Anyone who thinks South Africa’s Karoo is full of a whole lot of nothing just isn’t paying attention. Same goes for anyone who speeds past Willowmore in the Karoo without stopping to scratch beneath the surface. Here’s my pick of some of the things to do in and around this little dorpie.
You’ll find Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, about 170km north-east of George and 117km south-west of Abderdeen in the Karoo. Although it was first established in 1864 and the district was proclaimed in 1874, its story goes all the way back to 1817, when the first farm was registered. Even today, the main source of income is farming, including angora goats for mohair. (You can see a selection of mohair products to buy at The Cozy Shed on the main road).
Many Gauteng holiday-makers probably only know Willowmore as a signpost on the N9 that they whizz past on their way to Knysna on the Garden Route, but it’s really worth stopping to explore. It also makes a good kick-off point in the west for exploring the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area with its jagged mountains and rocky cliffs, its lush valleys and lichen-festooned trees.
Here’s my pick of some of the best things to do in Willowmore.
1. Pop into the tourism office
Start your visit by ducking into the Baviaans Tourism Office in the municipal building on Knysna Street to ask about things to do in the area. They’ll give you a map of the major attractions, including various historical buildings and accommodation options, and tell you about things to do in the area. You can also contact them on tel (049) 807-5709 or https://www.baviaans.co.za. For other useful online info, see Willowmore Tourism’s website, where you can also download street maps of the town and the Baviaanskloof.
2. Admire the old buildings
At numbers 3 and 5 Wehmeyer Street are two lovely old Victorian houses, while at number 70 you’ll find an elegant double-storey Victorian, the first level dating back to 1864 and the top level added in 1897. Once the parsonage of the Dutch Reformed church, and later a girls’ hostel and then a boarding house, it’s now the delightful Willow Historical Guesthouse (see points 14/15).
In Blignaut Street you can find the Old Jail with its plaster quoins at the corners, door and windows. Originally a jail complete with dungeon, it was lovingly converted into a guesthouse and art gallery with gorgeous gardens, but those are now rather forlorn. It’s apparently still used for retreats.
The shul has its own ‘ghost’ story from the 1970s when heavy breathing sounds were heard issuing from the building. On investigation, though, it proved to be nothing more ghostly than an owl breeding in the roof.
A building in Knysna Street used to be the rabbi’s house with a line of Stars of David worked into the stoep’s wooden railing. It’s now a funeral business and on our last visit in May 2023, I was horrified to see that the historic railing had been replaced with a galumphing modern one.
There are lots of other gems in the Karoo style with corrugated iron stoep roofs that may be bell-curved or bull-nosed – a great protection against the ruthless Karoo sun. Spend some time wandering the streets to find them. You can drive or walk but best would be to bring your mountain bike and cycle up and down. Many of these lovely old buildings beg to be photographed.
3. Wander around the Willowmore Cemetery
4. Visit the Jewish Cemetery
5. Go hiking
The Pierre Ferreira trail on the outskirts of Willowmore takes you through veld rich in succulents. You’ll pass two old Anglo-Boer War forts that were used to guard the railway line to Willowmore. It’s a 2-3 hour circular trail that gives good views of the village, and is especially pretty in the early morning or late afternoon. In summer when it’s very hot, make sure you wear a hat and sunscreen, and take plenty of water. New signposts need to be erected, but pop in to the tourism office on Knysna Street and they can give you easy directions.
Or go hiking on Aasvoëlberg (vulture mountain) at Finchley Farm 2.5km south-west of Willowmore. It also looks out over the dorp and is one of the few places in the Karoo where coastal fynbos grows. You’ll need to pay a day visitor’s fee.
Many of the accommodation providers in the western section of the Baviaanskloof also offer hiking trails for day visitors (for a fee). Some of those between 40km and 70km from the N9 along the R332 include
7. Gaze at the stars
The clean, dry Karoo air is perfect for indulging in some star gazing, especially if you stay somewhere away from the town lights – or indeed during hours of loadshedding! Try to move away from buildings so your view isn’t interrupted and you’ll see the planets, stars, Milky Way and other constellations more clearly and brightly than you will in any Big City.
8. Meet your own Karoo Angel
9. Go mountain biking
Bring your mountain bike and take to the gravel roads around Willowmore to feel the wind blow away the Big City cobwebs. Some guest farms in the area also have mountain biking tracks open to day visitors for a small fee. These include:
- Finchley Farm – see website link in point 5
- Baviaans Guest Cottages (about 70km from the N9)
11. Drive a 4x4 trail
Put your 4x4 through its paces on a 4x4 track and at the same time enjoy the scenery of cliffs and valleys that make the Baviaanskloof area so beautiful. At Finchley Farm 2.5km from Willowmore, you can drive to the top of Aasvoëlberg for sweeping views over the surrounding landscape. The Grade 1-2 track is suitable for 2x4 bakkies with high clearance. See the website link in point 5 for more info.
