A nature pro’s tips on exploring Cape Town’s natural attractions

Table Mountain is just one of Cape Town’s natural wonders. Home to penguins, big game and astonishing flora, the Cape peninsula offers hiking, birding, whale watching and shark-cage diving, all set against a backdrop of mountains and blue oceans. Dominic Chadbon — also known as The Fynbos Guy — offers some advice on how to tick the best natural attractions off your list.

Most big cities around the world are recognisable by their skyscraper skyline; very few are synonymous with a natural landmark. Table Mountain not only defines Cape Town, but heralds the start of a 70-kilometre peninsula crammed with such natural biodiversity that it almost defies belief.

This is a destination where you can enjoy dazzling displays of flowers and see baboons and antelope foraging next to unspoilt beaches; you can also go diving with seals or slip into the water and watch sharks from the safety of a steel cage. There are endemic birds, honking penguin colonies and hiking trails ranging from half-day strolls to multi-day adventures.

The trick is to know where to go, when to go and how to do it all. The good news is that Cape Town’s most popular natural attractions are all-year-round affairs and easy to get to by yourself. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Table Mountain, Boulders Beach penguin colony and Cape Point at the tip of the Cape Peninsula are all good examples. Simply hire a car or jump on a tour – you can even catch the big red sightseeing bus to some of them.

Make sure you do a bit of research if you’re hoping to see a lot of flowers, whales or great white sharks leaping out of the water: several of Cape Town’s natural attractions are seasonal. And try to be flexible with your itinerary too – you may need to chop and change days to suit the weather, especially if you are doing ocean-based activities.

As for iconic Table Mountain — the first sighting of which used to earn a 17th century Dutch sailor 10 guilders and six bottles of wine — if you want to really maximise your experience, consider using a guide. For example, there are only a handful of self-guided trails up Table Mountain; a guide will know other routes far from the crowds as well as what to do if the weather’s not so good.

Cape of Good Hope has an epic hiking trail. Shhh, it’s a secret

This stunning trail at the tip of the Cape Peninsula is hiking guide author Fiona McIntosh’s favourite two-day hiking trail in South Africa, and one of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets.

The overnight trail through the Cape of Good Hope section of the Table Mountain National Park is an absolute gem, but it’s surprisingly little known.

A self-guided, circular trail, it can be hiked clockwise or anti-clockwise and each has its advantages.

If you hike clockwise you have a fairly short first day (10.5 kilometres, 4 to 5 hours), so you should have plenty of time to explore Cape Point in the late evening when all the day-trippers have left.

The anti-clockwise option means that you do the long day (20.3 kilometres, 7 to 8 hours) first and can explore Cape Point early the following morning while you are fresh, and still get back to your car in good time on the afternoon of day two. That is my personal preference, but it’s worth checking the weather—in particular the predicted wind direction—before making a decision.

If taking the anti-clockwise route you head from the entrance gate towards the Atlantic coast. The trail leads through swathes of colourful flowers in early spring (September) and past herds of Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, eland and other plains game, then traverses Blaubergvlei, an area that is out of bounds to day hikers. The scenery is glorious. The path leads through a section of coastal forest and past empty golden beaches, from which you’ll often see whales and dolphins, before cutting across the neck of the peninsula to the wonderfully located overnight huts on the flank of Vasco da Gama Peak.

The route on Day Two completes the circle, along the dramatic cliffs and wild beaches of the False Bay coast and back to the gate.

Although it’s not particularly steep at any stage, don’t underestimate this trail—33.8 kilometres is a long way in two days if you’re carrying a pack. My advice is to pay the small extra charge to have your bag (and your cooler bag of beer and meat) delivered to the huts. The three huts, each of which sleep six hikers, are equipped with showers, flush toilets, mattresses, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, braais and grids and you can purchase wood at the gate and have it delivered.

