Tripping The Light Fantastic
Written by Miles Masterson
The Overberg’s wonderful, luminous light, reflected from the hauntingly beautiful Cape Fold Mountains of the Cape, is much lauded by international film directors and as much loved by the tourists who flock here annually to appreciate the area’s natural beauty and plentiful attractions.
The Whale Coast
Whether it is hiking on precipitous trails, sampling the wares of world-renowned vineyards, pot-holing beneath the crags in their caves, or whale-watching down at their foot at one of dozens of picturesque coastal hamlets, these imposing mountains are omnipresent. And they are best viewed on a mild, windless Cape spring day when the golden sun softly caresses them.
The Overberg is best approached by car from Cape Town on the N2 freeway. As you drive past Stellenbosch you can either drive up over Sir Lowry’s Pass, one of the most precipitous and most spectacular drives of its kind in the world, or take a right turn toward the scenic coastal route leading to Hermanus and Cape Agulhas.
While some say the drive is most popular on a lovely spring morning in late September – prime season when southern right whales, Eubalaena australis, arrive from the Antarctic to mate and calve – the seasonal landscape makes the drive a year-round experience. Past Gordons Bay, the coastal road cuts through the side of a dragon’s back of massive granite peaks that plunge almost vertically into the sea. You’ll pass number after number of picturesque small towns, most with great beaches and accommodation. And during spring, you can probably spot whales almost anywhere along this stretch of coast, also known as ‘The Whale Coast’.
But to truly appreciate the annual migration to this coast of these large ocean mammals, the large bay at Hermanus, about 45 minutes’ drive from N2, is a must-see, as its residents have embraced it as their raison d’être. Whenever there are whales, the kelp horn of the ‘world’s only whale crier’ reverberates along the cliffs of the prime viewing area in the centre of town. Hermanus also features a whale museum and an annual whale festival.
Beyond Hermanus lies Gansbaai (‘bay of geese’), which has another, more sinister title: shark diving capital of South Africa. It is from here that you can be transported to a small island off the coast, slide into the ocean, and see one of the world’s most fearsome predators, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), close up. Not for the faint of heart.
Agulhas and Beyond
East along the coast, one has to circumnavigate the Cape Agulhas National Park. For the more athletic, this part of the coast has a plethora of beach and country hiking opportunities, such as the Rasperspunt hiking trail, replete with shipwrecks and unique flora and fauna.
There are also numerous caves to explore. Waenhuiskrans (‘wagon house cliff’) cave in Arniston is only accessible at low tide, and Klipgat (‘stone hole’) cave near De Kelders (which, literally, means ‘the caves’) is the location of extensive archaeological digs, where humans are thought to have lived 80,000 years ago.
Of the coastal natural parks and reserves in the area, De Hoop Nature Reserve is the largest (34,000 hectares). Stretching out kilometres to sea and protecting 250 species of fish, it is also home to one of the world’s most fragile plant ecosystems, ‘fynbos’. Rain in late winter makes spring an ideal time to visit the park and view its 86 mammal species, including many buck species, the Cape mountain zebra, baboons, and a small number of leopards.
Ending your first day in the Overberg, perhaps experiencing a crimson sunset from the sea mist-drenched locale of Cape Agulhas, you might want to spend the night here or even in self-catering accommodation available in De Hoop. In the morning, you can then head to Bredasdorp, which, though slightly inland, is the location of a shipwreck museum, a legacy of this hazardous stretch of coast. The town is home to the rare red Bredasdorp lily (Cyrtanthus guthrieae) and adjacent to the original Bontebok reserve.
Capital of the Overberg
Returning to the N2 from Napier and driving back in the Cape Town direction, you will then ascend towards the rugged apex of the Overberg region and pass through the towns of Caledon, Bot River, and Grabouw, all surrounded by national parks, rivers, and dams. Surrounded by rolling wheat fields that become almost luminous in the late afternoon light, Caledon itself is known as the ‘Capital of the Overberg’ and features hot springs (which form part of the Caledon Casino Hotel and Spa) and a colourful wild flower, as well as fly fishing, and hiking and mountain biking trails.
Bot River in turn is better known for its intimate wineries and annual wine barrel race, where teams from local wineries race by pushing gaudily coloured barrels. Grabouw is also known for its wine, but is more famous for fruit, as the area is home to the Elgin Valley, which produces the largest percentage of fruit for export in all of South Africa. All along this winding stretch of highway there are numerous farm stalls that sell all manner of farm fresh fruit and dried fruit products, biltong (dried meat), wines and ciders, and some of the best home-cooked pies and dessert dishes you will ever taste.
Finally, you will drive over and down Sir Lowry’s Pass in the evening, when the orange sun will be setting over Table Mountain in the distance – lighting up the mountains in ochre, as you descend and bid the Overberg a reluctant farewell.
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Agulhas Lighthouse
Agulhas is home to one of Southern Africa’s oldest lighthouses. Thanks to the early Portuguese mariners who frequented this coast 500 years ago, Cabo D’Agulhas (Cape of Needles) was so named because their compasses mysteriously did not work properly.
This, combined with an infamous bank just off the coast, terrible storms, sharks, and sharp rocks on the shore, and more than 250 shipwrecks, gave the area a reputation amongst sailors, and in 1840 resulted in the construction of the lighthouse, the third oldest in South Africa. Its design is based on the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria and now houses a museum.
Bontebok National Park
Considered one of the rarest antelope in the world, the bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus), identifiable by its shiny black, brown, and white markings and V-shaped horns, is a species endemic to the Overberg. Its domain once stretched much farther, but it is now confined to the Bontebok National Park near Swellendam, northeast of Bredasdorp. In fact, the latter is the location of the first protective barrier ever constructed in an attempt to keep a species from dying out; in this case a fence to protect the bontebok as early as 1837, which can still be seen on the Nacht Wacht farm.
It is also no surprise to learn that this beast thrives on a particular form of fynbos found only in the park, which also features a large number of rare indigenous species such as the clawless otter, mountain zebra, and hundreds of bird species, including the majestic Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus), South Africa’s national bird.