Dirty roads and dusty fields

From Nieuwoudtville to Clanwilliam via the Pakhuis and Botterberg passes.

Dirty roads and dusty fields. Ann Gadd
Dirty roads and dusty fields: Road outside Niewoudtville. Photo: Ann Gadd

Dirty roads and dusty fields: Words and photos: Ann Gadd

Dirty roads and dusty fields was originally published in Country Life Magazine

In taking the dirt road from Niewoudtville to Clanwilliam, Ann Gadd discovers that it’s more about the journey than the destination.  

“Dirty roads and dusty fields,” he coaxed, “come, it will be fun. Besides, I’ve always wanted to do this route.” I believe that the road less traveled, maybe less traveled for a reason, but I have arms made of rubber, and at this point, they are twisting alarmingly. Besides, the sniff of an adventure is also starting to get me excited.
We’re near Nieuwoudtville, discussing the advantages of heading back to Clanwilliam on the N7/R27 routes (90 minutes and 133 km of luxurious tar) or following the unnamed dirt road south, which will meet the R364 from Calvinia, (hopefully) heading south through the Botterkloof and Pakhuis passes and ending in Clanwilliam. In other words, two dodgy hours plus to do the similar 136km.

Dirty roads and dusty fields, glacier scratching by Ann Gadd
Scratches made by moving glaciers in rocks outside Niewoudtville. Image: Ann Gadd

It’s been raining recently, and the rain has collected in sunken patches of the road. I eye my 2×4 car with concern. It’s survived some pretty hectic trips around the country, but we don’t know what the road ahead will offer. Niewoudtville lies on the Bokkeveld Plateau in Namakwaland, and judging by the Vanrhyns Pass, the Botterberg and Pakhuis passes could be pretty steep. What winds uphill must go equally downhill, I reason. But, before I have time to debate the issue any further, we are off in a cloud of dust, heading south on the dirt road to the Glacial Pavement. Unfortunately, Anthony has grown up on dirt roads and clearly does not share my concern.

Glacier Remnants

About 300 million years ago (approximately the age my kids believe I was born), a moving sheet glacier created deep scratches in the rocks. Stones and pebbles were forced along the surface as the glacier moved, making these scratches. The resulting impediment of the water filtration provided nice damp areas for the local plants to thrive. So even though it’s out of official flower season, some plants are blooming after the recent rains.
The nearby town, Nieuwoudtville, is known as the bulb capital of the world. In parts, there are up to 20 000 bulbs per m2 which is greater than anywhere else in the world.

Dirty roads and dusty fields bulbs

Matjiesfontein Padstal

Matjiesfontein Padstal: Ann Gadd
Matjiesfontein Padstal: Ann Gadd

The next stop is Matjiesfontein Padstal, an old school building, now converted into a restaurant, where Lana van Wyk creates real boerekos in season for passing tourists. Its quaint, quirky, dimly lit interior must provide overseas travelers with a unique experience. “Should I sing and dance for you,” Lana jokes, “here we have to do anything to make a living!” Marriette van Wyk, who owns, amongst other guest houses, Matjiesfontein House and the elegant De Lande guest house, joins us.

Environmental Issues

Further south on the road to Moedeverloor, we come to Pakuilsfontein (bulrush fountain). Here, Willem van Wyk has offered to take us on a farm tour to see the bushmen paintings and the Oorlogskloof canyon. “This area,” he tells us, “has a variety of soils, which is partially the reason for the diverse species of flowers. For example, the acidic Table Mountain sandstone supports fynbos and rooibos tea, and the ‘vaalgrond’ or tillite soils support renosterveld. In addition, dolerite-derived’ rooigrond’ has a high iron content and supports plants endemic to the Nieuwoudtville area. Then there are soils derived from Ecca Shales.”

Willem is concerned though, that very little of this precious environment is being protected (figures vary from 3-6%). Sheep farming, plowing, and pesticides will eventually destroy much of the remaining ecosystem. He points out an area where an aardvark has been digging for bulbs for his breakfast. Mice also enjoy the juicy bulbs, but both animals benefit the environment because they distribute bulbs across more expansive areas during their scratching’s. “It takes five years before a new bulb will flower,” he says as he digs up a handful of soil to show us all the bulbs it contains. “I love taking people on tours of the farm during the season – I think I enjoy the experience more than they do,” he quips.


Oorlogskloof canyon. Photo: Ann Gadd

We arrive at the stunning Oorlogskloof with a waterfall dropping into a large pool. It’s possible to hike to the pool. I look at the waterfall’s sheer rock face and 100m height and politely decline. Next, we pass the Hollander’s Klip, an odd-shaped stone where a hapless, hiking Hollander was discovered lost only roughly 100 meters from the cottages.
Then we get to see the famous ‘black’ San paintings, so called because they are painted in black ink rather than the more usual brown. Next, we examine a meticulously drawn dragon and a strange winged dog. Finally, Willem collects a few remnants of San spears and cutting stones and hands them to me as a keepsake.
There is an air of delight in the bokkeveld area, as rain fell four days ago. “The farmers at the co-op are a lot friendlier after rain,” Willem reports. After a delicious omelet breakfast, served in the converted stables, which have become a ‘pop-up’ restaurant in season, we head back to the dirt road.

