From my bed, I watch the night lift. The mountains emerge, misty blue in the pre-dawn light. A peachy glow illuminates the underbelly of cloud and soon the landscape – rolling hills, terracotta sand and scrubby bush – is washed in pale pink. Stepping out onto the cool concrete patio, I breathe in the fresh sweet fragrance of fynbos, the vegetation native to southern South Africa. Birds chirrup in the first light. A gentle breeze whispers through long dry grass. There are no voices or human sounds; other guests are still asleep. It’s just me.
I decided to spend a few days solo in the Cederberg, a couple of hours north from my home in Cape Town, to coincide with my 32nd birthday; a gift to myself of some time out. For many, being alone is an uncomfortable experience, but it’s usually when I’m at my most content. One of my favourite things about solo travel is how restorative it can be, how it can slow a busy mind and – particularly if you can bring yourself to tap airplane mode – help to discard so many negative external stimuli. Right now, I feel calm, happy, at one with myself.
I’m staying at the Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge, a nine-room lodge that opened in October 2018. It’s located on the 3,000-hectare Kleinvlei Farm, which was established by Irish settlers who arrived in the early 1800s, making it one of the oldest farms in the region. The land not used for farming has a series of marked trails for mountain biking, walking or running. A perk of staying here as a solo female is that it’s safe to hit the sandy trails alone. On a blissful run with golden light breaking over the hilltops, I don’t see a single other person.
It might sound like I’m a bit of a misanthrope, but I promise I’m not. I break my self-enforced isolation for breakfast on the main terrace – seared salmon and poached egg on bulgur wheat with baby potatoes, spinach, mushrooms and basil pesto – before joining a group of fellow guests to explore more of the area.
The Cederberg, named after the rare Clanwilliam cedar trees, is a ruggedly beautiful 90-kilometre-long mountain range, its rock tinted rusty orange by iron oxide. It’s part of the Cape Floral Region, one of the world’s six floral kingdoms, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The region’s 71,000 hectares, designated the Cederberg Wilderness Area, are government-protected. Its main town, Clanwilliam, is one of the oldest in South Africa, officially founded in 1808. And with its raw, mountainous landscape and inky night sky, the area feels much more remote than it actually is.
While the Cederberg is a firm favourite of many Capetonians, fewer international travellers make it up to these rugged, wild mountains. Yet the area is so rich: as well as being an outdoor activity playground with dark skies and deep pockets of much-craved silence, the area has a long and fascinating history, extending back thousands of years.
Before European colonists arrived, this area was inhabited by the San hunter-gatherers and later the Khoi pastoralists; the first people of Southern Africa now mostly live in Botswana and Namibia. The Cederberg is one of the four hotspots of San rock art in Southern Africa, with the oldest known site dating back around 7,000 years.
To learn more, we embark on the Sevilla Rock Art Trail with our guide, David, who was trained as part of a Clanwilliam-based project started by Palaeolithic archaeology professor John Parkington. The nine rock art sites are found in sheltered parts of the rock face or inside caves, painted onto the orange rock in red and yellow (ochre), black (charcoal) or white (clay). It’s extraordinary how well they’ve lasted – and that it’s only our small group on the trail today.
The first painting depicts a trance dance, David tells us. The dance, still practised by some San communities today, is a ritual for healing, or sometimes for rain. Another site shows a hunting scene. David explains that to hunt – the San would run down their prey – ‘they must actually become the animal’. We see artworks of elands, the largest antelope in Southern Africa and one of the most important animals for the San; a red delicately painted zebra or quagga (a partially striped zebra subspecies that died out in the nineteenth century, but was recently bred back into existence); a yellow bat-eared fox; women (distinguished by their massive buttocks) dancing, probably at a girl’s initiation ceremony; and an elephant, painted before they were hunted out of the region.
The little town of Clanwilliam is also steeped in history, albeit more modern. The Clanwilliam Museum details how it became settled by the English and Irish, who drove out or killed most of the San, and the subsequent development of the town. After looking around the museum, we sample some rooibos tea; the Cederberg is the only place rooibos grows. There’s high-altitude wine here, too – Cederberg Wine, about an hour across the mountains from Clanwilliam, produced their first vintage in 1977. At their tasting room, I try a dry crisp sauvignon blanc and a soft, slightly oaky cabernet sauvignon.
On my last evening, after watching a candyfloss-pink sunset and enjoying a delicious dinner, I spend a while on my patio admiring the stars. There’s the Milky Way, a glittering smudge across the dark sky. Some of the stars I can see may already have died, such a long time does it take light to span the vast distances between us. It seems the past is everywhere here in the Cederberg. But alone in its quiet peacefulness, I feel thoroughly grounded in the present.