Southern tip of Africa
The Southernmost Walk and the Southermost Cycling route are in the South Western Cape region of South Africa, referred to as the Overberg. The name literally means over the mountain from Cape Town. The Overberg stretches from the Hottentots-Holland Mountains in the west, to Swellendam in the east. In the north it reaches as far as the Riviersonderend Mountains and ventures south to include an incredible coastline at the tip of the African continent where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.
The area is geographically striking. It boasts the unique floral wonders of the Cape floral kingdom and historical sites of note include the Khoi-Khoi Caves and old fishing villages that have survived to this day.
There are many shipwrecks that litter the coast and whale watching in season (September – November) always draws the crowds. The rocky coastline offers anglers and divers unending pleasure and the seas and rivers are favourites with fishing and boating enthusiasts.
Heading away from the coast, the agricultural pursuits of the Overberg farms are worth a look in as are the nature reserves of this region. Two of the major conservation projects in the area are the efforts to save the Cape Griffin Vulture and to revive the Cape Quagga.
The Blue Crane
A key feature of the Southern Cape is the Blue Crane – South Africa’s national bird.
The Blue Crane’s resurgence from low levels in the area in recent years has galvanised local farmers to form a unique alliance with the aim of saving these graceful creatures from extinction.
There are fifteen species of cranes throughout the world, three of which are found in South Africa: the Blue Crane, the Grey-Crowned Crane and the Wattled Crane.
The Blue Crane is displayed on South Africa’s five-cent coin and the bird has been part of the country’s heritage for decades. The long Blue Crane feathers are traditionally reserved for the headdress of tribal kings.
The birds are omnivorous and prefer plants, grains and insects in their diets. It makes the wheat and barley lands of this region ideally suited for the Blue Crane. Ironically the clearing of natural vegetation for extended planting of field crops has proved favourable for the nesting and proliferation of this bird. They prefer high ground with clear views for their nests. But even here the birds remain under threat. Collisions with power lines and fences, misuse of agro-chemicals, being caught in baling twine, chicks drowning in water troughs and the theft of chicks for the pet trade are concerns their protectors are constantly faced with.
The Overberg is home to a wide variety of wild flowers or “fynbos”, a unique feature of the Cape floral kingdom. It is the smallest and richest of the six plant regions of the world, and it boasts the largest variety of plants – a staggering 9 000 species. Six thousand of these are found nowhere else in the world.
Unique to the area is the Bredasdorp Lily (Cyrtanthus guthrieae). This striking fire lily is a bulbous plant growing up to 12cm in height with one or two bright red flowers. It is endemic to the hills west of Bredasdorp and only flowers after a fire, usually in March and April. The lily occurs mainly on the lower sandstone slopes and has been listed as a Red Data species.
The region is well-known for its contribution to the South African wool trade. A local farmer, Michiel van Breda, saw the potential of raising Merino sheep on his farm Zoetendalsvallei and that kick-started the now established local wool trade. The farm was named after the ship Zoetendaal, which was shipwrecked along the Cape Agulhas coast. Bredasdorp itself is named after Michiel van Breda.
The Overberg coastline is renowned for shipwrecks, and streets and businesses in Cape Agulhas bear the names of some ill-fated ships. These include Meisho Maru, St Mungo, Brederode, Nossa Senhora dos Milagros, Juno and Martha.
Towns on walking & cycling trails
L’ Agulhas is the southernmost town in Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans officially meet. Early Portuguese seafarers rounding this dangerous point called it L’Agulhas which means Cape of Needles (referring to the jagged rocks of the coastline and also the fact that a compass shows no real deviation between true north and magnetic north at this spot). L’Agulhas gets its rich heritage from the shipwreck survivors of many nationalities who settled in this desolate place.
The windswept, ruggedly beautiful coastal plain also lays claim to the Agulhas National Park which has more that 9000 species of flowering plants and the coastline supports a rich marine and intertidal life, with breeding sites of rare birds such as the African Black Oystercatcher.
