As if wine and chocolate pairings weren’t enough: Franschhoek sits a 10-minute drive from one of the best mountain fynbos reserves in the Cape Winelands. The Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve overlooks the vineyards and herb gardens of everyone’s favourite Wineland town but this 1760 hectare private reserve (4350 acres) is home to leopards and baboons and offers the best hiking in Franschhoek. And the greatest thing about the Mont Rochelle Reserve when I visited it is that had been largely incinerated in a fire just thirty months before.
We all know that fynbos – the name given to all the plants that cover these Cape Mountains – needs fire to clear out the old and usher in the new. Most often occurring in the hot and dry summer months before the winter rains, fires swiftly convert years of accumulated dead vegetation into much-needed nutrients and expose the ground – with its millions of waiting seeds and bulbs – to nurturing sunlight and rain.
It’s hard to believe though when walking in the mountains during the first few weeks after a fire. The landscape resembles a deserted battlefield, fought over between armies using napalm and flamethrowers. Occasional tufts of fynbos survive between rocks and on wet cliffs but the mountains are mostly swept clean of life and an enormous soot-scented silence hangs over them like a blanket.
But fynbos responds to fire within days: stimulated by the fire’s heat and chemicals, leaves and flowers come shooting out of the ground in great waves while what appear to be dead tree stumps explode into a cascade of greenery. Seeds are jettisoned in their tens of thousands from fire-cracked cones and begin germinating frantically, making the most of the optimal conditions. Within weeks the landscape is pockmarked with bright patches of flowers, many of which completely depend on fire such as the Fire Lily (Cyrtanthus ventricosus).
A walk today though reveals a very different picture. The Month Rochelle Reserve is looking lush and green and the cheerful streams that clatter through the hills are so clean and pure that you can fill up your water bottle. There are a number of walks in the reserve ranging from short strolls to morning hikes and a full-day hike. There’s some uphill – these are mountains after all – but it’s minor stuff on the shorter walks and the views are worth it. And if you do feel like the full-day hike, then your reward is the highest point in the reserve, Perdekop Peak. At 1575 metres (5167 feet) above sea level, it’s as high as one and a half Table Mountains and the view is stupendous, taking in virtually the entire south-western Cape.
It’s currently a great time to visit the reserve: the mix of mature, unburned fynbos and the more recent post-fire fynbos – with completely different plants – is fascinating. The growing number of flowers has attracted sugarbirds and sunbirds and when I was there the local pair of Black Eagles cruised slowly overhead, on the lookout for dassies (Rock Hyraxes). And although the extravagant displays of flowers ebb after the first few post-fire years, the fynbos will be at its most diverse and – for want of a better word – prettiest – for many years to come.