David Beeson, January 2023
We toured from Cape Town, via Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, up the west coast beyond Lambert’s Bay, Cederberg and further east into the Karoo, eventually to Prince Albert and via the Swartberg Mountains back to the south coast at Arniston. Later, we flew to Durban to touch on the Drakensberg Mountains and two wildlife National Parks.
We felt safe, although the Skeleton Gorge route down from Table Mountain to the botanic garden left big scars in our confidence and with severely overworked legs. We encountered cape cobra snakes (two), several other serpents and many tortoises.
The vegetation we saw was world-class and was certainly worth the journey. Highly recommended.
Cape Town has a confident swagger about it: it knows it is a bit special. Colonial-era buildings mix with more modern structures and a Mediterranean-like climate ensures outdoor life is the norm. With its setting beneath Table Mountain and with Robben Island sitting brooding just off the coast, it has an international location only added to with The Cape of Good Hope located just to its south.
And, The Cape and Cape Point should not be ignored. They are surrounded by part of Table Mountain National Park, called the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. The rugged scenery is awesome and the journey there gave stunning views along the Atlantic Coast. Walking, horse riding and cycling are all divergent possibilities with baboons, eland (the largest antelope) and zebra easily seen. Rare bontebok occur here but our brief visit did not encounter them. Cape angulate tortoises and a very large cape cobra did appear.
A rotating cable car is available to take the less energetic tourists to the top of Table Mountain, where there are facilities, rock hyrax sunning themselves and a stunning display of fynbos plants, including proteas, ericas and surprisingly insectivorous sundews.
Fynbos vegetation is found on sandstone geology with damp winters, dry summers and with irregular burns at perhaps 10 to 25-year intervals. Shrubs seldom exceed 2 metres and show adaptations to prevent water loss.
After Cape Town we followed Route 7 north, with the first significant stop at the 18000 hectares of the West Coast National Park, with its Atlantic views, flamingoes and sandy coastal soils. It is always a bird watchers delight but in spring has a stunning display of annual flowers.
This area is also rich in mammalian wildlife. Despite a fleeting visit we spotted herds of eland, small gazelles and zebra. If you wish to explore the flora in some detail you’ll need several days here and good ID books … there are some 2300 daisy species alone in SA. It can be exhausting trying to get the plants to species level.
Our route took us north to Cederberg Wilderness Area with its San people’s rock art. (The San are the original South Africans, with a history going back possibly 40 000 years. I had an outing with a San at Prince Albert, scouting for signs of larger mammals, such as caracal.)
The Cederberg is full of bizarre-shaped sandstone formations and has craggy mountains up to 2000m. It is a prime hiking area and famous for its mountain fynbos vegetation. Clanwilliam is the main accommodation centre.
Watch for snakes as the terrain with a rich vegetation and streams is prime territory. I found two and several lizards.
The rooibos plant is cultivated in this part of SA. Aspalathus linearis is a grim-looking, half-dead plant that is superficially similar to broom’s twiggy design. It is cut annually, dried and its leaves chopped to generate the ‘red tea’ that is sold. The drink contains no caffeine and little tannin, and some say is drinkable! Enough said. Try it for yourself.
Fynbos vegetation depends on the rain and summer aridity, this coastal zone has the aridity but has much less rain as it sits in a rain shadow by the mountains to its southeast. Hence a different vegetation dominated by annuals, summer-dormant bulbs or water-retaining succulents. This is the succulent Karoo of Namaqualand – the richest semidesert in the world, with more species of succulents than any other habitat.
The moisture often arrives from sea fogs that drift inland and the input is often less than 200mm a year. You will notice the vegetation is low.
Having journeyed north, we now headed east, towards Calvinia – with two small nature reserves that we visited. One was in an area where the clay soil was stressed so much by changing moisture levels that plant roots were stretched and destroyed in summer. Evolution responded and that patch is home to huge numbers of bulbs that remain dormant over the summer (so have no roots to break.) – yet put on a unique display in spring.
At Calvinia there is also the Akkerendam Nature Reserve. This too is rich in rare bulbs, with lizards and tortoises to add interest. Situated two kilometres outside of Calvinia, this gem of a nature reserve protects the fragile fauna of the Hantam Karoo region, which comprises succulent Karoo scrub, Mountain Renosterveld and a wide range of bulbous flora. This includes 10 floral species, which are unique to the Hantamsberg (Hantam mountain).
Moving south we encounter another dirt road that went one, seemingly, for ever. This is the dry Karoo, but even here humans try to shake a living off the land with a sheep occasionally viewed. A hard land with only low scrub visible from our vehicle, however articles suggest grasses do occur.
Moving south we joined the N1 road and headed east to Prince Albert. This village sits to the north of the Swartsberg Mountains and they usually give a steady a water supply, so some lushness. It is an attractive spot with white bungalows, delicious lemon icecream and a private nature reserve.
The reserve, trapped between the municipal rubbish tip, sewerage plant and a potentially over-grazed sheep farm looked unpromising but delivered some fascinating features.
This reserve has around 50mm of rainfall a year and the local river seldom reaches it.
SA has over 50 different mistletoe species and on one acacia there were three … with two different species growing on another species. A plant food chain! Acacia > mistletoe 1 > mistletoes 2 and 3.
The star plants were the lithops – living stones that were invisble in a gravel / rocky patch until they were shown.
Most of the plants here have an unusual photosynthesis – Crassulaceae Acid Metabolism – where they only open their stomata at night, store the carbon dioxide, then use this during the day. It is less efficient that traditional photosynthesis but it is better than dying in a dry arid place.
Additionally the plants manufacture aromatic compounds that help to reduce water loss. These are true desert plants surviving with soil temperatures up to 65C, often with a buffering wind, but freezing winter temperatures. Amazing plants, with toxic chemicals to limit grazing pressures and some needing to live beneath other vegetation to reduce sunlight damage.
The vegetation becomes even more extreme in that many of the species are very salty, despite being inland and dwelling in a calcium-rich soil.
Stapelia genus plants live on the reserve. These have flowers smelling of rotting flesh and are pollinated by flesh-eating blowflies.
What a place!
Wikipedia says: The hairy, oddly textured and coloured appearance of many Stapelia flowers has been claimed to resemble that of rotting meat, and this, coupled with their odour, has earned the most commonly grown members of the genus Stapelia the common name of carrion flowers. Such odours serve to attract various specialist pollinators including, in the case of carrion-scented blooms, blow flies of the dipteran family Calliphoridae. They frequently lay eggs around the coronae of Stapelia flowers, convinced by the plants’ deception.
In the morning I had a bushman walk. Together we spotted droppings of: caracal, meercats, kudu, baboon and steinbok, yet their populations were low and the animals kept to themselves.
The local mountains again offered fynbos vegetation and King Proteas were in flower.
Oudthoorn showed off its ostriches, Gamka its mountain zebras and Cape Agulhas and Hermanus its right whales before we again arrived in Cape Town.
A trip of a lifetime, but with Durban, St Lucia, Imfolozi, Hluhluwe and Drakensberk still to come.