Although this article, Gauteng Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Gauteng, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
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Located in the Highveld, an elevated grassy plateau, Gauteng is South Africa’s smallest province, with a surface area of only 16 548 sq/kms, taking up 1.4% of the country’s total land area, but with a population of 12 272 263 persons- 23.7% of the total population. This yields a population density of 675 persons per sq/km in an area slightly smaller that the U.S. state of New Jersey. By comparison, the population density of the Northern Cape is only 3 persons per sq/km, and that of Namibia only 2 persons per sq/km. However, this tiny province produces 33% of the GDP of South Africa, and a staggering 10% of the GDP of the African continent.
Gauteng has only two mountains- the Witwatersberg in the north and along which the province’s economic development is concentrated, and the Magaliesberg in the south, which extends west-ward into the North West province. The northern parts of Gauteng forms part of the southern reaches of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a massive, and several-kms thick “plate” of igneous rock that formed through massive volcanic activity more than 2000 million years ago. This rock complex holds most of the world’s platinum reserves (around 90%), and large percentages of other valuable metals.
The Bushveld complex is about the size of West Virginia, and extends north, west, and east into neighbouring provinces. The large, and sometimes dramatic granite outcrops in these provinces are the top layers of the complex, and have become visible due to erosion of the top soils, and much, if not most, of the topography of Gauteng which would otherwise have been almost flat and featureless, is due to the uneven erosion of the top layers of the Bushveld Complex.
The climate of Gauteng is considered by many to be among the most pleasant in the world: low humidity, and average summer temperatures of between 170 C and 280C, means that summers are mild, and suitable for outdoor activities, even during January and February, the hottest months of the year. Winters are frigid, with average temperatures of between 50C, and 190C. Daytime winter temperatures can be as high as 250C at times, but sub-zero temperatures are relatively rare although minimum temperatures of as low -40C have been recorded during July and August, the coldest months of the year. Snowfalls are exceedingly rare, and occurrences could be several years apart.
Gauteng falls into the summer-rainfall area, with an average annual rainfall of 543 mm, with January usually the wettest month. Much of the annual rainfall happens during brief, but violent thunderstorms in the late afternoon during the summer months, with heavy hail occurring frequently.
The best times to visit Gauteng are during September or October in the early summer, or in autumn during March to April. Climatic conditions at these times are ideal for traveling and sightseeing in comfort, with no weather or temperature extremes.
Unfortunately, the scenic attractions of Gauteng are not immediately visible among the urban sprawl, mine dumps, industrial complexes, and highways. However, the province does have a large number of scenic attractions, which are easily found if one cares to look for them.
Although there is virtually no off-road tourism in Gauteng, the province has literally hundreds of hiking and mountain bike trails, which is a sort of off-road tourism, if one does not put too fine appoint on it. Nonetheless, there are hiking and biking trails in all types of terrain, from rugged walks in the extremely scenic Magaliesberg range, to short, 2km walks in fragments of lush indigenous forest in the middle of Houghton, an upmarket residential area. The often stunningly beautiful scenery of Gauteng is best experienced in these small, bit-sized chunks. There are no spectacular horizon-to-horizon panoramic views in Gauteng that is not spoilled by the presence of high-tension power lines, mine dumps, highways, or other signs of large-scale economic activity: on the other hand though, the small pockets of unspoilt wilderness are generally well maintained and managed, which makes the escape from the very fast, and high pressure rat race in this province all the more rewarding.
Due to space constraints, all of the 39 National Parks and Reserves in Gauteng are very small, some of them being only a few hectares in extent. However, what they lack in size, they more than make up for with their scenic beauty, being as they are in the most scenic parts of the province- those parts that are usually not visible from the network of super-highways, industrial complexes, and the general urban sprawl that covers most of the province.
The Tswaing Nature Reserve
Located about 40kms outside Pretoria, the Tswaing Nature Reserve, is a 1946 ha conservation area, that is best known as the site of a meteor impact crater that was formed about 220 000 years ago, the most recent major impact crater in the world.
