By Karen Watkins
Cape Town - Having driven along the Walker Bay coastline many times we never dreamt the rolling hills behind Stanford, Gansbaai and De Kelders could hold so many surprises. The recently launched trail in the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy near Stanford was previously inaccessible to hikers.
With expert guides, even the botanical philistines among us were soon listening to fascinating stories about the biodiversity, pollinators, medicinal uses and ecology. Proteas, pincushions, ericas and bulbs, each with their role to play in the landscape. But the trail is also about experiencing the vistas of fynbos-covered hills, valleys, forests and ocean as well as local cuisine and wines, comfy accommodation and welcoming hospitality.
We started at Growing the Future sustainable agriculture and life skills college where we experienced first-hand this social development project. We had to collect eggs that we would be eating the next day for breakfast. Each year eight women are taught about beekeeping, animal husbandry and growing vegetables and fruit.
The trail has brought together 22 landowners and it crosses four private conservation properties. The 12 179 hectares of coastal and mountain fynbos include about 850 species of indigenous plants, many of them rare and threatened. The area is teeming with life, home to more than 249 bird species, 66 mammals, 53 reptiles and 21 amphibians.
Passing by organically grown veggies, we set off through coastal strandveld gradually ascending to Steynsbos.
Sean Privett, conservation manager at Grootbos, says this is one of only eight milkwood forests of its type in the world and found only in this area. Some milkwoods are estimated to be more than 800 years old.
Leaving the forest, the trail winds up on to a sandstone ridge covered in crimson pincushions. Descending to a dam we rested and drank fresh spring water. Another ascent, worth it for spectacular views over Walker Bay to the west and Dyer Island to the south, before descending to the Witvoetskloof Valley with the Fynbos Retreat below.
We stayed in an old farmhouse overlooking the dam where some of us swam. A surprise was supper cooked in the pizza oven.
With batteries charged by a hearty breakfast, we set off on what was a highlight of the trail. After passing through a valley dense with fynbos we suddenly plunged into the Witvoetskloof forest on wooden steps and walkways. Awesome! We stepped slowly and carefully to savour this lush ancient forest, and took a break at a waterfall.
The next stretch was tough, especially in the heat, ascending steeply through limestone hills deposited millions of years ago when the sea level was much higher. Leaving views of the Lomond vineyards and dam, we hiked a short extra loop to summit Grootberg. At 409m this is the highest point of the Fynbos Trail and has spectacular views, with the Uilkraals Valley and Dyer Island to the south, the Kleinriviersberge to the north and Walker Bay and Hermanus to the west.
Our guide for the day was Billie Robinson, whose grandparents once owned Witsfoetkloof and Flower Valley.
Having worked up an appetite we made haste descending into the Stinkhoutsbos Forest, but we had to work for our lunch. This forest in Flower Valley was devastated in the past by woodcutting and fire. Now hikers are helping to regenerate the forest by planting indigenous trees. Students of the Green Futures horticultural and life-skills project grow the trees at Grootbos. They also clear alien vegetation and learn about landscaping and gardening, and in future will be trained as guides for the trails.
After lunch we hiked for two hours across Flower Valley, where we saw trained harvesting teams collecting fynbos for the local and export markets.
That night was spent at Bodhi Khaya Retreat, where we swam in dams and tucked into delicious food.
Day three may be short, but it’s special, winding along the Witkransberg, gradually ascending the Baviaans Fontein valley passing through numerous scattered indigenous thickets. On a short stretch of jeep track we saw a camera tucked into the bushes, to monitor leopards.
The final path crosses Grootbos milkwood forest before reaching the Grootbos Garden Lodge. On a deck overlooking the sea we had drinks and a buffet lunch. We had had a good workout, but also felt happy about contributing to the conservation and social development of the partners in the conservancy.
The fully guided and catered slackpacking trail is recommended, although there is also a self-guided, self-catered trail. There are two- or three-night options. Hikers will encounter fynbos in flower at any time of the year.
Back home I relived the experience by reading the Field Guide to the Flora of Grootbos Nature Reserve, which is included in the trail fee, and is written by Sean Privett and Heiner Lutzeyer.