Not many visitors to Cape Town go to Bellville. A splodge of light industry and housing north of the city, it is perhaps ‘Jersey-side’ to New Yorkers; to Londoners it is Croydon. But travel to the University of the Western Cape’s Bellville campus and something extraordinary happens: marooned in this ocean of concrete and bleating traffic is one of the very last examples of the vegetation that used to cover the ‘Cape Flats’, the catch-all term for the less fashionable land that lies between the Cape Peninsula and the rest of South Africa. I went to take a look.
There are actually two types of natural vegetation found here – an ecotone is the word for such a floral cross-over. Cape Flats Dune Strandveld dominates the reserve, a thick mix of big shrubs and reeds, and the balance is made up by Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, a softer combination of bushes, grasses and the ubiquitous reeds – the restios.
At first glance, even I’ll admit that it doesn’t look like much but you’re looking at some of nature’s most precariously balanced habitats: the Cape Flats has the highest number of threatened plant species per unit area than anywhere else on the planet. Over half of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld has disappeared and it’s even worse for Cape Flats Sand Fynbos: nearly 90% of it is gone with only 1% of the remaining scraps under formal protection. We’re down to the last few acres.
Walking around the reserve today is a poignant reminder of what the Cape Flats used to be: a wild landscape of flowers and big animals. And tough going too. Today, the N2 highway carries us easily over the Cape Flats and makes the trip between Cape Town to Somerset West not much more than 40 minutes. But in the days of ox wagons, it was a two-day journey. The reserve’s single remaining wetland (the image below) was once part of a great chain of swamps full of snorting, bad-tempered hippopotamus. And the roar you hear now would not be jet aircraft coming into land at Cape Town International but those of the now extinct black-maned lions, roaming the flats for zebra and eland antelope – and maybe us – to hunt.
There is still is wildlife in the Cape Flats Reserve – I saw the tracks of a caracal (a lynx) as well as those of small antelope and mongoose. The species list includes genets and polecats and there are plenty of birds around – Cape robin-chats and fiscal shrikes, bulbuls and mouse birds – but this is more a place to walk slowly and soak up the smaller details: insects and lichens, flowers and fungi.
And oh my there are details: who’d have thought that the Paintbrush Lily (Haemanthus sanguineus) would carefully lower its upright stalk to offer its ripe berries to passing tortoises? Or that there are delicate orchids (Holothrix) lurking on the side of the road? Great mottled mushrooms poke up out of the sand like the pointy heads of trolls, white butterflies dance in front of you and frogs chirp happily in the background – I’d be tempted to say it was idyllic.
It’s safe too – often a consideration when you’re on the Cape Flats. The reserve is properly fenced, guarded and patrolled. You park your car next to the security post at the main entrance and everyone gives you a cheery wave when you arrive. It couldn’t be better. There’s enough to see for half a day, and – as you imagine when you are on the Cape Flats – it’s pretty easy walking.
You can visit the Cape Flats Reserve at any time of year – it’s free – but to see it at its best, wait until the year’s heaviest rains (June to August) have done their work. The reserve is especially good for flowers in the Cape spring – August, September and October – and there’s even an indigenous nursery to buy local fynbos plants and get a little of the Cape Flats into your neighbourhood. And that’s not always a bad thing.