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Hiking the Simonsberg mountain

Hiking the Simonsberg mountain

“We’ve come to climb your mountain,” Bob Baigrie announces to the waitress as he points to Simonsberg, our mountain backdrop. “Coffee or tea?” she responds, smiling indulgently.

Towering over the Stellenbosch Winelands in the way Table Mountain does Cape Town, Simonsberg is an iconic mountain I’ve had my eye on for a while. Every time I go for a tasting at one of the many wine farms on its slopes, it beckons me. Named, like Stellenbosch, after Simon van der Stel, the first Dutch Governor of the Cape Colony, it is the local peak to climb.

After a drive to the top of Helshoogte Pass (the divide between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek), my husband Matthew and I have joined Bob and another keen mountaineer, Richmond MacIntyre, at the Tokara Delicatessen, for a pre-climb caffeine fix.

“How are you doing?” Matthew asks the sexagenarian morosely, eyeing Richmond’s new walking poles. Two months after
a complete hip replacement, having broken his femur in a collision with a buck while mountain biking, Richmond reveals that he is still in rehabilitation. “Is the duiker okay?” I ask him. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he assures me, looking somewhat nonplussed. “But I now hike with sticks.”

Matthew, who is nursing a bad knee, sympathises. “Yes, it’s disappointing that our ascents now feature in COUNTRY LIFE and not climbing journals.” Both men climbed Everest and the Seven Continental Summits many moons ago, when they still had more cartilage than metal plates.

Bob, too, has been off games for most of the past year, having suffered a number of hapless injuries, including falling into his swimming pool. We look and sound like geriatrics. The waitress has a point.

From the deli we walk down to Tokara’s farm gate and sign the register. There’s no fee to climb the peak, one of several trails in the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy, but hikers must start before 11 am and be down by 4 pm. And they’ll only let you climb if you can see the summit – a test of the weather, rather than your eyesight.

A couple of hours up and down?

Hikers set to climb SImonsberg Mountain

Three climbers: (From L to R) Bob Baigrie, Fiona McIntosh and Richmond MacIntyre.

“Just follow the road up to the dam,” the gate guard explains, pointing out the route. “At the signboard take the small path off to the left. Once you’re on the route you can’t get lost. Just follow the cairns.”

Richmond looks at the peak with his usual disdain, “What do you think? A couple of hours up and down?” Matthew, who has organised the outing with his customary attention to detail, replies, “No idea how far it is or how long it will take. But we  need to be down for a tasting at Simonsig Wine Estate, which probably closes at 5 pm.”  (For the record, the trail is 8.45 kilometres return and Simonsig closes at 3.30 pm on Saturdays.)

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The first half-hour is a sustained climb past Tokara’s orderly vineyards to a dam fringed by dazzling, purple Watsonia borbonica. The charred skeletons of proteas on the lower slopes speak of the devastating fires that engulfed the peak in January 2016, but the fynbos has recovered well and the spring bulbs are magnificent.

We pass the sign and follow the rough, narrow path up through head-high vegetation, dominated by yellow flowers. “Grab the flower book from my pack, will you,” commands Bob. After five minutes of walking behind him, as he tries, unsuccessfully, to juggle his book, phone and heavy, wooden walking stick, Matthew loses patience and suggests that we botanise on the descent. But our learned doctor friend is not to be bullied. “Go on, Matthew,” he insists, stepping aside. “Just like my golf. I’m constantly letting people through.”

Scrambling with both hands

Scrambling up Simonsberg mountain

Twenty minutes of climbing takes us out onto the open flanks of the mountain, where we stop to take in the views over patchwork vineyards, fields and dams and on to the town of Stellenbosch. The trail zigzags up through big stands of sugarbush and leggy blombos (Metalasia muricata) to the base of an eroded, overhang of sandstone, which we follow around until a natural break in the cliff offers a safe passage. At this point, Bob’s phone and flower book are safely stowed. A few minutes later he jettisons his stick too. The scramble is easier with both hands.

