Bontebok, ostriches and baboons: A circular hike to the non-circular Sirkelsvlei

Seeing that we were now in possession of our Wild Card, which we had bought last week, we decided to venture down to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, whose prohibitively high entrance fees (of R80 per adult) we had been most reluctant to pay. But our brand-new Wild Card entitled us to free access, and there were a whole lot of hiking trails and walking routes in the reserve that were waiting to be explored — and blogged about, of course. πŸ™‚ This is the story of our first hike in the beautiful southernmost part of the Cape Peninsula.

We drove in through the main entrance gate, and took the first tarred road to the right. Called Link Road, it took us roughly westwards, across the peninsula to a small bay on the westernmost side of the reserve: Olifantsbos Bay. (And no, there haven’t been any elephants there – ever, I think – and there aren’t any in the reserve now either. Probably just as well, or hiking here would be a little too hazardous – though no doubt exciting! – for all the city folk and tourists who come here.)

Turn-off to the Olifantsbos area

Two circular hiking trails start from the parking area there. The first of these is the Shipwreck Trail, which hugs the coastline and takes you southwards past roughly 10 shipwrecks (dating back to between 1786 and 1964), before curving inwards and north, back to the parking area, some 5.3 km and 2-3 hours later (depending on how long it takes you to explore the wrecks and take photos from every angle!). (Have a look at the beautiful pictures on Helen’s blog).

The second is the Sirkelsvlei Trail, which goes slightly southeast-wards and inland towards a lake that lies most uncharacteristically ontop of a ridge; from there, you walk southwest-wards a little, before curving northwest-wards and joining up with the last stretch of the Shipwreck Trail. The route is about 7.2 km long, and takes about 3-4 hours to cover. (Helen from Walk the Cape blog had done a ‘there and back’ version of the Sirkelsvlei Trail.)

As the southeaster was blowing strongly, however, we decided against the Shipwreck Trail – salty spray and fine sand blown by the wind are not good for camera lenses. So we headed inland instead.

A fork in the road - we take the left path

The first bit involved a steady climb up onto the top of a rocky ridge. Within the first few minutes of slogging uphill, clambering over rocks and up a sturdily built wooden ladder of sorts, I reminded myself that we were not participating in a race. We’re so used to striding along quite briskly when we walk around our neighbourhood, or on any city roads for that matter, that walking out in nature always requires an adjustment.

In the city, you’re keeping an eye out for traffic, whether cars, cyclists, or fellow pedestrians, and you’re anticipating others’ reactions to the path you are weaving through the masses of people. Unless you love window-shopping and the sights and sounds of the city, you’re generally trying to reach your destination(s) as quickly as possible. And, of course, your senses are alert to potential danger in the form of muggers, pickpockets, beggars, drunks or any number of unsavoury individuals.

View northwest as we climb up to the plateau

In the veld, it’s very different. As always, I was amazed at the thoughts that were going through my mind.

‘Monkey mind’, our meditation teacher likes to call it.

Whenever I meditate (or rather ‘try to’ meditate), my mind throws up all kinds of thoughts, memories and emotions, probably because it is not used to being still and calm and quiet. Like a curious monkey, I find my mind reaching out to grasp, to investigate these thoughts and emotions that arise unbidden… and before I know it consciously, I am swinging off along this trail, one hand-hold after another, like a monkey on a jungle-gym…

As I was immersed in these ponderings, I stepped on a wobbling stone, which threw me off-balance for an instant. It was a perfect reminder to slow down and to change down a few gears to hiking-in-the-veld pace.

I think these are orange-red Erica cerinthoides, which flower especially after fires

Slow down, I told myself sternly, and remember to breathe slowly in and out through the nose. Pause before you take the next step, and look up, scan the landscape and get your bearings. Where is the sun, where are the shadows? Where is north, and which direction are you walking in?

What is the terrain like up ahead and on either side? Can you see the path, or is it concealed in the fynbos or behind large rocks? Look where you place your feet – is it loose scree, soft sand or solid boulders?

A black agama pauses briefly on a sunny rock

Scan the spoor (animal tracks) in the soft sand, and try to identify what animals made them – is it baboons, ostriches, some kind of antelope, or perhaps a snake? Are there unusual plants or colourful flowers waiting to be photographed? Listen for birds and insects, watch for flickers of movements in the bushes, among the rocks and across the sky. Pay attention to scents and smells, as you brush past fragrant bushes.

