• Minwater Eco Adventures is 24 km southwest of Oudtshoorn (near Volmoed).
• The terrain is mostly mountainous with sharp shale, variably sized loose rocks with a couple of axle-twisting ruts and small dongas.
• Vehicle used is a 2000 Mitsubishi Pajero io (5-door) 4x4.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
When your brand new wife agrees to end her honeymoon with a 4x4 trail, you just know things are going to be all right on the rocky road of life together.
Louis Jordaan, a local Karoo veld expert and naturalist raconteur, was there to meet us when we arrived at Minwater Eco Adventures, 24 km southwest of Oudtshoorn. Standing next to his no-nonsense vintage Hilux 4x4 bakkie, he makes us feel at home from the start.
On top of the unexpected trail guide he hands us — a much welcome rarity these days — he offers to follow us up the Rooiberg 4x4 Trail (one of four) we've chosen. While classified as a Grade 3 in the guide, Louis describes it as more moderate (Grade 2+) and assures us our vintage Pajero should go the distance. With its Super Select 4WD system, I know my old workhorse is competent; it's just its low, 205mm ground clearance (that's unladen with higher profile tyres) that concerns me a bit. But we managed to conquer the challenging Grade 3 Bôjaanskjop 4x4 track (Matjiesvlei) a while back, so here goes nothing!
The first kilometre or so of this seven-kilometre mountain trail winds its way over rocky farm tracks, passes the campsite (a must-visit for nature-loving campers — I'm definitely coming back!) and then flows over a rock shelf reminiscent of a massive embedded meteorite.
The spring flowers are out in full and vibrant force, and we're glad we have the resident expert behind us, who, judging by his solid reputation, is sure to elucidate us on their names and reasons for being. Many years back, Annette and I were privileged to be invited on a botanical outing outside Calitzdorp by another local doyen. After seeing what plants we could discover in our designated two-square metre area, we were amazed when we were told we had selected 32 different species for his identification.
And it is natural bounty like this, plus the crisp air and soothing infinitude of Karoo space that makes this country's inner heart such a joy to visit. Although Minwater Farm is situated in a transition zone which receives both winter and summer rainfall, it gets very little of both and is classified as semi-desert. What it has in abundance, though, is natural beauty.
The farm boasts about 550 of the 3 200 species in this region which sees the succulent Karoo, fynbos and subtropical thicket biomes converge. Also, more than 30 species of mammal have been sighted here (among them the honey badger, aardwolf and leopard) as well as about 160 bird types, including the Verreaux Eagle and Black Harrier. In terms of the local geological formations, three main rock types dominate: shale, quartzite and sandstone, eroded remnants of which are apparently found on top of Rooiberg Mountain and are said to be curiously rounded; a phenomenon which Louis will explain to us later.
But as we edge our way up the steepening rocky slopes, I have little time to consider the natural bounty around us. I engaged low range (4LLc, 4L with CD locked in Mitsubishi Super Select speak) soon after we turned on to the Rooiberg Trail proper, and considering the judicious manoeuvring required around several undercarriage threatening rocks mushrooming on the track ahead, I'm glad I did.
When we tackled Bôjaanskjop we had no luggage in the back, and from the occasional knock and scrape sounds emanating from beneath the car, it's clear our current holiday load has compromised our ground clearance further. And, judging from the steep scree and boulder ascent ahead, I'm going to have to have my wits about me if I'm to avoid puncturing the diff. But the small Pajero handles the rocky obstacles well and we are soon heading for the final assault on the Rooiberg's 680m summit. At a gradient of around 30 degrees in places, and loose stones carpeting the irregularly-surfaced and significantly cambered track, it's certainly the most challenging section of the trail so far.
We take the remaining 500-metres section in second gear, waddling and shimmying our way up the mountainside with surprisingly little protest from the io's undercarriage. Soon we arrive at the top, a flattened area (ideal for a picnic) from which we have a 360-degree view of the Swartberge to the north, the Outeniqua and Langeberg peaks to the south, the Gamkaberge to the west and many lesser ranges in-between.
"Okay, it's question time folks," states Louis, a broad grin softening his face. "Why are all these rounded stones found up here?" he asks, pointing to a collection in his hand.
Judging from the look of them I venture they've been eroded by water, but don't know how.
Louis explains that the mini-plateau on which we are standing is the remainder of a rampant river course, formed "soon" after the split up of Gondwanaland (some 180 million years ago) and this fast-flowing river eroded the stones he's holding.
The Karoo's ancient history and its peerless fossil records fascinate me* and we chat a little about the red stone hills we can see outside Calitzdorp and De Rust. Made from Enon conglomerate (large round stones trapped in hardened red mud) these formations are remnants of the fast-flowing torrents that made their way from the melting Karoo inland sea towards the coast when Africa broke away from Antarctica and settled in warmer latitudes.
With the front coils compressed, the already lower end of our vehicle groans intermittently on the way down the engaging there-and-back trail. With Louis now leading the way, we stop many times as he points out various camouflaged insects and several tiny hidden plants we would never have seen on our own.
Being able to get to places like this is why I own a 4x4. And as today proved again, besides being a bit short on ground clearance, you don't need an expensive vehicle to get there.
Minwater 4x4 trail notes
Where it is:
Minwater Eco Adventures is 24 km southwest of Oudtshoorn (near Volmoed).
GPS co-ordinates: S 33.71249° E 22.03960°
There are four 4x4 trails here: Rooiberg (Grade 2+ — 7km, 2 hours); Steenbokrant (Grade 3 — 4.5 km, 1 hour); Sandberg (Grade 4— 17 km; 3 hours) and Kloof (Grade 5 — 1km, 1 hour). Due to time and ground clearance constraints, we did the "easier" Rooiberg Trail. It provided enough of an adrenalin rush and rewarded us with epic views of the surrounding countryside. I strongly recommend Louis accompanies you; his knowledge is well worth paying a bit extra for.
Time taken: It took us about 2.5 hours, but allow 3 hours and have a picnic at the top.
Terrain: Mostly mountainous (some steep angles) with sharp shale, variably-sized loose rocks with a couple of axle-twisting ruts and small dongas along the way.
Tyre Pressure recommended: I ran ours at 1.7 bars in front and 1.9 bars at the back.
Ground clearance: 210 mm (laden) should do it.
Vehicle used: 2000 Mitsubishi Pajero io (5-door) 4x4. My old stalwart would undoubtedly benefit from a suspension lift and stronger rear coils to prevent load sag. But its 88kW petrol-driven mill (1854cc — Mitsubishi Lancer) and 174Nm torque is enough to propel its 1 285kg kerb weight.
Approach angle: 33°; Departure angle: 42° and Breakover angle: 22°.
Price: Out of production since 2007 — between R60 and R70K for a good used one.
Contact: Louis Jordaan on 044 279 1285/082 481 3625, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website: www.minwater.co.za
Cost: R250 per vehicle; R300 per person (negotiable for larger groups) for guided nature tours and rustic camping at R120 per night.
Setting and 4x4 experience: 8/10