A wonderful hiking experience through the Walker Bay Conservancy is magnificent at any time of year, but the fynbos is particularly fine in spring…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Sean Privett
“This delicate little yellow Iris is commonly known as ‘hottentotsbrood’ (Moraea fugax), so named because its bulbs were a favoured food of the early inhabitants of the Cape. Today they are occasionally eaten by people as a curiosity, but they remain a favourite food of molerats, baboons and porcupines.” Sean Privett, conservation director at Grootbos Nature Reserve, overlooking Walker Bay and Hermanus, and the developer of the Fynbos Trail, was in his element – all along the path were beautiful spring flowers.
The most conspicuous were great clumps of silver edge pincushion (Leucospermum pattersonii) but it was the little beauties that Sean was seeking out. He drew our attention to the distinctive ‘little painted lady’ (Gladiolus debilis), then, as we entered the forest, the yellow and white ‘fairy bells’ (Melasphaerula ramos). “You’re here at one of the best times of year,” he assured us.
While there are fynbos species in flower for most of the year, the treats of spring include annuals such as colourful sandvygies (Dorotheanthus bellidiformis), the prolific blue daisy-like Felicia amoena and the bright orange botterblom (Gazania pectinata) which one associates with the great fields of spring flowers on the West Coast and Namaqualand, as well as some great looking shrubs like the Cape strawflower (Phoenocoma prolifera), a brilliant pink everlasting. “Now this is a special plant,” said Sean getting down on his haunches. “It looks a bit like the ‘little painted lady’ with its white flowers and red spots, but Gladiolus variegatus is only found on limestone outcrops near the coast between Grootbos and Cape Agulhas, and is now classified as ‘vulnerable’ due to the threat of coastal housing development and alien vegetation on its habitat.”
As we quickly learnt, this three-day slackpacking trail is a true voyage of discovery. Our passionate, expert guide was constantly pointing out the various endemics and rare species and explaining the role the various birds, ants and other propagators play in the ecosystem. More than 800 fynbos species have been identified along the route and, no matter what time of year you walk, there’s always something in bloom. As you go you learn about the remarkable diversity and fascinating ecology of the proteas, ericas, reeds and wonderful bulbs, and gain an understanding of their preferred habitats and their ‘tricks’. I was to entertain (I prefer to think that I entertained rather than bored) dinner companions with my newfound knowledge for weeks afterwards; how the rooistompie, or common pagoda (Mimetes cucullatus), for example, does not waste energy on producing flower petals, rather its upper leaves change colour to attract bird pollinators, and how the leaves of the rooi trewwa (Satyrium carneum) encircle the stem and often fill up with water forming a moat around the flower that effectively prevents ants and other nectar thieves from reaching the flower. Very cool!
Vegetation studies on the reserve have recorded six plant species that are new to science. The hills were pink with a species found only on these slopes, the spectacular Erica irregularis, and Sean took us to a rocky outcrop where he’d spotted Aloe juddii, found here and nowhere else in the world. It was exciting stuff. There are swimming opportunities in the dams and pools on each day, and the views of Walker Bay, across to Dyer Island and over the rolling hills are stunning. But it’s not just the natural beauty that makes this trail so special.
The Fynbos Trail is as much about the amazing people and stories of this fascinating region: how European settlers came to settle the farms through which you hike, how modern man has thrived along this fertile coastline, and the wonderful work that Grootbos Nature Reserve and Flower Valley Conservation Trust are doing to conserve the environment and support local communities. By hiking the trail you contribute directly towards the conservation and social development work of the partners within the conservancy. Funds generated by the trail are reinvested in clearing alien vegetation, managing fire and documenting and monitoring flora and fauna within the conservancy.
The trail starts at Growing the Future Sustainable Agriculture and Life Skills College on Grootbos Nature Reserve. Growing the Future is all about food production and each year eight women are enrolled for training in the growing of vegetables and fruit, beekeeping and the principles of successful animal husbandry. A tour of the project is one of the highlights of the trail. The trainees proudly display their gardens, introduce you to the pigs and piglets, then pick some of the fresh leaves and gather eggs for your lunch. In fact the majority of fresh produce enjoyed along the trail is sourced from the project.
From Growing the Future the trail leads through coastal strandveld into the Steynsbos Milkwood forest, one of only eight milkwood forests of its type in the world, all of which are found in the Stanford-Gansbaai area. An island surrounded by fynbos, this small patch of forest contains trees that are many hundreds, if not thousands, of years old and is refuge for a number of animals and birds not commonly seen in the fynbos. Thirty-four bird species, including African Olive-Pigeon (Rameron Pigeon), Cape Batis, African Paradise-Flycatcher and Forest Buzzard have been sighted as well as a variety of mammals including bushbuck, porcupine, honey badger and mongoose.
The first night is at the very comfortable Fynbos Retreat, also on Grootbos Nature Reserve, then on day two you hike down through a beautiful valley – characterised by an extraordinary mosaic of fynbos – into the lush, green Witwoetskloof Forest. This is a different world to the open veld above. You walk on boardwalks and over bridges under the canopy of magnificent ancient trees such as white stinkwood, wild olive, rooiels and assegai that line the river to a waterfall where, if you’re feeling brave, you can enjoy a natural shower.
A steep climb out of the valley takes you onto the limestone hills of the Agulhas Plain. The fynbos here is very uncommon so it’s a real privilege to encounter some of the rare endemic species. The path then winds up the slopes of Grootberg (which the energetic can summit) and down into Flower Valley, where wild fynbos is harvested for making bouquets for the local and export market. The afromontane Stinkhoutsbos Forest on the property was badly damaged by the huge fire that swept through the region in 2006, and, as part of the restoration work being undertaken at Flower Valley, each hiker is given an opportunity to plant an indigenous tree grown at the Green Futures Horticulture and Life Skills project.
After a night at Bodhi Kaya Retreat the trail ends with a short walk through more indigenous forest and fynbos-clad hills to the upmarket and superbly located Grootbos Garden Lodge, where you celebrate the end of the trail with a leisurely lunch and a tour of the indigenous nursery.
To really appreciate the trail I’d strongly recommended the slackpacking version on which you’re treated to great local cuisine, expert guiding and wonderful hospitality (as well as a gift of an indigenous plant and a beautiful field guide to the flora of the region). But there’s also a very affordable, unguided and self-catering option which utilises the same secluded accommodation.
Up to it?
The Fynbos Trail is not an endurance event, rather it’s an opportunity to slow down and smell the flowers. This is a leisurely trail that will suit hikers of all ages and experience. There are a few steep hills, but if you take it slowly they are perfectly manageable.