STELLENBOSCH, SOUTH AFRICA
Standing atop the iconic mountain peak of Simonsberg we stared far into the distance, across the patch-work of wine country, with layer upon layer of Cape Fold Mountains to the east. It’s silent up here. We are the only hikers today and are 4 hours into an incredible days hiking. Fragrant buchu fills the spring air with hints of citrus and herbs, and we’ve been spoilt thus far with beautiful spring fynbos carpeting the mountain slopes including little pink ericas, yellow to pink ground sugarbush proteas the size of a golf ball and the vibrant Spiloxene capensis which is commonly known as the Peacock Flower…appropriate, as Peacocks are a regular sight around the winelands!
- Trail – Simonsberg
- Location – Stellenbosch
- Duration – 6.5 hours
- Distance – 13 km (there-and-back)
- Altitude gain – approx 1000m (Start 400m ASL)
- Grade – A
- Difficulty – Strenuous
- Exposure – Moderate
- Water – We carried enough for the full hike but did top up with cold water at a farm dam 30 minutes from the start/end of the hike.
It was a hot spring day in the winelands and we had just popped rucksacks onto shoulders before setting off on our hike up one of the Western Capes truly iconic mountain peaks. Much like Table Mountain is the heart of Cape Town, Simonsberg is the epicentre of the Cape Winelands. The incredibly narrow spine is reminiscent of the Cuillins, Patagonia or the Dolomites and is draped in vineyards on the granitic slopes at its foot.
We’d signed in at the security gate and set off down, yes you read that right, down into a small dip before the long 1000 metre ascent began. It was a calm morning in the winelands and a little smoke hung about while the sounds of tractor engines rumbled gently in the nearby surrounds. Following the shaded vineyard jeep track alongside the boundary fence we soon had spectacular views across the farms towards both False Bay and the Banghoek Valley.
Soon we reached a high level farm dam fed by cold mountain water and we paused briefly to tap into the supply. Water bottles re-filled we proceeded up and onto the footpath which would take us to the peaks summit. The path, a little overgrown in the wetter places, takes a line that is pretty much, well, up! It’s unrelenting. It will test your core and balance, traction between footwear and the loose terrain really tests your soles and works the calves hard.
As we ascend we marvel at the species diversity of the gorgeous young fynbos. Recently burnt in the big Simonsberg fire of January 2016, the regeneration on the lower slopes is brilliant. Vibrant young fynbos on these south facing slopes has done exceptionally well and hiking in spring certainly made it more of a spectacle. We’re distracted by dense patches of yellows of the Pea Family, splashes of magenta of the Milkwort Family and there’s still the odd pink Watsonia flowering along with yellow Gentians and white Snapdragons.
We passed old cat scat along the footpath, hair evident and consider it likely Caracal (Rooikat) or our larger Cape Leopard. A bit later in the morning scat with porcupine quills in is lying on the footpath…we pause, instinctively look up and scan the sandstone crags of mountain for leopard. We’re not expecting to see the elusive ‘big cat’ but one can be hopeful… The scat with porcupine quills evident is not super fresh, but we know it’s a sign that leopard are here. Cape leopards are the apex predator in the region, feeding on small antelope such as Cape Grysbok and Klipspringer, as well as smaller mammals like Dassies or even spiky porcupines!
The Protea nitida trees which survived the fire are tipped in beautiful reds with their new foliage growth, as were the new leaves of young sugarbush proteas on the lower slopes just above the vineyards. The red adds lovely colour to the mountain slopes where there is still a fair amount of charred protea branches standing above the new growth. The textures, colours and details are as intriguing as ever! No two hiking trails in the Western Cape are the same, and a large part is not down the the views, but rather the age of the fynbos, the season one is hiking in and of course the species that occur in the specific region.
Soon we reach the even steeper rocky terraces of Simonsberg and begin winding up the minor scrambles, pausing every now and then to look over our shoulders and take in the impressive scenes over Stellenbosch all the way toward Table Mountain and Lion’s Head which are visible this morning even with a little haze over the Cape Flats. A vibrant yellow Moraea catches my eye, then a white and purple Pelargonium while fragrant Crassulas are prolific – their pretty creamy-white and red petals visible in the immediate vicinity of the footpath as we climb. Lower down the mauve Pseudoselago spuria were dotted in abundance and on one particular flower-head sat resting a bright green praying mantis waiting patiently for an unsuspecting victim.
