The Old Postal Route, a historic Karoo-Cederberg route that is a must for 4×4 enthusiasts and adventure bikers. Tyson Jopson did it over a long weekend.
There’s a story that floats between the farmhouses and padstals of the Tankwa Karoo. It’s rather short on detail – most versions aren’t longer than a sentence or two. But everyone knows it, and in the Karoo, if everyone knows something then it must be true. It is the story of a young girl who walked alone over the Tra-Tra Mountains. From a farm at Elandsvlei in the Tankwa, she walked 57 kilometres in the searing heat to Wupperthal missionary station in the Cederberg. When she arrived she handed over a parcel containing mail. And then she turned around and walked back again. She did this every week.
Today that route is known as the Old Postal Route. And the ‘Old’ is very important because the trail, for the most part, has remained largely unchanged. ‘Old’ is also important because we’ve come a long way since the days of delivering mail on foot. In fact, we don’t do all that much on foot at all any more. And for those who like exploring the most remote reaches of our country, that is truly a glorious development.
To make the most of the glorious development of motorised transport, a friend and I took a long weekend from Cape Town to ride the famous Old Postal Route. We left town on a sunny Friday afternoon, Chris on an old KTM640 that he once rode from Cyprus to Cape Town, and me on my KLR650.
There are a number of ways to get to this part of the world. For bikers, none is better than the route through Wellington, over Bainskloof Pass and into Ceres. From Ceres we headed north to Op Die Berg and then onto the first bit of gravel on the journey, up and over Katbakkies Pass towards the infamous R355, a tyre-chomping stretch of corrugated gravel that links Ceres to Calvinia, and will cause anyone who’s ever been to AfrikaBurn to shudder at the sound of its name.
The road runs parallel to the Doring River, and on the banks of a dam off one of its small tributaries is Die Mond – a wonderful patch of green in the desert.
It was our first overnight stop and also where we met up with Johan van der Walt, an anaesthetist, friend and the custodian of our luggage and food for the night. Johan had travelled ahead and, as planned, had two cold beers ready for when we arrived. It was a warm afternoon and we didn’t bother setting up our tents, instead choosing to sleep under the stars.
The following day Chris and I headed north to tackle the meat and potatoes of this route. Johan, in his sedan, headed south. We would meet on the other side, at Cederberg Oasis. It wasn’t even 9am before the full spectrum of heat hit us. By the time we arrived at Elandsvlei, the start of the 4×4 trail, it felt like midday on the sun.
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The Old Postal Route starts with a few sandy sections and two river crossings (check the water levels with locals; if it’s too high, the route may become impassable). Soon after, we really were in the middle of nowhere.
Ancient, scorched shale stretched out for miles in every direction and we trundled on. Next up was Karretjies Pass. It’s technical, steep and very rocky and, on an adventure bike, you need your wits about you to keep it on two wheels. Once on the plateau, Chris and I cruised along marble-like gravel until the sight of rooibos plantations came into view.
From there we descended Kraaiberg Pass down to the mission station in Wupperthal. All in all, the ride from Die Mond to Wupperthal took us the better part of four hours. It’s a long time to cover 80-odd kilometres, but a far cry from the half-a-week it took that poor girl with her post. We cooled off in the shade of some old gum trees in Wupperthal before tackling the final section, the Eselbank Pass, down to our campsite for the night. It’s a short but challenging 4×4 route with a great mix of rocks and sand, and at the other end riders or drivers are rewarded with a dip in a secret rock pool just outside the small farming hamlet of Eselbank.
We were hungry so we skipped the pool and headed straight for Cederberg Oasis. There, we again found our anaesthetist. He prescribed two ice-cold beers and, doctor’s orders, we glugged them down, hot, exhausted and thrilled to have completed such a challenging route.
The following morning we were joined by some friends and spent the early hours exploring this region of the Cederberg. Some hiked up the nearby mountains, others joined us in visiting that rock pool, and some preferred to spend the day hanging out at the Oasis. Soon, it was time to go. Chris and I took the gravel road past Cederberg Private Cellars to see how much more gravel we could squeeze into the home journey.
A lot, it turns out – we tracked the Olifants River down to Citrusdal and then continued south to Ceres on the R303, which is home to Middelburg Pass, a rather epic gravel descent that twists and turns back on itself before the straight tar drag back to Ceres and then home. All in all, we’d ridden 12 mountain passes in a weekend – some long, some short, some challenging. All special in their own way.
