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

South African Country Life - - Hiking - WORDS FIONA MCIN­TOSH PIC­TURES SHAEN ADEY

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.

(Chersina an­gu­lata)

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.

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