Love me, love my dog… Most Cape reserves are owned by CapeNature so dogs are verboten. But with a bit of scratching around you can find some spectacular pet-friendly hikes.
One of the best pet-friendly hikes in the Cape is on the Silwerfontein Hiking Trail, near Tulbagh. The farm in the Voëlvlei Nature Conservancy enjoys scenery very similar to that of Grootwinterhoek and the southern Cederberg, but is much more accessible and only an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
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What to look forward to
As you drive in towards the Cape Dutch homestead that serves as reception, the 815m peak of Ontongskop dominates the view. Summiting the craggy mountain looks daunting, and it’s a stiff hike that shouldn’t be underestimated. But if you’re strong and fit, the wonderful fynbos, and the amazing views of the Witzenberg, Tulbagh Valley and the Voëlvlei Dam make it all worthwhile.
Most hikers plan a weekend of it, spending the first night in the converted double-decker bus that serves as the base camp, and the second in Ontongs Cave, a deep, well-protected shelter near the top of the mountain. But since there’s no water at the cave, doing the hike over two days means slogging up with a heavy load, so we opted to complete the full 15-kilometre hike in a day.
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Now I have to admit that I don’t own a dog but, by chance, arrived at the same time as a gorgeous German shepherd, India, and a bouncy Border collie-cross, Stan.
Oh, and Chris, their owner. As we walked I began to understand the challenges dog owners face and since then I’ve been on the lookout for pet-friendly establishments.
Initially, the trail leads through pine and blue gum forest before you head steeply up fynbos-covered slopes on a well-marked path. About an hour into the climb you come to a kloof with perennial water. Fill up your bottles and cool off here as it’s unlikely there’ll be water again on the trail.
Up and up you go, zigzagging through the fynbos until you contour past some wonderful rock formations and overhangs to find a saddle from where you can enjoy looking into the valley on the other side. The next section of the trail, initially along a ridge, is magnificent. It has plenty of rock platforms where you can stop for tea and take in wonderful views over the Voëlvlei Dam, and the dramatic Kasteelberg peaks that rise from the coastal plain. The gradient eases for a while and the views get better and better as you follow a sandy path across a rock-strewn plateau through typical Cederberg-type eroded granite boulders and seasonal wild flowers. The watsonia were dazzling on our spring outing, and apparently the king protea is magnificent in late summer.
The path winds through rocky outcrops before the final steep ascent to Ontongkskop. The overnight cave is at the six kilometre mark in the rock band just below the summit – about four hours’ hiking if you’re carrying an overnight pack, or under three hours with a daypack. Don’t expect a Maloti-style spacious overhang. Ontongs Cave is small but protected from the elements, and has a fun passage at the back should you feel like exploring.
After a short break in the shade, during which the ever-attentive Chris fed and watered our delightful companions, we hit the trail again, contouring along the edge of the cliff base down to a road that runs along the northern ridge of the mountain range. This is another glorious stretch of stunning views over the Tulbagh Valley, with magnificent fynbos and colourful butterflies and sugarbirds flitting from plant to plant. Keep your eyes peeled and you might even glimpse klipspringer on a rocky outcrop. After taking you to the summit of Con Peak – from where there’s a spectacular 360° view to Kasteelberg, the Tulbagh Valley, Witzenberg and the Hex River Mountains – the path doubles back and soon begins to drop steeply down towards the dam and along a contour back to the start.
Hiking with your dog
- Only take well-behaved, socialised dogs on public trails. Keep your dog away from other hikers unless they approach you; many people are afraid of even small dogs and even dog lovers won’t appreciate being bowled over by an over-enthusiastic pooch. And it will be a long hike if dogs get into a fight at the start.
- Stick to the rules and leave no trace. Keep your dog on a leash if required and carry a poop bag.
- Get a short leash for hiking; the extendable leashes are likely to get tangled in the brush.
- Make sure your dog is tagged with your cellphone number.
- Get your dog out for some training before a ‘serious’ hike. And if you want him to carry his own provisions, train him with a doggie pack.
- Carry enough water for both of you, particularly on this hike where there is no water at the overnight spot. A collapsible bowl is a good idea for dispensing water on the trail.
- Ensure your dogs get adequate rest, preferably in the shade if it’s a hot day. This is particularly important if there are other dogs around; they will want to stay with the ‘pack’ and will push themselves to do so.
- Consider your dog when putting together a first aid kit, and include, for example, a clean sock with duct tape to wrap a wounded paw.
- At the end of the hike give your dog a thorough check for ticks, cuts, bites etc, especially on the pads of his feet.
In a Nutshell
- Up to it? This is a strenuous hike on which you need to be totally self-sufficient.
- When to go: Autumn and spring are the best months. Winters can be cold and wet (not fun when sleeping in a cave) and, since there is no shade, the heat of summer can be stifling, particularly for a dog.
- Accommodation: Ontongs Cave is extremely basic, with a longdrop but no water close by. The double-decker bus is also rustic, with a shower, toilet and braai facilities, but if you prefer something more luxurious there are a number of guest cottages near the trailhead.
- Other attractions: Short walks, mountain bike trails and fishing on the farm.
- Wild Hiking with Dogs: Beaverlac, on the Grootfontein Farm, high up in mountains just to the north of Silwerfontein, is a long-time favourite holiday spot for dog owners. There’s a short, 6km trail on the property, which borders the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, but hikers and their dogs are encouraged to wander at will, exploring the kloofs and dramatic rock gardens.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Fiona McIntosh and Chris Murphy