For athletic travelers who enjoy walking, hiking or trail running, the Karoo labyrinth at St John the Baptist Church in Prince Albert may best be left to the older members of your travelling party to stroll in quiet contemplation before the heat of the day sets in.
For those focused-on mountain peaks, ancient caves and blue horizons, you are spoilt for choice with the many varieties of trails accessible as you head out from heritage town of Prince Albert at the foot of the Swartberg Pass and into the vastness of its surrounding Swartberg mountains which form part of the Cape fold mountain range.
When to go hiking
The time of year you choose to hike the Swartberg Mountains is important as climates are extreme here. Very cold winters bring snow to the mountains and temperatures well below zero, while summers can be uncomfortably hot with temperatures reaching 40°C and higher. Rain occurs throughout the year, peaking in early winter and spring, with thundershowers in the summer months.
The best times for hiking are April to May and September to October, with options ranging from easy day-hikes to a fairly demanding three-day routes which leads hikers among a wonderland of Nature from rock pools, views and untouched natural retreats.
Tremendous Trails of Natural Wonder and History
Swartberg Nature Reserve lies between the Great Karoo and Klein Karoo, forming a narrow but long stretch of 121 000 ha. The reserve was declared a World Heritage Site in 2004 and is bordered by Gamkapoort Nature Reserve immediately to the north (8 000 ha) and Towerkop Nature Reserve immediately to the west (51 000 ha). These two reserves are not open to the public but are managed in conjunction with Swartberg.
The entire conservation area - a massive 180 000 ha - is critical to the management of mountain catchments and water yields in the region with the nearest towns to the Swartberg Pass being Prince Albert (5 km), Oudtshoorn (40 km), and De Rust (55 km).
Your Best Starting Point
Prince Albert is a beautiful and tranquil base from which to head out from. A heritage village, the 4-star De Bergkant Lodge is the best establishment in which to stay, offering three cool swimming pools, air-conditioned rooms and a on-call Spa service together with its sauna and steam room to soothe sore muscles challenges by the Swartberg’s ascents and descents.
Along your various hiking routes, expect to see rock paintings and artefacts found in caves all over the reserve, which show that the area was frequented by San people for many centuries until European farmers arrived in the 1700s.
Birdwatchers will want to look out for more than 130 bird species which have been recorded here, notably, black, fish and martial eagle species, Cape sugarbird and the pied kingfisher.
The infamous Gamkaskloof
The remote and isolated Gamkaskloof valley in the Swartberg Nature Reserve has a rich ecological, archaeological and cultural history. As well as being part of the World Heritage Site, it was declared a Cultural Historical Site.
Nicknamed "Die Hel", this ancient valley lies about 60 km from Prince Albert, and is only accessible from the Swartberg Pass via the Otto du Plessis road. This road, previously a mountain donkey trail used by inhabitants of the valley is for off-road style vehicles and there are no shops or fuel stations along on the way and no electricity or cell phone reception once in the valley but it is definitely a challenge to tick off on your bucket list.
A variety of walking and hiking trails are available in this 20 km long and 600 meters wide fertile valley, and permits may be purchased for ZAR 50.00 per adult and ZAR 30.00 per child at the reserve office or through CapeNature Central Reservations.
Its Ou Tol Circle Route covers 7.4 km and if you start early should complete it in 2.5 hours in time for lunch and a cold beer at privately owned Fontein Guest Farm where the Oude Klowers Plaaskombuis serves traditional Gamkaskloof meals.
Platberg Circle Route is a little longer at 8.4 km, while the De Hoek Day Trail is a good three-hour hike.
The Grootkloof Trail offers a unique experience over its 6 km route with 26 points of interest which takes about five hours and includes the cultural history of the early Karoo settlers and the Little Karoo’s fascinating natural history. One of the trail's highlights is the ruin of Tant Lenie Marais' Agter-Osberg cottage. Before starting the hike, purchase an information booklet at the Cape Nature Ouplaas Information.
The 1.4 km Koningsgat Trail is a pleasant laidback walk through fynbos and along a river to the Koningsgat natural pool. The trail has amazing views and the reward of a cooling swim at the end. An easy one-hour trail, it covers just 1.4 km.
Freedom Found at Gamkapoort Dam
Enter Cape Nature Conservation at the Gamkapoort Dam and you will find complete tranquility and the magnificent beauty of the Swartberg laid out before you together with its own picnic area for canoeing and fishing and short hikes where protea bloom and Fish Eagle call.
The dam is easily reached via the north of Prince Albert, where a road runs off to the left. Take this, and travel westwards, until it crosses the Gamka River. Remaining on the westward side of the river will take you on a road to the dam. This can be done on bicycle and is just a little part of the greater Freedom Trail, which links the towns of Willowmore, Prince Albert, Gamkaskloof, Rouxpos and Anysberg.
A 4x4 trail also takes you from valley to valley between the mountain ranges for close encounters with amazing rock formations and sightings of kudu, klipspringer, ostrich, tortoises and baboons.
Bloukop Hiking Trail
A full day’s hiking, this trail is near Tierberg in the Prince Albert district. Rated moderate, the Bloukop Mountain offers breathtaking views of the surrounding area from its circular 11 km long route. Overnight cabins are available and booking is required since the trail is not accessible during certain times of the year.
Bushman Valley Trails
Bushman Valley hikes into the Swartberg Private Nature Reserve are located 4 kilometers south of Prince Albert on the tar road, before the turnoff to the Swartberg Pass where you have a choice of shorter day hikes, which include Bushman shelters when hiking to the Ein Gedi waterfall and a choice of eight other routes. The lodge provides facilities for learning about the Bushmen and a shop and museum for souvenirs and refreshments.
The Sam de Beer 4×4 trail suits hikers as well and you can choose from a 5 km circular route which includes a bad lands clay pit, a 4 km mountain route with stunning views and a 5 km Bain’s road bush route with an exciting diversion. A permit and the key for entrance to the route are available at Bushman Valley.
Wine and Cango Caves
Oudtshoorn, situated on the Klein Karoo side of the Swartberg range is known for its ostrich farms and rests along the Route 62 wine route.
Just 29 km to the north, the Cango Caves are a 20-million-year-old network of limestone chambers and worth a walk inside the mountains to see dripstone caverns, vast halls and towering limestone formations. There is a choice of Heritage (easy) or Adventure Tours, with all tours led by experienced, knowledgeable and accredited Cave Guide, offered in English, Afrikaans, German, and French.
Prince Albert meanders
Closer to home, guests @ De Bergkant Lodge can walk the Koppie Trail on the hill behind the village. Starting at the top of Klip Street and ending in Crosby Street, no permit is required although you should wear a hat, sturdy shoes or boots and carry water with you as you soak up wonderful views of the village and the Great Karoo which stretches out to the sun-soaked horizon.