Although this article, North West Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in the North West Province, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geogra-phy, 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.
North-West Tourism Contents:
With a population of only 3.5-million people, and a surface area of 106 512 sq/ km, the North West takes up 8.7% of the total surface area of South Africa, yielding a comfortable population density of 33 persons per sq/km, in an area that is minimally smaller than the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
The North West Province has the most uniformly flat terrain of all the provinces, with an average altitude of between only 920 metres, and 1782 metres ASL. The central and western regions consist of flat or gently undulating plains, while the west is largely characterised by typical Kalahari dunes and savannah scrubland.
Two prominent mountains, the Magalies-, and Pilanesberg ranges characterise the north and north eastern part of the province, giving rise to rugged, hilly to mountainous terrain, of which the most striking feature is the sharply tilted sedimentary layers that have become exposed due to erosion. The main features of the Pilanesberg range are the three concentric ranges that came about as the result of violent volcanic activity about 1.3 billion years ago.
Falling in a summer rainfall area, average rainfall is around 360mm, with most of it falling in the eastern parts from October to April. The western parts of the province receive as little 100 mm per year, although this amount varies a great deal, and can be as high a 250 mm in some years. Howev-er, the entire North West province is subject to severe cyclical droughts during which some parts may not receive any rain at all for up to three years.
Summer temperatures are very high, ranging from 170C to 320C but with highs of 380C, and even 400C common in the western parts. Winter temperatures can be as low as -50C in the east, with an average maximum of around 170C during the day. Light snowfalls occur occasionally in the south-eastern reaches of the province, while hail frequently occurs during summer thunderstorms.
The western parts of North West are best avoided during December, January, and February because of the uncomfortably high daytime temperatures. The rest of the province can be visited right through the year.
The scenery of the entire southeastern half of the North West Province is blighted with rundown, and depressingly ugly mining towns encircled by toxic mine dumps, which is perhaps to be expected considering that it forms part of the Gold Fields, from which 40% of all the gold that was ever extracted from the earth came.
However, in terms of the scenic beauty of other parts of the province, the North West has much to redeem itself. The north, and north eastern parts, of which the only two mountain ranges, the Magaliesberg, and the Pilanesberg ranges forms the spine, abounds with long stretches of stunning mountain scenery that rivals anything the Western Cape has to offer. Pretty mountain villages such as Magaliesburg and Boshoek are so well hidden in the folds of the Magaliesberg that they come as a pleasant surprise when they suddenly appear. The fertile valleys of this region are patchwork quilts of citrus orchards, cotton fields, as well as berry and vegetable farms all connected with narrow, twisting country roads lined with farm stalls offering for sale everything this beautiful area produces.
In counterpoint to the lush greenery of the mountains, the scenery gradually transitions into typical Karroo scenery the further one travels westward. While there are no mountains in the west, there is dramatic evidence of the violent volcanic activity that shaped the area; the small, isolated hills, some of which are near perfect cones, while others are sharply truncated, are the remains of massive lava flows that occurred during the time the Pilanesberg volcano was active around 1.3 million years ago.
Turning southwards from the Pilanesberg, the transition into the Kalahari is rather abrupt; almost before one notices that there are no more hills, one becomes aware of the savannah scrubland that stretches almost from horizon to horizon. Continuing south-west on the N14, past Sannieshof and Delareyville the desert starts taking shape and form, until one happens on Vryburg, right in the heart of the beautiful Kalahari. Continuing straight on, the N14 leads into the Free State, but the area to the north-west of Vryburg comprises the Great Unknown, and it is here that the soul of the North West Province reveals itself. This is the true Kalahari Desert, and the only place where more of it can be seen is in Botswana, which is where the “main” road from Vryburg leads if one travels towards the far north western reaches of the province.
Although the North West Province is not quite as diverse as some other provinces in geological terms, the contrasts that do exist between geographical features in the province are just as striking, albeit on a smaller scale, and the best way to experience, and enhance the differences, is to visit at least the four parks and reserves listed below, if not all of the 33 National Parks, Nature Reserves, and game lodges in the province. The four examples listed here best represent the varied habitats and geological features of the North West.
The Pilanesberg National Park
Undoubtedly, the jewel in the crown of National Parks in the North West, this Park has been undergoing major game restocking programmes, and contrary to the trend of declining game numbers elsewhere, the numbers of nearly all the species here have been increasing steadily.
Located in one of only three known alkaline volcanic ring craters in the world, the three concentric ring mountains in the park, with their well-watered and drained valleys and gorges, offer some of the most spectacular and dramatic scenery to be found anywhere in Southern Africa.
Apart from the dramatic scenery, the main attraction of this park lays in the numbers of rare and endemic game species, such as cheetah, sable antelope, the nocturnal brown hyena, and the more common, but plentiful giraffe, zebra, hippo, and crocodile that can be viewed on game drives over a 190 km-long system of tourist routes.
