Just over an hour’s drive north of the city of Cape Town lies one of this country’s most visited and well-known national parks, the West Coast National Park. Established in 1985, this park protects a large area of low-lying coastal fynbos and is part of the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the landscape can look quite monotonous, the West Coast holds many treasures, including white dune fields, immense granite outcrops, rough coastlines and, at its heart, the Langebaan Lagoon.
The Lagoon is incredibly picturesque with its bright blue waters and is of great ecological importance to South Africa. Perhaps its greatest treasures, however, are its biological wonders. Huge numbers of birds visit the Park each summer. And in spring the landscape in many areas becomes carpeted in fields of flowering daisies in a display of colour so extraordinary that thousands of tourists from across the country (and internationally) travel to witness this annual spectacle. It is primarily because of this annual spring flowering event that the West Coast National Park is so famous.
Tips for your visit
- Check the weather before going: the West Coast is infamous for strong winds, especially in summer!
- During flower season, aim to visit during the week, as the park gets packed at this time of year. Additionally, the queues to get in can be very long
- If you’re staying in Langebaan or another town close to the Park, aim to get there as the gates open, at 7am, as the sunrises here can be spectacular and there is also a good chance of spotting rare mammals like caracal or bat-eared foxes
- If you’re a birder, watch the tide times in Table Bay so you can know when will be the best time to visit the bird hides
- Bring plenty of water and sunblock, especially if you’re visiting Postberg
- When in Postberg, do NOT leave the road and walk into the flowers
- Drive slowly in the Park, so as not to endanger tortoises, snakes or other animals that may be on the road
- Please note that alcohol is not permitted inside the Park
Wildflower season on the west coast
The Postberg Section of the West Coast National Park lies on a Peninsula that juts out between the Langebaan Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean. For most of the year, it is closed off to visitors, with access only allowed in August and September when the flowering season occurs.
Typically, the flowers start appearing in some numbers in mid-August, with early September marking the peak of the flowering. This is when visitors are most likely to see the famous ‘flower fields’.
While there are flowers appearing all over the Park at this time of the year, Postberg is by far the best place to see them, either covering the open grassy areas or filling the gaps in between thickets and boulder fields. The amount of plants that flower depends a lot on the winter rains, so in a dry year there will be fewer flowers but in wetter years the display can be phenomenal.
The most noticeable flowers are the daisies. Large areas of Postberg are dominated by white and orange blooms from daisies, and the colours of these daisies are the most dominant, along with the yellow and purple flowers from other species of plants. It is these four colours that dominate the show in spring.
There is also a high diversity of other flowering plants, including vygies, lilies, perennial herbs, pelargoniums and sundews. If you drive up to the Uitkyk Lookout Point and walk around on the trails around the granite boulders, you can find a number of these different plant species if you take a closer look.
The effects of flower season on the West Coast biosphere
This eruption of flowers has benefits for the entire ecosystem in the West Coast. Many different species of insects, including various bee species, monkey beetles, chafer beetles and various moths, take advantage of the flowering season, while other insect species benefit from the fresh green growth from other plants.
In turn, the sudden emergence of insect life attracts predators. Cattle egrets and sacred ibis stalk through the flower fields in some numbers in search of insects, along with other smaller bird species. Rodents and lizards also take advantage of the abundance of prey. There is also a good chance of seeing ostriches, mountain zebra and bontebok walking through the flower fields.
For more information, read our guide to wildflower season on the West Coast!
Birdwatching at the West Coast NP
West Coast National Park is regarded as one of the best places to go birding in South Africa. Each summer, up to 30 000 wading birds migrate to the National Park from as far away as Siberia to escape the northern winters. Among these migrants are species like red knot, bar-tailed godwit and Eurasian curlew.
The importance of the Lagoon as an overwintering site for migratory birds has earned it the distinction of being classified a RAMSAR site (a wetland of significant importance).
In addition to the migrant birds, vast flocks of resident waterbirds are present the whole year round, most notably thousands of greater and lesser flamingos. In some places, they gather together in such numbers that they turn parts of the lagoon pink! Other waterbirds that rely on the Lagoon include the striking pied avocet, black-winged stilt, African black oystercatcher and Cape teal.