The country’s second oldest working lighthouse was built here in 1848 paying homage to the Pharos of Alexandria – one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World from the 3rd century BC (between 285 and 247 BC) on the island of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt to serve as that port’s landmark, and later, its lighthouse. You can browse the fascinating lighthouse museum and curio shop or stop for a cup of tea. The koppie behind the lighthouse provides a panoramic view of where the two oceans meet, ships pass and Southern Right whales play in spring and early summer. The actual Southernmost Tip of Africa is 1km west of the lighthouse and is marked by a simple cairn.
East of the tip are vywers (fish traps) which were created by inhabitants of the area thousands of years ago. These traps were made by building dams across shallow gullies so that fish would be stranded at low tide. Some vywers have been maintained through the centuries and are still used today. The discovery of stone hearths and pottery, together with shell middens, are a valuable historic and cultural legacy left by the Khoikhoi beach nomads who lived along this coastline for centuries.
The water here is very shallow and L’Agulhas is known to be one of the best fishing grounds in South Africa. L’Agulhas has several fynbos hiking trails including The Ghost Corner hiking trail and there are also tidal pools and rock pools for swimming. To see rare birds, shells and archaeological sites dating back 10 000 years you could join a 4×4 LandRover beach safari.
The small village of Suiderstrand is located just to the west of the southernmost tip, on the Atlantic side. Completely surrounded by the Agulhas National Park and the ocean, this village is a nature lover’s paradise.
Struisbaai is a pristine fishing village and a popular holiday destination situated a short drive from the southern most tip of Africa. Boasting the longest continuous beach in the Southern Hemisphere, 14km of white sand extends from Struisbaai to Arniston, providing safe bathing, boating and angling. The beach here is exquisite, with an almost subtropical feel. The water is crystal clear and it’s brilliant colour is exaggerated by the colourful fishing boats, which lie in the harbour.
During the annual Geelstert Fees (Yellowtail Festival) in March Struisbaai puts one of the Cape’s finest eating fish on the menu.
The charming little harbour, originally built in 1959 but enlarged in 1990, serves both local fishing boats, known as ‘chukkies’ and ski boats for the flock of visitors in the town during the holiday season. On most days it is easy to launch a kayak, small boat or rubber dingy off the beach and board and kite sailing are particularly good here.
The historical white washed fisherman’s cottages at Hotagterklip and the tiny thatch roof Anglican Church are all national monuments which have been restored. Presently one is operating as a farm stall and B&B establishment as a community project. Other activities include whale watching (July – September), horse riding on the beaches, charter fishing trips and visiting the many curio shops and galleries in the area. A tarred runway (1100m) at Andrew’s Field just 10km from Struisbaai welcomes aircraft to fly in, with permission of course.
There is some debate as to the origin of the name “Struisbaai”. Some authorities believe that it means “straw bay”, referring to the thatch roofs of the fishermen’s cottages here. Others claim the name is derived from the Dutch “struisvogel” or ostrich. According to legend Struisbaai is named for the size of its beach – an Old Dutch word for “huge”.
Town on walking trail only
The Southermost Walk starts in Arniston. The town does not form part of the Southernmost cycling route
Arniston is a village where time has stood still; where the practices of generations of fishermen quietly continue without interruption. But this sleepy little coastal town has seen its fair share of drama.
The name Arniston comes from the British transport/hospital ship that sank near the coast in 1815, with the loss of 372 lives. Only six passengers survived the ordeal and in 1817 a monument was erected on the beach to commemorate the loss. A replica can be seen today above the beach in front of the hotel.
Today, however, Arniston is a favourite hideaway for holidaymakers. You will not find pumping nightlife and adrenalin-packed attractions here, only an azure sea, cobalt sky, and peace and quiet. Activities in Arniston include angling, swimming, hiking, whale watching and watching the loaded fishing boats come into Arniston Bay.
Whilst here, you must take a trip to Kassiesbaai, a 200 year-old fishing village which is a national heritage site in its entirety. Characterised by unassuming white thatch cottages, this is where one can experience the customs of the locals, as many who live here still make a living from the sea. There are some lovely little coffee and craft shops to visit in the village, the sea is safe for swimming (and relatively warm) and the sand dunes around the town are great to explore.