The Kgaswane Mountain Reserve
Set entirely in the hilly terrain above the town of Rustenburg and partly on the farm Rietvallei that once belonged to President Paul Kruger, this park offers spectacular rock formations, some of the best hiking to be found anywhere, and many mountain streams that give rise to vegetation in the resulting wetlands that contrasts strikingly with the usual grassland and mountain vegetation. The main attraction lies in the incredibly varied vegetation that includes more than 120 tree species, several endemic plants and shrubs, and even some scattered patches of Cape fynbos.
The Borakalalo National Park
Translated as “The place where people relax”, this 13 500 ha park about 60 kms from Brits, con-sists mainly of open savannah and typical bushveld, with a beautiful stretch of riverine forest along the Moretele River, which flows through the park. The main attraction here is the more than 350 bird species, and 35 mammalian species, including the white rhino.
The park offers wilderness trails, as well as more than 100 kms of gravel roads for self-drive game viewing.
The Lichtenburg Game Breeding Centre
This unique facility borders almost directly on the town of Lichtenburg, on the R503 route be-tween Coligny and Mafikeng. Operated by the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, it is well worth a visit to see the efforts made to breed several exotic species such as scimitar-horned and Arabian Oryx, Mohr Gazelle, Addax, as well as Pere David’s deer and pygmy hippo in the wetland areas of the reserve. However, the main attraction of this reserve is the large amount of water that creates pools and wetlands to which water birds migrate in their thousands, while various antelope species, wildebeest herds, and white rhino inhabit the grasslands.
With the exception of scenic drives like the Garden Route, or Chapman’s Peak Drive, what consti-tutes a scenic route is often a matter of perception- or clever marketing, and so it is with the North West Province, as well. While the Gold Fields region has nothing to recommend it to any form of tourism, and the Crocodile Meander is not clearly defined, the North West Province does have areas with stunningly beautiful scenery. Falling mostly in the northeastern parts of the province, these areas are almost isolated pockets that are not connected by a clearly defined and designated route, but searching them out is well worth the time and effort.
There are several attractive small towns in this region that could be included in a Small Town Tour, but they generally have little, if any, historical or cultural significance, and are best appreciated against the backdrop of their scenic surroundings.
Located right in the heart of the Pilanesberg range, this picturesque little mountain hamlet is a long way off the beaten track, and the visitor that loses sight of the town while on an extended hike, might be forgiven for thinking that he is the last person alive on earth- in the only mountain range that was ever made. While Johannesburg is only a hundred kms away, it might never have existed in this realm of clear mountain streams, silence, peace, tranquillity, and the occasional patch of Cape fynbos.
While the town of Mooinooi itself has little attraction, the road leading there from Hart-beespoort passes through extensive citrus orchards that seem to be flowing through the narrow Magalies Valley like a green river. The sight of millions of citrus trees in bloom, or later when they are in full fruit, rivals anything the Cape wine lands have to offer, especially in the two-week period when the trees are in blossom and the air is heavy with the scent of citrus.
The main attraction of Olifantsnek is the location of the little town on the shore of the Oli-fantsnek Dam. However, there are many hiking trails through this most scenic part of the Magaliesberg range, almost all of which offer breathtaking views over the dam at some point, as well as over the fertile valley planted with cotton and citrus orchards that appear almost golden with the profusion of fruit just before harvest time.
Sun City Resort Rain Forest
Out of all the glitzy gambling resorts in Southern Africa, this is the only one that has its own rain forest, and in the dry bushveld to boot. The creators of this rain forest transplanted full-grown trees obtained from all over South Africa, including a still surviving 15-metre high palm tree bought from this writer, as well as shrubs, climbing plants, and everything else that goes into a rainforest, which made this team of botanists recognised world leaders in the arcane science of transplanting large trees. Although you can see and experience all the attractions that gambling resorts the world over have to offer, a walk through this instant rain forest alone is the main at-traction here, and more than worth the effort.
De Wildt Cheetah & Wildlife Trust
Internationally recognised as having saved the cheetah from extinction, this facility has raised and resettled 500 cheetahs in game reserves all over Southern Africa, and even in other conti-nents. Breeding programs for other critically endangered species such as the African wild dog, brown, or spotted hyena, cerval, suni antelope, several vulture species, and the riverine rabbit. A visit to this facility is well worth the effort.
Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre
Located just outside of Brits, this herbal centre is a welcome sight, for sore eyes, or feet, or aching muscles. Reputed to be the largest herb garden in the entire country, the Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre has been the leader in the field of natural remedies, herbal supplements, and natural cosmetics for many years. The Centre also offers workshops covering many different aspects of herb lore every Tuesday and Friday.
Magaliesberg Canopy Tour
Although canopy tours on zip lines are a dime a dozen these days, this one is different. Taking 2.5 hours, this canopy tour down the stunningly beautiful Ysterhout Kloof from eleven platforms set into the two billion year-old Magaliesberg, is one of the longest in the country. Trained canopy guides are on hand ensure the safety of all participants, while relating interesting facts about the indigenous plants, bird life, ecology, and geology of the area.
