Outdoor South Africa

Western Cape Province National Parks & Reserves
Map of Western Cape Province

The winter rainfall region is the home of the Cape Peninsula, a peerless thrust of land compounded of sea, sky and mountain, and the towering massifs of the interior in the winelands. Pendulous mists are common to the mountains throughout the year—snow may cover the heights of the Boland (uplands) in winter.

In an area of less than 500 square kilometres, the Cape Peninsula forms a remarkable part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, richest of the six floral kingdoms of the world. Unparalleled in natural beauty and variety, its flora is collectively known as "fynbos." The peaks of Table Mountain near Capetown alone support over 1,400 species of flowering plants, well over half the number endemic to the Peninsula. Best known of these species is the king protect, Protea cynaroides, South Africa's national flower. Protea nana, another member of the family grows along the Limiet mountain range of the Boland. Piquant, small, it has a drooping red bud. Ground protects are equally fascinating: prostrate in habit and overgrown with other plants, birds and butterflies play no part in their pollination. They are pollinated instead by shrew and mice. Other striking members of the family are species of Aulax, Mimetes, Leucospermum (the "pincushions") and Serruria [notably the lovely "blushing bride").

Prolific among the 'fynbos' are something like 600 different species of Erica (heath). During October and November the slopes of the mountains which skirt the Swellendam Hiking Trail are wreathed in pink. The Restios are also regional phenomena. Neither grass nor reed, their beautiful brown seeds are often used in dried flower arrangements. Many bulbous and tuberous species indigenous to the area are now popular garden plants both here and overseas—Babiana, Watsonia, Tritonia, Ixia, and Sparaxis among them. In comparison with the Transvaal Lowveld, tree, bird, and game species are less plentiful in this part of the country. Yet they are distinctive. Trees such as yellowwood, rockwood, and candlewood are mostly limited to the deep valleys. Sunbirds and boubou shrikes may wake you in the morning with their singing: and at night the mellow hooting of the Cape eagle owl and the plaintive call of the night jar will lull you to sleep. Leopards and baboons tend to shy away from people; timid though they may be, klipspringer, grey rhebok, and duiker are more conspicuous.

While most people tend to keep to the beaten track, experienced hikers may obtain permission to break their own trails through the mountains. Roadless wilderness areas such as the Cedarberg may be visited on payment of a minimal entrance fee, while a permit alone secures access to other ranges such as Table Mountain, Groot Winterhoek, Du Toitskloof, Riviersonderend, and Langeberg. All offer grandeur, beauty and the solitude of verdant valleys and robust cliffs.

Perhaps a little more prosaic, the Garden Route offers a good old fashioned seashore experience as well as some distinctive natural reserves. And the vast dryland Karoo has its southern edge in this province.

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
Rugged coast, beaches, baboons, and ah, the legends.

Hikes on the Cape Peninsula

Boland: Section Hottentotsholland
Route: From Sir Lowry's Pass (or Nuweberg Forest Station) near Grabouw to Franschhoek Pass.
Length & Duration: 54 km 3 days or 25 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Boland: Section Limietberg
Route: From Hawequas State Forest across the Hawequas and Limiet Mountains to Tweede Tol in Bainskloof.
Length & Duration: 34 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: Hut equipped with bunks and mattresses. No fires allowed.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

River Bank
Route: Follows the turns of the Eersterivier at Stellenbosch.
Length & Duration: 4 km
Accommodation & equipment: Starting point at bridge near the Volkskombuis restaurant.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: Cape Town. In the Tokai State Forest.
Length & Duration: 2 hours
Accommodation & equipment: No facilities available.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Table Mountain
Route: Several possible walks.
Length & Duration: Unlimited
Accommodation & equipment: No facilities available.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: Stellenbosch to Kuilsrivier, exploring the Cape's wine country.
Length & Duration: Approximately 24 km one day
Accommodation & equipment: No accommodation. A permit is required. Closed during harvest time. Maps available at 50c each.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: Kirstenbosch.
Length & Duration: 470 m
Accommodation & equipment: For the visually impaired. Explanatory labels in braille and large print.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Garden Route

What can you say about an area that first struck it rich by farming ostriches for the fin-de-siecle hat trade? The Garden Route is preposterous, tacky, and beautiful despite it all. This is a hyped (for somewhat of a reason) stretch of coastline from Still Bay to Plettenberg Bay. The region is amazingly scenic, passing through forests edged by lagoons and white sand beaches. The Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountain ranges frame the coastal plain's inland edge; on the other side the Karoo starts. The Garden Route is famous for its watersports and has a decent backpacking infrastructure.