Arniston is also known as Waenhuiskrans because of the magnificent limestone cave across the dunes to the west of Roman Beach. This cave, according to a local theory, is so big that a wagon with a full span of oxen can turn around in it. Waenhuiskrans means ‘wagon house cliff’ in Afrikaans and it can only be accessed at low tide.
Time Magazine has listed Arniston/Waenhuiskrans as one of the 10 most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Other towns on the Cycling route
The following towns are on the Southermost Cycling route :
Elim is a picturesque unique historical village situated halfway on the dirt-road from Gansbaai to Bredasdorp and is the oldest village in the Strandveld. It was founded as a Moravian mission station in 1824 on the site of an existing farm called Vogelstruiskraal. As the third Moravian mission station in the Cape, it was dedicated to establishing a self-supporting church of indigenous people.
With few expectations, Elim is inhabited mostly by members of the Moravian Church. It’s short and sweet biblical name is from Exodus 15:27 The Israelites, after crossing the Red Sea “came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they camped there by the waters.”
The entire village of thatched roof, whitewashed and brightly trimmed cottages, the majority of which date back to the 19th century, historically significant Church Square and watermill has been declared a national monument. The thatch-roof church is the heart of the village. Though Swellendam, Tulbagh and Genadendal Moravian Mission villages may be slightly older, none of these better known destinations has been so well conserved in its original historical and social fabric.
Nowadays some of the cottages are even painted in bright colours and many have corrugated iron roofs, expressive of changing times and harmonising surprisingly well with the historical setting and architecture. The village is also well known for its everlasting flowers and there are 102 species of “fynbos” that are unique to this area. Geelkop (private nature reserve) is about 450 ha in size. It derives its name from the mass of yellow flowering plants, particularly Leucadendrons, which cover the hills during spring. The Geelkop private reserve offers a half-day hiking trail and a circular drive with splendid views.
The charming Church Square itself is a collection of communal buildings with a central function. Elim church boasts the oldest working clock in South Africa. It was acquired for Elim in 1914 but has been working since 1764 when it was built in Germany for a church in Herrenhut. What is unusual is that it has clock faces on both ends of the church – a long axle runs the length of the building connecting the clocks on each gable. If you are passing through on a Sunday, attending the local Church (to which all roads in the village lead) is a must – services start at 10:00 and the Elim Brass Band plays here as well as at selected festivals.
The working water mill, which used to grind the flour for the local bakery, has been restored to its original state and will soon be providing its produce again.
The local museum, with its collection of historical handicraft, shows the history of the village with a large collection of historical photos. A memorial, thanking God for the emancipation of slaves in 1838 stands near the church and the village’s restored corn mill was built in 1828. The mill has the largest wooden wheel in the country and visitors can enjoy tea, coffee or lunch here.
The original school building, a dark-red plastered building, now houses the municipal library. In front of it, as far as we know, is the only monument celebrating the abolition of slavery (in 1835) in South Africa. There is a perfect little guesthouse on the Church Square which enables visitors to enjoy Elim even more at leisure.
The Moravian community consists of farmers, farm workers and artisans. The Elim thatchers are particularly renowned for their craftsmanship and the area is known for its vineyards and the export of “fynbos” (Elim’s “fynbos” is the rarest in the world). The entire village of Elim has been declared a National Heritage Site.
Napier is known as a village with Old World charm and is fast gaining a reputation as a a community for artists, playing host to numerous cultural events. It is situated under the Soetmuisberg, surrounded by wheat and barley fields in the southern-most region of Africa- the Overberg. Century old cottages blend with modern houses creating a delightful rural atmosphere.
Napier was established in 1838, as a result of a dispute between two neighbours, Michiel van Breda & Pieter Voltelyn van der Byl, over the location of the community church. This resulted in the creation of two churches in two separate towns – Napier and Bredasdorp.
Napier was named after the then Governor of the Cape, Sir George Thomas Napier. The town’s main craftsmen were historically blacksmiths. At the turn of the century miners searched for gold on the farm Hansiesrivier. The Napier Gold Mining Company was established and shares were issued, but it had a very short life. Today the town has a population of around 3 000 and has a large Dutch Reformed Church.
