Tucked away between the Swartberg, Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains, lies the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve; a magical wilderness at the heart of the Klein Karoo that offers the ideal escape for those who want to feel a million miles away from any hustle and bustle.
WORDS and PHOTOGRAPHS Dale Morris
The clear Karoo skies, free from big city light pollution, offer an endless vista of twinkling stars from atop the park’s highest peaks at night. At sunset the cliffs are bathed in ochre as succulents, fynbos and proteas glow in the warm light. Endless waves of mountains, gorges and gentle hills characterise the Gamkaberg reserve, which can be explored on foot, mountain bike or 4×4.
At the top of the reserve is Oukraal, a camp that epitomises isolation and pristine nature. The accommodation is rustic, with a zinc roof bolted onto a big pile of natural boulders – giving it oodles of character.
Dry stone walls and a fire in the primitive hearth wards off winter’s chilly winds, and one can’t help but feel a little like a bushman of old, sheltered in a cave and surrounded by the solitary sounds, smells and sights of good old Mother Nature.
Oukraal’s design is a work of genius. It blends into the natural surrounds and at no point while exploring the area can one actually see it.
But it’s the long drop toilet that really gets my vote! Open at the front, it offers one a magnificent and dramatic 180-degree view from which to contemplate the beauty of nature, the universe and everything in between.
“Hey daddy,” called my six-year-old son from inside his caveman camp, “Shall we go catch a Zebra for dinner?”
My daughter Mia giggled from her secret little alcove between the heavy rocks. The two had been playing Survivor from the moment we arrived at Oukraal for a recent weekend escape.
“Awww,” she cried, “I don’t want another mountain zebra again. Can we go hunt for Eland this time instead?”
Reluctantly I rose from my magnificent long drop throne with its commanding position overlooking the Langeberg range, and gathered up my hunting party of adventurer-wannabees.
“How will we capture it this time?” asked my son “With the big lens or the wide angle?”
“Big lens silly,” said Mia.
The Gamkaberg Nature Reserve was officially established in the 1970s to protect one of the last viable, free-living herds of Cape mountain zebra.
There were just a handful of them alive back then, thanks mostly to aggravated farmers who took offence at their habit of kicking sheep. Hunters targeted them for their beautiful skins while the apartheid government failed to protect them, viewing them as “merely donkeys with football shirts on.”
However, thanks to a concerted effort by Cape Nature and other conservation organisations, the tide was turned and now the species has been brought back from the brink of extinction, with over 50 of them calling the Gamkaberg home.
If you’re lucky, quiet and patient, you may catch a glimpse of these majestic equines as they amble in single file through the fynbos glens and valleys of the upper Gamkaberg reaches. Other species to keep an eye out for are red hartebeest, klipspringers, hyrax, eland and tortoises. Leopards also reside in the park and are often picked up on remote conservation camera traps, but the chance of spotting one of these elusive cats is rather low. You may hear them, though, as their throaty roars echo through the valleys, especially at Tierkloof camp.
It’s the little things
One shouldn’t limit an appreciation for nature to just the animals of Gamkaberg. Despite its fairly diminutive size of about 10 000 ha, the reserve is in fact home to literally thousands of botanical gems.
Protea species that exist nowhere else on earth can be found here, as can rare quartz patches that are the preferred habitat of many unusual succulents, the aptly named “babies bottoms” being my favourite.
These grape sized plants, which turn pink during extreme heat and drought, poke up through the soil, looking just like a tiny pair of sunburned buttocks – my kids couldn’t stop laughing every time we saw one.
Four distinct biomes converge on Gamkaberg, making it one of the biological hotspots of the world.
Mountain fynbos includes more species than the Amazon; the succulent Karoo biome is the richest arid habitat on the globe, while the subtropical thicket component of the park (found at the base of the mountain) is remarkable due to the diversity of its bird and animal residents. Small pockets of Afro Mountain forests exist in the darkest kloofs and most sheltered valleys.
One might wonder why such an important biome is only being protected in an area as small as the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, but manager Tom Barry says there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“There are, in fact, nine fragmented reserves here totalling more than 50 000 ha. The Gamkaberg is just one of those nine. A number of local landowners are becoming involved in sustainable land use initiatives and are joining us as partners in good stewardship programmes. These areas link much of the official reserves together. “Gamkaberg isn’t just an island in a sea of unsustainable land practices but is in fact a central component of a much richer tapestry of well-managed conservation areas that are in the process of being recognised as a Unesco (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage site.
“We are also part of the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve, which covers an area of around 3.2 million hectares.”
Not only is the Gamkaberg a great place to appreciate nature, it’s also a very important area of biological significance and conservation.
And what’s more, it’s undoubtedly the home of the world’s most scenic privy!
Now isn’t that something worth visiting, even if you don’t have a soft spot for babies’ bottoms and football jersey zebras?
Don’t like roughing it too much? The reserve offers three award-winning, semi-luxurious camps run only on solar energy. Each unique camp comprises safari-style canvas tents (with beds) that have been erected atop a deck overlooking the Gamkaberg’s mountain scenery.
There are braai and lapa areas, swimming pools, fully equipped kitchens and, of course, a tranquil ambiance unique to the wilderness areas of the Klein Karoo.
Tierkloof sleeps eight in four tents and costs between R1430 and R1900 for the whole camp. Sweet Thorn Eco lodge sleeps six and costs from R950. Fossil Ridge sleeps four and starts at R950 for the whole camp.
Oukraal costs R110 per person while the Stables (a basic camp) costs from R520 for up to eight people.
Alternative lodging can be found in Oudsthoorn (40km east) or Calitzdorp (70km west).