Cape Town is surrounded by areas of incredible natural beauty, many of which are barely a 30 to 45-minute drive from the city centre (like Kirstenbosch, Boulders Beach or Cape Point Nature Reserve), so people do not have to travel far to escape the stress of city life.
Additionally, drive an hour or so away from the city and you can find yourself on some stunning stretches of wild coastline to the north and east. To reach the coastline to the east, you have to drive towards Gordons Bay until you reach the turnoff to Clarence Drive. This road winds along the foot of the Hottentot Holland Mountain Range and looks down on the sharp rocky shoreline sticking out of the waters of False Bay. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful routes to drive in South Africa (although some of the winding sections of road are not for the faint-hearted).
It’s a 21-kilometre drive to get from Gordons Bay to the first town along this route, Rooiels. After that, the other small towns, Pringle Bay, Bettys Bay and Kleinmond, are all quite close together. Each town is surrounded by mountains, ocean and fynbos and each holds its own special wildlife that keeps drawing me back time and time again.
Rooiels: For the Birds
The first town along this coastal route, Rooiels, sits at the foot of a mountain with tall cliffs facing seaward. This mountain is clearly visible from Cape Point on the far side of False Bay, especially since it sits apart from the rest of the mountain range, separated by a coastal plain.
The town itself is very small, with mainly small houses and larger holiday homes in amongst the dense fynbos. In Rooiels, there is a strong emphasis on conservation, with the community protecting the local wildlife, vegetation and coastline. In turn, the area around Rooiels ends up attracting birdwatchers from across the globe.
On the far end of the town, a boom gate at the bottom of a road called Porter Drive marks the entrance to a protected area of fynbos along the mountain slopes between Rooiels and Pringle Bay. The road continues past the boom gate and leads to several smallholdings on the coast, but the fynbos dominates here.
Birds to keep a lookout for
This area is one of the best spots (the best, in my opinion) to observe the endemic and localized Cape Rockjumper. These birds forage amongst the boulders that cover the mountainside and can often be seen in small family groups hopping on top of the rocks.
The best way to locate them is by listening out for their call and scanning the boulders with binoculars. Patience does pay off and I have had some incredible sightings of these birds here.
This is also an excellent site to see other endemic birds like ground woodpeckers, sentinel and Cape rock thrushes and Cape siskin. Orange-breasted and malachite sunbirds, Cape sugarbird, Cape bunting and yellow bishop are all very common here.
A pair of Verreaux’s eagles occasionally nest on the cliffs, while rock kestrel, peregrine falcon and jackal buzzard are the commonly seen raptors here. Troops of baboons often move through the area, and I have seen families of klipspringer moving along the slopes on several occasions.
Pringle Bay: the Hideaway
Barely five minutes’ drive from Rooiels, Pringle bay is the next town along the coast. It is quite a bit larger than Rooiels and is very attractive and quiet. It’s a popular spot for people needing a weekend break from the city, with many options for comfortable accommodation available.
Like all the other towns in the area, fynbos grows at will in between the houses, allowing a number of animal species to live in and around the town. Pringle Bay is also a great base to explore the rest of the area from. There is a beautiful beach with white sands and a river mouth on the far right end of the beach.
The dunes are nesting sites for the endangered African black oystercatcher and white-fronted plovers and so they are protected to prevent people, dogs or vehicles from destroying their nests.
While it doesn’t have the same local birding fame that Rooiels and Bettys Bay do, birders can still find a range of species here, including Cape sugarbird, speckled mousebird, fiscal flycatcher, malachite sunbird and streaky-headed seedeater. Animals like Cape grey mongoose, baboon and porcupine are also regularly seen in the town.
Bettys Bay: Penguins and Leopards
Bettys Bay is the largest town out on this route and possibly the one that receives the most attention from visitors. This is largely due to the Stony Point Nature Reserve, which protects one of only three land-based colonies of the endangered African penguin.
Stony Point Nature Reserve
Over 2000 breeding pairs nest here, making it a critically important site for the conservation of the species and one of the largest remaining colonies. Four species of cormorant nest here as well (of which the bank, crowned and cape are endemic to Southern Africa) and families of dassies live amongst the rocks and coastal vegetation.
Ironically, this bustling nesting site was once the site of the Waaygat Whaling Station in the 1900s, the ruins of which can still be seen from the wooden boardwalk that gives visitors the ability to view the penguins and cormorants without damaging or disturbing the nesting areas.
