The first thing you notice about the Cederberg is the silence. It was my Durbanite parents' first time in the Western Cape and, after five days in Cape Town, we decided to take them to the mountains. We headed out from the city on a Friday afternoon, narrowly missing traffic.

There were two sets of directions: "I'd rather do less gravel," ruled my father and turned into Citrusdal and onto the gravel R303 to Op Die Berg. It was dirt all the way, but there is no way to tar roads hewn through mountains, and the views were spectacular.

We arrived at the cederberg Oasis after a four-hour drive and it was dark, so dark you could navigate by the light of the stars.

Owner Gerrit was out to welcome us, shuffling the city folk into his home. The oasis is a backpackers-come-B&B of three stone buildings, most of the seven or eight rooms a double with self-catering facilities.

It's homely, rustic and warm, with a shared diningroom and honesty bar downstairs and worn carpets on the landing. The kind of place where you can let out a sigh of city relief and relax in its unpretentiousness.

My parents were up and ready to explore the vast expanse of nothingness we had found ourselves in (in the sunlight you realise how much of nothing there actually is) long before us the next morning.

Gerrit, ever helpful and between placating his wife in rearranging the diningroom downstairs, had drawn a map of how to get to the nearby San rock paintings in Matjies River Nature Reserve, and then, further on, how to reach the Stadsaal caves, which he assured us would be something we would never forget.

My parents were so keen that my mom had organised the reserve permits before we had had breakfast. And Gerrit was right.

My dad tentatively drove to the reserve on more dirt roads, but these were well-maintained, passing one or two homes along the way. Even at the Oasis, to look out of our second floor balcony was to see nothing but roll after roll of hills of browning fynbos and rock. The nearest neighbour is a 20-minute drive away.

The San rock paintings were reached through an open-yourself-close-yourself gate (honesty counts in the cederberg) and down a dusty track to a massive formation of stones set amid flat desolate fynbos that stretched for miles and miles in either direction. It was hard to imagine sometimes that these first peoples of South Africa travelled across empty plains, often for days, to paint as part of a religious ritual.

For the pictures were of elephant, ancient symbols of divine power that led the shamans into ecstasy and communication with the gods. The paintings are about 2 000 years old, protected from the elements by an overhanging rock and from people by a flimsy wire barrier.

Seeing San rock art always awes me. The tiny people chasing the elephant on a rock face, so old that few know what it means anymore.

The Stadsaal caves were a 10-minute drive from the paintings through the reserve and I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting.

Gerrit had said it was the place where members of the then-National Party had decided to contest the 1948 elections that bought them to power. But why would the Nats choose somewhere so beautiful to meet for something so mundane?

Stadsaal is a mass of solid rock rising out of the fynbos on a flat plain surrounded by mountains, hewn out of the wind that sweeps through the flat lands as it escapes the mountains and the snow of winter.

The rocks rise out of this as solid masses of pillars, twists and passages, 10 metres, 15 metres, sometimes 20 metres high, shaped by time and tangled with colours, patterns and creeping trees. Not something you see every day.

Climbing to the top of a rock known as "the tortoise" and looking out over this strangeness, you realise that we use the words "spectacular" and "beautiful" without thinking, without realising what they really mean. Spectacular is when you look at something and forget to breathe in awe. Beautiful is when you realise you are a part of it, and that this joining is an honour.

The feelings of seeing something so strange, which my ecstatic parents later said would rival even Stonehenge, could not be described. We wandered among the pillars and shapes for ages.

There was no wind, so it was hard to imagine that the rocks were actually formed, instead of somehow being planted by some well-meaning wise man thousands of years ago.

At one point we found caves of yellow rock with graffiti from those passing through on their way to dreamed-of greater things in the then Transvaal and Orange Free State: "HC Strauss" signed his name in 1881 and "IH Fick" on March 9, 1916. There is also an inscription bearing the signature of one "Dr DF Malan".

Back at the Oasis, I left my parents and girlfriend relaxing in the autumn sun and scrambled (literally) through the shale and fynbos up the nearest hill to get a panoramic view of where I was.

Just rolling hill after rolling hill of more fynbos. Gerrit had told me there was a British garrison lookout at the top during the Boer War, and if I could find the place where I could see the four directions at once there would be a square, level pile of stones where they would sit, waiting. I had images of Lord of the Rings type posts where bonfires were lit from hill top to hill top to pass messages of war. No such luck, but the view was incredible.

Later that evening we took a drive to the Cederberg Observatory. With no lights for, literally, mountains around, the area is one of the best places in South Africa to star gaze. Every Saturday at 8pm the amateur club presents a slide show and then brings out one of its many high-powered telescopes so us city folk can see the rest of the universe.

It was cold; the 20 or so people at the presentation sat on wooden benches for the slides and then patiently awaited turns at the view-finder. A qualified astronomer presented the talk, and the telescope we used that evening had been built by him. Standing in the mountains at night with just the stars for company makes you feel small.

Seeing Saturn, Jupiter, dying stars millions of kilometres away and far-off galaxies makes you feel even smaller. It gives you perspective, a sense of space.

  • The Cederberg Oasis is a member of the Cederberg Conservancy.

    It is the only licensed B&B, backpackers and restaurant in the area. Prices range from R80 per person for self-catering to R110 per person for bed and breakfast. Camping is R35 per person. Meals range from R15 for a light lunch to R60 for a steak dinner. There is a pool, an honesty bar and Internet.

  • Check out the website Cederberg Oasis

    Permits for the Matjies River Nature Reserve cost R22. Apart from Stadsaal and the San rock paintings, you could hike to the rock formations of Maltese Cross, the Wolfberg Cracks and the Arch.

  • For information on the Cederberg Observatory visit Cederberg Observatory. The privately-owned, non-profit organisation is run by volunteers.