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King of the hill in Mont Rochelle

King of the hill in Mont Rochelle

It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the top of DuToitskop on the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve. The 360-degree view from its summit is one I never tire of. Gazing out over the Franschhoek Valley and Cape Fold Mountains, we could see all the way to Table Mountain. At 1 419 metres, we were 1.2 kilometres higher than town. There, the mercury showed 38 degrees, but the air on the peak was crisp, with a pleasant breeze.

Leopard in the mountains

mont rochelle
We’d hiked up for a late picnic but, when we stopped for photos at the beacon, we realised that the weather was changing. The picnic would have to wait. Hotfooting it along the ridge, we revelled in the contrast between the rugged reserve and the orderly vineyards and orchards below.

Suddenly Theresa Horn, a keen hiking friend from Grabouw, stopped. Three klipspringers stood stock-still in front of us. Earlier on the climb, just after we reached a section of veld that was left grey and charred after a fire three years ago, a pair of the cute, little buck sprang across the path. Hiking regularly in the reserve since the burn, I’ve been amazed at how it has regenerated. The flowering bulbs have been particularly impressive, and on that midsummer day it was the watsonia that were eye-catching.

We dropped down the steep, rocky Manganese Trail to a path junction at the saddle. Thin lines of pitch-black manganite streaked the otherwise grey rock nearby, and diggings near the nek indicated a manganese prospecting site not economically viable.

A short walk to the left led to the Uitkyk viewpoint at the far northern corner of the reserve. “I love the views of the Wemmershoek Dam from the rocky lookout. A moderately strenuous, 6.8-kilometre return hike, Uitkyk is my favourite trail,” ranger Anthony Morgan advised, when we bought our permits at the gate.

“I’ve seen leopard scat there a couple of times,” added his colleague Patrick Mbola. “We know there are leopard in these mountains. The Cape Leopard Trust has photographed the nocturnal creatures with a motion-activated camera along that trail.”

Steep and rocky

Turning right at the saddle, and following the Uitkyk Trail down the western bank of the Perdekloof Stream back to the gate would have been a good round trip, but our plan was to complete a grand circuit of the reserve by continuing to Perdekop, at 1 575 metres the highest point in the reserve. That, however, meant regaining the 300-metres altitude we’d just lost, and some more. “So far the weather’s holding. Let’s go,” I persuaded my companions.

The start of the climb towards Perdekop was steep and rocky. “It would be easy to get lost here if you didn’t know the way,” said Theresa, a sentiment reflected in the reserve’s informative trail brochure, which warns that ‘it is not advisable to do this hike alone or in adverse weather.’

Once the gradient eased, we enjoyed stunning views of the near-vertical cliffs of Wemmershoek Valley. A grey reedbuck, instantly recognisable by its fluffy white tail, bounded up the hill as we strode along an undulating path flanked by striking vygies, big clumps of everlastings and dazzling pink Franschhoek fynbos (Erica ventricosa).

The large stone cairn on Perdekop was lost in the mist by the time we arrived at the turn-off for the return leg of the circuit, 100 metres shy of the summit. After filling our water bottles at the stream we headed down. We’d top out another day.

The descent followed the ridge between the Perdekloof and DuToitsrivier valleys and was steep and loose at times, a challenge for our tired legs. But after an hour we dropped into big stands of protea alive with sugarbirds, and stopped at a waterfall on the far slopes.

A shining example of volunteerism

Mont Rochelle

Don’t forget to sign the summit book on Perdekop, which is buried at the base of the beacon on the side that you approach.

I was encouraged to see that the Theewaterskloof Dam, into which the DuToitsrivier flows, was much fuller than this time last year. Moving at pace, we stopped for a quick dip in the pool at the bridge over the river, and completed our circumnavigation of the peaks with a short, sharp climb back to the service road that leads to the gate.

“As a kid I used to take a rough path from this house down to the river and then up over the nek to Donkerkloof. In the river below we’d swim in a big, long pool that was destroyed in a deluge in 1954,” Abe Lambrechts explained, when we returned to the reserve the following weekend. “In 1911, when my great-great-grandfather, Jacobus Petrus Kriel de Villiers was mayor of Franschhoek, the authorities declared a small township on the mountain area, and named it Mont Rochelle. Part of the Greater Paarl Municipality, it was administered by Franschhoek at the time.

