Elgin Valley is part of the Cape Overberg and Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Undoubtedly, Kogelberg is one of the most beautiful reserves I’ve experienced! Three magnificent mountain ranges form a cool plateau around the valley – Hottentots Holland, Kogelberg, and Groenberg.
A few weeks ago, I went ziplining in Grabouw and enjoyed eagle-eye views of the Elgin Basin from high above. Hiking the Blue Mountain Trail was an opportunity to see Elgin Valley from a closer, down-to-earth perspective.
The biosphere covers 400 sq. miles of mountains, valleys, and coastal plains. The area is closed to the general public, but we were granted permission to hike there. The photos tell all! They’re mostly uncaptioned. Photographs can’t portray the extraordinary vistas we enjoyed. Seeing the fynbos, mountains, and incomparable skies in person is a must!
Cape Floral Kingdom
The Elgin area is a sanctuary for plant taxonomy. Our guides and members of the group were well-versed on endemic plants in the Fynbos biome. I gave up trying to learn their botanical names and just enjoyed looking at them. Some of the most beautiful endemic flowers are delicate Cape orchids.
“The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest of six Floral Kingdoms in the world. It’s the only one contained in its entirety within a single country.” South African National Biodiversity Institute
With a growing market in eco- and agri-tourism, the area is known for award-winning wine farms, farmstays, rolling apple and pear orchards, roses and cut flowers, and commercial pine plantations. Elgin’s “cool temperatures and winter rainfall provide unique conditions ideal for wine growing”. Grape varietals grow in the area with “special attention to Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc“. Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve Company manages the land.”
“The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is home to over 1,880 different species of plants, 77 of them occur nowhere else in the world.” SA-Venues
Overberg fynbos is world-renowned. The plants have “adapted to the strong winds, wet winters, dry summers, and soil types of the Overberg region”.
“Fynbos is the collective noun for plants in the winter rainfall area of the Western Cape. It includes the protea and erica families and many other flowers and plants.” SJ du Toit Botanist
The Blue Mountain Trail
The Blue Mountain Trail is a three-day “slackpacking hike around the south side of the Elgin Valley”. It includes “farmstays, delicious country food, wine tastings, a guide, and baggage transfers”. The organizer, Alison Green, lives in the valley where she owns and manages Wildekrans Country House, an historic 1811 homestead in Houw Hoek near Grabouw and Botrivier.
The 50km (31-mile) trail passes untouched wilderness and fruit and wine farms. It’s rated a three to four level of difficulty by Fiona McIntosh – Slackpacking. Although I hike regularly, three days of 8 to 12 miles is more than my usual outings. Even so, I decided to try the Blue Mountain Trail, despite a warning to be prepared for any and all weather conditions.
In 2017, I recall surviving a tough, multi-day slackpacking adventure along part of South Africa’s Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail. It was a side adventure and part of an extended drive through the Garden Route from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay.
Our hiking group included five hikers and two well-qualified guides – Patrick Mapanye and Andreas Groenewald. Born and raised in South Africa, Andreas lives in the Cape Town suburb of Somerset West. Patrick immigrated from Malawi fifteen years ago and lives in the Elgin Valley. Michelle, a social media marketer and photographer, accompanied us on day two. We were also joined by Sandy and Kevin King from South Hill Vineyards. Their elegant, cozy farmstay was our accommodation the second and third nights of the trip.
Hikers in our group included a journalist from the UK living in Mallorca Spain who was writing an article about South Africa slackpacking and wine farms, two sisters from Hermanus, artists and friends of Kevin and Sandy, and a visitor from Maputo Mozambique who lives part time in Johannesburg. This post summarizes our three-day adventure.
Check-In Wildekrans Country House
The four-day, three-night trip began with check-in at Wildekrans. The gardens and historic farm house are surrounded by mountain peaks and embellished with the creations of South African artists.
In the evening, we enjoyed a wine tasting presentation by vintner Mohseen V Moosa of PaardenKloof Estate – “Valley of the Horses” in Dutch. His wine farm is on the northern slopes of the Babilonstoring Mountain Range, an historical area where Voortrekkers herded horses in the 1600s.
PaardenKloof Estate was the first farm to “re-introduce a herd of Nguni Cattle to the area”. PaardenKloof maintains “organic sheep, 57 sq. acres of vineyards, and a variety of endemic fynbos vegetation”.
