The Breede River (‘broad river’) has its headwaters in a superb basin high up in the mountains. The principal centre here is fittingly named after Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. The mountains surrounding this basin, the Hex River, Witsenberg and Skurweberg, receive some of the heaviest snowfalls in the Cape and the winter scene is often a vast, white playground.
The snow still lingers on the tops of the highest peaks when the floor of the Ceres basin is covered with the blossoms of countless thousands of fruit trees. In this Ceres basin, the headwater streams of the Breede River gather and with their rushing flow and force a way through the mountains by means of the narrow and beautiful Michell’s Pass.
This is an exciting area for mountaineers, trout fishermen and those who like to explore mountain rivers with their succession of pools, rapids and waterfalls. The Witels (‘white aider’) River is a classic for this type of adventure. On entering the spacious valley between the Witsenberg and the Elandskloofberg, the Breede swings south-eastwards and flows through kilometers of vineyards and fruit orchards. Many tributaries join it. By the time it reaches Robertson, the river is substantial, but well harnessed to the needs of irrigation, and much used for recreation in places such as the Silverstrand resort, and Brandvleidam with its yacht club.
The Hex River in its own right ranks as a major feature on the continent of Africa. Only 40 kilometers long before it joins the Breede, it flows through a valley extraordinary in its concentrated agricultural wealth. It is through two dramatic passes from this valley that the road and railway to the north penetrate the mountains. In autumn, the valley, with its blood-red barlinka grape vines, is a superb spectacle.
Ashton - The town of Ashton serves as the residential area for employees of the Langeberg Koöperasie, the largest producer in Southern Africa of canned fruit, jams and vegetables. Their principal factory, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, is on the southern slopes of the Langeberg range near the entrance to Cogmanskloof. Ashton is also noted for its rose nurseries.
Ceres - Man has wisely exploited the generous gifts nature has bestowed on Ceres. The town lies on the western side of a fertile basin surrounded by mountains. The Dwars River bustles through the town, its course shaded by willow and oak trees. The river forms pools and rapids in which rainbow trout can be seen darting like glints of light from one hiding place to another. And all around are gardens full of flowers.
The basin is warm for most of the year and well supplied with water. Even in winter, when the mountains are well-covered in snow, the town has a fine, crisp, sunny climate and the vegetation is untroubled by frosts. Everything seems to grow well, even the odd tropical specimen. During winter there is generally sufficient snow for skiing on the higher mountains. Ceres is known as ‘the Switzerland of South Africa’.
The town, established in 1854 as a centre for the rich fruit-growing area of the Warmbokkeveld was named after the Roman goddess of agriculture. It has several hotels, guest farms, a nature reserve and a municipal recreation area built around a swimming bath fed by a mountain stream.
De Doorns - The principal centre of the Hex River Valley, De Dooms is spectacularly situated but sun-baked, without shade. The name means ‘The Thorns’ as many thorn bushes formerly grew there. In the old days the town was a railway base where a second ‘pusher’ locomotive was attached to trains to enable them to make the steep climb up the Hex River Mountain pass. Nowadays the electric units take the trains unaided. De Dooms is a busy loading point for table grapes being transported to Cape Town docks or the inland markets of Southern Africa.
Hex River Pass - The thought of taking a railway through the barrier of mountains and up the escarpment of the South African plateau provided engineers with a mammoth problem. The engineer who solved it was Wells Hood and he created one of the world’s most spectacular railway passes.
From De Dooms at an altitude of 477 meters above sea level, the railway climbs to 960 meters above sea level in a distance of only 25 kilometers. All the curves in the pass put together would take a train into 16 complete circuits and one curve has a radius of only 100 meters. The famous Blue Train, said to be among the most luxurious in the world crosses the pass in daylight.
The pass was built in 1875. Its only serious accident was in 1949 when a troop train jumped the rails and ten coaches rolled down the side of the pass. Eight passengers were killed and 89 injured. The pass is immaculately maintained and is constantly patrolled by gangers and specialist workers who grease the sides of rails at curves to ease friction.
Hex River Valley - A folk story is often told of a beautiful girl named Eliza Meiring, who is said to have once lived on one of the farms, Buffelskraal, in the Hex River Valley. Much courted, she told local young men she would consider marriage only to a man who would bring her a disa of a kind which grew only on the most treacherous heights of the mountains. One of her suitors was killed on the mountains and Eliza trough guilt, had a nervous breakdown. She was locked in an upstairs room. One night she carved the date 1768 and her initials into the wooden window sill, then committed suicide. Whatever the truth of the story, the initials and date said to have been carved by Eliza Meiring could still be seen in the old homestead until they were removed by modern rebuilding.
From the story comes the legend about the hex (‘witch’) said to haunt the Hex River Mountains in search of her lover. When the moonlight glistens on the high snows of winter, and the mists swirl around the summits, the people of the valley say that the witch is on the mountain that night, and many make sure that the doors of their houses are bolted.
The climate of the valley is ideal for grapes and there that more than 6 000 000 vines that produce most of South Africa’s export grape harvest. Grapes like plenty of moisture but not on their leaves and on the grapes themselves. They prefer a hot dry summer and rain in winter. They like decomposed sandstone and shales, deep and well drained, irrigated by cool water from passing streams. Such conditions exist in the Hex River Valley.