With its narrow streets and quaint architecture, Napier is a town full of charm. Along the main road you will find many restaurants, galleries and a host of interesting collector’s shops including the Toy Museum. Other activities include horse riding and tractor rides. There are rare species of “fynbos” as well as flocks of the South African national bird, the Blue Crane, which can be seen in the area.
Napier is also home to the southernmost brewery in Africa on the corner of Station and Monsanto Road. The Grootberg hiking trail provides a unique opportunity for the hiker to see a large variety of “fynbos” species and birds along a clearly marked route around the summit of the Grootberg.
Napier’s Dutch Reformed Church has rather unusual architecture and is built built in the form of a Greek cross. It has a teak interior and beautiful pipe organ. One of the oldest buildings in Napier, the Feeshuis, was restored in 1988 to celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary. The Feeshuis was first used as slave quarters in 1810 – 1820 and later as a wine cellar.
Other interesting historical structures are the Kakebeenwa monument commemorating the Ossewa Trek (ox wagon migration) and the watermill and sundial at the municipal offices. Annual events include a “Patatfees” (Sweet Potato Festival) which is held every June and “The toughest race, with the warmest heart” – the Caltex Foot of Africa Marathon (commonly known as The Voet) is held in October as well as the new Napier Caberet Festival.
Stanford is, architecturally, one of the three best-preserved villages in the Overberg area of the Western Cape It should be on everyone’s “must visit” list – especially as it lies only 150 km from Cape Town.
Waving grasslands and a strong stream of fresh water attracted farmers to the Kleinje River Valleij in the old days. One of them was Christoffel Brand, who built the first farmstead on the farm Kleine River Valley. This was the house in which Lady Anne Barnard stayed during her inland journey in 1798.
In 1801 the farm was granted by the British Government to Brand. The farm changed hands several times until it was bought in 1838 by a prosperous Irish farmer – Robert Stanford. He made many improvements and built the mill (for grinding wheat) next to the stream that ran close to his farm house.
Having an entrepreneurial spirit, he transported products by sea from a small bay (now known as Stanford’s Cove, close to De Kelders) to Cape Town – rather than using the time-consuming route over the Hottentots-Holland Mountain. Robert Stanford lost his farm after a trading setback.
Philippus de Bruyn bought the farm in 1855, laid out the village and sold plots of which the first was registered in the name of Duncan McFarlane on 30 September 1857. The village of Stanford was born.
It is still popular for its rural tranquillity, leafy streets, historical architecture, river trips on the Klein River, an abundance of 124 species of birdlife, the Birkenhead Brewery (which produces five types of beer from the sweetish Honey Blonde to the more serious Chocolate Stout) and the Klein River Valley Cheese factory. City dwellers have made Stanford their second home and with the help of the then Monuments Council, Stanford was declared a conservation area. Stanford has experienced a renaissance – new businesses, restaurants and people with innovative ideas have arrived there have been new developments – it has become a sought-after place for investments and place to live or retire to.
The Birkenhead Brewery’s name is in memory of the HMS Birkenhead which was a 1400 ton British Iron Paddle Frigate built in 1845 and converted into a troop ship in 1848. While captained by Robert Salmond and transporting troops from Simon’s Town to East London for the Frontier War, she struck a rock 1½ nautical miles off Danger Point near Gansbaai. In the face of death the troops on board first allowed all the women and children to save themselves. The Birkenhead sank on the west side of the rock at a depth of 35 metres and of the 643 people on board, 445 of the men lost their lives, including the captain Robert Salmond. All the seven women and 13 children survived. The saying: “Women and children first” has its origin in the drama of that night.
There is some talk that Salmond was the very man who got the Birkenhead into trouble because he was sailing too close to shore and made a serious mistake by trying to reverse the stricken vessel off the rock thus hastening its break up. But in the end, Robert Salmond, like Robert Stanford got his corner of South Africa and today the Salmondsdam Nature Reserve bears his name.
