Swartberg Nature Reserve lies in the Oudtshoorn district between the Great and Klein Karoo, forming a narrow but long stretch of 121 000ha. It is bordered by the Gamkapoort Nature Reserve immediately to the north (8000ha) and Towerkop Nature Reserve immediately to the west (51 000ha). These two reserves are not open to the public but are managed in conjunction with Swartberg Nature Reserve.
The entire conservation area – a massive 180 000ha – is critical to the management of mountain catchments and water yields in the region.
The nearest towns are:
- Oudtshoorn (± 40 km)
- De Rust (± 5 km)
- Prince Albert (± 5 km)
The Swartberg Nature Reserve is also a proclaimed World Heritage Site.
Besides conservation, the reserve is concerned with the conservation of mountain catchments and the water yield thereof, and educational and recreational opportunities.
This area was clearly used by the San for many centuries, as evidenced by the numerous rock paintings and artefacts found in caves all over the reserve. During the 1700s European farmers arrived in the area, establishing small settlements and making roads.
Three historic routes connecting the Great and Klein Karoo lead through the reserve:
- Toorwaterpoort is a train route;
- Meiringspoort is used by motorists;
- Seweweekspoort is a gravel road,
- and the un-tarred Swartberg Pass,
*(poort means gorge)
Built by Thomas Baines, takes one over the Swartberg and reaches a height of 1585m above sea-level. Gamkaskloof (Die Hel), which was first inhabited by farmers in 1830, was only accessible by foot until 1963 when a road was finally built into the valley.
This is an area of climatic extremes, with very cold winters, often with snow on the mountains and temperatures well below zero, while summers can be uncomfortably hot with temperatures reaching 40ºC and more! Rain occurs throughout the year, peaking in early winter and spring, and with thundershowers in the summer months.
The Swartberg mountains are part of the Cape fold mountain range, and the geological formations are chiefly of the Table Mountain group and to a lesser extent of the Bokkeveld and Cango groups. Impressive rock formations may be seen in the Swartberg and Meiringspoort passes.
The reserve’s vegetation is remarkably diverse, featuring renosterveld, mountain fynbos, Karoo-veld, spekboom veld, and numerous geophyte species. Some species will be in bloom virtually throughout the year. Most plants flower in spring, but early autumn is the time that many protea species flower, attracting large numbers of sugarbirds and sunbirds. During mid-summer (December – February) many of the interesting plants on the higher Swartberg peaks are in flower, including the rare Protea venusta.
Mammals likely to be seen include klipspringer, grey rhebuck, kudu, baboon and dassie, and on the flatter areas at Gamkapoort, springbok. Leopard and caracal also occur in the area, but are seldom seen. More than 130 bird species have been recorded here, notably black, fish and martial eagle, Cape sugarbird and pied kingfisher.
Gamkaskloof (Die Hell)
The remote and isolated Gamkaskloof valley is about 90km from Oudtshoorn and 60km from Prince Albert and is only accessible via the Otto du Plessis Road, which turns off from the Swartberg Pass.
The Otto du Plessis Road is only 52km long but the drive along this gravel road will take 2.5 to 3hrs.
The valley is of ecological, archaelogical and cultural-historical importance and is now managed as part of the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
Visitors to the Kloof have accommodation options of 10 restored cottages, a bushcamp and 10 campsites. Attractions and activities include picnicking, a Norwegian mill, angling in the Gamka River, and sightseeing and relaxing in this natural paradise as well as a 6 km interpretation hiking trail (3 hours). (Cape Nature)