“In 1911, after erven were auctioned to fund the building of a freshwater reservoir for Franschhoek, and the sports grounds for Franschhoek High School, JPK de Villiers built the first house on Mont Rochelle. My grandfather, AJ Lambrechts, principal of Franschhoek High School and later mayor of the town, built the second house in 1919.”

The property has passed down generations and is now much loved and used by Abe and his wife Rosanna Lambrechts, secretary to the Mont Rochelle Advisory Board. In 1982, Abe’s father, Professor Jacobus de Villiers Lambrechts succeeded in having Mont Rochelle declared a nature reserve, and initiated the massive task of alien clearance. Standing on the deck of the Lambrechts’ house, it’s hard to imagine these fynbos slopes covered in pines, wattle and hakea.

“The reserve is owned by the municipality, but an advisory board, currently consisting of seven members, including Abe and me, handles the management of the reserve in conjunction with CapeNature,” Rosanna explained, introducing me to two other board members Natie Ferreira and Richard von Hoesslin. “Mont Rochelle is a shining example of volunteerism,” said Natie.

Fundis on the flowers

Mont Rochelle
Realising the pristine reserve’s potential for outdoor relaxation has been a major focus. “My grandfather was an avid climber,” Abe recalls. “He would follow animal paths and bundu-bash to the top of the peaks and to the pools. When the reserve was declared, my father tried to develop a formal trail network to the most accessible and popular spots – DuToitskop and Uitkyk.” The extensive trail network now consists of ten marked trails.

Richard, an agriculturist and founder member of the Franschhoek Tourism Association, has witnessed the development of Mont Rochelle during his 22 years as an advisory board member. “The trails have been upgraded, improved and extended,” he confirmed. “An official entrance has been defined, rangers have been trained and more and more people are making use of this special mountain reserve.”

The summer-flowering mitre aloes (Aloe perfoliata) were in full bloom on one of the newest trails, the Aalwynkop route, Natie informed us. Joined unexpectedly by Mont Rochelle board chairman Siegfried Schäfer, who arrived straight from a town council meeting in his city suit, we headed out on the short circular route from the main gate.

On the ramble, each of the board members offered fascinating insight into the geology, history, flora and fauna of the reserve and the surrounding area. Siegfried, a field guide and amateur historian who, among other things, publishes the Franschhoek Tatler, grew up in Franschhoek, and also used to explore these mountains as a youngster.

As farm manager of the bordering Fransche Hoek Estate, Natie is the closest member of the advisory board to the reserve. Thanks to a servitude through the estate, hikers can access the trailhead for the Cats se Pad trail, an historical footpath (from 1818 to 1822 was the wagon route over the pass) that links the reserve to town.

He and Siegfried are fundis on the flowers, and we were treated to quite the botanical tour. Pointing out a circular furrow around a blue sceptre iris (Aristea capitata), Natie explained how the long, tough leaf scours out depressions in the hard rocky ground as it blows in the wind.

Descending through the vinyards

Mont rochelle
After studying the bright red aloes on the rocky koppie we circled back through stands of common sugarbush, admiring a patch of indigenous forest in a kloof opposite. There are 15 species of tree listed on the reserve,

I learned from the list that Rosanna gave me but, in 20 years of hiking here, I’d barely noticed them, my eyes generally focused on the exquisite spring and summer orchids and the conspicuous moraea, king protea, sugarbushes, pincushions and conebushes.

Each hike was rewarded by seasonal surprises – all manner of ericas, carpets of daisies and, particularly in the last couple of years, bulbs such as little painted ladies (Gladiolus debilis) and lapmuis (Gladiolus hirsutus) that have blossomed after the fire.

Bidding the reserve and its custodians farewell, we followed the Winelands Trail down to Cats se Pad and back to town. A pair of Verreaux’s Eagles and a hang-glider soared silently overhead. “We hikers don’t see much game, but the pilots report lots of sightings of buck and baboons,” Rosanna told me. I envied them their bird’s-eye view.

Descending through the rows of vineyards and houses of the Fransche Hoek Estate, we returned to the very different world of Franschhoek’s arty shops, galleries, restaurants and tasting rooms. As we celebrated our adventure with brunch, I gazed back at the high peaks we’d climbed, and doffed my hat to the passionate team that maintains this little-known gem.

If you’re heading out to the winelands, pack your walking shoes. Hiking in the Mont Rochelle is an uplifting experience, and you’ll feel less guilty about overindulging in the delights of Franschhoek if you’ve burnt off a few calories.

Photos by Shaen Adey

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