BRING ON THE FLOWERS
It’s time to do the flowers again. How quickly the season comes round, lifting us from the depression of the grey Cape winter. With the floral marketing campaign in full swing, tourists will be flocking up the West Coast in their tour buses or hired cars. They’ll be largely ignoring the profusion of daisies at the roadsides as they focus on their promised land – Namaqualand. Of course Namaqualand deserves this fame: when the rains have been good it puts on a magnificent display. But you don’t have to follow the crowd to enjoy the flowers. Much of the Western Cape bursts into bloom – Fiona McIntosh suggests a few spots where you can get off the beaten track.
The only site outside the Western Cape is the Baviaanskloof (Baboon Gorge), which rolled out its new Tourism Route to some aplomb after its inscription. A visit to www.africandream.com should tempt you to take a drive to these spectacular mountains behind Port Elizabeth to check it out.
So what is so special about the flowers in this wild, rugged place? Well, if you’re of a botanical bent, then you need to know that the Baviaanskloof is the meeting place of six of South Africa’s seven biomes - fynbos, thicket, Nama-Karoo, grassland, savannah and forest. What this means to the lay person is an incredible array of plants and animals. Everything from pretty daisies to giant Outeniqua yellowwoods; cycads to colourful aloes; buffalo to tiny rare ghost frogs. Spring is an awesome time to visit. Even better, put off your visit till October and you’ll get not only the best weather and flowers, but you’ll avoid the school holidays.
How to make the best of the ‘Kloof
The camping in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve is some of the finest in the country. There are campsites at Komdomo, Rooihoek and Doodsklip. For my money Rooihoek and Doodsklip are unbeatable for beauty and solitude. Sites are limited to no more than 30 people and they are often fully booked months in advance in the busy season. If you want slightly more luxurious lodgings, there are chalets at Geelhoutbos.
There has been an accommodation explosion in recent years as farmers cottoned on to the tourism potential of the area. Many of these privately run set-ups include a range of outdoor activities. Check out www.baviaans.net and www.baviaans.co.za for a full list of what’s on offer.
Obviously you’re going to smell the flowers. So go quietly. The pleasures of the Baviaanskloof – and there are many – reveal themselves slowly. The Baviaanskloof rewards patience and determination. Life is not presented on a platter. Rather, the adventurer has to work a bit harder to reveal the pleasures of the ‘Kloof.
First requisite to enjoying Baviaanskloof is to get a decent map, preferably the 1:50 000 Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area topo map which is available at the park offices, or the beautiful Peter Slingsby map. Armed with your map you can get out and hike. The best hiking options are day hikes from Bergplaas hut, Rooihoek campsite and Geelhoutbos. They mostly follow obvious old jeep tracks but are not signposted. Water points are marked on the map. Be aware that there are Cape buffalo in these hills and you should walk with caution in the Rooihoek and Doodsklip area.
There are two main 4x4 trails in the Baviaanskloof. The first crosses the Grootrivier at Goedehoop and follows the river for some kilometres. It then climbs eastwards over the mountains before joining a very poor dirt road that will take you back to Patensie. The second trail runs from the farm Rus en Vrede (at the west end of the kloof, 78km from Willowmore) and runs south over the Kouga Mountains. It emerges at the extreme northern edge of the Langkloof, near Kareedouw. It is essential that you get permission to use the trail on the farm before setting off. (See www.baviaans.co.za Rus en Vrede and Baviaans Lodge)
If you prefer the wind in your face try cruising through Baviaans on a motorbike – stopping of course to enjoy the floral splendour. More eco-friendly is mountain biking – and you might even notice and smell the flowers this way. The main road through the ‘Kloof is very popular, especially in the central area between Bergplaas and Geelhoutbos.
If you’re a paddler, drifting down the river is one of the best ways to fully appreciate this wonderful place. The Kouga River is one of the country’s little-known gems. Running north from the Langkloof, it flows into the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve at Riverside. From the Baviaanskloof side, the river is accessible from the Rooihoek and Doodsklip campsites. Here it swings eastwards before flowing into the Kouga Dam. On the rare occasions that it has enough water to paddle a boat, it’s no more than a class 1-2. The put-in is at Riverside and it should take no more than a couple of hours to reach Rooihoek. With proper planning, a bit of water and an early start, the trip is easily done in a day.
