Saturday morning: enter the smallest national park in South Africa – the 27.86 km² Bontebok National Park. A compact piece of undisturbed nature at the foot of the lofty Langeberg Mountains, 6 km’s from the charming old town of Swellendam.
I recently spent a wonderfully relaxing day exploring this pretty little wilderness area on a self-drive safari with a friend. The main highlights of Bontebok National Park are its rich bird life, mountain biking trails, calm atmosphere and, of course, the star attraction, the bontebok.
The park is named after the distinctive-looking bontebok antelope, the most abundant mammal found within its borders. This is one of the few places that you can see the medium-sized bontebok, only found in South Africa.
The Bontebok Day Trip Experience
Within three minutes of entering the Bontebok National Park we spotted a mini-herd of about seven, take a guess… yes - bontebok! This striking-looking buck is particularly special because it is an endemic species that was rescued from the brink of extinction. The natural habitat of the bontebok is Cape Fynbos, a unique biome found exclusively in the Western Cape of South Africa.
Driving on, we almost immediately spotted three cyclists and a few more bontebok, setting the trend for our drive; during which we spotted several more cyclists and plenty of the over 200 bontebok roaming the game park.
We flashed our Wild Cards at reception, granting us free access to the national park. Looking at the stuffed bontebok standing in the reception area, I asked what had happened to the buck and the reply… “it got stuffed”!
Armed with cameras and a small map, we continued to the sign-posted viewpoints nearby (everything is nearby in Bontebok). Here we gazed over the open scrublands scouring the plains for wildlife and admiring the gentle folds of the Langeberg Mountains in the background.
From a distance the grey renosterveld (a type of fynbos) looked quite drab and uninteresting, but taking a closer look a vibrant mix of multi-coloured flowers was revealed. The flora is really beautiful and fascinating once you start paying attention to the finer details! Several flowers of the Cape Fynbos biome stood out the most - orange, pink and red ericas and proteas, as well as the white daisies more typical of the endemic renosterveld.
During the leisurely drive, we saw lots of the more than 200 bird species found in the park, as well as some animals (grey rhebok, Cape grysbok, angulate tortoises and mountain zebras), other than bontebok.
One day just isn't enough time to soak up the lovely scenery and relax into the slow pace of this quiet place. I recommend a weekend getaway in this little haven, packed with intriguing plants, reptiles, mammals and birds.
Walking Along the Breede River in Bontebok
Three of the walking trails begin at the same starting point – the Acacia, Aloe and Bushbuck trails. The two shorter trails, the Acacia Trail (1,6km) and the Aloe Trail (3,3km) are circular walks. The Aloe Trail is said to offer the best views, but we opted for the longer Bushbuck Trail (5,4km) running along the river to the picnic area and back along the same route.
This was an easy walking trail on a clear and mostly flat path, ideal for the unfit, the inexperienced hiker and the lazy. Walking beside the river we constantly saw field mice darting into the undergrowth, along with various birds, some slithering skinks and the odd monarch butterfly.
On our way back, we even braved an achingly refreshing dip in the ice-cold river – very invigorating and highly recommended in any season!
Picnicking in Bontebok
The Die Stroom, picnic area was our next stop. I’m not usually a fan of designated rest areas, but this was a surprisingly lovely spot beside the river. The place features green lawns, nice shady spots under the trees, the tranquil river flowing by and top-notch amenities - definitely a good spot for some rest and relaxation.
There are barbecue (braai) areas, clean ablution facilities and tables and benches scattered around, as well as jungle gym for the kids. The main attraction for me was the little sandy patch of riverside beach just downstream from the picnic site.
The wide bends of the Breede River look like an ideal place to take a laid-back paddle by canoe or kayak, maybe even a mild SUP outing.
Staying in Bontebok
I was well impressed with the tidy chalets and camping grounds at Lang Elsie’s Kraal Rest Camp, located next to the river. Lang Elsie's Kraal rest camp is named after the Khoi Chief who lived here in the late 1800's. This was the first South African National Park (SANPark) rest camp where the facilities were specifically designed to have minimal impact on the environment, as well as benefiting the local economy.
The 10 timber chalets have been positioned to create as much privacy as possible for guests, especially those built closer to the riverfront. The accommodation receives excellent reviews from visitors and features little wooden deck areas and ensuite facilities with showers. The Langeberg Mountains form the tranquil backdrop at the camp, which is set amid aloe plants, trees and shrubs attracting birds and small animals.