Baardskeerdersbos was first mentioned in writing dating back in 1660: an expedition of five men was sent by the founder of the Cape Colony, Jan van Riebeeck, reported on the valley and its Khokhoi-residents. No doubt, the expedition spent the night in the open air and will have encountered the small spider-like creatures called “Baardscheerders” (beard shavers) famous for cutting human hair for nest-making purposes. Hence the mouthful that is the name of the village: Baardscheerders Bosch (Beard Shavers Forest). Today the village is known as Baardskeerdersbos (or more intimately: B’bos).
The fertile B’bos Valley in the heart of the Overberg is one of the most undisturbed and authentic areas of this region. It is 25km from Gansbaai en-route to the most southern point of the African continent, Cape Agulhas.
Meandering past streams through a hilly and constantly changing landscape, the road to B’bos itself is a treat. Apart from the traditional cattle farms and horse-steads, bright green vineyards and multicoloured flower farms mark the landscape. B’bos is also home to several pristine and rare “fynbos” habitats of the original “Cape Floral Kingdom”.
The church in B’bos was built in 1921 and is an example of beauty by simplicity. Some of the original mud-stone cottages can still be seen in the town. Undoubtedly in time B’bos will grow, but it will always stay a small village of unpretentious people surrounded by awesome nature.
The Baardskeerdersbos Boereorkes (farmer’s orchestra) of Manie Groenwald is widely known in the world of Afrikaans music. Many people first heard of B’bos after hearing Manie and his men.
In terms of shops B’bos is not exactly a Mecca, but the village has a general trader on the main road providing basic necessities. There is also a health and skin-care clinic located here, a traditional furniture manufacturer, local artists and the Strandveld pub housed in an old school building. They offer horse riding, cart rides and fynbos guided tours in the area.
Milkwood forests were once abundant on the coastline of South Africa, but now there are very few left. The largest of the milk wood trees grew along the coast and, even though their gnarled branches were unsuitable for planks, most of the trees were harvested for timber. Many trees have a milky, white latex, but as this was likely the first tree that settlers encountered, it was therefore called the milk wood.
Nowadays, milkwoods are found in isolated thickets along the coast. There are eight sizable forests in the world – all found in the area of the Overberg Fynbos Route. Today, this slow-growing species may not be cut down without a permit. Many of the participants of the Overberg Fynbos Routes have milk wood thickets on their properties. It is estimated that some of the trees in Grootbos Private Nature Reserve are 2000 years old.
Other dominant trees in the tickets are the ‘sea gwarri’ (Euclea racemosa), white stinkwood and pok ironwood. The thickets and forests are home to porcupine and honey badger, as well as a number of bird species such as the paradise flycatcher, rameron pigeon, cape batis and bar-throated apalis.
Soil in the forests is much more fertile than the surrounding fynbos soils, but researchers are undecided if this is a result of the forest or if forest developed because of the fertile soils.
Milkwood forests are threatened by alien plants such as the rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) because these trees grow into the forest fringes and, because of certain oils in their leaves, burn much hotter when fires sweep the area, thereby damaging the forest species.
The famous ‘post box tree’ at Mossel Bay, further up the east coast of South Africa, is also a milkwood. This tree was the first post office in South Africa – and is where sailors would place letters in a boot hung from the tree so that ships going in the opposite direction could collect the letters to take to Europe.
What is “Fynbos”?
“Fynbos” (meaning ‘fine bush’) is the popular name for the shrub lands of the winter rainfall area of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. This hardy vegetation has adapted to the dry summer season and strong coastal winds in special ways: by producing large, hard, leathery leaves (as in the protea family); or fine, tiny leaves, often with rolled edges (the erica family); by having long, thin stems with no leaves (the reed family); or by means of underground storage organs (lilies and orchids).
“Fynbos” is the generic term for the vegetation of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of the six floral kingdoms of the world – with an astounding 9000 species. Of these, 6300 are endemic, occurring in a restricted area and nowhere else in the world, and 1400 are Red Data Book species, meaning that they are rare and/or threatened.
