Words Fiona McIntosh pics Shaen Adey
Cape Canopy Tour leader Ricardo Juries beamed as he set the scene. “Once we’ve done the briefing and kitted you up, we’re going on a 4x4 journey into the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a Unesco World Heritage Site. You’ll be going to the upper reaches of the Riviersonderend Gorge, to a place few others have ever seen.”
His enthusiasm is infectious. As he explained how a series of ziplines would carry us safely from platform to platform high above the gorge, his sense of pride and wonder was palpable. He has every right to be proud. This newly opened canopy tour in the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve, in partnership with CapeNature, offers a unique way to enjoy a previously inaccessible area without having an impact on the environment.
The ride up, on a steep stony path to the top of the mountain, was fabulous. Wonderful pink erica clothed the slopes, little sugar birds flitted from protea to protea and, as we gained height, we could see right down the tannin-stained river and across the reserve to the Elgin Valley.
Half an hour later we were disgorged from the vehicle and followed Ricardo to the first platform where he secured us to a safety rail. “Vicky will go first,” he explained. “Once she’s set up the safety braking system I’ll clip you in and send you over one by one. It’s easy, just sit in your harness, relax and enjoy the view. You can control your speed by pressing down on the cable with your gloved hand.”
I volunteered to go next and stepped up onto the launchpad as Ricardo clipped in the safety lines and attached the pulley that would run along the cable. “This is a fairly slow slide. You shouldn’t need to brake, but Vicky will signal whether she wants you to go faster or slower as you approach. If you don’t make it all the way across you can always turn round and pull yourself to the platform.”
The radio cackled. Ricardo gave me a thumbs up and I gingerly stepped into the void. “Wheeeeee!” It was exhilarating stuff and I managed to control my speed so as to land gently on the platform. As I watched the others coming across I had time to take in the surroundings, the incredible weathered rock formations, the dripping moss, the tiny flowers in the crevices of the sheer cliff on which the wooden platform is secured and the little lizards sunning themselves on the rock.
“Did you know that the Hottentots Holland mountains are home to the only known population of the endemic dwarf crag lizard?” Ricardo asked. “I’ll tell you if I see one.”
It’s a slick operation. As soon as Vicky arrived at the platform she squeezed past us on an independent safety line and clipped in for the next slide. Confident after the first run, we quickly followed as soon as she radioed in.
The Cape Canopy Tour is the latest addition to the canopy tour brand, which already has operations in Tsitsikamma, Magaliesberg, Karkloof, Drakensberg, Magoebaskloof and Swaziland’s Malolotja Reserve. In this case the term ‘canopy tour’ is a misnomer as the slides are all out in the open, but all seven canopy tours are designed to showcase the natural environment of their particular locations.
The first, in the indigenous forest of the Tsitsikamma, opened in 2001. It was the brainchild of Mark Brown, a civil engineer who had been involved in constructing similar cable slides in Costa Rica to allow scientists to go about their work in the otherwise inaccessible treetops.
“The construction of the Cape Canopy Tour was a huge task that took about nine months,” said co-owner Ryan Larkman. “Every cable was pulled across the valley by a team of local guys. Once each cable was secured, that line was used to transport the wood and other materials needed to construct the subsequent platforms and lines. We basically built as we went.”
In August 2014 all 11 slides and 13 platforms were in place and the first guests were treated to a bird’s eye view of Hottentots Holland.
As we reached the fourth slide Ricardo said, “Look down to your left as you go. You’ll see a lovely waterfall and pool.” Ricardo has lived in Grabouw all his life, but until a few months ago had never been up here. “I still can’t get over how beautiful these mountains are. Before I was taken on as a guide I was working at a clothing store in Grabouw. Now every day I work in nature. I love it.
“At the moment we employ 18 staff, all from the local area, five of whom are women. Each staff member was first trained and assessed on the safety operating procedures of the system, followed by first aid, and then field guide training to learn about the interpretive art of guiding in a nature reserve. We want each client to feel absolutely safe, but also learn something new about nature and this amazing place that we call home,” Ryan said. “As we grow, we will continue to hire locally and develop our guides as part of the company ethos.”
We get a better view of the waterfall 50 metres below from the suspension bridge between platforms seven and eight and there’s a surprise in store at platform nine when Vicky serves up Elgin Ice Tea and biscuits. Then it’s a few more fast slides to the final platform.
The kilometre-long uphill walk out goes quickly, the guides stopping often to point out the major fynbos species that we encounter on the rocky path. By lunchtime we’re back at the centre enjoying a cool drink and light meal. I felt privileged to have ‘flown’ across such an incredible part of the world and have a feeling tickets for this new tour will fly out too, so book ahead!
How to get there The Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. Take the N2 over Sir Lowry’s Pass and opposite the Peregrine Farm Stall turn left onto the R321 towards Grabouw. About 1km on, turn right to follow the R321 towards Villiersdorp. After about 11km you’ll see the sign for the reserve on the left.
Cost R555 for WildCard holders, otherwise R595 a person.
3 to 4 hours depending on the size of the group. There are 13 platforms and slides up to 320m long.
Hiking Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve has fabulous day and overnight hiking trails as well as kloofing for those with experience or a guide. For more information visit www.capenature.co.za.
Mountain Biking The 22km Groenlandberg Trail starts at the reserve’s Nuweberg gate. The Elgin Valley is mountainbiking paradise, so bring your bike if you enjoy exploring on two wheels.
There are four huts for hikers in the reserve, but Wild recommends driving drive back to Stellenbosch to stay over in the manor house at CapeNature’s Assegaaibosch Nature Reserve. It is a national monument and you’ll be putting your Wild Card to good use twice in one day. Self-catering rates start at R1 130 a night for up to four people.
Source: Wild Magazine