Hiking the Oorlogskloof Rock Pigeon Route

Posted on 7 November 2019

The Rock Pigeon Route through Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve near Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape is one of South Africa’s best multi-day hikes. But it doesn’t come easy.

The five-day, 52km circular trail starts and ends at Groot Tuin, where there’s safe parking for vehicles and an overnight hut. The ablution block wasn’t completed yet so there’s just a long-drop loo. Groot Tuin is the only place where fires are allowed. You receive a detailed map and route description on arrival and there are markings along the trail.

The Rock Pigeon Route

After a steep climb out of the kloof on Day 3, Pirate Jones looks back on the long winding bends hiked the previous day.

Groot Tuin To Brakwater

Day 1
4km: 2–3 hrs
Looking at the time and distance for Day 1’s hike, you might be tempted to combine it with the next day. Don’t. If you’re short on time, hike straight to Brakwater on arrival instead of overnighting at Groot Tuin. The first day’s hike is a pleasant introduction to the varied terrain and Wessel’s unconventional path-finding, eventually leading down to a hut in a large meadow. This hut was in good repair although (as with all the other huts) the shower and taps weren’t working when we were there. You can bathe and get drinking water at the nearby river.

Brakwater to Kameel se Gat

Day 2
9km: 7–8 hrs
This is a strenuous day. Not only do you ascend and descend the full height of the kloof twice, you’ll also be constantly scrambling over large boulders. Set off early and take it easy, with plenty of rest stops. Although the map directs you to sleep at Driefontein at the top of the cliffs, that hut was destroyed in a storm, so you’ll need to continue on the long, steep descent to Kameel se Gat. The hut here has lovely views but was in poor repair, with a treacherous staircase and a couple of broken window panes. The nearby spring is an unappetising water source, so we bathed and collected water at the river, which is a five- minute walk downhill.

An easy walk on Day 1 brings you to a pretty green valley where zebras roam. Thanks to its diversity of habitats, the Oorlogskloof Reserve boasts 36 mammal and 94 bird species.

Kameel se Gat to Doltuin

Day 3
11,5km: 6–7 hrs
Thankfully, this is a much easier day. The only real challenge is the immediate, steep ascent back out of the kloof and onto the plateau. But this has the bonus of a fun rock chimney to climb and fabulous views at the top. The rest of the route is a moderate meander along the plateau, then a gentle downhill into another valley, where the delightful Doltuin hut is close to a stream and has a stone dam to splash around in.

Doltuin to Pramkoppie

Day 4
17km: 6–8 hrs
This route is the highlight of the trail, passing under 10 rock arches and along the edge of an escarpment. You can leave out the optional 2.5km round-trip to Arrie se Punt, although the views there are apparently phenomenal. I chose to ‘guard the packs from baboons’ and didn’t feel view-deprived, as there are plenty more to come. Take your time on the last, spectacular stretch along the clifftops – the Pramkoppie hut is just a short descent away, next to a wild olive forest and a burbling brook.

A hand-up on the first of two cliff ascents on Day 2.

Pramkoppie to Groot Tuin

Day 5
11km: 5 hrs
There are plenty of playful ‘Wessel moments’ on Day 5. And, since your packs are much lighter now that all your food is in your belly, the diversions are more enjoyable. Visit the rock art near Pramkoppie hut, then ascend through indigenous forest onto the plateau, where you can see Vanrhyns Pass in the distance. The trail’s final tour de force snakes up and down the kloof’s sides, through another chimney and over more rock jumbles, before meeting up with the path back to Groot Tuin.

One of 10 natural rock arches on Day 4.

Plan Your Trip

Getting There

Take the N7 from Cape Town to Vanrhynsdorp (300km), then 44km along the R27 towards Nieuwoudtville. Turn right at the Oorlogskloof turn-off 6km before Nieuwoudtville and follow the 10km gravel road.

Need to Know

This trail is suitable for fit and experienced hikers only. People with ankle, knee or back issues should approach it with caution (and a very light pack). A comprehensive first-aid kit is essential.

When To Go

August to October is ideal, as the veld is in bloom and there is water at most of the points shown on the trail’s excellent map. It can be very hot and dry in midsummer, while wet weather makes the slippery rocks dangerous.

A sense of humour and warm, dry clothes are essential after a day in the rain for Patrick Madden, Riki Lawson and Karen Mosmer.

What To Pack

You carry all your food, eating utensils and cooking equipment. No fires are allowed so cooking must be done on gas stoves. The bunks have comfortable mattresses so you just need a sleeping bag. The huts have solar lights and a plug point. Phone reception is spotty and infrequent. The taps don’t work but the river water is drinkable. Use biodegradable soap for washing, as the river is home to endangered endemic fish.

The Oorlogskloof River usually only flows between May and November. The water is clean and safe to drink.

How To Book

The four-night hike costs R550 per person; Groot Tuin cottage is an additional R240 (sleeps 10). 0272181159, [email protected]

On The Rocky Ground

Wessel Pretorius developed two five-day hiking trails in the Oorlogskloof Reserve, and a great deal of love and effort went into building them. But, since his death, they’ve been sadly neglected. The second trail – the Rameron Pigeon Route – has been closed because staff can’t maintain it, and the huts along the Rock Pigeon Route are falling into disrepair. The staff say they’ve been doing their best with insufficient resources and without a manager. However, the Northern Cape government, which runs the reserve, has just appointed a new manager, and assures us the trail will be maintained going forward. Wessel’s incredible legacy could still be lost but there is now, at least, reason for hope.

Words and Photography by Alison Westwood

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