Two years ago Cape Town was named the most biodiverse city in the world, with more species of animals and plants living in and immediately around it than any other city! While there may not be lions roaming the streets (any more) there are nonetheless an incredible range of experiences that will bring a big smile to any nature lover’s face.
There are so many different ways for people to experience nature in Cape Town. This can be as simple as walking in Newlands Forest or just watching birds in your garden. Others are a bit more adventurous, like hiking up mountain ravines at night in search of endangered frogs.
While there are so many ways to experience the wilder side of Cape Town, there are certain places and species that hold a special place in the hearts of many people that live in or have visited Cape Town. These are activities and places that are relatively easy for people to do and access, and are quite affordable, yet can also offer incredible encounters with various species of animals and reveal some beautiful landscapes.
This article deals with five specific experiences that can be had in Cape Town, both on land and in the sea. They have not been rated, as it is unfair to compare one to the other. They are all quite different, yet they all showcase the incredible natural beauty and diversity of the Cape Peninsula.
Seal Snorkeling in Hout Bay
Cost: SA residents: R650 per person; Internationals: R950 per person
Location: Animal Ocean, 8 Albert Road, Hout Bay
There are actually several colonies of Cape fur seals on offshore ‘islands’ around Cape Town. Just outside Hout Bay, below Sentinel Peak, Duiker Island sits just offshore. The Island is a jumble of boulders surrounded by kelp forests and pounding waves. It is home to approximately 5000 Cape fur seals at any given time. Additionally, a Southern elephant seal locally named Buffel can sometimes be on the Island, too!
Once you’re in the water, you are completely surrounded by seals. They will either be relaxing on the surface or swimming around you, often performing lightning-fast underwater acrobatics. Sometimes all you will see is a trail of bubbles left in the seal’s wake. As long as you do not harass the seals in any way, they will simply treat you with curiosity.
It is an experience for anyone, including for people who have never snorkelled before. The snorkelling is done in the shallow waters around the Island, which are usually quite sheltered, and there are no large sharks present in the area.
The tours run from August to June (weather permitting), but the best time to go is from November through to May. When you dive with Animal Ocean, all of the diving gear is provided at the dive centre, so you don’t even need to bring any gear.
Cape Point Nature Reserve
Cost: SA Residents: R90 per person (without a WILD card); Internationals: R350 per person
Gate Times: 06:00 to 19:00 in summer, & 07:00 to 18:00 in winter
Probably the most isolated and wildest part of the Cape Peninsula is the Cape Point Nature Reserve. When you enter the reserve, you really feel like you have left the city of Cape Town far behind. The fynbos stretches unbroken from one coast of the Peninsula to the other.
The weather here can be incredibly unpredictable, as in one beach could be sunny, but the Point itself could be covered in mist or it could be raining over the Plateau. But this unpredictable nature of the weather is part of the reason why Cape Point is still as wild as it is.
The wildlife of Cape Point
Because of its size, isolation and relatively flat topography, the reserve is the only section of the Table Mountain National Park that can support herds of large grazing animals. Herds of bontebok and eland can be found grazing on the plateau or close to beaches alongside families of ostriches. Klipspringers hide amongst boulder fields and cape clawless otters forage on the rocky coastlines in the early mornings. It really is a special experience to be in the company of these animals, especially considering that the suburbs of Cape Town are only a few kilometres away.
Olifantsbos Beach and the surrounding area is my favourite place in the Reserve to encounter wildlife. Herds of eland and bontebok are always here, often venturing onto the beach. The local baboon troop is also a common sight, either walking through the fynbos or foraging for seafood along the intertidal zone (they are the only primates in the world that do this). If you arrive early in the morning, it is even possible to see caracal and otters here too.
The birding here can be pretty special, as the beach attracts wading birds like ruddy turnstone, sanderling and whimbrel. The bushes surrounding the beach are also home to birds like bokmakierie and Cape grassbird.
On the long road leading into the beach, keep watch for the small herds of Cape mountain zebra and red hartebeest, as this is the most reliable place to see the more elusive grazers.
Birdwatching in Kirstenbosch
Cost: R210 standard | R130 for SA residents & SADC Nationals | R30 for children 6 – 17 years | Free for children under 6 | R50 for students at a South African institution
Gate Times: 08:00 to 19:00 in summer, & 08:00 to 18:00 in winter
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is without a doubt one of the best places to go birdwatching in Cape Town. It is the perfect place for beginner birdwatchers to observe the endemic bird species up close, and also can provide seasoned birders with the opportunity to see local rarities that don’t occur elsewhere on the Peninsula.
Many of the birds in Kirstenbosch are used to people, so it is possible to get quite close to certain species that in other places would be more skittish. The spring and summer months are the best for birds, when they are drawn to the Gardens by fruiting trees and flowering plants.
The stars of the show have to be the sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds. When the pincushion proteas flower in September and October, large numbers of orange-breasted and malachite sunbirds converge on the Garden, alongside the sugarbirds.
