5 reasons why the Cederberg is a must visit!

Text & Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Only a two-to-three-hour drive from Cape Town, the semi-arid Cederberg is a completely different world. The favourite playground of adventurous Capetonians, it is still off the map of most international travellers. Here are five reasons why this wilderness should be on your map!

1. Rock paintings

The Khoisan are the indigenous people of Southern Africa who used to roam these lands thousands of years ago, way before the Bantu and European people arrived in the region. Exploited and exterminated by Bantu tribes and European colonists, only very few remain today. With no written history, it is their rock paintings that best bears witness to their culture. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park showcases about 30,000 of these paintings while about 2,500 rock art sites are scattered over the Cederberg – to mention the sites that were found as many hard-to-reach caves and overhangs may host more sites. If the oldest ones were painted 8,000 years ago, the rock paintings in Stadsaal are the best preserved and are estimated to be at least 1,000-year-old. The sandstone overhang shelters a clear and beautiful depiction of a group of elephants and men from the elements. The burgundy red natural pigments have withstood the years and the interpretation of this rock art is still open to many heated discussions amongst researchers. The study of thousands of sites has been giving hints into the meaning of these often spiritual paintings. Often an effort by the Khoisan’s spiritual leader to bring rain, an attempt to heal the sick, or a way to guarantee a good hunt drawing strength from powerful animals such as these majestic elephants? The mystery remains.

However, science has decoded the techniques used to create the rock art. Just like their way of living, the way of painting of the Khoisan was sustainable, extracting all they needed from nature: the ground soft ochre rock for red to maroon taints, charcoal for black and white clay for white all deposited with brushes made from animal hair, feathers and reeds.

Standings by the rock paintings, with an expansive view on the wilderness, things have not changed much here since the time of the Khoisan people. The UNESCO World Heritage status of the Matjiesriver Nature Reserve on which the site is located aims at keeping it this way.

2. The Wolfberg Arch & Wolfberg Cracks

Past the Valley of the Red Gods where whimsical rock formations dot the dirt track, the path becomes narrow and winds its way seriously up the mountain towards the Wolfberg Cracks. In the burning heat, the liters of water weigh on my shoulders: in this semi-arid environment, no water is to be found along the Wolfberg Arch trail. Still, spending the night in the wilderness under the arch is too tempting and worth carrying the load. Hiking up, the vegetation is a delicate mix of fynbos and Karoo succulent while overhangs seem to be a favourite spot for baboons and rock dassies.

After the brutal hike up, two options are available: the wide crack or the Wolfberg Cracks. The latter? Narrow cracks where scrambling is the only way to go through. Not for the claustrophobic nor the faint hearted, it is a wonderful playground for adventurers that we cannot resist.

At this stage, most of the hard work has been completed and the rest of the trail is fairly flat. Eventually, the arch sticks out, far in the distance. Majestically, it towers the wilderness that surrounds us fully. At sunset, as the Wolfberg Arch turns even more golden, grey reedbucks run across the arid landscape and a klipspringer breaks the orange sky with its elegant silhouette atop a rock. Slowly, the Southern Cross appears amongst thousands of stars for an unforgettable night under the Milky Way.

3. The swimming holes

Despite being a water scarce area, crystal-clear water filtered through layers of million-year-old sandstone flows through the Cederberg.

Following Dwarsrivier from the Sanddrif camp leads to the Maalgat rock pool. With its waterfalls, cliffs to jump from, deep pool to swim and luxuriant vegetation, it is a wonderful and unexpected oasis in this semi-arid ecosystem. The perfect place to recover from any adventure in the Cederberg!

4. Bouldering & rock climbing

The sandstone rock formations of the Cederberg, sculpted for millions of years by wind, water and temperature gradients are whimsical. Some have become landmarks such as the Maltese cross, Lot’s wife or the Wolfberg Arch. Some just talk to one’s imagination while hiking, running or mountain biking the trails. Others form overhangs or spacious caves with natural vaults, arches and pillars like in Stadsaal.