Puff adders and cobras are very common here, and unfortunately are very poisonous. Puff adders, which are quite large and thick snakes, and very well camouflaged, tend to be very lazy and sluggish, not moving out of the way until you almost step on them. In contrast, Cape Cobras, which are quite slender snakes with a yellow-tan colour, prefer to retreat into the bushes if they hear you approaching. I wasn’t keen on encountering either of them, though.

Lots of animal tracks are visible in the sandy soil along the footpath

The soil was very sandy, so we saw a surprising amount of animal tracks. Some I could identify as quite obviously a type of antelope, because they were cloven-hoofed – according to our map, the reserve is home to Bontebok, Eland, Grysbok, Grey Rhebuck, Klipspringer and Eland, as well as Cape Mountain Zebra. But others were more mysterious. At times like these, it would be really nice to have a knowledgeable guide or tracker with you. I was just thinking that us two city slickers were probably missing out on sooo much fascinating information about the animals and plants that inhabit this magical landscape, when an inner voice virtually yelled at me to LOOK!

I lifted my head — and looked straight at two large Bontebok that were standing in the middle of the fynbos, probably about 30-50 metres away. Gasp! We had almost missed them!

Two bontebok are suddenly there!

I love Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas) – I think they are the most beautifully patterned antelopes, with their chocolate brown colour, white bellies and white stripes from the forehead to the tip of the nose. Both males and females have lyre-shaped ringed horns. They are an endangered species, only occurring naturally in the Fynbos and Renosterveld areas of the Western Cape. The Bontebok National Park outside Swellendam was proclaimed in 1931 to protect the last 30 Bontebok left in the wild – and populations have thankfully now recovered. Its closest relative, the Blesbok, occurs in many nature reserves upcountry, and is not endangered.

The wind was blowing in our faces, carrying our scent away from these two beautiful Bontebok, but I knew they had seen us, because we weren’t exactly camouflaged in this landscape! And my windbreaker was making a flapping sound in the wind. I did not have my telephoto lens with me, so I had to content myself with some wide-angle pictures. We stood for a while, looking at each other in awed silence.

After a bit, I continued to walk slowly along the path – suddenly, there was a flurry of panic-stricken activity, as a young Bontebok leapt up from the fynbos, where it had been lying down, followed immediately by an even younger sibling, which had also been hidden from view. The youngest one was a much paler tan colour. Once they had settled down again, we continued walking. Our path took us in a gentle curve northwards, across a drainage line, and the four of them watched us calmly as we slowly walked past.

We crested a rocky ridge, and came to an interesting looking archway that was marked as the Koggelman Arch on our map. When we looked through the archway from the northern side, we could see a lizard-shaped rock beyond – perhaps that is the reason for its name?

Peering back through the Koggelman Arch - is it named after the lizard-shaped rock beyond?

From here, the sandy track went straight across a plain that probably gets quite waterlogged in the rainy season, judging from the numerous flat stones that had been thoughtfully placed along the path, and the stones that lined the path in the dips, presumably to funnel water along particular routes. Peter Slingsby in his amusing, well-written and well-researched book Walks with a Fat Dog … and More Walks Without, in which he also describes this hike, makes the following remarks about this plain:

“Ahead is a field of bright leucadendrons on the plain with the strange name of Leier Verloor [Leader Lost]. We puzzled over this name for years, but apparently one of the early farmers lost an ox named Leier there. Difficult to understand how to lose an ox, but I guess farmers would know.” (page 68)

Giggle…

After what seemed like an endless trek across the plain, and an ascent onto a ridge, covered with thickets (marked on the map as Kamferbos thicket and Phylicia thicket), we unexpectedly reached the lake. Sirkelsvlei is indeed not a circular-shaped lake, but rather more oblong. We followed the path along its western shore for a bit, until we found the perfect picnic spot out of the blustery wind, and on a couple of spacious boulders overlooking the water.

