Wind-torn, sun-scoured and torched by fire, the mountains at the Rooi Els Reserve may not sound the most appealing destination but what I saw there early one morning nearly made me choke on my bran muffin.
An hour’s drive from Cape Town, Rooi Els (pronounced ‘Roy Else’) is a modest village set on the False Bay coast under the looming presence of Hangklip – Hanging Rock. It’s where lofty mountains have tumbled down to sea level to deliver rare mountain fynbos plants at your feet, saving you the huff and puff uphill to where they are normally found. And as well as seldom-seen plants, Rooi Els is excellent for bird watching, home to local specials such as Cape Siskin, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Protea Seed-eater. It also has a well-deserved reputation for The Mega Tick: Cape Rockjumper – normally only found in high mountains.
It’s not easy botanising though. Although this side of False Bay has as many plant species as there are on the Cape Peninsula, half of them are different. Your guidebook to the flowers of Table Mountain carries little currency out here even though you can see the famous flat-top just 30 kilometres away. You need specialist field guides here, the sort of books you may have to blow dust off before thumbing through them.
But all the page-turning is worth the effort. There is some really rare stuff at Rooi Els. Well, rare in the fynbos sense of being rare: locally abundant in an area of a few acres and then totally absent from the rest of the planet. Take Diastella thymelaeoides meridiana for example, an elegant member of the Protea family found only along this twist of coastline. Or scan the swamps behind the mountains and you’ll find Mealie Heath (Erica pattersonii), clinging on for survival in the few lowland patches that are not covered in holiday homes.
Besides rare plants, another reason the reserve is worth a visit is because it was recently burnt. Evidence of the fire is everywhere – blackened tree stumps and singed rocks – but this of course only encourages fynbos and Rooi Els is looking especially colourful and productive at the moment. And being fynbos, there are always surprises in store. Hiking uphill to explore, I came across various orchids, their bizarre flowers twitching and bouncing in the wind. Indeed, South Africa is home to more types of orchid than Europe and North America combined and they are often found in the strangest habitats: dry stony ground; post-fire scorched sand; and cold, peaty wetlands.
With top to bottom views of the Cape Peninsula – from Table Mountain to Cape Point – you’ll probably be most impressed with the scenery when you first arrive at Rooi Els. And from July to November you stand a good chance of seeing Southern Right Whales in False Bay too. But after an hour of relentless panoramas, you might find yourself looking a little closer at the flowers. Now you’ll start to notice ecological relationships at play – pollinators such as monkey beetles and predators like crab spiders and hairy caterpillars. Keep an eye out for baboons too: they don’t seem to be particularly bothered by humans as I found out when I stopped to observe a troop before realising that it was they who had settled down to watch me.
The Rooi Els Reserve is a private one but accessible to the public. It offers easy walking – you simply stroll along the gravel road which runs along the base of the mountains – though it’s not an easy place to find and it’s equally difficult to get a day there where you aren’t retrieving your hat every minute – it’s really windy. There’s also no shade, no facilities and no water.
But Rooi Els lies at the start of a collection of fantastic destinations tucked away on the Overberg coast: Stony Point Penguin Colony, the Kogelberg Biosphere and Harold Porter Gardens – and these are the relatively well-known ones: wait until you check out the fynbos at the Hangklip Reserve or the birding hide at Rooisands Reserve. Birding, flowers, scenery, wildlife, whale-watching and the marine world – it’s all there.
And the view on the way back to Cape Town isn’t so bad either.