Sauntering in the Shadows of the Swellendam Sundial

‘Could it be watching us?’ Saskia asked. ‘It is possible’ I replied, ‘but highly unlikely. It has probably headed towards the kloof for shelter.’

We had just continued walking after inspecting some fresh Cape Leopard spoor on the Plaat Trail in Marloth Nature Reserve in the Langeberg Mountains north of Swellendam. Following the trail eastwards, we encountered two more sets of leopard spoor heading towards the forested kloof ahead of us.

Always keen for a hiking adventure, our guests wanted five days of hiking approximately two and a half hours from Cape Town

We were on the third day of a five day hiking tour based in Swellendam that Amanda and I were guiding. Our guests had previously done our Garden Route Coastal Meander and had requested that we compile a similar slackpacking trail in a different location that was no more than a 3 hour drive from Cape Town. With it’s proximity to Bontebok national Park, Martloth Nature Reserve and Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve, choosing Swellendam as a hiking base was an obvious choice.

Stately Base

Swellendam, established in 1743, was declared as a magisterial district in 1745, the third in the Cape. It became a major stop over in the Overberg on the wagon route to the interior. In 1795 a group of disgruntled farmers declared a republic to escape the misrule of the Dutch East India Company, though this ‘democracy’ was short lived and ended six months later when the British arrived.

Swellendam is the perfect base for a variety of hiking trails in the Overberg

Seated in a shallow valley, Swellendam is flanked to the north by the towering Langeberg Mountains, with the highest peak overlooking the town being the Keeomsberg (2075m). Geologically related to the town are three peaks, which when viewed from the town, act as a sundial with respective peaks of 10am, 11am and 12am, locally referred to as the Clock Peaks.

Base Camp

The town itself has a eclectic selection of accommodation and fine dining options, but to retain the hiking tour ambiance that we offer guests, we wanted a venue that could accommodation 12 people with a well appointed kitchen for catering, A Hilltop Country Retreat near the edge of the Marloth Nature Reserve was a natural choice for our base camp.

The comfort of A Hilltop Country Retreat make for a very welcoming ‘Base Camp’ after a days hiking.

Trail Network

The Swellendam Cycle Club has crafted a phenomenal network of mountain biking routes in the natural spaces surrounding the town.

The proximity to the Breede River and the Langberg Mountains make Swellendam a popular destination for paddlers, mountain bikers and hikers. Surrounded by extensive agriculture, Swellendam is blessed with the proximity of no less than four nature reserves, each with superb hiking trails for all levels of ability.

Rivers Edge

Lang Elsie’s Rest Camp in the Bontebok National Park offers both camping facilities and chalets and is a perfect base for cycling and hiking tours.

Our hiking tour started off with a moderate 10km hike in the Bontebok national Park. On the banks of the Breede River, the Bontebok National Park offers 4 hiking trails and one mountain bike trail. Offering an incredibly diverse range of habitats, the combination of the Buskbuck, Aloe Hill and Acacia Loop trails between the day visitors picnic area and the Lang Elsie Rest Camp is a moderate 10km out and back hike.

The Acacia Trail and the Aloe Hill Loop trails wind through a mix of Acacia thicket and Aloes and lead to Aloe Hill for a commanding view of the river, reserve and the the Langeberg mountains in the distance.
The Bushbuck Trail which follows the banks of the Breede River between the day visitors picnic area and the rest camp passes between three biomes.

Starting from Renosterveld, the trail passes through a a dense stand of acacia thicket before meandering on the the fringe of riverine thicket with Milkwoods and dense stands of emerging Yellowoods. Approaching the rest camp, the trail again passes through acacia thicket that merges into aloe and thicket.

The hiking trails allow you to approach some of the smaller wildlife not visible from a game drive. The Striped Field mice are regularly seen foraging on low branches of the acacia trees.
There are numerous species of spiders in the thickets with the webs of the Golden Orb spiders glimmering in the sunlight.
Route marking on the trails is clear and well spaced.

Marloth Nature Reserve

With the group feeling comfortable from the flattish hike in then Bontebok national Park, on the second day we headed to the slopes of the Langeberg Mountains for a moderately strenuous hike.

To the north of Swellendam, the Marloth Nature Reserve encompasses the mountains towering over the town and boasts an impressive network of day hikes and a demanding five day hike.

Permits for the trails are required and are secured from the reserve office. Day trails start from a variety of locations depending on which trail you plan to hike and what distance you want to do.

Appelbos Loop (10km)

The start of the trail is a well prepared zig-zag path through a tall stand of protea dominated Fynbos.

The popular start and finish for the Appelbos Loop is from the parking area at the start of the Duiwelsbos Trail. Hiking in a clockwise direction, the trail starts with a steady ascent of over 300m for the first 2km before leveling off on a pleasant 2km contour trail before a gradual descent through some forested valleys.

Route marking is highly visible with comprehensive system indicating the direction of all the trails with a numbered system that correlates to the trail map supplied when you get your permit.

The fynbos along the trail is spectacular with a healthy mosaic of Restios, Proteas, Erica’s and Leucodendrons and the Orange-breasted Sunbirds are prolific, particularly along the contour path.

