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Seweweekspoort — the majestic pass that winds its way into the traveller’s heart

Seweweekspoort — the majestic pass that winds its way into the traveller’s heart
Prickly pears in abundance contrast with the Seweweekspoort Peak in the background.(Photo: Larry Dolley)

A slow drive through Seweweekspoort reveals towering cliffs hopping with dassies and hoped-for leopards, waterfalls that turn to mist and a quiet stay at a lodge far from it all.

A poort (mountain pass) is an Afrikaans word for a narrow traverse through a mountain range, usually following a river course. One such pass is Seweweekspoort, the naming of which remains shrouded in mystery. Did it take seven weeks to get through it, or was it named after Reverend Louis Zerwick of the Zoar Mission Station?

The southern entrance to the poort is reached via the R62, a picturesque route close to Zoar and Amaliënstein, about 20km from Ladismith, on the way to Calitzdorp. These little dorpies in themselves are seldom-mined repositories of small-settlement beauty. Try them.

The idea was to explore the beauty of the poort while assessing accommodation options along its route. It runs from the R62 northwards for about 21km, after which the road splits. Left takes you to Laingsburg, right to the Gamkapoort Dam.

If you have travelled the Swartberg Pass or its environs, you have an inkling of Seweweekspoort’s terrain and sights. Once you turn off the R62, the mountains framing the entrance to the poort are a grand sight.

Seweweekspoort

And the road slowly sweeps upwards toward the Central Karoo. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

Taking a toll

On the right you will see the ruins of the toll-keeper’s house. I could just imagine its appearance on a dark but moonlit night, protecting its ghostly secrets.

So, for all the younger folks complaining about toll roads, remember that this institution has been fleecing travellers for centuries. Roads agency Sanral has nothing to do with this particular ruin.

You cross the Seweweekspoort River for the first of many times as the mountains start peering down at you. The Afrikaans term kronkelpad (winding road) aptly describes a drive that repeatedly switches back on itself.

The remains of the old toll collector’s cottage. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

Now you know the details, it’s time that you visit. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

The grand Seweweekspoort Mountain peak is the highest in the Swartberg at 2,236m above sea level. It stands out as you slowly – because you should travel slowly – traverse the poort’s nooks and crannies.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The haunted Karoo: All is quiet after dark … or is it?

The vegetation takes on a new look compared with the flatlands along the R62. Trees and bushes come to life adjacent to the river as well as on the ever-steepening cliffs, overhangs and gullies branching off.

Each switchback brings new vistas, while some blind curves call for cautious driving. Huge rock overhangs abound, in some places affording brief shade. The whole drive has many picnic spots to stop and breathe in the spectacular scenery.

Instinctively, I started looking for a leopard, even while knowing it is unlikely this cat would show itself willingly. Fat, healthy-looking dassies darted furtively on the passing cliffs and warm rocks. I supposed they were also aware of the threat posed by leopards and raptors.

Seweweekspoort

The Central Karoo starts here en route to Laingsburg. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

The backdrop to Aristata, in which the life-giving perennial spring originates. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

Overlooking the mountains

Thirteen kilometres into the drive we arrived at Aristata, our accommodation, which is named after a rare species of protea. Our initial plan was to sample different accommodation offerings in the poort to do a comparison of what was on offer. We were surprised to find that Aristata was the only one in the poort itself. So much for forward planning, hey?

Pietie and Lena van Rooy, caretakers of the lodge, turned out to be from Prince Albert originally, but they were a font of knowledge about the poort and its history.

We spoke for hours about their lives, including once-a-month shopping trips to Ladismith, grafting lemon and orange trees, planting cherries and figs as well as Lena tending and expanding a notable flower garden.

A perennial spring originates about 200m up the immediate mountainside, which supplies all their fresh water. Some of the water drives a small hydroelectric pump to supplement the solar panels and batteries. And a big pool is kept refreshed by this natural source.

Pietie’s enthusiasm for his crusade against drugs and alcohol in his community, as far-flung as they are, was only matched by his love of his job. This included dragging a 5,000-litre JoJo tank, with his wife and two sons, about 200m up the mountainside, and carrying materials up to build the base and a channel for the water.

While staying there, the only sounds we heard were birds.

Our cottage on the lush lawns fed by seepage from a natural spring. (Photo: Larry Dolley)

Spectacular, there and back

As you drive further north in the poort, the roaring cliffs climb higher and higher above you. The sandstone walls are gnarled and ruffled like a blanket carelessly thrown on a bed.

Lonely telephone poles, now without cables, stand like sentinels, similar to the halfmens trees watching over the unchanging landscape.

Waterfalls drifted down towards us. Most of them were silent because the season meant the small stream of water was windblown and landed as a mist on the wet rocks below.

It occurred to me that an entrepreneur could take advantage of all this. The unique selling point would be a tour on a flat-bed truck with mattresses on the back. You could then recline and look straight upwards to view the magnificent passing show. How wonderful that would be.

Driving back towards Aristata gives you a second, different view of the poort. Since there is so much to see, at least two traverses are recommended. Arriving back at our cottage after a few hours in the heat and dust was such a pleasure. We stayed in a cabin named Kiepersol (the other two were Aloe and Keurboom). Its coolness enveloped us and invited an afternoon nap.

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Kiepersol refers to the cabbage tree. This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a legend about a lone towering tree in the African savannah during the Boer War. Some English soldiers who had seen a lion ran towards this tree, shouting what sounded like “kiepersol”. Later, the Boers realised the soldiers were actually yelling: “We hope the tree will keep us all!”

We said our farewells to the Van Rooy family, Aristata and the beautiful poort. We had made new friends and seen nature at its beautiful, peaceful best.

I suspect the poort has its own force of gravity since it was difficult to drive away from it. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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