Although this article, Western Cape Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, mainly deals with 4×4 trails in the Western Cape, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Western Cape Contents:
At 129 462 sq. km, the Western Cape is South Africa’s fourth largest province, approximately the surface area of Greece, and takes up 10.6% of SA’s total surface area with a population of around 6 million, divided into three main language groups: 49.7% Afrikaans speakers, 24.7% isiXhosa speakers, and 20.2% English speakers.
The Western Cape borders on the Northern and Eastern Cape provinces, as well as the Indian Ocean to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and is the dividing point between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Cape Agulhas, on the southern coast of the Western Cape is also the south-western-most point of the African continent. Extensive mountain ranges, alternated with cultivated valleys, comprise much of the landscape of the Western Cape.
Main Geographical Areas
Centred on Paarl and Stellenbosch, the Cape wine lands form a distinct geographical region, due to the clearly demarcated geology, climate, and soil types suitable for wine production. The Western Cape is the centre of the ninth largest wine-producing region (based on exports) in the world, and boasts the longest and oldest wine route in the world.
Also known as, the “Land of Thirst”, the Karroo is a large arid to semi-arid geographic region comprising much of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Northern Cape provinces. The Karoo can best be defined by its vast open spaces, and endemic vegetation, which consists mainly of succulents and low shrubs that are spaced relatively widely apart. The area is totally devoid of surface water, and its name derives from a Khoisan word, roughly translated as “Land of Thirst”.
Also known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, is the smallest of the six internationally recognized plant kingdoms, and is the only one contained entirely within one country. It covers about 90 000 km2, and contains 3% of the entire world’s plant species and 20% of all plant species found in Africa. The world-famous fynbos stands, which extend northwards from the coastal plains, comprise nearly eight thousand plant species, and form part of the Cape Floral Kingdom.
Defined by the Hottentots-Holland Mountains to the west, the Riviersonderend Mountains to the north, both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the south, and the Breede River as the eastern boundary, the Overberg region is famous for its Mediterranean climate, vast fruit orchards, as well as wheat and canola fields.
Beginning at Blaauwberg in the south, and stretching to Namaqualand in the north, this region comprises more than 40 small, beautiful towns along the Atlantic coast of South Africa. Although the Cape West Coast boasts a large selection of interesting and must-see attractions, the annual wild flower displays in and around Namaqualand between August and September tops them all.
The immediate area around Cape Town has a mostly Mediterranean climate with temperatures varying between 150 C and 270 C during summer. Inland temperatures are generally 30 – 50 C higher than at the coast. Winter at the coast can be chilly but temperatures seldom drop below 70 C, while noon temperatures average 180 C.
Rainfall occurs during winter, with the wet season falling between mainly between the months of May to July, although the wet season can spill over into August, and on occasion even into September.
The Western Cape has far too many scenic attractions to list here; suffice to say that this province has some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world. Its magnificent mountainscapes with towering cliffs, clear streams, and overwhelming abundance of trees and indigenous flora, including the fynbos of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is one of eight world heritage sites in South Africa – all combine to make the Western Cape one of South Africa’s most scenically diverse regions. For example, the more than 200 million year-old landscape of the Karroo forms a starkly contrasting backdrop to the high-tech parabolic antennas of the SKA, a modern radio telescope, the sight of which is reason enough to visit the Karroo. Some other examples include:
A stunningly scenic panorama over a 9 km stretch of coastline, especially during the whale-watching season starting in late winter, can be had from anywhere along Chapman’s Peak Drive, which offers the visitor unmatched views of sea cliffs, indigenous forest, wide beaches, and some of the most innovative road engineering in the world. However, there are tolls to pay, so bring cash.
The annual wild flower display in Namaqualand is a once-seen-never-forgotten sight when during August and September the entire region is transformed into a vast palette of colour as the landscape is carpeted with billions and billions of blooming wild flowers.
Somewhat reminiscent of parts Monument Valley in Arizona, the Karroo has perhaps the most surreal landscape in all of Southern Africa: “Because of the unique antiquity of its geological record, South Africa is the single country in the world which has: the oldest evidence of life on Earth; the oldest multi-cellular animals; the most primitive land-living plants; the most distant ancestors of dinosaurs; the most complete record of the more than 80 million year ancestry of mammals; a remarkable record of human origins and of human achievements through the last four million years”.