Try to factor in two detours. The absolute “must-do” is to visit the lighthouses at Cape Point in the evening of Day One, or on the morning of the second day—a round hike of about two hours. Another worthwhile short detour is to the wreck of the Phyllisia at Hoek van Bobbejaan. The turn-off is about halfway between the entrance gate and the overnight huts on the long day and the path takes you past some KhoiSan middens on the way to the wreck.

The Cape of Good Hope Reserve is part of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site and the flora is suitably impressive, with 1080 plants, including 14 endemic species, having been recorded in the reserve. The birdlife is also a highlight so I strongly advise you to take a field guide to the birds and flowers.

Cape Town gets the Blues in the best way at this festival

A historic quarry and a refreshing dam provide the backdrop for arguably the most authentic and enjoyable gathering of blues musicians in South Africa. The Table Mouintain Blues Summit is held annually on Hillcrest, a farm on the outskirts of Durbanville in Cape Town’s northern suburbs.

Though the venue and length of the festival changes from time to time, the Table Mountain Blues Summit has become an unmissable event in Cape Town’s midsummer for anyone even mildly fond of blues and rock music. Even for those who don’t specifically feel the need to seek out our growling, blues-churning brethren, the relief offered by a dip-friendly dam in the often scorching heat of a Cape Town summer should be more than enticing!

In an earlier interview on LitNet (* hyperlink: http://www.litnet.co.za/richard-pryor-talks-table-mountain-blues-summit), Richard Pryor – one of the organisers and a blues guru himself – indicated that though he’d like an international act or two to join the line-up at some stage, the focus is very much on the quality of blues acts in South Africa. “We build the summit around the so-called family of bands that have been a mainstay of the fest,” he said.

Though the setting might be considered by some to be too idyllic for a true blues experience (considering the misery it’s often rooted in and upliftment it pleads for), South Africa holds plenty of challenges for each and every citizen…and while the hard work is being done elsewhere to tackle these issues, a day or two of commiserating with excellent musicians and excellent people makes for a not only unique, but exhilarating, experience.

Cape Town’s natural beauty only adds to its urban appeal

Cape Town is a city of immense natural beauty and its tourism industry has long been reliant on attractions such as Table Mountain, Cape Point, Robben Island, numerous white sandy beaches and the surrounding winelands to sell the destination to travellers. But it is the way these natural attractions are protected alongside urban attractions that make Cape Town one of the most appealing cities in the world for modern responsible travellers, says Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, former Cape Town Tourism chief executive and founder of Destinate, a specialised international marketing agency.

Cities are now considered to be the new super-brands in travel with close to 80% of the world’s travellers defined as urban travellers. Successful cities of the future are those that stand out from the rest and see to the needs of a new type of traveller — responsible, connected, conscientious and design-focused urban tourists.

In this new age, Cape Town ticks all the right boxes. It is a city boasting world-class infrastructure and amenities, a host of leisure attractions and authentic natural beauty situated no more than 20 minutes from the downtown core with a thriving creative industry. Sure, leisure is at the top of most travellers’ bucket lists, but for those coming for business, Cape Town tops the charts too.

Being reliant largely on its natural beauty to increase travel for so long also meant having to have stringent measures in place to counter any negative impacts on the environment and local communities…

Tourism is built around relationships and partnerships — with government, the private sector, local communities and naturally, the environment. In tourism we work side by side to ensure that the environment and indigenous cultures are preserved while still allowing travellers to have the holiday of a lifetime.

For responsible and urban tourists alike, a great destination is a place that offers multiple ways in which to experience the city as authentically and conscientiously as possible — getting under the skin of the city…

Continuing along this path, Cape Town’s tourism industry is set to grow from strength to strength as its well-kept natural attractions and genuine cultural offerings add to the allure of its urban heart.

Did you know? Table Mountain forms part of a World Heritage Site

Table Mountain National Park is a World Heritage Site

Table Mountain National Park, which stretches from the City of Cape Town to Cape Point at the southern tip of the Cape peninsula, is one of the core sites that comprise the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage Site. It was inscribed into the list of (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites in 2004. And forms part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a vast area of shrubland dominated by fynbos (meaning “fine bush” in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), centred around South Africa’s Western Cape Province and extending eastward into the Eastern Cape Province and, minimally, into the Northern Cape Province. It is the smallest and richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms and the only one to be completely contained within one country.