Plan your trip
Day 1: Cape Town to Die Mond campsite
Distance: 275km, allow 6 hours
Hit the N1 out of Cape Town, then the R44 to Wellington and the R301 over Bainskloof Pass to Ceres. Leave Ceres on the R303, up Gydo Pass and then right just after Die Dorp op die Berg. Take a right towards the Tankwa Karoo as soon as the road turns to gravel, up over Katbakkies Pass and then down to the R355 on Peerboomskloof Pass. A short stretch up the R355 you’ll find Tankwa Padstal (1) and about 30km further, the turn-off to Die Mond Campsite (2), which is another 15km west on gravel.
Day 2: Die Mond to Cederberg Oasis
Distance: 143km allow 7 hours
Take the gravel road directly north from Die Mond to Elandsvlei (it tracks the Doring River for a short stint) and the start of the Old Postal Route 4×4 Trail. There are two river crossings (the Doring and then the Tra-Tra) as you start. These can become impassable after heavy rains so get an update from locals at Die Mond. It gets a little thorny after the crossings, so make sure you’re prepared in case of punctures. the trail climbs Karretjies Pass and then continues east through a large rooibos plantation before dropping down Kraaiberg Pass. Turn left at the T-junction and head south to Wupperthal for lunch (3). Take the southernmost road out of town and onto the Eselbank Pass. Stop for a dip at the rock pool (4) before you enter the village of Eselbank. From there head on the only road south out of town and down to the Cederberg Oasis (5) for the night.
Day 3: Cederberg Oasis to Cape Town
Distance: 340km allow 6 hours
Head north out of Cederberg Oasis (back to the way you came) and then left at the Matjiesrivier junction to Cederberg Private Cellar (6). Don’t drink too much as from here the route descends a handful of stunning passes. To stay on gravel, take a left just before the Olifants River and continue south to Citrusdal. Take the R303 east out of town for a mix of tar and gravel mountain passes that take you all the way back down to Ceres for a bite (7) before heading back to Cape Town.
1. Werkswinkel Bar at the Tankwa Padstal. It’s become somewhat of an institution, and a Tankwa Karoo road trip just seems incomplete without a stop here. Drinks are cold and smiles are wide. It’s also your last stop for snacks for some time. email@example.com
2. Die Mond Campsite, Tankwa. You’ll find wellshaded sites with braai facilities on the banks of a small lake at this little pocket of green in the desert. Camping from R70 per person. Tel. 0233170668
3. Lekkerbekkie, Wupperthal. It’s taken me more than four visits to Wupperthal to find this little gem (it’s hiding around the back of town). Browse the walls for a short history of Wupperthal’s roots as a mission station and grab a hot toasted sandwich (from R20) and a cold drink. Open Monday to Saturday, 9am–4pm. Tel. 0274923292
4. Eselbank Waterfall. A faded sign at the end of the Eselbank 4×4 Trail points to this secret stop. There’s a rock pool for cooling off and a little way down is a waterfall where the Eselbank River drops off into the Tra-Tra River. Entrance is free. All you need is your swimming costume (although undies are also acceptable – it is the middle of nowhere, after all!)
5. Cederberg Oasis. This biker-friendly stop has it all: a variety of accommodation options, pool, good food, an honesty bar and a great vibe. Campsites could do with a bit more shade (I recommend booking the A-frame tented accommodation) but there are loads of cool spots (and hammocks!) for whiling away hot days. Furnished tents from R165 per person sharing, bush campsite from R200 (sleeps four). Tel. 0274822819
6. Cederberg Private Cellar. Somehow this marvellous vineyard manages to produce award-winning wines from the hard Cederberg ground. Tastings Monday to Saturday 9am–12pm and 2pm–4.30pm. 027-482-2827
7. Rocky River Spur, Ceres. You’ll likely arrive in Ceres on a Sunday afternoon when not much else is open. You’ll also be hungry! Try the Hunger Buster (R95). Tel. 0233121222
This story first appeared in the March issue of Getaway magazine.
Our March issue features three magical train journeys, how to plan your escape on a dhow safari around Bazaruto, where to eat delicious fare when you have only 36 hours in Mumbai, plus lots more.