Swartberg Nature Reserve lies between the Great Karoo and Klein Karoo, forming a narrow but long stretch of 121 000ha. The reserve was delcared a World Heritage Site in 1997. It is bordered by Gamkapoort Nature Reserve immediately to the north (8 000ha) and Towerkop Nature Reserve immediately to the west (51 000ha). These two reserves are not open to the public but are managed in conjuction with Swartberg. 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 to the Swartberg Pass are Oudtshoorn (40km), De Rust (55km) and Prince Albert (5km).
Numerous rock paintings and artefacts found in caves all over the reserve, show that the area was frequented by San people for many centuries. European farmers arrived in the 1700s, establishing small settlements and building roads, including three historic routes connecting the Great and Klein Karoo: Toorwaterpoort railway, Meirings poort road, and the untarred Swartberg Pass, built by Thomas Bain, which takes vehicles over the Swartberg mountains and reaches a height of 1585m above sea-level. Gamkaskloof (also known as Die Hel), was first inhabited by farmers in 1830 and accessible only by foot until 1962 when a road was finally built, winding from the Swart berg Pass down into the valley. Gamkaskloof is a Cultural Historical Site.
Climate and geology
Climates are extreme here: very cold winters bring snow to the mountains and temperatures well below zero, while summers can be uncomfortably hot with temperatures reaching 40°C and higher. Rain occurs throughout the year, peaking in early winter and spring, with thundershowers in the summer months. The Swartberg mountains are part of the Cape fold mountain range, with geological formations common to the Table Mountain group and, to a lesser extent, the Bokkeveld and Cango groups. The Swartberg and Meiringspoort passes impressively show the rock formations from these groups.
Vegetation in the Swartberg is remarkably diverse, including renosterveld, mountain fynbos, Karoo-veld, spekboom veld and numerous geophyte species. Some species bloom virtually throughout the year although most plants flower in spring. In early autumn, many protea species flower, attracting large numbers of sugarbirds and sunbirds. During mid-summer (De cember - February) notable plants on the higher Swartberg peaks are in flower, in cluding the rare Protea venusta.
Mammals likely to be seen include klipspringer, grey rhebuck, kudu, baboon and dassie. Springbok occur on the flatter areas of Gamkapoort. Leopard and caracal are also present in the area, but Bat-eared fox Protea venusta seldom seen. More than 130 bird species have been recorded here, notably, black, fish and martial eagle species, Cape sugarbird and the pied kingfisher.
Visitors to Swartberg return frequently to experience its sense of vastness and tranquillity. Swartberg Pass and Meiringspoort have scenic picnic and braai spots, while the Gamka River and Gamkapoort Dam offer plenty of opportunities for canoeing, sailing and fishing (fresh-water angling licences are required). The best times for hiking are April to May and September to October, with options ranging from easy day-hikes to a fairly demanding three-day route which leads hikers past rock formations, incredible views and unspoilt mountain fynbos. This trail has two alternative starting points, with overnight huts at Ou Tol and Bothashoek (both accommodating up to 12 people) which provide panoramic views of a landscape dominated by Cape fold mountains. Spectacular views are also a feature of Swartberg’s 4x4 route, which can be booked as a day or overnight route.