However, this reserve has a variety of ecosystems that accommodate a large variety of plants, especially indigenous trees, and animal species such as otters, genets, hyenas, civets, steenbok, as well as 240 bird species, and some reptiles in various habitats. The reserve also hosts a 7.5 km-long hiking trail that is regarded as relatively undemanding, although summer temperatures at the bottom of the crater could be uncomfortably high. Hikers are encouraged to carry water on this trail. The reserve also boasts several archaeological sites, more of which can be learned at the small museum and interpretation centre.
The Cradle Nature Reserve
Apart from the fact that this area may have been the birthplace of modern humans, this 3 000 ha reserve is in arguably the most scenic part of Gauteng, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The abundant wildlife here includes giraffe, wildebeest, white rhino, brown hyena, and the ever-elusive leopard in the densely forested parts of the reserve.
The Cradle nature Reserve also hosts in excess of 200 bird species, as well as a particularly rich variety of plant species, but the reserve is probably better known for its variety of paleontological and archaeological site, most of which are of international importance. Game drives and nature hikes can be arranged, as well as paleontological tours that reveal much about the ancient past of this remarkable area.
The Mountain Sanctuary Park
Probably the best place to go hiking and the best-kept secret in Gauteng, this 1000 ha Park is set right in the heart of the Magaliesberg range, about 120 kms west of Johannesburg above the Grootfontein Valley. This park does not have set and marked out trails, instead, it offers the soul-weary visitor the freedom to wander freely amongst the beautiful rock pools and strange rock formations. This park also offers mountain biking trails over routes such as the challenging Breedt’s Neck Mountain Pass, or a less taxing route along the Barnardsvlei Road.
To prevent overcrowding, visitor numbers in the campsite are strictly limited, and no noise of any kind (read, LOUD MUSIC, or even loud conversation), is allowed, or tolerated after 9 pm.
The Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Just outside of the town of Nigel, this bird sanctuary consists of a 10 sq km flood plain and wet-land that forms the southern half of the Blesbokspruit RAMSAR site. The sanctuary supports about 65 bird species, and at times thousands of migratory birds settle here to rest and feed. Although mining activities in the immediate surroundings have adversely affected the area, bird species such as the black egret, fulvous duck, South African shelduck, reed cormorant, white heron, goliath heron, African spoonbill, and Ethiopian snipe can still be seen in large numbers, making this area a nationally important spot for bird watching and research.
The sanctuary has a picnic spot with ablution facilities, and hides at a large pool from which to enjoy undisturbed bird watching.
Although Gauteng does not have designated, definitive, or even recognised scenic routes/drives, the province does have something that comes close, even though the biggest part of it spills over into the neighbouring North West province, and there are no crocodiles, farmed, or wild, on the route. The name derives from the Crocodile River, which follows parts of the route.
The Crocodile Ramble
Notwithstanding the fact that the newly-updated Crocodile Meander passes through some of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of Gauteng (and the North West Province), its main at-traction lies in the sheer number of activities that are offered by various game reserves, such as nature trails, game drives, and white water rafting, to early morning hot air balloon flights over the Magaliesberg range, visits to the studios of world renowned artists, visits to cultural villages, and reptile parks, and to close off a tiring day, fine dining at several star-graded restaurants.
This route is widely regarded as the best craft route in South Africa, and it stretches from Hon-eydew in Johannesburg, past Muldersdrift and Lanseria Airport, to include the Cradle of Humankind, the quaint village of Magaliesberg, and the Hartbeespoort Dam area to eventually end in Broederstroom in the North West Province. In practical terms, this route has no official beginning or end, but how much you get out of it depends entirely on how many destinations and activities you can fit into one day.
The Jacaranda City
During October and November, nearly eighty thousand 120+ year-old jacaranda trees turn the old streets and avenues into a spectacular display of lilac flowers. In some of the older suburbs such as Arcadia and Villieria, the blooming jacaranda trees from closed canopies across the nar-row streets. The only white jacarandas in Pretoria, a row of almost one hundred trees, can be seen in Herbert Baker Street in Groenkloof.
