All in a Day’s Walk
For two months a year, hikers can enjoy the flowers, birds and exquisite scenery on the Steenbok Day Trail in West Coast National Park
Afaint grunt caught our attention. We looked up to see four Great White Pelicans flying overhead, their huge wings and heavy undercarriage making them all look a bit like Boeings.
Shaen and I were on our annual pilgrimage to the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park.
Only open during August and September, this rugged reserve is one of the best and most accessible places in South Africa to see the colourful daisies and other blooms that announce the arrival of spring.
Last year we almost missed the boat, visiting the reserve on 30 September, the final day of the season. And we broke our normal routine of backpacking the beautiful two-day, Postberg Trail in favour of the 13.9-kilometre Steenbok Day Trail. Lugging a heavy pack and then pitching my tent seemed too much of a schlep. And besides, it was still chilly in the Cape. I fear I’m getting soft.
As a treat, and to maximise our time in the reserve, we booked into Jo-Anne’s Beach Cottage on the lagoon, for the nights before and after our hike. It’s a two-hour drive from Cape Town to the Postberg section of the reserve, so it would otherwise have meant an early start.
Instead we arrived late afternoon and enjoyed a leisurely drive in, stopping numerous times to allow tortoises to cross the road, and to check out the birds. Ostriches strode out on the dunes, we passed a large herd of eland a mere 20 metres from the tar and, as we turned off the main park road down to the cottage, we saw a Cape grey mongoose scoot into the bush. The 18-kilometre drive from the park gate took us nearly two hours.
In the morning we rose before dawn and wandered down for coffee at the water’s edge, where long-legged plovers and sandpipers waded through the shallows. From the park brochure I learnt that the West Coast National Park is home to more than 250 bird species, more than a quarter of South Africa’s total.
We wanted to be at the Postberg gate when it opened at 9am so, after breakfast, took
a slow drive along the ridge, enjoying the views of the Atlantic Ocean on the left, and the shimmering Langebaan Lagoon to our right. Yellow-billed Kites soared overhead and an owl watched us closely from its perch on a signboard near the Tsaars bank parking area. Visiting the West Coast National Park is always good for the soul.
After checking in with the ranger, we followed the trail as it meandered east from the gate across flat veld dotted with granite boulders. Along the way we encountered even more tortoises and it seemed that the Skilpad Trail would have been an appropriate name.
Covered by waist-high stinkkruid (Oncosiphon suffruticosum), the veld was a brilliant yellow, a spectacular floral display. But where were the daisies, we wondered. There were patches of colour to be sure, but nothing like the multi-hued carpets that usually covered the plains. And many of the daisies we did see were past their best.
We soon caught up with some other hikers (Dr Carel Muller, Johan Coetsee, his wife Santie and her 10-year-old son Francois), who were from Somerset West and regular visitors to the park. They agreed with our observations – these vistas of last year were very different to those they had experienced the season before.
“The severe drought clearly impacted on the flowers,” Johan said. “When I hiked here for the first time in 2005, there had been a lot of rain in the Cape and the park was very colourful. But it’s still beautiful this year. What makes the hikes special is that the reserve is open only two months a year so the trails are pristine. In ‘normal’ years, when it’s not so dry and the vegetation is thicker, there are almost no human tracks.”
We chuckled. Perhaps the absence of daisies might encourage us to raise our eyes from the ground and focus on the spectacular scenery and the less conspicuous species of the park.
We began to climb, enjoying the everchanging views of the mountain, lagoon and ocean. We stopped several times to pick out familiar landmarks - the houseboats in the turquoise waters of Kraalbaai, the quaint, privately owned cottages of Church haven and, on the other side of the lagoon, the town of Langebaan.
Continuing up, we followed red and white
BELOW: Cape mountain zebra, along with eland, bontebok and other antelope, are regularly sighted along the trail. RIGHT: Keep your eyes peeled for angulate tortoises both on the trail and on the roads in the park.
LEFT: For some of the way the Steenbok Day Trail follows the route of the overnight Postberg Trail so the trail markers depict both routes. BELOW: Near the halfway point the trail follows the tourist road for a short distance.
ABOVE: We meet Johan Coetsee and family near the entrance gate they are hiking the overnight Postberg Trail. In addition to visiting the Postberg reserve during flower season, they often drive up to the West Coast National Park to picnic on the rocks and enjoy the sight and smell of the sea. BELOW: The weird and wonderful granite outcrops of Vingerklippe are a high point in more ways than one.