If any avid photographer waits by a flower pincushion bush long enough, they are bound to get some brilliant images. Many of the trees in the garden also produce fruits during these months, which attract other birds like the African olive pigeon, speckled mousebird and olive thrush.
The birdlife of Kirstenbosch is only one element that makes this place so special. Without a doubt the botanical wonders that it showcases are the most important and dominant feature of Kirstenbosch. The birds themselves wouldn’t be here in such numbers if there wasn’t such a diversity of plants and habitats in such a small area.
Whatever the season, there is always something special to see among the plants, from flowering aloes in winter, the spring daisies or the Cape chestnut trees in full bloom in December. It is even possible to spot the elusive caracal in the Gardens, usually in the early morning or late evening.
Orchid Hunting on Table Mountain
The cape floral kingdom is the smallest of the nine plant kingdoms, yet it is also the richest. The Cape Peninsula is only a tiny part of the kingdom, yet around 2500 species of plant have been recorded here. Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world (with most of these being threatened with extinction).
One of the plant groups that generates particular excitement among botany enthusiasts are the orchids. Several hundred species can be found across the country but perhaps the most striking and well known species can be found growing on top of Table Mountain.
Throughout the year, various species of orchid can be found flowering on the mountains. Each species has a flowering over a specific month or two. One orchid in particular, the Red Disa, attracts a lot of attention. This orchid has a very large brilliant red flower with three main petals. It is also the provincial flower of the Western Cape.
Within the Table Mountain National Park, it only grows in a few specific places. One of the best hikes to see these orchids in flower is the Waterfall Ravine Trail and the Aquaduct. Here, Red Disa’s grow in large clusters along the mossy fringes of the stream and the Aquaduct.
At the same time of year, the small but strikingly coloured Blue Disa and the bright red Cluster Disa can also be seen flowering amongst the fynbos. The flowering of the Red Disa drives many Capetonians to hike up the mountain to see these spectacular flowers lining the mountain streams.
Other notable orchids to watch for at different times of the year include:
- The Drip Disa – similar to the Red Disa, but flowers are pale blue in colour. They can also be found on the Aquaduct Trail, but grow on moist cliffs in December and January.
- The Pink Satyr – in the flowering season this species produces a tall spire of bright pink flowers. Large numbers of this orchid can be seen by the Glencairn Road.
- The Blackspot Disa – this species also produces a tall spire of flowers, but the individual flowers are purple and white in colour, with a distinctive black spot on the lower petal.
Marine life sightings off the coast of Simon’s Town
The oceans surrounding Cape Town are incredibly rich in life. Huge shoals of fish and krill attract large numbers of predators, among them some of the largest animals to have ever existed. Three species of whale are regularly seen in the waters around Cape Town: the Southern right whale, the humpback whale and the Bryde’s whale.
Bryde’s whales can be seen at any time of the year, while the other two species are more seasonal visitors. Humpback whales migrate past Cape Town on their way to and from their breeding grounds off West Africa and Mozambique. Southern right whales, on the other hand, visit Cape Town between June and November to give birth to their calves. In recent years, Cape Town has witnessed great numbers of humpback whales visiting the waters just off its beaches to feed on massive swarms of krill. This abundance of food also leads some humpback whales to stay around Cape Town during the migrations.
At any time of the year, five species of dolphin can be seen around Cape Town. Only the humpback dolphin is difficult to see (it is usually only seen close to Strand). Heaviside’s dolphins, endemic to South Africa and Namibia, are only seen on the Atlantic side of the Peninsula. In False bay, superpods of common dolphins can be seen pursuing shoals on special days. Families of bottlenose dolphins and the acrobatic dusky dolphins are also regularly seen too.
Sightings of Cape fur seals are guaranteed in False Bay and there’s also a high chance of seeing rafts of swimming African penguins and the giant sunfish (or mola-mola). The numerous shark species here, however, tend to be often more elusive.
Boat trips from Simon’s Town
A number of boating companies offer tours from the Simon’s Town Harbour. These tours give people the chance to see the wealth of marine megafauna in False Bay. Some of the best charters include the Simon’s Town Boat Company, Shark Explorers, Oceans Africa and Apex Shark Expeditions. There are specific charters dedicated to whale watching, shark diving or pelagic birding, while others are more generalist.
Some charters take visitors out to Seal Island (of Air Jaws fame) far out to see the largest fur seal colony in the Western Cape. Shark cage diving can be done here, giving people the chance to see bronze whaler sharks and sevengill cowsharks underwater. For more adventurous shark lovers, Shark Explorers and Pisces Divers also offer pelagic shark dives. These take people out to dive with blue sharks and mako sharks in the open ocean south of Cape Point.
Enjoy the natural attractions of our spectacular city
So! These are a few of the absolute best natural experiences and attractions Cape Town has to offer — but honestly, they are a few among many! This city and its surroundings have a pretty inexhaustible resource of things for nature lovers to see and do. For more ideas, check out our adventures guide.