The most mountainous and arguably the most beautiful of South Africa’s provinces, the Western Cape is also the most popular area of the country for foreign tourists. Curiously, it’s also the least African province. Visitors spend weeks here without exhausting its attractions, but frequently leave slightly disappointed, never having quite experienced an African beat. Of South Africa’s nine provinces, only the Western Cape and the Northern Cape don’t have an African majority; one person in five here is African, and the largest community, making up 55 percent of the population, are coloureds – people of mixed race descended from white settlers, indigenous Khoisan people and slaves from the East.
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Although the Western Cape appears to conform more closely to the developed world than any other part of the country, the impression is strictly superficial. Beneath the prosperous feel of the Winelands and the Garden Route lies a reality of poverty in squatter camps on the outskirts of well-to-do towns, and on some farms where nineteenth-century labour practices prevail, despite the end of apartheid. Nevertheless, you can’t fail to be moved by the sensuous beauty of the province’s mountains, valleys and beaches. The Winelands, less than an hour from Cape Town, are all about eating, drinking and visual feasting on gabled homesteads among vineyards backed by slatey crags.
The best-known feature of the Western Cape is the Garden Route, a drive along the N2 that extends between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Public transport along the Garden Route is better than anywhere in the country, partly because the route is a single stretch of freeway, and tour operators along the way have turned it into the country’s most concentrated strip for packaged adventure sports and outdoor activities.
To the east of the Winelands, the Breede River Valley is a region usually bypassed along the N1 en route to Johannesburg, but featuring among its functional fruit-farming towns are some hideaways favoured by Capetonians as weekend retreats. Though the region was neglected by visitors in the past, some creative marketing has now literally put it on the map as Route 62, most of which consists of the intriguing eponymous back road tracing its way through the interior, linking Little Karoo towns between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
The Overberg – roughly the area between Arniston and Mossel Bay along the coast, and inland to Swellendam – is another region that remains hidden behind the mountains. West of here, the Whale Coast is the best area in the country for shore-based whale-watching, and a couple of pleasant coastal towns lie off the main routes. North of Cape Town, the less popular, remote and windswept West Coast is usually explored during the wild-flower months of August and September, when visitors converge on its centrepiece, the West Coast National Park. Its other major draw, 200km north of Cape Town on the N7, is the Cederberg, a rocky wilderness with hikes and hidden rock-art sites – the work of indigenous San people, who were virtually extinguished in the nineteenth century.
Route 62 and the Little Karoo
One of the most rewarding journeys in the Western Cape is an inland counterpart to the Garden Route – the mountain route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, largely along the R62, and thus often referred to as Route 62. Nowhere near as well known as the coastal journey, this trip takes you through some of the most dramatic mountain passes in the country and crosses a frontier of dorps and drylands. This “back garden” of the Little Karoo is in many respects more rewarding than the actual Garden Route, being far less developed, with spectacular landscapes, quieter roads and some great small towns to visit.
The most likeable of these towns are the historic spa town of Montagu, rural and arty Barrydale, and the port capital Calitzdorp. Oudtshoorn and the Cango Caves mark the convergence of the mountain and coastal roads; over the most dramatic of all passes in the Cape – the unpaved Swartberg Pass, 27km of spectacular switchbacks and zigzags through the Swartberg Mountains – is Prince Albert, a Karoo village whose spare beauty and remarkable light make it popular with artists.
From Prince Albert, the hinterland of the Great Karoo opens up, the semi-desert that covers one-third of South Africa’s surface. The fruit farms of the Little Karoo spread out into treeless plains, vegetated with low, wiry scrub, and dotted with flat-topped hills. The best of the Karoo can be found in the Karoo National Park, while, in Sutherland, the clear, clean air provides some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world.
Prince Albert and around
Isolation has left intact the traditional rural architecture of PRINCE ALBERT, an attractive little town 70km north of Oudtshoorn, across the loops and razorbacks of the Swartberg Pass – one of the most dramatic drives and entries to a town imaginable. Although firmly in the thirstlands of the South African interior, on the cusp between the Little and Great Karoo, Prince Albert is all the more striking for its perennial spring, whose water trickles down furrows along its streets – a gift that propagates fruit trees and gardens.