The wonderful scent of wild buchu filled the air and they were also in flower – densely packed white inflorescence down at ankle height adjacent to the trail. A Southern Rock Agama, head bright turquoise, was perched on a chunk of quartzitic sandstone as it basked in the mid-morning sun and White-necked Ravens flew overhead squawking as they searched for food.
We stopped at the foot of a sheer rock face, providing excellent deep shade for a morning tea break. At our back was a beautifully weathered sandstone rock face with that typical honeycombed effect. The odd stunted plant persevering in a little crack or collection of sediment in a little pothole. Outwards we stared down at the olive groves and vineyards, across to Bothmaskop in the vicinity of the Jonkershoek Valley and the rolling mountains deeper into the Boland mountain range. A cup of rooibos tea and my mountain staple, an almond croissant from Olympia Bakery, did the refuelling.
Setting off again along a broad terrace we followed a gentle contour for a short while before dog-legging and swinging sharply up once more. The section of trail prior to our tea break had involved a number a minor rock pitches, areas of moderate exposure to heights and plenty of loose rocky trail and the next stretch was steep and loose under foot.
Sticky leaves of Sundews glistened in the now bright sunshine in among soft yellows of little orchids (Pterygodium / Oumakappie) in the wet soils. Striking Gladioli of the Iris Family stole the show on the crags above the footpath – their white petals with delicate red markings oh so beautiful! Splashes of yellows continued with a variety of Daisy species and those of the Pea family too. Before long we could sense the summit. A gentle movement of air from the east was pushing over the sharp spine and the steep footpath now began flattening out.
There it was! The unmistakable wooden cross and trig beacon marking the Simonsberg summit which would serve as our lunch spot in order to dedicate enough time to look far into the distance. 360 degree views from the summit stretch from Paarl Mountain and the farms in Simondium such as Babylonstoren and Noble Hill, to the unmistakable Klapmutskop and Table Mountain is now faint now through the afternoon haze. To the east it’s all mountains beyond Franschhoek. The Franschhoek Mountains and Wemmershoek Mountains lie north and south of the easily accessible Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve, and in the far north one looks out towards the Limietberg. The Banghoek Valley, which we’d been looking at all through the ascent was now somewhat obscured but the peaks were all standing proud at elevations higher than where we stood at 1390m above sea level. Simonsberg is truly a wonderful Cape Mountain peak.
The descent requires a good amount of concentration and sure footedness – proper mountain goat territory this is! Speaking of mountain goats, we’d been keeping an eye out for any mammal activity specifically Klipspringer but seen none. A Rock Hyrax (dassie) sat observing us from an overhang, shifting off after a minutes stare down.
In the early stages of our return we suddenly had a pair of magnificent Black Eagles (Aquila verreauxii) soar below us, then above, in search of prey – Dassies! We paused, admired the eagles hugging the cliffs as they moved slowly further and further away from where we stood. It is always a great treat to see our largest eagles while on the mountain, especially when you’re at higher ground. Memorable mountain moments for sure. Magic!
- Hiking Simonsberg can only be done with consent of the relevant property owner via which you’re accessing the mountain. Strict access conditions apply to the private land.
- This post is an account of my personal experience hiking Simonsberg in Stellenbosch and is not intended to serve as a detailed written guide.
- The trail described is fairly easy to follow in good weather however it does not have any trail signage. In foul weather the mountain may be closed to hikers, but as always conditions on what appears a fine day can change at higher elevation, especially with cloud forming and reducing visibility. Always head out prepared no matter the weather conditions in the morning, and know how to read a map.
- The trail described is rocky, rugged and often in the steep sections it is loose and easy to slip or fall. Take caution, especially on the descent, and pay attention to the trail in the mid to upper sections which can be vague in places.
- Visit www.simonsbergconservancy.co.za for more details on the area.
- A good way to experience any new trail, such as Simonsberg, is to get a professional mountain guide where interpretation of the natural environment adds huge value, along with taking away the risks involved with navigation. Contact me at email@example.com for more, or take a look at www.tablemountaintrekstours.com/treks for guided hiking options around Cape Town.
The area surrounding Simonsberg is abundant with top South African wine producers and a great post-hike idea is to stop in at one of the estates for lunch and/or wine. The terroirs of each property results in a wide range of wines to choose from including exquisite Chardonnays and refreshing Sauvignon Blancs. A glass of full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon may just be the best treat to cap off a hike in the cooler time of year!
What I was kitted out in…
Get the boots: Jim Green Razorbacks
Get the backpack: K-Way Kilimanjaro 35l Daypack
Get the clothing: Tech Tee & Shorts from Cape Union Mart (K-Way)
Get the flask: Cape Union Work Flask 1l