The Western Cape is one of South Africa’s most-visited provinces and it can sometimes seem that every inch has been explored time and time again. From Table Mountain’s flat top to the Garden Route’s lush forest, from the whale-rich waters of Hermanus to the Cape Dutch architecture of the Winelands, visitors just love this varied province. But even in a region so often chosen as a holiday destination, you can still escape the masses. And to get off the beaten track, you only need to turn to an offbeat form of transport – here are three unusual ways to see the Western Cape as most people never will.
A donkey-cart ride into the past
It seems like a throwback to a bygone epoch, but in some hard-to-reach, mountainous parts of the province, donkeys are still a viable form of transport. Some rural communities have found a way to transform the hardships of their terrain into a tourism opportunity, offering donkey cart rides to travellers seeking an unusual way to get about. Many of these remote hamlets are otherwise impossible to reach, and their lack of contact with the wider world has left them somewhat frozen in time, so jumping on a donkey cart can almost seem like you’re stepping into a time machine.
For an utterly isolated adventure, head to Wupperthal in the Cederberg Mountains, around a four-hour drive north of Cape Town. This far-flung mission village with a population of around 500 is reachable only by 4WD. Here a grass-roots tourism initiative takes visitors on a three-day donkey cart trail through the mountains, stopping off at increasingly tiny hamlets along the way. Meals are taken in family homes and overnight accommodation is of the homestay-variety, making this as authentic a trip as you could hope to find.
Although you might think of donkeys as being slow and docile, the tracks are steep in parts and the trip can get surprisingly hair-raising, particularly when you have to keep stopping to fix the brakes. Shorter trails are also available if you’re looking for an alternative adventure but don’t want to commit to three full days.
A tractor into the mountains
The Western Cape is blessed with end-to-end mountain ranges. The jagged ochre peaks of the Cederberg later become the purple-blue backdrop of the Cape Winelands, dusted with snow in the winter months. In Cape Town, the slopes meet the ocean, along the Garden Route they’re topped with a sprinkling of verdant forest and in the Karoo the rolling red hills add interest to the arid landscape.
Since you’re almost constantly surrounded by them, it’s pretty easy to appreciate the mountains from afar, but getting up-close of course requires a lot more effort. If you lack the time and inclination to hike, how about a tractor ride? Protea Farm overlooks the Koo Valley, and sits just off the R318, a glorious but seldom-driven road linking Montagu to the N1 national road. From here, two-hour tractor rides tackle some fairly hair-raising twists and turns to take you right to the top of the Langeberg range. Once there, local treats (dried fruit and sweet Muscadel wine) are served, before you descend for an optional potjie lunch. The traditional stews are cooked over open fires and followed up by a plate of Malva pudding. In fact this is such a quintessential South African experience that in the right season you even get to stop and pick proteas – South Africa’s national flower.
The Outeniqua Power Van
There was once a glorious way to leave the train station in George, the largest town on the Garden Route. The horn would hoot, the smoke would billow and slowly the wheels would start to chug as the magnificent – and magnificently named – Outeniqua Choo Tjoe left the station to make its spectacularly scenic journey through mountains and along the coast to Knysna, 52km away. Sadly, when severe rains washed away part of the track in 2006, it spelled the end of this awesome journey and although attempts are constantly being made to raise the funds to repair the rails, to date the steam engine resides in George’s Transport Museum, which doubles as the station.
But just across the other side of the hangar-like building is another way to explore George’s surrounds. Instead of being coast-bound, the Outeniqua Power Van heads inland – straight up into the Outeniqua Mountains in fact. It’s a curious little contraption, a mini rail bus that slowly makes its way past the town’s botanical gardens before climbing 600m in altitude over a 4km journey. The van has been making this trip for 14 years, though the track dates back just over 100 – a 67km stretch of railway that took local convicts five years to build by hand.
The van passes through a dozen tunnels and countless tight bends, taking in magnificent vistas of the well-known Four Passes – but while cars can easily navigate the Outeniqua Pass and even the dirt road Montagu Pass, and hikers enjoy the narrow bends of the Cradock Pass, only those who plan ahead can enjoy the Railway Pass, since the charming Power Van operates an erratic schedule, often only departing when there are enough pre-bookings. Bring a camera and a picnic as the van stops for lunch on its descent back to George.