The town's essence is in the fleeting impressions that give the flavour of a Karoo dorp like nowhere else: the silver steeple of the Dutch Reformed church puncturing a deep-blue sky, and residents sauntering along or progressing slowly down the main street on squeaky bikes. Prince Albert is known for its mohair products: rugs, socks, scarves and other garments; check out Karoo Looms at 55 Church Street, which has some funky, bright designs, or, further down Church Street, the more traditional Wolskuur Spinnerst.
Go to Hell
Prince Albert is one of the best places to begin a trip into Die Hel (also known as Hell, The Hell or Gamkaskloof), a valley that's part of the Swartberg Nature Reserve. Die Hel is not on the way to anywhere and, although it doesn't look very far on the map, you'll need to allow two- and- a- half hours in either direction to make the spectacular but tortuous drive into it along a rough dirt road. The attraction of the place is the silence, isolation and birdlife. Call CapeNature (023 541 1736, capenature.co.za) in the valley for up-to-date road conditions.
Passes and poorts of the Little Karoo
The Little Karoo is hemmed in by a gauntlet of rugged mountains and steep-sided valleys (or poorts) that for centuries made this area virtually impassable for wheeled transport. In the nineteenth century, the British began to tackle the problem and dozens of passes were built through the Cape's mountains, 34 of which were engineered by the brilliant road-builder Andrew Geddes Bain and his son Thomas. In fact, whatever the Little Karoo lacks in museums and art galleries is amply compensated for by the towering drama of these Victorian masterpieces. We've listed a selection of some of the best of the passes here.
Cogman's Kloof Pass Between Ashton and Montagu. A five-kilometre route that's at its most dramatic as it cuts through a rock face into the Montagu Valley.
Gamkaskloof Pass Also called Die Hel (The Hell), reached from the summit of the Swartberg Pass. Arguably the most awesome of all the passes leading into a dramatic and lonely valley, all on gravel.
Meiringspoort A tarred road through a gorge in the Swartberg, which can be taken to reach Prince Albert, which keeps crossing a light-brown river, while huge slabs of folded and zigzagging rock rise up on either side.
Prince Alfred's Pass On the R339, between the N2, just east of Knysna, and Avontuur on the R62. A dramatic dirt road twisting through mountains, past a few isolated apple farms.
Swartberg Pass Between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert. Over-the-Swartberg counterpart of Meiringspoort, with 1:7 gradients on narrow untarred roads, characterized by precipitous hairpins.
The Overberg interior and the Whale Coast
East of the Winelands lies a vaguely defined region known as the Overberg (Afrikaans for “over the mountain”). In the seventeenth century, when Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl were remote outposts, everywhere beyond them was, to the Dutch settlers, a fuzzy hinterland drifting off into the arid sands of the Karoo.
Of the two main routes through the Overberg, the N2 strikes out across the interior, a four- to five-hour stretch of sheep, wheat and mountains. North of the N2 is Greyton, a charming, oak-lined village used by Capetonians as a relaxing weekend retreat, and the starting point of the Boesmanskloof Traverse – a terrific two-day trail across the mountains into the Karoo. The historic Moravian mission station of Genadendal, ten minutes down the road from Greyton, has a strange Afro-Germanic ambience that offers a couple of hours’ pleasant strolling. Swellendam, with its well-preserved streetscape with serene Cape Dutch buildings and superb country museum, is favoured for the first night’s stop on a Garden Route tour.
The real draw of the area is the Whale Coast, close enough for an easy outing from Cape Town, yet surprisingly undeveloped. The exception is popular Hermanus, which owes its fame to its status as the whale-watching capital of South Africa. The whole of this southern Cape coast is, in fact, prime territory for land-based whale-watching. Also along this section of coast is Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the continent, where rocks peter into the ocean. Nearby, and more exclusive, is Arniston, one of the best-preserved fishing villages in the country, and a little to its east the De Hoop Nature Reserve, an exciting wilderness of bleached dunes, craggy coast and more whales.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
De Hoop is the wilderness highlight of the Western Cape and one of the best places in the world for land-based whale-watching from July to October, with the greatest numbers of whales to be seen in August and September. There's no need to take a boat or use binoculars; in season you'll see whales blowing or breaching – leaping clear of the water – or perhaps slapping a giant tail. Although the reserve could technically be done as a day-trip from Agulhas, Arniston or Swellendam, you'll find it far more rewarding to come here for a night or more. The Whale Trail hike is one of South Africa's best walks and among the finest wildlife experiences in the world (6 days; 54km).
