Bokkies, sea birds, rare plants and mind-blowing coastal scenery are just a few attractions of the overnight, circular trail at the tip of the Cape Peninsula.
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey
I’m always tempted to keep my favourite experiences a secret so have rarely promoted the Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail. Which is unfair: I rate it the best overnight trail in the country, yet it never seems fully booked. So now I am taking the plunge, and if I can’t get a booking in the future it will be some sort of perverted justice.
I discovered it more than 15 years ago, while entertaining my in-laws and my sister, Hannah Buchanan-Smith, a vegan who lives in the UK. The fact that Hannah is vegan would not be relevant were it not for the fact that her beliefs preclude her from wearing leather boots: she opted to hike this demanding 33.5km, two-day trail in boots made of recycled material that gave her blisters within two kilometres. She suffered, but appreciated the exquisite fynbos, sightings of plains game and, above all, the incredible views from this wild reserve. In fact she still raves about the hike, the highlight of her trip to the Cape.
I’ve hiked the trail almost annually since then. On my last hike, we arrived at the gates to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve in a howling gale. Undeterred, we left our overnight bags (trust me, the small extra fee for having your bags, beers and braai goods transported to the hut is well worth it), arranged for some firewood to be delivered and hit the trail. You can hike the circular route clockwise or anti-clockwise but, since the forecast was better for the following day, we decided to hike the shorter section first, along the False Bay coastline to the huts.
Soon after leaving our car we were at the viewpoint over Smitswinkel Bay. Miraculously the rain stopped, the sun came out and, as we gazed down at the turquoise waters of this delightful cove, I felt for a moment that I was in the Seychelles. Moments later an icy blast of horizontal rain provided a reality check.
The trail took us past wonderfully eroded and lichen-covered rock formations, as it meandered around the imposing peaks – Judas Peak, De Boer and Paulsberg – that you see as you drive from Simon’s Town towards the reserve, to the signalling cannon perched on top of Kanonskop. The path splits just beyond the cannon,
the high road leading along the ridge, then over the sand dunes to the Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre, while the low road heads down to the coast. It was a difficult call.
The sky was grey and the thought of a coffee break was tempting. But the moody sea beckoned so we turned left down to the beach and tidal pool at Bordjiesrif.
“No matter how chicken you are you should swim both days, once in False Bay and once in the Atlantic Ocean,” Saskia Marlowe, hospitality services manager of Table Mountain National Park, insisted when I asked her for some trail tips. So I’d packed my cozzie. But the water looked uninviting and, after filling our water bottles and executing a none-too-hopeful sun dance, we continued around to Buffel’s Bay.
Despite the drizzle it was a jolly walk. The picnic sites were full of families sheltering under umbrellas, tents and tarpaulins as they gamely braaied Christmas lunch. The sun peaked through as we hit the crescent of golden sand. It was clearly a message and we dived into the waves.
Refreshed, we continued on our journey across The Meadows, surprising a large herd of eland. I’d seen plenty of Cape mountain zebra, grey rhebok and bontebok on my previous sorties on the trail, but spying these huge antelope a few hundred metres from the busy beach was an unexpected treat.
Before the final steep climb from the coast we detoured to one of my favourite spots on the Cape Peninsula, the dramatic fishing ledges of Rooikrans. There we sat on a red sandstone ledge, studying the route we’d walked and gazing at the dramatic promontory of Hangklip across False Bay. Flocks of cormorants flew past in precise formation and a solitary fisherman cast into the deep, dark water below. The wind whipped salty spray into our faces. It was a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas.
We arrived at Erica, the quaint, six-bed hut that sits on a rocky promontory of Vasco da Gama Peak, to find four, soggy Belgians wrapped in their sleeping bags. Despite clear warnings in the information pack that hikers should come prepared for all weather, they’d set off without proper rain gear and by the time they arrived at the Buffelfontein Visitor Centre, were soaked to the skin. The park staff came to their rescue, whisking them around to the hut in a vehicle.
As we brewed up, Musa Makhubele, senior tourism officer Table Mountain National Park South, popped in to check that our bags had arrived and that everything was shipshape. “The weather here can change at the drop of a hat,” said Musa, who has worked in the reserve for the last eight years. “We often experience four seasons in one day.” From our high vantage point we could see a line of cars snaking between the Cape Point car park and the gate. One of the huge privileges of the overnight trail is that, once the day visitors have left, you have the reserve to yourself.