Even over a weekend there are few hikers, and on the contour path, the scenery of the mountains is magnificent.
The Plain Rain Frog usually lives in a sub terrain burrow and only emerges in wet conditions. When approached, they will inflate themselves and at times produce a warning call that sounds like a crying baby. Their normal contact call is a bird like chirp.
The rivers flowing off the mountain are tannin stained and produce some amazing scenes and tones in the rock pools.
The deep kloofs on the southern slopes of the Langeberg mountain range are densely forested and on a hot sunny day are the perfect place to take a snack break.
In autumn the forest has a wide variety of fungi in the forest sections.

Die Plaat Loop (approx 10km)

The start of the trail for the Plaat Loops starts to the west of the staff housing.

With more accumulated ascent, our third hike was to the west of the Appelbos Loop, on the Plaat Trail. Best started from the parking near the reserve staff housing, the loop starts with a gradual ascent followed by a steep section up to the contour line.

When the slope becomes too steep, it is wise to pause to to look where you have come and to inspect the flora surrounding you.
Snack breaks are an ideal time to scan the mountain slopes, marveling at the sheer grand scale of the landscape.
Entering a forest kloof always presents a sense of exploration with anticipation of sighting some resting wildlife. We entered this kloof with excited anticipation of seeing the leopard whose spoor we had tracked in this direction.
One of the river crossings has a spectacular collection of tiered rock pools ideal for swimming on a hot summers day.
Less obvious from the main trail, there is a hidden trail that leads to a rock pool with a cascade on the river that flows into he Duiwelbos Waterfall downstream.
The surface of the contour path is smooth in most places and, if you are the first group of the day, the perfect substrate to see wildlife spoor. After finding the first set of Leopard spoor we were super alert, not only to see more spoor, but hopeful actually see the leopard.

Grootvadersbosch

With two excellent mountain trails in the bag, it was time to head for the tranquility of the Afromontane forests. Testimony to the environmental foresight of a local farmer who realized that, without protection, unregulated harvesting of timber would most likely destroy the local forest, the Grootvadersbosch forest is a small but magnificent forest reserve. From a variety of trail loops, the popular Bushbuck Trail is an easy loop which can includes two bird hides.

Without a doubt the feature attractions for most hikers on the trail are the two stands of Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) panted as forestry trial blocks in 1907, with the tallest tree reaching an impressive 40m.

Despite being an impressive 40m tall, the Redwoods are mere saplings in comparison to their 100m tall 2300 year old siblings in California.
As impressive as the Redwoods are, there are some equally impressive indigenous tree species, with some magnificent Hard Pears, Ironwoods and Yellowoods to admire.
The ecological services of a forest are indispensable to our existence and are derived from the sum of its parts, from the delicate spider web to a towering Yellowood.

Village Vibes

When you drive into Suurbrak your entire pace slows down as you drift past tidy and well maintained small holding that are the backbone of this rural community. The last thing that you expect is a network of hiking and mountain biking trails, but the village center is the trailhead for no less than four hiking trails, each well marked. While we could not find any digital or print maps of the trails, the marking were sufficient for navigation. With onward travel plans, the 6km Blue Trail was the ideal choice for our fifth and final hike.

From your first step at the village center, the route signage is well placed and obvious for each route.
A highlight of the trails are the ‘rural country’ feeling with horses and livestock in paddocks flanking the first section of the trail to the river crossing.
From the viewpoint, the vista up the valley to the ridge of the Zuurberg Nature Reserve makes the steady, and at times steep, ascent worth every step.

Heading into the hills.

Both Marloth and Groovadersbosch nature reserves have multi day hikes. The five day hike in Marloth is a tough hike offset with some superb vistas from the various ridges and peaks that you hike around. Grootvadersbosch has a two day hike with a three day hike option combined with the adjacent Boesmansbos Nature Reserve, the latter only suitable for experience and well equipped hikers.

Clinging onto existence

Despite our disappointment of not seeing the leopard after following its spoor along the contour path in Marloth Nature Reserve, there was a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that we had platonically ‘crossed paths’ with one of these enigmatic predators.

Research conducted by Landmark Foundation has shown that Cape Leopard populations in the western Cape have a series of population islands which face genetic bottlenecking due to the lack of environmental corridors between regions caused by habitat transformation, mostly driven by agricultural.

The population on the southern slopes of the Langeberg Mountains, second to the population on Picketberg, is considered as a source population which appears to use rivers as corridors through the Overberg. Ongoing studies are being conducted to determine if this source population can bolster the genetic variation of surrounding populations of Cape Leopard.

Reconnected

As we packed up after our final hike and engaged in farewells, we all reflected on how fortunate we had been to see the leopard spoor. Yet, despite the highlight of ‘crossing paths’ with a leopard in the mountains, we all agreed that it was the collection of sightings, the myriad of Orange-breasted Sunbirds, the Jackal Buzzards bombing the juvenile Verreaux’s Eagle, a mouse in a tree, the Plain Rain Frog, the swathes of fynbos and the tumbling rivers that made our five days more than a hike, a mere exercise. Instead, the five days were a reconnection with nature, a blend of the small details, the impression of spoor and the song of a sunbird in the tapestry of fynbos and forest that sent us home, slightly exhausted, yet entirely reinvigorated as only an outing in nature can do.

Book a Hiking Tour

For more details on how to book this itinerary or any of our other hiking and slackpacking tours, visit our Garden Route Trail website or email an enquiry to Amanda and Mark.

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