The highly recommended Kranshoek Nature Walk follows the scalloped shoreline of the Garden Route, winding its way over shimmering streams, past waterfalls, small bays and through scrub communities of the dune barriers, characteristically combed br the offshore winds. In the twilight world of the evergreen forests, ferns grow dense and lush; strange species of fungus glow against musky tree trunks; branches of the huge Outeniqua yellowwood, covered with moss, droop in pendulous mists. The alarm call of the colourful Knysna lourie may be heard from the forest top; porcupine needles on the forest floor betray the presence of stealthy nocturnal creatures. Higher up the trails enter the domain of the 'fynbos', and the hiker is rewarded with stunning views of cliffs falling sheer to the sea.

Wilderness National Park
Enfolding an extraordinary system of wetlands, incorporating rivers, lakes, estuaries. Needless to say, the park is loaded with birds. But also great opportunities for paddling, windsurfing, fishing, and sailing. This is where many South Africans go to honeymoon. Goukamma Nature Reserve adjoins the national park. In it's boundaries, you'll find the Groenvlei, a freshwater lake, home to swans and mermaids.

Knysa National Lake Area
An area of controlled development, especially since the town's residents found they were making more money from tourism than timber. The vast drowned estuary, known as the lagoon, is a playground for swimmers, divers, and boaters. Those that prefer their feet to be on dry land no matter how wet the view will find lots of great hiking and biking.

Keurbooms Nature Reserve
Features a canoe trail along the Keurbooms River to an overnight hut. The reserve is a combination of fynbos on a hilly plateau with forested cliffs.

Robberg Nature & Marine Reserve
Rachel Carson country - peninsula sticking six km out into the Indian Ocean with rich intertidal marine life.

Wanna hoof it? Try some of these trails:

Route: From Witfontein Forest Station near George to Diepwalle near Knysna. A choice of starting and ending points enables participants to undertake hikes of 2-8 days.
Length & Duration: 137 km 8 days
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: 22 km north of Knysna. Circular route beginning at Diepwalle Forest Station.
Length & Duration: 18 km Alternative route l: 9 km Alternative route 11: 14 km
Accommodation & equipment: Visiting hours 06hOO to 18hOO. No permits required. Sign the visitors' book at the starting point please.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: Gouna State Forest 17 km from Knysna. Circular route beginning at Grootdraai picnic spot.
Length & Duration: 7 km
Accommodation & equipment: Visiting hours 06h00 to 18h00. No permits required. Sign the visitors' book at the starting point please.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: 32 km from Knysna. Coastal walk in the Harkerville section of the Kruisfontein State Forest.
Length & Duration: 9 km
Accommodation & equipment: Visiting hours 06hOO to 18hOO. No permits required. Sign the visitors' book at the starting point please.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: 10 km from George situated at Groenkop Sub-reserve of Wiffontein State Forest near Saasveld College for Foresters
Length & Duration: Two routes of 15 km and 11 km
Accommodation & equipment: Visiting hours 06hOO to 18hOO. No permits required. Sign the visitors' book at the starting point please.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: A circular route from the Grootrivier camping site to the top of the plateau at Covie.
Length & Duration: 16 km
Accommodation & equipment: Grootrivier group camping site.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

The Karoo

The Karoo is a quintessential South African landscape—vast and arid, at first glance undifferentiated, but on a second richly complex. Consider walking the Farm Trails if you want to get to know something about the life of the people of the Karoo. Farm Trails is an organization of farmers who have established a network of trails connecting restored old farmers' cottages for overnight stays. Head to the Northern Cape Province for more exploration of the Karoo.