Harold Porter Botanical Gardens
On the far side of Bettys Bay is the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, one of the ten Botanical Gardens in South Africa under the management of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
The gardens are situated between the towering Kogelberg Mountains and the ocean. The cultivated section of the garden showcases the biodiversity of the coastal and montane fynbos in the area and holds a number of endangered plant species.
At the entrance to the garden, an artificial pond system covered in water lilies provides a home for Cape river frogs and a host of dragonflies. Additionally, there is a large section of naturally growing fynbos that visitors can hike through in the mountains.
There are two main hikes that take visitors into the two gorges that connect within the cultivated part of the gardens, these being Disa Kloof and Leopard Kloof. Dense riverine forests grow on the banks of these two rivers. In February and March, Red Disa orchids can be seen flowering around the waterfall at the end of the Disa Kloof hike.
While this garden is smaller than Kirstenbosch, I find it to be a beautiful place to look for birds and having the chance to explore the Kloofs and mountainsides are big drawcards for me.
Birds and animals to watch for
Rare birds like the blue-mantled crested flycatcher and Victorins Warbler can be seen in the garden, along with other sought-after species like African black duck, African paradise flycatcher, booted eagle, Klaas’s cuckoo, giant kingfisher, Cape grassbird and orange-breasted sunbird.
A baboon troop regularly visits the garden, so make sure not to have food visible. I once saw a large male baboon raiding tables at the old restaurant in the garden. There is even a chance of spotting the elusive Cape leopards on the ridges above the garden. When I was on the Disa Kloof trail in 2017, I actually walked right into one in the forest! Leopards have even spotted in the towns in the area and have been recorded hunting the penguins at Stony Point.
Kleinmond: Explore the Mountains
The last town on the route, Kleinmond lies between two river mouths, the Palmiet and the Bot River. Kleinmond is an ideal place for nature lovers to stay, as there are very affordable accommodation options and the access road to the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is barely a couple of minutes away from the town.
Staying at Palmiet Caravan Park
Palmiet Caravan Park is my favourite place to stay on this route. This campsite is just outside Kleinmond on the banks of the Palmiet River and is separated from the beach by a line of vegetated dunes.
There are a number of campsites to choose from, but the best are the ones closest to the beach, as they are shaded by large stands of milkwood trees that provide protection from the heat in summer. They also have a more isolated atmosphere than the rest of the campsite.
From these campsites, you can easily access the gates to the beach (you get given keys to these). This beach by the Palmiet River Mouth and Lagoon is smaller and more isolated than the main Kleinmond Beach on the other side of the town. Watching the sunrise from here in the morning is truly spectacular and at night, I have even been lucky enough to see bioluminescence in the water.
Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve
The access road to the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve mentioned above leads to the reception building for the Reserve in general, as well as the Oudebosch Eco-cottages which are located close by.
There is a network of hiking trails in the reserve, with one of the most popular being the Palmiet River Trail. This trail is fairly easy hiking over largely flat terrain that overlooks the river, flanked by high mountains on both sides. There are a number of great swimming spots over the course of the hike and plenty of opportunities to spot a wide range of plant and animal species.
Other hikes in the reserve include the Highlands Overnight Trail, the Kogelberg Trail and the Perdeberg Trail. All of these trails require permits to hike, so booking beforehand is essential. Along with its incredible scenery, Kogelberg has perhaps the highest number and diversity of plant species per square metre found anywhere in the world.
Almost 2000 species have been recorded in the reserve, roughly 80 of which are found nowhere else. Add into the mix a range of bird species like Cape sugarbirds and Cape Rockjumpers and other animals from Cape leopards to rock agama lizards and this small reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas on the African Continent.
A dream road trip for nature lovers
It’s a mere 20-minute drive from Rooiels to Kleinmond and along that 24-kilometre section of road are many opportunities to experience some of the most extraordinary biodiversity in South Africa.
While there may no longer be lions or elephants roaming these coastal plains or foothills anymore, the nature reserves here do protect some of Africa’s most endangered plants and animals. Whether you’re a birdwatcher, an avid hiker or just looking for a weekend break from the city, this section of coastline checks all the boxes.
There are affordable places to stay, varying from comfortable self-catering cottages to rustic campsites, beautiful beaches, and epic hiking trails. The natural areas that surround the towns here, much of which is protected by CapeNature, really are some of the best-kept secrets in this country and it’s all barely an hour’s drive from the bustling centre of Cape Town.