Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

An Oasis in the Kalahari

TRYGVE ROBERTS of Mountain Passes South Africa explores the gateway to one of the Northern Cape’s hidden gems, the Witsand Nature Reserve.

The Padkloof Pass is located on a secondary road which connects the N14 near Olifantshoek in the north with the N8 in the south. This relatively short pass is in good condition and can be driven in any vehicle. However, there are some severe corrugations in a few places to look out for.

The main attraction in this area is, without a doubt, the Witsand Nature Reserve, situated about 20km away on the northern side of the pass. This area is known as the Green Kalahari and is quite densely vegetated, in stark contrast to the red sand landscape of the true semi-desert nearby. Keep a lookout for the thousands of Sociable Weaver nests that populate many of the trees and telephone poles and the smaller arid-region animals such as squirrels, mongooses, meerkats and dassies that pop up out of nowhere.

To approach from the south, start near Groblershoop at the intersection of the N8 and the N10 (S28.887950 E21.977742) and travel in an easterly direction along the N8 for 58.5km to S28.907290 E22.497699, where you turn left. Follow this gravel road for 18.2km to S28.748334 E22.519075, the south-eastern starting point of the pass. The pass starts from a low point in the road, then climbs at a fairly steep incline towards the summit, which is reached after just 750m. More observant drivers will notice an interesting-looking road winding its way up the hill on the left-hand side at this point. This road leads to some towers, but unfortunately the entrance is blocked by a locked gate. The pass now begins a long and gradual descent through the kloof itself. The road undulates gently all through this section, bending through some shallow corners which are almost imperceptible. There are two stream crossings, both of which are concreted. You will need to slow down a little at these points, as the road dips sharply on both occasions, and you could easily bottom out your suspension if you travel too fast. At the 4.9km mark, the road exits from the kloof and bends through a long shallow curve of 45 degrees toward the right, then straightens up for another 900m. This is then followed by a sharpish 90-degree turn to the left and then by another straight of 750m, which gets you to the end of the pass at a Y-shaped intersection.

A ‘roaring’ reserve

The white dunes of the Witsand Nature Reserve stand out in sharp contrast to the green vegetation, the dramatic smoky-blue backdrop provided by the nearby mountains, and the typical red Kalahari sand of the surrounding area. The reserve is an exceptional eco-destination, and one of the Green Kalahari’s best-kept secrets. The pale-coloured dunes are believed to have emerged from an isolated range of hillocks buried beneath the sand, from which springs a natural reservoir that has gradually leached the red oxide from the dunes over millions of years, turning them white.

The dunes, which are about 4km wide and 9km long and between 20m and 60m high, are known as the roaring sands or “brulsand”, because their countless millions of grains of sand rub together to emit a deep reverberating hum. For this natural phenomenon to occur, sweltering and dry conditions are very necessary, so although Witsand is warm all year round, summer is the best time to experience this extraordinary sand chorus. More of a rumble than a roar, visitors must be within close proximity of the dunes to hear their unique sound.

The millions of cubic metres of water that are stashed under the dunes supply irrigation to the neighbouring farms but also attract lightning strikes. This causes the formation of fulgurites, which are essentially shafts of fused mineral grains which can be found at the point of impact. Peak temperatures within a lightning channel are known to exceed 30 000 Kelvin, with sufficient pressure to produce planar deformation features, known colloquially as ‘shocked quartz’. These are usually only a few centimetres long, but the biggest fulgurite measured almost 5m long (in Florida, USA).

Besides the white dunes’ attraction, the reserve offers a host of other activities. The entire park is open to hikers, and Witsand is renowned for having no restrictions on where visitors can go on foot. There are two viewing sites with information panels, as well as a 3.2km botanical meander with 43 marked plant species and an outdoor museum. Adventurers can rent dune boards and bicycles to explore the area, and swimming pools offer a welcome reprieve from the Kalahari heat. There are also several 4×4 trails in the immediate vicinity. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream, and to top it off, the reserve is considered one of the country’s best stargazing sites.

Animals in the reserve include springbuck, oryx, steenbok, duiker, red hartebeest, ground squirrels, meerkat, porcupine, aardwolf, aardvark, pangolin, bat-eared fox, cape fox, genet, ostrich and spring hare. Birders can look forward to spotting a combination of more than 170 species of arid region and bushveld birds. These include Sociable Weavers, Secretary Birds, Crimson-breasted Boubou or Shrike, Kori Bustards, Lilac-breasted Rollers and three species of Sandgrouse Pygmy Falcons (Africa’s smallest raptor). There is a unique and well-positioned sunken bird hide from where visitors can observe and photograph birds at ground level, drinking at a waterpoint a few metres away.

Accommodation within the reserve includes ten luxury, self-catering chalets (one of them is wheelchair-friendly), each with three bedrooms sleeping up to six people. There is also group accommodation in bungalows and caravan and camping sites. Day visitors are welcome and can enjoy several well-maintained picnic sites. Other facilities within the reserve include a kiosk selling curios, basic foodstuffs and soft drinks. Take note that no fresh produce or alcoholic beverages are available. There is also an information centre, with various nature books and magazines, exhibitions, and displays of natural and archaeological treasures in the area.

Contact the Witsand Nature Reserve on +27 53 313 1061/2 or email them on witsandkalahari@gmail.com. For great insights into the area and ideas to plan your adventure: www.experiencenortherncape.com

FACT FILE

GPS START: S28.717316 E22.464257

GPS SUMMIT: S28.720746 E22.470668

GPS END: S28.748334 E22.519075

AVE GRADIENT: 1:41

MAX GRADIENT: 1:10

ELEVATION START: 1 222m

ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 254m

ELEVATION END: 1 085m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 169m

DISTANCE: 7km

DIRECTION – TRAVEL: East

TIME REQUIRED: 7 minutes

SPEED LIMIT: 60km/h

SURFACE: Gravel

NEAREST TOWN: Groblershoop (65km)

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