All creatures great and small

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Copy of cz ClearAsGlass . Clear as glass: The river running through the Jan Du Toit's Kloof valley is pristine. Picture: Tim Rolson

Cape Town - Over the past few weeks, I have been blessed to see more than my fair share of the mountainous headwater streams in the Western Cape, having hiked along both the Elands River Trail and the far steeper and more strenuous Jan du Toit’s Kloof. River trails make ideal summer haunts for those of us given to exploring the outdoor wonders of the Western Cape. The steep-sided kloofs offer protection from the blazing sun late in the day in some places and the constant flow of clear, cool water keeps temperatures down to manageable levels within the confines of the valleys.

Of course, the deeper pools also provide the chance of a refreshing swim when things really heat up in the middle of the day.

Walking the Elands River Trail in the Du Toit’s Kloof mountains isn’t an overly strenuous undertaking, with a clearly marked path high above the river making walking easy.

The trail is officially a “day hike” controlled by Cape Nature and with a return trip time of no more than three hours – it’s an easy introduction to mountain walking.

The traverses are in places just a little exposed and not perhaps ideal for those suffering from vertigo, but that aside, it’s a fairly simple walk without overly steep gradients.

Set within the confines of the Limietberg Reserve, permits are, however, required to access the hike (www.capenature.org.za).

I spend a good deal of time in this particular valley and it is interesting to watch it change as the seasons progress. After serious fires a year or two ago, the fynbos has burst forth in spectacular recovery.

Earlier in the year, the entire kloof was covered in bright yellow daisies and even now, in the heat of summer, there are ericas on display.

If you are fortunate enough, you may come across sun birds and Cape sugar birds feeding in the protea bushes or, perhaps, catch a glimpse of a Cape clawless otter or a shy klipspringer in the early morning. The quiet is occasionally interrupted by the distinctive cry of a fish eagle that visits now and, although rarely seen, there are still mountain leopards scraping an arduous living in the high country; you may be fortunate enough to see a paw print if you’re on the lookout (www.capeleopard.org.za).

There are many smaller and no less spectacular wonders if you are alert to them.

Recently, the ant lions have taken flight – the oddest of creatures in some ways, the larvae living in burrows with distinctive inverted volcano shapes which they use to capture hapless bugs that might fall into the trap.

For an unfortunate ant, they really must represent the scariest of nightmares; huge pincers adorning the front ends of a robust predatory bug with a face that even a mother would find hard to love.

The remarkable thing is that when hatching, they give rise to the most beautifully delicate and intricately fashioned adults which offer no clue as to their subterranean carnivorous origins.

The adults don’t fly particularly well and the larger species seem to be ill-equipped to keep their rather robust bodies in the air. However, they are spectacularly ornate, with mottled wings of stunning designs, and their beauty and erratic flight kept me entertained for some considerable time on my latest venture into the hills.

The second venue was the Jan du Toit’s Kloof; this one regrettably is not accessible to the general public, and with some good cause.

Opening the trail some years ago, resulted in considerable damage to the environment. The trail is also hard going and potentially lethal, with massive boulders to negotiate and the potential for a serious fall always there. For the blessed and fittest few, however, it is a truly amazing clamber.

This remote spot counterpoints clearly the sad demise of many of our waterways due to human activity. With difficult access and a complete lack of farming or human settlement above it, this river runs a crystal-clear green as though the stone bottom of the river bed had been simply covered in a sheet of glass. How many of our mountain streams used to look like this back in time, before pollution, water abstraction, damming and other transgressions laid them to waste?

Due to its remote and rugged nature, the valley has avoided most human wrought damages and remains in a near-pristine state – one of the reasons that access is so restricted. The scale of the gorge and its boulders is quite something, but again it was the small things that mostly captured our attention – the visiting paradise fly catcher sitting in the riverine bush, the grass birds hiding among the foliage, and again those delicate ant lion adults fluttering waywardly along the path.

In a final goodbye, we dived into the depths of the still pools, disturbing Cape kurper with their distinctive tiger’s eye colouration, and watched redfin minnows graze on algae, and occasionally on our toes as we waded in the cool water.

The mountains can be quite intimidating, but often it is the smaller things that highlight the true wonders of the natural world. - Sunday Argus

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