Once back on easier ground we look up to see Richmond disappearing into the distance up the Simonsberg mountain. Unabashed, Bob continues with my flower lesson, albeit at a pace. “Look at those gorgeous Pelargonium myrrhifolium. And that yellow flower is bietou, or common tick berry. Lots of it around at the moment.”

Bob says that, for several years, he’s been walking with his friend Dirk Muller, former chairman of the Kirstenbosch Branch of the Botanical Society, and one of the country’s fynbos experts. “Dirk has many acolytes, but apparently I’m his best student because I do my homework.” Bob explains that this involves ticking off all his sightings in his flower book, annotating and sharing his photos, and “dutifully studying the book in bed every night”. Surprisingly, he’s
still married.

As a medic, his formidable grasp of scientific names is perhaps not surprising, but his learning methods are baffling for laymen. “I use mnemonics,” he tells me. “This is Cyclops, a member of the pea family, Cyclopia genistoides or common honeybush. And my memory jogger for this little conebush is the court composer who did in his genius rival Amadeus Mozart. What was his name?”

“Salieri,” prompts Matthew. “Yes, yes, that’s it,” agrees Bob, “Leucadendron salignum, commonly known as geelbos.”

Botanical mnemonics

Fynbos botany is an important skill on the hike.

And so it goes on, Bob reciting scientific names like a schoolkid learning his tables as I try to keep him moving upwards.
“Rote learning is key,” he insists, pointing out the ball-shaped flowers of Brunia noduliflora, red and white bouquets of Crassula fascicularis, and the spiky, purple-flowered Muraltia heisteria.

The path becomes increasingly rocky and loose, but slowly and carefully we pick our way up. The grey morning has given way to blue skies and, while Bob identifies the porcelain-like petals of China flowers, (Adenandra uniflora), the sticky snotrosie or rose-flowered sundews (Drosera cistiflora) and the beautiful pink flowers of Erica nudiflora, I study the dramatic profile of the peak. Butterflies dance around us and colourful sunbirds probe for nectar. Only minutes from Stellenbosch, I feel deep in the wilderness.

A gently sloping traverse brings us to a steep, loose gully, the crux of the route. Alternating between banks of the deep channel, we navigate our way up, trying not to dislodge rocks onto each other. Twenty minutes later we are suddenly on top, where Richmond is sprawled out on the warm rocks. I suspect he’s been having a nap, though he’ll never admit it.
“Hour and a half up. Fine little peak,” he announces, tucking into his sandwiches.

We linger on the 1 390-metre summit, taking in the grand, 360-degree views from the Simonsberg mountain, identifying other notable peaks that include Bothmaskop on the other side of the pass and, in the distance, Helderberg Dome. On the summit, we inspect the beacon, and the wooden cross that commemorates the life of a Stellenbosch student, and then start down. It’s wine time.

A top with a view

The magnificent views from the top of the Simonsberg mountain

The descent from the Simonsberg mountain, through the eroded gully, is a lot trickier than the ascent, and needs concentration, slowing even Richmond to a mortal’s pace. This is not a trail for the faint-hearted. As Bob and I slide down the rock steps and tiptoe delicately over loose boulders, all the while debating big issues like whether the mass of closely-knit white flowers is confetti bush (Coleonema album) or fragrant wild buchu (Diosma hirsuta), Richmond and Matthew pound down the Simonsberg mountain, trekking poles flailing.

We regroup at the dam, regretting that we haven’t brought a picnic, before strolling back to the main gate. The round trip has taken five hours, one of which, according to Richmond, has been spent “criminally idle”. Mission complete, he heads home to Hermanus, while the rest of us drive around the mountain to Simonsig Wine Estate, where Bob’s wife, Carolyn, has the bubbles on ice and the oysters shucked.

“We’ve just climbed that mountain,” announces Bob proudly to the waitress, pointing at the peak. She looks him up and down, then at the six cases of wine we’ve just bought, and smiles indulgently.

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