They say it used to take two days to haul an ox wagon from Cape Town harbour across the Cape Flats to Somerset West. At a modest distance of some 45 kilometres (28 miles) you might be wondering why it took so long. Until you visit Zandvlei Nature Reserve.
Tucked away behind Muizenberg—about 30 minutes from the city centre—Zandvlei is not only the last functioning estuary on Cape Town’s False Bay coastline, but it’s also a reminder of what the Cape Flats used to look like. And it was wet.
Covering around 200 hectares (500 acres), Zandvlei (pronounced ‘Zahnd Flay’) is where several rivers converge and empty into a coastal lagoon. Everywhere you look there are reed beds, backwaters and swampy bits: tough going on foot, let alone with a laden ox wagon – and it’s not hard to imagine hearing the sudden snort of a hippopotamus, once a common resident in the Cape Flats wetlands and presumably a serious impediment to free-flowing traffic.
The Cape Flats wasn’t so flat in the past either: Zandvlei certainly is, but take a walk at nearby Rondevlei Nature Reserve or a drive around the birdwatching paradise known as Strandfontein Sewage Works and you’ll see what I mean: large rolling sand dunes covered in almost impenetrable thick and bushy vegetation. No wonder it took so much time to drag a wagon across the landscape.
Run by the City of Cape Town, Zandvlei protects some of the last remaining patches of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld and Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, two critically endangered vegetation types that are unique to the immediate Cape Town area. The result is nearly 300 species of indigenous plants—including some exceptionally rare ones—plus around 20 mammal species and well over 150 birds.
It’s also home to a breeding population of the endangered Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus), an endemic species that attracts a lot of local interest, not least due to its handsome appearance.
Open Monday to Friday, there’s no charge to get in and you can wander around the reserve on easy walking trails. A viewing platform overlooks the coastal lagoon which was full of birds: the usual suspects—gulls, geese and cormorants—plus some more unusual ones—stilts, avocets and egrets. Yet more birds provide the background music—bulbuls and bush shrikes—while flocks of ground-feeding waxbills and sparrows rippled like waves away from me as I walked towards them.
It’s easy enough to find: travel south down the M5 highway and turn right at Military Road where you’ll see a sign for Steenberg. Drive down Military Road for a couple of hundred metres and turn left at the first set of traffic lights into Coninston Avenue. Drive for a hundred metres and turn right onto a gravel road, immediately after the road passes over a small river; follow this road all the way to the end and you’ll see a sign for the reserve and the entrance gate. Parking and bathrooms are onsite along with staff and conservationists.