And finally, if you prefer languishing on flat water, the long and skinny Kouga Dam is famous among local anglers for its black bass. To fish these waters, you will need your own boat and a permit, and access is very difficult.
Call the Eastern Cape Park offices on 043-742 4451 to arrange permits or to book accommodation.
De Hoop is another great spot to visit in spring as the whales are in town. Even if you can’t get a place on the flagship hike, the five-day Whale Trail, there are plenty of other hikes. There are also superb birding, mountain biking and other activities to amuse the whole family.
Other CapeNature activities include the four-day De Hoop Trail. The De Hoop Collection, The Cederberg, Grootwinterhoek and Swartberg are probably the best known of the CapeNature properties. The reserves that make up the Boland Mountain Complex are probably also familiar: the Kogelberg, Hottentots Holland, Limietberg and Jonkershoek.
Contact CapeNature (021 483 0190, www.capenature.co.za) to book the Whale Trail or other activities.
I’ll admit that I’d never even heard of this tiny wilderness area near Swellendam until I stumbled upon it recently. Neighbouring Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve (the gateway to Boosmansbos) is better known, largely for its impressive forests. But from Grootvadersbosch I could see the dramatic mountains of Boosmansbos – and I couldn’t help but be drawn to them. As I climbed up the steep trail towards these rugged mountains, the flowers were simply mind-blowing. Whole slopes were pink with flowers and head-high protea surrounded me, their bright red heads alive with sunbirds. The fynbos here is so dense, so colourful, so in your face that it’s almost a sensory overload.
This is a hiker’s, birder’s and flower lover’s paradise. A place to take time to smell the flowers and soak in the tranquillity. There’s a wonderful campsite near the entrance gate and three rustic cottages in Grootvadersbosch. From there you can set out on several hiking trails through the forested lowlands and deep ravines. Or take a mountain bike trail through the heathland of the upper section of the reserve.
However, to really see the flowers you need to shoulder a pack and head up even further. It’s hard to drag yourself away from the shaded walks and deep pools of Grootvadersbosch, but trust me, it’s worth it. There are 64km of paths in the wilderness area, with two major routes. The most popular is the circular 27km, two-day circular route up Loerklip and back down Saagkuilkloof. A couple of old stone structures at Helderfontein can be used as shelter, but otherwise you’re out in the wilds on your own. It’s not a place to be taken lightly. The mountains are high and steep, the mist and rain can roll in rapidly, the path is narrow and often difficult to tread and the fynbos scratches your legs and arms. There are a couple of suggested campsites – close to perennial streams – but you’re free to explore at will. Scaling the peaks, beat through the bush to admire a particularly outstanding king protea or lily, swim in deep rock pools or lie out under the spectacular starlit skies. The great jutting crags and spires of the Cape Fold Belt will be all around you. You’ll be all alone amid hillsides ablaze with dazzling flowers and sunbirds. It’s simply magic.
Call 021 483 0190, or visit www.capenature.co.za
The Klein Karoo and Swartberg Mountains
Think the Klein Karoo is only a lifeless semi-desert? Well get on your haunches and see the floral splendour. This may not be an obvious place for flower spotting, but the veld bursts into colour a few weeks after the rains.
If you need to get up to speed with what’s what, sign up for one of Louis Jordaan’s floral interpretative tours. Louis is an absolute fundi, with a contagious passion for the Karoo that brings the veld to life. To the untrained eye, Karoo vegetation - particularly when not in flower - looks grey and drab. But after a little bit of explanation on how these plants are adapted to the hot, arid environment, you’ll soon be on squatting down, learning about the symbiotic nurse/patient relationships in the little colonies of plants. The way the taller plants shelter the smaller ones, all simultaneously benefiting the little communal mound that they inhabit.
You’ll soon spot that plants of the same species are more or less evenly spaced across the plain. You’ll discover little succulents hidden under dead timber and see the termites removing seeds and leaves to their mounds. It’s a new world. Here a tiny purple saffron flower; there a fleshy succulent with a ‘window’ that allows it to expand and use any available water. The adaptations to this inhospitable environment are fascinating.
After a few hours on Minwater farm you can set out with new eyes on a hiking trail in the mountains. You’ll not only appreciate the obvious stuff, but also understand the complexity and fragility of this incredible habitat.
Call 044 279 1285 or visit www.minwater.co.za