The Cederberg Wilderness Area lies some 200km north of Cape Town, stretching from the Middelberg Pass at Citrusdal to north of the Pakhuis Pass at Clanwilliam and encompassing some 71 000ha of rugged, mountainous terrain.
The Cederberg was proclaimed a wilderness area in 1973 and has grown into a popular destination for hardy hikers and mountaineers. The Cederberg is renowned for its spectacular landscapes and rock formations, as well as its namesake, the increasingly rare Clanwilliam cedar tree.
Geologically, the Cederberg is part of the Cape Fold Belt and consists mainly of Table Mountain sandstone. Weathered sandstone formations, most notably the Wolfberg Arch and the Maltese Cross, are typical of the Cederberg. These mountains fall within the catchment area of the Cape fynbos region and are managed as a source of water.
San and Khoi people inhabited the Cederberg area from earliest times. European settlers began stock farming here in the early eighteenth century and, in 1876, a forester was appointed to oversee crown land in the mountains. This was possibly the first attempt at conservation in the Cederberg. The campsite Algeria was named by a French nobleman, Count de Regne, who was in charge of state forests in the Cape Colony. The mountainous environment and the cedar trees reminded him of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria.
From 1903 to 1973, exploitation of natural products was rampant in the Cederberg. Large amounts of cedar wood, rooibos tea, buchu and rockwood bark were harvested. Farmers even used the mountains to graze livestock in times of drought. Large numbers of cedar trees were felled to satisfy the growing demand for construction wood. Some 7 200 trees were used for telephone poles between Piketberg and Calvinia. Fires added to the destruction and cedar trees are now on the brink of extinction. In 1967 the removal of dead cedar trees was halted and other forms of exploitation ended in 1973.
The 12 000 a Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve is situated on the drier eastern boundary of the Cederberg mountains. It is managed as an integral component of the greater Cederberg conservation area. Obtained in 1995 with the assistance of the World Wide Fund for Nature (SA), this rugged nature reserve includes the famous Stadsaal rock formations and some excellent examples of San rock art.
Winters in the Cederberg are cold and wet while summers are warm and dry. Most rain falls between May and September and it often snows in the higher parts. In winter, night temperatures drop sharply and heavy frost may occur while in summer temperatures reach as high as 40°C. Lightning is the most common cause of periodic veld fires, aided by southeasterly winds that predominate in the summer and contribute to the fire risk.
Matjiesrivier straddles arid to semi-arid zones with its eastern slopes generally drier than those at high altitude or facing west.
Vegetation in the Cederberg Wilderness Area is predominantly mountain fynbos. The lower slopes support laurel protea, silky conebush, sand olive and yellow daisies, with wild olives and mountain maytenus on the rocky outcrops. Waboom veld also occurs at this lower altitude. The eye-catching purply-blue ridderspoor, rooibos tea and buchu grow against the lower cliffs whileh igher up one finds fynbos restio veld, with red disas in abundance along streams on the plateau.
The Clanwilliam cedar grows in the so-called cedar zone against cliffs and overhangs at altitudes of more than 1 000m above sea level. In the wetter ravines, red and white alder, yellowwood, hard-pear and Cape beech occur, while wild olive, silky bark and spoonwood prefer dryer kloofs. The endemic snow protea is perhaps the most attractive plant on the highest peaks - it is very scarce and only found at a few sites in the wilderness area.
Matjiesrivier occupies a transitional zone between the fynbos and lowland succulent Karoo vegetation types. The drier conditions and fine-grained clay soils of the western slopes of the reserve also support central mountain renosterveld which is dominated by members of the daisy family. Growing on more nutritious soils than fynbos, renosterveld is believed to have supported herds of large game and predators such as lion. However, most renosterveld areas have been converted to agriculture.
Babooons, dassies, grey rhebok, klipspringers, duiker and grysbok are fairly common in ghe Cederberg. Porcupine, honeybadger, Cape clawless otter and aardvark also occur although they are seldom seen. The leopard is the Cederberg’s largest predator and is fairly common although very shy. Smaller predators include African wild cat, lynx, bat-eared fox, aardwolf and Cape fox. The small grey mongoose and striped polecat are often seen. Various interesting rodents occur, including the spectacled dormouse.
More than 100 bird species occur here, with black eagle, rock kestrel and jackal buzzard being the most common raptors.
About 16 snake species are found in the Cederberg the most common being berg adder, puff adder and black spitting cobra. The armadillo lizard is one of the endemic reptiles found here.
Cedar trees are dying out despite the protection offered by the Wilderness Area. A cedar reserve of about 5 250ha was created in 1987 in an attempt to prevent the extinction of these trees. Special measures include more frequent, cooler burning and limiting the extremely hot fires that kill mature trees. Cedars are also being cultivated and, each year, volunteers help plant about 8 000 year-old trees at suitable places within the reserve.
The Wilderness Area forms the core of a leopard management area established in 1988. This area includes private land and is managed in collaboration with the landowners. The aim of the initiative is to promote the existence of leopards by minimising conflict between stock farming and nature conservation.
Local landowners have joined CapeNature in setting up two conservancies bordering the Wilderness Area. The Cederberg and Biedouw Conservancies jointly comprise about 312 000ha of private and state land. Broad conservation goals are achieved by means of environmental management plans and ecological auditing. Conservancies are also planned for the Olifants River valley and Wupperthal. Conservancies are an important component of the proposed Cederberg Biosphere Reserve.
The Cederberg mountains form the main catchment area for the Olifants River system – home to the richest variety of endemic fish species south of the Zambezi. These fish occur nowhere else except in the Olifants or its tributaries.
Unfortunately, it is also a river system under threat from human activities and infestation by alien species. Excessive extraction of water, excavations in the river bed, damming, pesticide pollution, the presence of alien fish like bass, and infestation by invasive plants such as black wattle and blue gum have contributed to a dramatic decline in the quality of the riverine environment.
Degradation is so severe that the eight species of fish endemic to the Olifants River all face extinction. Fish inhabiting the lower, unprotected reaches of the Olifants River system are particularly at risk. These include the Clanwilliam yellowfish, three species of redfin minnow and two species of mountain catlets. The Conservancies are being used to improve the management of rivers on private land.
The solitude and wild grandeur of the Cederberg Wilderness Area offers unsurpassed opportunities for recreation. Activities such as hiking and traditional rock climbing are encouraged as long as rock surfaces remain undamaged. Old woodcutters’ paths crisscross the Wilderness Area and hikers may explore the area at will. A 1:50 000 topographical map is available from CapeNature.
The Cederberg offers hundreds of rocky overhangs and caves with fine examples of rock art. These paintings vary in age between 300 and 6 000 years, and are very sensitive to damage. They are an integral part of the Wilderness Area’s value and visitors are encouraged to discover them on their own. Rock art is protected by the National Monuments Act and vandals who deface rock paintings face fines of up to R10 000 and/or two years imprisonment.
The peaceful atmosphere of the Algeria campsite has broad appeal. Here, 48 sites are situated along the banks of the Rondegat River. The Kliphuis campsite is in the Pakhuis Pass on the flower route to the Biedouw Valley and Wupperthal. This campsite has 10 spots under shady trees along the Kliphuis River. Algeria also offers seven chalets, ranging from fully-equipped to comfortable, basic accommodation, all close to the Rondegat River.
The Wilderness Area is divided into utilisation zones, which helps to maintain the wilderness atmosphere and limit the impact of visitors. There are three blocks of about 24 000ha each and numbers are limited to 50 people per block per day. Groups are limited to a minimum of three and a maximum of 12 persons per day. Visitors are urged to book well in advance to avoid disappointment.