauge the depth of some of the rivers with my bare feet.

After a few hours of slipping and sliding over the Uitkyk Pass and crossing through the flooded Olifants River with my trusty hatchback, I finally made it to Clanwilliam in the dark. I checked into my accommodation at Tuishuis, a quaint and cosy little B&B set in a National Monument in the heart of Clanwilliam. A warm shower and soft bed never felt so good!

The following day I spent my time on the banks of the epic Clanwilliam Dam, with masses of water thundering through the sluices of the dam and rain still falling from the sky. Local farmers smiles grew as did the mounting frustration of the hundreds of tourists flocking to the small town for the annual Wildflower Festival in Clanwilliam.

The Olifants River Valley, where Clanwilliam is situated, is part of the world famous Namaqualand flower route. Every year in spring time, the dry desert landscape of the North-Western regions of the Western Cape and most of the Northern Cape get covered in a wide array of small colourful flowers, popping up between the rocks and red desert sand. At times, when the sky is clear and blue with a light desert breeze in the air, walking through the Namaqualand veld, surrounded by millions of yellow, orange, white, blue and pink flowers will leave you completely speechless.

For those few days I spent in Clanwilliam, flower seeking tourists could however not experience this beautiful sight, as the flowers only open up when the skies are clear. So I decided to head north a few hours into the Northern Cape to Springbok, the largest and most popular town for tourists visiting Namaqualand and often used as a stopover en route to Namibia, due to its close proximity to the border.

Driving North on the N7 towards Springbok, it felt as if I was being followed by the dark rain clouds. The spring flowers were still hiding their brightly coloured petals from the rain and I was starting to think that it would be better to rather forget about the flowers and just enjoy the unusual sight of rain in the desert.

Upon arriving at my friends place where I was to be staying in Springbok, I was greeted with excited claims of possible snow on the surrounding mountains predicted for the following morning. After settling down around a fire for a steak braai, I found the Springbok locals' excitement over the rain, that was still coming down in buckets, very amusing. As the night grew colder, the claims of snow coming in the morning became more certain and stories off the last snow fall, 13 years ago, got me very excited to experience this extremely rare phenomenon for Namaqualand!

I woke up the next morning eager to check what the weather was doing only to find that the windows were completely frosted, blocking my outside view. Nonetheless, this gave me a good reason to believe that there might be snow on the mountains surrounding Springbok. I ran outside, hoping to see snow in the distance, but instead got some tiny snow flakes falling right on my nose! It was snowing very lightly in Springbok, just enough to cover the ground in a very thin layer of white snow! It was beautiful.

The rumour around town was that the Kamiesberg mountains, some 60km's south of Springbok were covered in snow and "looked just like Europe". Around lunchtime that day, we headed for the Kamies Pass in my local friend's 4x4, which was much needed in the muddy wet roads leading up the steep mountain pass.

At first, in the lower reaches of the mountain, it was just stormy and wet but as we ascended, the rain drops gradually became snow flakes and patches of white snow started to appear on the ground next to the road.

The excitement started getting too much and we soon stopped next to the road to build a snow man and play in the snow. As it was flower season, the busy tourist season for the area, there were a few other travellers also enjoying the amazing sights with us. One old man happily exclaimed that he came to see flowers but found snow instead and urged us to continue even further up the mountain to a small village called Leliesfontein.

On the old man's advice, we proceeded even further up the mountain, the icy air got even colder and the snow thicker. Even though our 4x4 vehicle was still ascending the mountain relatively easily, we nevertheless travelled very slowly to avoid the car from sliding off the road. After about 10km or so, we arrived at Leliesfontein and we were completely blown away. The village was absolutely covered in thick snow and the sight of smoke coming out of the chimneys of the small houses was very surreal! I had never seen anything like this in my life, and in the middle of the desert!

On the way down, we passed a small old Ford with a few Leliesfontein locals making their way up the pass, something that made my Cederberg driving situation a few nights prior look like a casual Sunday drive!

It was time to move on the next morning. It was a beautifully sunny day, but the cold still hung in the air and the proof of the large amounts of rain that fell could be seen in all the flowing rivers. Many, that I had passed a few days earlier on my way up through the desert, had been dry for years and the landscape was now painted an array of bright colours by the spring flowers that opened with the arrival of the sunshine.

I was on my way to the mighty Orange River, the longest river in South Africa, for a relaxing rafting trip down river with Felix Unite River Adventures. Nearing the river which forms the international border between South Africa and Namibia, the Namaqualand spring flowers gradually disappeared and the land grew increasingly more barren and desolate. Some of the locals describe the feeling of driving north from Springbok towards Namibia as a feeling of driving into the end of the world; the landscape almost takes on a post-apocalyptic look and feel. At one point I pulled off on the side of the road to take some photos at an abandoned Crystal and Stone shop. The silence was literally ringing in my ears and the only life for as far as I could see was a lone Quiver Tree standing close to the abandoned building.

That evening after crossing the border I finally arrived at the Felix Unite base camp about 10km on the other side, a beautiful and well equipped resort on the Northern banks of the Orange River. After washing down a delicious steak from the resort restaurant with one of Namibia's local brews, I headed to bed, excited for the river trip to commence in the morning.

After a safety briefing from our awesome and competent guides Vula, Bonnie, Eugene and Helder, we started paddling down the river. The sun was barely up, but it was already nice and warm. Just after our first lunch stop, where the guides prepared nice and hearty sandwiches for the group, we paddled past echo cliffs, where we saw an African Fish Eagle soaring next to the cliffs. A beautiful and rare sight!

After a day that was relaxing and exhilarating at the same time we settled our camp on a wide beach on the bank of the river. In the distance I could see the jagged, rocky mountains, scorched black from the endless beating of the desert sun and could almost feel the joy that the Khoi San must have felt thousands of years ago when they first trekked over the mountains to see the river flowing strong in the valley below. (If you are interested in more info or would like to watch a Virtual Tour of the Orange River trip, click here).

For the next and final part of my travels, I made my way down the West Coast all the way back to Cape Town. I stood on the misty cliffs at Strandfontein watching the sunset, watched surfers at one of South Africa's most famous surf spots at Eland's Bay, saw more wild flowers that I could ever have wished for at Lambert's Bay and enjoyed copious amount of seafood! On my last night before I headed home, enjoying the warmth of the fire with other travelers at The Beach Camp in the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve and watching the moon rise over the Atlantic Ocean I realized what I love most about traveling - the pure unpredictability of it all - like when a spring flower trip turns into an expedition into the snowy mountains. This is the best break for your mind from the routine of daily life.