Get some colour in Bontebok
There is only one thing better than spending a day in nature with fresh air and peace and quiet... another day like that. In the Bontebok National Park, days like these are plenty.
You don’t really think of Swellendam as the centre of the camping world – and that’s understandable. Because this town lies halfway between Cape Town and George – on the N2 it’s a two-hour drive from both sides – people from the Mother City shoot through to places like Mossel Bay or the Garden Route. The highway also doesn’t run through the town, but to the right of it. It’s on this stretch of road where you should ease your foot off the accelerator because you often see speed cops at the side of the road – sometimes with a camera and other times to send trucks to the nearby weighbridge. Close to this weighbridge you drive over the Breede River, and as soon as you’ve crossed it you see the sign for the Bontebok National Park to the right on a hill. The park runs south of the N2. Bontebok has an excellent overnight campsite. But why just stay the night if you can exchange the everyday hustle and bustle for a weekend in nature with the family? Next to a roaring campfire...
Little guy with big shoes
Bontebok is just about 10 km long – the smallest of all the SANParks – but is
unique in more ways than one. As the park’s name suggests, the bontebok is the honourary citizen. Thanks to conservationists in the early 20th century, this animal has been saved from extinction. There were only 17 of them left because hunters shot them without batting an eye, but even more frightening is that those were the only 17 left in the entire world! A conservation area was initially established near Bredasdorp, but the animals were later moved to an area next to Swellendam, and that’s how the park as we know it came about. Today there are more than 3 000 bontebokke in the world, about 200 of which live here (the maximum that the reserve can sustain).
Park in the park
The hills around Swellendam are covered in wheat and canola, but as you drive through the park’s gate, the landscape changes radically: Now you’re surrounded by fynbos that grows to hip height, but rather keep your eyes on the road because a sign warns to look out for tortoises. You just get used to all the fynbos when you stop at the office about half a kilometre after the gate. It’s hardly a dilapidated structure, but thankfully also not an extravagant, shiny building. It’s partly plastered and finished off with stone, and you can see the environment was taken into consideration with the design and finishes. Inside, two groups are standing in front of the long counter: one of the receptionists is explaining to the people in front of her how to get to the campsite; the other lady is asking her group to go fetch their passports. They sound German, and they’re bickering about whether or not to buy a Wild Card so they can save on the day tariff. One of the first things you notice is the stuffed bontebok to the left of the counter. It stands on three legs – with one hind leg in the air it looks like it’s trying to scratch an itch behind its ear.
Bontebok has only one campsite, Lang Elsie’s Kraal, and it’s 4,3 km from the >
office, right next to the Breede River. The camp is named after Captain Lang Elsie, a female Hessequa chief who ruled in these partsin the 18th century. In front of the campsite the veld changes again: Now you start to see trees. A sign at the campsite’s entrance indicates the chalets are to the right and the campsite to the left. The sign is between lush tilt-headed aloes, some of which tower into the sky. The bathrooms are in the middle of the campsite, with the stands running next to and opposite each other in a halfmoon to the left of the building. To the back of the stands in the outside circle there are trees against a hedge, making it feel almost like a kraal. The stands are numbered, and like with the other SANParks camps, you can choose where you want to stand. Even though there are thick shrubs and trees behind the outside stands, there aren’t exactly any shade trees to speak of. Each of the stands have short, wild grass, and it’s nice and even. You can easily push your caravan or trailer
(without the towing vehicle) to where you want it. Some of the stands are more private than others, but in general you can’t complain about the space. Between the stands are yellow-painted concrete blocks a few feet apart, and this almost dotted line indicates the border between you and your neighbour. There is enough space to park the longest caravan and towing vehicle on your stand. There is even enough space to open up all the flaps and there’s enough open space where you can hang out if you don’t want to sit underneath the awning. Between every second and third stand is a slate slab on a U-shaped stone wall. The stone work is neatly done and similar to that of the reception office – nicely varnished and all. There’s a light in the middle of the slab which switches on automatically in the evenings before dark. It’s a good thing because you don’t want to stumble to the bathroom late at night and an aloe jumps in front of you. Your tap is to the left of the slab with a neat drainage area beneath with rocks >
stacked on top. The electrical socket is beneath the slab and can be reached from the open U-side. There are standard domestic sockets, and blue caravan sockets have also been installed but the power cables haven’t been connected. It’s great that campers get a choice of sockets, because as a rule SANParks stick to caravan sockets. There are also a few loose-standing braais (without grids) if you didn’t pack yours, and your garbage bin is also here, firmly anchored between two planted wooden poles.
Maybe a little bit too close for comfort
The bathroom building is built in the same style as the reception office. To the right of the building there are three recycling bins – one each for plastic, glass, and cardboard. There are tiles around the sunken basins in the bathroom and a mirror above each. There is also a bathroom specifically for disabled people. The shower cubicles could be a bit bigger though. At the door is the seat of a chair that folds flat when you close the door – it reminds you of a plastic garden chair. At the shower side there are hooks against the wall, making it easy to reach your towel from the shower. The shower curtain is also disappointing. The shower side is small, and as you turn on the taps, the shower curtain takes on a life of its own. Eventually the cold curtain sticks to you like a wet washcloth – then it’s pulling off with the one hand while soaping up with the other. Between the male and female sides there’s an area where you can send your teen to do the dishes.
Birds of a feather
It’s not just the reception staff who make you feel at home; the birds in the campsite also do their bit. As you unpack your braai, hordes of these little guys invite themselves over and feast on the leftovers on the grid. The one bird is more forward than the other. A wagtail takes a shortcut over your feet, while robins, boubous and fiscal flycatchers also come to eagerly introduce themselves. Behind the bathrooms is the riverbank. But on the way there, in the road, is a boom indicating “no. 31-41”. It also shows no caravans are allowed on these stands. The bank is sprawling lawn, and to the left, away from the water, there are short, planted stumps indicating these few stands. You’re only allowed to camp here in summer. Behind the lawn is a small hill that’s worthwhile to climb. From the top you see how the river kinks against the grass, with the campsite behind it. Remember your camera. You can also fish in Bontebok. On the way to the campsite you drive past a section of the riverbank that’s intended for anglers. According to the Bontebok species list there are seven endemic fish species and six invasive ones. The former includes freshwater mullet and full moony, while black bass and catfish are amongst the uninvited guests. Besides the bontebokke, there are also red hartebeest and Cape mountain zebras, as well as bigger birds like the secretary bird. From the campsite, away from the reception office side, there’s a circular route if you want to go in search of game. But it doesn’t require much searching, because the low fynbos makes it difficult for any animal to hide. The dirt road is narrow and intended for one-way traffic, but you can drive it with your Yaris. One late afternoon we saw a buck or three but the next morning the animals were littered to the right and left of the same road. There are no animals that pose a threat to you, so you can explore the area on your bike with peace of mind. There are no real hills and cycling here is pure pleasure.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS. Besides the masses of resident bontebok, other species also call the park home, such as the red hartebees (left).
A FEATHER FOR ALL WEATHER. Bontebok National Park probably feels like a summer getaway during the winter for the birds. They are abundant, despite the chilly temperatures, and birdwatchers are in for a treat. Expect to tick wagtails, boubous, robins, fiscal flycatchers and secretary birds off your list.