We find a sheltered and level rock for our lakeside picnic

While we sipped our hot tea from the thermos, and hungrily munched our way through a slice of banana loaf, I read what Slingsby had to say about Sirkelsvlei:

“It’s on top of a low hill, and it never dries up. No rivers flow into it or out of it; it’s in fact topped up by aquifers flowing from under the mountains to the north and, interestingly, it’s home to a large population of Cape terrapins. These dinner-plate-sized creatures are seldom seen, but if you watch carefully occasionally one will push its head up out of the water and take a look around.” (page 68)

Unfortunately, no terrapins (a kind of turtle) popped their heads out of the water – but then it was quite windy, with the wind blowing across the surface causing turbulent waves to ripple and splash against the partially submerged rocks. The water itself was that typical Coca-Cola colour of fynbos areas. On the far side of the lake, in the distance beyond, we could see another herd of bontebok grazing. One lonely individual had come down to the southern shore of the lake to drink, and disturbed a pair of Egyptian geese (I think) that complained very, very loudly indeed.

Tummies pleasantly full and legs well rested, we re-packed our rucksack and set off homewards. The track followed the western shore of the lake. Just after we had come to an intersection and were getting back into our walking stride, hubby grabbed my arm and whispered a hushed “Stop!”

Ostriches! A male and two females among the fynbos

He pointed slightly to the side of the track, about 30-40 metres away, where a group of about 3 or 4 ostriches was foraging among the fynbos. As usual, there was one black-and-white male, while the rest were drab-brown females. They must have heard us, as they were moving away slowly and calmly. I couldn’t get a clear shot with the camera, because of the dense bushes, and again wished that I’d brought the telephoto lens too. I also had a sudden – and entirely irrational – thought that the male ostrich might decide to charge us – in addition to their impressive beaks, their muscular legs and vicious claws can inflict fatal injuries.

Honestly, where do these thoughts come from?! I shook my head at my own irrational response.

But it did strike me that encountering wild – and large – animals in the veld when you are on foot is a very different experience to seeing them from the back of a landrover that is being driven by a trained and knowledgeable guide!

When the magnificent ostriches had disappeared from sight, we continued across the Reed Flats, which were criss-crossed by dry drainage lines.

A path of flat stones indicates that this area probably gets waterlogged during the rainy season

According to the map, a cairn would mark a high spot on a rocky ridge, from where you could see the Back of Table Mountain – but today it was hidden among thick swirling clouds, buffeted by a strong southeaster. Hubby obligingly klip-springered onto the top of a cluster of rocks, posing for a landscape shot.

Hubby getting his bearings from the top of a rocky ridge

We were walking slowly along the Leucadendron Ridge, admiring the different types of plants, marvelling at the vast range of fynbos species, and despairing at my own lack of knowledge of local flora and fauna, when a sudden loud sound, almost like a dog’s bark, startled me.

Oh! It was a troop of the resident (and protected) Chacma baboons, about 50 metres away on a slope towards the south. They were moving at an angle to us, but in the opposite direction. I guessed that they might have spent the morning foraging down by the ocean, and were now heading inland, perhaps towards the lake? If we had walked more slowly, our paths might have crossed further back. It looked like a group of about 10 individuals, possibly more – they were amazingly camouflaged against the fynbos. They had definitely seen us – and my heart was pounding. Were they going to come closer? Demand food?

We stay really quiet as they pass us

I was not keen on having close encounters with them, having heard and read many scary stories of troops of baboons that invade homes and gardens in the South Peninsula, or steal food from picnickers and hikers, or climb onto and even into cars. These things happen primarily because human beings have invaded their natural habitats and reduced the size of their feeding range, and because they have come to associate human beings with food – which isn’t helped by the fact that people do still go, “Aw, cute, here, have something to eat…”

I don’t know how to behave around baboons in the wild – I figure the safest option is to retreat. They have biiiig strong teeth, after all! There is a group of people (Baboon Matters) based in Noordhoek, who take small groups to visit various baboon troops in the Southern Peninsula, teaching them about these interesting creatures with whom we share so much genetic material. For those of us who like to walk in the mountains and the reserves around here, I think these educational tours are invaluable – and I plan to go on one soon to overcome my fear, which is no doubt born out of ignorance.

In the distance, we could hear a lone baboon barking on a ridge overlooking the sea. Was he a lookout for another troop still foraging on the shore? Or had he been left behind by the troop we had just seen? I was intrigued, but happy that he kept his distance.

