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. 🙂 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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?
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)
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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?
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:
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: