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The Caracal Eco Route in the Northern Cape provides a grand old adventure - the mountains are grand, the ocean is grand, and the grassy plains, silent expanses and beautiful spreads of thousands of different species of flowers are grand.
As you journey along this 4x4 mountain-to-ocean adventure, which is offered by the Namaqua National Park in the remote and sparsely populated western side of the country in the Northern Cape province, you may be lucky enough to come across the world’s smallest tortoise – the Namaqua speckled padloper – crossing the path in front of your vehicle. (Padloper means 'road walker' in Afrikaans, the predominant language of this area.)
And that’s when you realise that grand comes in large and small packages – for this unobtrusive creature has made its way through the centuries, surviving the harsh, arid conditions in its stoical way.
The complete route takes 6 to 8 hours; longer if you take your time and book into the accommodation offered by the park, such as the Luiperdskloof guest cottage or a choice of on-the-beach camping sites along the 50km West Coast stretch that comprises the coastal section of the Namaqua National Park.
The 188km route starts at the world famous Skilpad Wildflower Reserve, descends down the Soebatsfontein pass, before turning north to the Wildeperdehoek grass plains. An interesting detour is possible to include the Wildeperdehoek pass. From here the road goes through the Namaqua flatlands, renowned for its ‘Riethuis quartz’ and the dune areas, crossing over to Namakwa coastal section of the park, before ending at Groen river mouth.
Wildlife-wise, you’re in for a diverse, arid feast, from the long, straight-horned antelope known as the oryx (or gemsbok as it is called in South Africa), to the succulent plant species known as the 'vygie' with its neon-bright flowers, to the seabirds circling the waves.
The route is named after the caracal, a medium-sized cat species (much bigger than a domestic cat, but smaller than the big cats such as lions and leopards) that thrives in arid mountainous terrain. Hopefully you'll spot one along the way, although they're shy and mostly nocturnal. You can be sure, though, that more than one has spotted you as you make your way up the Soebatsfontein or Wildeperdehoek passes, and down into the grassy plains.
Travel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Namaqua National Park
Tel: +27 (0)27 672 1948
How to get here
To get to the Namaqua National Park (you book in for the Caracal Eco Route at the park's Skilpad office, where you will be given your permit and eco-route booklet), take the N7 from Cape Town to Kamieskroon (490km). Turn into Kamieskroon, then immediately left past the hotel. Follow the gravel road (which passes underneath the N7) for 21km to the park.
Best time to visit
August and September are Namaqualand flower season, but the route is a wonderful experience all year round. In the wet season (June to September) certain sections of the route may be changed or closed, so please contact the park in advance.
Things to do
The West Coast is a wonderful, enigmatic part of South Africa that requires a good few days to explore. The Namaqua National Park offers hiking, mountain biking and 4x4 trails.
What to pack
All your food, water and refreshments, and camping equipment if you are going to camp; rugged clothing for warm and cold conditions; hiking boots; hats; sunscreen; binoculars; cameras; and bird and animal books.
Where to stay
Stay at the Namaqualand National Park's main lodge, the Skilpad rest camp, or the remote Luiperdskloof guest cottage in the mountains, or take your pick of camping sites such as Platduin, or Kwass and Skuilsklip on the coast. You need to book in advance with South African National Parks (SANParks).