Besides, my attention was focused on the amazing number of Cape sugarbirds and orange-breasted sunbirds that were flitting about among these leucadendrons! You really do need a telephoto zoom lens to capture them, but I did my best with the wide-angle lens:

Wow, just look at the long tail of that Cape Sugarbird!

At the next junction, we kept right – the other path would have led us southwards towards the shipwrecks, but we were running out of time and needed to return to the car. This was labelled as the Staavia Edge on the map. It overlooked a beautiful bay, with the Olifantsbos Cottage and the nearby old Skaife Environmental Education Centre, far below at the southern foot of the hill. Apparently, you can overnight in the cottage (have a look here). To the left of the path, which crossed this ridge, there were the ruins of an old World War II submarine lookout, that just begged for further exploration – but we could not see a path leading there. Next time!

From here we descended fairly steeply on the northern side of the hill, and soon returned to our car, a little tired but most content. Although it had been a loooong drive to get to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, taking well over an hour from town, this had been a most pleasurable hike, and we resolved to explore the other walking routes here in the coming weeks and months.

But for now, I hope you enjoy the Gallery of Photos below:

27 thoughts on “Bontebok, ostriches and baboons: A circular hike to the non-circular Sirkelsvlei

  1. what a special place! the costs are crazy, but with a Wildcard, makes it worth it for the locals for sure πŸ™‚ . I also documented our hike that we did in this park, and oh boy, we had such fun walking here. Great article, and love the pics!

    • Hi Juanita – I just read about the difficulties you had renewing your Wild Card. As I explained in my recent post (here), we have just applied for a new Wild Card (we hadn’t had one before). I filled in the form that you showed on your blog, and physically drove down to the TMNP offices at Westlake, where I submitted it together with the cash payment, a copy of my ID, and a proof of residence. Hopefully, we will receive the Wild Card in the post sometime – though I’m told it can take more than a few weeks. But as long as we can use the letter confirming that we have paid, then that’s okay. I hope your’s get sorted out though!

  2. Another great post! With the level of detail and beautiful photos, you should be writing for a travel magazine. Or maybe you already are?

    This post takes me back to my university days! We had to do a 3-week field trip there, mapping the vegetation of that area. Lots of fun, until I got sunstroke.

    • Awww, thanks, Lisa. πŸ™‚ And no, I’m not writing for any magazines, just for my blog. But it would be quite terrific to be published. A 3-week field trip, mapping the vegetation?!?! Wow! You must have learned a LOT – and perhaps you can even remember the names of all those plants I photographed?

      • That would be most helpful. I rely on “The Wildlife of Southern Africa” (edited by Vincent Caruthers), and “Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa” by John Manning (which has hundreds of excellent photos) – but I’ve found it very difficult to locate the particular fynbos plants I encounter out in the veld. I saw recently that John Manning has also published a “Field Guide to Fynbos” or something like that, so that is definitely on my ‘Got To Buy’ list.

  3. Reggie, I’m not done yet but here are the first ones. In a couple I haven’t narrowed it down to species yet. Maybe you could check your books and make sure these are right?

    5860 – Erica cerinthoides
    5874 – Roella squarrosa
    5878 – Loebelia species
    5965 – Helichrysum vestitutm
    5998 – Rafnia capensis
    6020 – Othonna species?
    6025 – Aristea glauca
    6028 – Aristea glauca
    6047 – Gnidia species
    6093 – Cotyledon orbiculata

    You have taken some of the most wonderful flower photos I’ve ever seen! I also like the colour reproduction – looks very natural. I really think that Canon cameras are the best for nature stuff.

    • Lisa, you are AWESOME! Thank you sooo much! I can’t believe that you actually took the time to look these up, this is quite extraordinary!

      I’ve taken lots of photos of plants on our hikes, but I do not (yet) have a database of them, together with the names, many of which were supplied by kind blog-readers. I’m wondering whether I need to put something like that together on the blog…

      Today, I bought myself John Manning’s “Field Guide to Fynbos” – hopefully, this will make identification easier.

      Thank you – our Canon really does take excellent photos, particularly of plants in close-up, and most of the time they need no post-processing, other than cropping and reducing in size for the blog. I confess that sometimes, though, they need a bit of sharpening and brightening.

