Whales, proteas, sugarbirds and South Africa’s newest National Park.The Southern Overberg lies in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom (“fynbos”), a recently declared World Heritage site and a richly flowering botanical system restricted to the Western Cape of South Africa. The coast of the Southern Overberg from Hermanus to Cape Infanta in De Hoop Nature Reserve is also known as the “Whale Coast”, the best land based whale watching area in the world and the playground of the Southern Right Whale between July and December.
For those who love flowers, there is a mindboggling amount of different species within this “fynbos” realm: large flowering proteas, versatile ericas, aloes, iris species and many other fascinating fynbos species. Peak flowering time is in spring (September to November) and after the first rains in Autumn (April to June) but there are always numerous plants in flower throughout the year, each specialized for the conditions of its own flowering period. The Overberg has various different soil types: sandstone slopes in the mountains, clay flats in the plains and limestone hills behind the dunes. As a result the Southern Overberg has close to 3000 plant species and the highest density of endemic plant species within the Western Cape’s Floral Kingdom. One spot, off Pearly Beach, “Groot Hagelkraal” is declared the hottest hotspot of floral endemism in the world. Seven plant species only occur in this one spot and nowhere else. Numerous the local plant species are rare and restricted to a small part of the Overberg. Some are even only known to science for a few years, such as the very local Aloe Juddii described in 2007 and only known from the reserve of farm 215 and two adjoining properties or the endemic Erica found in the Grootbos reserve in 2004. Conservation of nature in the Southern Overberg is not just an ideal, it is an imperative.
Many of the more than 40 spectacular protea species will be encountered on our horse rides as well as various pre-historically looking plants, insect eating species, bulb species, wiry evergreen grass-like plants known as restioids and so called “everlastings” with delicate dry flowers and loved by the horses as an on-trail snack. The extreme richness of fynbos is easiest made clear by the Ericas (Heath). Where most European countries will have one or two Heath species within their borders, this area has more than two hundred. Some heath species are small with tiny flowers, others are shrubs hidden under a thick cover of large tube shaped flowers. The Overberg has the highest diversity of Buchus (citrus family – Rutaceae) anywhere in the world. Each Buchu species has a distinct smell of its own, from garlic to citrus, from liquorice to aniseed and and there will be lots of lovely smells to accompany you on the trails.
Some of the animals you may encounter: whales, endangered blue cranes, ostriches, baboons, caracal, cape otters, porcupines, klipspringers, grysbok, steenbok, bushbuck, duiker, snakes, tortoises, black eagles, steppe buzzards, jackal buzzards, endangered black harriers, cape sugarbirds, sunbirds, ground woodpeckers, african jackass penguins, pelicans, spoon-bills, herons, flamingos, yellow- billed ducks, egyptian geese, egrets, common terns, plovers, sandpipers, endangered African oystercatchers, coots, white-breasted reed cormorants and the pied kingfishers. The area abounds with birding ‘hotspots’ and birders will delight in the many special and endemic birds.
Living in the richest plant kingdom on Earth is a privilege. Riding through it at least once in your life is a must. Many of the fynbos flowers are so delicate and small that one will only see them when looking carefully. Others can only be found in remote wilderness spots. Horse back riding is the ideal way to enjoy this botanical wonderland.
Southern Right Whales
Riding along the perfect white beaches of the Walker Bay Nature Reserve and Whale Sanctuary, the best land based area in the world to watch whales, you will have the opportunity to see whales at very close distances. The whales come into the sanctuary from July to mate and to give birth. They stay in the deep, calm waters of the bay to feed and strengthen the young before leaving around December/January, back to the deep waters of the southern Ocean. There is the annual Whale festival in Hermanus; boats leave from Kleinbaai (on Danger Point Peninsula next to Gansbaai) for whale watching excursions, but the cliffs in De Kelders, between Walker Bay Reserve and Gansbaai, offer close encounters with these giants as well as –of course- riding along the Whale Coast on horse back.
Admire these magnificent creatures and their ‘aquabatic’ displays: splashing, crashing and blowing often just meters from the shore. Learn terminology for their fancy ‘aquabatics’ -breaching, lobtailing, spyhopping and sailing…and marvel at the tranquility these enormous mammals bring to the area as they loll in the swells of Walker Bay .
The Southern Right Whale was actively hunted in the past and ruins of Whale stations along the coast still bear testimony to this activity which brought these whales to the brink of extinction. Since they were brought under international protection, their numbers have increased steadily which is both a major draw card for tourism in the Western Cape of South Africa and proof of successful conservation measures.
Agulhas National Park / Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative (ABI) The Agulhas Plain is a prime conservation area because it is exceptionally rich in plant species and was once fully covered with (now very threatened) so called “Lowland fynbos” and (even more threatened) so called “Renosterveld”. Approximately 2500 indigenous plant species with 100 endemic to the area and 112 threatened species are found in the Agulhas National Parks and surrounding areas. The lowlands of the Cape Floral Kingdom is a global biodiversity hotspot. It contains some of the world’s most endangered ecosystems and vast wetlands, essential to both the integrity of nature and the smooth functioning of civilization, yet very little remains.
Not much longer than a hundred years ago, black rhinoceros and other large mammals roamed free on renosterveld plains – of the 81 terrestrial mammals known from the Cape Floral Kingdom, 72 used to occur on the Agulhas Plain. The Bloubok, a spectacular relative of the Roan antelope, used to live exclusively on the Overberg renosterveld plains, but was shot to extinction in the 1700s. The geometric tortoise – one of the world’s rarest – is found only in renosterveld and is highly threatened. Renosterveld is often considered the ugly sister of Fynbos but it is really a Cinderella. For most of the year this vegetation looks dry and dull but during spring the incredible displays of delicate geophytes and carpets of annuals transform this typically grey vegetation into a spectacle of variety and colour. It’s really a wonderful vegetation often overlooked – it has the highest diversity of bulbs for any vegetation type in the world.
There are also a wide variety of wetlands in the area. They may at first site appear to be smelly wastelands but these wetlands with their complex ecosystems support specialised forms of life, some of which occur nowhere else. About 130 species of birds and also many plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians (including the endangered “Microfrog, known only from a few spots in the Agulhas Plain), reptiles and mammals are inter-dependent on the wetlands’ intricate food webs. The Agulhas coastline also supports a rich marine and intertidal life and rare coastal birds breed along it. The nearby islands are home to many seabirds and seals. Dyer Island a few kilometers offshore from Pearly Beach is an essential sanctuary for the endangered African Penguin.
Not only is the area of great ecological importance, but also an area with a rich cultural heritage. More than 100 shipwrecks dot the coastline and many other national monuments and historic buildings are found in the area. Stone hearths and pottery together with shell middens and other archaeological sites are lined with the era of Khoisan migration and settlements.
This area is thus part of what is called the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative (ABI). The Agulhas National Park was proclaimed in 1999 with land of 100ha around the lighthouse at the southernmost tip of Africa, this has been expanded to 20 000ha through the farms in the coastal strip which we traverse on the way to Cape Agulhas. The eventual goal is a conservation area of 120 000ha and a restored plain habitat where all original animals (apart from the ones that became extinct for obvious reasons) will freely roam again. Eland, Black Rhino, Buffalo, Cape Lion and Guagga will populate the Agulhas Plains again and give justice to the other name of the Agulhas Plains : “the Serengeti of the Western Cape”.