Astrophotography & Camping at Theewaterskloof Dam

Milkyway

The Road to Theewaterskloof Dam

A few weeks ago I had stumbled upon a stunning photograph of the Theewaterskloof Dam on instagram. I never realised that the shores of the dam are spotted with the carcasses of so many dead trees. The quick history goes that when they flooded the valley in ’76 many of the trees were just left to die & rot away. Suffice it to say, they are still around and now create some spectacular visuals. I recently bought a good tripod and have been eager to break out of the city lights and get a photograph of the Milkway and decided that these trees would make the perfect foreground to any starry night imagery.

The Theewaterskloof dam is situated about 1h 29mins (107km) outside of Cape Town. Climbing up Sir Lowrys Pass, instantly draws you into a landscape with fascinating similarities to Norway. You pass the Steenbras Dam along with pine tree plantations. The landscape is spotted and shaped with jagged rocks protruding from the ground. It is not long before you find yourself in Apple country and on the outskirts of the Elgin Valley. The valley is famous for its apples, as it produces 60% of the South African apple crop.

We decided to stop and have lunch at the renowned Peregrine Farm Stall. The farm stall dates back to 1964 as one of the first farm stalls in the western cape. To celebrate 50 years the farm stall launched a stunning new restaurant that dishes up, amongst other things, amazing pies & gravy along with delicious coffees. The farm stall is your first opportunity to try some of the fruit the valley has to offer. I suggest the Pink Lady Apple.

Sunset Over Theewaterskloof Dam
Peregrine Farm Stall

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The Camp Site

We stayed at a camp site on the north eastern parts of the dam with its entrance near to the town of Villierdorp. Run by the Threewaters Sports Club the overall facilities were good and the staff very friendly. Electrical outlets were available for pre-booked sites with each having their own braai area. The only thing lacking was the ablution block, although clean with no problem finding toilet paper, the showers never seemed able to supply constant warm water. Twice I had to shower with a flurry of scathingly hot water which quickly ran out and left you with a high pressure cold spray. The showers could also use an extra hook for towels or clothing. The sports club charges a day & a night rate, but expect to pay about R110pp per night.

Theewaterskloof Panoramic

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Location Scouting

We had spotted a few different beaches along the road into the valley that looked like good options for beach/tree photographs but only one that would have been at the right angle to photograph the milkyway. We had to be on a northern side, yet a south facing beach. We strike it lucky with one such beach sitting inside the nature reserve along the road toward the franschoek pass. During the day the beaches are erie yet strikingly beautiful, the white sand against grey/white carcasses of the trees long past.

The light feels stark and sharp with strong contrasting shadows and almost desert like without much life at all. The dam reflects the deep blue of the sky as it gently laps the shoreline. The sunsets are intoxicating as the sun drops below the mountain range towards franschoek, casting even longer shadows across the beach, the water reflecting the golden light. It did feel a little unsafe, just leaving your car parked on the side of the road but of the two times we visited the beach we didn’t have any problems, or get stopped by security (we didn’t see any security at all).

Theewaterskloof Dam Trees

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Astrophotrogaphy

The Milkway was set to come up at around 10pm each night & be at its peak around 2am when then moon had nicely set and stopped causing any light pollution. A few focusing & exposure test shots at about 11pm revealed the Milkway nicely on its way however we had some small clouds threatening to ruin the nights Astrophotography. I set my alarm for 1:45am and climbed into bed to keep warm. It always amazes me how cold it can get when you are outside of the city. Sure enough 2am rolled around and thankfully the clouds had past over us and left a perfectly clear sky. So it began multiple varying sets of 10x 25sec, ISO-3200 shots that would later be aligned and stacked in Photoshop.

Milkyway Over Theewaterskloof Dam

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Villiersdorp and Surrounds

The town of Villiersdorp is a rather typical one horse town, it does have its own uniqueness. Its home to one of the few processing plants in the country that specialises in processing persimmons. It has many beautiful tree lined roads and old churches that you can explore. We had some delicious pancakes at one of the only stores open on a Sunday, the Ströh Gallery on main rd.

Franschoek Pass
Franschoek Valley

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We decided to take the Franschoek Pass through Franschoek via Stellenbosch back to City, the camp site check out was 11am which gave us the rest of the day to meander home. The pass is fantastic, such great views with winding roads and such an incredible view over Franschoek itself. We couldn’t resist stopping at both Haute Cabriere and Muratie, our two favorite wine farms which were conveniently en route.

The theewaterskloof dam & surrounds hold some amazing views and the area makes for a wonderful day or weekend trip. I highly recommend it to anyone interested.

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