  4. Reggie, I’d be worried about being charged by ostriches or bitten by snakes too. And those baboons would definitely get my heart pounding. These wild creatures don’t know that you will take nothing more than their photo. Some of them must be very territorial, especially the males.

    • Giggle… I’m so relieved that you’d respond similarly… I thought I was being quite a ‘wuss’ (scaredy-cat) when these feelings arose. I guess it’s merely an expression of residual genetic programming, based on our primal instincts as cave-dwellers and hunter-gatherers?

    • Reggie, here in Nova Scotia residential developments are encroaching on animal territories at a rate that’s too quick for them to adjust their living spaces. A woman was mauled and killed by coyotes while hiking and last week a man was intercepted by a female when he got between her and her cubs in a residential area. She grabbed his arm but didn’t pierce the skin. He managed to fend her off.

      If my primal instincts keep me more alert, I don’t mind the worry for the sake of avoiding encounters such as these.

      • Gosh, those are sobering stories indeed. Human beings do seem to be taking over the entire planet… and messing up, polluting and plundering wherever they cannot live easily. We’re not being fair to animals, are we?

  5. Dear Reggie

    Really enjoyed your very interesting blog on your walk in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, particularly the photographs and the facts that accompany them, makes the story educational as well.
    The editor of the MUSE magazine has asked if you would be willing to be interviewed for an article in our next edition. Please contact me on the email address supplied.
    Many Thanks
    Glynnis

  6. Your pic 5930 – Could it be Orphium frutescens – I have some pics on my blog that you could compare – mycapegarden.blogspot.com posted 12/12/2010

    • Hello Indigigirl – thanks for the tip, I’ve checked out your post, but I am really not sure. I wish I’d taken the photo from a better angle, so that I could see the actual open flowers. Only one solution: do the Sirkelsvlei hike again! πŸ™‚

      • Ahh! Thank you, Lisa and Indigigirl! I was comparing my photo with the pictures in the reference book I have, and couldn’t be sure from those. But you’re right – the Wikipedia photo looks remarkably similar.

    • Where the identification problem comes in I think, is that the illustrations (whether they’re photographs or paintings) in reference books don’t compare well to the level of detail one sees in modern digital photography.

      What I usually do (if I don’t know where to begin) is look for possibles in my books, and then do a search online for some better photos.

      • Ah – I do that too, fortunately Google’s Image Search facility is quite good, though it does also rely on people labelling their photos correctly. It’s quite time-consuming, this whole business, isn’t it? πŸ˜‰ But fun too!

  7. Oh, I love this part of the world! Wonderful write-up of a wonderful walk. Makes me want to do that route again πŸ™‚
    I’m glad the baboons didn’t come to close though. I have a very healthy respect for them – well, actually I’m terrified of them, and I know for the fact that troop around Olifantsbos aren’t that shy as one brazen fellow stole our picnic!

    • Thank you, Helen. I’ve seen your descriptions of your hikes around the Good Hope nature reserve, and actually it was your enthusiastic write-ups and wonderful photos that persuaded me that it would be worthwile to explore this distant part of the world! It’s a good hour’s drive from town, and with petrol prices having climbed once again, we’ve been a tad reluctant. Since then, we’ve done a few more hikes, though I haven’t had time to write them up yet! Hopefully I will now.

      And I’d read about those baboons who stole your picnic – the absolute cheek of it!! I’m very relieved that they did not approach us. I’m not sure what we’d have done. It’s not like you can run away from them… or hide… and I think yelling at them would be faaar too confrontational. Sigh… Really, I do wonder what the best response is. Do you know?

  8. Pingback: I visit Cape Point: The (almost)-southernmost tip of Africa « The Fantastical Voyages of Flat Kathy

  9. Dermot says a wonderful day today at 26 degrees we walked the shipwreck trail and the Sirkelsvlei route. A welcome sea breeze we saw bontebok. Ostrich, tortoise, many seabirds, black agama, beautiful flora and fauna, plenty of fresh air and far too much exercise. The wild card is a must. These routes are tourist free to be the only couple on beaches was amazing. Apparently the best air quality in South Africa. Worth traveling to Scarborough beach afterwards for a picnic, red wine and watching the sun go down.

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