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Exploring Tokai’s lovely historic and natural spaces

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Situated right at the foot of the Constantiaberg Mountain, Tokai is a large (and very green) residential area in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. It is incredibly popular among cyclists, hikers, horse riders, and nature lovers for a wide range of reasons.

This part of Cape Town has a rich history and large green spaces, which include some critically important areas of native fynbos. Local residents frequently encounter a wide range of animal species right on their doorstep, due to many living within metres of areas of wetlands, fynbos or forests.

It is the place I have been lucky enough to call home for most of my life. I have many memories of looking for animals in my neighbourhood, from finding otter tracks in a stream bed below my house to photographing black sparrowhawks, rufous-chested sparrowhawks and spotted eagle-owls on nests – not to mention visiting the local baboon troops. Even now, there are new things that I am learning every day about it, new places to explore and animals to find and photograph. I am certain that many other residents will agree with that statement!

Historic places to visit in Tokai

Tokai was originally dominated by wine farms with several smallholdings. It became a suburb in the 1940s, originally to provide homes for English-speaking soldiers returning from World War 2.

From 1984 to 1988, Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison on the edge of the suburb. Today, only a few old Cape Dutch Houses still remain and only a couple of wine farms, including Constantia Uitsig.

Tokai Manor House

the Great Manor House in Tokai

One of the historical houses that still remains is the Tokai Manor House, originally built in 1796. This building has changed hands a number of times throughout the years and was also used by the colonial government as a reformatory for a time after 1883. At one point, it was actually considered to be the most outstanding house on the entire Peninsula.

The Manor even has its own ghost, with a ghostly horse and rider often reportedly seen or heard to this day around the property. In the 1960s, it was restored and declared a National Monument. SANPARKs also has their offices situated on and around the Manor House.

Tokai Arboretum

Another National Monument in the area is the Tokai Arboretum, which was the first large-scale sylviculture experiment station in the country. Originally laid out in 1885, it marked the beginnings of the forestry industry in South Africa and was declared a National Monument in 1985. Today, it holds 274 tree species, many of which are exotic species from various corners of the globe.

baboons exploring the tokai arboretum

Historic Wine Farms

While Constantia is the area in Cape Town that is best known for its wine farms, there are still two wine farms right on the edges of Tokai: Steenberg and Constantia Uitsig. Both have very long and rich histories. Steenberg was the Cape’s first farm, originally established in 1682 as Swaanefeide Farm.

Constantia Uitsig would form part of the first wine-producing estate in South Africa (indeed probably the first in the whole of Africa) under the ownership of Simon Van Der Stal. He named the land Constantia after the daughter of the benefactor who gave him the farm.

After his death in 1712, the farm was subdivided into three parts: Groot and Klein Constantia, and Bergvliet. From Bergvliet later came the farms of Buitenverwachting and Nova Constantia. Constantia Uitsig was created after a further subdivision from Buitenverwachting.

In recent years Constantia Uitsig has undergone a significant renovation, with a Heritage market containing delis, restaurants and galleries on the property, along with a Bike Park. Steenberg has also become an award-winning wine farm, with luxury accommodation and fine restaurants.

Tokai Park

tokai park at golden hour

Tokai is home to one of the most important conservation areas in Cape Town. The Lower Tokai Park, formerly a pine plantation in the 20th century, is now the largest remaining area of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.

Today, over 440 species of plants have been recorded in the Park. Many of them naturally grew after the pines were removed and certain areas burned, as there were massive seed banks in the soil that enabled many species to naturally regenerate. Conservationists and local volunteers were also able to facilitate the return of many threatened species of plant (including some that are classified as extinct in the wild). These include the Rondevlei Spiderhead, Cape Flats Conebush and Iron Heath.

The best known case study is probably the return of the Whorl Heath (Erica verticillata). This pink flowering erica grows well in wetland areas and, while it is still classified as extinct in the wild, it is recovering well in several areas, with Tokai Park supporting significant numbers of them.

whorl heath flower

Whorl Heath (Erica verticillata)

The recovery of the natural vegetation has been remarkable and encouraging for conservation efforts. In addition, its proximity and connection to the Table Mountain National Park means that it will not experience the pressures that other more isolated patches of vegetation types on the Cape Flats face.

Information boards around the Park provide visitors with a detailed background on the Park’s biodiversity. 

Urban Wildlife

mole snake

The recovery of the fynbos in Tokai Park has seen many species of animals return to the area. Porcupine, Caracal, Cape Clawless Otter and Cape Fox have all been recorded in the Park, along with a number of species of rodent.

Species of reptiles like mole snake, puffadder and Cape Dwarf Chameleon have all been recorded in the fynbos. Tokai is also known as one of the breeding sites for the endangered Western Leopard Toad.

