South Africa is known for its huge swaths of untamed wilderness, but most of the attention on big game and outdoor adventure sports focuses on Kruger National Park in the north or Drakensberg in the east. The wilderness of the Western Cape can be easily overlooked in favor of the posh metropolitan glitz of Cape Town, but a visit to the region isn’t complete without immersing in its wild nature. Here are my picks for the best in nature and outdoors in the Western Cape, South Africa.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is wonderfully curated and dramatically set against the backdrop of Table Mountain. Located just half an hour from central Cape Town, the garden offers the perfect introduction to the wilderness of the Cape as it showcases South Africa’s unique flora and is home to many native species of birds and small mammals. Highlights include the fynbos and proteas gardens and the canopy walk through the treetops. For hiking enthusiasts, access to the Skeleton Gorge hike and other Table Mountain trails can be found in the back of the garden.
Chapman’s Peak Drive, or “Chappies” to the locals, is one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. The 9 km stretch of highway connects the small towns of Noordhoek and Hout Bay, and can be used as a scenic detour for drivers from Cape Town to Cape Point.
The twisting mountain road is a great challenge for runners and cyclists, and hikers can enjoy the ocean panoramas from the Silvermine Nature Preserve and Cape Peninsula National Park located along the drive. The coastal towns along the drive also offer ample opportunities for sailing, horse riding on the beach and fishing. Nature lovers also flock to Chappies from mid-August to mid-November to spot whales from one of the many viewing spots along the drive.
Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town might just be my favorite beach in the world. Besides the picturesque boulders stacked atop golden sand, the beach is home to a colony of over 2,100 African penguins. It is one of the only such colonies in the world, and an important breeding ground for this endangered species.
A series of boardwalks connects the three beaches that comprise the park, with a designated penguin viewing area. Visitors are encouraged to stay on the boardwalks, particularly when there are crowds on the weekends, to protect themselves and the birds. However, if you happen to be there early on a weekday during low season, you can access the beach directly, just so long as you are fit enough to scramble over and under the rock formations. If you promise to keep your hands to yourself and remain as calm and quiet as possible, you can get an up-close-and-personal view of the birds in tuxedos as they waddle down the shore, dive around in the water, socialize and protect their young.
Cape of Good Hope
Cape Point is the southernmost region of the massive Table Mountain National Park system. The park offers a huge range of activities for hikers, animal lovers, photographers, adventure sports enthusiasts, fisherman and history buffs alike to enjoy.
The Cape of Good Hope hiking trail covers over 33.8 km around the park. Hikers who want to explore the entire park can camp overnight in the huts maintained by the park, but portions of the trail can be covered in a few hours by visitors not wishing to stay overnight.
A good option for day visitors is the portion of the trail leading from the Cape of Good Hope parking area to the iconic lighthouse on Cape Point. Along this trail hikers can access Dias Beach, which is often secluded because most hikers avoid climbing the 200+ stairs back to the trail. If your legs are up to the added challenge, plan to use this as a refueling stop along your hike.
Nature lovers will be amazed by the biodiversity within the park. There are over 1,100 species of plants, many endemic to the region. The fynbos define the natural aesthetic of the Western Cape, and iconic proteas, ericas and restios dot the landscape.
The preserve is home to at least 250 species of birds, including another mainland colony of African penguins and ostriches! The large eland antelope and bontebok are easily spotted, though the Cape mountain zebras remain a little more elusive.
Troops of Chacma baboons roam the region, so be sure not to feed them. The “place where two oceans meet” offers great diversity of marine life, and the sheer cliffs of the point offer some of the best land-based whale watching vantages in the world.
Camp’s Bay might be more well-known for its chic restaurants than rugged nature, but you can’t beat the view of Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles range from the shore or the sunset view from its row of beachfront bars and restaurants. Plus, it does offer plenty of activities from beach volleyball to tidal pool swimming, and access to hiking (and abseiling) Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Lion’s Head, earning it a spot on this list for the sports enthusiasts.
That’s my list of the best in nature and outdoors in the Western Cape, South Africa! Do you have any places you’d like to add? Leave a comment below!