Bosch Luys Kloof

The allure of this hidden mountain wilderness lies not only in its breath-taking vistas, unique fauna and flora or its remote and off-the-grid location, but also in its history.

The valley itself is steeped in it, time seems to stand still here and history is part of the present. If the valley could talk it would undoubtedly have countless fascinating tales to tell of everything it has witnessed through the ages. Over the years, via word of mouth from individuals who are familiar with its past or have once been privileged enough to call it home, we continue to gather information on the history of this special slice of Karoo, each rendition slightly embellished as one would expect from a good storyteller, but adding a colourful new yarn to the rich tapestry that is Bosch Luys Kloof.

From the formation of the mountains which surround Bosch Luys Kloof, to fossils of trilobites and sea creatures which inhabited the Agulhas and Karoo seas out of which these same mountains arose, to the first modern humans to walk along its length and hunt its wildlife, one could neither tell, nor ever know, everything this valley has played witness to. As the current custodians of this valley, however, it is our duty to preserve not only its resources and natural assets but also to share the chapters of the story we know…

The birth of mountains at the bottom of the sea

“A scene burst upon us that I shall not forget in a hurry. Breathless I gazed down the valley on the boundless sea of blue mountains, cones and peaks, table tops and jagged lines of hillocks tingled with the faint blush of glowing rays of the unseen sun. What a wild charm thrown over the distant labyrinth of hills in the soft glow of early morn.” – Thomas Bain and Dr Atherstone, 1871

This is an apt description of the Bosch Luys Kloof valley as seen from the top of the pass. Renowned road engineer and pass builder Thomas Bain and naturalist / geologist Dr William Atherstone wrote these words when travelling down the Bosch Luys Kloof pass in 1871. Their reference to ‘a sea of blue mountains’ is surprisingly accurate. What are now mountains in the Great Karoo towering more than 1 000m above sea level were in fact formed at the very bottom of the sea. 

Hundreds of millions of years ago, Africa formed part of the super-continent Gondwana. Around 540 million years ago (mya) at its southern tip a rift formed, the Agulhas sea, when the Falkland Plateau (now the Falkland Islands) initially pulled away from the African continent as a result of plate tectonics. Over millennia, sediments (which now form the sandstones and shales of the Cape Supergroup) accumulated in vast layers on this sea floor. Mountains weathered down into rocks, and rocks into sediments which were transported through erosion and via rivers to the sea, where they, millions of years later, became mountains again. From around 350 to 290mya, the Falkland Plateau had started pushing back into the southern tip of Africa, forcing and compressing these thick layers of sediments upwards into what we know today as the Cape Fold Mountains which dominate the Western Cape. 

The highest point above sea level in the Cape Fold – in fact in the entire Western Cape – can be seen from Bosch Luys Kloof. Seweweekspoort peak towers some 2 325m above sea level where once the very rock that crowns its peak originated.

North of this newly formed Cape Fold Belt there was a sagging in the continental crust and a vast shallow inland basin formed around 280mya as the Permian ice age drew to a close. This basin filled with melting waters and formed the Karoo inland sea, also known as the Ecca sea, with the mountains of the Cape Fold Belt (the Witteberg and Swartberg which border north and south of Bosch Luys Kloof included) acting as a giant dam wall. Progressive climatic drying and massive volcanic outpourings of the Drakensberg lavas around 180mya resulted in this inland sea drying up over time and turning into what is now a 400 000 km² expanse of semi-desert, the Great Karoo.

Bosch Luys Kloof is a geological gem! We can only encourage anyone interested in rocks and fossils to pay us a visit and explore all it has to offer, it will not disappoint!

Sea creatures in the Karoo

The fact that Bosch Luys Kloof, a mountain wilderness, was once covered in water at the bottom of an ocean can be hard to imagine, but this is the wonder of nature. Encased in the mountains and rocks that line the valley are clues, and a closer look will reveal a host of primitive marine creatures which are extinct today, perfectly preserved specimens of a bygone era. 