There are two primary bird hides for visitors to view the Lagoons residents from. The most well-known is the Geelbek Hide, situated close to the Geelbek Restaurant. The second hide, Seeberg, is located just south of the Park’s northern entrance gate. Both hides are best accessed as the tide is coming in, which forces most of the birds closer and closer to the hides.
In addition, there is a third hide, Abrahaamskraal, overlooking a freshwater wetland. Here, it is possible to see species like black crake, shelduck, African swamphen and even African rail.
The West Coast is also a great place to watch for raptors. It is one of the most important breeding sites for the black harrier, which can often be seen flying low over the fynbos. Osprey visit the Lagoon in summer, joining the resident marsh harriers and African fish eagles.
Pale chanting goshawks are a rare sighting, while black-winged kites and rock kestrels are omnipresent. Southern black korhaan’s are also common in the Park, particularly near Seeberg and Abrahamskraal, and their raucous calls can be heard every morning.
Birders should also watch the bushes that line the roadside, as they provide shelter for a diverse range of smaller birds, including Cape penduline tit, Layards warbler, bokmakerie, Karoo lark, white-backed mousebird and yellow bishop. It is also possible to see African hoopoe and cardinal woodpecker in the gum trees that line the road leading to the Geelbek Restaurant. Many of these species can be seen at any time of the year – however, they are most active from August to March.
Other things to do at the West Coast National Park
There are several hiking trails in the Park, three of which are 2 day trails. These are the Postberg Hiking Trail, the Strandveld Trail and Eve’s Trail. These trails can be booked via the SANPARKs website.
Stay at the Duinepos Cottages
These self-catering chalets are owned and operated by a group of women from the local communities. While there are several cottages in other parts of the Park, these chalets offer something special and a little different.
They feel completely immersed in nature, with tracks of eland and other animals often found next to the buildings.
While visitors won’t see the Big Five here, there are still a number of animals to be seen. Herds of eland and bontebok are common, while Cape Mountain Zebra, red hartebeest and springbok can also be found in the Postberg Section.
Steenbok and duiker occur here too, while caracal, bat-eared fox and honey badger are present but very elusive. Angulate tortoises are a regular site, while snakes like puffadder, Cape Cobra and mole snake can be seen in summer. Cape fur seals often venture deep into the Lagoon, as the southern reaches are a vital nursery for many fish species.
This viewpoint overlooking the Atlantic Ocean has a picnic and braai area for visitors. Between August and October, it is also a great spot to look for migrating whales.
A replica of this archaeological discovery can be seen at the Geelbek Visitor Centre. It shows the fossilized footprints of a human who walked in the area approximately 117 000 years ago.
The Seeberg Lookout is the highest point in the Park and offers some of the best views. A small whitewashed building, which now serves as a museum detailing the area’s rich history, sits on top of the massive granite boulder.
A large community of dassies live around the Lookout and herds of eland and bontebok can be seen from here too.
At low tide, this beach on the shores of the Lagoon is a great spot to relax and swim in the water. Bizarre rock formations on the shoreline create interesting photographic opportunities too.
Great stops around the West Coast
There are a number of beautiful places to stay and visit along this stretch of South Africa aside from the West Coast NP. Immediately to the north sits the town of Langebaan, a popular holiday town that offers accommodation for tourists and a variety of watersports that can be done on certain areas of the Lagoon, including sailing, paragliding, kite surfing and jet skiing.
Saldanha Bay, which holds a busy shipping port, lies on the other side of the Lagoon. Other coastal towns include Yzerfontein, Paternoster, Jakkalsfontein and Grotto Bay.
For birdwatchers, the town of Velddrif on the Berg River supports huge numbers of water and seabirds, including the rare chestnut banded-plover.
Some way inland, the town of Darling is well known for its wildflower reserves. Every year in the third week of September, the Darling Flower Show is held in the town showcasing the region’s habitats and unique flower species. This event attracts thousands of visitors to the town every year.
Several wildflower reserves on the road leading in and out of Darling are accessible to visitors, including Tienie Versveld and Renosterveld Reserves. These reserves hold an impressive variety of flowers, some of which are endemic to the Western Cape. With much of the surrounding area now converted to farmland, these small reserves are vital to preserve what remains of this region’s unique biodiversity.