The breathtaking coastline is edged by bleached sand dunes standing 90m high in places, and rocky formations that at one point open to the sea in a massive craggy arch. The flora and fauna are impressive, too, encompassing 86 species of mammal, 260 different birds and 1500 varieties of plants. Inland, rare Cape mountain zebra, bontebok and other antelope congregate on a plain near the reserve accommodation.
Southern Cape whale-watching
The Southern Cape, including Cape Town, provides some of the easiest and best places in the world for whale-watching. You don't need to take a pricey boat tour to get out to sea; if you come at the right time of year, whales are easily visible from the shore, although a good pair of binoculars will come in useful.
All nine of the great whale species of the southern hemisphere pass by South Africa's shores, but the most commonly seen are southern right whales (their name derives from being the "right" one to kill because of their high oil and bone yields and the fact that, conveniently, they float when dead). Southern right whales are black and easily recognized from their pale, brownish callosities. These unappealing patches of raised, roughened skin on their snouts and heads have a distinct pattern on each animal, which helps scientists keep track of them.
Female whales come inshore to calve in sheltered bays, and stay to nurse their young for up to three months. July to October is the best time to see them, although they start appearing in June and some stay around until December. When the calves are big enough, the whales head off south again, to colder, stormy waters, where they feed on enormous quantities of plankton, making up for the nursing months when the females don't eat at all. Though you're most likely to see females and young, you may see males early in the season boisterously flopping about the females, though they neither help rear the calves nor form lasting bonds with females.
What gives away the presence of a whale is the blow or spout, a tall smoky plume which disperses after a few seconds and is actually the whale breathing out before it surfaces. If luck is on your side, you may see whales breaching – the movement when they thrust high out of the water and fall back with a great splash.
The Whale Coast's hottest whale spots
In Hermanus, the best vantage points are the concrete cliff paths which ring the rocky shore from New Harbour to Grotto Beach. There are interpretation boards at three of the popular vantage points (Gearing's Point, Die Gang and Bientang's Cave). At their worst, the paths can be lined two or three deep with people.
Aficionados claim that De Kelders, some 39km east of Hermanus, is even better, while De Hoop Nature Reserve, east of Arniston, is reckoned by some to be the ultimate place along the entire Southern African coast.
Several operators offer boat trips from Hermanus; they're all essentially the same, so your choice of whom to go with will depend more on the time and day than the reliability of the operator.
The Boesmanskloof Traverse
The 14km Boesmanskloof Traverse takes you from the gentle, oak-lined streets of Greyton across the Riviersonderend mountain range to the glaring Karoo scrubland around the town of McGregor. No direct roads connect the two towns; to drive from one to the other involves a circuitous two-hour journey.
The classic way to cover the Traverse is to walk from Greyton to Die Galg (14km from McGregor), where people commonly spend the night, returning the same way to Greyton the following day. The Traverse rises and falls a fair bit, so you'll have to contend with a lot of strenuous uphill walking. If you're based in Greyton and don't want to do the whole thing, walk to Oak Falls, 9km from Greyton, and back. Composed of a series of cascades, it's the highlight of the route, its most impressive feature being a large pool where you can rest and swim in cola-coloured water.
You're free to walk the first 5km of the trail and back, but to walk to Oak Falls or Die Galg, or to complete the whole route from Greyton to Die Galg, you will need a permit (R35 per person per day), booked in advance from the Greyton tourist information office.
The West Coast
The West Coast of South Africa – remote, windswept and bordered by the cold Atlantic, demands a special appreciation. For many years the black sheep of Western Cape tourism, it has been set upon by developers who seem all too ready to spoil the bleached, salty emptiness that many people have just begun to value. The sandy soil and dunes harbour a distinctive coastal fynbos vegetation, while the coastline is almost devoid of natural inlets or safe harbours, with fierce southeasterly summer winds and dank winter fogs, though in spring wild flowers ever-miraculously appear in the veld. The southern 200km of the region, by far the most densely populated part of the coast, has many links to Namaqualand to the north – not least the flowers.
Outside the flower months of August and September, this part of the West Coast has a wide range of attractions, particularly during summer when the lure of the sea and the cooler coast is strong. The area is well known for a wide range of activities, most popularly various types of watersports, hiking and some excellent birdwatching.