The weather had improved so, after a quick cuppa, we set off over the hill for Cape Point, taking in a tour of the now-deserted lighthouses before returning for a shower. We lit the braai and sat outside with a glass of bubbles as the sun melted into the sea, a brilliant ball of orange that seemed to set the ocean alight. The clouds turned vibrant pink and then faded as night rolled in. The lights of Cape Town and the settlements of False Bay twinkled in the distance but we felt as if in the wilderness – there was no noise save for the crashing waves. No traffic, no voices. The only lights were our fire and candles and a sky of stars.
The following morning we set out down the hill to Pegram’s Point on the Atlantic seaboard, and followed the path around to the popular surfers’ beach of Platboom Bay, where we stopped for our first swim. From there the path crossed boulder fields at the base of rocky peaks. “As you hike keep your eyes peeled for elusive klipspringer,” Musa had encouraged. “This is one of the few spots in the park where you might see them.”
We were out of luck with klipspringer but the vast number of African Black Oystercatchers, terns, cormorants and other seabirds more than compensated. “Take a field guide to the birds, flowers and shells of the park,” Saskia had suggested. “There are not many places in the world left with the amazing shells you find on this stretch of the Atlantic coast. I love walking along the beach and hoping that today is the day the sea sweeps in with some treasure meant just for me.”
It was wonderful advice; we parked off several times where the flotsam and jetsam was interesting and just sat sifting through it, looking for our own treasures – pieces of nautilus shells, beautifully polished, multicoloured pebbles, the empty shells of crustaceans, and weather-beaten wood.
We detoured to the wreck of the Phyllisia, a trawler that ran aground in 1968 at Hoek van Bobbejaan, checking out some Khoisan middens en route. (The detour is shown on the map, but is not immediately obvious. Keep left where the trail turns inland, roughly halfway to the main gate.) From there the trail crosses Blaubergvlei, an area out of bounds for day hikers, before leading through exquisite fynbos to Sirkelsvlei, a large lake fed by underground springs.
A family of ostrich and a big herd of bontebok lazed nearby, seemingly unperturbed by our presence as we filled our water bottles and studied our flower books. We’d been walking through fragrant buchu, numerous colourful daisies and bell-flowered erica, but now restios dominated. The number of delicate orchids and species we’d never seen before was a delight, so it was no surprise to read that some 1 080 plant species, including 14 endemics, have been recorded in this diverse reserve, a hotspot of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.
There was one final climb to the summit of Rooihoogte where we again rested awhile, reluctant to leave the beautiful reserve. In the distance we could see Cape Point and the Erica hut that we’d visited the night before. As we contemplated the return to our everyday lives they seemed very far away. Our two-day trail had been a wonderfully revitalising break that thankfully had felt much longer.
- Although it’s not particularly mountainous or long, don’t underestimate the trail. The path is undulating and often rugged underfoot, and a stout pair of boots and a good level of fitness are recommended.
Best Time to Visit
- It’s a beautiful trail at any time of year (although winters can be wet and cold) but possibly is at its finest in spring when the plains are covered in a mass of colourful blooms.
- Whales are often sighted between July and December. There are marked whale-watching viewpoints with information boards to aid identification of the mammals.
- Although it’s tempting to collapse when you reach the overnight hut, try to summon the energy to continue on to visit the lighthouses at Cape Point. Allow two to three hours for the round trip.
What to Take?
- Be prepared for all weather. No matter the forecast or the weather when you set out, pack warm and waterproof clothing, as well as a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm in your day bag. A backpack cover is also useful, particularly in winter.
- Don’t forget your Wild Card or Green Card if you have one, otherwise you will have to pay a conservation fee at the gate. Pack binoculars, flora/fauna field guides and Slingsby’s Map of Cape Point to enhance the visit.
- Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail: 021 780 9204, [email protected], www.tmnp.co.za
- For guided hikes, Dominic Chadbon (The Fynbos Guy, 072 992 5636, www.thefynbosguy.com)
or Frank Dwyer (Platteklip Tours and Trails, 082 882 4388, www.plattekliptours.co.za) to learn more about the unique flora and the history of the reserve.
- Linger longer by spending a night before or after the trail at the Smitswinkel tented camp just outside the reserve entrance. 021 712 7471, www.sanparks.co.za