I found myself smiling quietly as, walking the footpaths and mountain trails of the Cederberg, I noticed the strange figures nature has sculpted from the rocks over the ages. Some, like the gargoyle-like forms perched atop the towering rock walls and columns, are quite comical. Others, like the eagles staring down with spread wings, seem almost threatening.
I could not help wondering at times whether the makers of some of those fantastical films and the creators of comic-book characters had not got their ideas from wandering through.
At one point on a shortish circular route there was the sad image of Lot’s Wife, perpetually frozen against a backdrop of ruin-like rocks as if left from a sacked city. Being close to the main road, it happens to be one of the area’s most photographed sites.
Further along the winding footpath a member of the group I was with pointed at a rock higher up,: “Look, the king in the Wizard of Id.”
Others of our party were joining the sculpture spotting. It brought back memories of childhood times when all joined in in identifying the shapes formed by the changing clouds. Except the rock figures were fixed and still.
On a relatively steep trail curving up the mountainside to an incredible big-knobbed column named the Maltese Cross, we saw Yoda from Star Wars peeping over the rim. Along the way, there were sculptures of birds, leopards, giant lizards, prehistoric creatures, and such.
High up on a ridge we spotted the extraordinarily life-like image of a baboon sitting on a rock. Then it barked, telling us to stop staring and be on our way.
It was fun looking to identify more figures. But there was also this constant sense of awe at the mighty rock formations, the craggy cliffs with holes and slits that let through blotches of blue sky, huge boulders balanced delicately on top of each other as if placed there by an almighty architect, and gigantic free-standing columns that in places looked like the remains of prehistoric castles in which giants lived.
It is the region’s brooding atmosphere, its sense of agelessness, that has this effect. It is what stirs the imagination. It must have been like that for the old settlers. The names they gave the various sites say it all.
In the Valley of the Red Gods, the imagery shows itself most spectacularly in the glow of the setting sun. The columns of red-rock pillars along the mountain slope all seem to lean forward together in supplication towards the mountain towering over them.
Up above are three deep gashes in the crest of the mountain that are known as the Wolfberg Crags. After a steep climb along a zigzagging route they allow narrow passage between soaring vertical cliffs to the top of the mountain where a footpath leads to the Wolfberg Arch that, towering high, is one of the region’s most spectacular features.
Across the valley, on a plateau high up the mountain, the enormous Maltese Cross stands incongruously isolated against the backdrop of Sneeuberg (Snow Mountain) – at 2 027m the Cederberg’s highest peak.
At another place, a short walk from a parking lot leads to the Stadsaal (city hall), a cavernous arch where visitors, including political and even literary luminaries from an older era, had seen fit to scribble their I-was-here names on the rocks. PW Botha’s is among them.
Decidedly more intriguing are the signatures left by the San people who must have once lived there in considerable numbers. From the wealth of rock art found in shallow caves and overhangs they, too, must have plucked inspiration from the magical landscape. Some of the colours of their elephants, in particular, are so clear that there has been speculation that they might be of very recent origin. It is said, though, that it is the quality of the colouring they used that make them seem so fresh.
If mountain scenery and rock formations are your passion, the Cederberg should be high up your travel itinerary. It is a dramatic landscape that got shaped by receding seas brought on by an ice age many millions of years ago, followed by mighty glaciers that carved out the deep valleys and gorges, while the elements sculpted the rock formations by eroding the soft parts from the hard.
The mountain range is situated about 200km north-west of Cape Town. Three scenic roads lead there. One follows a roundabout way along the Atlantic coast before taking a turn-off inland. We took the middle route, which is the N7 to Namibia. It curved through the Boland wheatfields and vineyards and offered a pleasant stopover at the new Org de Rac organic winery for a spot of wine tasting before proceeding past the town of Citrusdal to where the turn-off leads along a teeth-rattling dirt road through a beautiful pass into the Cederberg Conservancy.
(On the return journey we chose the slightly more circuitous but remarkably scenic northern route that winds through the high mountains and fruit orchards of the Ceres region before joining the N1 to Cape Town.)
From a distance the largely treeless Cederberg seemed barren and inhospitable. This is all the more so in the summer months, when it can become fiercely hot.
The Cederberg protected area represents one of the most remarkable conservation stories of SA. The 162 000 hectare reserve is made up of 11 farms that joined together as conservancies in 1997 to, with the Western Cape provincial authority’s Wilderness Area, preserve the region’s natural beauty. Though livestock farming remains one of their activities, the farmers have even extended their protection to the Cape leopard, which is among the predators roaming the mountains. There are vineyards and olive groves in the valleys along the clear streams springing from the mountains, but all such development is done in terms of firm conservation guidelines. At least one farm has a winery, and most have tourist facilities ranging from camping sites and backpacker huts to well-appointed self-catering chalets and, on the road to Ceres, a high-quality lodge-type establishment named Mount Cedar.