A highlight of a number of West Coast towns is the casual but sumptuous seafood feast served in open-air restaurants, with little more than a canvas shelter held up with driftwood and lengths of fishing twine or a simple wind-cheating brush fence as props. The idea is to serve up endless courses of West Coast delicacies right by the ocean, in the style of a beach braai.
Birdwatching on the West Coast
The West Coast is a twitchers’ dream, where you can tick off numerous wetland species. The most rewarding viewing time is just after flower season in early summer, which heralds the arrival of around 750,000 migrants on their annual pilgrimage from the northern hemisphere, many from as far off as the Arctic Circle. They spend about eight months fattening up on delicacies from the tidal mudflats before their arduous journey back to their breeding grounds. Langebaan in the West Coast National Park is the best place in the country for such sightings and is considered the fifth most important wetland in the world, hosting over 250 bird species, more than a quarter of South Africa’s total. The Berg River estuary and saltworks at Velddrif are another vital feeding ground for waders.
The coastal lake of Verlorenvlei, meaning "the lost marsh", is one of the most important wetlands in South Africa; it stretches 13.5km from its mouth at Eland’s Bay (25km south of Lambert’s Bay) to its headwaters near Redelinghuys. Look out here for the purple gallinule, a colourful, shy wader, and the African marsh harrier, a raptor that may be declining in numbers. Here species more fond of arid conditions merge with the waders, and there have been some rare sightings including a black egret and a palm-nut vulture. At Bird Island, Lambert’s Bay, a sunken hide makes it convenient to view the garrulous behaviour of the breeding colony of Cape gannets.
West Coast flowers
During August and September you’ll find displays of wild flowers across the West Coast region, with significant displays starting as far south as Darling. Excellent displays are also found in the West Coast National Park and the hazy coastal landscapes around Cape Columbine and Lambert’s Bay, while inland, Clanwilliam is the centre of some good routes. An incredible four thousand flower species are found in the region, most of them members of the daisy and mesembryanthemum groups. For up-to-date advice and guidance, contact the helpful tourist offices in Darling, Saldanha and Clanwilliam; look for further tips on flower-viewing.
A bold and jagged outcrop of the Western Cape fold escarpment, the Cederberg range is one of the most magical wilderness areas in the Western Cape. Rising with a striking presence on the eastern side of the Olifants River Valley, around 200km north of Cape Town, these high sandstone mountains and long, dry valleys manage to combine accessibility with remote harshness, offering something for hikers, campers, naturalists and rock climbers.
The Cederberg Wilderness Area, flanking the N7 between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam, was created to protect the silt-free waters of the Cederberg catchment area, but it also provides a recreational sanctuary with over 250km of hiking trails. In a number of places, the red-hued sandstone has been weathered into grotesque, gargoyle-like shapes and a number of memorable natural features. Throughout the area there are also numerous San rock-art sites, an active array of Cape mountain fauna, from baboon and small antelope to leopard, caracal and aardwolf, and some notable montane fynbos flora, including the gnarled and tenacious Clanwilliam cedar and the rare snow protea.
The Cederberg is easily reached from Cape Town on the N7: the two main, though very small, towns of Citrusdal and Clanwilliam lie just off the highway near, respectively, the southern and northern tips of the mountain range, but are not in the mountains themselves, and are not the places to base yourself if you want to hike.
Cederberg rock art
The Cederberg has around 2500 known rock-art sites, estimated to be between one and eight thousand years old. They are the work of the first South Africans, hunter gatherers known as San or Bushmen, the direct descendants of some of the earliest Homo sapiens who lived in the Western Cape 150,000 years ago.
One of the best ways to see rock art is on a self-guided 4km walk from Traveller’s Rest Farm along the Sevilla Trail, which takes in ten sites.
Another way to see paintings is on a half-day tour to Warmhoek site near Clanwilliam, run by the excellent Living Landscape Project, 18 Park St in Clanwilliam (027 482 1911, www.cllp.uct.ac.za), and led by competent local guides. The project is the brainchild of archeologist John Parkington, from the University of Cape Town, whose books on rock art in the Cederberg (The Mantis and the Moon and Cederberg Rock Paintings) offer the best interpretation of the puzzling and beautiful images you’ll see delicately painted on rocks and overhangs.
Top image: © Harry Beugelink/Shutterstock