Built in 1855 and initially called Market Square, several historically and architecturally significant buildings such as the Palace of Justice, the Tudor Chambers, the Old Council Chamber, and the Old Capitol Theatre surround Church Square, which was intended to resemble London’s Trafal-gar Square and Paris’ Place de la Concorde. A prominent feature of Church Square is the large statue of fifth President of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, with four anonymous, and somewhat dejected-looking Boer soldiers at his feet.
Built in the art-deco style, the imposing Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria is a unique cultural and historic monument to the bravery and persistence of the Afrikaner pioneers who settled in the South African hinterland between 1836 and 1854. This monument, that attracts more than 200 000 visitors from all over the world each year, has a hole in the roof through which the sun shines on a sarcophagus at noon on December 16 every year.
South African Air Force Museum
South Africa has a rich aviation history, and the South African Air Force (SAAF) has played a ma-jor role in several of the most brutal wars of the 20th century. South African aircraft and personnel took part in both World Wars, and the Berlin Airlift after WW2, as well as the Korean War in the 1950’s, and several others. The most popular exhibit is a Boeing 707, doubtless because visitors can enter and even access the cockpit. Other exhibits include a huge Shackleton bomber, large components from of a Ju86, the first SAAF aircraft that saw action in the Second World War, components of an Italian Fiat aircraft, the first victim of a SAAF kill, as well as Russian Mig 21 that was captured during the Angolan War. Among the huge collection of war memorabilia is a Nazi swastika that was cut from the wreck of a German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft.
Also known as the Vertical Adventure Centre in Soweto, here you can bungee jump off decommissioned power station cooling towers that are also used for other extreme sports such as abseiling, zip lines, and pendulum swinging, among others, such as base-jumping that is available for experienced base-jumpers only.
Wild Cave Adventures
Located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage area, here you can indulge in a heady mix of wild caving, normal caving, kloofing, and various grades of mountaineering.
Harley Chauffeur Rides
Since many of Gauteng’s scenic spots are far apart, and the way there seldom involves off-road driving, do the next best thing, and get there on a Harley-Davidson motor cycle. Chauffeured rides on Harleys are available to take you just about anywhere in the province, although extended rides may be a bit pricey.
Due to the general flatness of the landscape, with no major mountains, and a road network that had long since been relayed around all spots with significant differences in altitude, Gauteng has only one mountain pass.
Horn’s Nek, Pretoria
At 3.8 km in length, the gentle, tarred Horns Nek Pass winds through the scenic Magaliesberg range west of Pretoria, rising 140 meters at a gradient of 1:20 with no sharp corners, negative camber, or other surprises of any kind.
The old Transvaal used to have a large number of small country towns; however, the creation of Gauteng, which comprises only a small part of the old eastern Transvaal, has left all of the small towns of the former Transvaal in the neighbouring provinces, with only two exceptions.
The only town in Gauteng that looks as if it had been transplanted from Victorian England. Its quaint and quirky main street, Oak Avenue, which is lined with huge oak and plane trees, is crammed with antique shops, restaurants, some original mine workers cottages with picket fences, and a rustic, combined junk yard-cum-theatre. Other attractions is the magnificent St George’s Anglican Church, that was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, as well as the Cullinan Mys-tique, a historical building that dates back to 1904, and which houses a previously unknown col-lection of murals painted by Italian prisoners-of-war during the Second World War, and which were only discovered during recent renovations.
The old-world charm of this little town lies in its oak and plane tree-lined lanes, old, but beauti-fully maintained houses, and cows that graze on meadows that border directly on the road that leads through the village; scenes that remind one of the English West Country, and that wholly dispel the notion that one might be right in the middle of a major industrial complex.
The world-renowned statesman, Jan Smuts lived here for forty years, and a farmers’-cum-art market is held twice a month on the grounds of his former home, the Smuts House Museum.