Skull, mountain, and desert in Camdeboo National Park
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Updated on January 30, 2019

We get a taste of South Africa’s version of the Wild West in and around Camdeboo National Park on Day 10 of The Hectic Route, our road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

Cactus in foreground and desert mountain behind
A few hours ago we were in dense forest where it can snow at any time of the year.

Changing Scenes

What has impressed us most about our Hectic Route road trip so far is how quickly South Africa’s geography changes.

This morning, we woke up in the mystical and lush mountain forest of Hogsback, where fairy tales (almost) become reality.

Fours hours later, we were in the opposite: the dusty desert African Wild West badlands of Camdeboo National Park. As the song goes, it’s “Home on the range, where the deer and the antelope […and zebras and ostrich…] play.”

Eerstefonetin Trail with mountain behind

A Walk on the Wild Side

We could only find one decently long hike in the Camdeboo, the Eerstefontein Trail, so we decided to kick off our day with it.

At first, we jogged, but within about half an hour in the desert heat, we got tired and slowed down. And, honestly, we got tired of the flat, rocky, dry scenery too.

But then Kim, who was setting the pace, yelped.

Kim jogging along Eerstefontein trail.
Kim started out leading the way until…

A big green snake had slithered past on the trail.

From then on, I led the way and we were no longer bored. Now, we were on the alert for animals.

In no time, we spotted more. Only fifty meters away from us, Kim spotted a mountain zebra.

Mountain zebra staring at us.
This mountain zebra probably would have been taking photos of us too, if it had a camera.

Let me tell you, seeing zebras from a car in a safari is cool and all, but running into one on a hike in the middle of nowhere is way better.

At that point, our jog/hike became a full-on safari.

We continued along the trail, following little signs with the African hoopoe bird that marked the trail, trying not to step on all the fresh game droppings on the path, and keeping our eyes peeled.

Every once in a while, there was a crash in the bushes and we’d see an animal run away from us. We saw steenbok, a giant kudu (really big and impressive), mountain reedbuck, and ostriches. We found some cool skulls and bones too. But no more snakes.

Ostrich along our hike in Camdeboo National Park
Wild ostrich running past us. Much cooler than farmed ostrich.
Chris holding animal skull to his head
Camouflage.

It took us three-and-a-half hours to complete the 14-kilometer circuit and we were parched and exhausted by the end, but the animals spottings had made it worthwhile.

Valley of desolation view
While hiking the Eerstefontein trail, we were looking up at that mountain. Now, from the Valley of Desolation lookout, we’re looking down on it.

The Valley of Desolation

Following a lunch—and lots of water—in Graaf-Reinet, we made our way to the top attraction of the Camdeboo National Park, the Valley of Desolation.

It was indeed the top, since the newly-paved road went way, way up a mountainside, but the attraction itself wasn’t exceptional.  The view of the park from above was fine and the rock formations in the small valley were interesting, but we didn’t think it was worth the National Park fee of 113 rands ($8 US) each.

Chris looking down on the Valley of Desolation

The highlight for us was, again, wildlife.

This time it was a tortoise ambling along the side of the road near the viewpoint.

Tortoise on the side of the road.
Our rental car may be slow, but this is one animal it can keep up with.

The End of the Road

Heading north towards the desert town of Nieu Bethesda, our destination for the day, the landscape somehow became even more desolate. And more beautiful.

Highway to nowhere, a.k.a Nieu Bethesda
This road could easily be somewhere in Texas.
Scenery en route to Nieu Bethesda

At the entrance of Nieu Bethesda, we popped into a rustic shop called Tot Hier Toe Padstal. It was exactly how you’d expect a frontier town shop in a Western movie to be with goats, a windmill, and farming equipment outside, and dried meats, conserves, and other farm provisions for sale inside.

Tot Hier Toe Padstal old farm equipment
Shelves of conserves at Tot Hier Toe Padstal

In a thick Afrikaans accent, the friendly owner showed us around, sold us some preserved chilies, cheese, and a home-fermented ginger drink, then called some restaurants in town to make us a dinner reservation.

She knew the names of the restaurant owners and their phone numbers by heart! That proved to be a good indication of what Nieu Bethesda was be like.

Before dinner, we checked into our basic but comfortable accommodation, Owl House Backpackers, and hustled over to The Brewery and Two Goats Deli for some well-earned beers.

Beer flight at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli in Nieu Bethesda

While we sipped our Karoo Pale Ales, a real, live African hoopoe, the bird that was drawn on all the trail markers of our hike this morning, popped by.

It was as if to tell us that, even though we were in the middle of nowhere, we were where we were supposed to be.

African Hoopoe
The African hoopoe telling us we’re in the right place.

Tips

  • Bring lots of water if you want to hike the Eerstefontein Trail. Maybe this is obvious, since it is a hike in the desert after all, but we suffered from bringing less than 1 liter each. At the very least, leave a jug of water in your car to rehydrate after.
  • The Valley of Desolation isn’t worth the park entry fee on its own, but it also includes access to a game reserve on the other side of the highway, which we would have liked to visit if we hadn’t spent so long on our hike. The game reserve might make the fee worthwhile.
  • Everything except the restaurants in Nieu Bethesda closes by 5 p.m. Even the brewery! So if you arrive in the late afternoon and expect to explore the town, like we did, don’t expect there to be a lot to do.
  • On the drive from Hogsback to Graaf-Reinet, stop in Bedford for coffee or a snack. The Apprentice Deli has delicious treats and out back is a nice courtyard that we’d have spent more time relaxing if we had more time.
  • Stay at Nieu Bethesda instead of Graaf-Reinet. Graaf-Reinet is called the “Jewel of the Karoo,” and has some nice restaurants and historical buildings, but the “Jewel” is nowhere near as precious and Nieu Bethesda.

Next Up (Hectic Route Day 11):
Karoo-sing on to Prince Albert

Big truck, bigger rock wall in Meiringspoort Pass

How to Have an Even Better South Africa Road Trip than Ours

South Africa Road Trip Planning tips cover image of a sign saying bon voyage in xhosa
“Hamba kakuhle” means “bon voyage” in Xhosa.

For everything from safety tips to how to find the best rental car to what our absolute favorite experiences are, check out our South Africa road trip tips.


Disclosure: Whenever possible, we use special links that earn us a cut if you pay for stuff we'd recommend anyway. It costs you nothing, so we’d be crazy not to.

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2 comments

  1. Hi. Glad to see you did Meiringspoort. I do enjoy reading your blog and thoughts on everything. If you ever come to Mpumalanga… we are in Middelburg. Welcome to come fit a visit.

    1. Hey Miemie. So nice to hear from you! Thanks so much for the Meiringspoort recommendation. It really did exceed our expectations. Hopefully you guys enjoyed an expectation-exceeding trip down to the coast too!

      By the way, we tried experimenting with the camera tricks Hein showed us, but without success. We’ll have to continue our lesson by taking you up on your invite. Keep in touch and hopefully see you soon.

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