South Africa’s Western Cape
Giant bird colonies, fields of flowers extending to the sea, exhilerating zipline adventures, mountains of every stripe — arid, flower-carpeted, forested — are just a few of the things you can find within a 250 kilometer radius of Cape Town.
Below you’ll find the itinerary for the trip Ben and I took to this incredible area (in March 2018), along with some suggested modifications.¹ Note that the appropriate modifications depend on the season — the flower areas are most worth visiting in August/September. Here is our trip map (which includes links to useful sites, and some places we didn’t actually go to.)
Day 1: Table Mountain
India Venster Trail up Table Mountain: Steep hike with some scrambling, including chains and ladders. Panoramic views over Cape Town, the sea, and surrounding hills.
Time: around 2 h (one way), plus extra 1 h (round trip) to get to the Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain.
Cable car descent down Table Mountain: A fun and beautiful way to shorten your way down.
Warning: Sometimes the cable car closes because of wind, so make sure to budget enough time to hike down if necessary.
Descending down the Skeleton Gorge trail instead taking the cable car down. This is more forested and less steep than India Venster. You end up in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and have to arrange a way (e.g. Uber) to get back from there to the start of the India Venster Trail. The botanical garden is allegedly the 7th best in the world, so it’s worth budgeting some time to explore that.
Time: India Venster + Skeleton Gorge + Kirstenbosch is a full day.
Bo-Kaap: The Cape Malay neighborhood of Cape Town, with delightfully colored houses.
Time: You only need a few minutes to appreciate the houses, but might want to stay longer to sample the local food (notably, sweet curries).
Day 2: Lambert’s Bay
Lambert’s Bay Bird Island Nature Reserve: Giant colony of birds, most notably cape gannets. You can see the gannet pairs perform their greeting ritual (rubbing their necks against each other) and their hilarious crash-landing (gannets are expert deep-sea divers, but tend to collide with the ground when on land).
Time: Under 1 h.
1. Watch out for seals in the water around the colony, lurking to prey on juvenile gannets!
2. Breathe through your mouth. (Gannets make their nests of guano.)
West Coast National Park: Sea-side nature reserve. A must during flower season (August-September), otherwise not that interesting.
Rocherpan Nature Reserve: Another bird-watching area, with flamingos and a 7 km trail. Dries up seasonally, so check the website before visiting.
Day 3: Sneeuberg (Cederberg Wilderness Area)
Sneeuberg Hike: Hike up the highest peak in the Cederberg Nature Reserve. Desert landscape with stunning rock formations, rugged mountain view from peak. The last stretch up the peak involves scrambling.
Time: 10 h 45 min. (With lots of stops on the way up for scrambling up rock formations, followed by a very fast descent.)
- Detailed trail descriptions here and here.
- Expect extreme heat.
- The water source at the Sneeuberg hut — which a staff member at the visitor center told us about — was almost dry when we were there; there was more water right before the trail to Sneeuberg splits off from the one to the Maltese Cross. So bring extra water and don’t necessarily trust the staff...
- The scrambly route near the peak is a little hard to follow, but safe if you find the right way. If you find yourself about to climb up an exposed rock face, look for a narrow cave passage behind it instead.
Extension/alternative: You can do Sneeuberg as a two-day hike, with an overnight stay at the hut 7 km in (or backcountry camping further up the trail). You need to get permits in advance from Cape Nature for this. You can also extend the hike to walk up to a famous rock formation called the Maltese Cross (but it’s visible from a distance on the way to Sneeuberg too).
Day 4: Stadsaal Caves (Cederberg)
The rock art and the caves are right next to each other.
Stadsaal rock art: Really cool, but relatively small, ancient wall paintings of people and elephants.
Stadsaal Caves: Amazing orange rock formations, with arches, pillars, and caves with hidden nooks. Steeped in mysterious desert atmosphere.
Time: Around 2 h of exploration.