Mohseen’s presentation focused on aged Sauvignon Blanc and was followed by a delectable dinner and a presentation by our guide, Andreas Groenewald. Andreas described what to expect during our first day on Blue Mountain Trail.
Day 1 – Botrivier and Elgin Basin
After breakfast we left Wildekrans and took a van shuttle to the trailhead along High Rising Road. The weather was perfect, as we breathed in glorious fresh air and slowly descended into the Elgin Basin. We were mesmerized by spectacular, uninterrupted panoramic views of Cape Overberg canola fields, mountains, and fynbos.
It was a warm, clear day with relatively easy hiking trails of about 11 miles. Along the way, we stopped to examine fynbos and enjoy a relaxed late-morning tea. About mid-afternoon we had a lazy picnic lunch. Everyone looked for endemic animals – mountain leopard, porcupine, mongoose, klipspringer, antelope. Sadly, we didn’t see any.
It’s interesting to note that the Elgin wine farms we visited had Rhodesian Ridgeback house dogs. The mellow hunting dogs are referred to as the “African Lion Hound“. They’re beautiful creatures native to South Africa and “bred by Boers to meet their needs for a hunting dog in the wilds of Africa”. In addition to larger watch dogs, many farms also had smaller dogs like the whippet, a cross breed between greyhound and terrier.
After a satisfying day, we checked into our farmstay at South Hill Vineyards. A short rest was followed with a wine tasting presentation by Kevin King, a fantastic dinner, and an overview of the next day.
South Hill Vineyards produces “top quality cool climate grapes and wines on an accessible, boutique wine farm”. Their “luxury farm-stay has a restaurant and gallery of continually changing local art”. The wine and food were exceptional, as was getting to know others in the group while reviving after a full day of hiking in the bushveld.
Day 2 – Kleinmond and Paardeberg
On day two we experienced strong winds and our guides took a pragmatic approach, deciding to play it by ear and determine how to proceed as the day progressed. The trailhead was in Highlands Forest and parts of the trail were surrounded by a series of unique, otherworld-looking rock formations.
We walked above Kleinmond and Paardeberg and saw mongoose droppings, a small puff adder, and an interesting caterpillar and lizard – still no elusive mountain leopard sightings. Our guides said most animals were likely hiding from the wind, but in the wetlands, we heard happy frogs croaking away.
Andreas decided the wind was too wild for the exposed uphill part of the trail. He hiked it in similar conditions and found it unpleasant, so we turned back a few miles early. After retracing our steps and stopping for a quick, windy lunch near the rock formations, we enjoyed wine tasting at Iona Wine Farm.
Andrew Gunn, an engineer from Johannesburg, bought Iona in the late 1990s. Gunn converted the apple and pear farm into a winery. Like most wineries in Elgin, Iona is a family business. Andrew and his wife Rozy, a sculptor and fellow valley farmer, manage Iona. Winery art includes sculptures, political satire cartoons, and a flawless car collection.
The weather report for our final day called for heavy wind and light rain. We were given the option of forgoing the hike but meeting at Almenkerk Wine Estate for lunch and wine tasting. I waited until morning to assess the weather, but with howling wind during most of the night, I wasn’t optimistic.
I was up early the next day, but along with half of the group opted out. Although it was disappointing to miss the final hike and views of the Kogelberg Valley and Palmiet River, my body was tired and hiking in wind and rain wasn’t appealing.
Day 3 – Almenkerk Wine Estate
Almenkerk Wine Estate was purchased by Belgium / Dutch owners in 2002. Previously a 79 sq. acre apple and pear farm, it was converted into a 37 sq. acre wine farm. A small part of the farm still has apple and pear orchards.
Like most farms in the area, it’s a “family-owned and -run operation”. Natalie and Joris van Almenkerk manage the farm with support from family members. The wine was exceptional, but finer points of Almenkerk’s unique wine making methods escaped me…
I looked through an interesting hardcover book on display at Almenkerk entitled Modern Wineries of South Africa – photography Craig Fraser, writing Hugh Fraser, design and production Libby Doyle. It features photographs of “modern South African wineries representing the evolution of the South African wine-making industry”.
After the wine tasting, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a fast-moving three-day adventure with vast information shared about the incredible area, fynbos, and wine making. During three fun and educational days, I learned so much it will take time to absorb the information! Hiking the Blue Mountain Trail is a pleasant workout and a worthwhile experience. It leaves you with vivid memories of South Africa’s beautiful Elgin Valley and the hearty, creative people who live in, support, and love the picturesque area!