Imagine a place of wide skies and open space, of solitude and tranquillity surrounded by nature. This is precisely what you’ll find at the Kliphuis at Sneeuberg Nature Reserve near Nieu Bethesda. It’s like a Karoo tonic, a reminder of the simple joys of a life following the rhythms of nature.
Here in the serene 15 000ha Sneeuberg Nature Reserve, about 35km from Nieu Betheda in the Great Karoo, the Sneeuberg and Renosterberg mountains surround you and the mountain air is refreshing. Revel in the stars at night, the changing light at dawn and dusk, the wide views and the unruffled tranquillity. It’s an idyllic place to get away from all your Big City cares to be enveloped by nature and stilled by the natural rhythms of each day.
This Karoo nature reserve is the passion project of the late Charlotte Daneel and her partner Derk Blaisse, who bought the first farms that make up the reserve in 2004. Charlotte had loved the area since she visited as a child. Today, it comprises 15 000 hectares, all of it once farmland, but now left to regenerate.
In 2012 Sneeuberg Nature Reserve and four of its neighbours created the 26 000ha Compassberg Protected Environment. The first of its kind in the Eastern Cape, it has the support of the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency’s Stewardship Programme and aims to stand as a bulwark against development, mining and drilling for gas or oil.
When we visited Sneeuberg we stayed in the Kliphuis, which was a stone ruin back in 2004. Charlotte rebuilt and added to it so that by 2007 she had created a wonderful eight-sleeper space.
From where you leave the tar road for a gravel track, it’s about 33km to the Kliphuis, passing springbok and blue cranes along the way, and perhaps some sheep on neighbouring farms. The track is fairly slow-going in places, but you won’t mind because you’re here for the Karoo scenery. It does mean that you need to spend a minimum of two nights to really get the benefit of the off-the-beaten-track setting.
As an interior decorator, Charlotte’s touch breathed life into all the accommodation’s interiors, surrounded by Karoo landscapes. The Kliphuis has two bedrooms en suite, while a third double bedroom and a twin bedroom share a third bathroom.
But for me this place is more about being with people whose company and conversation you want space to enjoy, people you just want to chill with for a few days. Change gears and enjoy the seclusion, space and starlit skies. You might even get a visit from a couple of springbok or some of the Nguni cows that wander the veld here.
Other places to stay on the Sneeuberg Nature Reserve are the six-sleeper Karoo cottage with its gorgeous open dining room/kitchen and old Oregon pine fireplace, and The Poplars, a twelve-sleeper house that you can hire separately or together with the Karoo Cottage for bigger get-togethers as they stand opposite each other. There are also suites in the elegant double-storey Gordonville Manor with its pool house, and a four-sleeper Gordonville cottage in its grounds. Explore Sneeuberg’s various accommodation options here.
For those who want to combine their stay at Sneeuberg with a couple of nights in Graaff-Reinet, there’s an eight-sleeper sister property in town called the Langhuis.
Although for me the allure of Sneeuberg is the open space, big skies and tranquility to do nothing but sit back in nature and relax, there are also some more energetic things to do if you’re up for that. Here are 10 things to do on the reserve.
Given that there are no large predators on the reserve, it’s safe to walk wherever you like to enjoy the views and the Karoo vegetation, perhaps to share the space with some peaceful Nguni cows, zebra or antelope. If you’re seriously fit, you might want to tackle climbing the Compassberg on a nearby farm. This is the Eastern Cape’s highest free-standing peak (2502m). Note that it’s on private land so first call Brenda or Alf James on 087-1504922 for permission and directions. It’s a moderate to difficult hike that starts at their farmhouse and takes you to the summit for wraparound views of the Great Karoo. The round-trip hike should take 6-8 hours, depending on your fitness level.
2. 4x4 trails
Take to some of the 200km of mountain trails in your 4x4 to explore the koppies, enjoy the views of mountains and valleys, and spot some of the local wildlife (see point 4).
3. Mountain biking
Bring your mountain bike with you for an even more close-to-nature experience of the great outdoors. If you’re fit and energetic, you might consider cycling the 35km to Nieu-Bethesda for lunch; just remember that you need to reserve enough energy to cycle the 35km back to Sneeuberg afterwards.
4. Game viewing
Some 110 bird species have been recorded at Sneeuberg Nature Reserve. Definitely the most exciting of these is the blue crane, which is South Africa’s national bird and designated ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red Data list. You can hear them calling as they fly overhead or watch them showing off by throwing things in the air and jumping to impress the females in mating season. Other birds you might spot include larks, spurfowl, guineafowl, secretary bird and – if you’re lucky – Verreaux’s eagle.
6. San rock paintings
We went with Bongani Nombewu, seeing springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest along the way, as well as a herd of Nguni cattle with their beautiful colours and coats. Among the paintings, there’s what looks like an ochre eland, another red buck and some dots and stripes that may be fingers or have some other meaning that eludes me. Although the overhang must have protected the artwork from rain and wind over the centuries, they’re sadly quite faded and some bits are flaking off from the rock.
Nearby is a small river where you can enjoy a picnic. Plan ahead if you want Gordonville’s kitchen to prepare it for you, or put together your own impromptu picnic instead.
7. Sunsets and sunrises
Rise early to brew a cup of coffee and get ready to enjoy the sunrise over the koppies in front of the Kliphuis. See the sky turn pale peach before a hot yellow sun rises from behind mountains. Listen to call of red-eyed doves or Namaqua sandgrouse as they fly overhead. At sunset, grab a glass of wine and sit on the stoep to watch as the colours on the horizon intensify and then leach from a darkening sky.
8. Star gazing
Spend some time around the fire pit in the yard (wrap up warmly in winter) and take a moment to look up to appreciate the stars and constellations of the Karoo night sky. Here the air is clean and dry, with little light pollution to rob the skies of their magnificence.
9. Further afield – day trip to Nieu Bethesda
10. Further afield – day trip to Graaff-Reinet
If you love historic old buildings or nature, a visit to Graaff-Reinet is a must. Graaff-Reinet is about 80km away on the N9 and makes a great stop before or after your visit to Sneeuberg. See the famous Victorian Gothic church, the sheer volume of national monuments, visit the Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park that surrounds the town. For more info about things to do here, see my post 12 things to do in Graaff-Reinet.
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