‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Die Plaat Loop (approx 10km)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.