Trilobites, primitive marine arthropods, first appeared around 540mya and dominated warm shallow seas until their extinction around 250mya. They were among the most successful of all early animals, existing for a period of almost 270 million years and consisting of more than 20 000 different species worldwide (with more being discovered in the fossil record). They filled various ecological niches with some evolving as filter feeders, others moving over the seabed as predators and others scavenged. Many different species of trilobites, as well as various different types of brachiopods, molluscs, gastropods, cephalopods and crinoids, are present in the fossil record, and particularly well preserved in the shales of the Bokkeveld group at Bosch Luys Kloof. These fossils provide solid evidence to even the biggest sceptic that this part of the dry Karoo was indeed at some point, and to quote another well-known Walt Disney Arthropod character, ‘under-da-sea.’ 

The exposed geology at Bosch Luys Kloof ranges in age from around 540mya till around 250mya, which spans the period of time that trilobites successfully dominated the marine environment on earth. The oldest (quartzitic sandstones of the Table Mountain group – TMS) rock types are exposed along its southern boundary, the softer shales of the Bokkeveld group dominate the central valley floor and are geologically younger (meaning they were deposited as sediments on top of the TMS), and the sandstones and siltstones of the Witteberg forming the northern boundary of the Reserve are the youngest. 

Interesting spiral trace fossil examples (not the fossil of the animal or plant itself, but the activity left by it) can be found along the northern sections of the Reserve, at the base of the Witteberg. Initially thought to have been a plant form known as Spirophyton, the organism responsible for creating these trace fossils is now accepted as being of animal origin and the culprits responsible for creating these trace fossils are loosely grouped into the genus Zoophycos. The organisms likely inhabited burrows in the sea bed, with one hypothesis suggesting that they gardened decomposer microbes on a compost of their own faecal pellets, in a similar fashion to termites gardening edible fungi on plant detritus gathered away from their nest. The sandstones of the Witteberg group are not comprised of very fine sedimentary particles like the shales of the Bokkeveld group, resulting in less detailed fossils, but it’s exciting to think that some animal tracks can last for more than 250-million years! 


The first people

About 2 000 years ago pastoralists and herders known as the Khoe, Quena or more commonly referred to as the Khoikhoi moved down into the southern- and westernmost parts of Africa, bringing with them herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Southern Africa was the last part of the continent to acquire cattle and livestock, and it is believed that Bantu-speaking farmers originating from the Great Lakes area in current Uganda came into contact with San hunter-gatherers in northern Botswana who acquired livestock from them. Groups of these San migrated south with their herds, later becoming the Khoikhoi of the Cape.

This brought about great change to the indigenous people of the Cape, the San people (previously ‘bushmen’, from the Dutch ‘Boschjesmens’) who had lived in the Cape for at least 18 000 years with little change to their ways prior to this. The San people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived entirely off the bounty of the land, moving from place to place rather than putting too much pressure on natural resources in any given area. They relied solely on available fauna and flora, and had a keen understanding of and respect for nature, and the concept of possession was foreign to them. 

The arrival of the Khoi and their livestock in the Western Cape placed direct pressure on the free-roaming game and vegetation of the area and indirectly on the San way of life, and before long conflict broke out between the Khoi and the San people. Some San groups were eventually forced to resort to ‘hunting’ livestock belonging to the Khoi, as their livestock had competed with or replaced free-roaming game in the traditional hunting grounds of the San. Naturally the Khoi, considering this theft, retaliated with force and began to band together in larger numbers to protect what they saw as theirs. For the most part however, the Khoi inhabited areas closer to the coast with higher rainfall and better grazing for their livestock, while the San were quite comfortable moving around the drier interior. 