Tokai birds

An immature black-crowned night-heron on the edge of a stream running through a residential area in Tokai

An immature black-crowned night-heron on the edge of a stream running through a residential area in Tokai

The return of the fynbos has also seen a rise in the number of bird species in the area, with orange-breasted sunbirds being recorded visiting the flowering species of heaths and a number of raptor species like jackal buzzard, rock kestrel and yellow-billed kite hunting over the Park.

There are a number of raptor species, most notably the black sparrowhawk, that rely on the large alien pine trees and gum trees in the suburbs for nesting. Other species that can be seen amongst the pines or in well-wooded suburbs include African harrier-hawk, rufous-chested sparrowhawk and forest buzzard.

The mosaic of habitats in Tokai has resulted in Tokai supporting a very high number of raptors. In the wetland areas, Burchell’s coucal and black-crowned night heron hide amongst the reeds while mixed flocks of common and swee waxbills can be easily seen.

Baboon troops

One animal in Tokai is particularly visible: the Chacma Baboon. Up to four troops have Tokai as part of their home range and so residents and visitors stand a high chance of seeing these intelligent primates. In fact, a particularly large troop can regularly be seen in and around Tokai Manor in the early evening.

Chacma Baboon sitting near a no parking sign

It’s always an interesting experience to observe the interactions between members of a baboon troop. There is always something going on, whether it is young baboons playing, a flare-up, grooming or an adult male asserting dominance.

These baboons move through natural fynbos, pine plantations and human-occupied areas, primarily feeding on vegetation, including flowers, fruits, bulbs and roots. While the baboons will eat human food if they find it (especially from bins), they tend to be less aggressive than members of other troops on different parts of the Peninsula. However, people should always be mindful and aware in the presence of baboons.

Roaming males in particular will venture into the suburbs and this can lead to human-wildlife conflict. Fortunately, there is a network of baboon monitors employed by SANPARKS and NCC who keep the baboons under constant surveillance to reduce the rates of conflict. Given half a chance, baboons will prefer to stay out of the way of people.

Hiking and MTB trails in Tokai

mountain bike trails at Silvermine Nature Reserve, Cape Town

Cyclists on the MTB trails of Silvermine; photo courtesy of Jacques Marais

Tokai is one of the most utilised areas on the Peninsula in terms of outdoor activities. Mountain bikers in particular are drawn to this area. On the slopes of Constantiaberg, where the Tokai Plantation once stood, is a network of MTB trails with varying difficulty levels.

These trails are well maintained by a network of volunteers from Tokai MTB. They’re regarded as some of the best bike trails in the country. In order to traverse these trails, you will need a level 3 activity permit from SANPARKS. There are cycling trails in Tokai Park, through some of the suburbs and through some of the greenbelts, including one that spans from the Keysers River Path to Peddlars on the Bend in Constantia, connecting it to the Silverhurst Greenbelt.

Tokai Park and the Greenbelts are also frequented by horse riders, who use specially designated trails that run through these areas.

Silvermine Nature Reserve

A King Protea overlooking Silvermine Nature Reserve

In addition to local trails, Tokai is also barely five minutes away from Silvermine Nature Reserve, one of the most popular hiking areas in the Table Mountain National Park. The Silvermine Dam is a popular spot to cool off in the summer and there are several trails of varying levels of difficulty on both the East and West sides of Silvermine.

The River Trail from the Main Gate (Gate 1) to the Dam is an easy trail, while the hike up to the Elephant’s Eye Cave is longer and more challenging. The Silvermine Dam hike is the longest trail on the West side, over 7 kilometres. This Trail starts and ends at the Dam, and gives hikers some spectacular views of the Cape Flats, Noordhoek and Hout Bay.

This is an area that is also rich in biodiversity and nature lovers should keep their eyes open for plants like the King Protea and Blue Disa, along with birds like the ground woodpecker, cape sugarbird and cape grassbird. There is also a viewing point just off this trail that allows people to see the nest of the only remaining pair of Verreaux’s Eagles on the Peninsula.

Cyclists also make use of certain trails and the Silvermine Crags on the Mountainside are regarded as probably the most popular rock climbing spot on the Cape Peninsula.

The East side (Gate 2) of the reserve is often quieter but still holds some beautiful hikes. One hike takes people all the way up to the Kalk Bay Amphitheatre and another to the Muizenberg and Steenberg Peaks.

Last thoughts on Tokai

Tokai is a suburb surrounded by nature, with Table Mountain looming above it, Tokai Park at its heart and streams winding their way through it like arteries. While it has a long history of farming, today the fynbos is making a comeback. With so much green space, it makes sense that Tokai is one of the most popular places in Cape Town for outdoor enthusiasts.

Tokai is without a doubt an integral part of Cape Town. It is a focal point for conservation, a magnet for cyclists and is fringed by two renowned wine farms. It is a place that has the potential to surprise you, even if you have lived there for many years.

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