For two months every year the exquisite Postberg section of the West Coast National Park opens its gates to hikers, giving them one of the greatest flower shows on Earth…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey
The big, Mickey Mouse ears gave them away. Five little bat-eared foxes spied us through the swaying grass before scampering off as we stomped down the trail. We’d arrived at the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park to see the spring flowers, and seeing these fluffy-tailed, nocturnal foxes was an unexpected bonus.
The two-day Postberg Wild Flower Trail is only offered during the peak flower season of August and September, and is pure delight. The drive to the start of the trail at Tsaarsbank in the far north of the reserve is a treat in itself. Little daisies lined the R27, straining their faces towards the low sun as we approached the entrance gate. In the park there were even more of them and, despite our early departure from Cape Town to make the advised 09h00 start time, it was late morning before we finally made it to the trail head.
The West Coast National Park, a strip of fynbos-covered plains and dunes flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on the one side and coastal road on the other, is a gem. At its heart is the shimmering Langebaan Lagoon, a Ramsar-listed Wetland of International Importance and a major birding hotspot. The park is also well populated with animals – we stopped several times to let leopard tortoises cross the road and to snap shots of ostriches, gemsbok, springbok and bontebok.
We parked the car at Tsaarsbank and asked the park staff if they’d drop our overnight bags at Plankiesbaai, the overnight camping spot. There’s no formal porterage service, and it really depends on who’s on duty, so be prepared to carry your backpack. But I’ve never been refused this kindness, and it sure beats lugging tents, food and wine on the 15-kilometre first day.
The trail initially crossed colourful veld then became less obvious as we headed up towards our first ‘peak’, Konstabelkop, but white poles and flower signboards kept us on track. From the summit the view was incredible and we sat there taking in the vast turquoise Langebaan Lagoon and the bobbing yachts and houseboats of Kraalbaai, and lazily exploring the rock crevices of the koppie.
Inspired by these great outcrops of weathered, lichen-covered granite, we bounded down the path to a jeep track that took us round the flanks of the Postberg mountain and along the edge of the lagoon. The sun was now high, and the bright pink, orange and purple daisies were dazzling.
The ever-changing views were just as distracting. As we lunched on a flat boulder, we spotted the old Donkergat whaling station and SANDF military base, and could see across to the town of Langebaan on the far side of lagoon. In the foreground was Schaapeneiland. I had a chuckle when I discovered the origins of its name. Apparently in the 1660s, the Dutch used this flat island to kraal sheep traded from Khoi tribes. It was hard to imagine that these little islands once offered sanctuary from lions.
The final section to the overnight spot was simply magical. First we were treated to the rather incongruous sight of ostrich, bontebok and wildebeest surrounded by a multicoloured daisy carpet, then strolled along a section of pristine beach. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Plankiesbaai and located our bags at the parking area.
The bay is exposed to the brunt of winds that whip up the Atlantic coast and can be quite a wild spot, but the weather gods were smiling. We pitched our tents on a grassy site among the rocks near the ablution block and headed to the beach to watch the sunset, before returning to camp for a braai.
This is a basic campsite so come prepared, and with realistic expectations. There are toilets, basins and drinking water at the ablution block, as well as braai grids, wood and washing up stands, but there’s no hot water, showers or any other mod cons so if you’re not into rustic camping you might be in for a shock. But the opportunity to sit out under the stars and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the sea is ample compensation for a night without luxury. The lack of a porterage service meant we had to carry our tents and belongings on the shorter second day of the trail. But we had a clever plan. We followed the coastline past the small settlement of Kreeftebaai to a stile that took us out of the Postberg reserve onto 16 Mile Beach in the main section of the park.
Through our binos we studied the numerous seabirds and old buildings on Vondelingeiland, ‘Foundling Island’ (which takes its name from the young seals that once were abundant there). Numerous prospectors seeking their fortunes exploited this rich source of guano during the Great Guano Rush of the 1940s but the dwellings are abandoned these days – relics of a pre-chemical era.
The bird life was pretty impressive on the beach too. Great flocks of Common Terns and Kelp Gulls flew up as we dumped our bags on the rocks near the parking area and prepared a late breakfast. Then came the sneaky bit. Before continuing along 16 Mile Beach we detoured to stash the overnight bags in the cars then returned to the coast, from where we could see a wreck in the distance. After walking along the beach for about half an hour, we spotted a flag and a sign indicating the turn-off into the dunes – the start of the loop back to the trail head.