Source: THE KAROO, A GEOLOGICAL AND PALAEONTOLOGICAL SUPERLATIVE: ECONOMIC PO-TENTIAL OF DEEP HISTORY, by Bruce Rubidge. Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Re-search, School for Geosciences, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
The national parks and reserves in the Western Cape encompass the entire rich, and diverse geography, and geology of the area, from marine reserves, to mountain, to grassland and forested areas. Some examples and details are listed below:
33°57’25” S / 18°28’3 0” E — 34°21’40” S / 18°26’10” E
An absolute must-see Park, and a natural heritage site, is a wonderland of magnificent moun-tains bordered by two oceans and magnificent beaches. Table Mountain forms the heart of a mountain chain that stretches from Signal Hill in the north, to Cape Point in the South. The Park is home to around 250 bird species and the world’s smallest, but most diverse floral kingdom, The Cape Floristic Region. Open access hikes, beautiful forest walks, scenic drives, pristine picnic and day-visit spots, and secluded picturesque accommodation facilities make this a worthwhile destination.
32°36’20” S / 19°08’17” E — 32°07’10” S / 19°02’05”
Only three hours outside of Cape Town, this 71 000-hectare wilderness area is dominated by the iron-oxide rich Cederberg Mountain range. Spectacular sandstone formations like the aptly named Maltese Cross and the Wolfberg Arch define the area. What makes the area even more spectacular are the extensive galleries of ancient San and Khoi rock drawings.
33°10’52″ S / 19°5’50″ E — 32°59’05” S / 19°09’15” E
World famous for its spectacularly unique rock formations, the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, situated about 120 kilometres outside of Cape Town, is best known for its examples of ancient rock art, extensive hiking trails, abundant bird life, and the enormous variety of fynbos.
34°20’25″ S / 18°46’10″ E– 33°25’00” S / 19°05’00” E
One of eight protected areas making up the Cape Floral Kingdom, the Boland Mountain Complex comprises five discrete nature reserves, which are:
• Kogelberg Nature Reserve
• Jonkershoek Nature Reserve
• Assegaaibosch Nature Reserve
• Hottentots-Holland Nature Reserve
• Limietberg (Hawequas) Nature Reserve
All of the above reserves and parks offer unparalleled opportunities for hiking and bird watching.
34°30’12″ S / 20°27’07″ E — 34°22’40″ S / 20°36’13″ E
Bordering on the Indian Ocean, the full extent of the De Hoop coast is a protected marine re-serve, one of the largest anywhere in Africa. Fishing is strictly prohibited in this reserve and no marine organisms may be removed or disturbed. The protected area extends three nautical miles out to sea and you are likely to see pristine examples of inter-tidal ecosystems in the Western Cape.
33°24’19” S / 20°35’30” E — 33°22’40” S / 24°50’55” E
At a length of 230 km, the Swartberg Complex is one of the world’s best (and longest) examples of a folded mountain range. Almost all of the Swartberg Mountain range has been declared a World Heritage site, of which 180 000 hectares falls under the protection of the Cape Floral Region. The Swartberg Complex is made up of three separate reserves, although only one, the 121 000-hectare Swartberg Nature Reserve, is open to the public. The Swartberg Nature Reserve is also one of only a few nature reserves in the Western Cape that offers one day, as well as overnight 4×4 trails.
Out of more than 80 national Parks and Reserves in the Western Cape to choose from, the few ex-amples cited above represent only a very small fraction of the total: all activities, including extreme sports and 4×4 trails are catered for, but for those with more pedestrian tastes, the Western Cape offers some of the best hiking trails in the whole of Southern Africa.
Although almost the entire road network of the Western Cape can be regarded as scenic, some routes are more so than others are, and have justifiably become world famous. It is impossible to list more than a few scenic drives here, but those that are listed, have achieved iconic status.
The Garden Route
Stretching from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, this 700+ km route is more than just a scenic drive; it is a holiday destination in itself, with seven to ten days required to see and experience it all. If you have a 4×4 vehicle, take the 12 km Vlees Baai 4×4 Dune Route, which is unmatched for learning sand driving skills for drivers of all skill levels.
Cape wine lands/Wine Route
Whether you are a lover of fine wines or not, a few days spent on the spectacularly scenic wine routes that take in the whole of the Western Cape wine producing area, will be the best-spent days of your trip. Stretching from the coast all the way to the Little Karoo, the Cape wine route is an amalgam of several distinct routes that take you through breathtaking vistas with dramatic mountain backdrops. The most popular wine routes are those around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Wellington, and Paarl, which routes take in most of the 560 wineries in the West-ern Cape.
Chapman’s Peak Drive
A favourite among whale watchers, Chapman’s Peak Drive offers unimpeded views of Southern Right whales during the whale-watching season that opens in late winter.
- Whale watching during August and September from the De Hoop Nature Reserve.
- Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens: Located at the foot of Table Mountain, the world-renowned Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are famous for exhibiting the unique beauty and diversity of the Western Cape’s flower kingdom.
