The Swellendam Trail in CapeNature’s Marloth Reserve is a five-day experience that tests your muscles, lungs and resolve while treating your senses to a kaleidoscopic feast of colours and sounds. The flowers, the vistas and overall feeling of freedom make this one of the Western Cape’s premier trails. In short, it will blow you away.
Hidden away in the imposing Swellendam Mountains, between Swellendam, Ashton, Barrydale and Suurbraak, Marloth is a pristine, peaceful 14 123 hectare reserve, managed together with 16 532 hectares of privately owned land. Named after the pioneer botanist, Hermann Marloth, who, together with a deputation of Swellendam residents, petitioned the Minister of Lands and Forestry in 1928 to set aside part of the mountain as a nature reserve, which is now also a World Heritage Site. During 1981, the reserve was enlarged to include the rest of the State Forest and the Swellendam hiking trail was opened.
The varied terrain includes rocky slopes, with patches of indigenous forest, marshy seeps and spacious plateaux. The vegetation is predominantly mountain fynbos; there are several species of protea and more than 25 species of erica, most of which flower in November. In some sections big boulders, weathered by the elements, form shapes that will stretch your imagination.
We were fortunate to have been invited to accompany Billy Robertson of Voëlklip, a Cape fynbos and Overberg bird specialist and professional tour guide at Lekkerwater Beach Lodge, De Hoop Nature Reserve, on a recce of the trail, which he said had been one of his grandmother’s favourite hikes. Billy turned out to be not only a font of information, but also a raconteur of note.
The challenging terrain of the trail demands that you keep a watchful eye on the path, so it’s not a bad idea to stop every so often, look up and enjoy the view. In some sections, small stones rolled down like ball bearings, while moss-covered rocks and clay in other parts also added to the challenge of staying upright.
On the plateaux there were stunning stretches where you could stride out on sandy/loamy paths, bordered by bright fynbos. But even here it paid to keep a weather eye on the path, as trenches had been dug to facilitate water runoff, preventing the track from becoming a rivulet. Neat clay tablets placed every 500 metres marked the distance we had walked, which on the level bits flashed by with satisfying regularity.
Every so often Billy would stop and give us bite-sized chunks of information. We came across the delicate Struthiola ciliata, an ericoid shrublet which attracts moths by emitting a hand cream-like scent from dusk until dawn, along with reflective cells that provide a night-time landing strip for pollinators.
At the end of each of the first four days, on reaching the overnight hut, you can kick off your boots, drop your pack, and give your toes a chance to breathe and stretch. The huts provide basic accommodation, with beds and eco toilets. Only the first, ‘Boskloof’ did not have bunk beds, but mattresses were provided. This hut has not been fully restored since burning down in a wildfire – we had to negotiate an overgrown path to the nearby stream for water and there were no picnic tables to eat at. Tucked away at the bottom of the kloof, it offered a true wilderness experience, with only the birds and the wind as background sounds and spectacular fields of fynbos in the valley below.
The second hut, ‘Goedgeloof’, at the end of a very long and arduous downhill stretch, had two dormitories with bunk beds and mattresses and a cold shower (very cold!). The undercover kitchen/eating area with picnic tables had expansive views over the Karoo in the direction of Montague and Barrydale. It wasn’t a wilderness experience as it was located on the boundary of a farm and we could see cars in the distance on Route 62.
Hut three, ‘Proteavallei’ was also set in a kloof. It looked like one of the originals with bunk beds, two eco toilets clearly marked Dames and Mans, and a tap close to the hut. We cooked and ate on the verandah picnic table. It was my favourite hut because we saw orange-breasted sunbirds, a fluffy vlei rat which came out of a thicket to sample the muesli that had been rinsed off the breakfast bowls, and a little skink.
The final hut, ‘Wolfkloof’ was at the bottom of a forested kloof. Similar to ‘Proteavallei’ it had bunk beds and a verandah with a picnic table. There were two showers (cold) and eco toilets. The undercover eating area had a picnic table, and a braai (the only hut where fires are allowed).
The indigenous forest was full of birds and we identified the Southern boubou, the Cape robin chat, various doves, and at dusk heard the fiery-necked nightjar. We had fun here as Billy activated his bird call app and soon had birds in the surrounding forest answering its calls. Having him with us certainly brought a different dimension to our hike as, for example, I had been unaware that the leaves of the Waboom protea had been used to make black ink.
We were delighted to find hot showers at the office on the last day of the hike since it had rained and we were drenched.
Barely two hours’ drive from Hermanus, the Marloth Reserve offers day trails of varying lengths and difficulty. For more information call 028 514 1410 or visit capenature.co.za/reserves/marloth-nature-reserve/