Karoo National Park
More than 80,000 acres preserving the original Karoo landscape, the area of the South African plateau like the great plains of North America, mistaken by some to be undifferentiated flatness but actually a rich environment of shrubs, grasslands, and mamals. Take the Springbok Hiking Trail, a three day proposition that takes you through a variety of habitats and altitudes.

Springbok Trail Route: Circular route within the Karoo National Park, northwest of Beaufort-West. Closed between 15 October to end of February annually.
Length & Duration: 41 km 3 days
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses but no crockery or cutlery. Hikers must provide their own food, first-aid equipment, and sleeping bags.
Max. Trail Capacity: 12

Bosberg Nature Reserve & Trail
Almost 5000 acres of very diverse habitat: mountain fynbos, wooded ravines with stinkwood and yellowwood, grassland, and Karoo shrubs and grasses. The several great walks at Bosberg includes the 15 km circular Bosberg Hiking Trail.

Karoo Nature Reserve
Great place to see the Karro wildlife. This 40,000 acre reserve surrounds the town of Graaff Reinet sort like a pup tent, with the game viewing section at the top, the western side featuring the Valley of Desolation and two day walks and the east side featuring the overnight Drie Koppe Hiking Trail. Some worthwhile day hikes include. . .

Valley Of Desolation
Route: Karoo Nature Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.
Length & Duration: One Hour
Accommodation & equipment: No facilities available.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Route: Circular route in the Karoo Nature Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.
Length & Duration: 23 km 7 Hours
Accommodation & equipment: No facilities available.
Max. Trail Capacity: 10

Tsolwana Game Reserve
This modestly sized 47,000 acre reserve protects a portion of the Karoo landscape south of the dramatic Tafelberg.

Near Swellendam

A good homebase for exploring the country around. A town of old oak trees, surrounded by rolling wheat fields edged by a spectacular mountain ridge. Plus a good museum. Swellendam is swell. . .

Swellendam State Forest
Route: Circular route from Koloniesbos.
Length & Duration: 81 km 6 days or 50 km 5 days
Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Accommodation & equipment: Max. Trail Capacity: 16

Bontebok National Park
Dedicated to preserving the bontebok, a distinctively marked antelope now close to extinct. Lots of other wildlife and spectacular wildflowers and grasslands in the winter and early spring. Coastal fynbos area.

More in West Cape Province

Cedarberg Wilderness
175,400 acres of the Cederberg, a mountainous area of valleys and renowned peaks. The highest are the Sneeuberg (2028 m) and the Tafelberg (1932m). Weathered sandstone, columns and other contorted shapes in the surrounding region reminds many people of the American Southwest—but with a distinctively different flora, predominately mountain fynbos. There are great displays of spring wildflowers here. Many San wall paintings are hidden in the caves hollowed out by wind. Also, this area is something of a mecca for South African mountain bikers.

Cape Henderson Nature Reserve
Breathtaking. Forests running down to meet the ocean but stopped by serene expanses of beach. Worth the trip. Worth even a flat tire. Worth it.

De Hoop Nature Reserve
A swell reserve. It's on the coast but includes a freshwater lake and the Potberg mountain range. Lots of birdlife, and the southern right whale breeds right off the coast. The reserves trails include one along the coast, one into the cliffs along the lake, and a new mountain bike trail.

Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve
Three giant granite domes overlooking the town of Paarl. Wonderful flora, especially the proteas and wildflowers. Near the Winelands—bottoms up!

Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve
Has its own 18-km circular walking trail with bird hides. Also administers the Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail, which starts at Die Galg and wanders for 14 km through the Riviersonderend mountains to the town of Greytown, where you can stay overnight.

West Coast National Park
44,000 acres. Wrapped around the Langebaan Lagoon, whose waters are threatened by a planned steel mill. A park of international importance since it protects the wetlands habitat of migratory wading birds. Come between August and October for the delirious spring wildflower display.

Special thanks to the South African Tourist Board (SATOUR) for helping GORP develop South Africa park & hiking trails information.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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