- Cango Caves: Locally known as the ‘underground wonderland of the Klein Karoo’, the Cango caves are an intricate series of dripstone caves that formed approximately 4500 million years ago.
- Storms River Mouth: The haunting scenery around the Storm’s River Mouth is a major attraction for travelers and adventure-seekers alike. The steep gorges and waterfalls are a once-seen-never-forgotten sight.
- Cape Point: Apart from being covered in fynbos, as a component of the Cape Floral Kingdom, Cape Point is also famous for its astounding birdlife, particularly, pelagic birds.
- Table Mountain National Park: Table Mountain, the biggest natural attraction in the Western Cape, is situated within the Table Mountain National Park, which comprises a rugged mountain chain that stretches for 60 kms, from Signal Hill to Cape Point.
- Shark Cage Diving: Great White Sharks are the ocean’s largest predatory fish, reaching up to 6 metres (20 feet) in length and powerful enough to launch their 1-ton bodies clear out of the water.
- Township Tour: An eye-opening tour through some of the outlying townships of Cape Town provides visitors with a unique insight into the lives of most South Africans.
- SA Museum and Planetarium: View an extensive collection of natural history artefacts, as well as human and maritime sciences. Adjacent to it is the Iziko Planetarium, where the skies are clear whatever the weather.
- Bloukrans Bungy: At 216 metres, the highest bungy jump in the world
- Kite boarding: The perfect combination of thrill, sun, sea, and pure adrenalin.
- Hot Air Balloon Ride over Oudtshoorn: Soar gently over rooftops, and marvel as the sunrise turns the dusty red earth a bright orange.
The Western Cape has 154 mountain passes, ranging from barely being a pass, to hair-raising terrors. It is impossible to pick even a few that will appeal to all off-road drivers, or even to most off-road drivers. However, the Western Cape is home to some unique passes, such as:
- Wildehondskloofhoogte Pass: The pass with the longest name.
- Constantia Nek: The pass with identical start and end altitudes, and the oldest pass in South Africa.
- Suikerbossie/Victoria Road: The most often cursed pass.
- Hessekwas Pass: The pass with the most often misspelt name.
- Franschoek Pass: The oldest scientifically engineered pass.
- Akkedisberg Pass: The southernmost pass in South Africa.
Nonetheless, the Western Cape is also home to the three most dangerous passes in the entire country, based on traffic volumes:
- Sir Lowry’s Pass: “A word of warning: wind speeds can be savage at the summit in the summer months when the howling Cape Doctor (Cape Town’s prevailing, southeasterly wind) reaches speeds of up to 150kp/h — powerful enough to tip over high-sided, unladen trucks and caravans!”
- Kaaiman’s River Pass: “Statistically, this pass has earned the reputation as the most dangerous mountain pass in South Africa. The regular occurrence of major trucking accidents, with often devastating consequences, has prompted the traffic authorities to set up a series of strategically placed (camera) speed traps along the pass. Thankfully, the stringently controlled speed limits have reduced the number of accidents.”
- Hex River Pass: “Ranking closely alongside the notorious Kaaimans River Pass as one of the Western Cape’s most dangerous passes for trucking accidents, it is not so much the gradient that is problematic, but the long, straight, momentum-gathering descent which leads suddenly into a dangerously sharp, left-hand bend.”
Almost all of the hundreds of towns in the Western Cape are older than any other town in the rest of South Africa, and almost all of them hold some sort of “first place, or, “first time” in some area, whether it is the oldest municipality, the first town founded after Cape Town, or the site of the first mission station.
The history of South Africa started in the Western Cape: and to compile a list of which towns are more historic or more culturally or architecturally significant than any other town in the province, is near impossible. All of the towns in the Western Cape hold some sort of significance for different people, and for different reasons, but some have had international recognition, such as:
Founded 1847, and named after Baron Pieter van Rheede van Outshoorn, this town was the epicentre of the global ostrich feather industry, in which vast fortunes were made and lost in the space of months, rather that years.
Meaning “French glen, or French corner, the area where the town was founded in 1881, was first settled by the French Huguenots in 1688 fleeing from the religious wars in Europe. The significance of this lies in the fact that they brought vine cuttings with them, and by their winemaking skills, saved the infant Cape wine industry from financial ruin.
Founded in 1687, Paarl became in later years the centre of the battle to have the Afrikaans language recognised as a distinct and separate language from Dutch. A monument to the efforts (and the language itself) of the shakers and movers of the language struggle is situated here. Afrikaans is most likely the only language in the world that has a monument erected to it.
Many other historical towns in the Western Cape have other claims to fame, and a great resource to learn more about them can be found at: