Captivating Elgin Valley is part of the Western Cape’s Kogelberg Biosphere in South Africa’s Overberg region. The valley is “surrounded by Kogelberg, Groenberg, and Hottentot Hollands mountain ranges forming a cool mountain plateau”. It’s one of the most beautiful nature reserves I’ve experienced!
A few weeks ago, I tried ziplining in Grabouw and enjoyed eagle-eye views of the Elgin Basin from high above. Hiking the Blue Mountain Trail was a perfect opportunity to see the valley from a different, close-up perspective.
The biosphere reserve covers 103,629 hectares (400 sq. miles) of valleys, mountain peaks, and coastal plains. We were granted permission to hike the trail, a protected area closed to the public. The photos tell all! Most aren’t captioned, and they don’t adequately portray the vistas. You must see the incomparable skies, mountains, and fynbos in person!
Cape Floral Kingdom
The Elgin area is a sanctuary for plant taxonomy. Our guides and members of the group were well-versed on plants endemic to the Fynbos biome. I gave up trying to learn their botanical names and just enjoyed looking at them.
“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 (SANBI)
With a growing market in eco- and agri-tourism, the area is known for award-winning wine farms, high-quality apple and pear orchards, roses and other cut flowers, and commercial pine plantations. Elgin’s “cool temperatures and plentiful winter rainfall provide unique conditions ideal for wine growing”.
“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 “adapted to the strong winds, wet winters, dry summers, and soil types of the 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 other flowers and plants.” SJ du Toit Botanist overberg.co.za
The Blue Mountain Trail
The Blue Mountain Trail is a three-day “slackpacking hike around the south side of the Elgin Valley”. It includes “farm stays, delicious country food, educational wine tastings, baggage transfers, and a fynbos guide”. The organizer, Alison Green, lives in the valley and owns and manages Wildekrans Country House.
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 straight days of 8 to 12 miles is more than my usual moderate outings. Even so, I decided to try the Blue Mountain Trail, despite a warning to be prepared for any weather conditions.
In 2017, I recall surviving a tough, multi-day slackpacking adventure along a portion of South Africa’s Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail. It was an extended part of a 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 nearby Somerset West. Patrick immigrated from Malawi fifteen years ago and lives in the Elgin Valley. Michelle, a photographer and social media marketer, accompanied us on day two. We were also joined by Sandy and Kevin King from South Hill Vineyards. The group was accommodated at their wine farm the second and third nights of our trip.
Other hikers included a journalist from the UK living in Mallorca Spain who was writing an article about slackpacking and wine farms, two sisters from Hermanus who are artists and friends of Kevin and Sandy, and a visitor from Maputo Mozambique who lives part of the year in Johannesburg. This post is an attempt to summarize our three-day adventure.
Check-In Wildekrans Country House
The four-day, three-night trip began with check-in at Wildekrans, a cozy, historic 1811 homestead in Houw Hoek near Grabouw and Botrivier. Surrounded by mountain peaks, the gardens and house are embellished with the work 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 their horses in the 1600s.
PaardenKloof Estate was the first farm to “re-introduce a herd of Nguni Cattle to the area”. They maintain “organic sheep, 23-hectares (57 sq. acres) of vineyards, and a variety of fynbos”.
Mohseen’s interesting wine tasting presentation was followed by a delectable dinner and brief presentation by our guide, Andreas Groenewald. He described what to expect during our first day on the trail.
Day 1 – Botrivier and Elgin Basin
After breakfast we left Wildekrans and took a shuttle bus 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 mesmerized by uninterrupted panoramic views of Cape Overberg wheat and canola fields, mountains, and fynbos.
It was a warm, clear day with relatively easy trails of about 11 miles. Along the way we stopped to examine fynbos and enjoy a relaxed morning tea. About mid-afternoon we had a lazy picnic lunch. Everyone looked for mountain leopard, porcupine, gray mongoose, and klipspringer or other antelope. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.
It’s interesting to note that the Elgin wine farms we visited had resident Rhodesian Ridgeback watchdogs. The large, mellow dogs are referred to as the “African Lion Hound”. They’re native to South Africa, “bred by Boer farmers to meet their needs for a hunting dog in the wilds of Africa”.
After a satisfying day, we checked into our farm-stay at South Hill Vineyards. A short rest was followed by 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 a contemporary, accessible, boutique wine farm”. Their “luxury farm-stay includes a restaurant and gallery of continually changing local art”. The wine and food were exceptional, and it was a great place to get to know each other and revive after hiking in the South African 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 missing the coveted, elusive mountain leopard. Our guides said 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 had hiked it before in similar conditions and said it was unpleasant. We turned back a few miles ahead of schedule. 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. It was an apple and pear farm that he converted into a winery. Like most wineries in the Elgin Valley, it’s a family business. He and his wife Rozy, a sculptor and fellow valley farmer, manage Iona. Winery art includes Rozy’s sculptures, political satire cartoons, and a flawless car collection.
The weather report for our short final day called for heavy wind and light rain. We were given the option of forgoing the hike but meeting at Almenkerk Winery for lunch and wine tasting. I waited until morning to assess the weather, but with howling wind during the night, I wasn’t overly 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 didn’t seem a good idea.
Day 3 – Almenkerk Wine Estate
Almenkerk Wine Estate was purchased by Belgium / Dutch owners in 2002. Previously a 32-hectare (79 sq. acre) apple and pear farm, it was converted into a 15-hectare (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 family-run operation”. Joris and Natalie van Almenkerk manage the farm and cellar with support from family members. The wine was exceptional, but the finer points of Almenkerk’s unique wine making methods explained by Natalie escaped me…
I looked through an interesting hard cover book on display at Almenkerk entitled Modern Wineries of South Africa – photography Craig Fraser, writing Hugh Fraser, design / production Libby Doyle. The book features photographs of “South African modern wineries representing the evolution of the SA 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 about the incredible area, fynbos, and wine making. I learned so much, it will take a few days to absorb! Hiking the Blue Mountain Trail is a good workout and a worthwhile, educational experience. It leaves you with vivid memories of South Africa’s beautiful Elgin Valley and the hearty, creative locals who live in and love the spectacular Valley!