Talk about a narrow escape. Until the arrival of the European settlers, the bontebok antelope once roamed the hills of the southern Cape in large herds; by the 1930s their numbers were down to a few dozen. From these wide-eyed survivors, seventeen were taken to the original Bontebok National Park where half promptly died.But this handsome animal turned out to be as tough as the rugged, wind-swept environment it calls home. A better location for the park and complete protection has enabled the bontebok to regain numbers and their shiny coats, an intriguing combination of chestnut brown, inky-black and snowy-white, now brighten the grasslands of the Bontebok National Park as well as other reserves across the Western Cape.
There is plenty of other wildlife here: we saw herds of grey rhebok – a smaller type of antelope – as well as barrel-chested Cape mountain zebra and grysbok – nervous, leg-quivering antelopes with radar-like ears. Tortoises wander through the campsite, and it’s a good destination for birds too – the park has recorded over 200 species and we couldn’t decide whether our favourite one was a Stanley’s bustard, stalking through the grassland like an aggrieved emu, or a black harrier, a striking bird of prey we saw flying low on kinked wings as it hunted mice and frogs.
The Bontebok National Park is South Africa’s smallest park. It is best thought of an island of natural biological diversity surrounded by agriculture. And although the view may sometimes have a backdrop of wheat fields or a building or two, the park’s scenery is often magnificent and completely untouched by human hand. We went in peak summer holiday season and barely saw anyone else on our game drives and walks.
And walking adds another dimension to the park. Self-guided trails, best started at dawn, lead you along river banks and onto hilltops covered in tree-sized aloes. On foot, you begin to see the smaller details of the park: tangles of cobwebs, footprints of nocturnal creatures, ant-lion traps and spider-hunting wasps.
The wildlife survives – indeed thrives – in the park because it preserves a scrap of the vegetation type that used to cover the southern Cape: renosterveld – land of the rhino. There is fynbos in the park as well as riverine forest and Karoo-like scrub but it is the renosterveld, or at least the grasses found in it, that support the big grazers. Once, the bontebok and zebra were joined by herds of eland and red hartebeest, huge, powerful antelopes that were hunted by Cape lions and wild dogs. There were hyenas, buffalo, and hippos snorting in the rivers where elephants and rhinos crowded in the dry summer months.
It’s best not to think about it – what we’ve lost here – too much these days. Rather we should celebrate what we have left. And the Bontebok National Park makes it pretty easy. It’s under a three-hour drive from Cape Town and offers accommodation ranging from a campsite to air-conditioned self-catering chalets. You can drive around the park in a normal car, swim in the river at the rest camp and visit the next-door town of Swellendam for coffee and cheesecake.
It’s true that the signs of civilisation are never too far away in the park but there is a moment when the car engine is turned off and nature’s noisy silence descends: the sound of a slow breeze, the creeping rustle and hum of insects, the faintest tread of an antelope. It’s not the Kruger Park or Botswana but the Bontebok National Park has the power to transport the visitor back to a world of unspoilt views where animals gaze at you out of curiosity and where the rising sun brings not commuter traffic but a chorus of bubbling birdsong. The next time you have a couple of nights going spare, get yourself to the Bontebok National Park – paradise in your pocket.