Tag Archives: Western Cape

Walking The Walk

The most scenic hike in the world? Article and images as appeared on go2africa.com

by Dominic Chadbon, 9 September 2008

On the face of it, it did seem like a poor proposition: walk up some steep mountains, look at a bunch of plants, and then…er, walk down again. For 5 days.

The mountains in question however were the towering range of twisted sandstones and crunchy granites that run all the way down the Cape Peninsula, starting with Cape Town's familiar flat-topped Table Mountain and ending 5 days later at Cape Point, where the red, wave-battered cliffs plunge precipitously into a frigid, peacock-blue ocean.

And the plants were part of the extraordinary Cape Floral Kingdom, a Portugal-sized sliver of utterly uniquevegetation that stands cheekily alongside such floral heavyweights as the Holarctic and Paleotropical Kingdoms (together comprising 77 percent of the world's land vegetation) and noted not only for its astonishing diversity (9 000 species) but also its endemism (I've seen plants whose range is restricted to a couple of boggy mountaintops).

Put it all together, throw in the mild, sunny days of the Cape's late winter, add an encyclopedia of animals from antelope to zebra and snakes to sugarbirds, and you have the makings of the most incredible coastal hike – and I haven't even got to the views yet.

Oh, I know it's all subjective: the best this and the most that. The chef-turned-celebrity Anthony Bourdain summed it up nicely when searching for the 'perfect meal', admitting that a half-burnt cheeseburger on a Caribbean beach tastes pretty good when you're in the mood for it – it's all about personal experience.

But, standing on a cliff edge surrounded by flowers and jewel-like sunbirds, tracing the line of purple mountains enfolding a bay so blue it seemed painted, it seemed difficult to find a rival walk that is so accessible, with such consistently jaw-dropping scenery and is just so…doable.

The hike falls under the splendidly-pleasing ambit of'slack-packing' – namely, you do the walking, other people do all the work. You only need a day bag and water as your luggage is chauffeured from one overnight stop to the next, and you stay in comfortable lodges and hotels.

I had joined the 5-day hike for the last 2 days. Monday to Wednesday take you from Cape Town to Simons Town viamountains, forests and beaches. Thursday saw me puffing my way up a winding path that suddenly whisks you from the bungalows of sleepy Simons Town into aprimitive lost world of mountain peaks, knife-edged ridges and sudden twists and turns that hurl view after view at you.

Luck

ily, I was being led by Steve Bolnick, a legendary southern African safari guide with 30 years experience under his belt, and the creator of this walk. His enthusiasm is obvious and contagious, and I was soon familiar with the geology, history, fauna and flora of the area.

“It's my favourite day of the walk,” grinned Steve as he shovelled food towards my gaping maw on one of our breaks, “it's about as wild as you can get up here.”

Indeed, I had to constantly remind myself that we were only half an hour from South Africa's second largest city. We were surrounded by nothing – well, nothing man-made at any rate. No roads, no pylons, no people – just multi-coloured mountains.

But it was the flora that really got me. Abandoning attempts to remember the barrage of botanical names (oh look, it's another thingy whatsit) I was constantly flabbergasted by the sheer numbers involved. There aremore species of plant in the modest, wind-swept Cape Point Nature Reserve than there are in the British Isles, and the vegetation completely changes with every curl of the path.

“It's all about micro-climates, different soil types, and exposure to sunlight and moisture,” explained Steve. “A north-facing slope will have a completely different flora to a south-facing one.” Altitude plays a part too I noticed, as we climbed the imposing moorland-like Swartkop Mountain, and later again as we descended into a wooded ravine.

After 7 hours we emerged at the once endearingly named Patience Bay (it apparently took a long time to fill a water bottle from the sluggish spring there) and contemplated the final day – a walk down the entire eastern coastlineof Cape Point Nature Reserve looking out over False Bay and the Hottentot-Holland Mountains.. “Must be pretty scenic,” I commented with my customary intuition. Steve just smiled.

'Scenic' doesn't actually come close. Friday was a day of such eye-popping majesty that you begin to groan in resignation at yet another gasping view. A pair of southern Right Whales cruising in the sparkling bay to our left seemed to accompany us as we wound our way towards the very tip of Africa as the path lurched from mountain top to beach and forest to cliff edge – it was relentless, incredible chocolate box scenery and as powerful as anything else I've seen anywhere else in the world.

We had lunch next to a white sand beach so dazzlingly bright it made me giddy, and the adventurous can fling themselves into water so clear that you can see theripples in the sand from a cliff 200 metres above it. Baboons barked, snakes slithered, antelope did whatever it is they do – and after another 7 hours without seeing another soul save a handful of people at the beach, we found ourselves looking slightly out of place amidst the well-coiffured tourists milling around Cape Point next to their coaches.

We earned bemused looks from the cosmopolitan crowds – and in fairness our slightly dishevelled appearance did make us stand out a bit – but we wore big fat smiles on our faces and sat down with cold beers to reflect on the day.