But energised by breakfast and our now super-light daypacks, we continued along the beach for another 20 minutes to the wreckage of the Pantelis A. Lemos, which we’d had in our sights for most of the morning. In 1978, the captain of the bulk carrier mistook South Head for North Head while approaching Saldanha Bay and ran her aground.
Turning around at the wreck, we joined the seabirds rummaging in the tidal debris and found shark eggs, huge mussel shells and beached bluebottles, before reluctantly heading back through the dunes to the cars. But there were still treats to come: first we stumbled on a nest of discarded ostrich eggs, then our flower fundi pointed out the long, thin, twisted leaves and club-shaped berry of the kukumakranka (Gethyllis species). Apparently the ripe fleshy fruits of this Sandveld special are gathered to make kukumakranka brandy – an experiment perhaps for another day.
It was a quick walk back to the gate of the colourful reserve we’d hiked the previous day, but before we started the journey home we drove down to 16 Mile Beach for a celebratory cup of tea.
The sea was calm, the sky a brilliant blue and the crystals sparkling in the dramatic granite boulders. If we weren’t wearing down jackets we could have been in the Seychelles. But I’m not sure I’d trade places. Those lovely tropical islands can’t beat the West Coast for flowers.
Hike and Bike in the Flowers
As every floral fundi will tell you, the riotous explosion of colour that has us reaching for our cameras in flower season is actually produced by a few common daisy species that have colonised disturbed ground. So while the incredible floral carpets of Namaqualand and the West Coast will always be popular, it’s worth looking beyond these eye-catching displays and seeking out the delicate orchids, lilies, vygies, pincushions, conebushes and swathes of pretty ericas that light up the veld and the fynbos in spring.
Here are some top spots to check out:
1. Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve
One of the hotspots of the Cape Floral Region, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is magnificent year round but is at its most striking in spring. If time is short, or you’re not a great hiker, the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, near Betty’s Bay, encapsulates the diversity and splendour of the reserve’s coastal and mountain fynbos, as well as offering some wild areas to explore.
2. Walker Bay Conservancy
Footpaths and mountain-bike trails allow you to explore the wonderfully diverse mountains, coastal plains and forests of the Walker Bay area. Some 900 species of flowering plants have been recorded in the region, many of which are local and rare. The three-day Fynbos Trail is a great way to learn more about the area’s unique spring flowers and there are all sorts of fun family activities, including mountain-bike races, trail runs, fynbos walks and wine tastings.
3. Biedouw Valley
Deep in the northern Cederberg, the little-visited Biedouw Valley explodes into colour in spring. The ultimate spoil is a stay at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, which offers picnic excursions to the Biedouw Valley during flower season, as well as mountain bike and hiking trails through the flower-studded plains of the reserve. A meander through the lovely Ramskop Nature Reserve or a visit to the annual Wild Flower Show in Clanwilliam, the gateway to the region, is a great alternative if you don’t want to go too far.
So you thought that spring flower displays were restricted to the Namaqualand and the Western Cape? Think again. The display of striking lilies and other dazzlers at Joburg’s Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden will surprise you.
And the Eastern Cape also has its gems, such as this lovely little reserve to the east of Port Elizabeth. Easy hiking and biking trails traverse this charming landscape of flowering ericas and leucadendrons.
Up to it?
You need to be walking fit but this is a straightforward trail that people of all ages can enjoy. And if the going gets tough remember that the whole point of the trail is to go slowly and enjoy the flowers. Both days (15.5km and 11.8km) have some moderately strenuous sections, with some short climbs and sections of sandy beach. Carrying your own overnight gear definitely gives it a strenuous rating, not least because of the degree of self-sufficiency required. Drinking water, toilet facilities and braais are provided at Plankiesbaai, but hikers must bring tents, sleeping bags, stoves, cooking utensils, food etc. There is no water on the trail other than at Tsaarsbank and Plankiesbaai so carry at least two litres.
If that sounds too strenuous consider the 13.9km Steenbok Day Trail, which follows the route of the Postberg Wild Flower trail for much of the way. Again, this trail is only open during the spring flower season and is limited to 20 hikers per day.
The two-day Strandveld Educational Trail, which is open year round, is another good option if you want a leisurely stroll learning about the flora and fauna of the West Coast. The easy, self-guided trail consists of two circular routes starting and finishing at the Geelbek homestead so you can hike each day with only a daypack.
When to go
The trail is only open during August and September. Be warned that in the Cape at this time of year there can still be cold, wet weather.
Bookings: West Coast National Park, 022 707 9902/3, www.sanparks.co.za