For two months a year, hikers can enjoy the flowers, birds and exquisite scenery on the Steenbok Day Trail in West Coast National Park. Fiona McIntosh takes us along on the trail while Shaen Adey captures each moment.
A faint grunt caught our attention. We looked up to see four Great White Pelicans flying overhead, their huge wings and heavy undercarriage making them all look a bit like Boeings. Shaen and I were on our annual pilgrimage to the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park.
Only open during August and September, this rugged reserve is one of the best and most accessible places in South Africa to see the colourful daisies and other blooms that announce the arrival of spring.
Last year we almost missed the boat, visiting the reserve on 30 September, the final day of the season. And we broke our normal routine of backpacking the beautiful two-day, Postberg Trail in favour of the 13.9-kilometre Steenbok Day Trail. Lugging a heavy pack and then pitching my tent seemed too much of a schlep. And besides, it was still chilly in the Cape. I fear I’m getting soft.
Getting there slowly
As a treat, and to maximise our time in the reserve, we booked into Jo-Anne’s Beach Cottage on the lagoon, for the nights before and after our hike. It’s a two-hour drive from Cape Town to the Postberg section of the reserve, so it would otherwise have meant an early start.
Instead we arrived late afternoon and enjoyed a leisurely drive in, stopping numerous times to allow tortoises to cross the road, and to check out the birds. Ostriches strode out on the dunes, we passed a large herd of eland a mere 20 metres from the tar and, as we turned off the main park road down to the cottage, we saw a Cape grey mongoose scoot into the bush. The 18-kilometre drive from the park gate took us nearly two hours.
Rise and shine
In the morning we rose before dawn and wandered down for coffee at the water’s edge, where long-legged plovers and sandpipers waded through the shallows. From the park brochure I learnt that the West Coast National Park is home to more than 250 bird species, more than a quarter of South Africa’s total.
We wanted to be at the Postberg gate when it opened at 9am so, after breakfast, took a slow drive along the ridge, enjoying the views of the Atlantic Ocean on the left, and the shimmering Langebaan Lagoon to our right. Yellow-billed Kites soared overhead and an owl watched us closely from its perch on a signboard near the Tsaarsbank parking area. Visiting the West Coast National Park is always good for the soul.
After checking in with the ranger, we followed the trail as it meandered east from the gate across flat veld dotted with granite boulders. Along the way we encountered even more tortoises and it seemed that the Skilpad Trail would have been an appropriate name.
Covered by waist-high stinkkruid (Oncosiphon suffruticosum), the veld was a brilliant yellow, a spectacular floral display. But where were the daisies, we wondered. There were patches of colour to be sure, but nothing like the multi-hued carpets that usually covered the plains. And many of the daisies we did see were past their best.
We soon caught up with some other hikers (Dr Carel Muller, Johan Coetsee, his wife Santie and her 10-year-old son Francois), who were from Somerset West and regular visitors to the park. They agreed with our observations – these vistas of last year were very different to those they had experienced the season before.
“The severe drought clearly impacted on the flowers,” Johan said. “When I hiked here for the first time in 2005, there had been a lot of rain in the Cape and the park was very colourful. But it’s still beautiful this year. What makes the hikes special is that the reserve is open only two months a year so the trails are pristine. In ‘normal’ years, when it’s not so dry and the vegetation is thicker, there are almost no human tracks.”
We chuckled. Perhaps the absence of daisies might encourage us to raise our eyes from the ground and focus on the spectacular scenery and the less conspicuous species of the park.
We began to climb, enjoying the ever-changing views of the mountain, lagoon and ocean. We stopped several times to pick out familiar landmarks – the houseboats in the turquoise waters of Kraalbaai, the quaint, privately owned cottages of Churchhaven and, on the other side of the lagoon, the town of Langebaan.
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Continuing up, we followed red and white poles topped with a steenbok image along an undulating path, taking in the space, the bright flashes of striking red pelargoniums, and delicate wit bobbejaantjies (Babiana tubiflora) sprouting from cracks in the granite. As the gradient decreased we encountered a couple of German visitors who had their binocs trained on a lovely Southern Double-collared Sunbird.