San people inhabited and hunted the Bosch Luys Kloof valley for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans, before even the arrival of the Khoi in the Western Cape. Sadly, the traditional San culture, although sustainable for thousands of years, was not very adaptable to change and exists only in tiny isolated and preserved pockets today. Despite this, their legacy lives on thanks to their incredible paintings on the rocks that define the Western Cape’s topography – a canvas that itself is millions of years old. Their artform is depicted at hundreds of rock-art sites across the Cape and throughout southern Africa. Rock-art sites located not far from Bosch Luys Kloof and with a very similar style to the paintings found on the Reserve have been dated to around 3 500 years old. There are at least two sites on the Reserve with San rock-art, and a number of sites close to the entrance gate and in nearby Seweweekspoort, with likely more yet to be discovered on the 14 000 ha Reserve. 

The San people’s knowledge on the uses of plants in the Karoo was above admirable, and this knowledge was passed down through generations, spanning thousands of years via word of mouth and storytelling around camp fires. Here are just a few of the plants that grow naturally at Bosch Luys Kloof that were often used by the San people: 

  • Boophone disticha (Bushmans poison) was most commonly used to poison the arrow shafts and aided in bringing down game, but was also used in small quantities to reach a hallucinogenic state in their trance dance around the campfire, a transition to the spiritual realm. 
  • Hoodia gordonii (Bushmans hat) was used as an appetite suppressant on long hunts, a thirst quencher and a cure for abdominal pain. 
  • Euphoriba mauritanica (Pencil milkbush) exudes a milky white latex which was commonly used by the San for its cohesive properties to stick poisons to their arrow tips, and in mixing the pigments for their rock art. 

Likely one of the most commonly depicted animals in San rock art is the Eland, which they revered. In different areas, different pigments and ingredients were used to create the paints used in their artform, but Eland blood or fat was often an ingredient added, with the aim being to capture the actual essence of this, the largest of all antelope, and add great significance to their artworks.

Sadly the arrival of European colonists and their livestock in the valley and surrounds marked the end of the San people’s traditional way of life. We pay homage to these original inhabitants of Bosch Luys Kloof, and revere them for their knowledge of the veld and the legacy that they left behind with their beautiful images captured on the ancient rocks in the area. The truth is that we will never fully understand the exact meanings of their artworks – this is a story that has been lost in time – but we strive to preserve them and stand in awe of the fact that thousands of years after the artist put ‘brush to rock’, considering weathering and exposure to climatic extremes, many of the rock-art images in the Western Cape are almost as vivid as the day they were painted.

The road to Beaufort

Prior to and during the time of the Great Trek, many ‘Boer’ families pioneered their way into the interior of South Africa when tensions arose within the Cape Colony between the original Dutch and newly arrived British colonists in the Cape. With the Western Cape being dominated by a mountainous topography, one of the preferred modes of transport was by ox-wagon. The most reliable, and well-adapted draft animals to local disease and climate it turns out were the cattle which the Dutch had acquired from the Khoi herders of the Cape. The official name later given to the breed that pioneered the exodus of between 12 000 and 14 000 boers from the Cape is the Afrikaner, or Africander. 

With the ability to provide Voortrekkers (pioneers) with milk and meat if needed, cattle-drawn wagons transported the boers through uncertain and often unexplored terrain in search of new lands to claim as their own. Depending on the obstacles, a full day’s trek might only have resulted in 10km’s of distance covered, and considering that lions and elephants still roamed freely throughout the Great Karoo, and water was scarce, the going was tough for these early pioneers.

One such pioneering family, the Hartmans, settled along the old wagon route which ran through Bosch Luys Kloof and on to the frontier villages of Prince Albert and Beaufort West. They set up their homestead close to a natural spring bubbling out of the northern slopes of a mountain which borders the south of Bosch Luys Kloof (now aptly named Hartmansberg after the family). The image here illustrating the map M3/2922 (belonging to the Western Cape Archives and Records Service) was drawn up in 1854 by Albert Kennedy, sworn Governement Surveyor at the time. The section bordered yellow on the map, named Olyvenfontein, was measured out for Mr Hartman and indicates the position of his homestead. In 1856 they obtained the land through a government grant. Accounts have it that Mr Hartman was a blacksmith by trade, so aside from subsistence farming on Olyvenfontein, he also assisted passers-by with their wagon wheels, horseshoes and the like.  Frontier villages were growing fast and accessibility between them and important trade routes closer to the coast was becoming a priority. The great era of pass building in South Africa saw Bosch Luys Kloof appear on the radar of road engineers, and an access route through the Swartberg mountains to reach these frontier villages was considered via a mountain pass into the valley. Led by road engineer Adam de Smidt (brother-in-law of the famous Thomas Bain), with his team of labour consisting mostly of Italian prisoners of war, a road was constructed granting access via Seweweekspoort and down the Bosch Luys Kloof pass. This road essentially linked the Little Karoo (south of the Swartberg range) with the Great Karoo, and made travel between villages such as Prince Albert, Laingsburg and Ladismith a possibility. 