So called “black” San paintings. Image: Ann Gadd

Botterkloof Pass

Passing through large puddles, we have little choice but to go through them, which sends mud sprays over the car, making us look like serious rally drivers. Reaching the intersection with the R364 from Calvinia sends our two GPS’s into hysteria. (Yes, we have a Garmin AND an inbuilt car GPS, why I’m not sure.) We listen as both women’s voices frantically instruct us to turn around and head back to Niewoudtville, not recognizing the R364 and indicating we are off-road. I’m nodding my head in agreement. But, the girls lose, and we continue to the Botterkloof Pass.

The pass is steep and narrow but with stunning views. The road is deserted but in good condition, so we made it easily in our 2×4 with high clearance, but it’s not a pass to be undertaken in snow or rainy weather, even in a 4WD. Botterkloof, according to one theory, is so named because it gets as slippery as butter when wet. A farm in the area used to make butter, which provides a second name origin option.

Dirty roads and dusty fields - the Botterkloof pass
Botterkloof Pass Photo: Ann Gadd

In 1873 work was started on the Botterkloof Pass to avoid the Keerom Road. Starting in 1873, it opened four years later in 1877, the same time as the Pakhuis. Both passes were built by Thomas Bain. Bain built 24 major passes and over 900km of roads in South Africa.
In 1873 work was started on the Botterkloof Pass to avoid the Keerom Road.

Rocklands and the Brandwyn River

Closer to Doringbos however, the road deteriorates badly, presumably because of more frequent use. Arriving at Traveller’s Rest on the Brandewyn River, we stop for a bite to eat and get introduced to the bouldering world, which I’m informed is a type of rock climbing without ropes or a harness. In other words, a sport for serious adrenaline junkies! This Rocklands area is world-renowned as a top bouldering spot. The majority of boulderers are overseas visitors, primarily Germans, Americans, and French, according to Hope at Traveller’s Rest. Four farmers and Cape Nature own the Rocklands land, but tension has mounted between the landowners and boulderers over what the landowners see as disrespect for the area.

The Englishman’s Grave and the Pakhuis Pass

The ‘Englishman’s Grave’ is near the dirt road to Wuppertal. Lt. Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes was shot by a small commando of Boers in 1901 while out scouting in the area. The words “Brave and True” are barely visible at the base of the cross in what has become a favorite Geocaching spot.
From here, we leave the dirt and dust behind and head to the beautiful tarred road of the Pakhuis Pass. It has stunning rock formations. Some resemble dragons, shrunken heads, and strange Tolkien-type creatures. We stop at the top of the pass to enjoy a cup of coffee from our flask. The views from here of the Karoo are incredible.
Our adventure is only 20km from ending in Clanwilliam. Thick layers of mud and dust cover the car. However, it’s been an epic road trip – done and dusted!

Pakhuis Pass view Ann Gadd from Dirty roads and dusty fields
View from the Pakhuis Pass

Dirty roads and dusty fields: Know before you go:

Ask tourist information at Niewoudtville about the road conditions to the Botterkloof Pass and the R364, especially in winter. The road can be very slippery and dangerous after heavy rain or snow, even in a 4WD. I recommend having a 4WD high clearance vehicle. Experienced gravel road drivers are a must.

There are no garages between Niewoudtville and Clanwilliam via the R364, so make sure you have a full tank.

The Rooibos Heritage Route follows the same route, linking two unique rooibos production areas between Wupperthal (Western Cape) and Nieuwoudtville (Northern Cape). It is not a self-drive route, and you need to book well in advance: 

Hiking: You will need a Wilderness permit for most of the Cederberg hikes.

Permits can be purchased online at Quicket. Alternatively, you can buy them at Kliphuis campsite, the De Pakhuys office and campsite, the Clanwilliam Tourism Office, or the shop at Travelers Rest.

Mountain Rescue: 021 937-0300

 West Coast Control: 022 433-8700


Papkuilsfontein cottages, De Lande guesthouse, Matjiesfontein cottage and Jan Voorman house for flowers, hikes, San paintings, mountain biking and relaxing. From 500pp sharing. To book for accommodation and scenic tours in season: Tel: +27 (0)27 218 1246 Fax: +27 (0)86 573 1246 info@papkuilsfontein.com http://www.papkuilsfontein.com/


Kliphuis has three cottages and 14 campsites suitable for tents and/or caravans. Campsite: from R220 (6 persons per site) Cottages: from R840 for six people per cottage per night (R90pp additional, sleeps max eight people).

Traveller’s Rest has 25 fully equipped cottages. Some are renovated while others have been built more recently.

Wolfdrif Cottages are part of Traveller’s Rest and are about 10km away on the Elizabethfontein Road. Tel: 027 482 1824 or 086 566 5493 

Cape Nature cottages: +27 021 483 0000 or reservation.alert@capenature.co.za