They’d just returned from a trip to Namaqualand. “The spring flowers there were disappointing,” they told us. “We were hoping to be lucky here but there aren’t many daisies. Still, the birds are lovely.” They’d already ticked Malachite Sunbird, Cape Bulbul, Bokmakierie, Cape Weaver, Brimstone Canary, Black-shouldered Kite, Rock Kestrel and Cattle Egret off their lists, and after discovering that Schaapen Island, which we could see in the lagoon, was home to the largest-known colony of Kelp Gulls in Southern Africa, they were planning to kayak there the following day.
The trail headed north as we skirted Konstabelkop, the sight of a cute red steenbok, the trail’s namesake, stopping us in our tracks. We had even closer sightings of game as we walked up the edge of a wide plain − great herds of Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, red hartebeest and eland seemed unperturbed by our presence.
Then came the climb towards Vingerklippe, a collection of granite, finger-like spires that jutted into the sky. Stopping for a break, we watched a Black Harrier hovering as it searched for prey and picked up the scent of dassies, and the whiff, or should I say stench, of guano and seals. The latter were in full cry, some barking, others crying like babes or laughing like clowns.
After a short section on the road, it was back onto a footpath that took us down towards the coast. Here we encountered two young French women, city dwellers thrilled with the expansive wilderness and the sightings on their meander. As we stood chatting, a small herd of bontebok trotted past. It seemed just reward for the enthusiasm of the international visitors.
Crossing the dune ridge, we saw the white sands of Plankiesbaai, where we stopped for lunch on Stony Head, a headland overlooking a magnificent beach. The water was so inviting I stripped off, intending to swim. But the waves were crashing and there was a strong rip tide so I settled for dipping my toes in the chilly Atlantic Ocean, before following the braai aromas along the coastline to the Plankiesbaai picnic area.
A sandy path lined with brave little vygies took us into an area out of bounds to all but hikers on the Steenbok Day Trail and Postberg Overnight Trail. After encountering other visitors at Plankiesbaai, it felt good to be on our own again.
We were taken on a big loop inland to avoid intruding on a cluster of private houses at Kreeftebaai, then back through a gate into the main part of the reserve. This section is one of my favourite coastal strolls, with a sheltered bay in which to swim and the opportunity, at low tide, to visit the vegetated, rocky outcrop of Klein Eiland.
The tide was not in our favour so we scoured the beach like Strandlopers, noting the outsized mussel shells, shark-egg cases, kelp and other marine detritus, and setting up great flocks of Kelp Gulls, seagulls and terns. Even more of a treat was spying on numerous African Black Oystercatchers and, in the distance, a whale blowing out at sea.
All five of South Africa’s cormorant species are found in the park and through our binocs we studied them and the penguins that have taken refuge in the elevated breeding platforms and derelict buildings of Vondeling Island, some two kilometres off shore. Then came the final walk along the beach to the Tsaarsbank picnic area, and on a short gravel road back to the car.
The beauty of staying in the park was that we were under no pressure to make it back to the gate by closing time, so we drove back to the picnic area and sat there on the rocks overlooking the long, deserted stretch of 16 Mile Beach.
The day-trippers had left, the picnic sites were deserted and we had the reserve almost to ourselves. It had been a perfect hike and, on reflection, the amount we’d seen more than compensated for what we initially thought was a paucity of flowers.
While the eye-catching panorama of vibrant daisies is the quintessential image of the West Coast in flower season, it’s also incredibly distracting. Whatever Mother Nature throws up in the way of floral displays, this is a fabulous hike. One to add to your bucket list.
Up to it?
- The first half of the day trail is moderately strenuous with a couple of steep climbs, so you’ll enjoy it more if you’re reasonably fit.
- It can be quite difficult underfoot at times − wear boots or takkies with a good grip.
When to go
- The trail is only open during August and September. During these months the Postberg section hours are 9am to 5pm.
- Mid-August to mid-September is generally the best time for flowers.
- Try to be at the Postberg section of the park when the gate opens at 9am. Although the trail is only 13.9km long there is so much to see and photograph that the loop can easily take the full day.
- Pack a picnic. Water is only available at the Tsaarsbank gate and Plankiesbaai picnic site.
- Bookings open from 1 June.
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Photography Shaen Adey