*Permission is granted for the use of map image M3/2922
* Image is the property of 
the Western Cape Archives and Records Service

The proposed road would also bypass the Hartman settlement, cutting it off from passers-by and their source of communication with the outside world. As rumour has it, Mr Hartman attempted to convince the road engineer De Smidt to stick to the old wagon route and just improve the condition of the existing road rather than construct a new one, but the engineer had already mapped his impressive pass through Bosch Luys Kloof, and work commenced.

The road through Seweweekspoort and the Bosch Luys Kloof pass was built between 1859 and 1862 and is still in use today, still gravel and virtually unchanged. 

This road predates the Swartberg pass as one of the main access routes to Prince Albert. The building of the Gamkapoort dam between 1967 and 1969 dammed up the Dwijka- and Gamka rivers which cross the road at the eastern boundary of Bosch Luys Kloof, and turned the old main road into a cul de sac. 

Becoming a nature reserve

The road brought with it accessibility and more homesteaders followed. Aside from Olyvenfontein farm allocated via a land grant to the Hartmans in 1856, at the time of its founding in 2006 the Reserve consisted of a total of seven separate parts/farms covering some 14 000 hectares.  

The lodge was built on the farm Bosch Luis Kloof, which according to the owners register was first documented to have been owned by G L Le Grange from 1885 till 1898. He had likely settled here years before becoming the registered owner. Interestingly the current lodge, which was built around an existing homestead, is indicated on the old maps with the name Sladnedo. During the 1980’s the area was mapped extensively, with existing maps being updated with homesteads, windmills, waterbodies and other areas of significance. One of the fieldworkers visited the homestead (now the lodge) leased at the time by Mr J V R Odendal and indicated that the homestead was considered a large enough settlement to warrant naming it on the maps. It consisted of a house, a shop, a shed, shepherds houses etc. Stumped, Mr Odendal suggested that the fieldworker use his wife’s initial followed by his surname, in reverse. S. Odendal became Sladnedo

Around the height of the wool boom in South Africa in the 1950’s large herds of sheep were kept on massive farms in the Karoo, and Bosch Luys Kloof too was predominantly a livestock farm, with sheep and goats being the main source of income for famers in the area. Construction of the Gamkapoort dam in 1969 turned the road through Bosch Luys Kloof into a cul de sac and limited access to the village of Prince Albert. This paired with droughts and uncertainties about the future of land ownership in the new South Africa, and a shift in the productivity of extensive sheep farming, resulted in Bosch Luys Kloof going up for auction in the 1990’s.

Years before, on a trip through Bosch Luys Kloof to visit the Gamkapoort dam, a couple originally  from Cape Town fell in love with this mountain wilderness. When they heard that it was on the market they jumped at the opportunity to purchase it, and in 1996 Gerhard and Annchen Rademeyer became the new owners of Bosch Luys Kloof, and with great vision and determination became the founding members of Bosch Luys Kloof Private Nature Reserve. They considered themselves custodians of this special part of our country, and since changing hands in November 2020 we continue what they started in a sustainable and holistic manner.

As with species that have gone extinct,

that once were and now are no more, such is history. As the current custodians of this valley it is our duty to preserve not only its resources and natural assets but also its story!

For more information:
+27 23 581 5046