Its name (meaning “the city hall” in Afrikaans) does not only refer to the majestic architecture of the cave, but also to the meeting place where the Nationalist Party members gathered to plan their 1948 victory. These general elections put the head of the party, Malan, into office. As prime minister, he implemented the apartheid promoted by his party. Names of some of the Nationalist Party members of the time are graffiti on the walls, next to Boer names from the late 1800s who gathered here too.

Out of the cave, it is a wonderful playground for adventure seekers. While some rock-climbing routes are maintained by the Mountain Club of South Africa with permanent raw bolts for safety, others are practiced by experienced climbers leaving no trace, and bouldering is a fun option to everyone.

5. Cederberg wines

Unexpectedly, the semi-arid Cederberg hosts some vineyards. And not only any vineyards. A wide variety of grapes including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin, Merlot, Cabernet, the rare German Bukettraube, and the award-winning Shiraz grow here on 65 hectares of diverse types of soil.

“The climate is very specific and some of our vines are planted above 1,000 meters (3,000ft). With pure free flowing water, a virus-free environment, minimum diseases, and a cool Mediterranean climate with interesting soil types, this is an ideal land for spectacular wines” explains Pieter du Toit, from Cederberg Wines. “For instance, the Bukettraube rots in Germany and produces a great semi-sweet wine here”, he continues as he pours us a glass of the golden white wine made with the rare cultivar. Dry apricots. Sweetness without added sugars.

However, the vineyard was far from being obvious. The Nieuwoudt family settled here in 1893, coming from the Netherlands via Stellenbosch. They established a tobacco and fruit farm that was converted to a wine farm only in 2004. Today, the Cederberg Wines operates within the Cederberg Conservancy: the water-intensive pines and blue gums planted by the first settlers for timber were unrooted, the endemic Clanwilliam cedars that were used for furniture and on the verge of extinction are being planted by drones, and the Cape leopards are protected to balance the ecosystem. Running 80% on solar panels, the farm is committed to sustainability.

As Peter concludes the cellar visit, “Pop!” The characteristic sound of a champagne bottle announces Jerome Grand Van Rooi, the 2022 young wine maker of the year at the Diners Club SA contest. With a big smile conveying his passion for wine making, he pours a glass of the Chardonnay-based MCC (the local champagne or Méthode Cap Classique): excellent with crisp apple and a perfect density and size of bubbles.

Jerome takes us through the Cederberg white wines. To taste the terroir better, he pauses on the Sauvignon Blanc. In a glass, the Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc that grows here at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters (3,000ft) and benefits from a continental influence: clean on the palate, smooth and fresh. In another glass, the Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc, made in the exact same way but with grapes from Elgin, Africa’s most southern point about 300 km away along the Atlantic Ocean: fuller, more fynbos and green pepper.

With the French oak barrels in the cellar as the backdrop of the wine tasting, Jerome moves to the Cederberg red wines. The award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz both aged in 225-litre French oak barrels are gems.

In this rough and unique land with an unforgiving climate, an audacious team is crafting wonderful wines that have started to collect the best of South Africa awards…

Where to stay?

The Sanddrif Private Holiday Resort offers great accommodation from cottages to campsites. As an overnight guest you will not need to obtain a permit for the Maalgat swimming hole nor the hiking trails around as they are part of their property.

  • A cabin at Sanddrif in the Cederberg, South Africa
  • The interior of a cabin at Sanddrif in the Cederberg, South Africa
  • The view from a cabin at Sanddrif in the Cederberg, South Africa
  • Desert flowers, Cederberg
  • Along the Lot's Wife trail, Cederberg
  • Lot's Wife rock formation on the namesake trail, Cederberg
  • A cabin at Sanddrif in the Cederberg, South Africa

Travel tips:

  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
  • When you visit the Cederberg Wines, also take a look at the micro brewery. The same pure water filtered by sandstone is used to brew 5 craft beers: IPA, pale ale, lager, white and golden ale.
  • The Sanddrif reception also sells the permits required to visit the Stadsaal Cave, to access the Maalgaat swimming holes and to hike the Wolfberg Arch and Maltese Cross.
  • Alternatively, the permits can also be obtained at Cape Nature.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more amazing adventures in South Africa, click these images!

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