What is interesting and sometimes confusing, however, is that the original World Heritage Site inscription did not refer to the entire Cape Floral Kingdom, but to eight separate but representative sites (comprising an area of about 553 000 hectares) chosen for that honour.

Why not just have one, continuous area, like most World Heritage Sites? Well, while all of the Cape Floral Kingdom is special in some way, much of the region is no longer in its natural state. It was therefore not possible to award World Heritage status to the whole region since it contains significant areas of agriculture and urbanisation — hardly pristine flowers! And because the Cape Floral Kingdom is such a big area, stretching from the winter rainfall areas of the south-western Cape through transitional areas to the arid Karoo, it was impossible to find one area where all the unique, precious floral species found in the kingdom are concentrated.

So the solution was eight protected areas, each representing different habitats, and between them providing the pieces of the complex Cape Floral Kingdom jigsaw. It is the series of these eight sites that has such universal value and not the individual components. To quote Guy Palmer of CapeNature Scientific Services, who co-ordinated the selection of the areas and the compilation and submission to UNESCO, the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site is “an evolutionary treasure chest, which, as a result of relatively stable conditions over millions of years, has managed to retain the gems of natural selection.”

In July 2015 the size of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site was extended to 1 094 742 hectares and the number of protected area clusters increased from eight to 13. Twelve of these protected areas are in the Western Cape with one, the Baviaanskloof Complex, in the Eastern Cape.

Don’t mess with Table Mountain! 5 life-saving tips

Table Mountain’s position in the centre of a cosmopolitan city has a sneaky way of luring tourists, hikers and cyclists into a false sense of security, as if it’s not a “real” mountain. But it’s very much real, as are its dangers; more than 200 people have died up there…

Table Mountain has reportedly been responsible for something like 200 deaths in the past century, yet many of the four million people — hikers, cyclists, climbers and tourists — that visit the mountain each year don’t prepare properly before they go.

“People don’t treat Table Mountain like a ‘real’ mountain because it is so easily accessible surrounded by a city that views it as a back garden … people are under the impression it is a walk in a park,” says Merle Collins, SANParks’ regional communications manager.

She says many hikers don’t even take the basics ‒ sunscreen, water, food or proper lighting and clothing ‒ when venturing onto Table Mountain’s trails. A lack of preparation that could lead to a rescue mission, or worse.

The 35,000-hectare Table Mountain site has seen about 228 deaths between 1920 and January 2015, according to online reports from South African Mountain Accidents Database project manager Andrew Lewis. While some of these deaths can be attributed to suicide, random violent crime or homeless people dying from exposure, many are the result of falls or poor planning.

When Table Mountain’s infamous cloud (known as the “tablecloth” among locals) rolls in, the fog can obscure trails and cause hikers to become disoriented, lost or unaware of looming hazards. Many people also underestimate the time it takes to reach the cable car and begin their hikes too late in the day. They’re then stuck on the mountain at night without a torch or warm clothing.

Here are 5 basic tips that could save your life:

1. Pack the essentials

Merle says hikers should all carry a few essentials, regardless of whether they’re taking a casual stroll or doing a more challenging hike.

She recommends packing a detailed map of the park, sun hat and sunscreen, a torch or headlamp, sufficient water, energy snacks, sturdy hiking shoes (no flip-flops!) and gear for wet and windy weather.

2. Don’t go alone

Don’t hike or cycle alone, Merle adds. Good practice is to hike in groups no smaller than four but no bigger than 10.

3. Check in with someone

Let someone know which trail you plan to take and when you’ll be back, says Merle ‒ they can notify authorities if you become lost.

Also sign up for the free Whatsapp group monitored by mountain rescuers (details here).