The sentiment expressed by Bourdain ran through my head again: the world's best? Yes it's subjective and it's all about personal experience but in this case the experience is other-worldly and the emotions intensely personal – it's the most beautiful hike I've ever done, and that, for me, is official.

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Wild cape wander: Table Mountain, South Africa

Travelmag published this story “. . . the clothing, skull and bones of the soldier given up for lost on the 30th of last month were found at the extremity of the Lion Mountain, about 300 roods* from the beach. The cranium was half bitten off, so it is presumed that he was devoured by a lion” – journal entry of the governor of The Cape Colony, 12 September 1659.

No longer do lions roam the foothills of Table Mountain but its proximity to the bustling urban fare of cosmopolitan Cape Town is disingenuous. Exploring the iconic massif remains an inherently and steadfastly wild experience.

Indeed, the mountains that make up the Cape Peninsula, stretching from Table Mountain to the Cape of Good Hope, look much as they did when the Khoisan people occupied the lowlands below. Covering a good slice of the region, the 25,000 hectare Table Mountain National Park – proclaimed in 2004 – is sandwiched between oceans carrying the cold Benguela current originating in Antartica and the warm Aghulas current from the tropics. The environment and weather they help create contributes to one of the most diverse botanical zones on the planet, boasting 2285 plant species, of which about 70% are endemic to the Cape Botanical Kingdom. Add magnificent scenery and world class walking and it’s easy to gather why I specifically designed a five-day walk to penetrate and explore this unique mountain spine hovering between two seas.

Europeans first saw the Cape five hundred and twenty years ago, when Bartholomeu Dias was swept passed the Cape of Storms in a tempest of Shakespearian magnitude. However for millennia before this historically significant event, which ultimately resulted in European colonisation, the Cape had been home to other cultural groups.

For at least 10,000 years prior, Indigenous cultures subsisted below the imposing cliffs alongside a vast array of wild animals. From Dutch settlement in 1652 Cape Town itself grew dramatically to become a large, modern commercial centre. Table Mountain, however, has remained essentially unchanged, indifferent to the progress bustling at its feet.

Maclears Beacon (the highest point on the mountain) towers 1087m above sea level and is still subject to sudden and dramatic changes in weather. In spite of the rush of humanity around it, the Mountain remains defiantly wild. This may sound obvious, but it is clearly not apparent to the hundreds of people who get themselves into difficulty or die on the Mountain, victims of thinking that the proximity of Cape Town means that it is a tame place. Not always so: the Table Mountain Rescue service performs approximately 170 rescues per year.

A trek through the park is invariably graced with sightings of wildlife that one would not expect to see so close to a major city. Not long ago we watched a pair of majestic Black Eagles teaching their fledged chick to fly by repeatedly

taking away the Rock Hyrax that they had hunted for it and removing it a short distance so the chick had to fly to earn its meal. On the same trek I was amazed to come across a 67-strong herd of Eland, the largest antelope in the world as well as a family of Ostrich having a dip in the sea!

On the macro-scale (between July and November) we regularly see Southern Right Whales close inshore, sometimes immediately behind the breakers. These behemoths can weigh in at 80 metric tons and measure up to 17 metres. On the other end of the wildlife scale, yet equally fascinating, we have watched female spider-hunting wasps carrying their immobilised prey, which are many times larger than themselves, back to their nests to provide fresh food for their offspring.

We almost always see the pretty Angulate Tortoises. The males have an extended lower shell, which can act as a lever during territorial disputes when they overturn rivals onto their backs. In the dry summer months these tortoises ingeniously obtain water during misty periods by pushing their snouts into the sand, raising their rear legs and drinking the water that condenses on their shells and trickles down to collect around their head.

The walk through the Park is varied to say the least. We climb mountains, cross beaches and spend time traversing rocky shores, which of course provide an insight into a whole different world of nature. Here we see those rugged creatures that make a living within the harsh limits of the inter-tidal zone, having to cope with extreme heat as well as extreme cold, desiccating dryness as well as being submerged and exposure to aquatic as well as terrestrial and aerial predators. It’s a rough life hanging-out at the seashore.

A few times every year we are fortunate enough to see Cape Clawless Otters. Normally these secretive, crepuscular animals live in fresh water streams, but here they have adapted to living and hunting in the ocean and only periodically venturing into fresh water. Recently we sat on a low cliff and watched one of these graceful animals hunting amongst the kelp in swimming-pool clear water. It caught a fish and came ashore, where we watched it consume its meal.

Of course, it’s not all wildlife and hard walking in the wilderness. Wind downs from the walking are a treat with evenings in Cape Town’s beautiful lodges, famed cuisine, outstanding wine and hospitality. One thing that has remained the same since the Khoisan people foraged for food along these seashores: the seafood is still abundant and excellent. I do, however, suspect the quality of the wines has improved in the intervening millennia.

* A “rood” is an old measure of length equivalent to approximately 7 metres.

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