Witteberg Private Nature Reserve: Part 1 – Wild Karoo Dreams

Witeberg view
View over the valley into the Witteberg Reserve

Tom Lewis and Frik Linde have a dream, and have built a partnership to translate it into reality.  After creating a very successful outdoor experience with 4×4 routes voted into the Top 10 in South Africa at Mont Eco near Montague, they clearly have the necessary skill.  Their passion, however, is to make a true wilderness lifestyle accessible and sustainable to those who share their love of wild open spaces, black night skies lit only by the stars, and air tainted only with the fragrance of fynbos.  The Witteberg Private Nature Reserve is the embodiment of the dream.

The Wittberg Mountains lie near the southern border of the Karoo within the Western Cape Province, South Africa.  Readily accessible from the N1 national highway between Touwsrivier and Matjiesfontein, they are 2.5 hours drive (about 250km) from Cape Town.   Like most of the Karoo, it is a harsh semi-arid area where large scale farming is tough and the terrain precludes expansive infrastructure.  With an average altitude of around 1000m, it is a place of rugged fynbos-covered ridges interspersed with vlaktes, and secret kloofs.  Bitterly cold in winter and scorching in summer, the beauty here is subtle and requires a shift in pace and perspective to appreciate.  Frik’s family have farmed in the area for generations; indeed, the property which is now the nature reserve was once their land.  They cultivated hardy salt bush in the valley to support ubiquitous Karoo sheep and later harvested the indigenous Proteas from the mountains, leaving gravestones, dry-stone wall enclosures and some whitewashed houses now reaching national monument status. Frik, however, joined in the endeavour by Tom, has had a different vision.  Trading the vegetation-depleting sheep for naturally-occurring wildlife and converting the precipitous flower-harvesting trails into 4×4 routes, they have spent the last 5 years turning a farm back into a wilderness… and the result is breath-taking.

View across the valley with the historic ‘Khaya’ cottage just visible

We were invited to spend 3 days in the WPNR by our friend John and his family months ago, and were elated when the plans finally fell into place.  John is good friends with Tom and Frik, so I requested and was granted permission to bring along my powered paraglider and fly in the reserve (that story is coming in Part 2 or 3!).  One of the blessings of a private reserve run by open-minded owners is that they welcome dogs to certain of the accommodation areas and on leash within the entire reserve, so our Labrador Kaptein and John’s two spaniels were able to join us.  To be frank, Kaptein is so much part of our family that we barely consider travelling anywhere that doesn’t allow dogs.  Sure, this prevents us from going to many places, but it has been the direct cause of us discovering so many more that do allow dogs that we’ve never missed a trip.  Evie (the Pajero) got a new roof-rack to cope with all the camping gear above and beyond the usual load (food, cooking kit, personal items, tools and recovery equipment, spare fuel, paramotor, paraglider, flying equipment, dog food and toys, Labrador, etc), I spent a post-call morning packing, and then we departed through a true Cape Town downpour for the Karoo.

Historic ‘Khaya’ cottage in the Witteberg

The WPNR offers several options for accommodation, including very well-appointed rooms at the main farmstead (now owner’s house), but based on John’s experience and recommendation we were aiming for the historic ‘Khaya’, a semi-restored farm cottage next to the river that is more than 100 years old.  Do not be misled: the Khaya is very rustic.  The original mud-brick plastered walls are showing their wear and the corrugated roof whistles in places when the wind blows, but it has an undeniable thick-set charm and permanence.  The attraction here is not the building in any case: the Khaya marks the camping area in the reserve, and within its boundary fence stretching down to the riverbank is enough space for many tents beneath pear trees that nearly pre-date the cottage.  This is easy camping (if you ignore the temperature range from subzero into the forties): the Khaya sports two bathrooms with hot showers, kitchen with gas stove and fridge, and two braai areas.  We arrived a little after John et al in the late afternoon to find a fire burning and the last light illuminating the pear trees in full blossom.  Friends, a fire, fine wine, frolicking dogs and the fragrance of fruit trees mixed with fynbos…it was impossible not to immediately feel at peace.

Camping beneath the pear trees

The following day we began to explore the reserve.  Being a private nature reserve, one is afforded much greater freedom than usual, with the inevitable larger dose of responsibility.  The dream for the Witteberg PNR is fairly simple and the majority of the groundwork (pun intended) has already been laid.  Recognising that ownership and participation is key to preservation, Frik and Tom have devised a model by which individuals, families and trusts can purchase a ‘section’ of the property, which (like a sectional title) allows construction of an ecologically sustainable cottage which and affords a part share of the entire reserve.  This make so much more sense than dividing the property into pieces; the ecological integrity of the reserve is maintained, all owners have access to the entire area (almost 4500 hectares!), and there is shared responsibility.  To generate income to cover running expenses and allow some public access to the reserve, they have developed and maintained the current 4×4 routes, camping area and accommodation.  In addition, they have installed a network of solar-powered pumps fed by boreholes which top up a gravity-feed 80 kilolitre water tank supply, surveyed and marked sites for the cottages so that none will be within view of the next, and reclaimed large areas of natural fynbos.  It’s an elegant solution to a significant problem:  who doesn’t want to have a game farm/wilderness property, but who can afford it?

Freedom and wide open spaces

Clearly, a man who has such visionary friends must be a discerning gent, and John does not disappoint.  Barely hours after sunrise he was suggesting that we take our vehicular conveyances for an exploratory jaunt (he drives a well-equipped short-wheel-base Land Rover Defender on such occasions).  Emboldened by several cups of Fran’s finest bean roast and the fact that the gusty wind and clouds scooting across the sky made me disinclined to attempt aviation, we decided to sample some of the shorter 4WD routes in the reserve.  The Witteberg is well known to 4WD aficionados for the circular “Diep-en-Deur” trail (see Part 2 or 3 or thereabouts), but there are several more out-and-return drives along former protea-picking tracks of varying difficulty.  Other than after heavy rain, most of the trails in the reserve are graded as 3/5 and are fair game to any 4WD with low range and a rear diff-lock for the loose rocky shale sections.  We rocked and rolled our way up the ‘Hoogmoed se Kloof’ track to a lovely viewpoint (and potential paraglider launch) via several sharp, steep, loose bends.  One particular corner – visible on the photos – shall forever be known as ‘Fran se Omdonderhoek’ as she was exposed to the down-slope tilt and yawning open space.   My shoulder will recover in time, but he nail imprints will be in the armrest forever…

Carefully negotiating a between a rock and a hard place…or rather a rock and a long fall!

Brilliant leucadendrons lit up the mountainside, disguising the more understated but stately proteas.  We identified a good paraglider launch site on an open slope and turned back down towards the valley, crawling down the steep descent in low-range first.  After fording the river in the valley again, we decided that this taste of adventure was insufficient to slake our thirst, and headed for another out-and-return route at the southern end of the reserve, traversing Groenkloof and Waterkloof.  This proved equally pleasant although substantially longer.  A solitary vaal ribbok batted long eyelashes as we climbed the first incline; startling red Hyobanche sanguinea littered the roadside, and small but slippery drifts wet our wheels and appetites for new vistas.  Eventually we were accosted by a rockslide:  steep drop on one side and precarious boulder on the other.  With hearts in mouth and careful direction from co-drivers we inched past and completed the trail, to all-round satisfaction.  Back to the Khaya, beverages and braai?  Yes… but Ross had plans to fly first.

Want to read the story of the first paraglider flight in the Witteberg Private Nature Reserve?  Wait for Part 2….

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