4. Save emergency numbers and check the weather

Save Table Mountain’s emergency number on your mobile phone (+27 86-110-6417) and check SANParks’ website for the weather forecast before embarking on an adventure.

5. Stash it, don’t flash it

There are occasional muggings on the mountain, especially on lesser-trodden routes. If you do take valuables such as iPods, cameras or smartphones, don’t keep them obviously visible, and stick to popular routes after 08h00 and before 18h00.

Explore the best of Cape Town’s nature on these 5 hiking trails

The Cape Peninsula, with Cape Town’s Table Mountain at one end and Cape Point at the other, is a wild, special place that begs to be explored on foot, says Fiona McIntosh, author of Hike Cape Town (published by Jacana), a full-colour guide with detailed descriptions of Cape Town’s best day hikes.

A network of hiking trails from Cape Town all the way to the tip of the Cape peninsula criss-crosses the peninsula’s mountainous spine, taking you through exquisite fynbos, indigenous forest and to dramatic rocky viewpoints. Easy coastal tracks lead to gold sand beaches, rock pools and whale-watching viewpoints. Much of the peninsula is protected as part of the Table Mountain National Park, an area of complex beauty and biodiversity that stretches about 60 kilometres from Signal Hill to Cape Point. It includes a significant portion of the mountain chain of the peninsula and 1 000 square kilometres of coastline and sea.

Nature lovers in Cape Town are spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring on foot. But these five iconic trails should be on your to-do list:

1. Maclear’s Beacon

The Table Mountain Cableway will whisk you high onto Table Mountain, but if you want to go to its true summit you will have to hike for about an hour each way across the flat plateau to a large pile of rocks known as Maclear’s Beacon. This beacon marks the highest point on Table Mountain, (1 086 metres above sea level) and was constructed in 1844 by the then Astronomer Royal at the Cape, Sir Thomas Maclear, as part of his efforts to measure the arc of the meridian of the earth.

The route, mostly along a natural rock track that leads through windswept vegetation, is marked with yellow footprints but it’s still easy to lose your way—this hike should only be undertaken in good visibility or with a guide. Remember also that on the top of the mountain the weather can change quickly so always take warm, waterproof clothing even if it’s a glorious sunny day. The Table Mountain Cableway is closed in high winds so don’t rely on it being open by the time you reach the top: make sure that you have the time, and energy, to walk down.

Free, guided walks from the Upper Cable Car Station around the plateau and across to Maclear’s Beacon are run by volunteers. Contact the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway for details.

2. Cape Point to Cape of Good Hope

This moderately difficult trail links two of South Africa’s most iconic landmarks  — Cape Point, with its two striking lighthouses, and the Cape of Good Hope, the south-western tip of Africa. It offers stunning views, wildlife sightings and interesting history. The route up to the now-redundant, upper lighthouse at Cape Point is easy, while that to the new lighthouse is steeper and exposed at times, so requires more effort and a head for heights. You can tour both lighthouses in a couple of hours, then hike along the spectacular cliff path from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope in another 30 minutes. Either return the way you came or arrange to be picked up at the car park at the Cape of Good Hope.

3. The Contour Path

This shady path through the forest on the eastern flanks of Table Mountain starts at Constantia Nek and goes across to the King’s Blockhouse above Rhodes Memorial (the car park closest to the King’s Blockhouse). Allow around six hours to hike the whole way or, if time is short, hike only the popular second half, from the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch to the King’s Blockhouse.

Since it is largely flat and shaded this is an easy trail for walkers of all ages and abilities and there are plenty of escape routes down into the Kirstenbosch gardens if the going gets tough. This is a good year-round trail, with the forest offering shelter from the hot sun in the summer. It’s particularly lovely in winter when the forest is lush and moist, waterfalls tumble down the ravines and colourful fungi adorn the dead branches.