“Fynbos” needs to burn in late summer, after flowering, and at well-spaced intervals (every 10-30 years), in order to rejuvenate. The plants recover after a fire, either by producing many seeds, which are released by the heat of the fire, or by resprouting from their roots or underground storage organs.
The survival of ‘fynbos” is dependent upon a web of fascinating inter-species relationships. Indigenous ants, for example, are attracted to fatty baits on some of the seeds of “fynbos” plants and carry the seeds off to their nests underground, safe from predators. The flowers of some plants supply nectar to bees, sugarbirds and sunbirds, and are pollinated in turn. Ground proteas have a yeasty smell that attracts mice that carry out pollination through the interaction.
“Fynbos” is a fragile resource and is very sensitive to threats – both natural and human-induced. Invasions of alien plants are one of the chief threats to “fynbos”, and cover some 15% of the natural habitat on the Agulhas Plain (excluding farmlands). These plants compete with “fynbos” and reduce the natural diversity, increase the threat of untimely fires, extract large quantities of water and are regarded as aesthetically unattractive. Other threats include the ploughing of marginal lands, insensitive developments, uncontrolled harvesting of wildflowers, damage to vegetation by off-road vehicles and gravel mining.
The southern Overberg has a great diversity of natural habitats, each home to a characteristic group of plants.
Members of the protea family are useful indicators of three habitat types:
Acid sands are the most widespread habitat and are home to species such as the Bot River sugar bush (Protea compacta), the long-leaf sugar bush (Protea longifolia), the sickle-leaf cone bush (Leucadendron xanthoconus), the pincushion (Leucospermum cordifolium) and the plate-seed cone bush (L platyspermum).
Small limestone areas with alkaline sands are home to species such as the Bredasdorp sugar bush (Protea obtusifolia), the limestone cone bush (Leucadendron meridianum) and silver-edge pincushion (Leucospermum patersonii).
Neutral sands are restricted to this region and host the dune cone bush (Leucadendron coniferum) and stink leaf sugar bush (Protea susannae).
Four other fynbos habitats include:
Moist areas on mountain slopes are home to the heaths or ericas, the largest fynbos family (Erica spp.).
Coastal sands are widespread and host blombos (Metalasia muricata) and bietou (Chrysanthemoides monilifera).
Gravelly, clayish soils are rare habitats that host the rare dwarf Elim fynbos with Elim cone bush (Leucadendron elimense), vleirosie/Bredasdrop cone bush (Leucadendron laxum), skaamprotea/bashful protea (Protea pudens), and gladiolus (Gladiolus guthriei).
Sands are the home of reeds, especially dekriet/thatching reed (Thamnochortus insignis andChondropetalum tectorum) in moister areas.
Three other, non-fynbos habitats are also part of the Cape Floral Kingdom:
Clay soils are mostly ploughed for agriculture, but host renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis) and pypies (Gladiolus gracilis).
Moist areas with patches of milk wood (Sideroxylon inerme) forest and scrub, and remnants of Knysna forest.
Wetlands – which are a threatened habitat – host kol-kol (Berzelia lanuginosa), waterblommetjies (Aponogeton distachyos), and blue water lilies (Nymphaea capensis).
The southern Overberg is home to Platbos, an old growth indigenous forest. Platbos is not only a botanically unique forest whose tree species stem from the Afromontane forest as well as coastal milk wood forests, it is also a rare and endangered ecosystem. Indigenous forests cover less than 0.05% of the Western Cape Province, and only 0.5% of the entire land surface of South Africa is forested today.
At Platbos there are surviving tree specimens over 1000 years of age and the forest itself has been described by botanists as a remnant forest whose history dates back to a time when much larger areas of South Africa were covered in forest. The forest is an important habitat for a wide range of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates and there is at least one known red data (endangered) species at the forest namely the Leopard Toad (Bufo pantherinus). The Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) finds the South-western-most fringe of its distribution in the Platbos-area. This buck depends on a habitat of indigenous forest for its continued survival. All efforts to conserve, rehabilitate and expand Platbos Forest therefore help ensure that the Overstrand can still boast six naturally occurring free-roaming buck species instead of five.
Platbos Forest is currently being rezoned as a Contract Nature Reserve.