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Cape of good times

Words: Sam Bradley. Photos: Various photographers. Article from the Do It Now Online Magazine June 2015.

Travel
Capetonians are often accused of being arrogant or blase about the idyllic paradise they call home. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but the fact that the entire province is one of exceeding natural beauty is indisputable.

This article explores some of the most scenic national parks in the Western Cape, which should form part of every person’s bucket list and be explored as soon as possible.

Table Mountain

Most nature reserves and game parks involve a fair amount of organising, travelling and effort to get there. Table Mountain National Park is slightly different, as this iconic landmark towers over the entire city of Cape Town and is easily accessible to all. Not many cities can boast being built around a national park and that is exactly what Table Mountain is: a 1,088-metre tall, 25,000 hectares park that sets Cape Town apart from the rest of the world.

Originally named ‘Mountain in the Sea’ by the indigenous Khoisan people, Table Mountain now welcomes over four-million visitors a year. The park is famous for its natural flora, boasting over 8,200 plant species (mainlyfynbos, which appear nowhere else in the world).

To give Capetonians credit, they do make full use of this natural wonder on their doorstep. On any given day, providing the Cape doctor wind and famously fickle weather are not spoiling the mood, there will be plenty of hikers, joggers and walkers out and about enjoying the scenery. There are plenty of ways to get to the top of the mountain; from the city side (Platteklip Gorge is a steep three-hour hike), the Atlantic side (Kasteelspoort or Pipe Track) or the south side of the mountain (Smuts Track and Bridle Path are two of the more gradual ascents). Less energetic visitors who still want to see the views can also catch the cable car to the top.

From the top, the views fully justify the long, hard slog. Off to one side the Twelve Apostles disappear into the distance, while sprawled across the view lies the beautiful waterfront area, as well as Lions Head and Signal Hill. Out to sea is the historically significant Robben Island and on the far side is Devil’s Peak.

Regarding the interesting name, legend has it that a Dutch pirate named Van Hunks once challenged the devil to a pipe smoking contest, which is still unresolved and therefore results in a steady stream of clouds pouring over the peak during the summer months.

De Hoop

For those who enjoy waking up in a new and different location, De Hoop Nature Reserve should be on the radar. Situated three hours from Cape Town (far enough to get that road-trip feeling but short enough for a weekend away), the reserve makes a great escape for anyone looking for a relaxing break.

De Hoop Nature Reserve is spread over 36,000 hectares and forms part of a World Heritage Site, as well as a Marine Protected Area. The area is particularly good for whale spotting, with 70 km of beautiful coastline and up to 300 southern right whales using the area as a breeding ground from June to December. De Hoop also has many mammals (86 species, including a few leopards), birds (260 species found so far and counting) and fynbos(about 1,500 species). The De Hoop wetland, spread over roughly 17 km, is a great place for seeing aquatic birds, such as pelicans and flamingos.

De Hoop Nature Reserve boasts one of the first private/public partnerships in the hospitality industry in South Africa, with the De Hoop Collection responsible for the accommodation and many of the activities. Accommodation options include fisherman-style cottages, beautiful manor houses, rustic rondawels and luxurious single room suites, all well furnished and offering scenic views over the reserve. Most of the accommodation facilities are self-catering, although the manor house includes meals in the rates (for those not inclined to cook, the Fig Tree Restaurant serves three meals a day as well as picnic hampers).

There are numerous activities to choose from, so those picnic hampers could come in handy sooner than expected. The early morning guided bird walks are a great way to learn about the reserves’ feathered animals, while the interpretive marine walk (lasts about two hours) is an especially good idea during whale season. There are also guided mountain bike trails, boat cruises and eco-quad bike trails, which offer great ways to see the flora and fauna of the park.

Last but not least (and just to make you truly appreciate curling up in your comfortable bed at night), stargazing and star identification takes place in the early evenings. This activity is always more worthwhile when out in the countryside and with a clear sky unobstructed by city lights.