4. Lion’s Head

The trail up Lion’s Head is one of Cape Town’s most popular hikes, partly because it is often in the wind shadow so makes a good outing when the southeaster, Cape Town’s dominant wind, is howling. Although clearly marked, it involves scrambling up some steep rocky sections, often with the aid of ladders and metal staples in the rock, so it is for confident and adventurous hikers only. The seasonal wildflowers are a particular treat and the views of Table Mountain, the World Cup stadium and Robben Island from the top of the peak are breathtaking. Allow two hours to return.

5. Sea Point Promenade

The Sea Point promenade stretches south along Cape Town’s Atlantic coastline from the Green Point lighthouse, a Cape Town landmark, to Queen’s Beach at the southerly end of Sea Point. It’s a wonderfully bracing child- and dog-friendly walk that can be hiked one way if you have two cars (or have a pre-loaded myconnect card for use on Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus), or as an out-and-back walk from either end.

In addition to refreshment stalls, jungle gyms and playgrounds there are several beaches along the way, as well as two tidal pools. The pool at Milton Beach is close to the sand and is protected from the crashing waves beyond so is ideal for families, while Graaff’s pool is a stunning, but more exposed gully nestled between jagged rocks.

As with all good promenades there are benches along the way where you can relax and watch the world go by. The Sea Point promenade has a great vibe, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon when walkers, joggers and rollerbladers head out for a little fresh air. Allow an hour each way.

Head to Table Mountain for an epic rock climb right in the city centre

Few places in the world rival Cape Town as a rock-climbing destination. Lifelong climber, climbing magazine editor and guide book author Tony Lourens gives the low-down on the best rock climbing on Table Mountain and the Cape peninsula.

There are very few places on Earth where such a range of world-class rock climbing lies within the boundaries of a huge city. The entire Cape peninsula is dominated by the majestic Table Mountain chain that starts in the north, with the front faces of Table Mountain itself overlooking the bustling city of Cape Town, and runs south along the backbone for 60 kilometres, culminating in the wild, unspoilt Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve on the extreme southern tip.

In Cape Town and across the Cape peninsula, the climber is almost always rewarded with stupendous mountain scenery and glorious sweeping views of the mighty oceans that surround the bony Table Mountain chain.

If it is wild, exposed rock climbing in a high mountain setting you are looking for, then The Ledge on Table Mountain is where you want to be. This is the showcase of traditional rock climbing (where the climber is responsible for placing and removing their own protection in the rock) in Cape Town and here you will find excellent rock climbing on bullet-hard sandstone that will rival rock-climbing routes anywhere in the world.

For less “out-there” routes, the Lower Buttresses (a few hundred metres below The Ledge) offer great rock climbing of a slightly friendlier nature. On the Apostle Buttresses running along the western side that overlooks the Camps Bay Riviera, the rock climbing takes on another mood altogether — beautiful crags nestled between deep ravines, each exuding their own individual character, with routes of varying length.

If the weather is a little turbulent for the main massif, Lion’s Head and the crags on the southern peninsula (Muizenberg Crag and Elsie’s Peak) are unaffected by threatening frontal weather systems. Here you will find a plethora of short multi-pitch traditional rock climbing routes of all grades, with Elsie’s Peak a real gem if you are looking for steep, hard rock climbing.

Of course, in addition to the stunning traditional climbing there are also numerous sport climbing crags (routes that are prepared using fixed bolts as protection) and fantastic bouldering areas (climbing on boulders only a few metres high, which does not necessitate the use of ropes and other climbing equipment), all within a stone’s throw of the city.

The Cape peninsula is a veritable paradise for nature lovers, and particularly for climbers. The choice of routes is almost limitless and you will often find yourself climbing on perfect rock, high above the boundless seas with not another human in sight. Just you, the smell of the fynbos in your nostrils and, if you are lucky, the company of the magnificent Verreaux’s eagles.

Then, what better way to finish off a day at the crag than at one of the many sidewalk cafés or cosy pubs, having a cold beer and reflecting on a perfect day on the rock?

