Cape Town’s best Nature & Wildlife tours
Towering above the city, Table Mountain is Cape Town’s signature feature while the delightful penguins of Boulders Beach its most famous residents. But who would think that a thirty minute drive from the city centre gets you to a place where you can see hundreds of flamingos? Carry on for another half an hour down the Cape Peninsula and suddenly you have Africa’s largest antelope as well as its rarest zebra species. Add long-tailed sugarbirds, migrating whales, swivel-eyed chameleons and carpets of wild flowers and now you have one of the most exciting nature destinations on the planet.
South Africa (less than one per cent of the world’s land surface) is beaten only by Brazil and Indonesia in terms of how many different types of plants and animals can be found in the country. You might think that South African bio-diversity is highest in the Kruger Park with all its big animals but this country’s astonishing bio-diversity increases as you move south and west across the land, culminating in the natural treasure house of the Cape Peninsula and the surrounding Western Cape countryside.
Thanks to the extravagance of fynbos, the local flora, there are more plant species on Table Mountain than there are in Sweden. Meanwhile, the oceans that flank the Cape Peninsula are so rich and diverse that this modest 70 kilometre strip of land is home to five per cent of all the world’s coastal marine species – from seaweeds to sharks.
So how do you see it all? Nature and wildlife destinations such as Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Boulders Beach penguin colony and Cape Point are easy to access either on a self-drive holiday or as part of a general guided tour. But if you want to go birding at the best spot in town, or you’d like explore low-tide rock pools and learn about the plants that cover the mountains then you’re going to need a specialist guide with a tailored itinerary.
CAPE PENINSULA GUIDED NATURE TOUR
Designed to deliver a comprehensive overview of Cape ecology as well as its most famous sights, this classic day tour opens with a visit to Boulders Beach penguin colony. A raised wooden boardwalk takes you into the heart of the colony but you can also walk on a neighbouring beach and share the view with penguins and ‘dassies’ – small, odd-looking animals that share common ancestry with elephants and manatees. You’ll hear the piping call of the African black oyster-catcher and the trill of foraging sunbirds, and there are often dense concentrations of cormorants.
Then it’s a short drive to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, often referred to as Cape Point, but that’s just the bit at the very bottom of the peninsula; the reserve itself is full of fascinating wildlife and flowers that lie off the main road. This is your best opportunity to see Cape Town’s big game – antelope, zebra, ostrich and baboons – as well as to learn about local marine ecosystems, see some of the world’s rarest plants and photograph ocean and mountain landscapes. The way back takes in the panoramic views of Chapman’s Peak Drive and Table Mountain’s 12 Apostles.
CAPE PENINSULA GUIDED BIRDING TOUR
Cape Town is home to several excellent birding destinations that combine easily to deliver a day tour packed with diversity. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is where you’ll be on the lookout for both forest and mountain birds, including some of the fynbos specials such as Cape sugarbird and orange-breasted sunbird. Green and leafy, it’s a popular birding destination and the birds are quite easy to photograph; Kirstenbosch is also good for raptors: there are resident eagle owls and the skies are criss-crossed by sparrow hawks, buzzards and darting goshawks.
The habitat changes dramatically at the next destination. Rondevlei Nature Reserve protects one of the last remaining wetlands in the city; it’s full of wildfowl, waders and waterside birds with flashes of colourful kingfishers. Photographers will enjoy use of the hides/blinds that line the waterways and it’s the best place in town to see the endearing Cape dwarf chameleon and maybe a tortoise or two. And then to the Sewage Works.
A landscape of ponds, reed beds and dense thicket, Strandfontein Sewage Works is a de facto nature reserve, something recognised by its status as a RAMSAR site, a wetland conservation area of international importance. The ponds bustle with birdlife from flamingos and pelicans to gulls and terns. There are many different duck species, grassland pipits and long claws, and flocks of avocets and stilts. African marsh harriers patrol the water courses while kites and ravens drift overhead; it’s one of South Africa’s top birding destinations.
WEST COAST GUIDED FLOWER & NATURE TOUR
You have to drive north of Cape Town to get to the West Coast but it’s worth the hour and a half. The West Coast National Park is interesting throughout the year and a great birding destination but it’s after the winter rains that the landscape comes to life. Starting in late July, hundreds of thousands of flowers burst into life, transforming a previously dry and weather-beaten landscape into a canvas of colour.
Peaking in August and September, the flowers draw visitors from all over the world, especially since the West Coast flowers are more reliable and longer-lasting than the more ephemeral Namaqualand desert flowers to the north. It’s during these two months that a private area of the reserve is opened to the public and it’s here that you’ll see the park’s wildlife – ostrich and zebra as well as the ox-like eland and the endangered bontebok antelope. Displays of flowers continue into October and November as the weather warms and the rains disappear, a time that happily coincides with the arrival of migrant shore birds from the northern hemisphere.