Crocodile Cage Diving
Since there are no sharks in the North West to dive in amongst, the next best thing is to dive in amongst crocodiles, safely ensconced in a sturdy steel cage that can withstand attacks from crocodiles up to 4 metres in length that are bigger, and more powerful than the average man-eating shark. To celebrate your survival, you will get three photos of you in the cage surrounded by crocodiles, a certificate to prove it is you on the photos, and a mug with a laser printed photo of you in the cage, in case you should lose your certificate.
Tandem Hang Gliding
This is the most exciting, and exhilarating, experience you can possibly have without breaking into a sweat. All you have to do is crawl into what appears to be an Arctic grade sleeping bag, hold onto the pilot, and let a small plane tow you to a height of about 2000 feet. Once the towline is released, the hang glider pilot will perform some twists and turns, do some level flying over the very scenic Magaliesberg range, and land back at the starting point about 25 minutes later.
The North West Province has the most uniformly flat topography of all the provinces of South Africa, and if it were not for the presence of the Magaliesberg range, there would not even have been the single pass the province does have.
Linking the towns of Magaliesberg and Marikana, and sometimes referred to as ‘Breedt’s Nek’, this pass is on a road that does not have an official route designation. The surface ranges from poor in some sections, to nearly impassable in others, and should only be attempted in a proper 4×4 with good ground clearance, or a “bakkie” with good ground clearance and a diff lock. The main attraction of this pass lies in the spectacular views over the area.
The small towns in the eastern parts the North West are uniformly ugly: lying as they do on the Gold Belt, the towns in the eastern reaches of the province is a collection of ugly, rundown mining/railway towns like Fochville, Carletonville, Westonaria and others, that share an architectural style called “South African Railways-Early Period”. Houses built in this style are little square redbrick boxes with street facing porches, and a window on each side of the front door. Little “colonies” of these houses are interspersed with abandoned and vandalised railway stations, burnt-out goods sheds, second hand car lots selling used-up wrecks, and “Cash for Scrap” establishments alternated with “Used Car Parts” chop shops. Whether these ugly and rundown towns were built by the mining companies, or South African Railways makes no difference, they are all the same, and have nothing at all to recommend them to off-road tourism in the North West Province, or any other type of tourism for that matter.
The highest concentration of small towns in the North West occur on either side of the N14 national route that runs approximately through the middle of the province, however, the towns on this major route differ from the ones in the far eastern parts only by being bigger, and having more, and higher, mine dumps from which the high winds that are a feature of this region, blow off poisonous, cyanide-laden yellow dust in quantities that approximate the dust storms of the Sahara. Other small towns such as Zeerust and Zwartruggens in the north, or Wolmaranstad and Leeudoringstad in the southeast, have lost their charm with the depopulation of the countryside, and today these formerly pretty little towns are rundown and neglected, with only vastly over-priced accommodation to offer weekend tourists from Gauteng.
Of course, nothing is ever just bad, and there are a few notable exceptions to this bleak picture as one travels towards the western parts of the province.
Although Stilfontein falls in the eastern part of the province, this picturesque little town is the exception that proves the “Ugly Town” rule. Built in the late 1940’s to house the workers of the Stilfontein gold mine, its wide sidewalks were planted with around 100 000 oak, plane, elm, and pine trees to assist in lowering the water table, since the mine was subject to flooding. Today, these trees that form closed canopies over several streets, are reminiscent of the vast indige-nous forests of the U.S.A., especially during early autumn, when they turn colour in a spectacular display of yellow, amber, orange, and red. Stilfontein is a definite must-see small town.
Taking its name from the Groot Marico River, this little hamlet in typical Bushveld terrain was made famous by Herman Charles Bosman, who faithfully captured the soul of the area and its people in his world famous writings. Groot Marico is also the traditional home of “mampoer”, homemade peach brandy that was an illegal concoction until comparatively recently, and the residents of the town seemingly regard time as an artificial construct- something that applies only to big-city folks, since the clock on the church steeple has not had its hands replaced since they were removed for repairs that were never completed, so why replace the hands if the clock does not work anyway? Right? Much of this laid-back view of life probably has to do with the fact that although the phone system in the area is fully automated, the residents elected to hang on to the manual telephone exchange.
Although not strictly a small town, Vryburg is situated on the edge of the Kalahari and was once the capital of Stellaland, a short-lived Boer republic that played a crucial, if not pivotal role in the Anglo Boer War. Many tourists regard Vryburg merely as a refuelling point on the way to somewhere more interesting at best, and utterly depressing at worst; however, from the perspective of North West tourism for the off-road traveler, its main attraction lies in the fact that Vryburg is the gateway to the Great Unknown, that vast stretch of Kalahari Desert that has no numbered roads all the way up to the Botswana border.