My favourite running trails in and around Cape Town

Long-distance trail runner Andre Gie has won — and set records for — some of the toughest trail races Cape Town has to offer. He lets you in on a few of his favourite places to run.

The unique thing about Cape Town is that you have this big mountain in the middle of the city. The mountain has a special feel to it, with rock formations and vegetation like no where else. You can start running in the city and in a couple of minutes be in a wild environment without anyone else in sight. And you can run from Table Mountain to the beach to the city — all in one morning!

If we expand the parameters outside of Cape Town just a bit, two of my favourite places on earth are the Garden Route and the Cederberg, so it’s not surprising that trails there make it into my selection.

Robberg Peninsula near Plettenberg Bay (a six to seven-hour drive from Cape Town) must be one of the most beautiful seven-kilometre runs on the planet. It is the perfect combination of rocky trails, running along the beach and along cliff-tops above the ocean. You often run along the cliffs above massive great white sharks as they cruise next to the peninsula! There isn’t a boring step on this run and it’s a must-do for any trail runner.

In Cape Town itself, the loop around Lion’s Head should not be missed.

In terms of a medium distance, there is a combination of trails that link together to create a loop around Table Mountain. Start at the cableway and run the contour paths to Kirstenbosch. Then climb up Skeleton Gorge — which looks and feels like Jurassic Park — to the top of Table Mountain. Run past the dams and down Kasteelspoort to the pipetrack and back to your car. This great run gives you the opportunity to see both sides of the mountain, some awesome trails, and a lot of variety.

If you are looking to do a longer distance, anything in the Cederberg (around three hour’s drive from Cape Town) will do. My current favourite is to run from Algeria up Uitkyk Pass, around the back of Sneeuberg, then through the Duiwelsgat ravine, past the Maltese Cross to Sanddrif. It is beautiful and remote running in some big mountains. The bonus is that you end up at Cederberg Wines, which is a great wine farm with fantastic red wines and beer, and a cold river to jump in at the Sanddrif campsite!

Overseers Cottage is my best hiker’s hut in Cape Town

The Overseers Cottage on top of Table Mountain is a unique memory maker, says Saskia Marlowe, Hospitality Manager at Table Mountain National Park.

My most treasured possessions are memories, so when it comes to family gifts I go for experiences that will create lifelong memories. For many people the most special memories are about spending family time together: if it’s in a unique location, all the better.

The Overseers Cottage, perched on top of Table Mountain, has one of the most spectacular settings for an overnight stay in Cape Town. But there is a catch: to get there you have to hike. The most obvious route up the mountain, particularly if you have a mixed-ability hiking group, is the jeep track that leads from Constantia Nek up to the cottage—a two-hour walk if you stop a couple of times to look at the view and gaze at the vastness of the city below. For the more adventurous, a hike up Skeleton Gorge and then across the top of Table Mountain is an enticing alternative.

Irrespective of the route you walk, your bags and cooler box will be waiting for you on arrival and you will have earned your drink at the end of the day. The Overseers Cottage is an exclusive-use cottage so there will only be you and those you invite to share this special place.

Overseers has no electricity, but gas makes everything possible and a warm shower and hot cup of tea will reward you for your efforts.  As night falls the twinkling city lights draw you outside and the stars enthral. Remember to take a warm jacket with you: even in the summer months the wind tends to chill the skin.

If you can resist the urge to just sit in the sun and take in the view in the morning, you should drag yourself out of the crispy white linen early and hike towards the dams as the sun rises. Table Mountain is always beautiful, but never more so than when the dams and the view are there for just you and your family to share.

When the magic of an overnight stay ends at Overseers there is still the joy of the hike down. Your choice of route depends on your fitness: one of the easiest options is to meander across the top of Table Mountain and then take the cable car down. Going down the Twelve Apostles side of Table Mountain on either the Kasteelspoort or Wood Ravine path is also a possibility, one often forgotten in favour of the more obvious alternative.  No matter what hiking trails you take up and down, a night at Overseers Cottage will delight everyone in your family and create a memory to be treasured.