Pro-tip: If you come on a weekday in the off-season (e.g. March), you’ll have the eerily, beautifully silent place all to yourself. (Though it might be scorching hot.)
Extension/alternative: There’s so much to see in Cederberg! We also considered:
- The Wolfberg Arch: a rock formation with the option of a fun scrambly route towards it. (Currently (March 2018) closed, but check the Cape Nature website for updates.)
- Rocklands Bouldering Area: a world-famous climbing site. (Recommended in the cooler months.)
Days 5 and 6: Arangieskop
Arangieskop hike: Two-day (9.5 + 11.5 km) hike with a huge variety of views (green hills and rocky cliffs) and sweet-smelling plants. Overnight stay at an extremely comfortable hut. You can choose to watch the sunrise from the peak on the second day. Very deservedly, one of West Cape’s best-loved hikes.
Time: 5 h the first day, 6 h the second. (Though the Internet gives much longer times.)
- Check the weather ahead of time. The views are what this hike is all about, so consider doing something else if the weather looks rainy/very cloudy.
- Email email@example.com for hiking permits and to book the hut.
- There’s another really nice hut at the start of the trail (also bookable through above email).
- The hut fills up quickly on weekends, but you might get it all to yourself on a weekday.
- If you don’t book well in advance, you have to get the permits in person at the Langeberg Municipality, which closes at 4 pm. So you won’t be able to stay in the trail-start hut on the first night unless you arrive early.
- It’s definitely possible to do this as a day hike, but we enjoyed the more leisurely pace of the hike and a long afternoon’s rest at the (reasonably priced) hut.
- Arangieskop didn’t live up to its reputation as a really steep and gruelling ascent. The descent felt harder; bring trekking poles.
Wine and dine: Robertson (the town below Arangieskop) is a wine town, and we recommend treating yourself to a well-deserved dinner. We went to the Four Cousins, which (like much South African dining) is way more affordable than it looks. ($6-$20 per bottle of local wine, $8–$20 per dinner plate.)
Day 7: Zipline Tour
Cape Canopy Tour: An exhilarating 4-hour zipline tour across canyon, with waterfall views. More than 10 ziplines, the longest one taking around 30 seconds. Well worth the $75/person!
Extension/alternative: Consider staying around the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve (where the canopy tour is) for longer. Or, for more coastal views, visit the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. (A must in flower season, August-September.)
Day 8: Panorama Hike (Jonkershoek Nature Reserve)
Panorama Hike: A 17 km loop through the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, with stunning views all round. A large part of the hike is level, but there are some ascents (and an optional peak) with rewarding views, and the descent is fairly steep. If you do one hike outside of Cape Town, make it this one. The views are incredible, and there were more flowers than on any other of our hikes.
Time: 6 h 20 min. (With some breaks at the start but breakneck speed towards the end.)
Day 9: Boulders Penguin Colony
Boulders Penguin Colony: One of the few places where you can observe the African penguin. You get to see them up close, and maybe even witness them building nests, caring for their young, swimming, waddling, and more.
Time: Under 1 h.
A few more (random) tips
- The nature reserves are run by Cape Nature. Check their site for closures. If you’re planning an overnight hike in one of the reserves, you need to get a permit over email well in advance, or in person at their office. Day permits are available on-site.
- In Cape Town, Airbnb is much nicer than—and as affordable as! — camping.
- If possible, avoid RV parks for camping. They’re very loud and crowded, especially on weekends. And if you must stay at one during a weekend, book in advance.
- Restaurants are quite affordable and most have great menus.
Don’t know how to choose? Here’s a ranking of my enjoyment-per-second of the above activities (keep in mind that these are of vastly different length and ease of access from Cape Town, and that I enjoyed all of them a lot).
Stadsaal caves and paintings
Boulders penguin colony
If you make use of this itinerary, I’d love to hear how it goes! Feel free to comment here, or email me (evebigaj at gmail).
 This is the second in a series of travel itineraries. You can check out the one for Iceland here.