If you’re a day visitor looking for something more serious to challenge your 4x4 and driving skills, try the Grade 4/5 route at Uitspan Guest Farm 42km from the N9. It should take you 30 minutes or so, depending on how often you stop for photos. There’s also an 8-10km 4x4 route at Makkedaat Caves 47km from the N9, and a 22km 4x4 route at Verlorenrivier Guest Farm 68km from the N9. Day visitors are welcome but need to pay a fee to drive these routes. See website links to these guest farms in point 5 for more info.
12. Visit the old Blackstone Power Station
13. Go birding at Bakers Dam
Bakers Dam just outside Willowmore was built in 1906 by the South African Railways to supply steam locomotives with water. With the arrival of diesel trains, the municipality took over the dam to serve as the town’s primary source of water. Today, it’s mainly a spot for birders to spend time with their binos. Look for birds like red-knobbed coots, herons, storks and egrets, maybe even an African fish-eagle. Get a gate key from the tourism office in Knysna Road, Willowmore, and find the gate about 5km south-west of town on the N9 towards Uniondale.
14. Eat at Willowmore restaurants
Although it may not be a foodie destination in the same way as Franschhoek or Stanford, Willowmore does have a few cool coffee shops, farm stalls and restaurants that are surprisingly good for a small Karoo town.
Duck into Sophie’s Choice, which is also an antique and object d’art palace. Try the fresh scones, carrot cake or apple crumble. They also do breakfasts, and there are lamb shanks, bobotie and other dishes to satisfy the lunch crowd.
Find it at Keurfontein Country House, 18km south of town on the N9 towards Uniondale. Not open for dinner.
At the southern end of the main road, stop at the charming Kapoet with its yellow shutters and umbrellas outside. Try their coffee and apple tart, lemon meringue, milk tart or chocolate cake. For something less sweet, there’s freshly made roosterkoek with toppings like chicken mayo, or biltong and green figs. They also offer fresh pies, quiche, gourmet burgers, filled pancakes, and toasted sarmies. There are some gift items to browse while you wait
Find it at 26 Knysna Street. Not open for dinner.
Belly Deli declares upfront that it’s not a fast food joint. And that’s already one point in its favour in my eyes, meaning that food is prepared fresh when you order. The little restaurant will lure you in with its colourful and artistically decorated exterior. Inside you’ll find friendly service and a homely atmosphere.
Find it at 40 Knysna Street. Not open for dinner.
The Willow Historical Guesthouse
The Willow Historical Guesthouse is a mellow hide-out in an old Victorian building that used to be a rectory and a hostel for girls at one time. Enjoy a meal in its a la carte restaurant, surrounded by polished mahogany tables, riempie chairs, hallmarked silver cutlery, and old china plates as wall hangings.
Find it off the main road at 70 Wehmeyer Street. Open for all meals, including dinner.
If you love a good padstal (farm stall) and you’re approaching Willowmore from Aberdeen, you’ll want to stop at Oppi-Vlak Padstal for breakfasts, roosterkoek with various fillings, home-made pies and, in winter, Ouma Betsie’s pea soup. Sweet treats include a legendary milk tart, carrot cake, chocolate torte, apple tart, and waffles. If you’re in a rush, they can make you a takeaway.
Find it about 40km north of Willowmore on the N9 towards Aberdeen. Not open for dinner.
15. Stay over in Willowmore accommodation
Over the years, we’ve stayed at about a dozen of the accommodation options in Willowmore and the Baviaanskloof. There’s a wide range to suit all budgets, from a full-service hotel, guest houses, B&Bs and self-catering cottages/rooms to camping.
We’ve also stayed in self-catering rooms at Keurfontein Country House about 18km south of town, with the convenience of Sophie’s Choice restaurant nearby for breakfast and lunch if you feel lazy. The wood-burning stove in our room was a boon in freezing weather and the view over a dam relaxing.
If you’re looking for a budget stay, consider the neat and well cared-for Willowmore Caravan Park next to the town hall. There are campsites for caravans and campers, with power and water points nearby. Each site has private ablutions, and there’s a communal wash-up area. There are also a few very reasonably-priced chalets for those who’re on a budget but don’t dig camping.
There’s also a rustic campsite with flush loo and hot rocket shower at Finchley Farm 2.5km outside Willowmore.
This is just a handful of the many choices of Willowmore accommodation. For more options, check out Willowmore Tourism’s website.
16. Visit the Baviaanskloof
Find the R332 just south of town. It’s both the last and the longest of the 24 roads that the ingenious Thomas Bain built in the 19th century, this one between 1880 and 1890. (Some of his other famous passes you may have driven include the Swartberg Pass, Meiringspoort, Seweweekspoort, and the Seven Passes Road on the Garden Route.)
You can choose to venture only as far as the Nuwekloof Pass, to do a hike at one of the guest farms (see point 5) before you turn back to Willowmore, or drive the full 200km to Patensie in the east, taking in numerous river crossings and narrow gravel passes with names like Holgat, Pisgoedvlakte and Poepsloot. There are plenty of guest farms and a few rustic campsites along the way, as well as a day visitors’ picnic area at Smitskraal. Note that you need a 4x4 on the last section through the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area or Mega Reserve to Patensie in the east.
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Guide to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, Eastern Cape
Sleep in the Makkedaat Caves in the Baviaanskloof
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