Once covered in thorn bush, the home of lions and antelopes, the valley has been farmed since the early 18th century. From the mountains come the streams that form the river. Dams hold back the water and supply it for irrigation. Every possible part of the valley is planted with grapes, most of which are of the barlinka variety which was imported from Algeria in 1909. It is a large, luscious, sweet, round, black grape, a generous bearer, and with a strong skin which allows it to survive handling, refrigeration and all the jolts of long-distance marketing. The barlinka never grew quite so well in Algeria as it did when introduced into the Hex River Valley.
Michell’s Pass - In any listing of the road and railway passes of Southern Africa, Michell’s Pass would rank high for scenic beauty. The infant Breede River was responsible for finding, this pass. After its various headwater streams in the Ceres basin unite to form the river it needs to find an escape route from the mountains. Where the Witsenberg and the Hex River Mountains join there is a line of weakness in an otherwise implacable wall of rock. The Breede River shoulders its way through this gorge.
Migrating wild animals and man found their way along the banks of the river and in the 1760s a farmer, Jan Mostert, who lived at the southwestern entrance, made a rough wagon track through the pass. His name was given to the 2031 meter double peak near the entrance to the pass, the Mostertshoek Twins.
In 1846 Andrew Geddes Bain accompanied by 240 convicts started work on the first modern road through the pass. It was named after Charles Michell the surveyor general of the Cape at the time and the opening of the pass in 1848 was a great bonus to the inland farmers. Until the building of the Hex River Pass in 1875 the Michell’s Pass carried the Great North Road of Africa through the mountains and on to the summit of the central plateau of South Africa.
The Witels tributary reaches the Breede River in the midst of this pass and the adventurous climber and hiker find many challenges in the gorges and precipices of the surrounding mountains. There are camping and caravan sites along the pass, and picnic areas.
Prince Alfred Hamlet - The branch railway from Wolseley, through Michell’s Pass to the Ceres basin, has its terminus at Prince Alfred Hamlet. This village is a centre for deciduous fruit and potato growing, with substantial pack houses and railway facilities. Pears, peaches and plums are sent from here to many parts of the world. A trip through the hamlet to the top of the Gydo Pass gives a memorable view of the Hex River Mountains.
Robertson - The Breede River at Robertson is rich with deep alluvial soils. Fruit trees watered by the river thrive here. Further away from the river the shales of the Karoo provide the foothills of the mountains with excellent soils for vineyards. Muscadel grapes are common hence the Red Muscadel and the Muscat d’Alexandre reach perfection here and these are some of the superb dessert wines produced in this area. The largest brandy distillery in Southern Africa is at Robertson and the town is a popular base for climbs into the Langeberg, Dassieshoek and De Hoek. It is warm in summer and the streets shaded by the, ever beautiful, flowering jacaranda trees.
Tulbagh – South Africa is fortunate in that it is relatively geologically stable. Volcanic eruptions do not occur and earthquakes have seldom been serious. However Tulbagh lies directly on top of a dislocation of the subterranean rock systems. This fault occasionally moves and tremors are felt in the Tulbagh area. On 29 September 1969 the tremors amounted to an earthquake in which nine people were killed and a large part of the town destroyed. A second earthquake shook the town on 14 April 1970. Many of the town’s loveliest buildings have since been restored. The 32 rebuilt dwellings in Kerk Street form the largest concentration of national monuments in the country.
Tulbagh was first settled in 1699 and was then known as the Land of Waveren in honour of a family in Holland with whom Governor W. A. van der Stel was connected. Modern Tulbagh started to emerge in 1795, and was named in 1804 after the Dutch governor, Ryk Tulbagh.
Tulbagh is overlooked by the Witsenberg, Winterhoekberg and Saronsberg Mountain ranges. Mountain streams provide ample water and the soil is rich with decomposed sandstone and the climate excellent for fruit growing.
Wolseley - Sir Garnet Wolseley was a British general of considerable dash and character. He inspired the expression, ‘It’s all Sir Garnet’, meaning that everything is in meticulous order. The little town named in his honour lies at the south-western entrance to Michell’s Pass and is a sun baked and a centre for fruit canning and packing. Fruit farmlands surround the town and dessert grapes are grown.
Worcester - The largest town in the Breede River Valley, founded in 1818 and named after the Marquis of Worcester who was the elder brother of the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. The town lies at the entrance to the Hex River Valley and is a busy commercial and industrial area. There are seventeen co-operative wine cellars in the district and several brandy distilleries. Barley and peaches are cultivated.
Worcester has a spacious central square dominated by the tall tower of the Dutch Reformed Church. The First World War Garden of Remembrance was designed by the landscape artist, Hugo Naudé, who made his home in the town. The house has been converted into the Hugo Naudé Art Centre. On the outskirts of Worcester lies the Karoo Garden, which covers 115 hectares of the foothills of the Brandwag Mountains. This garden was opened in 1948 and is devoted to the succulent plants of the Karoo. In spring it is ablaze with countless vividly coloured flowers. Throughout the year there are interesting plants to see, many of them such shy dwellers of the arid wilderness that the average person has little chance of studying them.
Montagu - Was founded in 1851 at the western end of the Little Karoo and named after John Montagu who was the colonial secretary at the time. Near Montagu is a 35 degree hot spring which attracts many visitors and holiday makers throughout the year. Montagu is a fruit and wine centre. Muscadel grapes and apricots are particularly favoured.
Among the town’s attractive old buildings is the Montagu Museum, which exhibits antique furniture. Montagu’s nature garden is reputed to have Southern Africa’s finest displays of mesembryanthemums. The nearby mountain valleys offer innumerable walks. Montagu is a convenient base from which to explore Koo Farm in the apricot growing area.