The De Hoop Collection also makes sure that the calendar is full with exciting events, such as Easter egg hunts, birding workshops and yoga retreats.

Tsitsikamma

Continuing further up the coast of South Africa is a reserve like no other, the Garden Route National Park. The reasons for the area’s popularity soon becomes obvious to visitors: the park boasts sparkling blue oceans and lush green forests, along with a moderate, all-year round climate and plenty of adventure activities to keep guests thoroughly entertained.

The park is made up of three separate areas that were amalgamated to form the park six years ago. The Tsitsikamma National Park, famously unpronounceable for foreigners and meaning ‘place of much water’ in the Khoisan language, has many claims to fame. It is the oldest Marine National Park in Africa (proclaimed in 1964), it is 30% covered in fynbos and is the third-most visited park in the country. The Wilderness National Park boasts stunning beaches and plenty of indigenous forests, while the third major area making up the park, the Knysna National Lake Area, covers the scenic town of Knysna with all its attractions.

Accommodation options vary greatly, with many choosing to camp or stay in B&Bs at Nature’s Valley or Storms River Mouth. Knysna spent many years as nothing more than a quirky coastal town, but in recent years has shot to prominence with many hotels and restaurants and now boasts a jam-packed calendar with annual events, such as the Oyster Festival and Knysna Marathon. Other accommodation options in the area include the towns of Wilderness, George, Victoria Bay and Sedgefield.

Tourists will need to be at their active best to fully appreciate all the area has to offer. The five-day Otter Trail, one of South Africa’s most scenic and famous hiking trails, weaves its way along about 45 km of the coastline, while there are also a multitude of day trails on offer, such as the Waterfall Trail, Blue Duiker Trail and Lourie Trail.

Nature lovers will also want to visit the descriptively named ‘Big Tree’, an 800-year old, 36-metre whopper of a yellowwood tree that deserves an admiring glance and tip of the cap. Adrenaline junkies can challenge themselves to the Bloukrans Bungee jump, the world’s highest bridge bungee at 216 m, while the less brave will still enjoy a guided bridge walking tour.

West Coast National Park

With the Garden Route receiving all the accolades and attention, the West Coast, also known as ‘the forgotten coast’, has a hidden gem of a getaway spot; the aptly named West Coast National Park. Run by SANParks (South African National Parks), the park is only 120 km from Cape Town and relatively large and isolated at 40,000 hectares. The Langebaan Lagoon is the main draw card to the park, as not only is it home to birds of all shapes, sizes and hues but it also has photogenic islands, marshes and wide-open beaches waiting to be explored.

Visitors looking to unwind and relax will soon realise they have come to the right spot. This is particularly true during the spring months of August and September, as the landscapes explode into a multitude of colourful flowers as far as the eye can see. Known as the West Coast Strandveld and Langebaan Fynbos, the vegetation is unique in that it mostly grows on granite or limestone rocks. Apart from the truly spectacular flowers, the park also hosts mammals such as eland, red hartebeest, Cape grysbok, caracal, honey badgers, mountain zebra and rock hyrax.

So long as visitors are keen to relax and enjoy nature they will find plenty of attractions on offer. The lagoon offers plenty of water sports, such as waterskiing, kayaking, fishing and kitesurfing. Many people make the trip to the park especially for the flowers, which are best viewed in the Postberg section, which is only open during the spring. Other options include game viewing, bird watching or just some good old-fashioned relaxing on the beach at Kraalbaai.

Guests have some interesting and alternative accommodation options to consider. The Duinepos Chalets are previous staff houses that have been converted into self-catering chalets as part of a community-based project, with the advantage being that the chalets are situated inside the West Coast National Park. Jo Anne’s Beach Cottage is a three-bedroom cottage within walking distance of the lagoon, while those wanting to be even closer to the water should consider the Kraalbaai Houseboats. The Larus Houseboat is an eight-sleeper boat that can fit up to 15 people during the day, while the larger Nirvana Houseboat can sleep 14 people on the lower deck and 8 on the upper deck.

 

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