There were more tortoises than people at the aloe-studded campsite which was fantastic – seems like winter is a good season to escape the crowds, but then you need to contend with the cold and often rainy weather.
Bit About Bontebok National Park
Given the size of this game park, Bontebok is home to very diverse flora and fauna.
The most prominent geographical features in Bontebok National Park are the winding Breede River and the majestic Langeberg Mountains in the distance. Most of the national park is characterised by gentle hills and open plains covered in Cape Fynbos. A few tall aloes dot the open landscape and the river is flanked by trees and denser bushes, as well as rocky cliffs, but for the most part the protected area is covered in low shrubs and heathlands.
The national park is home to antelope species other than the bontebok, including red hartebeest, grey rhebok, steenbok, the tiny Cape grysbok and a handful of Cape mountain zebras. Bontebok National Park also hosts a population of highly endangered geometric tortoises, the rarest of only three members of the Psammobates genus which is only found in some parts of the Western Cape.
Bird species include the regal African fish eagle and South Africa's national bird, the blue crane, as well as malachite sun birds and khoraans. Other birds include mousebirds, Cape weavers, bustards, fiscal shrikes (butcher birds), crowned plovers, harriers, Cape francolins, hadedas and many, many more.
The Bontebok Bokkie (antelope)
Once considered to be the rarest antelope on the planet.
Unlike most antelopes bontebok are not good at jumping, which is part of the reason they nearly died out. The rich-brown bontebok is easily mistaken for the blesbok, which is also unable to leap over fences. Both antelopes sport the distinctive white blaze from forehead to tip of the nose. They also have white underbellies, socks and patches around the tail (bottoms). The males are slightly larger than the females and are known to engage in "combat" to establish dominance in their territories - a display involving tail swishing, head lowering and shaking and even sparring and chasing each other.
This buck weighs between 50 and 150 kg, measures around 120 to 210 cm from head to tail and stands 80 to 100cm tall at the shoulder, making it a medium-sized but relatively tall antelope. Both sexes have ringed horns that grow up to about 18 inches long.
As bontebok numbers in Bontebok National Park have risen, these endangered antelopes have been relocated to other areas. Today there are about 3500 bontebok in various game reserves and national parks in South Africa.
The Rare Renosterveld Ecosystem
The reserve plays an important role in protecting a specific type of endemic fynbos vegetation, called renosterveld. Renosterveld is the rarest type of vegetation found in the Cape Floral Kingdom and Bontebok holds the largest "island" of this indigenous shrubland. One of the richest ecosystems in the world, renosterveld is considered one of the most diverse bulb kingdoms in the world.
Lowland renosterveld is a critically endangered veld type and is only found in southwestern and southeastern parts of South Africa.
Renosterveld translates from Afrikaans as “rhinoceros vegetation”, but the reason for the name is uncertain. Some guesses include that the vegetation is rhino-coloured, rhinos used to inhabit this type of vegetation and the vegetation was only palatable to black rhinos when they lived in the biome.
A Glance at the History Of Bontebok
This significant national park was established to protect the last 30 (some say only 17) wild bontebok. The formation of Bontebok National Park saved the bontebok from joining the ranks of extinct species such as the Cape lion, bluebuck and quagga.
Bontebok was proclaimed a national park in 1931, but was originally located south of Bredasdorp. In 1961 the park was moved to a more suitable habitat for bontebok, just outside of Swellendam.
Getting to Bontebok Park
Bontebok lies 240 km's (about three hour's drive) east of Cape Town, 6 km's south of historic Swellendam, the third oldest town in South Africa. The national park is located just south of the N2 and is sign posted from this major highway. Bontebok National Park and Swellendam fall in the Overberg region, lying between Cape Town and the scenic Garden Route of South Africa.
When to Go to Bontebok
To see the multi-coloured fynbos flowers in bloom, the best time of year is spring (September to October/November) and autumn (March to April/May). Spring is also a good time to see young antelopes in Bontebok National Park, as it is the lambing season.
If it is heart-racing adrenalin and Big Five game action you are after, then Bontebok will frustrate you to no end. If you are looking for some peace and quite in the great outdoors, just wanting to chill out and tune into the simple marvels of nature, then Bontebok is ideal.
For some easy-going adventure, take a mountain bike and do the 9,2km mountain bike trail or go canoeing/kayaking on the Breede River. Be sure to pack some binoculars and your walking shoes, and prepare for some real time out in mother nature.